Operation Barbarossa

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Podcast Transcript

On June 22, 1941, German forces crossed into the Soviet Union. It was, and remains, the largest military operation in human history. The force that the Germans assembled for the invasion was staggering, consisting of over 3 million men.

However, the decision to go to war with the Soviets and break the alliance Germany had with them has puzzled historians for decades. 

It ultimately was an extremely costly failure that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. 

Learn more about Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The subject of Operation Barbarossa is an enormous one. The entire invasion of the Soviet Union, if it had happened in isolation, would have been one of the largest wars in history. Depending on sources, there were more casualties on the eastern front of the Second World War than there were in the entire First World War.

So you can’t really cover it like you would some other battle that happened during the war. 

The war between Germany and the Soviet Union lasted almost four years and included many major battles, some of which were the largest in military history. 

So, this episode is not going to be a list of battles and sieges that took place over four years. The Battle of Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Battle of Kursk will all be the subject of their own episodes. 

What I want to do in this episode is take a higher-level look at the decision-making process that went into Operation Barbarossa and try to figure out why Hilter did it, why Stalin was caught unaware, and why it ultimately failed. 

There is an argument to be made, and I think it is a pretty reasonable one, that the entire reason Germany began the Second World War was to implement Operation Barbarossa. 

Their previous military efforts, which I’ll get to in a bit, had strategic reasons, all of which were in support of its invasion of the Soviet Union.

However, Operation Barbarossa itself was actually not a strategic decision. It was an ideological one. 

It had everything to do with the German concept of Lebensraum

Lebensraum, roughly translated, means “living space” in German. 

The ideas behind Lebensraum did not originate with Hitler but had been a part of German nationalism since the late 19th century. 

The word was first used by Oscar Peschel, German geographer and biologist, in 1860 in his review of Charles Darwin’s book Origin of Species.

The idea of lebensraum developed with the 19th German geographer Friedrich Ratzel. He contended that the power of a country depended on the amount and kind of land it occupied and that nations needed to expand their territory to accommodate growing populations and to secure natural resources.

However, it was Karl Haushofer, a general and geographer, gave the term a political meaning by explicitly stating that Germany should seek land in Eastern Europe for lebensraum, and expel the current populations. 

This idea gained prominence after the First World War in Germany, especially among German nationalists, when Britain was able to block the importation of food into Germany, causing food shortages. 

One of the people who took this idea to heart was Adolf Hitler. 

As early as 1925, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the idea of Lebensraum was the ideological basis of the German Reich. In particular, expansion into Ukraine.  This, according to Hitler, would give the German people room to grow, and it would make the Reich self-sufficientt in food. 

So, at least in this case, Hitler telegraphed exactly what he wanted to do years before it happened. So, when I say this was really the entire point of WWII for the Germans, this is what I am referring to. 

In fact, given the ideological necessity in Hitler’s mind of expanding into Eastern Europe, you can make sense of everything else he did that came before it. 

Why didn’t he just invade the Soviet Union directly? Because if he did, he would have had to deal with France and Britain in a two-front war, which was something he wanted to avoid. He also wanted to placate the Soviets so they wouldn’t meddle in anything until it was too late. 

So, to achieve these goals, he signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact with the Soviets in August 1939, in which they agreed to divide Poland. 

They invaded France in 1940 in a preemptive measure to take France out of the war, and in the process, they almost eliminated the British forces in Continental Europe. 

Likewise, the invasions of Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Norway were all about securing their flanks for their eventual invasion of the Soviet Union, which was the main objective. 

Once their western flank was secured, then they could begin throwing the full might of the German Army at the Soviets. 

The initial plan to invade the Soviet Union was named Operation Otto, after Otto the Great who conquered lands in Eastern Europe. 

However, the name of the operation was changed by Hitler in December 1940 to Operation Barbarossa in honor of the 12th century Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. 

Now, you might be thinking that the invasions of Russia haven’t historically gone very well.

Napoleon famously failed in his campaign to conquer Russia, thwarted by vast supply lines and a punishing Russian winter. 

Why didn’t Hitler have the same reservations about invading Russia? 

Much of it had to do with hubris. 

The Germans were on a roll in 1941. They had been able to conquer much of western and northern Europe with historically scant losses. Moreover, their invasion of France went far better than even they expected and France was arguably the most powerful army in Europe at the time. 

Given the sucees that the Germans had, they thought they were unstoppable. 

Conditions in the Soviet Union only helped matters. Stalin had just completed a purge of most of the top Soviet generals. Most of the competent Soviet commanders had been removed or executed and replaced with men whose primary attribute was loyalty to Stalin. 

The initial plan was to being the invasion on May 15, 1941. However, that didn’t happen. There has been a great deal of debate amongst historians as to why the invasion was posposted, but there are several major theories.

The first is that the Germans got suck invading Greece and Yugoslovia in April. The second is that the previous winter had been very wet and rivers and streams were still flowing near the maximum, which would have made manuvering difficult.

Finally, Germany wasn’t going to be doing this alone. Romania and Finland were going to take part, and they needed more time. 

In the end, the invasion was pushed back to June 22. 

How important this delay was to the overall failure of the campaign has been debated for decades. On the one hand, an extra month meant an extra month of fighting before winter set in. On the other hand, many historians say that it didn’t really make a difference in the long run. 

In the lead-up to the invasion, the Germans managed to bring 3 million German troops to the Soviet border along with another 690,000 soldiers from Axis alliance countries. 

There were 153 divisions in total, including 104 infantry, 19 panzer, and 15 motorized infantry divisions, as well as a smattering of security divisions, reserves, and four divisions in Finland. 

The Germans had amassed 6,867 armored vehicles, of which about 3500 were tanks. There were also 4,000 aircraft and almost 20,000 artillery pieces. In addition, there were between 600,000 and 700,000 horses because there weren’t enough mechanized vehicles to carry everyone. 

By all accounts, the Soviets were taken by surprise.

If you remember my episode on the Ribentrop-Molotov Pact and the Axis Powers, Stalin didn’t particularly like Hiter, but he at least saw him as an ally in fighting what he thought were the real enemies, the Western capitalist powers. 

Stalin simply didn’t think that Hitler would break their treaty in the way he did, when he did. 

The Soviet army identified the German army as their biggest threat as early as July 1940. In fact, their military planners predicted almost exactly how and where the Germans would attack.

Stalin knew that Hiter mentioned invading the Soviet Union in Mein Kampf. However, he was hoping that the Soviets would have more time, at least a few years, before having to go to war. 

In the days leading up to the invasion, the Soviets heard reports. A Chinese spy overheard a German military attache and sent word to the Soviets. Soviet and American intelligence both felt that an invasion was imminent, and they sent word to Stalin. 

A Soviet spy in Germany gave Stalin the exact date of the invasion. A German soldier who was a committed communist rand to a Soviet border station the night before the invasion to warn them what was going to happen, but they ignored him. 

It wasn’t as if the Soviets had no defensive capabilities. Their army had five and a half million men, with another 14 million in reserve. They had 33,000 pieces of artillery and 23,000 tanks, 14,000 of which were battle-ready. 

However, their units were often poorly trained, and their equipment was often shabby. 

One of the big reasons why Stalin didn’t do more is that he supposedly didn’t want to provoke Hitler and start a war before the Soviets were ready, something that ended up happening anyhow. 

At 3:15 am on June 22, Operation Barbarossa commenced. 

There were three main battle groups. A north group was to head to Leningrad, a middle group was to head to Moscow, and a southern group was to take Kyiv in Ukraine. 

The first day was a resounding success for the Germans. They managed to take out much of the Soviet command and control system, leaving the Soviet leadership unaware of what was happening. 

The German Luftwaffe supposedly destroyed 1,489 Soviet aircraft in just the first day. 

Behind the German Army came Nazi Gestapo units that would exterminate entire villages and round up Jews and other undesirables. 

To Hitler, this was total warfare and a war of annihilation. He didn’t want any Slavs left behind because the land was to be given to Germans to farm. 

By the end of 1941, over 600,000 Jews alone had been killed by these roving death squads. 

Soviet prisoners of war were often just starved to death. 

From here, you can probably fill in the rest of the story, although, as I mentioned, there will be many future episodes on the Eastern Front of WWII. 

The German advance eventually slowed, the Soviets regrouped, and the eastern front became the biggest human meat grinder in history, and the Germans were stuck in a quagmire of their own making. 

In the end, what went wrong? Why did the Germans fail so miserably in their invasions of the Soviet Union when they performed so brilliantly everywhere else they invaded?

One reason had to do with hubris and ideology. The Germans took the invasions of countries in Western Europe more seriously. They were treated as military operations they were. 

Operation Barbarossa was tainted from the start with Nazi ideology which interfered with plans. The Germans thought the Soviets to be inferior and underestimated their resolve and the amount of manpower and resources they were able to muster. 

The Germans failed to take into consideration the industrial capability of the Soviets and what they would be able to create in the war effort. 

They failed to properly plan their logistics with supply lines that stretched as long as they did. The further the Soviets retreated into their vast hinterland, the longer the German supply lines got. 

Hitler, not the world’s greatest military mind, often personally interfered in military planning, which caused enormous problems. 

Also, the Germans, shockingly, weren’t prepared for the winter, which you would think would have been the first lesson you’d learn when studying any historical invasions of Russia. 

Finally, in December 1941, the Germans unnecessarily declared war on the United States, which forced the hand of the world’s largest economy and resulted in a dramatic increase in weapons shipments to the Soviets. 

Operation Barbarossa was unquestionably the largest single military operation in world history. However, the decision to invade was made out of ideology, not from any deep military strategy. 

As a result, it became the bloodiest theater of the Second World War and marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today I have a couple of reviews from over on Spotify. 

The first review comes from listener “sobre mesa and cervezas.” They write: 

You sir, are what I want to be when I grow up. Thank you for making my otherwise, insufferable drives to work, enjoyable

The next review comes from listener itsmayes. They write: 

Love it! Each and every episode! Gary is amazing at choosing a wide variety of topics but dissects plainly with unbiased language. Even I can understand! Lol, Nearing my completionist club creds! Thnx

Thanks to both of you for the reviews. Just a reminder, you can leave a review for an individual episode or for the whole podcast on any episode of the show on Spotify. 

Iif you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.