In the summer of 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Often described as an epic strategic blunder, the invasion was supposed to reach Moscow in weeks. Instead, four years later, Soviet troops would take Berlin and destroy Nazi Germany. 

But was the launch of Operation Barbarossa really a mistake? We examine why, in the mind of Hitler at least, Germany had to invade the Soviet Union, and how Hitler’s genocidal enterprise in the East might have claimed the lives of many millions more.

Hitler's greatest blunder?

© IWM

Voice over: “In the summer of 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his long-awaited invasion of the Soviet Union. Often described as an epic strategic blunder, the invasion was supposed to reach Moscow in weeks. Instead, four years later, Soviet troops would take Berlin and destroy Nazi Germany. But was the move really a mistake? In this video we'll examine why, in the mind of Hitler at least, Germany had to invade the USSR. And how Hitler's genocidal enterprise in the East might have claimed the lives of many millions more.”

Stephen Walton: “This is an official copy of Hitler's fur Directive #21 ordering preparations to be made for Operation Barbarossa. It was submitted as evidence for the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, and it is one of the most important and momentous documents of the Second World War. Conquest of the USSR was Hitler's main war objective right from the start, and understanding why we'll take us deep into the mind of one of history's most murderous dictators.”

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This chart shows the total GDP of the six major powers of the Second World War. This line is Germany, and these lines are the two world superpowers, Britain and the United States. After their defeat in the First World War, many Germans believed they belonged in this top group. The question was how to get there. One answer came from Gustav Stresemann, Foreign Minister in the fledgling Weimar Republic. He decided to cooperate with the United States, remaining subordinate in an attempt to boost German fortunes. It worked until 1929, when Stresemann died and the world economy collapsed into the Great Depression. As the US pulled back from the world stage, nationalists like Adolf Hitler took power and sketched a new answer to Germany's situation.”

Stephen Walton: “Hitler believed that human history was a perpetual struggle for survival and the dominance of the superior over the inferior in humankind. This worldview was reinforced by the concept of the Jewish world conspiracy. All of these ideas were set out in his autobiography, Mein Kampf. The book sets out Hitler's belief that Germany's defeat in the First World War robbed her of her rightful, as he called it, ‘place in the sun’. This needed to be avenged, and it was incumbent on Germany to lead the fight against the so-called ‘Judeo-Bolshevik’ onslaught on western ‘Aryan’ civilisation.”

Voice over: “Hitler had huge ambitions, but the Germany he controlled had limited means. In the early 20th century, Germany was not the economic powerhouse that we know today. It had strong industries equal to that of Britain, but a huge proportion of Germany's workforce still remained in agriculture. Around 30% compared to less than 10% in Britain. Furthermore, the farms they worked on were small peasant farms, the kind that Britain and the US had done away with. As such, German farms were half as productive as British ones. Hitler was all too aware of this economic weakness. He believed that without swift action, the world Jewish conspiracy would take advantage and destroy

Germany.” 

Stephen Walton: “Hitler saw threats everywhere. He also imbibed anti-Slavic sentiment and developed a hatred of communism which he viewed as a product of ‘The East’. But as Hitler outlines in his unpublished second book, “Jews were more than a menace from the east. They sat at the levers of political, financial and cultural power almost everywhere. Particularly in the United States and in Britain.” In Hitler's view, Germany was essentially encircled by political, ideological and racial enemies from both east and west. Unless Germany became stronger, she would be destroyed.”

Voice over: “Bizarrely, though, Hitler's inspiration for their strength came from the United States. His view of the US was contradictory. On the one hand, he saw it as being enthralled to international Jewry, which pulled the strings on access to finance and raw materials and could thus limit Germany's aspirations. On the other hand, he was fascinated and jealous of the conditions of America.”

Stephen Walton: “Hitler's second book reveals the ‘Wild West’ as a model for what he'd dreamt of achieving for Germany in the ‘Wild East’ of the Soviet Union. Visions of the endless grain fields, spouting oil wells and vast natural resources that had made the US so rich presented themselves to him as the solution to Germany's cramped situation in middle Europe. So just as the United States had inexorably expanded its civilising mission westwards, Germany's manifest destiny was fated to play out eastwards at the expense of the supposedly inferior peoples who resided there.”

Voice over: “This is the idea of Lebensraum or ‘living space’. German population density in 1938 was a crowded 146 people per square kilometre, compared to a generous 16 people per square kilometre in the United States. Securing Lebensraum with this kind in the east would not only improve the efficiency of Germany's ailing farms, it would deliver the raw materials that Germany was severely lacking. But these ideas were not new. In fact, Germany had tried them before during the First World War. On the Eastern Front, Germany had had great success conquering vast amounts of territory in Poland, the Baltic and western Russia. This area, controlled by the ‘Ober Ost’ military and administrative command under Hindenburg and Ludendorff became a colonial possession in the classic mould to be exploited economically and its ethnicities Germany. These grand plans were only partially realised before Germany's defeat in 1918, but the ideas behind them lived on.”

Stephen Walton: “Here we have a popular illustrated history of so-called racial science that was published in Germany in the 1930s. So, we have the pure Germanic youth as opposed to the degenerate Jewish youth. On the right-hand side here is a rather crude world map purporting to show revolutions that were instigated by Jews and their associated Freemasons. So, we have here in fact, a perfect illustration of Hitler's view of the ‘Untermenschen’, the subhuman, the conflation of the Jew, the Slav and the Communist. These were the very peoples that were now ripe for subjugation, and indeed for extermination in Germany's eastward cultural mission.”

Voice over: “This land could only be obtained through war. From 1932, Hitler began to transform the German economy. Between 1932 and 38, German spending on the military rose from .8% of GDP to 20.5%. Hitler also began a foreign policy of aggression, including the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland. However, this aggression helped sparked a global arms race amongst all of the major powers, and although Germany had started first, its lead was shrinking. Hitler wanted to strike while he still had the chance and began the Second World War in Europe in September 1939. That first period of the war went remarkably well.”

Stephen Walton: “The success of Germany's campaign shocked everyone, including the Germans themselves. The impact, however, was mixed. On the one hand, they had successfully knocked France out of the war and clearly possessed a war machine to be reckoned with. On the other hand, being responsible for so much of Western Europe did not aid Germany's lack of resources. In fact, it made things worse. German occupation and the British blockade left much of Europe starved of food, coal and oil. Also, Britain was still in the war and crucially, backed by the huge military economic power of the United States. Germany's industrial strength could not compete, and Hitler needed to act, and he needed to act fast.”

Voice over: “Such were the shortages in Germany's European empire that it took in alliance with the Soviet Union just to stay afloat. As agreed in the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, Soviet grain, oil and raw materials flowed into Germany and in return, German industrial output was delivered to the Soviet Union. Each side was essentially preparing the other for the great battle that was to come, but time was not on Hitler's side in raw materials or production. In 1941, German industry produced 11,000 aircraft, with Nazi occupied France and the Netherlands supplying just 78. Meanwhile, British production reached 20,000, plus another 5000 supplied by the US under Lend Lease.”

Stephen Walton: “As Germany's resource situation worsened, Hitler risked becoming dependent on the Soviet Union in a similar way to Britain's dependence on the United States. This was, of course, unacceptable to leaders in Berlin, who despised their communist neighbours. For Hitler, the clear solution was to invade the Soviet Union and take control of the resources himself. Thus, Hitler's ideologically motivated colonial enterprise in the east was aligned with an urgent economic imperative arising from the war situation itself.”

Voice over: “So finally, in December of 1940, the German military began planning a blitzkrieg campaign against the Soviet Union. The largest army ever assembled in human history would advance on three Axis to capture the AA line from Archangels to Astrakhan. With the land, resources and peoples that Hitler had craved for so long. A swift victory was vital. Germany's economic weakness made the invasion a means to an end. To secure the material strength Germany needed to take on Britain and the United States. Racist attitudes towards the people of the east and overwhelming confidence from the campaigns of the previous year made Hitler believe that it was possible. But capturing the Lebensraum of the Soviet Union was no solution to Germany's problems without addressing the people who lived there.

Germany could barely feed itself. To make use of these lands, millions of people would have to die. The attack on the Soviet Union was conducted in the context of three distinct but closely linked programmes of mass murder. A systematic killing project of almost unimaginable proportions. Best known of the three is the so-called ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’, the extermination of the Jews of Europe, in which 6 million people were murdered. Less well known are the other two, the ‘Generalplan Ost’ (Generalplan East) and the ‘Hunger Plan’.”

Stephen Walton: “The Generalplan East, a first draft of which was prepared for SS Chief Heinrich Himmler was a demographic ‘masterplan’ for the occupied eastern territories. It provided for the removal of most of the conquered populations from their homelands to create the ‘living space’ needed for German settlers. It envisaged the displacement of a staggering 30 - 40 million people. Effectively taken for granted was the assumption that a very large proportion of this number would perish as a direct result of the programme. The third pillar of Nazi genocidal planning in the east was the ‘Hunger Plan’, this was substantially the brainchild of Herbert Backe, chief of the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture. It provided for the ruthless expropriation and exploitation of Soviet agriculture to feed the German Army and the German domestic population at the expense of the inhabitants of the USSR. Backe, Göring and other Nazi leaders talked openly of the systematic starving to death of 20 - 30 million Soviet citizens as a result of this programme.”

Voice over: “Of the three ‘Masterplans’, which drove Hitler's ambitions in the East, the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’ was the only one which came anywhere close to being carried out. The difficulties of civil administration and the failure of the campaign meant the others progressed very little beyond the desks of Nazi bureaucrats. Amongst the actual victims claimed by the Hunger Plan, Soviet POW's were the main group. They were deliberately starved and ill-treated to cause maximum deaths, over 2 million, so that more rations could go to German soldiers. But if Hitler's megalomaniacal plans in the East had been even partially realised, the victims of Nazi genocide would have numbered many millions, if not tens of millions more. The extermination of most of the ethnic populations of the USSR was the precondition for realising Hitler's vision of the greatest global superpower ever seen, ready to defeat international Jewry and the degenerate empires of the US and Britain.”

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