Soviet soldier waving the Red Banner over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943.
The Soviet-German conflict during the Second World War is one of the most alarmingly under-explored dimensions of the conflict in secondary and further education today. Though the Soviet Union conflict was predated by tensions between the powers dating back to the 1930s, it was two years after Germany’s invasion of Poland that the official war between the powers begin, in June 1941. Regarded by scholars and many others as one of the most horrific wars of modern history (it was effectively a “war within a war”), Germany’s sights were set on the East, leading to brutal land, sea, and air conflict.
Not only was the conflict a costly endeavour for the troops of both sides, but the battle in the East saw some of the costliest crossfire in human history, too. History has well documented the brutality and inhumanity that befell not only the troops, but the civilians on both sides of the war, that were unlucky enough to be in their geographical position while this conflict raged on. Not only did the holocaust cost millions of Jewish people their lives, but the displacement and extermination of the millions of Eastern-European Jews following the invasion of Poland and the Soviet Union led to the red army seeking unimaginably brutal revenge against the German civilian population. Both sides, both military and civilian, were simply ravaged by the war in manners that traditional histories of WWII simply cannot convey.
Considering the relatively soft coverage this subject seems to receive by most popular accounts of World War II, then, this article has been written to provide some exploration of the Soviet-Nazi conflict from 1941-1945. It hopes to firstly explore the origins of the conflict, as well as moving on in a chronological fashion to highlight the situation on the ground (as well as in the air and at sea) for both Soviet and German troops. I hope to shed some more light on the horrific nature of civilian treatment during the conflict, too, arising from the German occupation of much of Europe, and the resulting retaliation from Soviet forces when the balance of the war began to sway heavily in their favour. Keep reading, in order to delve a little deeper into just how things played out between Germany and The Soviet Union in the Second World War.
Uncloaking the Soviet Mystery
As Richard Overy reminds us in his book Russia’s War, the history of the Soviet Union – particularly the tumultuous period between 1939 and 1945 – is to some extend still shrouded in the smokescreen of historical ambiguity. Though we of course know the course of events that transpired between The Soviets and Germany in this period, historical sources are still being released and discovered by historians around the world.
The classic narrative of the Soviet War effort being the “Great Patriotic War”, which persisted long after the war had ended, was a direct result of such historical smokescreens, which plagued historians of Russia until the Berlin wall, and to some extent, continues to be a problem for academics to this day. It wasn’t until Gorbachev’s policy of “Glastnost” (i.e. openness) introduced in the 1980s that the more horrific details about the Soviet Unions’s war with Germany became common knowledge for historians. Significant gaps in the Soviet narrative still exist to this Day (thanks to heavily sanitised and doctored sources such as memoirs), and even Stalin himself remains deep within the smokescreen, relatively speaking.
This historical uncertainty is exacerbated when one considers the sheer scale of understanding the toll that the Soviet war effort had on the country, on its people, and indeed humanity in general, is immensely difficult to grasp. After all, the human cost of the war has even recently been revised by prominent Soviet scholars as being as high as 47 million; this is a conservative estimate. Understanding the war against Germany, then, and the details regarding the course that the war ending up taking, requires at least a basic understanding of Soviet Russia itself.
Around the time of the war, The Soviet Union and her empire was composed of a variety of ethnic groups, with as many as 20 nationalities hailing from the mainland and its empire: from Ukrainians to Belarusians, as well as groups of religious denominations, from catholic to Jewish. The fact that The Soviet Union and her society different vastly from the societal and economic structures of western-European nations is a factor that is too often overlooked when looking at her war with Germany. The Soviet Union’s structure is often viewed as backwards, a view that prevailed even more strongly in the 1930s and the lead-up to WWII.
The differences between “backwards” The Soviet Union and the west manifested themselves during the course of the war itself. Russian society was seen as “alien”, and the tactics of The Soviet Union’s military during the war were viewed by onlookers (and even German soldiers) as harsh and brutal. This can be explained by the harsh and often brutal upbringing of those living in The Soviet Union, however, as well as by the cold and unforgiving surroundings in which they were brought up. The bitter climate – a climate that would incidentally be a major deciding factor in the outcome of the German invasion, in fact – and extreme working conditions may have been harsh by western standards, but they were normal for those who grew up there.
These factors can help to explain, but most certainly do not excuse, the brutality of the Soviet army in the way they treated POWs, German civilians, and even the way the Soviet army was treated by its leaders. Then of course we have the infamous Orders 270 and 227 from Stalin, which were later discovered to be decrees mandating the brutal treatment of and reprisals against those in Soviet captivity, particualrly those even suspected of colluding with the Germans.
The Soviet Union’s war with Germany between 1941 and 1946, therefore, was a product of these factors, It was also a product of Stalin’s deep mistrust of both the west and of Hitler. It was a product of The Soviet Union’s past and its present, viewed always through the so-called “red-tinted spectacles” of communist ideology.
A Pact Between Dictators: 1939-1941
One of the best starting points when looking to frame the Germany vs The Soviet Union war in context with World War II in general is with the non-aggression pact agreed between the Soviets and Germany before the war. The terms of the pact stated that neither country would aid the enemies of the other in the event of war. This pact was extremely unpopular amongst communists in the west.
Though some of the terms of Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were secretive at the time, these hidden aspects of the pact emerged later. The hidden addenda included the agreement between Hitler and Stalin to divide Poland. Hitler was to receive the substantial portion, while The Soviet Union would receive the independent states such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland.
The invasion of Poland under the command of Hitler took place on September 1st 1939. It wasn’t until 17th September that The Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, making good on their agreement to seize the territory stipulated in the pact, and nothing more.
It is apparent that the purpose of the pact itself was, for Stalin anyhow, the restoration of the balance of power in central Europe to its pre-WWI state. It would be a mistake to view the pact as an indication of friendly intentions between Germany and The Soviet Union, however. After all, Hitler had openly stated his intent to invade the Soviet Union to a League of Nations member in 1939. Here, he stated that he would come to an initial agreement with the Soviets to focus on defeating the west, with plans to turn against the Soviets thereafter.
One of the final factors that goes a long way to explaining not only the clash between Germany and the Soviet Union but also its ferocity, brutality, and inevitability, is the clash of Soviet and German ideologies at the time. For Hitler, the necessity of “Lebensraum” (living space) for the German “race” as well as his hatred of and plants to eradicate Bolshevism were driving factors.
For Stalin, the drive was, following the industrialisation of The Soviet Union in the 1930s, “Socialism in One country”, manifesting in the famous five-year plans after 1929. Hitler’s anti-communist ideals were manifest in the 1936 anti-Comintern pact with Japan and also later with Italy, as well as Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938 and occupation of Czechoslovakia. Considering Hitler’s actions and aims, The Soviet Union’s hope for collective security in Europe was already crushed.
The “Great Patriotic War”
Though it is an impossibility that I could hope to cover in detail the minutiae of each stage of the Germany Vs The Soviet Union war between 1941 and 1945, I hope to detail its course by detailing some of its most major operations and turning points. The only way tp begin, though, is to look at Germany’s invasion of The Soviet Union in 1941, more famously known as Operation Barbarossa.
The monumental task of invading The Soviet Union began for Germany on 22nd June 1941. Germany gained the instant advantage by disrupting Soviet communication lines, causing panic and confusion to the Soviet forces. German divisions were swiftly mobilised, travelling from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea to their points of entry. These forces included 14 Panzer divisions, containing tanks far superior to those of The Soviet Union. In addition to the Panzer divisions, Germany also possessed Romanian and Hungarian forces. Air supremacy was also established by the Luftwaffe, who made a point of attacking Soviet airfields. The latter strategy ensured that much of the Soviet air fleets were crippled at the front line.
This offensive, unmistakably Blitzkrieg in its nature and in its effects, was supremely effective, and one need only to look at an Operation Barbarossa map in order to appreciate the sheer scale and speed of Germany’s initial attack on The Soviet Union.
Summer Pause and Scorched Earth
The advance to Moscow was significantly slowed down, however, by Hitler’s instructions to focus on the Ukraine and its resources before pushing to Moscow. Known as Hitler’s “Summer Pause”, this delay is cited by most historians as having a hugely negative impact on the German forces at the Battle of Moscow.
It was also a direct consequence of the German advance on Moscow that instigated Stalin’s infamous scorched-earth policy in the wake of Germany progress. This effective practise essentially saw dedicated Soviet “destruction battalions” staying behind the retreating Soviet forces, destroying virtually everything as they moved back. This effective tactic was supremely devastating for the Russian landscape of course, but meant that the advancing German forces were left without supplies or shelter. More sinisterly, however, these dedicated battalions were also authorised to carry out summary executions of any persons they considered to be suspicious or having remote ties to the German cause.
Autumn to Winter 1941: Moscow and the Soviet Pushback
While the horrors of the NKVD massacres of anti-Soviet prisoners took place, the resuming of the German advance to Moscow had begun. The Germans reached and gained control of the Crimea, but suffered a push-back from the Soviets – the very first instance of German withdrawal – near the Caucasus.
It was the onset of the bitterly cold winter in 1941 that led to a significant slowing of German advances, with the attack being suspended in early December. Germany simply didn’t have the might to take Moscow, due to being ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the inhospitable weather conditions. The Soviet winter counter-offensive began on 5th December 1941, consisting of 19 armies and tasked with tackling a 500-mile battle front. This counter-offensive proved to be successful owed largely to the unpreparedness of the German forces, whose leaders beliebved that the Blitzkrieg-style offensive would conclude swiftly in their favour.
A host of technical problems befell the German equipment due to the extremely cold temperatures, often dipping below -30 degrees Celsius where the oil in the machine guns would cease to function properly. The cold also took its toll on the soldiers themselves, who were affect by frostbite, with some simply freezing to death in the snow.
As a result of these difficulties, the sheer might of the German counter-offensive overwhelmed the German defensive line. The failure at Moscow marked the first defeat for Germany since WWI, a crucial point in the war on the Eastern front. Prof. Ian Kershaw stresses that this was the single biggest turning point for the entire war, in fact.
Operation Uranus, Stalingrad 1942, and Kursk 1943
The Battle of Stalingrad was another major offensive in the war, and one that demonstrated the capability of the The Soviet Union army of conducting a strategic offensive. It also demonstrated a precedent for Stalin beginning to take advice from and place trust in his generals. Operation Uranus was the first offensive at Stalingrad on 19th Nov 1942, and involved deception tactics from the Soviets, such as openly building defensive fortifications to convince the Germans that no attack was imminent.
The offensive itself, as Antony Beevor describes it, a successful military operation, but also a demonstration that while Hiter’s leadership style meant he would not acknowledge his own mistakes, Stalin actually began to listen to his Generals. The Germans surrendered at Stalingrad in January 1943.
The Summer Wehrmacht offensive in 1943 still put pressure on the Soviet army, who had experienced victorious winters yet defeats in the summer up until this point. Just west of Kursk, the Soviets were concentrated in number from their previous advances into the German lines. Stalin continued to follow the advice of his generals, allowing his idea of an all-out offensive to take the back seat while permitting his army to form a defensive strategy that was meant to go on to surprise the Germans with a strategic attack. At this point, intelligence from Bletchley Park supported other sources in indicating a German attack at Kursk was imminent. The Soviet Union’s response to this was the issuing of pre-emptive airstrikes on the German forces just one hour before they were going to initiate their attack.
Kursk saw one of the biggest tank battles ever witnessed until this point, taking place in the southern sector of the German offensive line. 300,000 Soviets were killed, but Kursk was yet another significant psychological victory for the Red Army. Stalin’s prediction (during a 1943 speech) that Kursk would be the last major German offensive on the Eastern Front turned out to be true. Within a year, the Germans would be expelled from the Soviet Union altogether.
1943 – 1944: Soviet Advance and Societal Impact
The victories in 1943 for The Soviet Union set up the Soviet Union for continued advances against German-held territory. The years following these victories were a demonstration of the “Total War” approach of Stalin. The victories of 1943 and those that followed came at increasing cost to and with significant on the Soviet people. Stalin diverted more resources to ensure The Soviet Union became a “Single Ear Camp”, than any other leader in the war. As Overy puts it in Russia’s War, “War dominated every element of daily life”.
During 1944, with the solid advances of the Soviets into German Territory, Stalin’s harsh and brutal treatment of those accused of collaboration with the Germans became more prominent. Summary executions were common, as was the deporting of those seen as being disloyal to the even harsher climes of Sibera. A total of around 1.5 million men, women, and children were deported, with a staggering 530, 000 of these estimated to have died from the harsh weather conditions on their forced journey to Siberia.
While the war on the “enemy at home” raged, so did that against Germany. 1944 saw huge offensives, from the huge Operation Bagration to the Warsaw uprising, the Battle of Romania, the Baltic Offensive, and the Vienna Offensive in March-April 1945.
Berlin: Stalin’s Prize, and the End of the War, and the Cost
By 1945, it was the determination of Stalin to advance and take Berlin, which he viewed not just as a prize for him to take, but as his prize. As well as being strategically significant, the capture of Berlin had become of huge symbolic importance: a reward for the previous 4 years of gruelling and costly (both financially and in human terms) war with Germany.
The Soviet advance on Berlin and Central Germany began on April 16th 1945: this was the beginning of the end for Hitler. This advance was effectively the Soviets simply resuming the Vistula-Oder offensive, and saw two major Soviet forces approach Berlin from the south and from the east. The 20th April saw heavy soviet shelling of Berlin, unleashing more firepower than all bombs dropped by soviet planes throughout the entire war. By the 30th April, the Soviets had made it to Central Berlin, with official surrender of the city coming on 2nd of May. This market the end of the war in Europe. Victory had arrived, but at a tragic cost. Around 7 million Soviet soldiers died in action, with a further 3.6 million found to have died in German POW camps. The cost to German life was equally as staggering, with 4 million German soldiers killed, and a further 350,000+ died under the Soviets in their camps.