On December 18, 1940, Hitler issued orders to his armed forces to start planning Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. His directive:
The German Armed Forces must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war against England, to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign. The Army will have to employ all available formations to this end, with the reservation that occupied territories must be insured against surprise attacks. Preparations requiring more time to get underway are to be started now – if this has not yet been done – and are to be completed by May 15, 1941. It is of decisive importance, however, that the intention to attack does not become discernible.
Also on December 18, Hitler spoke to officer cadets about Germany's 85 million people needing more living space — Lebensraum. This was an idea of his that he had written about in his book Mein Kampf:
[W]ithout consideration of "traditions" and prejudices, it [Germany] must find the courage to gather our people and their strength for an advance along the road that will lead this people from its present restricted living space to new land and soil, and hence also free it from the danger of vanishing from the earth or of serving others as a slave nation.
Hitler had his war with England as another reason for moving against the Soviet Union. He wanted to destroy any hope that might arise among the British for an alliance with Moscow.
Hitler had allies in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, countries economically dependent upon the Germans. The Germans were buying their agricultural surpluses and buying Romania's oil. These were countries run by conservatives who had been in fear of revolution and who saw Hitler and Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism. And Germany was a power with whom it was best to be on good terms should more of their conflicts over borders arise.
On 27 September (1940), Germany, Italy, and Japan signed a triple alliance, the Tripartite Pact, also known as the Berlin Pact, supposedly a defensive military alliance. Hungary joined the Pact on the 20th of November, Romania on the 23rd and Slovakia on the 24th.
Hitler's ally, Italy, was a concern for him regarding his desire for a southern Europe secure in his favor. Mussolini wanted a compliant Greece that would give Italy some islands in the Ionian and Aegean Seas that he thought should belong to Italy, and in late October an Italian force from Albania (an Italian protectorate) invaded Greece without Mussolini warning him just as he had not warned Mussolini of his invasions earlier in that year. Britain was allied with the Greeks, and Churchill said it was vital for Britain to take every measure possible to support Greece. The British navy, with carrier-launched aircraft, hit the Italian navy harbored at Taranto Bay (southeastern Italy). The Italians lost half of their capital (larger) warships in one night, and in the days that followed, the Greeks drove the Italians back to Albania.
The British pulled out of their colony in Somaliland after the Italians had invaded there in August 1940, but the British remained established in Egypt, and on December 9 the British and Commonwealth forces launched an offensive against Mussolini's forces in the direction of Italy's colony in Libya. In early January, Australian troops overran the port of Bardia (near Egypt's border) and captured 45,000 Italian troops. The British were looking to move toward Tobruk, also on the coast, fifty miles to the West. Also, on January 14, a British force from their colony of Kenya began an offensive against the Italian military in Ethiopia.
Britain was buoyed by news from the United States. On January 11, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act (passed by US Congress) allowing Britain, China, and other Allied nations to purchase military equipment and to defer payment until after the war.
In January, while Germany was moving to shore up his southern front, the Soviet Union was worried. On the 10th, The Germans and Soviets signed some agreements on borders and trade. Stalin was still putting hope in his alliance. But on the 17th, Stalin's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Molotov, met the German Ambassador in Moscow and expressed surprise that the Soviet Union had received no answer from Germany concerning its offer to join the Berlin (Tripartite) Pact. The ambassador replied that it had to be discussed first with Italy and Japan. Stalin's paranoia was not working. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was considering the possibility of an invasion, however remote, and since late 1940 some machines and workers were being transferred east to the Urals.
In early February, Hitler sent a force led by General Erwin Rommel to North Africa, to Tripoli, and, on the 20th, Rommel and the British confronted one another. Germany, meanwhile, was still sending its bombers to London, and they struck again Plymouth and Bristol.
Germany was to invade the Soviet Union by May 15, but in March a military coup in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, overthrew the pro-German government there, and, on April 6, Germany moved against the new government. On the 8th, the Germans bombed Belgrade, producing 300,000 civilian casualties. From Bulgaria (their ally), the Germans launched an offensive into Greece. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy joined in the invasion of Yugoslavia. The new Yugoslav government became the former government, surrendering on April 17th. Yugoslavia split into two pro-German states: Serbia in Belgrade and an independent Croatia, its capital Zagreb. The Greeks surrendered to both the Germans and Italians on April 23. The Germans reached Athens on the 28th, and on the 30th they captured 7,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops.
Next up was the German airborne invasion of Crete on May 20th, with a minor assist from the Italian military. German troops encountered mass resistance from civilians there, the German soldiers outraged that civilians would try to kill them, and they took revenge on whole villages. German troops suffered more than 4,000 dead, cooling German enthusiasm for more airborne attacks. The German casualty rate was hidden from Allied planners, and they would hurry to create airborne units of their own.
By June 1, the Germans drove the Greek, British, Australian and New Zealanders from the island. The taking of Crete would be described as not delaying Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. The starting date for that operation (Barbarossa) had been set for June 22 several weeks before the Crete operation.
A part of the Soviet Union by June 1941 were the three Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In June 1940, while world attention is focused on the Germans taking Paris, the Soviet Union's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Molotov, accused the Baltic countries of conspiracy against the Soviet Union, and he sent to Lithuania an ultimatum demanding establishment of a government the Soviet Union approved of. On June 15-16 (1940) the Soviet Union invaded the three states (all three a part of the tsar's empire before World War I). On August 3, Lithuania was annexed, becoming a Soviet Social Republic. The same thing happened to Latvia on August 5th, and Estonia on the 6th. The three states were now dominated by their Communist Parties and were experiencing Stalinist repressions.
At 3:15 in the morning on June 22nd, 1941, a bigger invasion began, with 7,000 German guns firing along a 3,000-mile frontier from Finland to the Black Sea. German divisions numbering 154 began moving forward, and moving with them were 18 Finnish and 14 Rumanian divisions, all ground forces escorted by 2,700 fighter aircraft. Within days they were to be joined by Spain's "Blue Division." (Mussolini had his "Blackshirts", Hitler his "Brownshirts", and Franco his "Blueshirts. Spain was officially neutral, but it was allowing volunteers to join the German offensive.
News of the invasion was greeted with joy by anti-communists across Europe. Pope Pius XII, who was adamant in his opposition to Communism and opposed also to Hitler's National Socialists, was moved by the awesome event to speak in a broadcast of the "...magnanimous."
Germany's offensive was a three-pronged operation: one through the Balkan states in the direction of Leningrad 300 miles northward, another toward Moscow 600 miles from the invasion's launching point (in what today is Poland), and the third was toward Kiev 200 miles away and headed for the southern oil fields of the Caucasus.
Hitler's move was a blow to Stalin's ego, described by some as a breakdown. Within the first week the Germans reached the city of Minsk (today central Belarus), 230 miles from the invasion starting point and about 370 miles from Moscow. The Germans captured 290,000 Soviet soldiers and destroyed 2,500 tanks. (Soviet troops had been surrounded, but 250,000 of them managed to escape.) And by July 3rd the Germans were moving beyond Minsk.
On July 10 the German occupation of Latvia was completed, their arrival having been celebrated (a German propaganda film on youtube).
Stalin is reported to have felt responsible for the failure vis-a-vis the Germans. Concerned about his standing with his comrades, he was depressed and afraid. He withdrew to his country dacha. After a few days, his fellow Politburo members arrived. Stalin suspected that they had come to announce his removal. "Why have you come?" he asked. His colleagues announced their proposal to set up a "Supreme Defense Council," with Stalin at its head.
Stalin ordered a scorched earth policy. Soviet forces burned crops, destroyed houses and filled in wells, leaving as little as possible for the advancing Germans. On 16 August Stalin issued order #270 to discourage fleeing to the enemy: all military officers and political workers who fell into German hands were to be considered traitors and their families subject to arrest, and the families of enlisted men taken prisoner were to be deprived of state assistance – in other words, rations. Possessing a radio – over which one could hear German propaganda – became a capital offense. In the place of radios, the government broadcast programs over loudspeakers in factories and at street corners. Those accused of collaboration were to be executed rather than imprisoned.
Many Soviet citizens, meanwhile, were looking to Stalin for strong leadership, and Stalin appealed to that which he believed would inspire the most support against the Germans — not to Marxist-Leninist ideology but to nationalism. He lifted restrictions on religion, allowing the Orthodox Church to play its traditional role in calling for the defense of Mother Russia's faith. On Stalin's order the Communist publication, the Atheist, was turned into a journal supporting religion.
Hitler's invasion reached the outskirts of Moscow in October, after early winter snows had fallen, his tanks moving over icy roads better than the mud that had come with the autumn rains. Before those rains, German mechanized units had been advancing up to 80 miles per day. In the mud they were fortunate if they could advance five.
Now, on the outskirts of Moscow, Hitler had more than the weather to worry about. He still had the vast territory that was the Soviet Union to conquerer (although he had broadcast on October 3 that Russia was "broken" and would "never rise again"). And of seeming minor importance to him, on 11 December, four days after Japan attacked in the Hawaiian Islands, Hitler declared war on the United States. The alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union that Hitler had not wanted to happen had come into being. Churchill made his comment that "if Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." Back on the 22nd of June he told the British people by radio:
The Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for hearth and house is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.
In the speech that Hitler gave when declaring war on the United States he postured again as the man of peace. He described President Roosevelt as having created conflicts and as having done "everything to prevent conflicts from being peacefully solved." He said:
If the Providence has so willed that the German people cannot be spared this fight, then I can only be grateful that it entrusted me with the leadership in this historic struggle which, for the next 500 or 1,000 years, will be described as decisive, not only for the history of Germany but for the whole of Europe and indeed the whole world. The German people and their soldiers are working and fighting today, not only for the present but for the coming, nay the most distant, generations. A historical revision on a unique scale has been imposed on us by the Creator.
Hitler was dreaming. He was enlarging on his exaggerated confidence in his ability to control. With a military that was mechanized and more capable of delivering firepower than Napoleon's army, he was gambling on his ability to succeed where Napoleon had failed. Warfare between industrialized powers had changed. In the 20th century war was more than finding the an enemy force somewhere. It was about holding ground and resources. Alexander the Great had not actually taken control of the Persian empire. He had left allies in charge here and there and people who ruled themselves under their local rulers. Hitler's ally Japan, with its mechanization, air force and modern firepower was not succeeding in taking control of that vast expanse of land called China, nor would little Japan be able to occupy enough of the United States to crush that new enemy. And Hitler was not on a course of controlling the Soviet Union. The more territory a conqueror occupied and the more people a conqueror tried to dominate the greater the burden on him. And so it was with Hitler, who was underestimating the strength of the Soviet Union and over-estimating German capabilities.
CONTINUE READING: The Killings (ordered by Hitler)
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.