Seventy years ago today the two most vile systems the world has yet produced locked themselves in a deadly embrace. Along an 1,800-mile front, 4.5 million soldiers of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its allies commenced Operation Barbarossa, launching themselves against Stalin’s Communist regime. At the time, not many gave the Soviet Union much chance of survival, and the results of the first few months of fighting seemed to bear out those estimations.
By early December, German forces had surrounded Leningrad and pushed deep into the Ukraine; men in one of the German infantry divisions could see the spires of Moscow’s churches. The Soviets had lost at least 802,000 killed, 3 million wounded, and another 3.3 million captured. These 7 million losses, in just the first months of a war that would last four years, were double the number of troops German intelligence had reported the Soviets possessed at the start of the war. They also represented over seven times America’s killed and wounded during all of World War II. But the Germans paid a steep price for their initial successes, with over three-quarters of a million of their own men dead or wounded.
By late fall, the Soviet Union seemed to be on its last legs, and those were wobbly. At one point early in the invasion, Stalin, “the man of steel,” had a nervous breakdown. When a group of party officials came seeking his guidance, he cowered, believing that they had come to execute him for his mishandling of the war. But the Germans and the rest of the world had underestimated Soviet recuperative powers. As the old adage goes, “Russia is never as strong as she looks; nor as weak as she looks.” Through a superhuman effort the Soviets picked up most of their major industries, put them on trains, and moved them to the other side of the Ural mountains, where they spit out tens of thousands of tanks, cannons, and aircraft. Moreover, a first-class spy network informed Stalin that the Japanese were not going to attack Siberia, allowing him to reinforce his beleaguered forces on the western front with 14 crack Siberian divisions. Finally, by early December, the greatest of all Russian generals had arrived at the front — General Winter.
The Germans, who had expected to be demobilizing by December, were caught unprepared for the intensity of the Russian winter. As the Russians began their counteroffensive on December 5, German tanks and guns literally froze. They could only be started or made workable by lighting fires under them. Worse, many of the Germans still had only their summer uniforms to protect them from the cold. They fell by the thousands from frostbite. Under relentless Soviet pressure, the Germans began pulling back. They were on the point of breaking when Hitler issued Directive 39, ordering his army to stand, fight, and die where it stood.
In obedience to Hitler’s “stand and die” order the Germans paid a heavy price, but they eventually halted the Soviet offensive. The war was to continue for almost four bloody years. Before it was over at least 25 million Russians and other Soviet subjects had perished, the majority of them civilians. In the process, the Red Army ground the Wehrmacht into dust. In June 1944, the Allies confronted 59 German divisions in France, while the Russians were fighting more than three times that number. Moreover, in late July, while the Allies were struggling to make headway against 20 German divisions holding them at bay in Normandy, the Russians swept away that many in a mere two weeks of Operation Bagration.
The Cold War and an understandable pride in our own achievements during World War II has tended to mask the contributions the Soviet Union made to the Allied victory. But what Russia brought to the alliance was clearly understood at the time. Churchill, who despised Stalin and was keenly aware of the threat Communism posed to the free world, was once called to account for his support of the Soviet Union in World War II. He replied, “If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Roosevelt, meanwhile, never forwent an opportunity to materially and morally prop up the Soviets and “Uncle Joe,” as he naïvely referred to Stalin. Simply put, Britain and the United States were only too happy to see Europe’s two great totalitarian powers bleed themselves white on the plains of Central Europe.
Unfortunately, there had to be a victor. In World War II the German “Drang nach Osten” was decisively ended. But Eastern Europeans can be forgiven for not seeing much reason for cheer. They had merely traded one oppressive regime, led by a butcher of men, for an equally evil regime, led by a man who was every bit the equal of Hitler when it came to genocidal mass murder.
For the next 45 years the Russian people and those in their conquered empire lived in bondage, while the rest of the world devolved into two armed camps that stood each other down through the long years of the Cold War. Hitler, of course, had to be destroyed. An impartial judge would probably even declare that living with the evils of the Soviet Empire was an acceptable price for destroying the Nazis. Still, one must regret that the winning formula for World War II did not also include the demise of Stalin and Communism. It is simply a shame that the great struggle between Nazism and Communism that started 70 years ago today did not lead to the immediate demise of both.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.