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The eastern front in WW2: how it all went wrong for the Germans

When Hitler unleashed the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, he fully expected his armies to triumph in a matter of weeks. Instead, the operation cost him the war. Sir Richard J Evans considers how it all went wrong for the Germans on the eastern front

German soldiers watch a farmhouse they have burned during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941
Published: February 16, 2022 at 8:05 am
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On 22 June 1941 Germany and its allies launched the biggest land invasion in history. After an artillery barrage had opened up along a thousand-mile front, three million German troops, along with half a million more from Romania and other allied countries, poured across the border with the Soviet Union in an attack spearheaded by 3,600 tanks and assisted by more than half a million motor vehicles. Over a thousand combat aircraft bombarded Soviet military positions and airfields from above.

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Within a few weeks, the Red Army had been driven back hundreds of miles. Its armies were encircled, its tanks and equipment destroyed, and more than half a million of its men captured. Panic and chaos reigned in the Soviet armed forces as communications broke down, generals did not know what to do, and head-on confrontations with the invaders only led to huge loss of life. On 3 July 1941, Franz Halder, chief of the German Army general staff, wrote ecstatically in his diary: “It’s really not saying too much if I claim that the campaign against Russia has been won in 14 days.”

This article accompanies season two of The Rise of the Nazis on BBC Two

BBC Two's Rise of the Nazis examines how Hitler brutally seized and kept power - and the missed chances that could have stopped him. Inside the minds of monsters - and those who fought them.

Watch both seasons now on BBC iPlayer

Operation Barbarossa, named after a celebrated medieval German emperor, had been planned and prepared for almost a year – ever since it had begun to become clear to Adolf Hitler that his intention to invade and crush the United Kingdom was going to be difficult to put into effect. As Hitler told his generals on 31 July 1940, the defeat of the Soviet Union would mean “the end of any hopes that might move England still to hope for a change in the situation”.

The British would realise that there would be “no purpose for them carrying on the war when Russia has been beaten and eliminated from it”.

The quest for space

But the roots of Operation Barbarossa went back much further than this. In Mein Kampf, Hitler’s lengthy memoir and political tract published in the mid-1920s, the one consistent ideological theme that stands out besides extreme German nationalism and fanatical anti-Semitism is the claim that Germany needed Lebensraum, or “living-space”.

Germany had lost the First World War not least, Hitler thought, because the home front had collapsed under the strain of malnutrition and associated diseases that had killed more than half a million civilians, brought on, above all, by an effective Allied blockade.

From the very beginning, Hitler was determined to avoid this situation in the next war he so fervently desired. “Living-space” therefore meant for him the conquest of Ukraine and other parts of eastern Europe in order to secure its food supplies for Germany and the Germans.

The conquest of the east would be easy because the Slavs were, in Hitler’s eyes, sub-human and dull-witted

Such a conquest would, Hitler believed, be easy because the Slavs who lived in the region were sub-humans, dull-witted and without fighting spirit. According to him, they were led by a clique of Jewish Bolsheviks who were exploiting them for their own nefarious purposes.

“The Russians are inferior,” he told his generals on 5 December 1940. “The army is leaderless.” Once the invasion was under way, the whole edifice of the Soviet Union would soon collapse. It would only take four or five months. The French, whom Hitler regarded as racially far superior to the Slavs, had after all been defeated in a short space of time. So it would be also with the Soviets.

As it turned out, of course, all of this was fantasy, the product of Hitler’s racial beliefs. The Soviet Union was not led by a Jewish clique; indeed, Stalin himself was filled with anti-Semitic prejudice, as would become clear in the purges he launched after the war.

From the jaws of defeat: how Soviet forces turned the tide on the eastern front

23 August 1939 | The German and Soviet foreign ministers sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, later known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This non-aggression agreement gives Hitler and Stalin time to expand their armies ahead of a likely conflict between the two nations.

22 June 1941 | Germany and its allies launch Operation Barbarossa, the largest land invasion in history. Some 3.5 million Axis troops, 3,600 tanks and more than a thousand combat aircraft enter the Soviet Union. They shatter the Soviet defences and quickly make huge gains.

August 1941 | Hitler sends some of his armies south-east in search of much-needed resources. They occupy Ukraine and then move to the Caucasus, hoping to use Soviet oilfields to top up German supplies. Their subsequent redeployment to the Moscow front is interrupted by heavy autumn rains.

2 October 1941 | Operation Typhoon begins, which sees German troops attempt to capture Moscow. Soviet forces unleash a stream of attacks on troops fighting through the freezing winter in summer clothes. The Germans fail to capture the city and retreat by mid-December.

December 1941 | Displeased with the retreat from Moscow, Hitler dismisses Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German army, and assumes the role himself.

Summer 1942 | Hitler splits his forces once more, sending some south to the Caucasus to reach the oilfields, and others to Stalingrad (now Volgograd). In doing so, he places immense strain on already stretched supply lines.

23 August 1942 | German forces begin their attack on Stalingrad. Intense street fighting stretches on for months, until a massive Soviet counter-offensive in November overwhelms the enemy. On 31 January 1943, newly promoted Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrenders.

5 July 1943 | German and Soviet armies face off at the Kursk salient in the biggest tank battle in history. The Nazis are defeated on 23 August and withdraw all along the line. This retreat continues until the end of the war, in May 1945.

Stalling tactics

On 23 August 1939, to almost everyone’s surprise, and to the disgust of many ordinary members of both the Nazi and the Communist parties, the German and Soviet foreign ministers signed what became known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. For both Hitler and Stalin the main benefit was that it bought time – time in which they could build up their armed forces to a point where they were ready to deploy.

Hitler’s generals were so worried in 1938–39 that he would force them to go to war unprepared that a number of them considered arresting the Nazi leader to get him out of the way. Halder even carried a loaded pistol with him for a time in the late autumn of 1939, though the plot fell apart when the leaders began to fear that Hitler had got wind of it.

Franz Halder, chief of the German army general staff, leans over a table looking a map alongside Adolf Hitler. On Hitler's right is Walther von Brauchitsch
Franz Halder (right), chief of the German army general staff, with Adolf Hitler and Walther von Brauchitsch, December 1941. Soviet resistance shocked Halder out of his initial complacency (Photo by Alamy)

For his part, Stalin realised that the brutal purges he had carried out in the mid-to-late thirties – which had eliminated everyone from senior army officers and arms factory managers to thousands of key industrial personnel – had seriously weakened the Soviet Union’s military potential. And in any case, the forced industrialisation he was pushing through had only been in progress for a short time.

Driven by paranoid fear of an international capitalist conspiracy, Stalin secured a number of secret clauses in the pact that gave him control over border regions and assigned Finland to the Soviet sphere of influence. But he also agreed to send extensive quantities of raw materials and essential supplies to Germany, ironically helping to speed up the country’s ongoing rearmament programme.

Stalin simply couldn’t accept the possibility that the Germans would launch an invasion in 1941. So confident was he that the two nations would remain at peace for at least another year that when an ex-Communist German soldier crossed the front line into Soviet territory to warn that an attack was imminent, Stalin had him shot.

Unpreparedness helps explain the near collapse of the Red Army in the early weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The ideological nature of the war on the German side also explains the murderous brutality with which it was conducted.

“This is a war of annihilation,” Hitler told his generals on 30 March 1941, prior to the invasion. Political commissars in the Red Army were to be shot, Jews were to be eliminated, and prisoners of war were to be allowed to perish.

Captured Red Army soldiers were penned into enclosures on the open steppe and left to die, until the Germans began to realise their potential as forced labourers. Altogether, 3.3 million Soviet troops died after being captured by the Germans.

In the longer term, the “General Plan for the East”, first mooted in July 1941, envisaged up to 85 per cent of Poles, 75 per cent of Belarusians, and 64 per cent of Ukrainians perishing in a similar way, to be replaced by German farmers producing foodstuffs for the Reich on an industrial scale.

By the late summer of 1941, the genocide of the Jews was under way too, targeting the entire Jewish population of Europe in a campaign that encompassed men, women and children and resulted in the murder of six million people. They died from being shot into pits and were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps, as well as through malnutrition and disease.

While Slavs were killed as mere obstacles to the German reordering of eastern Europe, the Jews were treated with extreme sadism and violence as the supposed vectors of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy Germany, the objects of paranoid fear as well as unbridled hatred on the part of the Nazis

A gnawing anxiety

The racist imperatives behind the war on the eastern front help explain why Operation Barbarossa soon ran into difficulties. Within a few weeks the overweening confidence of generals like Franz Halder was being replaced by a gnawing, uncomprehending anxiety about the continued resistance of the Red Army, who were expected to give up quickly. “We have underestimated the Russian colossus,” confessed Halder on 2 August.

While the Soviets drew on vast reserves to replenish their losses, mounting German losses, though fewer, were much harder to make good. The rapid advance across the vast spaces of the steppe soon left supply lines overstretched, a situation made more difficult by the thinly distributed railway network and the lack of metalled roads.

Stalin declared the war a great patriotic struggle – a view supported by German violence against civilians

Stalin meanwhile had rallied round and broadcast to the nation, proclaiming that the war was a great patriotic struggle – a view strengthened for most of the Soviet Union’s population by the untrammelled violence meted out to civilians as well as soldiers by the invading enemy. He began to give more initiative to his commanders, notably Georgy Zhukov, who turned out to be something of a military genius.

Soviet industry had been relocated out of Germany’s reach, east of the Ural Mountains, and ramped up production with astonishing rapidity. Material help from the western Allies further boosted the Soviet arms industry. The Japanese focus on the Pacific, soon to materialise in the attack on Pearl Harbor, freed up large quantities of Red Army reserves to be transferred west to the European theatre.

Still convinced of Slavic inferiority and the inevitability of victory, Hitler made the fateful decision to divide his forces. He diverted some of his armies to Kiev, leading to the occupation of Ukraine in October 1941. These were some of the most stunning German victories of the war. But they were to carry a heavy price.

Meanwhile, with the autumn came the rains, and the German army’s advance towards Moscow got bogged down in the mud. Only in November was the ground firm enough to resume the forward march.

Following the victory in Kiev and the seizure of other key Ukrainian towns, Hitler transferred troops and resources back to the Moscow front, but the delay had been fatal. Soon the bitter Russian winter set in, while the German armies, confident of a quick victory, were still in summer clothes.

Already depleted and exhausted after months of continual marching, they began to freeze to death. Zhukov’s forces started to harass them, launching attack after attack with troops in warm, white-camouflaged winter uniforms. Operation Barbarossa ground to a halt.

After the war, the surviving generals blamed Hitler for this debacle, and it is true that his hubris had played a major role in the failure of Barbarossa. But they had fully shared in his views at the time. Schooled in Prussian military doctrines of attack, they had no idea what to do next. They still viewed Hitler as a military genius, his reputation created by the swiftness of the defeat of France in 1940. But all he could do was to underline “the fanatical will to defend the ground on which the troops are standing”.

Tactical withdrawal for him was merely proof of cowardice. When Field Marshal von Rundstedt sanctioned such a redeployment, Hitler fired him. Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb suffered the same fate, as did the tank generals Heinz Guderian and Erich Hoepner. All had sanctioned tactical withdrawals.

Others crumbled under the strain. Field Marshal von Reichenau died from a heart attack, and Field Marshal von Bock was relieved of his command. Rundstedt also had a heart attack, though he survived. The army commander-in-chief, Walther von Brauchitsch, had a heart attack as well, in mid-November. Hitler dispensed with his services and took over command of the army himself. The move was greeted with relief by generals and troops alike. Now something would be done.

The quest for oil

The defeat before Moscow was not decisive, and Hitler remained optimistic about his chances of victory. When campaigning resumed after the spring thaw he split his forces, redeploying some of them south into the Caucasus, aiming for the oilfields of the Caspian region, while the other units converged on the Volga city of Stalingrad.

For much of the year the Red Army wasted thousands of lives in a series of futile frontal assaults. But it learned its lesson, and by the late summer had become better at coordinating armour, infantry and air support while avoiding costly confrontations with the enemy. And by splitting his forces, Hitler had fatally weakened them. In September, as Halder reminded him that he was underestimating the strength of the Red Army, the dictator lost his patience and fired him.

Increasingly contemptuous of the orthodox and mostly aristocratic Prussian generals, Hitler appointed Friedrich Paulus, a staff officer without battle experience but coming from a relatively humble background, to lead the Sixth Army in an assault on Stalingrad, which he thought had an enormous symbolic significance because of its name.

As the German forces entered the city to begin a bitter war of attrition on its shattered streets, Zhukov, with Stalin’s approval, brought in more than a million fresh troops and large numbers of tanks to break through Paulus’s lines in the rear, where they were manned by weak Romanian troops, in a vast encircling movement that cut off the Sixth Army from its supply lines.

Hitler overruled the generals, including Paulus, who advised retreat. As the Red Army pressed forward, the German soldiers began to starve. The vainglorious boast of Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, that he could keep them supplied, turned out to be empty. On 30 January 1943 Hitler promoted Paulus to field marshal, hinting he should kill himself rather than surrender. But surrender he did, along with the remnants of his troops.

Even more than Moscow, Stalingrad was a major turning-point in the war. From this moment onwards, the German armies on the eastern front were in steady retreat, beginning with their withdrawal from the Caucasus in order to escape being cut off by Red Army forces. Josef Goebbels launched a huge propaganda campaign presenting the defeat as a noble act of self-sacrifice, though Hitler himself railed against what he saw as Paulus’s cowardice and lack of will. Popular morale plummeted.

Following Stalingrad, Hitler suffered from insomnia and was more prone than ever to outbursts of rage

Few heeded Goebbels’ exhortation to wage “total war” and make further sacrifices in the cause of victory; most thought it was impossible to tighten their belts further anyway. Hitler himself kept up the façade of optimism, but privately he began to harbour doubts about ultimate victory. His health, already affected by the stress of Moscow, now deteriorated still further; Goebbels and others reported that he was ageing fast, he suffered from insomnia, and was more prone than ever to outbursts of uncontrollable rage.

Ultimately there was no way of stopping the Soviet juggernaut. In the summer of 1943, as the Red Army pressed forward, Hitler saw an opportunity to cut off large numbers of troops at the Kursk salient, resulting in yet another gargantuan confrontation, with more than four million troops assembled by the Soviets, who had prior warning of the attempt.

They outnumbered the German forces by more than three to one, and although the Red Army lost nearly 2,000 tanks to the Germans’ 252, their numerical superiority was decisive. The German generals, against Hitler’s repeated objections, were forced to withdraw all along the line. It was a retreat that continued until the very end.

The eastern front was by some distance the most important theatre of war in Europe: from the moment it began, on 22 June 1941, to the end of the war, in May 1945, there was no point at which it absorbed less than two-thirds of the German armed forces. Hitler once said that everything he did was aimed against Russia. Ultimately, that obsession cost him the war.


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Sir Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University. He is one of the contributors appearing in the second season of The Rise of the Nazis on BBC Two

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