Contrary to all expectations, and especially remembering the previously signed Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 achieved by von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, using the codename ‘Barbarossa’. Hitler had hinted in 1940 that his future plans would include such an invasion, in a top secret directive issued to the High Command in December of that year.
Adolf Hitler was not one of those dictators who bothered with History. Nor would he listen to experienced men of war, though he was surrounded by them. His best generals and one admiral reminded him (in vain) of Napoleon’s doomed invasion of Tsarist Russia during ‘France versus The Rest of the World’ in June 1812. The Fuehrer saw only a rapid destruction of the Soviet Empire. He chose to forget the indomitable fighting spirit of the Russians when their land was invaded. He ignored the Russian winter, mainly responsible for Bonaparte’s crushing failure.
No less than 79 divisions (over 3 million soldiers) accompanied by troops from occupied Rumania and Finland, crosses the Soviet frontiers in a devastating surprise attack on 22 June, 1941. Army Group North was told in the usual uncompromising manner to advance from East Prussia and take Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) by the end of July. Army Group Centre was commanded to make a forked advance towards Moscow, following the traditional invasion route via Smolensk. Army Group South had to capture the Ukraine, The Crimea and the basin of the River Don.
Russian winter descended on the invading forces in November, 1941, and when the snow lifted and the ice melted the world saw that the operations had stopped. The only Group to complete most of its obligations was Group South. Sebastopol, however, remained in Soviet hands at least until July, 1942.
The rest – sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad (formerly Volgograd), dreadful treatment of Russian Jews by orders of von Reichenau, millions of deaths etc. is very well documented and makes frightening reading. Barbarossa failed because Adolf Hitler underestimated Russian resilience, and her extraordinary ability to get reserves back from the Far East to Europe in double quick time.
Hitler himself intervened when he saw (but as usual never accepted) the invasion of Russia faltering. He personally ordered the Panzer Division away from the Centre to the South, while relaxing the grip of Army Group North on Leningrad, so that he could start a winter offensive against Moscow. This, as we know, failed utterly. The Fuehrer had not learned a great deal of military strategy while fighting as a corporal in the trenches of the First War.
Finally the German invader took neither Leningrad nor Moscow, though the former city suffered 32 months of siege ( September 1941 – January 1944) during which the inhabitants (and later the besiegers) were forced to live on a diet of dogs, cats, rats, mice, squirrels and later – human cadavers. Leningrad remains the finest example of Man’s inhumanity to Man in the twentieth century.
Man does not learn from History, though he or she may pass examinations in it, or even become a historian. President Assad of Syria, to take a modern example, obviously does not yet know what happened to President Saddam of Iraq. Perhaps no one dares tell him.
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