Before the attack against the USSR, the German army perceived World War II as a kind of “walk”
VICTOR LOUPAN, Head of the Editorial Board
In the May issue of the magazine “Russian Mind” dedicated to the celebration of Victory Day, your humble servant wrote that a great victory was preceded by a great war. Because the other side of greatness is negative. Victory is a holiday! Victory is joy! But war is horror! War is woe! Moreover, a single recollection of war pushes a person to a metaphysical comparison with the infernal principle. When something went wrong, my grandmother often said: “If only there was no war!” And these words, spoken almost swiftly, immediately downplayed the importance of the seemingly serious issue.
The beginning of the fascist aggression
The war that we call the “Great Patriotic War” began at dawn on June 22, 1941. The German army, which had long been pulling troops to the western border of the USSR, unexpectedly went on the offensive. I say “suddenly”, but not because the war was unexpected – it was expected, it was written about, it was talked about, – but because the non-aggression pact signed in 1939 was still effective between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
It has been written a lot about this treaty both before and after 1991. In the West, it is still argued that it became the main impetus for the outbreak of World War II. This is, of course, extremely tendentious! Because everything looked completely different from the point of view of the Soviet government.
The treaty between Germany and the USSR was signed on August 23, 1939. But before that, in the same 1939, Soviet-Anglo-French negotiations were held in Moscow, which convinced the Soviet leaders of the unwillingness of Western countries to cooperate with the USSR in organising a joint rebuff to the then emerging fascist aggression. Under the fear of creation of a united anti-Soviet front, the Soviet government was forced to look for an alternative way to ensure the national security. That is why both Stalin and Molotov accepted the German proposal to conclude a non-aggression pact.
There was already a neutrality and non-aggression pact between Germany and the USSR signed back in 1926. Based on its main provisions, the parties undertook to refrain from aggressive actions and attacks against each other. In the event of an attack against one of the parties by a third power, they pledged to not provide support to the aggressor state and avoid participating in allied groups directed against one of the parties, resolving disputes and conflicts between themselves peacefully.
The agreement signed on August 23, 1939 in Moscow by the chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop for a period of 10 years, also contained a “secret protocol” dividing the spheres of influence “in the case of a territorial-political reorganisation of the regions that are part of the Polish State”.
It should not be forgotten that the abovementioned took place before the outbreak of World War II. In June 1941, the war was going on for two years, although this, perhaps, cannot be called a war.
The hostilities began on September 1, 1939, when German troops crossed the Polish border, which provoked a declaration of war on Germany by France, Britain and a number of other European countries maintaining allied obligations with Poland. The United States declared its neutrality.
France and England, although they declared war on Germany, did nothing. Therefore, having not received any support from the West, the Polish armed forces practically ceased to exist by mid-September. On the evening of September 17, the Polish government and high command simply fled to Romania. On the same day, a note issued by the Soviet government and served to the Polish ambassador to the USSR, stated that “since the Polish state and its government ceased to exist, the Soviet Union is obliged to take the lives and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus under its protection”. These formerly Polish territories are still part of Ukraine and Belarus.
Fall of Western Europe
On April 9, 1940, after almost a year of inactivity on the western front, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and occupied them in two days. On May 10, Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The Dutch government surrendered on May 15, and the Belgian on the 28th of May. The invasion of France began on June 5, and on the 14th of June the German army entered Paris without a fight. And on June 22, in the same carriage where Germany’s surrender was signed in 1918, the disgraceful Franco-German armistice was signed, under which France tolerated the occupation of most of its territory, the demobilisation of almost the entire land army and the internment of the navy and aviation. In the so-called “free zone”, the dictatorial regime of Marshal Pétain set a course for close cooperation with Germany – the so-called “collaborationism”. The military power of France was so great that its sudden and complete defeat defied any rational explanation.
This is in a nutshell what happened in Europe on the eve of the Great Patriotic War. Before the attack against the USSR, the German army perceived World War II as a kind of “walk”
Right here we should recall another important event of the year 1940 – the annexation of the Baltic states, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina to the USSR.
Back in the fall of 1939, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania signed the agreements with the USSR, according to which Soviet military bases were located in their territories.
But on June 17, 1940, the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum to the Baltic states, accusing them of violation of an earlier agreement and demanding the resignation of their governments, dissolution of parliaments, appointment of early elections and consent to the introduction of an additional contingent of Soviet troops. The Baltic governments accepted these demands. Immediately thereafter, coups d’état took place in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, bringing communist-friendly governments to power.
After the introduction of additional units of the Red Army, uncontested elections to the supreme authorities were held in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: only communist-minded parties were allowed to participate in the elections. On July 21, 1940, the newly elected parliaments proclaimed establishment of the Soviet socialist republics and sent petitions to join the Soviet Union. Lithuanian SSR was included into the USSR on August 3, followed by Latvian SSR (August 5) and Estonian SSR (August 6).
As for Bessarabia, which exists now as Moldova, on June 27, 1940, the Soviet government sent two ultimatum notes to the Romanian government, demanding the return of Bessarabia and the transfer of Northern Bukovina to the USSR as a “compensation for the enormous damage inflicted on the Soviet Union and the population of Bessarabia by the 22-year rule of Romania in Bessarabia”.
Bessarabia was annexed by Russia before establishment of Romania, after the victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1806–1812. In 1918, taking advantage of the collapse of the Russian Empire and the outbreak of the Civil War in its former territory, Romania introduced its troops to the territory of Bessarabia and then included it into the kingdom – motivating this by the fact that Bessarabia was part of the medieval Moldavian principality, and the population spoke the Romanian dialect, that is, the “Moldavian language”. Northern Bukovina, also annexed by Romania in 1918, was not part of the Russian, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while it was mainly inhabited by Ukrainians.
Although Romania was an ally of Germany, it agreed to meet these requirements. On June 28, 1940, it withdrew its troops and administration from Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, after which Soviet troops entered their territories without a single shot. On August 2, the Moldavian SSR was formed on part of the Bessarabian territory and part of the territory of the former Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (present-day Transnistria). The south of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina were included in the Ukrainian SSR.
So, literally before the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union significantly increased its territory in the western direction.
June 22, 1941
The Great Patriotic War began early in the morning, actually at night, on June 22, 1941, with the invasion of the Soviet territory by the troops of Hitler’s Germany and its European allies: Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Finland, Croatia, with the active support of the Waffen-SS motorised divisions from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and other Western European countries. A little later they were joined by the Baltic and Ukrainian paramilitary nationalist formations incorporated into the Waffen-SS, which took an active part in the extermination of Soviet people.
The forces of the Third Reich also used national formations consisting of the natives of the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia: the Bergmann Battalion, the Georgian Legion, the Azerbaijani Legion, the North Caucasian SS detachment, etc. The XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps led by General von Panwitz and other Cossack units also fought in the Nazi army. To justify the use of the Cossacks, Hitler’s propaganda developed a delusional “theory” based on which the Russian Cossacks were “descendants of the Ostrogoths”. The Russian corps of General Steifon, the corps of Lieutenant General of the Tsarist army Peter Krasnov, and a number of separate units formed from citizens of the USSR and White emigrants also fought on the side of Germany.
The term “Great Patriotic War” went down in history immediately after the message broadcasted on radio by the newsreader Yuri Levitan, whose voice was known throughout the country: “Attention! Moscow is speaking! We are transmitting an important announcement from the government. Citizens of the Soviet Union! Today at four o’clock in the morning, without declaring war, the German armed forces attacked the borders of the Soviet Union. The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people against the German fascist invaders began. Our cause is just! The enemy will be defeated! Victory will be ours!”
The very next day this unusual phrase was used in the editorial articles of “Pravda” newspaper in relation to the war that has just begun. However, in a very belated Stalin’s radio address to the Soviet people, which was declared on July 3, 1941, the words “great” and “patriotic” were used separately. It means that at first the name was perceived not as an official term, but as one of the emotional expressions, along with such phrases as “holy people’s war”, “holy patriotic people’s war”, “victorious patriotic war”. According to the generally accepted statement of historians, the name “Great Patriotic War” appeared by analogy with the Patriotic War of 1812. Later, the term “Patriotic War” was officially documented in the introduction of the military Order of the Patriotic War, established by the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on May 20, 1942. However, to this day it is not recognised by the Western world. In English-speaking countries, the term Eastern Front World War II is used, and in German historiography it corresponds to Deutsch-Sowjetischer Krieg (German-Soviet War), Russlandfeldzug (“Russian campaign”), Ostfeldzug (“Eastern campaign”).
The development of a plan for Germany’s attack against the USSR began under the strictest confidence a year before the invasion, back in July 1940. By that time, Germany had already captured Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and defeated France. With his flash-like victories, Hitler radically changed the strategic balance of power in Europe. He did not only bring France out of the war, but also expelled the British army from the continent. Thus, there was simply no power in Europe to oppose the Third Reich. All this happened in just a few weeks, during the year of 1940. And in the spring of 1941, Germany also invaded Yugoslavia and Greece.
On December 18, 1940, Hitler signed Directive No. 21 of the Supreme High Command of the Wehrmacht, which became the main guiding document in the war against the USSR. The directive bore a strange code name: “Operation Barbarossa”. It assumed the defeat of Soviet Russia in one short campaign. To achieve this goal, it was planned to use all the ground forces of the Third Reich, with the exception of small formations performing occupation functions in Europe. It was also supposed to use two-thirds of the Air Force and a small part of the Navy. Immediate operations with a deep and rapid advance of tank spear heads, the German army had to destroy most of the Soviet troops in order to prevent the withdrawal of combat-ready units deep into the country. After that, quickly pursuing the enemy, the German troops had to reach the Arkhangelsk – Volga – Astrakhan line, creating there, if necessary, conditions for the German Air Force to “affect the Soviet industrial centers in the Urals”.
By June 22, 1941, fascist Germany concentrated three army groups near the borders of the USSR. The first strategic echelon contained 157 divisions (of which 17 were tank and 13 motorised) and 18 brigades, including allied troops. Air support was provided by three air fleets. Additionally, there were 24 divisions in reserve. In total, 181 divisions (19 tank, 14 motorised, 18 brigades) numbering 5.5 million people, 3712 tanks, 47,260 field guns and mortars, 4950 combat aircrafts, took part in the attack against the USSR.
On the Soviet side, the border districts and fleets of the USSR numbered 15 armies consisting of 172 divisions (including 40 tank divisions which were approximately half manned): 3.3 million soldiers and officers, 60 thousand guns and mortars, 11 thousand mostly outdated aircrafts, 13 thousand also mostly outdated tanks. Border units numbering about 100 thousand people, carried out physical defense of the state border.
If we compare the balance of forces as of June 22, 1941, we cannot say that Germany had an advantage over the USSR. With the exception of personnel, where the Wehrmacht outnumbered the Red Army by one million people, in all other parameters the German troops were quantitatively inferior to the Soviet ones. The latter had one and a half times more guns and mortars, three and a half times more tanks and assault guns, and twice as big as aircrafts number.
But, despite that, the beginning of the Great Patriotic War turned out to be catastrophic.
“The tragic beginning of the war for the Red Army was one of the most encrypted pages in our history. We can already talk about generations of historians trying to find out the true reasons for our failures at the beginning of the war, but this problem has not yet been resolved,” P. N. Bobylev, a researcher at the Institute of Military History of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, wrote.
After 1991, much was written in Russia that the Red Army was retreating ingloriously, that millions of Soviet soldiers and officers surrendered without a fight. In fact, this was not true. The heroic defense of the Brest Fortress, the battles for Kiev, Odessa, Sevastopol are glorious pages of our history. They are. However, as a result of the battle for Kiev, the Soviet South-Western Front was completely defeated. This fatality opened the way for the Germans to the south. And already in October 1941, German troops captured the entire Crimea except Sevastopol. The defeat of the Red Army in the south opened the way for the Germans to Donbass and Rostov-on-Don. By the end of October, Kharkov fell and the main cities of Donbass were occupied. On November 21, the 1st German Panzer Army entered Rostov-on-Don, thereby achieving the goals of the Barbarossa plan in the south of the USSR. But exactly a week later, the Soviet troops unexpectedly drove the Germans out of Rostov.
The failure of Operation Barbarossa
Shortly before the battle for Moscow, German troops completely occupied Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, a significant part of the RSFSR, Ukraine, and advanced up to 1200 km deep into the USSR, while losing 740 thousand people, of which 230 thousand were killed. These were unprecedented losses for the German army since the beginning of World War II. But irrecoverable losses of the Red Army were much worse. By the end of 1941, they amounted to 3,138,000 people.
In the early days of the war, the Red Army lost a huge amount of military equipment, including about 8,000 aircrafts that did not even have time to take off – they were mostly destroyed at airfields. But the Luftwaffe also suffered significant losses: during the first month of fighting German troops lost about 1,200 aircrafts.
With the loss of Donbass and the Krivoy Rog iron-ore basin, the Soviet Union lost its most important raw materials and industrial centers. The USSR also lost such cities as Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, Smolensk, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk. Leningrad was in the blockade. The most important sources of food in Ukraine and southern Russia fell into the hands of the enemy. Millions of Soviet citizens ended up in the occupied territories – hundreds of thousands died or were driven into slavery.
By the end of 1941, the fascist hordes were already in the suburbs of Moscow. The Germans encompassed Leningrad and starved its citizens to death. Hitler dreamed of a parade of German troops in Red Square. One of those responsible for the capture of Moscow was the famous German General Guderian. He has already approached Kashira in the south-west direction which was very close to Moscow. However, due to the inhuman efforts of the troops of the Western Front under the command of General G. K. Zhukov, the offensive of the German army was stopped in all directions. The attempt to occupy Moscow failed. The counteroffensive began. It did not last long, but due to it the threat to Moscow was eliminated.
The enemy was stopped near Moscow, Leningrad and Rostov-on-Don, which meant the failure of Operation Barbarossa.
It is generally accepted that the Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point that foreshadowed the collapse of the Third Reich. But here is what the German historian K. Reinhardt writes: “Hitler’s strategy aimed at conquering world domination failed near Moscow. In December 1941 – January 1942 many German generals have already come to the conclusion that the war was lost”.
Why were there so many prisoners?
One of the most heartbreaking pages of the beginning of the war is the fate of our prisoners of war. Based on Western sources, the total number of our captives reached 5.5 million people. The Commission of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR announced an approximate figure of 4 million. 1.8 million people returned from captivity, of which approximately 340 thousand ended up in the NKVD camps as having compromised themselves in captivity.
Why were there so many prisoners? There is no simple answer to this question. Some historians believe that overwhelming majority of them was captured at the beginning of the war, as a result of capture in the so-called “big pockets”. The tragic beginning of the war generated many situations when large groupings of the Red Army, having exhausted all possibilities for resistance, were captured.
Thinking about the number of prisoners, one should also take into account the fact that the German command, in violation of the Hague and Geneva Conventions, considered not only soldiers and officers of the Red Army, but also all employees of party and Soviet authorities, men (regardless of their age) who departed together with the retreating troops, sometimes all men in general between the ages of 16 and 55, partisans and underground fighters, hostages taken in areas covered by the partisan movement, – as prisoners.
The harshest conditions of detention of Soviet prisoners of war were caused by Hitler’s ideological rejection of the idea of Communism, aggravated by the Nazi theory of the racial inferiority of the Slavs, in particular Russians.
At a meeting of the highest command personnel of the Wehrmacht held on March 30, 1941, Hitler said: “The Communist has never been and will never become our comrade. It’s about the fight to destroy. If we do not treat them like that, then, although we will defeat the enemy, in 30 years the communist danger will arise again. Commissars and persons belonging to the GPU are criminals and should be treated like criminals. Political commissars are the basis of Bolshevism in the Red Army, bearers of an ideology being hostile to National Socialism, who cannot be recognised as soldiers. Therefore, after being captured, they must be shot”.
There were many party and Komsomol workers in the Red Army, who were considered by the Nazis as “commissars”. They were not recognised as soldiers and were killed after being captured. Regarding this, the German command even issued the “Order on Commissars”.
In 2006, the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty published a long article about the tragedy of the Vyazemsky pocket.
According to Ivan Semushkin, a participant of the battle, “I am deeply convinced, that the Vyazemsky pocket in the fall of 1941 was a military tragedy that was unprecedented in history. Misjudgement of the command and the general situation at the front led to this. According to the data published in the press, 37 divisions, 9 tank brigades, 31 artillery regiments of the High Command reserve and 4 field directorates of the armies were surrounded in the Vyazma area (the million-people group of Red Army troops ceased to exist within a short period of time). Soviet troops lost about 6 thousand guns and over 1200 tanks. However, since we have always liked to distort unpleasant facts and gloss over the truth, I am sure that there were much more losses…”
There were many similar pockets at the beginning of the war.
“The Germans had a task to destroy the manpower of the USSR in general and prisoners in particular,” the participant of the battle, writer Boris Runin says. “Unbearable conditions were established for the prisoners. On the way to the camp, they were not fed at all. They ate cabbage leaves, roots, rye heads from unharvested roadside fields that they found along the way. They drank water from road puddles. It was strictly forbidden to stop at the wells or ask the peasants for water. So, five days long – from October 9 to 13, 1941 – they drove a column of prisoners to the Dorogobuzh camp. The convoy was accompanied by a car, on which four coaxial machine guns were installed.
On the way in one of the villages, under the stove of a burnt house, the prisoners saw a half-burnt potato. About 200 people rushed after it. Four machine guns fired directly into the crowd. Several dozen prisoners died. On their way the prisoners rushed into the fields with unharvested potatoes, and machine guns immediately opened fire.
The wounded prisoners suffered severely from thirst. It was possible to get, with great difficulty, as less as one or two tablespoons of water a day only for the seriously wounded. Parched lips cracked, tongues swollen from thirst. There was no medical service, no medicines and no wound textile. A ward with 160 wounded is given two bandages a day. Bandages are not done a month long. When the bandage is removed, the wounds appear filled with worms that are picked out by handfuls. Frozen limbs looked like black stumps, meat and bones fell off in black pieces. Many wounded prisoners froze their limbs right there in the wards. There was no iodine for the operated patients; it was replaced with glizol. The wounded rotted alive and died in terrible agony. Many begged to be shot and thus relieved of their suffering. The smell of rotting meat, the cadaverous stench from undeleted corpses fill the chambers. The death rate from hunger, cold, disease and executions in the camp reached 3-4 percent a day. It means that the entire number of the prisoners died out in a month. During two and a half months of autumn (October, November and part of December) when counted together with the civilian prisoners who constituted the majority, 8,500 people died in the camp, that is more than 100 people on average per day. During the winter months, 400 to 600 people died every day. Every day 30-40 long dray carts were loaded with the dead and frozen corpses. In the piles of corpses, which were piled up like firewood near the barracks, there were also alive ones. We often saw hands and feet moving among these piles, eyes opened, lips whispered: “I am still alive”. The dying were buried together with the dead people…”
Such a terrible war preceded the Great Victory.