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June 22, 2024
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Eighty Years Since Operation Barbarossa, The Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union

Part II

Why did the Holocaust as a genocidal movement begin with Operation Barbarossa?

Nazi ideology viewed communism and Judaism as the twin arch evils out to destroy Germany and the world. Now that Germany was engaged in an all-out war to destroy communism, it was only logical to destroy the co-conspirator: the Jews. Hiding behind the all-out war against the Soviet Union, it would be easier for the Germans to murder the Jews. The invasion of the USSR and other Eastern countries, like the Baltic states, brought over a million Jews under German control. What would be done with them?

Before the outbreak of the war the Nazi hierarchy toyed with several solutions to the “Jewish problem,” including shipping them to Madagascar and mass sterilization. Eichman, who still saw emigration as the solution, proposed a Jewish reserve in Poland. With the outbreak of the war, all these solutions proved unfeasible; the only remaining alternative was genocide. Physical annihilation was only officially adopted as Nazi policy at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. Death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka still lay in the future, but the die was cast and genocide became a fact. In the course of the war, the Barbarossa campaign would murder 1.4 million.

Until the fall of communism and the release of classified Russian documents in the 1990s, the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht (Nazi uniformed armed forces) was accepted as fact—that the Wehrmacht did not sully its hands with the atrocities of the Einsatzgruppen (German mobile killing units), but were just interested in strictly military targets and turned a blind eye to the atrocities.

Michael Geheran, deputy director of the West Point Holocaust Center and assistant professor of history at West Point, points to overwhelming evidence refuting this myth. The Wehrmacht actively aided the Einsatzgruppen, providing logistical support, ammunition and lodging. Sometimes the army committed massacres on their own. German generals rarely protested the atrocities. (Erwin Rommel was one of the exceptions.) Not one German general resigned in protest. The army and Einsatzgruppen worked hand-in-glove. The Wehrmacht even signed an agreement with the SS outlining collaboration in mass murder.

Geheran says by late 1941 German civilians were well aware of the atrocities. Over 10 million German soldiers served on the Russian front, and in letters home they openly described the horrific atrocities. The Western allies knew of the atrocities committed on the Eastern front from the beginning.

Until the battle of Moscow in October 1941, the Germans won victory after stunning victory. They won every battle but lost the whole campaign. According to Geheran, two key factors caused the German defeat: poor intelligence and logistics.

The allies (especially the British) had superb intelligence, cracking the much vaunted German Enigma code and maintaining a worldwide network of well-placed spies. The Germans, by contrast, lacked basic intelligence. For example, in the Battle of Kursk, the Germans relied mostly on aerial photos of the front and had no concept of the mass fortification the Russians possessed in Kursk. The Germans were slaughtered. The Germans greatly underestimated the size of the Russian reserves and overestimated their own fighting ability. Hitler said that had he known how strong the Russians were he would not have invaded Russia. German intelligence estimated 150 Russian divisions. In fact the Russians possessed over 300, many of them in Siberia.

The greatest loss that the Germans suffered was not tanks or material but irreplaceable manpower. Within a few months of Barbarossa the Germans lost the crème of the officer corps. The leadership that the officers provided was irreplaceable. The German army excelled in training and leadership, but with the loss of so many able officers, training and leadership was seriously impaired for the duration of the war. Thus, according to Geheran, during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, the allies faced an army of second-rate units with incompetent officers, a far cry from the army of 1941.

It would be years before the American army would fight the Germans in Europe, but America was not neutral and provided massive vital supplies to the Soviets (and the British and other allies) by means of the Lend-Lease Act. The American aid to the Soviet Union consisted of $11 billion (not adjusted for inflation) worth of food, planes, ammunition and most importantly, over 400,000 trucks and 2.6 million tons of gasoline and oil, among other things. Premiere Kruschev said that but for Lend-Lease Russia would have lost the war.

The Germans in the first few months of Barbarossa lost 100,000 trucks. The loss was irreplaceable and there was no foreign supplier to make up the loss, à la Lend-Lease. This loss greatly affected German mobility—the German blitzkrieg was based on mobility—and factored in the German defeat at Stalingrad.

According to Geheran and other Barbarossa scholars, Barbarossa was doomed from the beginning because of poor intelligence and logistics. Geheran says that the Germans had only a two-month window of opportunity to win the operation before the army was spent. The Wehrmacht had to deliver a knockout punch, while the Soviets just had to survive to fight another round.

The military and genocidal objectives of Operation Barbarossa were inseparable. Geheran has done a commendable job of demonstrating the close nexus between both objectives and how Operation Barbarossa ushered in the Holocaust.

Jeff Klapper lives in Riverdale.

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