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Operation Barbarossa; German Defeat on the Eastern Front

By Edited Jul 2, 2016 1 2

Operation Barbarossa


Operation Barbarossa

It is considered by many historians to be one of the most intricately planned assaults in military history; it was clearly the largest military operation in human history. Hitler’s long held vision for Germany was brought to the planning table incorporating impeccable foresight, strategic analysis, surveillance, and logistics brilliance.[1] Every detail, even down to its code name, was carefully considered. This operation would be destiny fulfilled and like the promise of its legendary namesake, Operation Barbarossa would restore Germany to its ancient greatness. After months of planning, tanks, aircrafts, soldiers, and supplies would be moved into position to manifest the inevitable, but what began as a glorious victory would over the course of six months end in total defeat; Hitler would never see his long held vision come to fruition.               

Though Operation Barbarossa was planning par excellence on many levels it was also critically flawed. Historians have long debated the outcome of Barbarossa though few seem able to agree on a single cause for its failure. This is of course with good reason; Operation Barbarossa was a multi-faceted military operation spanning thousands of miles, engaging millions of soldiers, and pitting confidence against survival. In the end over-confidence in the German military and a blatant adherence to an ideal of racial superiority would turn Hitler’s ideological war against him.[2]                                                                                                  

Operation Barbarossa Map

The debate surrounding Hitler’s ego and his apparent bout with tunnel vision have produced a substantial literature base and while the true answers may forever elude us one thing is certain; both conditions fed off each other and produced a catastrophic result on the Eastern Front. One year into World War II and after a series of swift and decisive campaigns, Nazi Germany seemed indomitable. Their Blitzgreig strategy, or lightning war, proved overwhelmingly successful against Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France assuring Germany undisputable dominance in Western Europe. Hitler’s strategies and ideals seemed flawless and though during the Battle of Britain the German’s suffered considerable causality and losses, Hitler would not be dissuaded from his objective. Clearly the military victories outnumbered the losses and reinforced in Hitler the notion that Soviet resistance would completely give way once Germany destroyed the Red Army within the border areas.[3] Operation Barbarossa would follow the previously successful strategic pattern moving into Soviet territory and leveling massive assaults from land and air. The result, as Hitler presumed, caught the Soviets completely off guard. Within twenty-four hours the Soviets suffered hundreds of thousands of causalities, over twelve hundred planes destroyed and thousands of prisoners captured.[4]

This victory, though another in Hitler’s growing list of successes, would over-inflate his confidence and have over arching and negative consequences for the operation.                                    Historians at this point certainly agree that Hitler enjoyed a robust ego though do not seem to agree on its root; cultural ideology, personal arrogance, physical proof of military superiority all seem to have played a role. John Plowright contends that German over-confidence was based in the belief that the “Slavs were an inferior race” and the entire Soviet state was “a rotten edifice requiring little outside pressure to make it crumble”.[5] Niall Ferguson took this confidence a step further asserting that Hitler would achieve his goals by waging a new kind of war, a war with no rules that would result in the ethnographic transformation Hitler envisioned.[6] From this it seems plausible that while Hitler’s ultimate objective of destroying the Jewish Bolshevik’s never wavered, these multiple and early victories clearly blinded him to the enormity of the Soviet army, an army that would have several strategic echelons waiting in the wings. Hitler, fighting a war on two fronts would realize too late his numbers were no match. This is a point Weinberg makes well when he indicates that German military leaders did not understand “the implications of the determined fight most Red Army men would put up with”.[7]   The Soviets, though suffering considerable losses were not acting defeated. Despite it all, they fought hard and often inflicted their own damage. It might be important to consider that while many Soviets were deplorably treated by Stalin, Soviet prisoners suffered even more at the hands of the German’s and as such were encouraged to fight on in the face of any obstacle; clearly a condition Hitler had not considered.    

Research clearly illustrates that Hitler’s over-confidence yielded bad results with numerous works of scholarship that demonstrate this. What seems to be missing from the material is a more in-depth investigation to the conditions and beliefs that produced the thought patterns Hitler brought to the planning table. His writing in Mein Kampf introduced the world to an already developed personality, a world view that would continue to grow albeit in alarming ways, but one that had purpose and future considerations. This is a man that wielded extraordinary power and control over his subordinates, the citizens of Germany, and the world and yet hindsight shows us at multiple junctions he could have been stopped. That mysterious power must be deep rooted and when revealed I believe will illuminate actions and outcomes from a more accurate perspective by identifying his true perspective. Further research in this direction will also help the world to fully appreciate the depths of Hitler’s racial ideology.                       The idea of expansion to the east was deeply engrained in Hitler. In 1925 he writes in Mein Kampf that the German people needed Lebensraum, living space and raw materials. He saw it as Germany’s destiny “to end the Jewish domination in Russia” and in doing so would end the Russian state. [8] For Hitler, this confrontation was inevitable and could only lead to mastery of the world. From here Hitler’s vision reaches genocidal proportions. Accomplished in four phases, Hitler would first destroy the Soviet state thus granting Germany full control over Eastern Europe. The second phase would put in place a planned starvation plan to kill the inhabitants of these newly conquered areas. The third phase would be Hitler’s final solution for the Jews followed by a fourth phase where German colonists would re-populate the newly cleared areas.      

On this horrific subject the literature base explodes with an endless litany of theory; all bone chilling because they are seemingly well supported. Here again Plowright sees “the short-sighted Nazi racism and planned atrocities encouraging Soviet soldiers to fight even harder” and once again underestimating the strength and determination of the Soviet military.[9] One point to consider that was clearly overlooked by Hitler is that Soviet soldiers were no stranger to Stalin’s atrocities and as such would not tolerate the same from Hitler. Further while Hitler was clearly dedicated to establishing the superior Aryan race the Soviets were equally dedicated to preserving their own. There is clearly something, some belief or conviction at the root of his blinding racial rage and yet volumes of literature seem to support only that it exists. It is disturbing to consider that hatred on such overwhelming levels can reside in a man capable of developing and executing intricately designed plans and processes, all of which require considerable vision and understanding on multiple planes of existence.     

Ferguson takes Hitler’s racist motives into the military itself where he reminds us that Wehrmacht High Command instructed the army to hand over to the Einsatzgruppen not only all prisoners considered Bolshevik but anyone considered politically intolerable.[10] While Ferguson seems to verify again that Hitler’s racism is extreme and his control over otherwise intelligent individuals unfathomable he does not reveal its origins. It is important to note that Operation Barbarossa resulted in more deaths than any other military campaign in history and while it opened with astonishing results for Germany, it became clear soon after that this was a war with no end.[11] Yet despite the overwhelming evidence Hitler pushed on; long into the winter, without adequate clothing his soldiers marched to their death. Blinding following or running in terror that is the distinction that will clarify the rest. Once again research reveals what exists but not how it came to be. Hitler’s world view clearly influenced every aspect of his reign over Germany and understanding its development would provide future society with better tools to prevent similar acts of genocide.      

Few will argue that Hitler and the ideals he espoused, at the expense of millions of others, were self-serving and extreme. Many presumed when the monster was killed the monstrous acts would stop. Sadly history reveals this is not the case; genocide continues to this very day. While historians have dissected every iota of Operation Barbarossa, the Third Reich, and the pall of destruction, physical and emotional, which resulted from Hitler’s decisions, the real understanding will come when we understand what created that world view as it is from that perspective that society will truly be able to turn the page.


     [1] Niall Ferguson. The War of the World; Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).

     [2] Hermann Rauschning. Hitler Speaks: A Series of Political Conversations with Adolf Hitler on His Aims. (Whitefish: Kessingler Publishing, 2010)

     [3] David Stahel. Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

     [4] Robert J. Kershaw. War Without Garlands; Operation Barbarosssa 1941/1942 (New York: Sarpedon, 2000)

     [5] John Plowright. The Causes, Course, and Outcomes of World War Two. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 72

     [6] Niall Ferguson. The War of the World

     [7] Gerhard L. Weinberg. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 266

     [8] Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf. Translated by James Murphy. (Boring: CPA Book Publisher, 2010), 187

     [9] John Plowright. The Causes, Course, and Outcomes of World War Two.

     [10] Niall Ferguson. The War of the World.

     [11] Gerhard L. Weinberg. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War 



Jul 7, 2013 10:40am
Well written article, good job
Jul 8, 2013 9:40pm
Thank you very much.
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