The subject of Today’s History Lesson is probably pretty obvious to any of you that read my drivel on any kind of regular basis. I’m a student of World War II, and it’s mostly what gets covered when I write. So you have a good idea of what’s coming – the start of the most pivotal battle in all of the War. The Great Patriotic War. The German invasion of the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa…Operation “Barbaric” is likely as apt a name, given how the two combatants waged this titanic clash.
I’ve been reading “Absolute War” and, early in the text, author Chris Bellamy distinguishes the concepts of “absolute” and “total” war. In his thinking, “absolute” war is more about the tenacity of the actual fighting that takes place. In Barbarossa, soldiers on both sides were trained to loathe each other at an ideological level, to consider their opponents as subhuman. So it wasn’t just a matter of “we want your territory and we want to beat you.”…it was a condition of “we don’t really see any valid reason for your existence, so whether you live or die is what matters, and we want you dead.” See the difference? As a result, things like giving prisoners medical attention and food or recognizing the human rights of captured citizens or even allowing surrendering prisoners to live were put aside.
Furthermore, the German and Soviet armies were expected to fight to the death, so military leadership really didn’t care about what happened to their own captured soldiers. In fact, the Soviet military considered surrender equivalent to treason, so Soviet prisoners who were later freed often had only a bullet in the head to look forward to.
The “total” aspect of Barbarossa was in its engines and reserves…in other words, nearly every industry switched to war-time production and all citizens were expected to build war goods, ship war goods to the edge of battle, or fight with the war goods.
So in the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, as more than 180 German divisions jumped off along nearly 1,800 miles of Soviet border, the fight for territory would actually be secondary to the fight for existence. And this clash would span nearly four years, cover hundreds of thousands of square miles, witness staggering errors by leadership, see man’s behavior at its basest and most gruesome, and leave in its wake a substantial 8-figure death toll.
To try and grasp even the buildup to Germany’s assault on Soviet Russia moves way beyond the scope of any single entry of Today’s History Lesson. But the scope of Operation Barbarossa also means that there will be lots to talk about over the months (and years?!?) ahead.
Recommended Reading: Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War