On the morning of 22 June, 1941, the German people woke up to the Führer’s jubilant voice on the radio: "At this moment a march is taking place that, for its extent, compares with the greatest the world has ever seen. I have decided today to place the fate and future of the Reich and our people in the hands of our soldiers. May God aid us, especially in this fight!" Later the same morning, Hitler proclaimed to the High Command, "Before three months have passed, we shall witness a collapse of Russia, the like of which has never been seen in history."
The German army groups smashing across 600 miles of the Russian frontier to launch Operation Barbarossa, which with a front line longer than the distance from Boston to Richmond would be the largest land battle in history, numbered over three and a half million men at arms, supported by 3,600 tanks, 2,700 aircraft and 7,200 artillery pieces. They were divided into three groups: Army Group North, which headed for Leningrad, Army Group Center, which set its sights on Moscow, and Army Group South which was tasked with securing the economic breadbasket of the Soviet Union and its satellites, mainly the Ukraine. Hitler’s generals thought his invasion both strategically premature (they were not fully equipped for such an enormous battle) while tactically tardy (the June 22 launch meant they’d already squandered the key campaigning weather in May and early June). But Hitler would hear none of it, so great was his contempt for the Bolshevik state and its Georgian butcher, Stalin, and declared that all that was needed was “one kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will fall!” For the first months Hitler seemed prescient. An irresistible grey tide of men and materiel, spearheaded by swiftly moving tank columns followed by endless files of dust-covered foot soldiers, encircled and destroyed entire Soviet armies of hundreds of thousands at a time.
While the Luftwaffe flew cover overhead, picking off obsolete Red Air Force fighters by the gross and racking up scores that dwarfed those of their fathers in the First World War, Hitler’s armored spearheads on the ground were achieving astounding victories in titanic battles of envelopment over a rural topography that resembled the surface of a vast billiard table. It’s difficult for Americans, especially those today who know little if any history at all, to comprehend just how traumatic the invasion of Russia was to those in its path. To put it in perspective, the bloodiest battle ever fought by any U.S. Military in terms of casualties suffered was the December 1944-February 1945 Battle of The Bulge in which some 100,000 Americans were killed, wounded, captured, or missing. In the first month of Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army lost 100,000 killed per day, or 3.5 million losses. The litany of Wehrmacht triumphs read like a Russian atlas moving irresistibly eastward towards Moscow and the end of another successful Nazi campaign: Brest-Lotovsk, Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, and eventually laying siege to Leningrad.
The savagery of the fighting would leave an indelible mark on the Soviet psyche. The Germans did not view their Bolshevik enemy as being on the same level of species (for lack of a better term) as they did their French and British enemies in the West but rather as untermench, sub-human. “This is a war of annihilation,” declared the German High Command. “Officers are required to sacrifice their personal scruples.” In the wake of the German Panzer and infantry divisions, Einsatszgruppen, SS units tasked with clearing occupied territory of Jews and communists, ranged far and wide committing brutal atrocities, murdering hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, either in public hangings or by firing squad. Contrite German veterans’ claims to the contrary, the Wehrmacht was often not only aware of the mass genocides being committed in their Fuehrer’s name, but often assisted in the barbarity. Said one German enlisted man in 1991, “If we were not all guilty of crimes, then we were at least accomplices.”
By the waning days of late autumn, German ground forces — exhausted by a non-stop and vicious campaign in which they seemed to face an inexhaustible supply of Russians perfectly willing to sacrifice their lives in defense of their Motherland, and having advanced across a land mass far broader and more remote than the countries in Western Europe they’d so swiftly overrun — could actually make out the distant spires of the Kremlin in the heart of Moscow, glinting in the sun. Most in Army Group Center no doubt thought the enemy capital, within thirty kilometers, a mere fifteen-minute drive on the Autobahn, would fall any day.
But as the snows began to fall, in the backs of their young minds the German Landsers (foot soldiers) must have recalled how the cruel winter, not the Russians, beat back Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, leaving four hundred thousand French graves in its wake. They tried to steel themselves with the notion that they were not Napoleon’s Grande Armée. They were the Ostheer, the army of the Eastern Front. It would be different this time.
But the German delusions of victory and then home were crushed one November morning when they awoke to blasts of frigid air ripping into the pink flesh of their exposed faces like a tornado of razor blades. “General Winter” had once again come to save the Russians. The mysterious howling ice clouds that built up momentum rolling off the Ural Mountains to the east swept over the flatness of the steppe to scythe through the Ostheer. So cold was the air that ravens fell from the sky, frozen to death.
Fending off frostbite and dehydration was for a time among the German rank and file a greater battle than that with the Russians, who, unbeknownst to the their Generals in the comforts of Hitler’s Wolfsschanze lair back in East Prussia, were preparing a massive counter-attack to drive the fascist invaders from the gates of their capital city. Everything was paralyzed by the cold. Oil solidified in the sumps of lorries and tanks. Luftwaffe ground crews had to light fires on the frozen ground beneath aircraft engines just to thaw them out enough to turn over. Many a letter home at this time reveals an unease that this was not like winters at home.
But this was like home for many of the Russian troops shipped in by train from far away Siberia and equipped with deadly new T-34 tanks who prepared to counterattack, just as Hitler was insisting that Stalin had no more men left to fight. When on 15 December, 1941, the pre-dawn sky lit up with the muzzle flashes of thousands of artillery guns and howling Katyusha rockets, the Ostheer knew the dream of winter billeting in Moscow was shattered. Now the Germans would have to fight for their lives five hundred miles in enemy territory against waves of warmly-clad Russians with fur caps and felt boots who shouted “hurrah!” as they poured over the snow like an unstoppable brown wave. The Landsers, many still clad in summer uniforms with hands and feet blackened by frostbite, fought with demoniacal fury as they knew to lose meant death in what they came to see as a God-forsaken land. Unwavering devotion to the Fuehrer kept many of the men in line and soon their discipline managed to pull an orderly withdrawal out of what should have been a massacre. Army Group Center fell back one hundred eighty miles from the gates of a saved Soviet capital. In the end, the Russian counterattack shot its bolt and, typical of Stalin, the Soviet dictator overruled his generals and pressed the attacks too far until it was the Red Army’s turn to be slaughtered in the snow.
Finally, like two punch drunk prize fighters who’d pummeled each other silly but neither with the strength to deliver that knock-out blow, the Ostheer and the Red Army collapsed and dug in and glared at each other through a no-man’s land of ice, charred vehicles, and burnt-out villages in which hapless Russian civilians froze to death or died of starvation in the streets. The two armies could look back over a blasted landscape saturated in blood that stretched for hundreds of square kilometers in which the bodies of millions lay frozen stiff as cordwood in the snow.
One can only wonder how many German and Russian boys, hunkered down in the snow in sub-zero weather or listening to the howling winds snapping their tent flaps, hearkened back to their classical literature classes and reflected on the notion that Dante’s description of the center of Hell in The Inferno is a place of ice and cold.