80 years ago, on June 22, 1941, the Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union. The historian Sönke Neitzel explains why the “ Barbarossa Company” was doomed to failure. And how cruel the German plans were.
t-online: Professor Neitzel, Adolf Hitler had millions of soldiers deployed, on June 22nd, 1941 the Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union. How could the Red Army be so surprised?
Sönke Neitzel: Of course, the numerous divisions of the Wehrmacht near their western border were not hidden from the Soviets. Even the German ambassador in Moscow had warned the dictator Josef Stalin against the attack. In vain, however. Because Stalin just couldn’t believe that Hitler was so reckless as to open a two-front war.
But it was definitely Hitler. And so repeated the German mistake from the First World War.
As a matter of fact. But in a way Stalin distrusted the Western powers more than the Germans at the time. His hope was that the capitalist states would tear themselves apart in a long struggle and that the Soviet Union could ultimately capitalize on it. Because Stalin misinterpreted the German troop concentration as a threatening gesture, no alert was issued for the Red Army troops stationed on the western border of the Soviet Union.
So the German attack in the morning hours of June 22, 1941 was a complete success. But how did the Wehrmacht plan to conquer and defeat this country against the resistance of the Red Army? After a while, the front line reached from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
The Wehrmacht wanted to do it in a similar way as before in Poland and France: Stalin’s armies were to be smashed in a war of movement in large-scale battles. Speed was crucial, the German armored troops should quickly break the spine of the Red Army. After the border battles, the decision to go to war would have been made and the Germans believed they would only have to march eastwards.
Napoleon Bonaparte had failed in 1812 because of the vastness of Russia, and German troops were able to gain an impression of the size of the country during the First World War. Were the Wehrmacht’s plans illusory?
In fact, the experiences from the First World War served as a model. At that time the Germans had taken control of large areas of Russia, and troops had even advanced into the Caucasus. For the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, it was clear to the planners that speed came before everything else. The whole strategy and logistics were aimed at destroying the Red Army in the opening battles.
Sönke Neitzel , born in 1968, has been teaching military history and the cultural history of violence at the University of Potsdam since 2015. The historian is an expert on the time of the Second World War, his books such as ” Abgehört. German Generals in British Captivity 1942–1945 ” from 2005 and ” Soldiers. Protocols from Fighting, Killing and Dying ” (together with Harald Welzer) from 2011 refute them Legend of the “clean Wehrmacht”. At the end of 2020, ” German Warriors. From the Empire to the Berlin Republic – A Military Story ” was published.
The further the Wehrmacht had to advance to the east, the more difficult it would have been to supply the soldiers.
Exactly. A short campaign in the east, then the soldiers should go back to the factories. To make ships and planes for the war against the Western powers. First Great Britain, then later the United States in all likelihood.
Nothing came of these plans, however, and the Soviet Union did not give up.
The Red Army soldiers continued to fight, week after week, month after month. Millions of Soviet soldiers went into captivity after major battles, not to mention the dead and wounded. But the war continued – and the German losses were enormous. Basically the Wehrmacht triumphed to death.
Instead of a few weeks, the war in the East was to last for years. When was the campaign against the Soviet Union basically lost?
By August 1941 at the latest, the German attack and the German strategy had failed. Now it became clear that it would not be possible to crush the Red Army. From then on, the Wehrmacht had a massive logistical problem in supplying the troops. And not only that: the Germans lost more than 300,000 dead by the end of 1941. These losses, calculated down to the week, were no more than in the campaign against France. But the difference is that this business ended after six weeks. Not in the Soviet Union. So the Wehrmacht ran out of breath.
Sönke Neitzel: The historian is an expert on the history of violence. (Source: private)
That is, long before the Wehrmacht got anywhere near Moscow in December of that year. But why did Hitler send his troops to war against the Soviet Union in the first place? With its previous victories, Germany already ruled a large part of Europe.
Hitler wanted to gain “living space in the east” by smashing the so-called Jewish-Bolshevik worldview. It was also believed that the German Reich would be made blockade-proof and that it had the economic basis to be able to fight successfully against Great Britain and the USA.
So would Hitler’s long-term endeavors have been directed against the United States?
Experts view the role the USA played in Hitler’s strategy differently. No matter how you evaluate it: The ideological war of annihilation against the Soviet Union was undoubtedly one of Hitler’s core concerns. The only question at the time was when and how.
Two questions that were finally answered from June 22, 1941. As already mentioned, the attack on the Soviet Union was planned as a war of annihilation. What made this conflict different from others?
Earlier wars were mostly fought to enlarge their own territory or to achieve other political goals by military means. From June 22, 1941, however, it was a matter of destroying the Soviet Union as a whole and establishing racist rule in the conquered area.
Please explain that in more detail.
The campaign against the Soviet Union was already planned as a worldview war. For example, the so-called commissar order stipulated that political commissars of the Red Army were to be shot, and another decree looked at the repeal of martial law.
According to which German soldiers who assaulted civilians did not have to fear punishment.
Exactly. Another factor is that wars usually have the inherent dynamic of becoming radicalized over time. This was also the case with the war against the Soviet Union, in which German planning provided for invading not as a liberator but as a conqueror. The Germans wanted to exploit the country to the last. That was not necessarily the attitude of every one of the more than three million German soldiers who attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, but it was certainly that of the German leadership.
In fact, the extent of the violence was hitherto unimaginable.
In the second half of 1941 the development and radicalization of the Holocaust can be clearly traced. First, Jewish men were shot, and from the end of July 1941 women and children as well. The murder of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union mainly through mass shootings, carried out by the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the SD [“Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführer SS”, annot. d. Editorial], is one of the great German crimes.
Please describe the others.
Around three million Red Army soldiers perished in German captivity. Many of them starved to death or died of epidemics. This number goes beyond all previously known dimensions. Then there was the so-called fight against partisans, in which it is estimated that half a million people were killed in Belarus alone. Not to forget the hunger policy that the Germans pursued.
Josef Stalin: The Soviet dictator was surprised by the German attack on June 22, 1941. (Source: ullstein picture)
What about Leningrad, which was not captured by the Wehrmacht, but blocked?
Leningrad is a special case. Hitler had ordered the blockade and thus starvation of the city, and the situation was made worse by the fact that the Soviets had not evacuated Leningrad. Around one million people died of starvation, frostbite or disease. When it comes to German crimes, we must not forget the systematic murder of the mentally ill, to which tens of thousands fell victim. The Germans left a trail of blood through the Soviet Union.
But not the entire German occupation was marked by violence.
There was a broad collaboration with the occupiers; the Germans sometimes put on cultural programs for the civilian population. We must also not forget that more than a million Soviet citizens fought with the Germans against the Red Army. But massive violence is actually the hallmark of war in the Soviet Union. Which has been exercised by both sides.
Leningrad 1942: The Wehrmacht blocked the city for more than two years. (Source: Viktor / SNA / ullstein bild)
Are you alluding to the severity with which many Red Army soldiers were forced to fight the Germans?
Stalin stopped the German advance with the blood of his own people, he was by no means sparing with the lives of his soldiers. The civilian population was also forced to work with extreme brutality by the communists; tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers were shot as alleged cowards by their own people fleeing from the Wehrmacht. Not to mention the numerous soldiers who were barely trained and armed with downright criminal energy against the German lines. It is by no means intended to reverse the perpetrator-victim perspective: But the fact that the Soviet Union lost 27 million people in World War II according to official figures was also due to the way in which Stalin had this conflict waged.
But it wasn’t just violence that motivated the Soviet people to fight.
No of course not. Indeed, in June 1941 one could have assumed that the peoples of the Soviet Union were rehearsing the uprising against the communist regime. But they don’t, on the contrary. They defended their clod, their village, their city against the attackers – so they fought for their homeland, not so much for communism. Even if the propaganda claimed otherwise. In general, we who will be born later today have to take a much closer look when considering this conflict.
What do you mean?
For us Germans, the central memory of the war in the East is the Holocaust, because it was an unimaginable cultural break. But other crimes, such as the deaths of millions of Soviet prisoners of war, must also be considered. In addition to the experience of the Red Army in the war, we also have to look at the ten million soldiers of the Wehrmacht who were deployed on the Eastern Front. What did they experience, what horrors were they exposed to?
Adolf Hitler: In 1943 the “Führer” was informed about the fighting on the ground on the Eastern Front. (Source: ullstein picture)
Was the soldier’s perspective lost in memory?
Not just this. In the East, not only soldiers were deployed on the German side, but also civilians; we have already talked about the collaborators. We need to develop a multidimensional view in order to better understand the history of World War II.
The exchange with Russia would be particularly important for this.
Of course. But we have cyclicals in history: In the 1990s, it was still possible to take a critical look. Today in Russia you can talk a lot about German crimes, but not about the radicalism with which the Soviet Union fought this war. The victory over Germany serves the national self-confidence today more than ever.
Hardly likely. History is like a rummaging table: everyone takes what they need socio-politically.