June 22, 1941: The German invasion of the Soviet Union begins.
Since the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the two countries maintained a shaky neutrality that allowed them to divide up Central and Eastern Europe. However, there was a feeling of mutual distrust between the countries from the very beginning, and only months after the Treaty of Non-Aggression was signed, Hitler called for preparations for the inevitable “showdown with Bolshevism”. Besides the regular old “destroy Judeo-Bolshevism” deal, other reasons for attack were probably the need for a labor force and supplies (particularly oil). And in 1944, Hitler reinforced the ideological reasoning behind his invasion:
It is eastwards, only and always eastwards, that the veins of our race must expand. It is the direction which Nature herself has decreed for the expansion of the German peoples.
On the morning of June 22, 1941, over three million German troops poured across the front in three groups as part of the invasion, codenamed “Operation Barbarossa” after Frederick Barbarossa, the twelfth-century Holy Roman Emperor. The invasion was not exactly a surprise (it is said that Stalin even ignored warnings of a German attack), but the Soviet forces and leadership were still ill-prepared for such a massive strike. Within a few days, the Germans had penetrated hundreds of miles into Russian territory, but it would eventually become clear that they had greatly underestimated the capabilities of their foe. Like Napoleon’s invasion 129 years earlier, the German attack ended in failure; however, by the end of the Russian Campaign, both sides had suffered beyond belief. Something like 30 million people, both soldiers and civilians, died in those four years.
The Atlantic’s compilation of Operation Barbarossa photographs.