When Evils Collide
Seventy years ago, Hell fought Hell. On June 22, 1941, Hitler abandoned his close alliance with Stalin, and began total war against his erstwhile friend. Communists all over the world had been providing Hitler with intelligence reports during the Battle of Britain, instigating strikes at critical American factories, protesting against ROTC in American colleges. Then, in an instant, propaganda against Churchill and Roosevelt ceased and these American communists raged against "German Fascists" or "Hitlerites" (Stalin forbade the term "National Socialist").
Within weeks after the Barbarossa began, the Nazis seemed to have won. Before the Kremlin archives were opened to the West, historians only had the sort of imaginary data of which was Soviet history. That painted a bad enough picture of Soviet collapse. Now we know that Soviet losses were worse than military historians had believed. Three million Soviet soldiers were dead within a year. The casualty ratio between German and Soviet troops favored the Germans during much of the war by an eleven-to-one ratio.
Nazi occupation was very brutal. Jews in cities like Kiev, Vilnius, and Minsk were simply slaughtered: the first real victims of the Holocaust. We simply cannot grasp what it means to have an entire community, including infants, lined up, shot, and shoved into mass graves. Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland already knew their fate: my wife's mother in the Lodz Ghetto, starved and waited (still trusting, though, in her Blessed Creator), and her future husband was tortured and worked as a slave. Both, miraculously, survived. Nazis did not exterminate the Slavic peoples, but Hitler and his henchmen saw them as "subhumans" and treated them accordingly.
What made Nazi oppression particularly horrific for those lands occupied by Nazis after Barbarossa was that Stalin had been their master of Hell before Hitler, and Stalin's way to stop Hitler was a "scorched earth" policy which left his Soviet subjects with no way to survive (which did not concern Stalin at all). Ukrainians were still barely alive after the horrors of the Holomodor, the purposeful murder by starvation of between seven and ten million people. Small wonder, then, that many of these people greeted German troops as liberators, but they soon learned that one great evil had replaced another.
The war itself was a seesaw. Stalingrad is usually presented as the "turning point," but just months after that defeat, the Germans were inflicting great defeats on the Red Army between the Donnets and the Dnieper rivers. Stalin's treatment of Red Army soldiers was unbelievably wicked: those who were captured had their families sent to the Gulag, and those who returned to Red Army lines after encirclement were sent to penal regiments tasked with jobs like clearing mine fields with their hands.
As the war began to turn -- the Battle of Kursk is the generally accepted pivot point -- the Nazis practiced their own scorched earth campaign. The Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto rose up in April 1943 and resisted the Nazis until late May. One year later, the Polish Underground Army began its own uprising in August 1944 and the Poles lasted a couple of months (while the Red Army stood by passively and while Stalin forbade Allied air transports dropping supplies to the Poles from landing in Soviet territory).
As the Red Army advanced, its soldiers (themselves treated worse than slaves by Stalin), engaged in the greatest episode of mass rape in human history -- something seldom mentioned by the left and never by feminists. Moreover although this ghastliness may have seemed just because of the vast torments inflicted by Germans on their Soviet families, female inmates of Nazi camps and women in Nazi-occupied regimes were raped by advancing Red Army members: victims of Nazism, now victims of Communism too.
Communists in the West lauded the Soviets. Leftist academicians continued to eulogize the role of Stalin in defeating Hitler. The very close alliance between the two for twenty-two months, however, is almost never mentioned. In fact, there were no heroes in this awful war between National Socialism and Socialism in One Nation (what Stalin called Stalinism). If Stalin had not conspired with Hitler in August 1939, the invasion of Poland (and the Nazi access to millions of Jews) would likely not have happened. If Hitler had wished to liberate the captive nations of the Soviet Empire, he could have -- but he had no wish to do that at all.
Seventy years later, the physical destruction and the mass murders of Barbarossa have essentially healed. The moral and psychic scars remain. Some wars destroy everything, including the human spirit. All over the wastelands of Barbarossa a dense film of nihilism covers almost everything. Russia, increasingly authoritarian, seems trapped in a prison cell with no keyhole. Germany has political parties which still, perversely, embrace the awful leftism of Stalin and Hitler, and Germany is essentially atheistic.
Some wishfully claim that the Shoah, which was made possible by Barbarossa, at least ended the blight of anti-Semitism. That is not true. The Soviets utterly ignored the Holocaust and the centers of Jewish religious and intellectual thought, like Vilnius, were annihilated by the Germans. Grimly, anti-Semitism is still alive and still lurking in the shadows of Europe, a toxic combination of cynical and secularized old Europeans and young militant Muslim immigrants. Sadly, also, the Holocaust made too many Jews tacit atheists. Faith, Christian or Jewish, suffered a terrible beating from the lash of Stalin and the rubber truncheon of Hitler.
Yet the agony and the despair which engulfed those souls trapped between Hitler and Stalin in Barbarossa can be grasped only by God. We know that a few specks of hope rose out of the ashes of the charnel house of Barbarossa. Pope John Paul II and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were two such specks. Polish Hassidim and Catholics, whose torments equaled anyone, also were broken in body but not in spirit by this nightmare. But in more ways than we might care to know, Barbarossa still haunts our world, seventy years later.
Bruce Walker is the author of a new book: Poor Lenin's Almanac: Perverse Leftists Proverbs for Modern Life.