Why did Adolf Hitler start Operation Barbarossa?

Background current

The German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union 75 years ago. With the "Operation Barbarossa" a war of extermination began, which the German side had been planning since July 1940 at the latest.

German tanks during the attack by the Wehrmacht on the Soviet Union, June 1941. (& copy picture-alliance, IBL Sweden)

On June 22nd, 1941, the German armed forces attacked the Soviet Union. With almost 3.3 million soldiers, the Wehrmacht attacked on a broad front between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea without a declaration of war. The aim was to achieve a "blitzkrieg" success here too. The attack was carefully planned by the Nazi regime under the code name "Barbarossa".

With the invasion of the Soviet Union, an unprecedented war of extermination began in order to create "living space" in the sense of National Socialist ideology. Hitler wanted to wage this war from the beginning. It was the core of his ideological program, which had declared communism and Judaism to be the main opponents. As early as March 1941, Hitler had clearly formulated in his instructions to the Chief of the Wehrmacht Command Staff, Jodl: "This coming campaign is more than just a battle of arms; it also leads to a conflict of two world views. [...] The Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia, as before 'Oppressors' of the people must be eliminated. "[1] Likewise, the conquered areas and their inhabitants should be exploited economically.

Initial situation and preparations

After planning since the summer, the Wehrmacht made concrete preparations for a war against the Soviet Union from December 1940 on Hitler's instructions. The plan was to kill a large part of the local population, to "Germanize" a small part - and to enslave or expel the rest. This should create the "living space in the east" for the settlement of Germans. The same motive had already formed the basis of the war against Poland.

The final name of the campaign, based on Emperor Friedrich I from the noble family of the Staufer, was included in the "Instruction No. 21 Case Barbarossa" of December 18, 1940 and was generally used as an alias for the attack since January 1941. However, the reasons for the choice of name are still unclear.

For the "Operation Barbarossa" the Wehrmacht was committed to merciless warfare. After Hitler swore the generals to the special character of the upcoming campaign (see above), a decree was issued on May 13th that allowed the soldiers to take brutal action against the Soviet civilian population. In addition, the Wehrmacht High Command issued "Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars" of the Red Army on June 6th on its own initiative.

These orders, which were contrary to international law, only met with occasional contradictions and were later largely obeyed. From the outset, the military leadership accepted the mass death of Soviet prisoners of war approvingly. As a result, more than half of the 5.7 million Red Army soldiers who were captured by Germany by the end of the war should die. Finally, the Wehrmacht helped the SS as an accomplice in the mass murder of a section of the Soviet population whom the National Socialists viewed as racially inferior and politically unpopular.

The campaign with the means of "barbaric terror" [2] (Götz Aly) was explicitly directed against the civilian population. Protected by the decree of May 13, Germans ravaged the country, shot, hanged, gassed, burned and killed Soviet men, women and children. Or put them to death from hunger and cold. The staff in Berlin had expected that the army of over three million men could not be fed via regular supply routes. Therefore they should feed themselves from the land. Knowing that food was only available in limited quantities in the Soviet Union, it was coldly stated in a meeting of the State Secretaries in May 1941 that "[...] undoubtedly tens of millions of people will starve to death if we take what we need out of the country" [ 3].

Attack and justification through Nazi propaganda

The Nazi regime only informed the German population of the attack on the day of the attack and tried to portray it as a preventive strike against an immediate threat from "Jewish Bolshevism". In fact, the Red Army was not really ready to defend itself, even if the German deployment had been noticed. But Stalin had wanted to avoid any provocation, trusting in the good and contractually regulated relationship with Germany ("non-aggression pact"). This was also the conclusion reached in the German General Staff.

In the early morning hours of June 22, 1941, the Foreign Office finally sent a note to the Soviet government. On Hitler's instructions, the word "declaration of war" was not allowed to be mentioned in it. Instead, the German diplomats pointed out that the Russian behavior had forced the German armed forces to take countermeasures.

Course and outcome of the operation

At the beginning, the operation was successful for the Wehrmacht. The Red Army was surprised by the force of the attack and initially suffered heavy losses. Within a few months, however, the German attack came to a standstill, accompanied by severe supply bottlenecks. The onset of winter also bothered the German soldiers. In the expectation of a quick decision, the German associations were not adequately equipped with winter-proof clothing.

In December 1941 the Soviet Army launched a large-scale counter-offensive. The "Army Group Center" almost collapsed as a result of this offensive. The failure of Operation "Barbarossa" off Moscow and the later defeat of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad with the surrender of their few remaining soldiers at the end of January / beginning of February 1943 are considered to be the turning points of the Second World War.

By the end of the war in May 1945, a total of up to 27 million people on the Soviet side lost their lives in the German-Soviet war, almost half of them soldiers. On the German side, between six and seven million people died in the entire Second World War, the vast majority of them soldiers.

Wehrmacht exhibition

From April 1995 to October 1999, the touring exhibition "War of Extermination. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944", organized and financed by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, was shown in German and Austrian cities. After massive criticism, the exhibition was checked and numerous serious factual deficiencies, errors and manipulations were found. In November 2001 the second Wehrmacht exhibition was opened in Berlin under the title "Crimes of the Wehrmacht. Dimensions of the War of Extermination 1941–1944". It was shown at eleven locations in Germany, Luxembourg and Austria, most recently in Hamburg from January to March 2004 and then transferred to the holdings of the German Historical Museum (DHM) Berlin.

The exhibition started a fundamental, emotional and controversial debate about the role of the Wehrmacht in the war of extermination. Because the exhibition focused on the fact that the Wehrmacht was also a criminal system - but that does not mean that all of its members were criminals too. The debate about the crimes of the Wehrmacht revealed the problems Germans still had with the Nazi past at the end of the 1990s.

Even 75 years after the attack on the Soviet Union, there still seems to be a lot of speechlessness when it comes to the war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. Historian Götz Aly therefore recently criticized "historical political ignorance and bottomless rawness" [4]. And called for a new debate about German guilt.

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