75 years ago this morning at 0315 Central European Time, the valiant and ruthless German race was thrust into a war of annihilation against the Soviet empire, in what became the dominant theatre in the largest-scale conflict in world history, World War II. Named after Frederick I, the red-bearded King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century known for his military conquests and shrewd leadership, Operation Barbarossa involved an attack in three army groups across what soon became an 1800-mile front from the Baltic to the Caucasus. German war aims, spelled out initially in the Führer’s War Directive #21 on December 18, 1940, were fully commensurate with Adolf Hitler’s boldness: the Führer sought domination of the entirety of European Russia and the smaller intermediary Soviet states all the way out to the Ural Mountains, including the natural resources and oil-rich regions in the Caspian Basin.
While Barbarossa itself only refers to the opening 5 months of the war up to the first Soviet counterattack, this anniversary is better placed as a day of thoughtful reverence for the suffering of all, soldiers and civilian victims, of the entire war in the east. Hence, in remembrance of the spectacular brutality of this conflict, today is an informal holiday in Russia, and in Belarus and Ukraine, too. Known there as the Day of Memory and Sorrow, June 22 commemorates the suffering of the Soviet peoples, up to 30 million of whom perished by some estimates, as well as the destruction of hundreds of cities and towns all the way across Russia to a line from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) to Moscow to Volgograd (Stalingrad) and down to the Caspian. Given the duration and severity of the conflict, there was no family in the Soviet Union untouched by the war.
The 1941-45 German-Russian war, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, is of a genus of conflict that the United States need never experience and indeed the world may never witness again. Technology has made an anachronism of massed armored formations supporting mobile infantry and buttressed by extensive air combat capabilities, all arrayed against each other and sponsored by great powers in an existential fight to the death. Yet a review of the nature of this war in the east and how it proceeded, while sadly foreign to American audiences still to this day, confers seminal lessons for 21st century students of foreign affairs in a still-cruel world.
Hitler’s War Aims
The German dictator had telegraphed his intentions years before, in Mein Kampf, his personal memoir and political manifesto for the future of Germany led by National Socialism. In the second volume of this oeuvre, published in 1926 after his release from Landsberg prison (where he had served time following a conviction for treason), Hitler wrote an entire chapter on his policy for the east. In his view the German people had an historic destiny to fulfill as a master race, and in support of this divine mission needed geographic territory for expansion (which he referred to as more “living room,” or, lebensraum). Fortuitously in his view, the Slavs to the east were inferior degenerate peoples (or, “untermenschen”) ripe for subjugation, in lands rich with natural resources and agricultural bounties that were exploitable for a German empire. Further, the Russian state was now in his mind consumed by an inferior political ideology, “Jewish Bolshevism”, which was brittle and easily eviscerated in any war with the superior Germans. Hitler stated:
And so we National Socialists consciously draw a line beneath the foreign policy tendency of our pre-War period. We take up where we broke off six hundred years ago. We stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze toward the land in the east. At long last we break off the colonial and commercial policy of the pre-War period and shift to the soil policy of the future.
If we speak of soil in Europe today, we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.
Hitler could not have been any more transparent, and his subjugations of Czechoslovakia and Poland – both Slavic peoples as well – were in line with his eastward vision. Indeed the outbreak of war with Poland in September 1939 was the first of his many miscalculations, as he assumed, wrongly, France and Britain would not honor their mutual defense pact with the Poles, after having effectively ceded Czech independence the year before. For months afterward Hitler hoped to achieve a truce with the western Allies in order to have a free hand in the east: the unwillingness of the British to quit the war, followed by the entry of the United States, spelled eventual doom for the Third Reich in the multi-front war that revised German doctrine expressly forbade. But on June 22, 1941, all this was far into the future.
Read the Remainder at Real Clear Defense