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The History of the World: Nazis attack the USSR (‘Operation Barbarossa’)

22 June 1941


The following is a brief extract from The History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad.

In December 1940 planning began for a German invasion of the Soviet Union.

By that winter, the USSR had made further gains in the west, apparently with an eye to securing a glacis against a future German attack. A war against Finland gave her important strategic areas. The Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were swallowed in 1940. Bessarabia, which Romania had taken from Russia in 1918, was now taken back, together with the northern Bukovina. In the last case, Stalin was going beyond tsarist boundaries. The German decision to attack the USSR arose in part because of disagreements about the future direction of Soviet expansion: Germany sought to keep the USSR away from the Balkans and the Straits. It was also aimed at demonstrating, by a quick overthrow of the Soviet Union, that further British fighting was pointless. But there was also a deep personal element in the decision. Hitler had always sincerely and fanatically detested Bolshevism and maintained that the Slavs, a racially inferior group in his mind, should provide Germans with living space and raw materials in the east. His was a last, perverted vision of the old struggle of the Teuton to impose European civilization on the Slav east. Many Germans responded to such a theme. It was to justify more appalling atrocities than any earlier crusading myth.

1941, Operation Barbarossa: Germans inspecting Russian planes. The plane in the front is a Yakovlev UT-1 and the one in the back is a Polikarpov I-16. (c) Copyright Public Domain via WikiCommons.

In a brief spring campaign, which provided an overture to the coming clash of titans, the Germans overran Yugoslavia and Greece (with the second of which Italian forces had been unhappily engaged since October 1940). Once again British arms were driven from the mainland of Europe. Crete, too, was taken by a spectacular German airborne assault. Now all was ready for ‘Barbarossa’, as the great onslaught on the USSR was named, after the medieval emperor who had led the Third Crusade (and had been drowned in the course of it).

The attack was launched on 22 June 1941 and had huge early successes. Vast numbers of prisoners were taken and the Soviet armies fell back hundreds of miles.

The German advance guard came within a few miles of entering Moscow… But that margin was not quite eliminated and by Christmas the first successful Red Army counter-attacks had announced that in fact Germany was pinned down.

Reprinted from THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by O.A. Westad.

J. M. Roberts CBE died in 2003. He was Warden at Merton College, Oxford University, until his retirement and is widely considered one of the leading historians of his era. He is also renowned as the author and presenter of the BBC TV series ‘The Triumph of the West’ (1985). Odd Arne Westad edited the sixth edition of The History of the World. He is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He has published fifteen books on modern and contemporary international history, among them ‘The Global Cold War,’ which won the Bancroft Prize.

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