June 22 marked the 75th anniversary of the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa, which was the most murderous conflict in human history. Two great genocidal totalitarian tyrannies, each headed by one of the greatest killers who ever ruled, waged wars of total annihilation against each other. At the time, Senator Harry Truman expressed hope that Nazi Germany and Communist Russia would obliterate one another. Likely many Americans agreed.
Germany would lose over two million men on the Eastern Front, including hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war whom the Soviets let perish in camps from starvation, illness or exposure, with only a handful of survivors released in the 1950s. Germany more than returned the favor, effectively killing hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners, among over 20 million Soviets, the vast majority civilians, who would die across 5 years of war.
Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia effectively launched WWII together, entering it as de facto allies, dividing up hapless Poland after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact between two supposed ideological enemies, which had astonished the world. Nazism and Communism shared a contempt for bourgeois capitalism, democracy and Christianity, so the alliance wasn’t entirely unnatural. Yet the marriage disenchanted countless Western leftists who had romanticized Bolshevism, or at least minimized its crimes, including Reinhold Niebuhr, who found it the most unforgivable of all Stalin’s vast horrors.
Stalin after June 22, 1941 was unreachable and paralyzed into inaction for days. He had ignored countless warnings of impending invasion by over 3 million German and Axis troops, uncharacteristically trusting of Hitler’s co-belligerency with him. Some say Hitler, whom he never met, was the only man Stalin ever trusted. More probably accurately, Stalin was stunned by the scale of his own strategic blindness. When his desperate Politburo finally steeled itself to seek an audience at his dacha, Stalin may have believed they had come to arrest him. Eventually he rallied and addressed the nation to urge defiance against the invader.
Hitler’s eastward invasion was inevitable. He thought isolated Britain’s only hope was the Soviets, whom he was confident he could defeat quickly. Stalin’s 1940 Winter War against little Finland was feckless, proving the Soviet military was ill equipped and vulnerable thanks to Stalin having executed much of his officer corps in his purges. But Hitler’s main purpose was ideological. German greatness demanded expansion across the vast Eurasian steppes, destroying not only Communism but also first enslaving and then exterminating the Slavic peoples, who were subhuman according to Nazi doctrine.
Millions of Jews also lived in the east, and their extermination would remain a chief priority until the Third Reich’s last gasping breath. The Holocaust essentially began with Operation Barbarossa, with special German units commissioned to gather and mass murder, initially by shooting, thousands of Soviet Jews at a time. The inefficiency of death by bullets eventually led to the mass gassing and burning of hundreds of thousands at Auschwitz. Sweeping, unparalleled German war crimes and genocide in the Soviet Union were blithely accepted by most German military onlookers. But a few officers were horrified sufficiently to plot the anti-Hitler conspiracy, which they would nurse to fruition until July 1944.
The tens of millions consumed on the eastern front represent well over 90 percent of WWII deaths in the European Theater. Churchill rushed to Moscow after the German invasion to offer alliance to Stalin, announcing to Britain he’d praise Satan if Hitler invaded Hell. The British premier and FDR, after Pearl Harbor, were absorbed in sustaining Soviet resistance, realizing it consumed millions of German troops whom the Anglo-Americans would otherwise face. They fretted Stalin may again negotiate a settlement with Hitler, which Stalin exploited to maximum advantage in his squeeze for supplies, even as he worried, with typical paranoia, that the West may unilaterally negotiate a separate peace with Germany.
American and British statesmen, including FDR and Churchill, were largely aware of the scale of Stalin’s crimes, including the deaths of millions during the planned Ukrainian famine of the 1930s plus hundreds of thousands of regime opponents, real or imagined, shot in prisons or ground to death in the sprawling Siberian prison camps of the Gulag. Yet Western democrats had to sup and supplicate with Stalin, whose partnership for victory against Germany, and later potentially against Japan, was essential. When Stalin’s mass executions of thousands of captured Polish officers was uncovered, Churchill privately acknowledged the likely truth while FDR at least claimed to believe the Germans were the perpetrators. He likely knew better, but what could he do? At Teheran and Yalta the Big Three toasted each other and plotted victory.
Hitler of course exulted in the initial enormous successes of his invasion, which had quietly worried beforehand the saner minds in the German military. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops quickly surrendered, not yet realizing they’d not receive the relative protection Germany accorded Western prisoners. Millions of conquered Soviets at first hailed the invading Germans as liberators from Stalin’s tyranny, and many thousands enlisted to fight with Germany in the Vlasov Army. Only later did they realize Hitler’s grim plans for his new Slavic subjects.
Stalin, to rally support, had to reduce some of his maniacal oppression, hyping Russian nationalism and even permitting the long persecuted church a new public role. Yet in his prosecution of war, he was savage against his own military. Special forces often mobilized behind conventional units to machine gun any who retreated. German minefields were often surmounted by ordering forces to absorb the explosions in mass advances. Amid millions dying, life on either side mattered little.
The war on the eastern front ended with total Soviet victory, though Germany resisted until Soviet troops overran Hitler’s Berlin bunker, where he and others had committed suicide. Hitler’s final thoughts were of his fellow tyrant and mass killer Stalin, who he expected represented the future, having only disdain for decadent Western democracy. Stalin completed his conquest by subjugating all of Eastern Europe and giving his armies carte blanche to recreate by raping millions of German and East European women. The Western powers returned to Stalin thousands of Soviets who had faught with Germany, many of whom chose suicide over certain execution. Unlike more intensely genocidal Nazism, brutal Soviet-imposed Communist rule in East Europe at least permitted subjugated nations to survive, until Communism’s implosion almost five decades later.
Across eight decades the Russsians have understandably commemorated their horrific losses in WWII while awkwardly having to acknowledge Stalin’s leadership, whose terrors still don’t prevent admiration by many, including Putin.
Democratic peoples should instructively recall the mechanized bloodletting that flowed from the June 22, 1941 invasion as the fruit of totalitarianism and depraved human nature. Our current prosperity and liberties in a relatively peaceful world are, we must always ponder, an unusual exception to human history. The Nazi-Soviet war was closer to most reality than our own unusual American experience.