As quickly as a gentle fall transitions to a treacherous winter, so can the tides change in the midst of a war. At the outset of WWII, it appeared that the Germans had the upper hand against most of their opponents. They had a concentrated stage on the western front, strong leaders, and a fairly cohesive battle plan. The Soviets, on the other hand, were unprepared, had poor leadership, and a faltering armistice with Germany. What happened to cause the drastic change of power at the end of the war, leaving Germany in shambles and the Soviets a new world power to be reckoned with? The reason for the inevitable fall of Germany and the rise of the Soviet Union is centered on two main factors: the leadership of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and the effect of the natural circumstances.
The Soviets’ Achilles’ heel at the start of the war was their poor military leadership and lack of preparation in regard to economics. Although Stalin himself was a powerful leader, he had extensively purged nearly 35,000 men from the Soviet officer corps in the late 1930s in an effort to weed out any possible resistance to his rule (Lyons, pg. 106, 2010). This left officers that were in no doubt reliable, but many of whom were lacking in military expertise. Stalin also maintained a death grip over Russia’s centralized economy, leaving it incapable of being mobilized for total war (Lyons, pg. 240, 2010). Where the Soviets’ military leadership lacked and their economy failed, their manpower and quantity of military equipment exceeded expectations. The Red Army (the army of the Soviet Union) was estimated to have roughly “230 to 240 divisions…46 armored and motorized brigades,” “10,000 to 24,000 [Soviet tanks],” and “some outstanding new tanks—the heavy KV and the medium T34—that were superior to the best German models.” (Lyons, pg. 105, 2010). Stalin had supreme authority over the Red Army and felt confident in his ability to repel the German onslaught.
In spite of Stalin’s optimism, Germany was initially successful in its attacks against the Soviet Union. After breaking off the Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, which had maximized its value after the siege of Poland with no intervention from the Soviets, Hitler authorized Operation Barbarossa and invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. (Module 12 Lecture Notes). This marked the beginning of WWII for the Soviet Union, as well as Germany’s first major mistake by creating a two-front war. Germany’s motive for invasion, Lebensraum, directly translated from German to English as “living space,” was Hitler’s ultimate goal first mentioned back is his ideological autobiography titled Mein Kampf (Lyons, pg. 36, 2010). This wasn’t simply living space in its usual sense, however, as Hitler’s intention was to expand into other parts of Europe to gain land and natural resources for his growing German race. That, coupled with Hitler’s paranoia about Stalin’s possible alliance with Britain, led to faulty decision making (Lyons, pg. 104, 2010).
Lebensraum was also, in part, conceived from the theory of Karl Haushofer, who claimed that the nation that controlled the heartland—most of the Soviet Union’s area—of the Eurasian landmass would be the most dominant in the world (Lyons, pgs. 47-48, 2010). Hitler knew that Germany’s location was fairly defenseless in his eyes, primarily due to being located in the center of Europe with France to the West and the Soviet Union to the East. He believed that the people of his coveted heartland, the Slavic Russians, were Untermenschen, which translates to “subhumans,” much like the Jews and Gypsies (Module 12 Lecture Notes). As far as Hitler was concerned, it was only a matter of time before the USSR turned on Germany; so he acted first. The initial attacks on the Soviets were successful at first, and the Germans took thousands of Soviet prisoners (Module 12 Lecture Notes). Germany hoped, per the advice of General Franz Halder, that the Soviets “would not be able to resist for more than eight to ten weeks.” (Lyons, pg. 105, 2010).
After a brief bout of success in which the Germans initially claimed large amounts of Russian territory, that theory was quickly proved wrong when the German army attacked Leningrad in September of 1941. It was a crucial city because it blocked the Germans from being able to head north and attack Moscow from behind. The siege lasted 844 days and was one of the worst blows taken by the Soviets (Module 13 Lecture Notes). Daniil Granin, an eyewitness soldier during the siege, stated that “the blockade was sudden and unexpected, as much as the war itself was unexpected for the country. There were no reserves of fuel, no food…. Then one after another catastrophic event started to occur, power supplies were stopped, there was no water, no sewerage system operating, no central heating in place…,” and nearly one and a half million people, most civilians, perished (Appalling Truth of Leningrad Siege, 2014).
With Leningrad held temporarily, Germany turned its sights to Moscow in October of 1941. There was some hesitation at first because winter was about to start, and German forces and supplies were wearing thin (Lyons, pg. 112, 2010). However, Hitler, driven by the idea that by gaining Moscow (the heart of Russia) the whole nation would crumble, agreed to proceed with the attack. The first few weeks were met with success for Germany as the Soviets struggled to hold back forces and provide food, only to be halted by an early, harsh winter. Temperatures dropped as low as 40 degrees below Celsius, and the German’s were ill-prepared for such conditions (Lyons, pg. 112, 2010). The Soviets, on the other hand, were not only familiar with the intense Russian winters, they were also heavily motived by Stalin’s patriotic speeches that “implored them to rally to the defense of Holy Mother Russia.” (Lyons, pg. 112, 2010). Hitler’s army retreated from the Moscow invasion the following January.
Stalin’s patriotism rallies didn’t only impact the battle of Moscow: they played a key role in transition the success on the Eastern front from German hands to Soviet hands. The Russian people eventually “became convinced that [they] could survive the war and became committed to driving the Germans from their homeland regardless of the cost.” (Module 13 Lecture Notes). They adopted Stalin’s disregard for human life, even if it meant their own, and were willing to endure hardships and suffering for the sake of a Soviet victory. Stalin’s crowning glory of rhetoric was his decision to reinstate the purpose of the war. It was no longer a Communist war, but instead, “The Great Patriotic War,” which held ties to Russia’s past (Lyon’s, pg. 242, 2010). The war was supposed to be reminiscent of the war of 1812 against Napoleon, and Stalin went so far as to reconcile with the Orthodox Church to gain further support (Lyon’s, pg. 242, 2010).
The Russian people, although a key factor, weren’t the only aspects of the turn towards Soviet success. The elements and location played equally into victory, essentially because it all centered on the Soviet’s homeland, which was the location for all applicable battles. For one, the freezing winters and muddy summers, though taking a toll on both sides, were nothing new to the Red Army. They were used to the conditions and well-prepared, while the Germans had entered without even basic winter clothing (Lyons, pg. 112, 2010). The Germans had been intent on a quick victory and were soon left with a massive shortage of supplies that were sometimes thousands of miles away in Germany; on the other hand, the Soviets were not only better supplied, they also had quick access reimbursements because the battle was taking place in their own country. Finally, the Soviet army began making impressive bounds in recovery and “whole industries were rebuilt behind the safety of the Ural mountains while whole populations moved to work in new factories producing fighter planes, tanks, machine guns and ammunition.” (Module 13 Lecture Notes).
All of those factors led to the key turning point in the war for both the German and Soviet armies: The Battle of Stalingrad. After the failed attacks of 1941, Germany felt confident that they could win key battles in 1942. That September, the Germans began to encircle the city of Stalingrad. The Soviet leadership situation was still extremely precarious, so just a month prior, Stalin had “ordered General Andrei Yeremenko to form a new army group in the Stalingrad area from reserve divisions.” (Lyons, pg. 177, 2010). The fighting was intense and both men and the city fell prey to attrition. The Soviet forces—in spite of Stalin’s planning—were outnumbered, yet they fought on, even resorting to sticks and knives when necessary (Module 13 Lecture Notes). Although their panzers were found to be inadequate against the Soviet grenades coupled with narrow streets, the Germans gradually drove the Soviets back as they overtook Stalingrad, and by “early November they held nine-tenths of [the city].” (Lyon’s, pgs. 177-178, 2010). Once again, German victory didn’t come as quickly as hoped, and favor fell from their hands.
The waning supplies and lack of preparation for the severe winter left the Germans in a sorry state, and while the Soviets experienced identical conditions, they were far better prepared. The Soviets not only had closer access to reserves, but they also could tolerate the harsh weather conditions of their homeland (Lyons, pg. 178, 2010). The Germans, on the other hand, had nothing more than summer uniforms. Resources were also vastly misused, a combination of heavy artillery use and an overconfident estimate of how long the war would take. Supplies dwindled, men succumbed to the freezing winters and muddy summers, and the Nazi morale was all but lost on the Eastern Front. As the German army weakened, the Soviets encircled them in the ruins of the city. Six months after the start of the fighting end of January 1943, the German commander in Stalingrad defied Hitler’s orders and surrendered to the Soviets. The success led to others, and the Soviets were able to lift the siege in Leningrad that same year. There were great losses on both sides, but Germany suffered what could be considered its worst and most game-changing defeat of the war: “On December 18, there had been approximately 249,000 officers and men inside the Stalingrad pocket…. Only about 6,000 men ever returned home.” (McTaggart, pg. 1, 2006).
Stalingrad set the tone for the remainder of the war, and it became evident that Germany had no real chance of obtaining an offensive victory over the Soviets; by 1943, “it was clear that the Red Army was superior in material as well as in numbers.” (Lyons, pg. 179, 2010). The Soviets had also been supplied vast amounts of war materials by the United States and Britain due to the lend-lease program (Lyons, pg. 182, 2010). Hitler’s only remaining option was to stage a defensive defeat that would hopefully result in a peace treaty with Stalin. This attempt resulted in the Battle of Kursk in July of 1943, which was an eleven-day tank skirmish (Lyons, pgs. 181-182, 2010). There was a great loss on both sides, but once again, Germany slunk back in defeat. Through continued Allied support and determination, the Soviets continued to drive the Germans back through victorious battles over the next two years, working their way through Poland and on down to Germany, taking territory as they went. The Soviets’ efforts finally came to fruition on April 26, 1945, when they encircled Berlin (Lyons, pg. 269, 2010).
Both sides were under the influence of their powerful and persuasive leaders whose primary goal was to obliterate the enemy. While Hitler’s goal was racially infused (Jews, Slavs, etc.), and Stalin’s politically based (fascism), both leaders proclaimed their patriotism and guaranteed better lives for their people. Although both sides had ample support from their homelands—whether out of support for their country or fear of their government—the weather and copious amounts of resources required for war took their tolls. Unfortunately for Germany, the Soviets contended better with their natural climate and benefited from being closer to supply and army replenishments. Finally, although both leaders had their fair share of poor military decisions, Hitler’s initial choice to invade Russian and set up a dual-sided front proved to be too much for the German army to handle. And instead of learning from that mistake, Hitler repeated it again and again. The Soviets learned from and evolved as an army during the war, turning them into the powerhouse that America feared post-war. Stalin’s Red Army, regardless of motivation, was one of the most important factors in stopping the German army and ending WWII.
“Appalling Truth of Leningrad Siege: 95yo Russian Writer Gives Powerful Speech at Bundestag.” RT
International. RT International, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2016. <https://www.rt.com/news/granin-nazi-siege-survivor-360/>.
Lyons, Michael J. World War II: A Short History. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010.
McTaggart, Pat. “Battle of Stalingrad: Operation Winter Tempest | HistoryNet.” HistoryNet.
HistoryNet, 6 Dec. 2006. Web. 17 Apr. 2016. <http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-stalingrad-operation-winter-tempest.htm>.
WWII, Part III, Module 12 Lecture Notes
WWII, Part IV, Module 13 Lecture Notes