The 22nd of June marks the 78th anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in human history, the titanic World War 2 struggle between Germany and Russia. In this clash of irreconcilable racial and ideological foes, no quarter was asked for, no quarter given. It is estimated that during the ensuing four years of relentless fighting, a staggering 30 million perished, roughly a rate of half a million deaths a month from June 1941 to April 1945, when the fighting ended.
When Adolf Hitler founded his third Reich in January of 1933 there was a decisive ‘quickening’ of history towards the cataclysmic Second World War. A strong and capable race had embraced the assertive philosophy of the Nationalist Socialist Party of Hitler; as events would show, a portentous development for the rest of the world.
Humbled, despite their mighty efforts in the First World War (1914-18), betrayal by both external as well as internal forces, their once strong and orderly country was reduced to near anarchy. In 1933 to many Germans, the National Socialist Party of Hitler seemed like the benediction the nation had long prayed for.
By 1939, in six short years, the inherent abilities of the disciplined Germans had once again created a powerful nation with an awesome military machine. The martial race was armed and ready. Led by its extraordinarily able General Staff, which both friend and foe considered a “corps d ’elite”, Hitler’s Wehrmacht was easily the best fighting machine in the world at the time.
It was said of the German officer class that they were “men of out- standing intellectual aptitude and physical stamina, governed by a code of ascetic self-discipline. Their strength lay in their complete self-effacement to the point of anonymity. In times of peace they were expected to devote themselves wholly to knowledge and education. In war, outstanding bravery and capability were demanded of them.”
As the war drums rolled across Europe in 1939-’40, the aggressive German army triumphed with surprising ease over once vaunted armies of Poland, France and other European nations. In the case of the French, they in fact out-numbered the Germans in many strategic aspects such as in men and tanks. But in military thinking the French lived in the past, stuck in earlier wars, trench warfare or even Napoleonic times, when the infantry or the cavalry charge won the day.
The Germans on the other hand, were ready for mobile warfare. Leading with mechanised armoured forces, closely supported by deadly accurate air attacks and artillery fire, optimum use of advance technology of the day, including radio for real time communication, the German army was virtually unstoppable. France was conquered in a few short weeks. After the desperate Dunkirk evacuation, the British were never more thankful for the English Channel!
Hitler considered a seaborne attack on Britain. Then, after a half-hearted attempt to subdue the stubborn island with air power alone, Hitler turned his eyes to the East. The stage was now set for the greatest human conflict in history.
The Soviet Union, the largest country in the world, and which perhaps maintained the biggest army at the time, was shrouded in mystery. The Stalinist system did not provide statistics of its military strength at information bureaus. But it was obvious that in comparison to Western Europe the conditions in the Soviet Union were primitive. The Russian roads were not anything like what the motorised German army had used in Europe. There were very few all-weather roads in the country proving a terrible obstacle in bad Russian weather conditions. And unlike other countries the Germans had vanquished in the previous summers, the Soviet Union was much too large to be brought under in one aggressive dash.
But the German army, full of confidence after its remarkable achievements in the previous summer campaigns, had come to believe that nothing was impossible for the German soldier. Addressing the higher echelons of the army, Hitler boastfully predicted that when Operation Barbarossa, the name given to the German plan for the impending campaign against the Soviet Union commenced, “The world will hold its breath.” “One good kick on the door and the entire rotten structure will collapse,” he further emphasised his conviction that the Soviet Union was no match for the proven, battle hardened German war machine.
This confidence was reflected in the astonishing fact that the German army launched the war against the Soviet Union, where it was expected to conquer an area of about one million square miles in one summer campaign, with just a few more divisions more than it had deployed in the previous summer against France, a country of approximately 150,000 square miles.
For the “good kick on the door” the Germans gathered nearly four million soldiers on the long Russian border. Provided air cover by the vigorous Luftwaffe, supported by nearly four thousand pieces of heavy artillery and most importantly, given the cutting impetus by the brilliantly led panzer divisions, the German army’s campaign in the East was indeed going to open with a breath taking fury.
In view of the immense land area it had to conquer with human resources Germany could not afford to keep in uniform for too long, the Wehrmacht had to gain a decisive result in that summer of 1941. With this strategic goal in mind, its military planners aimed at fatally wounding the Red Army west of the Dnieper River. Committing themselves to a huge undertaking with a numerically weaker force, the Germans were gambling on the skills and capabilities of its soldiers to bring them a quick victory.
For operational purposes they divided their forces in to three large army groups. The Army Group North under the command of Field Marshal von Leeb was to capture the Baltic area and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). The Army Group Centre under Field Marshal von Bock was to drive to Moscow through the Russian heartland. Field Marshal von Rundstedt leading the Army Group South was to bring the fertile Ukraine under its heel.
After a few nervous postponements the date for the opening of the campaign was fixed for 22 June, the same day that Napoleon, in 1812, launched his ill-fated invasion of Russia. Starting their eastward thrust at about 3 a.m., the German war machine once again gave an almost flawless display of its awesome prowess. Within 48 hours more than 2,000 Russian fighter planes were down. Exploiting the gaps punched in the defensive barriers of the Russians by their opening salvos the German Panzer divisions drove on relentlessly with the aim of achieving strategic dominance, leaving the task of destroying the shocked and confused stragglers of the enemy forces to the closely following infantry divisions.
By mid-July, in just three weeks of fighting, Russians had lost 3500 tanks, 6000 planes and more than two million men. The famous German tank commander General Heinz Guderian leading a powerful armoured Corp attached to Army Group Centre noted in a memorandum that the “Russians were severely hampered by political demands of the State leadership and suffered a basic fear of taking responsibility. This, combined with bad coordination meant that orders to carry out necessary measures, counter-measures in particular, are issued too late. Soviet tank forces were insufficiently trained and lacked intelligence and initiative during the offensive.”
In these early stages of the war to many observers it appeared that the Wehrmacht had once again delivered a death blow to a powerful adversary well before it could even fully comprehend the attackers’ diabolical intentions.
The Germans meant business. Field Marshall Walter von Reichenau who commanded the German 6th army attached to Army Group South, issued an order to his soldiers, “The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence on Western civilisation. In this eastern theatre our soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of war but is also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception and the avenger of the bestialities that have been inflicted on Germany and our racially related nations. For this reason, the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for severe but just retribution that must be meted out to this subhuman species of Jewry.”
Although German propaganda portrayed the Russian as no match on the battle field to the masterful Teutons, only a semi- Asiatic primitive with sub-human qualities, it did not take long for the German soldiers to realise that in the Russian vastness they were facing a fight to the death with this Slavic race.
On that bloody battlefield German skills confronted Russian stubbornness, the attacker’s courage was met by the defender’s recklessness, and the conquerors contempt was matched by the resisters hatred.
The Eastern campaign that began so dazzlingly for the invader on 22 June 1941 raged on in the mind-boggling vastness of Russia until mid-1945. The young soldiers of the two nations were locked in a war of savagery on a scale never witnessed in human conflict.
Nazism and Communism, the ideologies professed by the two armies that clashed with such bitterness in 1941, are dead in these two countries today. Germany has rebuilt and is one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. Russia after her failed experiment with Communism is yet struggling to find a place in world affairs that befits its size and potential. But they both surely remember the four years when the best of these two brave nations fought on a terrible battlefield and often died a soldier’s death.
Although miniscule in comparison to a World War, here in Sri Lanka we too have experienced wars, bombs and mass violence. The bombs of 21 April brought nationwide fear, paralysing the country for months. Even today our leaders and institutions are guarded round the clock. Russia, the land of Peter, Catherine, Kutuzov, Tolstoy, Lenin is no run of the mill nation. To show fear is unworthy, to overemphasis your personal security is vulgar. In cities like Leningrad, when the Germans were only a rifle shot away, while shells were crashing down on the doomed city, schools were run, transport was attempted, orchestras played their music, the Russians were not going to cower in a hole.
As the fortunes of war ebbed the situation in Germany too turned dire. With the entry of America into the war, the scales turned against the Germans. From 1943 Germany came under intense bombing, the allies were determined to degrade their economy and the capacity to wage war. But a people that even the mighty Romans could not subdue, is no laughing matter. From the time of Arminius, they have displayed a sturdy independence and an indomitable will. In all most every area of human endeavour, German abilities stand in the forefront.
When the bombs started coming down Germany did not run for cover. People turned up for work, the offices were open, the schools kept going and the trains ran. In some places the rail tracks were bombed almost daily, only to be repaired immediately. Thousands died in the bombing, but give up, they did not. Everybody fought; there were more volunteers, even the generals drove their own vehicles, releasing the drivers for the front. Despite the concentrated bombing, the war production exceeded peace time records, there was no food panic, the economy was kept going.
War is a terrible, tragic, and most times a wasteful thing. But paradoxically, war often brings out some of the best qualities in man. The titanic clash that began in that summer of 1941 demanded of the combatants, super human effort, amazing physical endurance, boundless courage, iron discipline, selfless comradeship and finally the unflinching sacrificing of one self.
The stage and the human actors of that bloody drama to this day inspire awe by its sheer scale, intensity, wickedness as well as its undeniable heroism.
“Two things have altered not, since first the world began, the beauty of the wild green earth, and the bravery of man.”