The historical impact of Operation Barbarosa cannot be denied. The Soviet victory over the Nazi German invaders set up the Soviets as a world superpower and set the stage for the Cold War. Had the Germans not attacked, the Russians may not have gained their dominance in Eastern Europe, and the Warsaw Pact may not have ever been. The war effort forced the Soviets to industrialize faster than ever, particularly in Siberia. Additionally, defeating the Nazis let all the countries of the world know that the Russian military under the Soviets was not the ragtag, ill-equipped, archaic fighting force of the Czarist system; it had become well-organized under Stalin.
The purpose of this paper, though, is not to discuss the historical implications of the Soviet victory in World War II. I intend to explain why the Soviets were victorious, and, similarly, why the Nazis were defeated. I believe that in this process it will become evident that the tremendous power wielded by the Soviets during the Cold War age was predicated on the very things that made them successful in World War II.
Before going into an explanation of why the Soviets were successful, I think it is important to give an overview of the actual events of the Barbarosa attack and an outline of the diplomacy involved beforehand.
After World War I, the Germans and Russians were seen as the outcasts of Europe. The German government of the Weimar Republic was in tremendous debt making war reparations while Capitalist European governments that were fearful of their rhetoric of world revolution despised the newly Communist Russians. It was only natural that they turned to each other. The Rapollo Pact in 1922 and the Friendship Pact shortly thereafter established formal diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries, allowed the German military to train in Russia, and gave the Soviets access to superior German military technology. The new relationship was mutually beneficial until 1933, the year Adolph Hitler took power.
Underestimating the severity of Hitlers anti-Communism, the Soviets had actually helped him to take power. After Hitler had used the threat of Communism as an excuse for creating a totalitarian state, destroyed the German Communist Party, and began to gain popularity in other countries, Stalin and the rest of the Soviet government became understandably nervous. With their one time friend turned against them, they sought refuge with another Continental land power, France, in the form of the Franco-Soviet Mutual Assistance Pact. Furthermore, an agreement was made with Czechoslovakia where the Soviets agreed to help if Germany attacked the Czechs and France also helped.
Several things led the Soviets to question their relationship with France. The Spanish Civil War, starting in 1936, saw the Fascist forces of Francisco Franco backed by the Germans and Italians defeat a coalition of all the anti-Fascist parties. The defeated group had been aided by the Soviets, but the Capitalist powers had not helped. The last straw came at the Munich Conference in 1938 when Britain and France essentially sold out Czechoslovakia to the Nazis without consulting the Czechs. When France and Britain formed an alliance promising Poland assistance in the event of a German invasion and asked the Soviets to cooperate, Stalin opted to deal with the Germans.
The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, signed in Berlin, was a two-pronged agreement, one public, and one private. The two countries openly agreed to be friends, vowing to trade and not to fight. In private they decided to divide Poland; the Germans would invade the western two-thirds, leaving the eastern third to the Soviets. Additionally, the Russians were given discretion in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Stalin had hoped the agreement would give him more time to prepare for a fight with the Nazis that he may have known was inevitable. Unfortunately for him, that break was much shorter than expected.
Hitler made the decision in secret to attack the USSR in July of 1940. The attack, under the codename Operation Barbarosa, was scheduled to begin in May of 1941; however, due to difficulties in the Balkans, it did not begin until June. Hitlers objective was to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign before the end of the war against England(Treadgold, p.338). When the attack came the Soviets were unprepared: their military, especially the leadership, had been weakened by the purges, their equipment was out of date, and they had not paid attention to the Nazi Blitzkrieg in France. On top of this, most of the Red Air Force had been wiped out on the ground by bombing.
The German invasion was divided into three groups: the northern front, headed by Field Marshall Von Leeb, moved toward Leningrad; the central front, under Field Marshall Von Bock, moved toward Moscow; and the southern front, led by Field Marshall Von Rundstedt, moved toward Kiev.
Within two weeks the central group had surrounded nearly 300,000 Soviet troops near Minsk (Treadgold, p.340). Ten days later, they were through Belarus. Although Von Bock wanted to continue moving forward, Hitler decided to keep the flanks moving. To do this he reinforced the northern and southern groups with armor sent from the center.
The northern group reached Leningrad in the middle of September but was unable to capture the city. The resulting siege lasted three years. The southern group reached and conquered Kiev, where 600,000 prisoners were taken.
When the tanks from the northern and southern groups returned to the center, the advance resumed after a short delay on October 2. By October 15, they were 65 miles from Moscow, but winter was descending early. A last effort on December 2 brought the Germans 20 miles from Moscow (Collins, p.6). A counterattack by reinforcements from Siberia saved the city. Operations were stopped for winter on December 8. The overextended German forces were not equipped for winter and unable to resupply, but no retreat was allowed.
When the Germans resumed in the spring of 1942, Stalingrad was the center of attention. The Battle of Stalingrad, seen as a major turning point in the war, began with German forces surrounding the citys defenders. A counterattack with the purpose of relieving Stalingrad captured 600,000 German and Romanian soldiers after Hitler refused to let the generals adjust to a more defensible position (Dukes, p. 272).
By 1944, the Nazi forces had been overrun by the Soviets. Stalin proved that his administrative prowess extended to war by gaining popular support to defend Mother Russia bring Death to the German invader and win the Great Patriotic War.
With Russian forces advancing closer and closer to Germany, it had become obvious that the Nazis were defeated by the time of the Yalta Conference in 1945. The question now to be answered is how did the Soviet government achieve this victory over a seemingly superior German military.
An aid to Russian victory that is often overestimated but cannot be overlooked is the weather. The Russian winter arrived early in 1941, as it had done in 1812. Having envisioned a short campaign, Hitler did not have his troops prepared with winter supplies. The early cold caused the Germans to stall their attack earlier than might have been expected even after reaching the suburbs of Moscow. Largely without tracked transport vehicles, the German invasion force was greatly slowed when roads became impassable for wheeled vehicles.
The most obvious advantage enjoyed by the Soviets over their Nazi enemies was in human resources. The tremendous population of Russia was able to sustain higher casualty levels than any other country involved in World War II (many estimates put the number near 10 million) and still come out victorious. The Soviet military consisted of 360 divisions, 160 more than German intelligence had stated prior to the war (Freeze, p. 327). These vast human resources allowed for massive offensives where heavy losses were acceptable. With less regard for human losses, Soviet commanders were able to advance at a quicker, less-cautious pace than their Allies.
The efficiency of Russian production increased under the Stalinist system, and the organization involved in a command-based economy allowed the Soviet leadership to divert resources to where they were most needed.
Largely due to Stalin, the USSR had become a militarized state in the 1930s. Forty-three percent of the countrys Gross National Product was devoted to military production in 1931(Freeze, p. 321). The first five months saw the Soviets lose the land containing 40% of their population, 65% of their coal production, 38% of their grain, and 84% of their sugar (Hasler, p. 174). As much as possible was removed from the west and brought east, primarily to Siberia. Over 1,000 factories and plants were removed and brought east, and millions of families relocated deeper into Russia.
The Russian system was able to respond well to the need for production caused by the war. In 1942, they were able to produce twice as many weapons as Germany, everything from automatic pistols to tanks (Freeze, p. 331). An average of 10,000 kilometers of railroad track was laid down each wartime year. The new system was also much more self-reliant than the Czarist system had been in World War I, relying much less on foreign loans.
The system run by Stalin proved to be better than that of the Czars in many other ways as well. Stalin himself proved to be an effective war leader. He was able to unite the Russian people in the war effort by encouraging them to fight not only for Communism, but primarily for Mother Russia. Stalins gift for organization came in handy as well. By drafting 16% of their population into the military, the Soviets created a huge vacuum for agricultural and industrial workers (Freeze 330). Stalin and his supporters were able to organize the labor force where it was most needed and feed the country, although food shortages did occur. A significant contribution in making up for the lost workers was made by women. The new propaganda was full of images of great leaders from Russian history. Unlike Hitler, Stalin was wise enough to let his generals make the strategic decisions. Many officers were released from work camps in Siberia to fill the need for experienced leadership. The system was also successful in recognizing and promoting competent officers.
When the Central German attacking group reached close to Moscow, a counterattack by reserves most likely saved the city. The German leadership knew about these reserves but underestimated their numbers and did not think that they would be moved quickly enough to make a difference. Saving Moscow from German occupation was of the utmost importance. Psychologically, losing their capitol city would be disastrous to the Soviet troops fighting the Germans all along the line. Strategically, the city was a railroad hub, and losing it would drastically hurt the Soviet Armys ability to reinforce and resupply its troops.
In the areas occupied by the Germans, Stalin encouraged guerrilla and sabotage units to disrupt the attackers as much as possible. Invoking a strategy similar to that used against Napoleon in 1812, Stalin issued orders to not leave the enemy a single engine, a single railway car, a single pound of grain, or a gallon of fuel. (Hasler, p.174)
The competency of the Soviet leadership to handle a German attack was greatly underestimated by the Nazis. This was very likely caused by the weak showing of the Soviet military in the Winter War with Finland in 1939. Hitler believed that the Russian people would turn on Stalin after a few German victories. Much discontent with the Communist system did exist; however, vast policies of liberalization conducted by Stalin during the war led many to believe that even more reforms would come after victory. In fact, the reforms made during the war were repealed when the threat of invasion came to an end.
Despite Stalins talent for mobilizing the population in support of the war effort, large levels of discontent with the Soviet government existed, especially among the people in areas occupied by German forces. The occupying Nazi forces were often viewed as liberators. By abolishing collectivism and reopening churches, they gained the support of many of the locals. Hitler, though, through his harsh occupation policies, did not take advantage of the opportunities given to him. Viewing the Slavic people as subhuman, he hoped to make them slaves. Ukrainian nationalist leaders who supported the Nazi cause were arrested when they declared an independent Ukrainian state. Further harsh treatment of the Ukrainian citizenry forced them to resist the occupiers. Essentially, Hitler had turned a potential ally into an enemy.
Many Soviet citizens were sufficiently opposed to Stalinist rule that they were eager to fight alongside the Germans against the Soviet forces. The number of these was significant enough that it could have made a difference in the overall outcome, maybe not leading to Soviet defeat but very likely postponing their victory. Hitlers racist views would not allow him to enlist the help of these people until it was too late. Soviet General Vlasov, opposed to Stalins rule, was captured and wanted to raise an army to fight the Russians. His request was not granted until the end of the war when defeat was already a certainty for the German army.
In addition to his promotion of harsh occupation, Hitlers policy of no retreat further hurt his cause. Lacking winter clothes or supplies and in a position that was not easily defensible, the German generals outside Moscow wished to retreat to a better position for the winter. When Hitler refused their request, the generals resigned leaving Hitler to assume command.
The biggest disaster resulting from Hitlers not allowing retreat occurred at the Battle of Stalingrad, a major turning point in the war. While fighting in the street in an attempt to take the city, the German forces found themselves under siege when Soviet reinforcements arrived. In an attempt to prevent the Soviet pincer maneuver from surrounding his troops, German Field Marshall Paulus wanted to retreat. He was not allowed to do so. As a result, the Germans suffered 150,000 casualties and had 100,000 men captured (Freeze, p 328).
A final factor in Russian victory was assistance from her allies, primarily Great Britain and the United States. While Russian victory would have most likely come with out it, the help did allow for a quicker end to the war. Friction existed between Stalin and his allies. He feared that Roosevelt and Churchill, leaders of Capitalist, Imperialist nations, would turn on him, possibly even joining Hitler. Further friction came from their refusal to open up a western front with a European invasion. Stalin saw this as evidence that his allies wanted Russia to be weakened. One wonders if Churchill or Roosevelt ever confronted Stalin with the fact that the second front had already been lost while Stalin was busy making secretive deals with Hitler.
Despite their frictional relationship, the other Allies were eager to assist the USSR. Ten percent of tanks used by the Russians and twelve percent of their combat aircraft was received from their Western allies. American Lend-Lease accounted for 427,000 vehicles, one million miles of telephone wire, and 15 million pairs of boots. Furthermore, American and British assistance came in the form of steel for aircraft, petroleum, zinc, copper, aluminum, and chemicals as well as desperately needed food. In total nearly $11 billion was spent by the United States on aid for the Soviet Union (Freeze, 333).
The effects of the Soviet victory over the Germans in World War II are still being felt. By looking at why they were able to achieve that victory it is possible to gain insight into why they became a world super-power and possibly why they collapsed. To be certain, no individual, event, or factor can be given full credit for the Soviet victory. In reality, a combination of Soviet organization and ability, German mistakes (particularly those made by Adolph Hitler), and Allied help led to the demise of Nazi Germany and the survival of the Soviet Union. The authoritarian, oppressive system of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, which stifled the artistic, literary, and cultural freedom of the Soviet people and maintained order largely through terror, proved to be effective in managing and carrying out a war effort. By rallying the people behind his own image, Stalin was able to bring the USSR to a victory that had seemed improbable.
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Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1997
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