Seventy-five years after Barbarossa
June 22, 2016 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in human history. On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler stabbed in the back his closest ally in the Second World War, Joseph Stalin, and launched a continental assault on the Soviet Empire. Half of Europe was pulled into the conflict, and the entire world watched in stunned horror.
Overnight American communists like Betty Friedan and Dalton Trumbo reversed their demand that America stop helping Britain fight Nazi Germany and, just as suddenly as these flacks pivoted when the Non-Aggression Pact was signed in 1939, pivoted again. In a flash, the Daily Worker stopped its cartoons of Churchill and Roosevelt as plutocratic warmongers, and overnight the Nazis, not the democracies, became the enemy.
Churchill had no illusions about the evil of the regime the British began immediately helping. He noted in the House of Commons that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would have a sympathetic word or two for the Devil.
That was about as apt a comparison as anyone could have made. Stalin had murdered 20 million of his subjects in the Holodomor and related genocide, created the vastest concentration camp in human history, created that dismal realm which was the inspiration for Orwell's 1984, and slavishly supported the Nazi cause in every way conceivable. German troops crossed Soviet territory; German warships used Soviet ports; Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda reached America on Soviet freighters.
There is a myth that the Red Army was invincible and fought ferociously against the Germans. In fact, 3.6 million Red Army soldiers surrendered in the first few months of the campaign. The Polish Army and the French Army fought much more capably and much more bravely than the Red Army did in the first year of the war.
Stalin had killed or sent to the Gulag, after OGPU torture chambers, nearly all the officer class of the Red Army. Stupid hacks like Voroshilov were put in charge of the Red Army, with dreadful results. On his orders, the Red Air Force was caught completely by surprise and was destroyed on the ground all along the front. Much of the Red Army went into battle literally unarmed, waiting for a comrade to die and then to take his weapon.
The sheer size of the Soviet Union and the strategic incompetence of Hitler saved the day for Stalin. The Germans captured large cities like Minsk and Kiev, and in the Battle of Kiev, depending upon which military historian is right, as many as three quarters of a million Red Army soldiers were captured – the greatest tactical victory in the history of war.
The German Army reached the gates of Moscow and the outskirts of Leningrad before the worst Russian winter in a century decimated the Wehrmacht, which had insanely failed to issue winter clothing to its troops or to winterize its weapons and equipment. The treaty Moscow had signed with Tokyo six months earlier, Stalin learned from agents in Japan, was going to be honored by the Japanese, which allowed him to shift Siberian troops in heavy white coats to strike the Germans just as their offensive was grinding to a halt.
The campaign is a treasure trove of counterfactual problems. If the Germans had not attacked Yugoslavia and Greece, diverting troops, wearing out equipment, and costing weeks of warm weather, Barbarossa might have succeeded. If the Germans had focused on a single objective – taking Moscow was the obvious choice – then the Japanese, we know, would have entered the war. Had the Germans armed the Ukrainians and other oppressed nationalities, many of whom flocked to the Nazi cause, Berlin would have gained millions of ferocious soldiers.
Barbarossa was not only the most deadly conflict in history – Stalin estimated that the Red Army lost 20 million soldiers – but it was the practical beginning of the Holocaust, and the nightmare at Babi Yar is as starkly evil as any event in recorded history. The Siege of Leningrad created scenes right out of Dante's Inferno as each day hundreds or even thousands of people in Leningrad dropped from starvation during a siege that lasted almost three years.
Sherman said, "War is Hell." No war in history shows that more clearly than the four-year war between the two most evil empires in modern history. Barbarossa was, indeed, pure and absolute Hell.