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Operation Barbarossa   >   Background

   
 

Background to Operation Barbarossa


Adolf Hitler, German dictator, had long advocated the expansion of German power, by conquering vast empire of lebensraum (literally "living space") conquered in Eastern Europe and from the USSR. He had outlined these ambitions in writing as early as 1925 in his book, Mein Kampf. Additionally, Hitler and the Nazis, also had a profound hatred of communism (during this period, the USSR was the only communist state in the world), and believed Russia was populated by untermensch (literally "subhuman") Slavs, and ruled by Jewish-Bolsheviks.

Hitler and the Nazis gained power in Germany in 1933, and gradually embarked on a program of expansion. Remilitarising the Rhineland in 1936, annexing Austria in 1938 (the Anschluss), and dismembering Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939, and forcing Lithuania to hand-over the# Memel Territory (Klaipeda Region).

Alarmed by German expansion, Britain and France began to issue guarantees to various countries against Germany. They hoped that such guarantees would deter Germany from further aggression. However, Hitler seems to have believed that the guarantees would not be honored, and so in when in September 1939, Germany attacked Poland, he did not expect any British or French action. Instead, however Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Prior to attacking Poland, Germany had however taken care to improve previously bad relations with the USSR. A commercial treaty, and a non-aggression treaty were both signed in August 1939, and the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty actually contained secret clauses regarding the division of Polish territory.

The German army quickly over-ran Poland, although many Polish military personnel did escape to fight again in the West. The final Polish collapse was in part precipitated by Soviet forces entering and occupying the Eastern part of the country.

In 1940, Germany attacked in the West. Conquering Denmark, Norway, and then the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. Italy also entered the war on Germany's side, but Britain remained defiant and unbeaten, after the German failure in the Battle of Britain and the cancellation of Operation Sealion.

Hitler in Paris 1940 By the Summer of 1940, Germany had defeated France, driven the British army out of continental Europe, and occupied France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, as well as continuing to hold its previous conquests of Poland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.

Hitler visited Paris for a lightning tour, immediately after the defeat of France, and the successful conclusion of the land campaign in Western Europe.

However the war in the West was not over at this point:
  • Britain still remained undefeated

  • The Battle of Britain had not yet occurred

  • Hitler had not yet even ordered a possible invasion of England (Hitler ordered preparations for Operation Sealion only on July 16th in War Directive 16)
Even so, Hitler seems to have already begun considering an attack on the USSR, an idea that he had first contemplated as long as a go as the 1920s, and which he had described in his 1925 book, Mein Kampf.

It is possible that Hitler at first believed that Britain would soon come to terms without invasion, but surely such an impression could not have lasted.

Hitler sometimes told others, that the attack on the Soviet Union would lead to the defeat of England - since it would deprive the country of its last possible continental ally, strengthen Germany (through the conquest of economic and industrial resources), and strengthen Japan's position in the Far East, making US intervention in Europe less likely.

However, it can not be denied that Hitler had long held a goal of conquering vast territories from the USSR, and then attempted to pursue this goal as soon as the opportunity arose - even when doing so meant that Germany would become involved in a two-front war.

Italy's involvement in the war, also led to the addition of a North African front to the war (where Germany eventually was to send Rommel's Afrika Korps), and an Italian war with Greece. Neither front went well: In North Africa, the British inflicted heavy defeats on the Italian Army, and on the Greek front, the Greeks actually drove the ill-prepared Italians back into Italian-controlled Albania.

Meanwhile, Germany was looking for alternatives to bring the war to a successful conclusion, and while some German commanders advocated further attacks on the British Empire, Hitler eventually returned to his old eye of conquering the USSR - he argued that such a conquest would deprive Britain of its last possible continental ally, immeasurably strengthen Germany's position, and prevent US intervention in Europe by strengthening Japan's position in the Far East.

Hitler's War Directive No. 21 ordering preparations for Operation Barbarossa As early as July 1940, immediately after the defeat of France, Hitler began considering the possibility of attacking the USSR.

Hitler received military plans for an invasion of the USSR on December 5th 1940, and then signed War Directive No. 21 on December 18th 1940.

The text of the Directive stated among other things:
  • "The German Wehrmact (Armed Forces) must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war against England, to crush the USSR in a rapid campaign (Operation Barbarossa)."

  • "Preparations which require more time than this will be put in hand now, in so far as this has not already been done, and will be concluded by 15th May 1941."

  • "It is of decisive importance that our intention to attack should not be known."

  • "The bulk of the Russian Army stationed in Western Russia will be destroyed by daring operations led by deeply penetrating armoured spearheads. Russian forces still capable of giving battle will be prevented from withdrawing into the depths of Russia."

  • "The enemy will then be energetically pursued and a line will be reached from which the Russian Air Force can no longer attack German territory. The final objective of the operation is to erect a barrier against Asiatic Russia on the general line Volga-Archangel.".
While Directive 21 did not irrevocably set Germany on a path to attack the USSR, it did contain a tentative start date to the campaign of May 15th 1941.

Prior to finally committing to attack the USSR, the Germans did however explore the idea of coming to an accommodation with the country. The obstacles were however formidable - there were disputes about the boundaries between spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, about the Turkish straits (which the USSR wanted to control to gain access to the Mediterranean), and about Finland. Additionally, the Germans were becoming increasingly aware of their dependence on Soviet-supplied raw materials, particularly after the Soviet Union briefly suspended supplies in August 1940, and how they could become subject to blackmail as a result. Moreover, the Germans vastly under-estimated Soviet military, because of the country's poor performance in the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940.

The Germans planned to attack in the late Spring or early Summer of 1941 (Hitler's War Directive 21 had specified May 15th as the attack date). The goal was to capture all of European Russia, upto a line from Archangel in the North to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea (the "A-A line") in a single campaigning season.

Their attack was however somewhat delayed for several of reasons:
  1. The build-up of forces took longer than expected.

  2. Some German forces were diverted to attack Yugoslavia (which had been about join the Axis, but the experienced a pro-British military coup), and Greece (which the Italians had been fighting unsuccessfully since the previous year).

  3. The Spring rains came to European Russia later than expected. The rain turned the ground into virtually impassable mud.
As a result of these delays, the Germans did not finally launch their attack until June 22nd. Nevertheless they achieved near total surprise, and won overwhelming victories against the Soviet frontier forces. Ultimately however, the Soviets proved far more resilient than the Germans expected, and the late start date left little time before the Autumn mud and Winter snow, provided further obstacles to the German attack.


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