“On Saturday, the day before the war, we met friends in the park,” Red Army engineer Colonel Ilya Grigorievich Starinov noted years later. “The orchestras and brass bands were playing, the people were dancing and we were happy. It was lovely and pleasant, ”he wrote in his memoir Over the Abyss.
It was June 21, 1941, and Starinov was in the city of Brest, a strategic town destined to be captured on the first day of Operation Barbarossa, the code name for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. In a few hours, Brest will be shaken by infantry fire and artillery bombardments.
Eighty years ago on 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 British warlord Winston Churchill and some Soviet military and spy commanders. Stalin believed that Adolf Hitler would not invade for a year, and he had only started redeploying Red Army divisions to the Western Front a few weeks earlier.
Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in history and Hitler and his generals began to meticulously plan it nine months earlier. For Hitler, it was to be a “war of annihilation” – against the Jews and the Slavs, both considered sub-human by the German Führer.
Eight decades later, Germany celebrated the 80th anniversary of an invasion which some military historians claim lost Hitler in World War II. Armed with 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 on Friday when a Barbarossa exhibition opened in Berlin. He said the anniversary provided an opportunity to rethink the events of 1941 when German soldiers unleashed “hatred and violence” and the war evolved “into the madness of total annihilation.”
“From day one, the German campaign was motivated by hatred: by anti-Semitism 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 have to remember it, ”he said. An estimated 27 million people, including 14 million civilians, were “murdered, beaten to death, allowed to starve or work to death” by the Wehrmacht and the SS death squads, or Einsatzgruppen, said Steinmeier.
Germany, he added, has for too long suppressed “the unprecedented brutality and horror” 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 hosted high-profile events to mark the anniversary, Russian commemorations on Tuesday will be more low-key and low-key, in contrast to the pomp and circumstance offered by other notable wartime events, especially the triumphs of the Red Army.
In 2018, the 75th anniversary of the Russian victory at Stalingrad was marked by grim memorials and patriotic military parades with President Vladimir Putin highly visible throughout the ceremonies as well as during their preparation. On Friday, a Kremlin spokesman said the media would be informed of any special events in due course, but did not provide any details on Putin’s main commemoration plans.
Nevertheless, like in other years, Barbarossa’s birthday, known as the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow, will be marked by candlelight parades and wreath laying in most Russian cities. Some commentators suggest that Operation Barbarossa does not fit so well with the Kremlin’s efforts in recent years to rehabilitate Stalin.
Nine days before the invasion, the Kremlin ordered Moscow radio to assure listeners that there was no prospect of a German invasion. An official TASS report dismissed “rumors” of an upcoming German attack as “clumsy propaganda” spread by countries hostile to Soviet Russia. Even as the offensive unfolded, Stalin still believed it was a provocation from the German generals. “I’m sure Hitler doesn’t know about this,” Stalin told military aides.
In the months leading up to the invasion, which was originally codenamed “Otto,” Hitler and his generals massed seven armies, made up of 120 divisions, along a line stretching from the Gulf of Finland at the Black Sea. The invasion force consisted of 600,000 vehicles, 750,000 artillery pieces and nearly two thousand planes. Over a hundred airstrips were prepared in Nazi-occupied Poland for an invasion that would trigger three and a half years of bloodshed and barbarism.
German officers and men were little informed of where they would end up heading, but many guessed. Secrecy was the order of the day. In an attempt to conceal what was happening from the Soviets, German troops in some populated areas were ordered to wear civilian clothes; tanks and troop movements were carried out under cover of darkness.
“We ourselves realized around June 20 that war against the Russians was a possibility,” noted infantrymen Gerhard Gortz in a journal cited by historian Robert Kershaw in his book War Without Garlands. It was just two days before the invasion started. “There was a feeling in the air. No fires were allowed, and you couldn’t walk around with torches or make noise, ”he added.
As he scribbled in his diary, Russian trains still carried raw materials and agricultural products to Germany, exports agreed to in the non-aggression pact concluded by Hitler and Stalin in 1939. The German infantryman, Theo Scharf, observed at the day before the battle: rolled continuously westward, ahead of us, from the oil fields on the Soviet side.
Russian military commanders along the border were aware of the strengthening of the German army, according to Kershaw, but no orders were issued by Moscow to increase their readiness and “when action was taken to the initiative of individual staffs, they were ordered to be reversed, ”he said.
Russian historian Dimitrij Wolkognov, who was an officer in the Red Army during the war, later wrote: “Stalin was like God on earth. He alone said, “The war will not take place now. It was his isolated belief, and he wanted to believe it.
As bombs rained down on Soviet positions and Wehrmacht infantry and German tanks launched their assault, Russian units on the front were ordered to observe and not act as the attack was still being considered. in Moscow as a provocation. Nazi forces advanced rapidly into Russia rapidly.
But in less than six months, the proud offensive failed after the Wehrmacht suffered at least 800,000 casualties and the Soviets six times that number. Winter wreaked havoc among German soldiers who had not been supplied with winter clothing.
As the invasion began, a German platoon commander noted in his diary that nearly 129 years earlier, Emperor Napoleon had launched his campaign in Russia. “We all know what happened. Will we do better? ”
They didn’t and Hitler’s gamble fell, sealing Germany’s fate in WWII.