Jim Lacey has a great column today on the anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s ill-advised assault on Russia. I happen to be reading about the campaign in Andrew Roberts’ so-far great history of World War II, The Storm of War.
The sheer scale of the horror. As Stalin’s forces retreated east in the face of the Germans’ three-pronged, 1,500 mile line of advance they made sure to execute prisoners, mental patients, and anyone though to be politically unreliable on the way out — often taking the time to torture and mutilate them first. When arriving Wehrmacht divisions were welcomed as liberators by some ethnic minorities in Stalin’s vassal provinces, some of Hitler’s advisers gave voice to the thought of stoking their nationalist sentiment and conscripting them in the fight against the Red Army. But the Führer and his racialist ideologues quickly dismissed the idea of co-opting the Slavic untermenschen and instead enslaved and exterminated them. After all, everything west of the Urals was slated for German lebensraum — room to live — and set to be recolonized by Aryan soldier-farmers.
But perhaps the thing that strikes me most about the whole affair was the mutual stupidity of the men. Never mind the wisdom of invading Russia in the first place. Hitler’s ideology required it, logic and logistics be damned — Germany was receiving half of its raw materials from the Soviets under the non-aggression pact! But against the advice of virtually every one of his generals, Hitler decided to neuter the powerful mechanized army group pushing toward (indeed, within a dozen miles of) Moscow, and send it south to bail out the stalled offensive there. Even for the man who had let the British slip away at Dunkirk and blundered his way to a defeat in the Battle of Britain, this would prove to be his worst decision.
Stalin was no better. Despite the fact that Barbarossa was in Roberts’ words the “worst kept secret of the war” (the anti-Nazi German ambassador in Moscow had warned Stalin of the plan himself, and even given a date!), Stalin was dumbstruck when he heard of the attack and spent, as Lacey notes, a week puttering around his dacha like an idiot before coming up with anything like a coordinated response, while more than half of his air and armor forces were destroyed on the ground without firing a shot. The very reason Hitler suspected Russia was weak in the first place was her Pyrrhic victory in Finland a year earlier, where a vastly outnumbered Finnish force managed to inflict a 20-1 casualty ratio on a Red Army, much of whose leadership had recently been “purged” by Uncle Joe. But Stalin’s advantage in Finland was his advantage in Barbarossa: no matter how many of his soldiers you killed, he had more to throw at you. Some of the Soviet divisions had as few as a hundred rifles and revolvers to be distributed among 10,000 men. But their courage and (tolerance for pain) was often remarkable, and ultimately decisive. That, and Hitler had finally encountered a sociopath who valued life more cheaply than even he.