“On Saturday, the day before the war, we met with friends in the park,” Red Army engineer Col. Il’ya Grigoryevich Starinov noted years later. “Orchestras and brass bands played, people danced, and we were happy. It was lovely and pleasant,” he wrote in his memoir Over the Abyss.
It was 21 June 1941 and Starinov was in the town of Brest — a strategic town earmarked to be captured on the first day of Operation Barbarossa, the code name for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Within hours, Brest would be rocked by infantry gunfire and artillery bombardments.
Eighty years ago Tuesday more than three million German soldiers advanced on an 1,800-mile front from Estonia to Ukraine and invaded communist Russia, taking autocrat Joseph Stalin by surprise, despite warnings from Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill and from some Soviet military commanders and spies. Stalin reckoned Adolf Hitler wouldn’t invade for another year and he had only started a few weeks earlier to redeploy Red Army divisions to the western front.
Operation Barbarossa was the biggest military operation in history and Hitler and his generals started the meticulous planning for it nine months earlier. As far as Hitler was concerned, it was to be a “war of annihilation” — against Jews and Slavs, both considered subhuman by the German Führer.
Eight decades on, Germany has been marking the 80th anniversary of an invasion some military historians say lost Hitler World War II. Buoyed by the ease of their Blitzkrieg victories over France and Poland, Hitler and his senior generals underestimated the caliber of the Red Army, the superiority of Russian tanks and the resolve of ordinary Russians, says British broadcaster and author Jonathan Dimbleby in a new book on the invasion, Barbarossa: How Hitler Lost the War.
But Hitler’s strategic miscalculation was far from the mind of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier Friday when opening a Barbarossa exhibition in Berlin. He said the anniversary offered an opportunity to rethink events in 1941 when German soldiers unleashed “hatred and violence” and the war moved “towards the madness of total annihilation.”
“From the very first day, the German campaign was driven by hatred: by antisemitism and anti-Bolshevism, by racial mania against the Slavic and Asian peoples of the Soviet Union. As difficult as it may be for us, we must remember this,” he said. An estimated 27 million people, including 14 million civilians, were “murdered, beaten to death, allowed to starve to death or worked to death” by the Wehrmacht and SS Death Squads, or Einsatzgruppen, Steinmeier said.
Germany, he added, had for too long suppressed the “unprecedented brutality and gruesomeness” of its soldiers during the war with the Soviet Union. “It weighs on us that our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers were involved in these crimes,” he said.
While Germany has had high-profile events to mark the anniversary, Russian commemorations Tuesday will be more low-key and muted — in contrast to the pomp and circumstance afforded other notable wartime events, especially of Red Army triumphs.
In 2018, the 75th anniversary of the Russian victory at Stalingrad was marked with somber memorials and patriotic military parades with President Vladimir Putin highly visible throughout the ceremonies as well as during the lead up to them. On Friday, a Kremlin spokesman said the media would be informed of any special events in due course, but supplied no details of any major commemoration plans for Putin.
Even so, as in other years, the anniversary of Barbarossa, known as the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow, will be marked with candlelit parades and the laying of wreaths in most Russian towns and cities. Some commentators suggest Operation Barbarossa doesn’t fit so well with the Kremlin’s efforts the past few years to rehabilitate Stalin.
Nine days before the invasion, the Kremlin ordered Moscow radio to assure listeners there was no prospect of a German invasion. An official TASS report dismissed “rumors” of a coming German attack as “clumsy propaganda” spread by countries hostile to Soviet Russia. Even as the offensive unfolded, Stalin still thought it was a provocation by German generals. “I’m sure Hitler isn’t aware of this,” Stalin told military aides.
In the months preceding the invasion, which was originally codenamed ‘Otto,’ Hitler and his generals massed seven armies, consisting of 120 divisions, along a line stretching from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea. The invasion force included 600,000 vehicles, 750,000 artillery pieces and nearly two thousand aircraft. More than a hundred landing strips were prepared in Nazi-occupied Poland for an invasion that would trigger three and half years of bloodshed and barbarity.
German officers and men were told little of where eventually they would be heading, but many guessed. Secrecy was the order of the day. To try to disguise what was happening from the Soviets, German troops in some populated areas were ordered to wear civilian clothes; tanks and troop movements were made under the cover of darkness.
“We ourselves became aware around 20 June that war against the Russians was a possibility,” infantrymen Gerhard Gortz noted in a journal quoted by historian Robert Kershaw in his book War Without Garlands. That was just two days before the invasion got underway. “There was a feeling in the air. No fires were allowed, and one could not walk about with torches or cause any noise,” he added.
As he scribbled in his diary, Russian trains were still transporting raw materials and agricultural produce to Germany, exports agreed in the nonaggression pact Hitler and Stalin struck in 1939. German infantryman, Theo Scharf, observed on the eve of battle: “Oil tank trains rolled continuously westward, past us, from the oil fields on the Soviet side.”
Russian military commanders bordering the frontier were aware of the German military buildup, according to Kershaw, but no orders were issued by Moscow for them to raise their state of readiness and “where measures were taken on the initiative of individual staffs, they were ordered to be reversed,” he says.
Russian historian Dimitrij Wolkognov, who was a Red Army officer during the war, later wrote: “Stalin was like God on earth. He alone said, ‘the war will not happen now.’ It was his isolated belief, and he wanted to believe it.”
As bombs rained down on Soviet positions and Wehrmacht infantrymen and German tanks launched their assault, Russian units on the front were ordered to observe and not to act as the attack was still viewed in Moscow as a provocation. Nazi forces advanced quickly into Russia rapidly.
But within six months the hubristic offensive sputtered after the Wehrmacht suffered at least 800,000 casualties and the Soviets six times that number. The winter took its toll of German soldiers who had not been supplied with cold-weather clothing.
As the invasion got underway, a German platoon commander noted in his journal that almost 129 years before, Emperor Napoleon had launched his Russian campaign. “We all know what happened. Will we do better?”
They didn’t and Hitler’s gamble failed, sealing Germany’s fate in the Second World War.