At the beginning of World War II, the relationship between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was closer than it was at the end of the war. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact in 1939, and both countries invaded and swiftly defeated Poland and the Polish army.
Under the conditions of the pact, the Soviet Union received the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), while Hitler received most of Poland. However, this was not enough for Hitler and he wished to gain control of all of Europe.
Ignoring the pact with the Soviet Union, Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union with a surprise attack known as Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Why did Hitler break the pact he made with Stalin, and what did he want to achieve by invading the Soviet Union?
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. This invasion was codenamed “Operation Barbarossa,” It was the largest military offensive in history, with over 10 million combatants participating.
This move by Hitler officially broke the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Non-Aggression that he and Stalin had signed two years prior. Hitler had three main goals in mind when it came to the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The first goal was to destroy the Soviet Union through the use of military force. Similarly to the first goal, the second was to permanently eliminate the “perceived Communist threat to Germany.” The third goal was to seize prime land along the borders of the Soviet Union as “Lebensraum,” or living space for long-term German settlement.
Colonizing the western parts of the Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, was highly desired because these areas were rich in natural resources. One of the major cities that the Nazis sought to take control of was Stalingrad.
This city was strategically vital, with direct access to the Volga River and the Caspian Sea and a direct route to the oil field of the Caucasus (and access to oil-rich areas like Baku in Azerbaijan). The Nazis felt their goals would be realized because they had done something similar in the Warthegau in Poland earlier.
In order to give the German people what Hitler called “living space”, the Nazis intended to “expel the supposedly inferior ‘races’ of Slavs and Jews that lived there to settle ethnic Germans in their place”. Hitler wrote, “The German colonists ought to live on handsome, spacious farms. The German services will be lodged in marvelous buildings, the governors in palaces… What India was for England, the territories of Russia will be for us.”
Lebensraum was a popular philosophical and political ideology in Germany from the 1980s to the 1940s, and it became popular in 1901 during World War I. However, the Lebensraum ideology of Nazi Germany was far more extreme and was one of the elements that motivated Germany to invade Poland and start WWII.
In the months leading up to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin and other Soviet political leaders largely ignored the rumors and warning signs that Germany was gathering troops along the western border of Russia. Why this was ignored is unknown, but when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, they did so with 134 full military divisions, which an additional 73 divisions backed.
A total of more than 3 million German soldiers took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, and they were joined by around 650,000 allies from Finland and Romania. The Nazi front spanned from the Baltic Sea to the north and the Black Sea to the south.
The invasion of the Soviet Union was a successful tactical surprise that left the Soviet Union weak from the start. Most of the Soviet air force was struck first and was destroyed on the ground, and the Red Army was overwhelmed by the sheer power of the Nazis and their allies.
Many Soviet military divisions were left cut off from supplies, reinforcements and were often forced to surrender. By the end of September 1941, the Nazis had reached the gates of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg), Smolensk (located about 200+ miles / 320+ km Southwest of Moscow), and Dnepropetrovsk (now known as Dnipro) in Ukraine (located 200 miles / 320 km Southeast of Kyiv). By early December, the German army began to approach the outskirts of Moscow. However, the tide started to turn, and the Germans began to stumble.
Hitler Learned Nothing from Napoleon
Before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the same feat was attempted by Napoleon in 1812, who reached Moscow in December, the middle of winter. French troops were forced to retreat after the weather and terrain caused shortages of food and supplies.
Terrible road infrastructure and a literal scorched earth campaign by the Russians meant food and supplies were delayed, and there was little to scavenge. Over 10,000 of Napoleon’s horses had died in the first month alone. Upon reaching Moscow, over 200,000 French soldiers died or became incredibly ill with diseases like typhus due to lice infestations or dysentery from consuming contaminated water.
As the French soldiers starved to death, they began to forage for food which took them deeper and deeper into the wilds of Russia, where many disappeared entirely, and commanders had a difficult time controlling their men who only cared about finding good. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was an utter failure, but Hitler’s ego led him to make similar mistakes that crippled the German military.
Hitler expected that after he invaded Russia, the Soviet Union would rapidly collapse and thus did not equip his troops for prolonged operations, or for fighting in Russia’s brutal winters. There was a lack of proper supplies of both food and medicines, and Hitler had expected the military personnel in Russia to live off the conquered Soviet Union land.
The Germans began to starve, just as Napoleon’s men did almost 130 years earlier. When the Soviet Union launched a major offensive against the Germans on December 6, 1941, the Germans were forced back from Moscow in total chaos. It took weeks for the struggling Germans to restabilize their troops along the front to the east of the city of Smolensk.
No Land Beyond the Volga
Still desperate to defeat the Soviet Union a year after the start of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis led a massive attack on southeastern Russia towards the city of Stalingrad (now known as Volgograd) in the summer of 1942. By the time the Nazis made it to Stalingrad, they were in desperate need of fuel, and inspired by the goals of Lebensraum, the capture of the Soviet city and the oil-rich lands beyond the Volga river was Hitler’s sole focus.
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Again, the Russians prepared for the German assault by making efforts to remove any and all supplies from the city and surrounding area. Livestock and grain were shipped across the Volga for safety to ensure that when the Nazis arrived, there was no food for them to access.
By November, the Nazis had all but captured the city when on November 19, 1942, Soviet generals Gregory Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilesvsky launched their strategic attack known as Operation Uranus (Опера́ция Ура́н). This attack utilized the military strategy known as a double investment.
The Soviet forces created a contravallation, a line (or circle) of fortifications facing an enemy to keep them back. Then they created a circumvallation around the first circle that faces away from the area it protects.
The circumvallation was used to prevent any field armies from approaching and getting into Stalingrad. An investment cuts off communications between the outside world and the individuals trapped inside.
It also prevents supplies or reinforcements from reaching people inside, knowing that the Nazis and their much smaller Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian allies would come to siege the city. The circumvallation was used to prevent any field armies from approaching and getting into Stalingrad.
An investment cuts off communications between the outside world and the individuals trapped inside. It also prevented supplies or reinforcements from reaching people inside, but the Soviet Union cared little about the fate of the civilians in Stalingrad.
The Soviets surrounded the ill-equipped 6th Army for a harsh Russian winter. The 6th Army was quickly running out of supplies like food and ammunition. The Luftwaffe could not drop a bomb to destroy and free the 6th Army without killing their own soldiers, so instead, the Nazis tried to send resources to their troops by airdropping supplies.
The number of supplies that could be carried at a time per day was insufficient to help the 6th Army. Bad weather kept flights grounded and prevented the delivery of supplies. The surrounded 6th Army began to starve and freeze to death.
When requests were made to Hitler to order a retreat or surrender, he would not allow it. For Hitler, at this point, destroying a city named after Stalin was his single focus. The 6th Army starved, froze, and died from wounds and disease.
The Nazis surrendered to the Soviet Union on February 2, 1943, and over 90,000 German prisoners were also captured that day. This crushing defeat of the Nazis proved that the Germans were no longer invincible. Historians consider the Battle of Stalingrad to be the major catalyst in the defeat of the Axis powers and the eventual conclusion to World War II.
Top Image: Operation Barbarossa aimed for a quick defeat of Russia to avoid the brutal winters, as was Napoleon’s plan. And like Napoleon it failed, and for the same reasons. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.