Operation Barbarossa map

Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant turning points of the twentieth century: June 22, 1941, the date the Germans began Operation Barbarossa. Hitler sent millions of men eastward in Their Reich’s offensive against erstwhile Soviet allies. As the Führer saw it, Barbarrosa would be over by autumn; German infantrymen were not issued winter uniforms because, well, why would they ever need them? The last surviving Germans soldiers, about 5000 of them, did not return until the mid-1950s. Yes, you read that correctly. Stalin kept many German POWs for years after the war’s end; Khrushchev and Eisenhower finally worked it all out during a thaw in the Cold War after Stalin’s death.

It is often lost on us today the extent to which the Germans and Soviets had been allies before Hitler’s surprise attack. For nearly two years, from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939 until June 22, 1941 they were allies. That is nearly two years of sharing supplies, intelligence, and more. Stalin was caught totally off guard by the German offensive and thought his aides were there to kill or arrest him when they brought him the news of Barbarossa. If one thinks about it, it is pretty extraordinary that the Soviet leadership could not have known something was up when division after division were lining up facing eastward on the border in the days and weeks beforehand. The military historian Max Hastings once wrote that the war turned Hitler into a fantasist and Stalin into a realist. Stalin was rendered incapacitated for at least several days, if not longer, but recovered quickly. It all seems so long ago and yet the repercussions are still playing out today.

(map/U.S. Army Carlisle Barracks)