Germany Invades Russia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union initiated a four-year conflict whose outcome did much to decide the outcome of World War II as a whole. It also marked the true beginning of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s systematic mass murder of some six million European Jews.

Summary of Event

In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Believing themselves racially and militarily superior and thus confident they would defeat the Soviets in only eleven to fourteen weeks, the Germans scored impressive victories throughout the summer and fall and advanced to within twenty miles of Moscow by early December. Barbarossa ultimately failed, however, and Germany found itself involved in a brutal struggle that lasted until May, 1945, destroyed its military power, and paved the way for its defeat in World War II. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];European theater Operation Barbarossa Soviet Union;German invasion of [kw]Germany Invades Russia (June 22, 1941-Jan. 8, 1942) [kw]Russia, Germany Invades (June 22, 1941-Jan. 8, 1942) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];European theater Operation Barbarossa Soviet Union;German invasion of [g]Europe;June 22, 1941-Jan. 8, 1942: Germany Invades Russia[00280] [g]Soviet Union;June 22, 1941-Jan. 8, 1942: Germany Invades Russia[00280] [c]World War II;June 22, 1941-Jan. 8, 1942: Germany Invades Russia[00280] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 22, 1941-Jan. 8, 1942: Germany Invades Russia[00280] Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Russian military campaign Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military] Zhukov, Georgy

When Barbarossa commenced, war against the Soviet Union had been on Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s agenda for nearly two decades. In his political autobiography, Mein Kampf Mein Kampf (Hitler) (1925-1926; English translation, 1939), Hitler laid out his plans for Germany once he achieved power: dictatorship, preparations for war, and a series of wars to gain Lebensraum Lebensraum (living space), agriculturally productive land to be colonized by racially superior Germans. Since the future Nazi dictator identified the Soviet Ukraine as the chief source of Lebensraum in Europe, war against Russia was a necessity.

Once in power, Hitler never wavered from his determination to conquer Russia, although in 1939 he agreed to a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union that benefited Germany strategically and economically during the first twenty-two months of World War II. For Hitler, the 1939 pact was a tactical agreement to be discarded when he so chose. In late July, 1940, following Germany’s stunning victories in western Europe, the Nazi dictator ordered immediate preparations for an attack against Russia to take place the following spring.

During the last months of 1940 and the first months of 1941, Germany’s military leadership concentrated 73 percent of its army and 58 percent of its air force on the Soviet frontier. Divided into three army groups—Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb Leeb, Ritter von , Army Group Center, commanded by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock Bock, Fedor von , and Army Group South, commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt Rundstedt, Gerd von —the Barbarossa invasion force included 3.3 million German troops, 2,700 planes, 3,300 tanks, 7,200 artillery pieces, 600,000 motor vehicles, 650,000 horses, and 100,000 wagons, supported by 500,00 Axis troops.

Additionally, special police formations, including four Einsatzgruppen and nine Order Police battalions, were assigned, on Hitler’s orders, to take part in the invasion. Their task was to eliminate specific categories of racial and ideological enemies, Soviet Jews in particular Holocaust;Soviet Union Jews;Holocaust . The presence of these units, along with special orders pertaining to the execution of commissars and the maltreatment of prisoners of war issued to the army, guaranteed Hitler’s intention that the campaign would be waged as a Vernichtungskrieg (war of annihilation) against peoples deemed racially inferior by Nazi ideology Nazism .

Barbarossa caught the Soviets unprepared. Although the Soviet high command deployed 2.8 million men, 1,800 tanks, and 6,500 aircraft near the western frontier, these forces suffered from incomplete defensive positions, obsolete technology, and an officer corps still traumatized by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s 1937 purge of the military leadership. Moreover, Stalin, who refused to believe that Hitler would attack while Moscow supplied Germany with vast quantities of raw materials and foodstuffs and while the war against Britain remained unresolved, ignored multiple warnings—from foreign governments and Soviet agents abroad—of the impending invasion and failed to place his forces on high alert.

Achieving operational surprise against a grossly unprepared foe and employing the blitzkrieg tactics responsible for previous victories in Poland and France, German forces quickly overwhelmed Soviet frontier defenses and advanced rapidly, annihilating entire Soviet armies ordered to stand their ground and counterattack when possible. Army Group North pushed through the Baltic states and closed in on Leningrad Leningrad, Siege of (1941-1944) , all but isolating the city from September 9, when they initiated a nine-hundred-day siege that would cost more than one million Soviet citizens their lives. Army Group South penetrated the Ukraine and captured Kiev on September 19, taking in excess of 600,000 prisoners in the process. Von Rundstedt’s forces then drove farther east, eventually seizing, albeit temporarily, Rostov on the Don River (November 20).

Army Group Center enjoyed even more spectacular successes. By early August, it had driven more than four hundred miles, occupied both Minsk (June 28) and Smolensk (July 16), and captured more than 600,000 prisoners. Then, after a controversial pause of six weeks, von Bock’s forces on September 30 launched a drive to capture Moscow by year’s end. Codenamed Tyhoon Operation Tyhoon , this operation produced major tactical victories—and the capture of an additional 700,000 prisoners—at Vyazma and Bryansk (October 7) and witnessed Army Group Center fight its way through increasing Soviet resistance and the onset of bad weather to the outskirts of Moscow.

There, on December 5, its offensive capabilities already spent, von Bock’s army group fell victim to an unanticipated Soviet counterattack. Planned and directed by General Georgy Zhukov, whom Stalin had entrusted with Moscow’s defense on October 10, the counterattack would last until January 8, 1942. It engendered panic among the Germans, prompted Hitler to relieve many of his field commanders and to assume personal command of the army, and pushed the Germans back from the immediate approaches to Moscow—up to 130 miles in some places.

Zhukov’s December, 1941, counteroffensive signaled Barbarossa’s failure. This failure is frequently attributed to poor weather—autumn rains and the onset of winter slowed Army Group Center’s push toward Moscow in October and November—to Hitler’s military decisions, specifically his decision to halt von Bock in August rather than allow him to push on toward Moscow, or to a combination of both factors. However, neither poor weather nor Hitler’s decisions explain adequately Germany’s failure to defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign. In reality, Barbarossa failed, because the Soviet regime did not collapse and proved able to mobilize Russia’s enormous human and material resources.

Although initially shaken by the German invasion, Stalin quickly recovered and commenced raising reserve armies at a frantic pace to replace those armies annihilated as the Germans drove ever deeper into the Soviet interior. Between the beginning of July and the beginning of December, the Soviet regime committed forty-two new field armies to the fighting, while the Germans simultaneously suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties that they simply could not replace. By September 1, even before Operation Typhoon, the Germans had suffered more than 409,000 casualties while having already committed twenty-two of twenty-four available reserve divisions.

Stalin’s ability to replace combat losses combined with Hitler’s inability to do so guaranteed that the Germans could not destroy Soviet military power, which effectively doomed Barbarossa. Additionally, the crimes perpetrated by the German army and its accompanying police formations—mass shootings of Jews, executions of commissars, the premeditated decimation of prisoners—made the Soviet regime look relatively benign. Of the more than 3 million Soviet prisoners of war captured in 1941, fewer than 100,000 remained alive by the end of the year. Thus, when Stalin called upon the Soviet citizens to defend their motherland, the vast majority responded, providing the soldiers and workers whose efforts lay at the heart of the Soviet Union’s victory.


Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union might be considered one of the turning points of World War II. Producing the first major defeat suffered by Hitler’s forces in the war—the 1940 Battle of Britain notwithstanding—it embroiled the Germans in a bloody, four-year struggle to which they committed the bulk of their forces and during which their military power was fatally emasculated.

Operation Barbarossa also marked the onset of the Holocaust. Conceived of and planned as an ideological war of annihilation, the German invasion featured the systematic mass murder of Soviet Jews. It set the stage for the extension of the so-called Final Solution by the Nazi regime to the Jews living throughout the remainder of German-dominated Europe. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Russian campaign World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];European theater Operation Barbarossa Soviet Union;German invasion of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boog, Horst, et al. The Attack on the Soviet Union. Vol. 4 in Germany and the Second World War. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1998. Written by a team of leading historians at Germany’s Research Institute for Military History. Comprehensive in its coverage of the invasion from the German perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glantz, David. Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia in 1941. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2001. Authored by arguably the leading Western expert on the Soviet side of the Russo-German conflict and based on Soviet sources, this brief account emphasizes Russia’s ability to commit reserves as the critical factor in Barbarossa’s failure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jukes, Geoffrey. The Second World War: The Eastern Front, 1941-1945. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2002. From Osprey’s Essential History series, this slim volume covers the entire course of the war on the Eastern Front and offers a clear account of background to and the invasion itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Megargee, Geoffrey P. War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Covers the invasion as both military and ideological campaign. Based on the most up-to-date scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Williamson and Allan R. Millett. “Barbarossa, 1941.” In A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. A chapter in an excellent, single-volume history of World War II; demonstrates the significance of logistics in Barbarossa’s failure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinberg, Gerhard L. Germany and the Soviet Union, 1939-1941. Reprint. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972. Older but as-yet-unsurpassed analysis of the Nazi-Soviet relationship in the era of the non-aggression pact, providing valuable background to Barbarossa.

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Categories: History