Operation Barbarossa: Why Did the Nazis Attack the Soviet Union in June 1941?

History Hit Podcast with Roger Moorhouse

4 mins

25 Sep 2018

Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-009-0882-04 / Schröter / CC-BY-SA 3.0

This article is an edited transcript of Hitler’s Pact with Stalin – Roger Moorhouse on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 21 March 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact lasted 22 months – and then Adolf Hitler launched a surprise attack, Operation Barbarossa, on 22 June 1941.

The conundrum is that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin seemed to have been taken by surprise by Hitler’s attack, in spite of the fact that he had countless intelligence briefings and messages – even from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – saying that the attack was going to happen.

If you look at it through the prism of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Stalin was caught out because he was fundamentally paranoid and distrustful of absolutely everybody.

His underlings were scared of him and as such they didn’t tend to tell him the truth. They would tailor their reports to him in such a way that he wouldn’t fly off the handle and shout at them and send them to the gulag.

Operation Barbarossa

Molotov signs the Nazi-Soviet Pact as Stalin (second from left) looks on. Credit: National Archives & Records Administration / Commons

But Stalin was also caught out by Hitler’s attack because he actually believed in the Soviet Union’s relationship with the Nazis and believed that it was vital and important.

Fundamentally, he also thought that it was important to Hitler and that the Nazi leader would have had to been mad to tear it up.

If we airbrush the essence of the Nazi-Soviet Pact out of history, we are then left with Stalin being attacked and his response being to hold his hands up and say, “Well, what was that all about?”. In 1941, when the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov met the German Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, in Moscow, his first words were, “What did we do?”.

Devastation of war

The Soviet Union was like a spurned lover who doesn’t understand what’s gone wrong in the relationship, and that response in itself is quite fascinating. But Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union, then set up what we all understand today as the main narrative of World War Two.

That narrative is the great battle between the two totalitarian powers – four out of every five German soldiers died fighting the Soviets. It was the titanic struggle that defined World War Two in Europe.

It was a struggle that saw German troops within sight of the Kremlin and then, finally, Red Army troops in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. The scale of the struggle is astonishing, as is the death toll.

The titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union is the narrative of the countries’ relationship in World War Two that we best recognise today. Learn more about it in this film on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

The economic aspect

From the Soviet perspective, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was predicated on economics. There was a geostrategic aspect but it was probably secondary to economics.

The Pact wasn’t a one-off agreement with cooperation between the two countries tailing off after August 1939; during the 22-month period that followed the signing of the Pact, four economics treaties were agreed between the Nazis and the Soviets, with the last of these signed in January 1941.

Economics was very important to both sides. The Soviets actually did better out of the agreements than the Germans, partly because the Soviets didn’t tend to deliver on what had been promised.

The Russians had this attitude that what was agreed in a treaty upfront was something that could be endlessly massaged and downgraded as the parties went through subsequent negotiations.

The Germans found themselves routinely frustrated. The headline of the January 1941 treaty was that it was the biggest deal that had yet been agreed by the two countries in the 20th century.

A German-Soviet military parade in Brest-Litovsk on 22 September 1939. Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-121-0011A-23 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some of the trade agreements within the deal were enormous in scale – they essentially involved the swapping of raw materials from the Soviet side for finished goods – particularly military goods – made by the Germans.

But the Germans, in trying to actually get their hands on the Soviet raw materials, felt like they were trying to draw blood from a stone. There was this huge frustration on the German side, which culminated in the logic that they should just invade the Soviet Union so they could simply take the resources they needed.

The Nazis’ economic frustrations actually fed into the logic, however twisted it was, behind their attack on the Soviet Union in 1941.

Thus, the two countries’ relationship looked good on paper economically, but in practice was much less generous. It seems that the Soviets actually did better out of it than the Nazis.

The Germans actually had a much more generous relationship with the Romanians, for example, with regards to oil. The Germans got much more oil from Romania than they ever did from the Soviet Union, which is something most people don’t appreciate.