Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s greatest mistake

With the 75th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa approaching, Rob Attar asked Antony Beevor why the German invasion of the Soviet Union ended in chaos and bloody failure...

A photograph of the battle of Moscow, 1942, first printed in Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich from 1940 to 1945. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In context

Operation Barbarossa

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Launched on 22 June 1941 and named after the 12th-century Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union represented a decisive breaking of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. The Axis attacking forces of more than 3 million men split into three groups, aimed at Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow.

The Soviets were caught by surprise and suffered appallingly in the early exchanges, losing millions of men, as well as cities such as Kiev, Smolensk and Vyazma. However, the German losses were also high and, a combination of improving Soviet defences and the Russian winter halted the Wehrmacht outside the gates of Moscow in December. Meanwhile, Hitler had opted not to fight for Leningrad, instead subjecting the city to a lengthy siege.

Although the Soviet Union survived the initial onslaught, the German forces launched renewed attacks in 1942 that made further inroads into Soviet territory. It took the battle of Stalingrad of 1942–43 to decisively turn the tide and begin the long process of reversing German gains.

Operation Barbarossa was accompanied by large-scale abuses of Soviet civilians, including the Jewish population, of whom over 1 million were murdered as part of the Final Solution.

Did Hitler have a long-term plan to invade the Soviet Union?

Hitler quite often fluctuated in his attitude towards great projects, but I think that his invasion of the Soviet Union was something that went all the way back to the end of the First World War. His detestation of Bolshevism was absolutely visceral, but the idea was also influenced by Germany’s occupation of Ukraine in 1918 and the idea that it would become a breadbasket in the future. Securing this territory could prevent a repetition of the British blockade and resulting starvation of Germany that occurred in the First World War. So it was strategic as well as instinctive.

The real plan didn’t come about in detail until December 1940, though. Interestingly, Hitler justified the invasion of the Soviet Union to his generals as being the only way to knock Britain out of the war: ie if the Soviet Union was defeated then Britain would have to give up and surrender, which was a curious analysis of the situation.

Was, then, the Nazi-Soviet pact never intended to be anything other than a temporary expedient for Germany?

Exactly. It was quite deliberate. Hitler realised he needed to knock out the western allies first. And this showed a remarkable confidence, particularly when one thinks that the French army was said to be the most powerful in the world at that time. From Stalin’s point of view, he was very much hoping that the ‘capitalist’ states and Nazi power would bleed each other dry. The Nazi-Soviet pact was essential for him too as he had just purged the Red Army and needed to postpone any fight with Germany.

One of the main criticisms of Operation Barbarossa is that the Germans left it too late to launch the invasion. Do you agree with this?

It is certainly true that Barbarossa was launched too late and there has been quite a lot of debate about this delay. One old theory is that it was the invasion of Greece [in April 1941] that delayed Barbarossa, but even at the time it was known that the real reason was the weather. The winter of 1940-41 had been very wet and this caused two problems. Firstly, the forward airfields of the Luftwaffe had been totally inundated and simply couldn’t take the aircraft until they dried out. Secondly, it delayed the redistribution of motor transport to the eastern front.

As an interesting aside, nearly 80 per cent of some German divisions’ motor transport actually came from the defeated French army. This is one of the reasons why Stalin loathed the French and argued at the 1943 Tehran conference that they should be treated as traitors and collaborators. The fact that the French hadn’t destroyed their vehicles on surrender was to Stalin a really serious element against them.

Stalin is known as someone who was incredibly paranoid, so how did he miss so many warnings of a potential attack from such a predictable enemy?

This is one of the great paradoxes of history: that Stalin, one of the most suspicious of all people, was fooled by Hitler. It has led to a whole raft of different theories including one that Stalin was actually planning to invade Germany first. That theory, though, is a load of nonsense. It is based on a Soviet contingency planning document from 11 May 1941 where General Zhukov and others, who were well aware of the Nazis’ invasion plans, were examining possible responses to this. One that they looked at was the idea of a pre-emptive strike. However the Red Army at the time was totally incapable of carrying out such an action. For one thing, the prime movers for their artillery were actually tractors, which were then being used for the harvest!

But it is interesting how Stalin rejected every single warning he got. Not just from the British but even from his own diplomats and spies. The answer may lie in the fact that, ever since the Spanish Civil War, he was convinced that anyone living abroad had been corrupted and was somehow instinctively anti-Soviet. That’s why he rejected warnings coming from Berlin, even when they managed to send back a miniature dictionary for German troops including terms like “take me to your collective farm”. He was convinced it was all an English provocation to force a fight with Germany.

It is extraordinary though. Stalin even accepted Hitler’s assurance that the reason why so many troops were being moved to the east was to get them out of the bombing range of the British. You would have thought he would have done a little bit of research on the range of British bombers, which at the time were so weak that they were incapable of making any serious dent into German forces.

What were Germany’s goals with Operation Barbarossa? Did they intend to conquer all of the Soviet Union?

The plan was to advance to what was called the ‘AA line’, from Archangel to Astrakhan. This would have taken them past Moscow and more or less beyond the line of the Volga. This is why, when it came to the battle of Stalingrad, many German troops felt that if they could only capture the city and get to the Volga they would have won the war.

The plan was that any Soviet troops who had survived after the great battles in the early part of Barbarossa would simply be a rump and could be kept under control by bombing. Meanwhile, the conquered areas of Russia and Ukraine would be opened up for German settlement and colonisation. According to the Nazi Hunger Plan, the population of the major cities would have been starved to death. They reckoned on 35 million being killed.

The whole project depended on a rapid advance to the ‘AA line’ and, above all, the destruction of the Red Army through vast battles of encirclement. Some battles of this kind did indeed take place. Kiev, for example, was one of the largest battles in world history in terms of the number of prisoners taken.

Did this German plan have any prospect of success?

In late October 1941, in a moment of panic, Stalin approached the Bulgarian ambassador Stamenov and told him that he thought Moscow was going to be captured and that everything would fall to pieces. But Stamenov responded: “You are crazy. Even if you withdraw to the Urals, you will win in the end.” This to me illustrates a key reason why Operation Barbarossa was probably not going to work. The sheer size of the country meant that the Wehrmacht and their Romanian and Hungarian allies never had enough troops for the occupation and conquest of such a huge area.

Secondly, Hitler had failed to learn a lesson from the Japanese assault on China, where another highly mechanised and technically superior force attacked a country with a vast landmass. It showed that you can certainly win in the beginning but the shock and awe of cruelty, which Hitler also used against the Soviet Union, ends up provoking as much resistance as it does panic and chaos. Hitler never took this into account. “Kick in the door and the whole structure will come tumbling down,” was the phrase he kept using, but he completely underestimated the patriotism of most Soviet people, their feelings of outrage and determination to fight on.

Why had Germany not learned the lessons from Napoleon about the challenges in conquering Russia?

Hitler was actually very conscious of Napoleon. One of the reasons he insisted on attacking Leningrad was because he was reluctant to follow Napoleon’s main route to Moscow. That helped account for the delay in reaching Moscow. Some have argued that if Hitler had ignored Leningrad he could have captured Moscow.

In the early months of Barbarossa is it fair to say that Stalin was an impediment to the Soviet defence?

His refusal to allow withdrawals, particularly from the Kiev encirclement, meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of men. It was a ‘stand or die’ order every time and there was very little flexibility. It was only really in the last stage of the retreat to Moscow that Stalin was allowing more flexibility, and it was a good thing that he did because it preserved enough troops to save the city.

Was there any danger that the Soviet regime might have collapsed or been overthrown in the early months of Barbarossa?

There was no chance of any overthrow by popular revolt or anything like that. In fact, there was very little criticism because nobody really knew what was happening and the anger of the people at that particular stage was entirely focused on the Germans and their treasonous breaking of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The main risk to Stalin was a palace coup and there was a famous moment where some of the leading Soviets went to the dacha in which Stalin had gone into a complete funk. He saw them arriving and thought they had come to arrest him, but he soon realised that they were scared too and they persuaded him that he had to carry on.

How important was the Russian winter in deciding the battle for Moscow?

There’s no doubt that the scale and depth of that winter was important. It was a particularly cold winter, with temperatures sometimes going down to -40°C and the trouble was that the Germans were simply not equipped for it in terms of clothing or weapons. The German machine guns, for example, were often freezing solid and they would have to piss on them to try to warm them up. The German panzers had very narrow tracks, which couldn’t cope with the snow, while the Soviet T-34 tanks had much wider tracks.

Even before the winter, the Germans had already been slowed down by the autumn muds but the frost made things worse. They had to light fires under the engines of their aircraft at night purely to get their motors going in the morning.

Alongside the military invasion, the German forces inflicted horrendous abuses on civilians in the Soviet Union. Did this end up detracting from the German war effort?

It didn’t really in 1941. The resources allocated to the Einsatzgruppen and Sonderkommandos and police battalions and so forth were not taking much away from the war effort at that point. You can make that argument much more by 1942 when you had the Final Solution and they were allocating vast quantities of the railway system to the transport of Jews, when it should have been used to support their armies.

One thing that might have given them a chance of winning in 1941 – and this was advocated by some officers – was to create a Ukrainian army, a million strong. This of course was absolute anathema to Hitler because he couldn’t accept the idea of Slavs. But if they were going to have any chance of success, to make up for their lack of numbers in such a vast landmass, it had to come from turning it into a civil war. Yet there was no question of ever giving the Ukrainians self government or anything like that, and this was one reason why those Ukrainians who did side with the Germans to begin with soon realised they were being completely conned.

What do you make of the British reaction to Barbarossa? Could we have done more to help the Soviet Union?

The Soviets were pretty scornful about the sort of help we were sending but we couldn’t do much to be perfectly honest. Let’s remember, we are talking about the summer of 1941 when we’d just lost a large number of vessels in the Mediterranean from the evacuation of Greece and Crete. Plus there was the growing threat in the far east. We simply didn’t have the resources.

Churchill wanted to make every effort, or impression of effort, of helping, but the trouble was that the fighter aircraft we were sending over in the convoys were, on the whole, fairly obsolete Hurricanes in pretty bad nick. When the RAF was told to hand over aircraft to send to Russia they weren’t going to give up their best aircraft. Similarly, we were sending them Matilda tanks which were also obsolete at that point; greatcoats which were useless in the Russian winter; and steel-shod ammunition boots which would actually accelerate frostbite! So, yes the Soviets were pretty angry about this, but at the same time there had to be a certain amount of superficial Allied solidarity.

What Stalin really wanted was a second front: an attack on the Cherbourg peninsula in France. But this was a mad idea because the troops would have been bottled up on the peninsula and it wouldn’t even have distracted any forces from the eastern front, as Stalin argued, because the Germans had enough troops in France already. It would have been throwing away 100,000 men for no purpose whatsoever and Churchill was absolutely right to stop it.

On the Axis side, could Japan have done more to help Germany succeed with Operation Barbarossa?

There was a curious lack of co-ordination between the two countries. There were no joint staffs at all and hardly any military attaches from each country. The Japanese didn’t even tell Hitler that they were going to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor, which in itself is quite astonishing.

What the Germans had hoped, of course, was that the Japanese would have attacked the Soviet Union in the far east in the autumn of 1941. The reason they didn’t goes back to August 1939 and the battle of Khalkhin Gol [a border clash between the Soviet Union and Japan, which was decisively won by the Soviets]. Even though this was a relatively small battle, it was one of the most influential in the war because it persuaded the Japanese that it was not worth attacking the Soviet Union. They signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and they stuck to it. Hitler really hoped that the Japanese would attack in the east and it would have had an effect because Stalin wouldn’t have been able to transfer his Siberian divisions to the fight against Germany.

Was the invasion of the Soviet Union Hitler’s biggest mistake?

It was. Had he maintained the new status quo after the defeat of France and steadily built up his armies using the resources of the countries he had already occupied, he would have been in a very strong position. Then, had Stalin tried to launch a pre-emptive strike himself in 1942 or 1943, it could have been disastrous for the Soviet Union.

There’s no doubt that it was the decisive moment in the war. Some 80 per cent of the Wehrmacht’s casualties occurred on the eastern front; it was Barbarossa that broke the back of the German army.

Antony Beevor is one of the world’s bestselling military historians. His books include Stalingrad (1998), D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009) and, most recently, Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble (Viking, 2015).

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This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine