History Class, Uncategorized, World War 2

Hitler vs. Stalin, 1941

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Adolf Hitler’s prospects looked rosy in the springtime of 1941 . The armies of Nazi Germany had swept across continental Europe. The island home of his surviving foe, Great Britain, was battered by bombs.  He had crushed resistance in the Balkans, and German tanks dominated North Africa.

What to do next?

Hitler had long looked eastward for Germany’s lebensraum (or ‘living space.’) He had even described his plans for the future in his 1925 book, Mein Kamf, in which he blamed the Jews and Bolsheveks for Germany’s loss of the last war and plotted their downfall.

One would think that Stalin would have been at least a bit suspicious when German troops started massing at his borders.

Stalin, though, had written proof that Hitler would not attack.  Germany and the USSR had signed a mutual non-aggression pact in 1939. Of course, Hitler had also proposed a 25 year pact of peace to the British, French, Belgians and Italians just before invading the Rhineland, (in breach of said pact,) and proclaimed in 1936, “Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, annex Austria, or to conclude an Anschluss.” * He invaded Austria in 1938.

If Hitler’s writings and tendency to break faith weren’t enough cause for caution, one of Stalin’s own spies, Richard Sorge, gained intelligence that an attack was coming, and when.  A German deserter crossed the borders and confirmed his report. Winston Churchill even wrote Stalin personally to warn him that it looked as if an invasion was imminent.

In spite of all of the signs, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941 at 4:15 am, it appears that he achieved complete surprise. (Though it should be noted that in a conversation recorded in Churchill’s memoirs between himself and Stalin, Stalin stated that he’d known an invasion would come, but thought they had more time.)

See the source image

1,200 Soviet aircraft were destroyed before noon, many still on the ground. The German army, divided into North, Centre and South groups, drove deep and fast into the USSR.

In the words of Molotov, Stalin’s Foreign Minister, “This incredible attack on our country is an act of treachery unequalled in the history of civilized nations.” **

Treacherous, yes, but it was effective.

In spite of fierce resistance, in spite of Stalin’s ‘scorched earth’ policy, in spite of counter attacks and brief rebuffs, by mid-July the German army had advanced 400 miles.

However, mid July also marked the signing of a pact between Great Britain and the USSR.

Winston Churchill had no love for Communism or Stalin, but he saw an Allied opportunity and seized it. On the evening of Hitler’s first assault on the USSR, he had broadcast, “Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid.”***   He did not relinquish his political views, but urged his people to focus instead on the common Russian families and how they suffered under Hitler’s betrayal. The Allies were duty-bound to aid them. (And, in doing so, they stood to gain another, very large, Ally.)

Still, it would be some time before the Alliance could do either side much good. Britain’s resources were strained, and while the United States (still officially neutral) had agreed to divert British aid to the Soviets, the goods would still need to be transported through the U-boat riddled Atlantic.

The fighting ground on through the summer. Hitler’s armies advanced.

By September 4th, Leningrad was under siege. Thousands of people, trapped in the city, felt the bite of hunger. By the 11th, bread rations had to be reduced. Citizens began to conceal the dead in order to use their ration coupons. Leaving was not an option- the Germans were ordered to shoot anyone fleeing toward their lines. (Hitler did not want to have to tend to refugees.) Tens of thousands starved before the end of the year.

On September 19th, the Germans occupied Kiev, the USSR’s third largest city, taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

On October 6th Hitler launched a two-pronged attack on Moscow. Some women and children were evacuated, but thousands of the people were mobilized and put to work building fortifications – Stalin intended to hold Moscow at all costs.

In all of this, it’s easy to see Stalin’s lack of foresight. However, let’s pause for just a moment to look at Hitler’s choices.

He expected the eastern campaign to be finished quickly. He did not equip his troops for winter fighting. And, perhaps most importantly, when his generals urged him to strike for Moscow at once, he overruled them.

As a result, when the German army finally advanced towards Moscow, the first snows of the Russian winter had already fallen.

Perhaps Winston Churchill sums up this period the best.

“The wicked are not always clever, nor are dictators always right.” ***

Advancing on Moscow, Nov 1941

Thanks for joining me for another little trip into WW2 history! Next time I dive into research, I intend to pick up with the story of Pearl Harbor, and the United States’ (official) entrance into the war.

Pearl Harbor naval base and U.S.S. Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack

[Pearl Harbor naval base and U.S.S. Shaw ablaze after the Japanese attack]
Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress


* Quote from Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, pg 206.

** Quote from Hal Buell’s World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle, pg 111

***Quotes from Churchill’s The Grand Alliance, pg 372 and pg 368, respectively

In addition to these books, I found this site helpful in reminding me of Hitler’s policies: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/hitler_lebensraum_01.shtml

This site has a number of striking photos from Operation Barbarossa and the following months: https://gallimafry.blogspot.com/2011/12/6world-war-ii-operation-barbarossa.html

10 thoughts on “Hitler vs. Stalin, 1941”

  1. Excellent summary. It is much debated whether the success of Operation Barbarossa was jeopardised by delays caused by events in Greece and Yugoslavia, meaning that the Germans hadn’t got as far as they’d planned before the Russian winter hit them. Either way, it was a particularly awful, brutal, war – not that war isn’t generally awful and brutal! Anyway – great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you- this is my first purposeful look at this front, and I struggle with knowing what to include and trying not to miss the essentials… I appreciate your encouragement!
      It really was a terrible place to be- just that Hitler even instructed his forces NOT to treat the Russians as proper prisoners of war. Horrible stuff. I don’t know if I’d come across anyone referencing those delays before- thanks for bringing it up! It’s an interesting thought- I know Churchill was pretty peeved that they weren’t able to set up a Balkan front of some sort before this point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really difficult to summarise something as complex as this – I think you’ve done a brilliant job. I think some in the west are apt to forget this decisive part of the war – but Hitler would not have been defeated without the Russians. Or, at least, the thing would have dragged on longer. I’m not sure which regime was the most barbaric, though,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder how much of Hitler’s waiting to attack Moscow, even being warned of the winter, was him thinking, “My men are German. They are used to winters!” I know that thought comes to me when comparing where I grew up (North Dakota) and where I live now (Kentucky). “It’s not that bad! Where I grew up was much worse!”

    Yes, there was a lot more to it, but I wonder if he waved away the weather concerns because he thought he knew how bad winters could be…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting thought, Jon- It doesn’t sound out of character:) US nurses would talk about how, when they’d treat German POW’s, they’d refuse to lie down on stretchers, but would WALK in to get their operations- trying to show toughness 😉 Hitler made a number of bad calls over and above his generals, and some of them certainly had interesting impacts on the war- holding back at just the right time so troops could evacuate from Dunkirk, holding the line in Italy rather than retreating, which tied up troops (of course it tied up Allied troops too…), some of the details in D-Day…
      If he DID shrug off the Russian winters, it was a baaaaaad call.
      (And yes, I laugh at the weather wimps out here too- if it hits freezing there’s general panic 😉 Though I generally hunker down too- NO ONE knows how to drive in it.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jon makes a good point about the winters. Mix the “I know snow!” mentality with Hitler’s ego, I’m sure he didn’t think twice about the scale of Russian winters, not to mention just how flippin’ huge Russia IS. When you grow up in a rural area, you don’t think much about driving a distance to reach a town. But when driving through North Dakota you can get a sense of juts how looooooooooooong that empty landscape can be. Lovely work, my friend! xxxxxxxxxxxxx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jean! Agreed- I think it’s safe to say that the world is fortunate that the USSR had so much SIZE on it’s side to wear the Nazi war machine down- terrible for the people who lived there, though 😦 I keep thinking of Hogan’s Heroes and how everyone was always threatened with getting sent to the Russian front…
      xxxxxxx back atcha

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for another informative and well documented post, Anne. Hopefully recent movies and books have stirred up North American’s attention to European and world history, albeit I know we should not rely on them for specific accuracies. Generally I think they are entertaining, informative even educational. For me, these include the movies “Dunkirk”, “Darkest Hour”, “Their Finest”, “Churchill”, the TV series “The Crown”, and books like “A Gentleman in Moscow”, and “The Noise of Time”. Thank you for sustaining my interest and providing accurate historical facts and chronology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for visiting, Arti! I do my best to find solid sources and stick to the true stories! I enjoyed “Dunkirk” too- I have yet to see “Darkest Hour”- my hubby and I had a date night all set, and then found out that the nearest place it was playing was three states away:(. I thought “Hacksaw Ridge” was very interesting too- I’ll have to look into the other ones you mentioned. We usually end up a few years behind the new films and shows 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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