Operation Barbarossa

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The code name for the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Operation Barbarossa refers to the surname of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (r. 1152–1190), who during the Middle Ages organized a crusade in the east. The idea of a war against Russia was not new in history, as the invasions by Sweden under Charles XII in 1709 and by France under Napoleon I in 1812 show. In 1918 the German imperial army, which since 1915 had controlled parts of Poland and the Baltic states, for a short time occupied large parts of southern Russia, and German irregular forces were involved in the civil war (1918–1920) that followed the Russian Revolution. Against this background, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) formulated around 1924/25 a plan intended to redirect German colonial drive away from Africa toward a Lebensraum (living space) in eastern Europe, envisaging total economic exploitation and a certain degree of German settlement in the region. Hitler consistently upheld that goal, despite political moves in other directions and a pro-Soviet orientation among the conservative elites of the German Reich. Already during the war against France in June 1940, while he was still in alliance with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), Hitler proposed a campaign against the Soviet Union. On 30 July 1940 he entrusted the army high command with military planning, which the latter had already started independently in June. In autumn 1940 this was still just one strategic alternative, since a campaign against Great Britain was high on the agenda. But in November 1940, after the failed attempt to occupy the British Isles, Hitler turned fully against the Soviet Union and on 18 December 1940 issued his Order (Weisung) No. 21 to prepare an attack against the Soviets, scheduled for 15 May 1941.


The plan was threefold: first the military would carry out a blitzkrieg (lightning war), in which tank forces would cut deep into the Red Army and encircle its major forces. This action was expected to be completed in about eight to ten weeks. Second, the Germans would plunder the Soviet economy. The intention was to feed the German army entirely on Soviet agriculture, so as not to drain the food supply of the Reich. This would be accomplished by intercepting supplies from the southern regions of the Soviet Union that were intended for Russia and the larger cities. Millions of inhabitants were expected to die. This correlated to the third aspect of planning, ideological warfare. The German army would allow SS (Schutzstaffel) and police units to act independently in the rear areas and kill all alleged enemies there, while the army units themselves would murder the political functionaries of the Red Army. For every real or alleged act of resistance, utmost brutality would be applied in retaliation. Criminal behavior against the local population was to be prosecuted only in exceptional cases such as individual plundering or rape.

On 22 June 1941 the German army and its allies, especially Finnish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian troops, but also units from Croatia, Slovakia, and elsewhere, all together numbering 3.7 million men, attacked the Soviet Union. By comparison, the Red Army was materially superior, but there is no conclusive evidence that Stalin was prepared to stage an attack at that time against Germany. Thus, the so-called preventive war was an invention of the German propaganda machine. The Wehrmacht (regular army) soon advanced rapidly, especially Army Group North in the direction of Leningrad and Army Group Center toward Moscow; Army Group South lagged behind. But the schedule was already out of control by the end of July, a result of fierce Soviet resistance and supply problems. Indeed, the strategic value of the Red Army had been grossly underestimated.

In August, debates inside the German military leadership revolved around future steps; Hitler overruled most of his generals by directing the offensive to the south in order to occupy the agricultural areas of Ukraine, while most of the latter had preferred a frontal attack against Moscow. Nevertheless the German army, as expected, encircled large parts of the Red Army, especially around Kiev in September and in the Vyazma-Bryansk battle in October. On 2 October the Wehrmacht reinforced the center of the front and tried to attack Moscow in two waves. But the second of these had already slowed down in November, and the Red Army undertook a counteroffensive on 5 December 1941 that forced the German army to retreat some hundreds of miles in the center and in the south. Operation Barbarossa had failed; after the winter the German army retook the initiative in Operation Blau during summer 1942.


The German advance and occupation were accompanied by an unprecedented war of annihilation, as dictated by the second and third parts of the plan. During the first weeks, the occupied territories were put under military administration. Then, with the advance of the Wehrmacht eastward, approximately half of the territory was transferred to a civil administration, run by the so-called Reichsminister für die besetzten Ostgebiete (Minister for the eastern occupied territories), Alfred Rosenberg (1893–1946). He installed two administrative units, the Reichskommissariat Ostland, comprising the Baltics and western Belorussia, and the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, comprising most of Ukraine approximately up to the Dnieper and parts of southern Belarus. Romania received its own occupation zone, called Transnistria, situated from Odessa to the north. The German military occupation was divided between the armies near the frontline and army group areas in the rear. A wide net of German rule was put over the local population, reinforced by tens of thousands of auxiliaries, who worked for the occupation force.

The major political aim of the campaign consisted of economic exploitation. Industry was almost completely demolished either by the retreating Soviets or the advancing Germans; all food was requisitioned for the army. Official guidelines foresaw nutrition support only for those urban locals who worked in the German interest. As a consequence, hunger spread, especially in the cities, predominantly in the Leningrad area, in the Donets basin, northeastern Ukraine, and on the Crimea. Already by the end of 1941 mass death by starvation had occurred there, especially in the city of Kharkov.

Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) fared even worse. Approximately 3.4 million Red Army soldiers (including tens of thousands of women, but also civilians interned in POW camps) were in German captivity by the end of 1941. Tens of thousands were shot during the foot marches westward or died during railway transportation; the POWs were brought into improvised camps, often without any barracks or infrastructure at all. At the end of October 1941 the German POW administration lowered the food rations for those POWs who were weakened and not fully able to work. As a consequence, mass starvation spread; in most camps one hundred POWs died every day between October 1941 and May 1942. By the latter date, almost two million POWs had been killed by malnutrition, winter cold, and lack of medical support.

Only a minority of the POWs had been put to work by 1941; until October of that year, transports for work inside the Reich had generally been blocked by Hitler, who feared Bolshevik infiltration inside Germany. Nevertheless almost three hundred thousand men did enter Germany before that date. For some months during 1941, POWs of specific non-Russian ethnicity, especially ethnic Germans, Balts, and Ukrainians, were released from captivity, most of them in order to join German services.

While the majority of the German frontline divisions started to kill alleged political functionaries right after captivity, most of the direct murders of POWs occurred in or nearby the camps. Certain groups of POWs were segregated—alleged political officers, Jews, and in the first months even men with an Asian appearance. They were either transferred to the security police or shot by the Wehrmacht units themselves. It has been estimated that more than 140,000 POWs died that way before 1944.


German propaganda claimed that this war served liberation from bolshevism. And indeed, especially in the western areas, Germans were often greeted as liberators. However, not only did the occupiers fail to dissolve the collective farms but they also brought with them a terror regime even more murderous than the Stalinist one. The crimes against civilians can be divided according to three groups of victims: Jews, political functionaries, and so-called suspects in connection with resistance.

The Jews were the main targets of German extermination policy. During the first weeks of the campaign, Jewish men were shot by SS and police; others fell victim to the pogroms of June–July 1941, which had been instigated by German police and local nationalist underground groups. From mid-August, SS and police units started to kill Jewish women and children, too, and by mid-September complete Jewish communities were annihilated, right after the occupation of each city. Thus by the end of 1941 at least five hundred thousand Jews had been killed, half of them in the Ukraine. The military administration supplied infrastructural support for the crimes; army commanders issued ideological orders to legitimate the genocide. In some cases Wehrmacht units shot Jews. Romanian occupation authorities started their own policy of annihilation against the Jews of the Odessa area. But most Jews soon lived under civil administration. Thus, in the western areas of the occupied territories the majority of Jews were still alive at the beginning of 1942.

Most functionaries of the Soviet party and state had been evacuated. Those apprehended were killed, unless they were considered indispensable for the economy. From the first day of the war, German units enacted excessive reprisal killings in response to alleged or real sniper attacks. This kind of reprisal was soon directed against Jewish or ethnic Russian civilians. In order to prevent the development of a partisan movement, orders were issued to kill all stragglers from the Red Army who did not present themselves to the German authorities, as well as persons on the move without permits. Those apprehended were either shot on the spot or put in internment camps. In July 1941 sporadic attacks by partisans started in Belarus, then also at the Latvian-Russian border, in the Bryansk area, and on the Crimea. German units killed tens of thousands of civilians as "partisan suspects" even before a bigger partisan movement was set up in 1942. Only a tiny minority of those killed had been armed.

By spring 1942, almost two million Soviet POWs had died and approximately six hundred thousand civilians had been killed outside of military action, not counting deaths by hunger. The German army lost around 460,000 dead, the Red Army at least 1.3 million, according to official statistics, which probably are not complete. Operation Barbarossa can be considered one of the most violent military campaigns in modern history, similar in dimension only to the Japanese occupation of China in 1937. The war against the Soviet Union constituted the central part of the National Socialist dictatorship, first as the ultimate aim of Hitler's policy, then as the most radical form of National Socialist rule, and finally of course, as the campaign that decided the fate of the Third Reich.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Einsatzgruppen; Holocaust; Occupation, Military; Partisan Warfare; Pogroms; Prisoners of War; Resistance; Soviet Union; World War II.


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Hillgruber, Andreas. Hitlers Strategie: Politik und Kriegführung, 1940–1941. Frankfurt am Main, 1965.

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Reinhardt, Klaus. Moscow—The Turning Point: The Failure of Hitler's Strategy in the Winter of 1941–42. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

Verbrechen der Wehrmacht: Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges, 1941–1944. Ausstellungskatalog. Edited by the Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung. Hamburg, Germany, 2002. Also on DVD.

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Dieter Pohl