Operation Barbarossa

Operation Barbarossa
Part of the Eastern Front of World War II
Operation Barbarossa Infobox.jpg
Clockwise from top left: German soldiers advance through Northern Russia, German flamethrower team in the Soviet Union, Soviet planes flying over German positions near Moscow, Soviet prisoners of war on the way to German prison camps, Soviet soldiers fire at German positions.
Date22 June – 5 December 1941
(5 months, 1 week and 6 days)
LocationCentral, Northeast, and Eastern Europe
ResultSee Aftermath
 Soviet Union
Commanders and leaders
Units involved

Frontline strength (initial)

Frontline strength (initial)

14,000,000 reserves (former conscripts who finished their mandatory service)[17][18]
Casualties and losses

Total military casualties:

Total military casualties:

Operation Barbarossa (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the code name for the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, which started on Sunday, 22 June 1941, during World War II. The operation stemmed from Nazi Germany's ideological aims to conquer the western Soviet Union so that it could be repopulated by Germans, to use Slavs, especially Poles, as a slave-labour force for the Axis war effort, and to seize the oil reserves of the Caucasus and the agricultural resources of Soviet territories.[25]

In the two years leading up to the invasion, Germany and the Soviet Union signed political and economic pacts for strategic purposes. Nevertheless, the German High Command began planning an invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1940 (under the codename Operation Otto), which Adolf Hitler authorized on 18 December 1940. Over the course of the operation, about four million Axis powers personnel, the largest invasion force in the history of warfare, invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 mi) front. In addition to troops, the Wehrmacht employed some 600,000 motor vehicles, and between 600,000 and 700,000 horses for non-combat operations. The offensive marked an escalation of the war, both geographically and in the formation of the Allied coalition.

Operationally, German forces achieved major victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union, mainly in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and inflicted, as well as sustained, heavy casualties. Despite these Axis successes, the German offensive stalled in the Battle of Moscow and the subsequent Soviet winter counteroffensive pushed German troops back. The Red Army absorbed the Wehrmacht's strongest blows and forced the unprepared Germans into a war of attrition. The Wehrmacht never again mounted a simultaneous offensive along the entire Eastern front. The failure of the operation drove Hitler to demand further operations of increasingly limited scope inside the Soviet Union, such as Case Blue in 1942 and Operation Citadel in 1943 – all of which eventually failed.

The failure of Operation Barbarossa proved a turning point in the fortunes of the Third Reich.[26] Most importantly, the operation opened up the Eastern Front, in which more forces were committed than in any other theater of war in world history. The Eastern Front became the site of some of the largest battles, most horrific atrocities, and highest casualties for Soviet and Axis units alike, all of which influenced the course of both World War II and the subsequent history of the 20th century. The German armies captured 5,000,000 Red Army troops, who were denied the protection guaranteed by the Hague Conventions and the 1929 Geneva Convention. A majority of Red Army POWs never returned alive. The Nazis deliberately starved to death, or otherwise killed, 3.3 million prisoners, as well as a huge number of civilians through the "Hunger Plan" that aimed at largely replacing the Slavic population with German settlers.[27] Einsatzgruppen death squads and gassing operations murdered over a million Soviet Jews as part of the Holocaust.[28]


Racial policies of Nazi Germany

As early as 1925, Adolf Hitler vaguely declared in his political manifesto and autobiography Mein Kampf that he would invade the Soviet Union, asserting that the German people needed to secure Lebensraum ("living space") to ensure the survival of Germany for generations to come.[29] On 10 February 1939, Hitler told his army commanders that the next war would be "purely a war of Weltanschauungen ... totally a people's war, a racial war". On 23 November, once World War II had already started, Hitler declared that "racial war has broken out and this war shall determine who shall govern Europe, and with it, the world".[30] The racial policy of Nazi Germany portrayed the Soviet Union (and all of Eastern Europe) as populated by non-Aryan Untermenschen ("sub-humans"), ruled by Jewish Bolshevik conspirators.[31] Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf that Germany's destiny was to "turn to the East" as it did "six hundred years ago" (see Ostsiedlung).[32] Accordingly, it was stated Nazi policy to kill, deport, or enslave the majority of Russian and other Slavic populations and repopulate the land with Germanic peoples, under the Generalplan Ost.[33] The Germans' belief in their ethnic superiority is evident in official German records and discernible in pseudoscientific articles in German periodicals at the time, which covered topics such as "how to deal with alien populations".[34]

While older histories tended to emphasize the notion of a "Clean Wehrmacht", the historian Jürgen Förster notes that "In fact, the military commanders were caught up in the ideological character of the conflict, and involved in its implementation as willing participants."[30] Before and during the invasion of the Soviet Union, German troops were heavily indoctrinated with anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic, and anti-Slavic ideology via movies, radio, lectures, books, and leaflets.[35] Likening the Soviets to the forces of Genghis Khan, Hitler told Croatian military leader Slavko Kvaternik that the "Mongolian race" threatened Europe.[36] Following the invasion, Wehrmacht officers told their soldiers to target people who were described as "Jewish Bolshevik subhumans", the "Mongol hordes", the "Asiatic flood", and the "Red beast".[37] Nazi propaganda portrayed the war against the Soviet Union as both an ideological war between German National Socialism and Jewish Bolshevism and a racial war between the Germans and the Jewish, Gypsies, and Slavic Untermenschen.[38] An 'order from the Führer' stated that the Einsatzgruppen were to execute all Soviet functionaries who were "less valuable Asiatics, Gypsies and Jews".[39] German army commanders cast the Jews as the major cause behind the "partisan struggle".[40] The main guideline policy for German troops was "Where there's a partisan, there's a Jew, and where there's a Jew, there's a partisan", or "The partisan is where the Jew is".[41][42] Many German troops viewed the war in Nazi terms and regarded their Soviet enemies as sub-human.[43]

After the war began, the Nazis issued a ban on sexual relations between Germans and foreign slave workers.[44] There were regulations enacted against the Ost-Arbeiter ("Eastern workers") that included the death penalty for sexual relations with a German.[45] Heinrich Himmler, in his secret memorandum, Reflections on the Treatment of Peoples of Alien Races in the East (dated 25 May 1940), outlined the future plans for the non-German populations in the East.[46] Himmler believed the Germanization process in Eastern Europe would be complete when "in the East dwell only men with truly German, Germanic blood".[47]

The Nazi secret plan Generalplan Ost ("General Plan for the East"), which was prepared in 1941 and confirmed in 1942, called for a "new order of ethnographical relations" in the territories occupied by Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe. The plan envisaged ethnic cleansing, executions, and enslavement of the overwhelming majority of the populations of conquered countries with very small differing percentages of the various conquered nations undergoing Germanization, expulsion into the depths of Russia, and other fates. The net effect of this plan would be to ensure that the conquered territories would be Germanized. It was divided into two parts: the Kleine Planung ("small plan"), which covered actions to be taken during the war, and the Große Planung ("large plan"), which covered actions to be undertaken after the war was won, and to be implemented gradually over a period of 25 to 30 years.[48]

Evidence from a speech given by General Erich Hoepner indicates the disposition of Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi racial plan, as he informed the 4th Panzer Group that the war against the Soviet Union was "an essential part of the German people's struggle for existence" (Daseinskampf), also referring to the imminent battle as the "old struggle of Germans against Slavs" and even stated, "the struggle must aim at the annihilation of today's Russia and must therefore be waged with unparalleled harshness".[49] Hoepner also added that the Germans were fighting for "the defense of European culture against Moscovite–Asiatic inundation, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism ... No adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared." Walther von Brauchitsch also told his subordinates that troops should view the war as a "struggle between two different races and [should] act with the necessary severity".[50] Racial motivations were central to Nazi ideology and played a key role in planning for Operation Barbarossa since both Jews and communists were considered equivalent enemies of the Nazi state. Nazi imperialist ambitions were exercised without moral consideration for either group in their ultimate struggle for Lebensraum.[51] In the eyes of the Nazis, the war against the Soviet Union would be a Vernichtungskrieg ("war of annihilation").[30]

German-Soviet relations of 1939–40

The geopolitical disposition of Europe in 1941, immediately before the start of Operation Barbarossa. The grey area represents Nazi Germany, its allies, and countries under its firm control.

In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. A secret protocol to the pact outlined an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union on the division of the eastern European border states between their respective "spheres of influence": the Soviet Union and Germany would partition Poland in the event of an invasion by Germany, and the Soviets would be allowed to overrun the Baltic states and Finland.[52] On 23 August 1939 the rest of the world learned of this pact but were unaware of the provisions to partition Poland.[53] The pact stunned the world because of the parties' earlier mutual hostility and their conflicting ideologies.[54] The conclusion of this pact was followed by the German invasion of Poland on 1 September that triggered the outbreak of World War II in Europe, then the Soviet invasion of Poland that led to the annexation of the eastern part of the country.[55] As a result of the pact, Germany and the Soviet Union maintained reasonably strong diplomatic relations for two years and fostered an important economic relationship. The countries entered a trade pact in 1940 by which the Soviets received German military equipment and trade goods in exchange for raw materials, such as oil and wheat, to help the Nazis circumvent a British blockade of Germany.[56]

Despite the parties' ostensibly cordial relations, each side was highly suspicious of the other's intentions. For instance, the Soviet invasion of Bukovina in June 1940 went beyond their sphere of influence as agreed with Germany.[57] After Germany entered the Axis Pact with Japan and Italy, it began negotiations about a potential Soviet entry into the pact.[58] After two days of negotiations in Berlin from 12 to 14 November 1940, Germany presented a written proposal for a Soviet entry into the Axis. On 25 November 1940, the Soviet Union offered a written counter-proposal to join the Axis if Germany would agree to refrain from interference in the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, but Germany did not respond.[58] As both sides began colliding with each other in Eastern Europe, conflict appeared more likely, although they did sign a border and commercial agreement addressing several open issues in January 1941. According to historian Robert Service, Joseph Stalin was convinced that the overall military strength of the USSR was such that he had nothing to fear and anticipated an easy victory should Germany attack; moreover, Stalin believed that since the Germans were still fighting the British in the west, Hitler would be unlikely to open up a two front war and subsequently delayed the reconstruction of defensive fortifications in the border regions.[59] When German soldiers swam across the Bug River to warn the Red Army of an impending attack, they were treated like enemy agents and shot.[60] Some historians[who?] believe that Stalin, despite providing an amicable front to Hitler, did not wish to remain allies with Germany. Rather, Stalin might have had intentions to break off from Germany and proceed with his own campaign against Germany to be followed by one against the rest of Europe.[61]

German invasion plans

The Marcks Plan was the original German plan of attack for Operation Barbarossa, as depicted in a US Government study (March 1955).

Stalin's reputation as a brutal dictator contributed both to the Nazis' justification of their assault and their faith in success; many competent and experienced military officers were killed in the Great Purge of the 1930s, leaving the Red Army with a relatively inexperienced leadership compared to that of their German counterparts. The Nazis often emphasized the Soviet regime's brutality when targeting the Slavs with propaganda.[62] They also claimed that the Red Army was preparing to attack the Germans, and their own invasion was thus presented as a pre-emptive strike.[62]

In the middle of 1940, following the rising tension between the Soviet Union and Germany over territories in the Balkans, an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union seemed to Hitler to be the only solution.[63] While no concrete plans were made yet, Hitler told one of his generals in June that the victories in Western Europe finally freed his hands for his important real task: the showdown with Bolshevism.[64] With the successful end to the campaign in France, General Erich Marcks was assigned to the working group drawing up the initial invasion plans of the Soviet Union. The first battle plans were entitled Operation Draft East (but colloquially it was known as the Marcks Plan).[65] His report advocated the A-A line to be the operational objective of any invasion of the Soviet Union. This goal would extend from the northern city of Arkhangelsk on the Arctic Sea through Gorky and Rostov to the port city of Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga on the Caspian Sea. The report concluded that this military border would reduce the threat to Germany (and the Third Reich) from attacks by enemy bombers.[65]

Although Hitler was warned by his general staff that occupying "Western Russia" would create "more of a drain than a relief for Germany's economic situation", he anticipated compensatory benefits, such as the demobilization of entire divisions to relieve the acute labor shortage in German industry; the exploitation of Ukraine as a reliable and immense source of agricultural products; the use of forced labor to stimulate Germany's overall economy; and the expansion of territory to improve Germany's efforts to isolate the United Kingdom.[66] Hitler was convinced that Britain would sue for peace once the Germans triumphed in the Soviet Union,[67] and if they did not, he would use the resources available in the East to defeat the British Empire.[68]

We only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.[69]

—Adolf Hitler

On 5 December 1940, Hitler received the final military plans for the invasion on which the German High Command had been working since July 1940 under the codename "Operation Otto". Hitler, however, was dissatisfied with these plans and on 18 December issued Führer Directive 21,[e] which called for a new battle plan, now code-named "Operation Barbarossa".[71] The operation was named after medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century.[72] The invasion was set for 15 May 1941, though it was delayed for over a month in allowing for further preparations and possibly better weather.[73] (See Reasons for delay.)

According to a 1978 essay by German historian Andreas Hillgruber, the invasion plans drawn up by the German military elite were coloured by hubris stemming from the rapid defeat of France at the hands of the "invincible" Wehrmacht and by ignorance tempered by traditional German stereotypes of Russia as a primitive, backward "Asiatic" country.[f] Red Army soldiers were considered brave and tough, but the officer corps was held in contempt. The leadership of the Wehrmacht paid little attention to politics, culture and the considerable industrial capacity of the Soviet Union, in favour of a very narrow military view.[75] Hillgruber argued that because these assumptions were shared by the entire military elite, Hitler was able to push through with a "war of annihilation" that would be waged in the most inhumane fashion possible with the complicity of "several military leaders", even though it was quite clear that this would be in violation of all accepted norms of warfare.[75]

In autumn 1940, high-ranking German officials drafted a memorandum on the dangers of an invasion of the Soviet Union. They said Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States would end up as only a further economic burden for Germany.[76] It was argued that the Soviets in their current bureaucratic form were harmless and that the occupation would not benefit Germany.[76] Hitler disagreed with economists about the risks and told his right-hand man Hermann Göring, the chief of the Luftwaffe, that he would no longer listen to misgivings about the economic dangers of a war with Russia.[77] It is speculated that this was passed on to General Georg Thomas, who had produced reports that predicted a net economic drain for Germany in the event of an invasion of the Soviet Union unless its economy was captured intact and the Caucasus oilfields seized in the first blow, and he consequently revised his future report to fit Hitler's wishes.[77] The Red Army's ineptitude in the Winter War against Finland in 1939–40 convinced Hitler of a quick victory within a few months. Neither Hitler nor the General Staff anticipated a long campaign lasting into the winter, and therefore adequate preparations, such as the distribution of warm clothing and winterization of vehicles and lubricants, were not made.[78]

Beginning in March 1941, Göring's Green Folder laid out details for the disposal of the Soviet economy after conquest. The Hunger Plan outlined how the entire urban population of conquered territories was to be starved to death, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and urban space for the German upper class.[79] Nazi policy aimed to destroy the Soviet Union as a political entity in accordance with the geopolitical Lebensraum ideals for the benefit of future generations of the "Nordic master race".[62] In 1941, Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, later appointed Reich Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories, suggested that conquered Soviet territory should be administered in the following Reichskommissariate ("Reich Commissionerships"):

Administrative subdivisions of conquered Soviet territory
as envisaged, and then partially realized, by Alfred Rosenberg[80][81]
Name Note Map
Baltic countries and Belarus
Reichskommissariat Ostland (1942).svg
Ukraine, enlarged eastwards to the Volga
Reichskommissariat Ukraine (1942).svg
Southern Russia and the Caucasus region
Moscow metropolitan area and remaining European Russia
Central Asian republics and territories

German military planners also researched Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia. In their calculations, they concluded that there was little danger of a large-scale retreat of the Red Army into the Russian interior, as it could not afford to give up the Baltic states, Ukraine, or the Moscow and Leningrad regions, all of which were vital to the Red Army for supply reasons and would thus have to be defended.[82] Hitler and his generals disagreed on where Germany should focus its energy.[83][84] Hitler, in many discussions with his generals, repeated his order of "Leningrad first, the Donbass second, Moscow third";[85] but he consistently emphasized the destruction of the Red Army over the achievement of specific terrain objectives.[86] Hitler believed Moscow to be of "no great importance" in the defeat of the Soviet Union[g] and instead believed victory would come with the destruction of the Red Army west of the capital, especially west of the Western Dvina and Dnieper rivers, and this pervaded the plan for Barbarossa.[88][89] This belief later led to disputes between Hitler and several German senior officers, including Heinz Guderian, Gerhard Engel, Fedor von Bock and Franz Halder, who believed the decisive victory could only be delivered at Moscow.[90] Hitler had grown overconfident in his own military judgment as a result of the rapid successes in Western Europe.[91]


Albert Speer said that oil had been a major factor in the decision to invade the Soviet Union. Hitler believed that Baku's oil resources were essential for the survival of the Third Reich, as a dearth of oil resources was a vulnerability for Germany's military.[92]

Other Languages
беларуская: План Барбароса
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Плян Барбароса
Bahasa Indonesia: Operasi Barbarossa
Кыргызча: «Барбаросса»
Bahasa Melayu: Operasi Barbarossa
norsk nynorsk: Operasjon Barbarossa
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Barbarossa rejasi
Simple English: Operation Barbarossa
slovenščina: Operacija Barbarossa
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Operacija Barbarossa
татарча/tatarça: Barbarossa operatsiäse