Berlin, June 19 (DW): Commemorating the upcoming 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the suffering of the former Soviet people should be “burned into Germany’s collective memory.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke at the German-Russian museum in Berlin-Karlhorst on Friday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II.
The museum is located in the same building where the German Wehrmacht signed the unconditional surrender to representatives of the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and France on May 8, 1945.
“Nobody during this war mourned more victims than the people of the former Soviet Union,” Steinmeier said, adding that the German war against the Soviets was carried out with “murderous barbarity.”
“It weighs on us that our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers who waged this war, were involved in these crimes,” he added.
Steinmeier’s remarks opened an exhibition at the museum called, “Dimensions of a Crime: Soviet Prisoners of War in World War II.” The Wehrmacht captured around 5.7 million Soviet prisoners of war, of whom 3 million died in captivity.
On Monday, Steinmeier visited the Sandbostel camp in the northern state of Lower Saxony, a former prisoner-of-war camp that today is a memorial site. Steinmeier spoke with former prisoners and laid a wreath.
On Tuesday, June 22, a wreath-laying ceremony is scheduled at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin-Pankow.
Representatives from 15 ex-Soviet states were invited to Friday’s exhibition. Ukrainian Ambassador Andrij Melnyk rejected the invitation, calling the museum venue “an affront” because of its “Russian” focus and because the wartime persecution of other countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states was being “simply ignored.”
What was Operation Barbarossa?
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the former Soviet Union, which was code-named Operation Barbarossa.
The attack involved 3.3 million troops along an 1,800-mile (2,900-kilometer) front, making it one of the largest invasion forces in history.
Adolf Hitler famously broke the non-aggression pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed in secret between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union weeks before the war began in August 1939.
The German invasion less than two years later caught the Soviets by surprise, and their forces were initially overwhelmed and incurred heavy losses before consolidating to block the German offensive.
Eastern Europe’s WWII killing fields
Operation Barbarossa opened the Eastern Front in Europe, the largest of the entire war, which witnessed some of its fiercest battles and worst atrocities until Nazi Germany’s capitulation in May 1945.
An estimated 30 million people were killed on the Eastern Front — far more than any other theater during World War II.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, at the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex in the city of Volgograd, Russia
RUSSIA MARKS 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF STALINGRAD
Russia celebrated the 75th anniversary of the defense of Stalingrad on Friday with somber memorials and patriotic military parades. Russian President Vladimir Putin was a highly visible presence throughout the day, laying wreaths, addressing veterans and attending military parades. He is seen here in front of 85-meter The Motherland Calls statue in what is now called Volgograd.
Soviet civilians in areas under Nazi occupation in Eastern Europe were subjected to brutal and arbitrary killings. Nazi racial ideology targeted both Jews and Slavs, millions of whom were executed or sent to concentration camps.
“From the first day the German campaign was driven by hatred, by anti-semitism and anti-Bolshevism, by racist madness against the Slavic and Asian peoples of the Soviet Union,” Steinmeier said.
“Those who waged this war killed in every possible way, with unprecedented brutality and cruelty,” he added. “It was German barbarism, it cost millions of lives and devastated the continent.”
Learning from history
Steinmeier’s office said in a statement that the series of memorial events this week is intended to draw attention to the suffering of the Soviet Union, which at 27 million incurred the highest number of casualties during World War II, 14 million of whom were civilians.
“Only those who learn to read the traces of the past in the present will be able to contribute to a future that avoids wars,” Steinmeier said.
“And yet these millions are not as deeply burned into our collective memory as their suffering and our responsibility require,” Steinmeier said.
He added that after the war, many Germans did not want to hear about the wartime suffering of people in the Soviet Union, whose story had been obscured by the Cold War and the division of Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
Hitler hoped to repeat the success of the blitzkrieg in Western Europe and win a quick victory over the massive nation he viewed as Germany’s sworn enemy. On June 22, 1941, more than 3 million German and Axis troops invaded the Soviet Union along an 1,800-mile-long front, launching Operation Barbarossa. It was Germany’s largest invasion force of the war, representing some 80 percent of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, and one of the most powerful invasion forces in history.
Despite repeated warnings, Stalin refused to believe that Hitler was planning an attack, and the German invasion caught the Red Army unprepared. With a three-pronged attack toward Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the center and Ukraine in the south, German panzer (tank) divisions and Luftwaffe (air force) helped Germany gain an early advantage against the numerous but poorly trained Soviet troops. On the first day of the attack alone, the Luftwaffe managed to shoot down more than 1,000 Soviet aircraft.
German forces initially moved quickly along the vast front, taking millions of Soviet soldiers as prisoners. The Einsatzgruppen, or armed SS death squads, followed in the army’s wake, seeking out and killing many civilians, especially Soviet Jews. Hitler’s directives for the invasion included the Commissar Order, which authorized the immediate execution of all captured enemy officers. Many Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) were also killed immediately upon capture, another practice that violated international war protocols.
The Attack on Moscow
While they made territorial gains, German forces also sustained heavy casualties, as the Soviets’ numerical advantage and the strength of their resistance proved greater than expected. By the end of August, with German panzer divisions just 220 miles from the Soviet capital, Hitler ordered—over the protests of his generals—that the drive against Moscow be delayed in favor of focusing on Ukraine to the south.
Kiev fell to the Wehrmacht by the end of September. In the north, Germans managed (with aid of Finnish allies) to cut Leningrad off from the rest of Russia, but they weren’t strong enough to take the city itself. Instead, Hitler ordered his forces to starve Leningrad into submission, beginning a siege that would end up lasting some 872 days.
In early October, Hitler ordered the launch of Operation Typhoon, the German offensive against Moscow. The delay had given the Soviets time to strengthen the defense of their capital with some 1 million troops and 1,000 new T-34 tanks. After a successful initial assault, the muddy roads of autumn—known as Rasputitsa, or quagmire season—literally stalled the German offensive outside Moscow, where they ran into the improved Russian defenses.
In mid-November, panzer divisions attempted a final attempt to encircle Moscow, getting within 12 miles of the city. But reinforcements from Siberia helped the Red Army beat back the attack, halting the German offensive for good as the brutal winter weather arrived. Soviet forces mounted a surprise counterattack in early December, putting the Germans on the defensive and forcing them into retreat.
The Failure of Operation Barbarossa
Despite its territorial gains and the damage inflicted on the Red Army, Operation Barbarossa failed in its primary objective: to force the Soviet Union to capitulate. Though Hitler blamed the winter weather for the failure of the Moscow offensive, the entire operation had suffered from a lack of long-term strategic planning. Counting on a quick victory, the Germans had failed to set up adequate supply lines to deal with the vast distances and the harsh terrain.
They had also underestimated the strength of the Soviet resistance, which Stalin skillfully encouraged with his calls to defend “Mother Russia.” Hitler’s Commissar Order and other ruthless behavior on the part of the Germans also served to solidify the Red Army’s determination to fight until the end.
Fighting was far from over on the Eastern Front, and Hitler ordered another major strategic offensive against the Soviet Union in June 1942. Thanks to similar obstacles, it eventually met with failure as well, with the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 helping turn the tide decisively toward the Allied Powers in World War II.