June 22, 1941 – its the date which is engraved in memory of all who had a misfortune to be born in the USSR. This was the day Operation Barbarossa began, the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. By today’s date, July 10, German forces were at Kiev’s doorstep and, behind the rapidly advancing front line, the Wehrmacht and SS were firmly in control. On this day Jews were being massacred in the Polish town of Jedwabne, as they would be in countless other locations.
In retrospect, the clash between Hitler and Stalin was inevitable, two predators willing and ready to spill blood generously to achieve their delusional dreams of world dominance. Both required enemies to hate to consolidate their hold on their respective populations. The Nazis were focusing their need for hatred on the Jews. The Soviets were concentrating on the ‘evil’ of the international bourgeoisie. The Soviets adopted pseudo-scientific Marxist theories of class struggle as the basis for the extermination of millions of unwanted souls. The Nazis based their extermination programs on the equally pseudo-scientific theories of race and social Darwinism. Both regimes were quite successful in brainwashing their followers. Both were socialists with insignificant ideological variations. Even flags, songs and holidays were similar. The difference between the Nazis and the Soviets, described as the divide between the evil ‘Right’ and the noble ‘Left’, has always struck me as being contrived and nonsensical.
The beginning of the direct war between the USSR and the Nazi Germany was characterized by the extraordinary series of events. The two countries were allies and, following the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty, which stunned the world at the time, were busily dividing Europe. Hitler was grabbing France, Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Greece, Yugoslavia and the Western half of Poland. Stalin, not to be outdone, was getting Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, parts of Hungary, Romania and Eastern Poland. Stalin demanded an increase of his share of the European spoils during the Molotov’s visit to Berlin in 1940. Hitler refused and activated the contingency plan of attack on the Soviet Union ‘Barbarossa’ almost immediately after Molotov’s departure. Both countries were planning to attack each other sooner or later.
Early morning June 22, 1941, Hitler attacked first. The Nazi assault on the USSR resulted in the biggest military catastrophe of all times. The losses, sustained by the Soviet Army, were unprecedented. These losses were inflicted despite of the Soviet Army superiority in the manpower and the weaponry. The number of men and the volume of materiel captured by the Nazis were of magnitude unheard of in history. All the sacrifices, countless gulag victims and trauma inflicted on their people by the Bolsheviks precisely for the purpose of producing these mountains of weapons and equipment were all for nothing. The population of captured areas were welcoming the Wehrmacht as their liberators from the brutality of the Soviet commissars. For the first time in Russian history, the number of the surrendered prisoners captured by the enemy ran to the millions. The number of Russian soldiers taking up arms against their own, fighting on the side of the foreign invader, tallied to the hundreds of thousands.
Hitler might have succeeded in destroying the Soviet Union had the Western Allies not extended the Lend Lease program to the Soviet Army. This invaluable help has been belittled and diminished by subsequent Russian governments, creating an impression in ordinary Russian’s minds that Western help was limited to food shipments, not of it particularly palatable. This intentional lie is endlessly repeated to this day in Russia. The country still finds herself in the grip of a continuing mass military psychosis, replayed in the movies, books, school programs, military parades and threats to ‘repeat, if necessary’.
June 22 signified the beginning of the countless deaths, such as those in the suffering, the famine, the disappearance of the generations of the young and not-so-young men from the demographic map of this unfortunate country. This disappearance deprived generations of women of a chance to have a family, children, the possibility of simple human happiness. Parentless children lost in the maelstrom of wartime chaos, orphans who did not know who they were or where did came from – many of these children grew up to lives of criminality and prostitution, ending up in prisons and work camps. There was even a derisive word in the Russian language, coined to describe such children – bezotzovschina – a creature without a father.
This date, the day Barbarossa began to roll, presaged not merely the early military setbacks and horrific toll to reverse those losses as the march to Berlin began, but also the near-total collapse of the Soviet economy after the WWII and never-ending privations. Driven by the contempt for his own and the perceived need for secrecy, Stalin refused to join the Marshall Plan, thereby condemning his people to poverty behind the Iron Curtain of paranoid isolation.
All these consequences were evident later, after the victory in Europe, the victory achieved with a ruthless disregard by Russian commanders for the value of the Russian soldiers’ lives.
Hitler suicided, reportedly lamenting that his demise was about to happen during the Jewish festival of Purim, which commemorates the saving of the Jews in Babylonian captivity and the destruction of their arch-enemy. Stalin died, quite likely killed by his entourage or, at the very least, allowed to die by an inner circle happy to gather by his bedside and watch the tyrant expire. For the Jews it was a fortuitous exit. Using the so-called Doctors’ Plot as his rationale, four gigantic new camps were being completed in readiness for an all-Soviet pogrom.
The hallmark and genesis of the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it, is the political incompetence of the Soviet leadership, their naiveté, paranoia and blind reliance on the Marxist interpretation of world events. As with the Czars before them, the Soviet leaders were responsible for triggering the war with their endorsement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which allowed Hitler to turn his ambitions to the West — until, that is, he was ready to rteverse his gaze toward Moscow and the east. Above all, their political decisions were dictated by unrealistic assessments of the outside world. This lack of realism was cited once again by Angela Merkel, who famously accused the present ruler of the Russian Federation of living in a parallel reality.
It appears that when it comes to Russia, things never change all that much. This is the main lesson, the West could learn when dealing with Vladimir Putin.