At 3:15 a.m. on Sunday, 22 June 1941, Germany attacked Russia with the largest invading force in history. The aim was a Blitzkrieg of two to three months. Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop informed international journalists at 5 a.m. and was followed by Josef Goebbels broadcasting Hitler’s address to the nation. This communiqué was preceded by an extract from Franz Liszt’s “Les Préludes”, which later accompanied all broadcasted victory messages and became known as the “Russian Fanfare”. Italy and Romania declared war on Russia on the same day.
Hitler presented the invasion as a retaliation to the Soviet Union’s increasingly threatening mobilization towards the German eastern front, betraying the Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. “There are 160 Russian divisions at our border”, claimed Hitler, “and violations of this border have been ongoing for weeks”.
While Germany had never harboured hostile feelings towards the Soviet Union nor tried to influence its ideology, declared Hitler, for more than two decades the Bolshevist powers had attempted to ignite Europe with their ideology and military power. He could no longer allow these forces to threaten the eastern provinces, and saw himself as the protector of European culture and civilization.
Despite all warning signs, including information by defector Alfred Liskow, the attack took the Russians completely by surprise. The Germans quickly repressed the Soviet troops amassed at the border, despite the Soviet railroad system using different gauges and the extremely poor roads. Hitler believed, “We only need to kick the door in and the whole rotten structure will come tumbling down”.
Germany had a three-pronged attack with Army Group North, led by General Field Marshall Wilhelm von Leeb, aiming for Leningrad. Army Group Centre, the largest force, was headed by General Field Marshall Feder von Bock, whose goal was Smolensk. Army Group South was led by General Field Marshall Gerd von Runstedt and making for Kiev. Altogether more than 3 million men, with the Finnish Army waiting in the wings, descended on the Soviet Union.
Apart from difficult roads, the German Army soon encountered fuel and vehicle problems, which seriously impeded speed. In addition, they used two different forms of transportation – soldiers on foot and horse, as well as trucks and tanks. Massive distances soon opened up between the wheeled vehicles at the front and the infantry behind, hindering the rapid transportation of supplies to the German front lines.
The German press reported that London was reckoning with Moscow’s defeat, although England had not issued an official statement on the invasion. It was clear, however, that London was struggling to accept Russia as an “indirect ally”. Taking into account the strong anti-bolshevist current in England and public opinion in the USA, London did not yet dare embrace the Soviet Union, although it welcomed the military conflict.
German troops entering Lithuania were greeted as liberators. The people had suffered under the Russians and according to latest reports, 40,000 “politically unreliable” Lithuanians had been transported to Siberia. The Russian border posts were poorly manned but toughly defended, according to war reporter Dr. Joachim Fischer, who wrote: “The existing roads are dust gutters, we had to go through fields. The horses, cows, houses and people are so different that we thought we had opened the door to a different world. Trucks can only move in second gear between the horses and infantry. Battles take place in small forests and on farms”.
However, it was the infantry who were leading this campaign in the east, according to Fischer. “The infantry with encrusted lips, inflamed eyes, loaded down with weapons and equipment, with burning feet, yet feisty and persevering and reliable”, he continued.
But how strong was the Soviet army? Germany reckoned with 4.5 million men, while Russian statisticians estimated between 8 and 10 million. In a radio broadcast, Churchill promised to help Moscow and was backed by the USA – Secretary of State Sumner Welles declared, “Hitler’s armies are the greatest danger to the world”.
English military spokesman Major Hastings explained that England could not practically support Russia, but added, “When a modern army has no more petrol, it cannot advance, as tanks and planes cannot eat grass and grain”. Troops’ morale would play a major role: “Each German soldier is confident of victory, while the Soviet infantry has little independent capacity to act. However, if Germany is victorious, then England’s fate will be incomparably worse than before”. There was optimism in London that the loss of material and troops in the campaign would be advantageous for England.
Russia attacked Finland on June 26. Germany, Italy, Romania, Finland, Hungary and Slovakia now made up the Axis powers, while in Spain, France and Holland, fascist groups also formed units to fight the Soviets. In early July, the Soviet Secret Police GPU placed all French residents in concentration camps. In return, Russians in France were interrogated and Vichy France broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
By the start of July, the Germans had entered Belarus and Ukraine, where they were again welcomed by the population, and closed a cauldron between Bialystok and Minsk, encircling around 300,000 Soviet troops. Army Group Centre took Brest-Litovsk and turned north-east to join Army Group North, which had taken the fort at Grodno, resulting in another cauldron growing between Luzk and Lviv. With Minsk in a pincer grip, German troops had destroyed the Russian western front and advanced 460 kilometres inland in just 8 days.
On July 1, the Germans captured Riga, the capital of Latvia. There was unparalleled rejoicing at the arrival of the German troops. Soldiers could hardly move through the streets and were plied with flowers, cigarettes and food. “So many good people have been murdered under the Bolshevist regime, at last the people can breathe”, wrote reporter Willy Wienhöfer. “After this terrible oppression, they thank the German Wehrmacht for liberation”.
In the field, however, German over-extension was becoming apparent and units were unable to communicate with each other properly. Although both cauldrons were now closed, huge numbers of Soviet troops were escaping. And with a massive area behind the German Army now with no support, the Russians started relocating their armament factories to the east.
By the end of the second week of the war, the Allies hoped that the German advance would be stopped at the Stalin Line, the fortifications along the Soviet Union’s western border. Otherwise, an “empty space” must be built behind the Line, with the supplies, corn and oil fields destroyed. The approaching Axis troops destroyed the enemy’s rear connections, particularly the train networks, making it difficult for the Russians both to retreat and to bring in reserves.
In the third week of war, German troops started to draw back the curtain on the “workers’ paradise”, the press reports – and what they found put everything else into the shade. “The Soviet Union has enough reserves to offer its 180 million a good life”, declared the press. “In reality, there is no country where there is more misery, with catastrophic starvation and millions in forced labour camps”.
The front lines of the Soviet troops had been hard hit by the Axis and the Luftwaffe was hitting the new transports from the Russian rear troops. Due to large parts of the population fleeing and farmers forced to leave their homes by the retreating Soviet forces, Petersburg, Kiev and Moscow were flooded with people, leading to food supply problems.
War reporter Günther Weber described the situation at Minsk, where Germans had taken over 80,000 prisoners. “The columns are unending, a ghostly vision. Tired and crippled are their steps, carrying their wounded, and their gaze bears the horror of days gone by. In the camps, they are guarded by a handful of soldiers. They are tired and no longer want to fight. Thousands are receiving medical treatment in lazarettes. The need to prevent diseases is as great as the need to feed the many.
“Thousands sit on the steps of the Soviet Party Palace waiting to be taken to the prisoners’ camp. Their gaze is dull, they do not see the splendour of the high, cold walls. Past the marble party buildings, an army of the defeated sways. Half-starved and emaciated, not only from the battle but from the system that drove them to the battlefield”.
The invasion of the Soviet Union caused millions of military and civilian casualties. This included the mass shootings of over 1 million Jews by mobile killing squads - Einsatzgruppen - made up of Nazis and local collaborators. In Part Two of this blog, IWM Curator Lauren Willmott shares how the new Holocaust gallery at IWM London (opening in October 2021) will represent the persecution and murder of Jews in the Soviet Union, using archive material and testimonies from that time.