Why Opt For Operation Barbarossa?

Why would the Germans invade the Soviet Union? They had enough wars already, surely, and the USSR was larger than all their other conquests combined. What exactly possessed them to take the leap?

There are realms of information available on the exact dates, times, context, and consequences of Operation Barbarossa already. It is one of the largest military actions of the war, was one of the greatest turning points, and is arguably the greatest military folly the Third Reich would ever commit.

Truly a gigantic task.

The effects of the Eastern Front are understandably enormous. More Germans died there than in every other theatre of war combined, and by a large margin. The Soviets lost an even greater number. It would influence the post-war situation in Europe through the Iron Curtain and the emergence of the USSR as a military superpower with a perhaps deserved paranoia of invasion. Not all of it was directly a consequence of Barbarossa, as later decisions in the East by both Axis and Allies and events in other theatres would play a part, but Barbarossa was the causal keystone.

The Nazi motivations for Barbarossa are less exact in literature. Within many history books on the overarching Eastern Fronts there are occasionally lists of reasons and rationales given for the Operation, but the relative significance of each is a murky and subjective area.

Used here are official Nazi documents and treaties, as well as secondary accounts of the War by later historians. I steered clear of autobiographies and the like as by the time most were written the world was very different and the aim of the authors was to rehabilitate their actions (I’m looking at you Albert Speer). I made an exception with Mein Kampf, as it was written before the war commenced and was more of a blueprint than a biography. For the documents I leaned heavily on the Anti-Comintern Pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty, and the Führer Directives. Of the historians I had a half-dozen or so, but a special mention to Chris Bellamy’s “Absolute War” and Gerhard Weinberg’s “A World at Arms”, for their deeply grounded and well-structured accounts.

A Blueprint for Blood via Paper

Before locating reasons, we must look into the structure of the Nazi State and how it made decisions. Barbarossa is great example of a unilateral declaration of war, so the topic is confined to German actions and does not cover the Soviet response. It turns out the Nazis had a very murky system that cared little for due process. Hitler was preeminent and had the final say on policy both foreign and domestic, but his subservient ministries were quite weird. As far as I can tell their jurisdictions constantly fluctuated and usually overlapped each other far more than contemporary systems in the USSR, Italy, or the UK. Each ministry practiced a form of social Darwinism, competing with its rivals for Hitler’s favour and support. It’s not an efficient system, but I suppose it tried to ensure the most robust ideas and individuals thrived. Thus Hitler is the central character, while also noted are the views of the OKW (German military command), Goring, Goebbels, and far down the list Ribbentrop (he really was a placeholder for Hitler’s ambitions).

Finally we come to the usual suspects when considering reasons for Barbarossa. These are nationalistic, anti-Semitic and anti-communist, economic, political and military, and accidental.

Nationalism is a key driver in boosting German views of their own strength, dismissing the strengths of both Britain and the USSR, and justifying any methods chosen to further German aims.

Anti-Semitic and anti-communist ideologies both contribute to target the USSR as an enemy of Germany above and beyond any threat they possess or any rewards peace can provide. They are constantly souring relations between the Powers.

Economically, the USSR had a plethora of natural resources and space, both of which were highly desirable to a Germany that wished to become autarchic as soon as possible. The fact of the matter was that Germany would never be able to extract more from the land directly than they traded in 1940, but in 1941 they did not yet know that.

Politically and militarily, Germany should not have attacked. Hitler saw these aspects as positives because the Russian menace would be removed, the military would gain access to Allied possessions like India, and they could link with Japan, but this wasn’t enough. Britain did not scare Germany in 1941 in the way it would later when it becomes the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.

The only real accident would endanger the plan, not instigate war. The timetable was thrown off by the need to pacify the Balkans, but Germany pushed ahead anyway on a revised start in late June.

Of these all there was a clear winner in the end. I was surprised, as I thought political factors or possibly anti-communism would feature more heavily, but nationalism was simply everywhere. It pervaded every debate and discussion, even when not recognised as such, and it always coloured the atmosphere to a more belligerent stance instead of a more conciliatory one.

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11 comments on “Why Opt For Operation Barbarossa?

  1. efungg says:

    This was a really interesting topic- partly because I love anything that is related to the USSR and World War II: would be cool to read your actual project as well! I like how you used a map- really helped identify how the Germans planned their attack on the USSR and clarified their positioning as well and this in a way engaged with me as it helped me visualize the German offense. It would be good tho if you could add in like a further reading list- just so your readers can see where you are getting your sources from (you did mention a few) but would be great if you could list a few more examples. I also found it really interesting that you linked this German invasion to the post-war situation after 1945 and the division of Europe- how did you think it impacted the post-war situation? (just curious because my own research was based on the Cold War and the orthodox construction of the Cold War) but all in all, a really fascinating read. I was able to identify the main reasons as to why the Germans invaded the USSR and the background context really helped with understanding the German position better. Awesome stuff!

    • ratsoftobruk says:

      Thanks for the input. All my primary official documents came from ww2db.com. It’s great for not only German or Soviet files but reams of diplomatic treaties and correspondence during the war.
      Otherwise I had Paul Carell, Alan Clark, John Erikson, and Barton Whaley.
      I can’t help you much more with the Soviet agenda or post-war structure. I’m fairly well-versed in them generally, but this project was confined to Nazi motivations as they were the clear instigators and stops at mid-1941. The best laid plans of mice and men change very quickly during war, and my goal was to understand the peacetime (discounting Britain) mindset for the invasion.

  2. jgundry3192 says:

    I have often wondered why Hitler went after the USSR so quickly after concluding a non-aggression pact (admittedly in 1939, but a non-aggression pact nonetheless), and you’ve hit the nail on the head when you spoke of Germany’s nationalistic and anti-semitic ambitions. However, what I found interesting was that the social darwinism/elitism that characterised Nazi Germany was rife within the government itself (full of loyal, Aryan Nazis), with each ministry competing to win Hitler’s support. It seems that this led to some bad decisions on the part of the German parliament, which in turn put Operation Barbarossa into motion. You’ve done a really good job of shedding light on an aspect of the “bigger picture” of the Second World War-namely the “murky” actions of a government blinkered by a need to curry favor with a despot. Looking at a major historical event from an alternative angle to see how it transpired is, I think, what makes the study of modern history significant in todays society

    • ratsoftobruk says:

      It is only something I briefly touch on in my full essay, as I then had the people I needed to deconstruct and went onto reasons, but yes, it was a crazy place.
      Every country has some military branch rivalry, but here Goring asked Panzers to stop at Dunkirk so the Luftwaffe could shine. The army and air force talk so little that both develop independent rockets and so we have the V1 and the V2. Speer doctors numbers so his armament strategies are accepted and he gets materiel that other sections of the economy had ear-marked. If you had Hitler’s ear you could do anything, and he was rather fickle.
      Glad you liked it.

  3. matthewchesworth says:

    This is a really fascinating article, and I like how you’ve been able to examine it from a more human perspective and look at the issue from the perspective of what human ‘follies’ drove the decision, as opposed to objective drives such as military diversions or some sort of estimated requirement for more land to suit the current population (as opposed to a nationalistic dream for ‘Lebensraum’). In saying that, I’d be curious to know if you discovered there was much evidence of the campaign being fought for nationalistic ideas such as living space, as espoused by Mein Kampf, or if it was more driven by nationalism in a jingoistic, over confident ,‘We’re doing it because we can’ sense? Furthermore, was there any evidence of seasonal recognition in these motives? Did they think the campaign would be finished by winter, or they could somehow withstand it? Or did they simply ignore this more natural enemy in wave of nationalistic fervour you described? Overall, this seems like really intriguing research, with coverage of all the possibilities, the way in which the intrigue and politicking involved to get the Fuhrer’s favour in particular sounding really interesting.

    • ratsoftobruk says:

      My answer is definitely in the “because we can” sense, where every consideration made by Nazis is coloured with this subconscious assertion of superiority.
      The military aspects are hard as we now have hindsight. We know the military requirements for Germany to conquer Russia are astronomical, but this mattered very little to my question as I only looked at their perceptions and the OKW really did think victory would come before winter. Yes there is a nationalist element to this as well, but it’s hard to blame them as they managed to win in the east in 1917 and this time round they’d had a cakewalk from the Bay of Biscay to Narvik to the island of Crete. They’d crunched the numbers they thought were important, and military risks inherent in the venture were deemed acceptably small.

  4. mjwcowie says:

    I too have also wondered about the timing of the invasion of Russia. I completely agree with your research that the underlying national sentiments in combination with a range of political, ideological, and resource based motivations ensured that an invasion of the USSR was inevitable, but was there anything in your research that indicates why they decided to open this front so soon? I also find it interesting that nationalism and the German national narrative rated so highly compared to the other factors. But I guess if you do look back at German history of the 100 years prior to Nazi Germany, including World War One and the Franco Prussian War, this does make some sense.

    • ratsoftobruk says:

      The timing comes down to many factors. Britain was an utter stalemate, but it also seemed to be impotent itself in many ways (before Bomber Command really hit its stride remember) so considerations on opening a Front in the east could be taken with relative impunity. Hitler also thought himself soon to die and wanted to ensure he conquered the USSR before that happened. The various Soviets could provide the oil and other resources that would finally make Germany autarchic and quash the problem of British blockade. Lastly, the USSR was deemed such a minor threat there seemed little reason to wait. It couldn’t even take Finland easily and the Wehrmacht had just cruised through Paris, so why wait?

  5. As some of the other posters have commented, it’s interesting to note how Germany planned to take such a large land mass and face such great opposition. In hindsight (which everyone loves) it seems like an incredibly poor idea. That being said, they did experience early success with the campaign. I particularly like how you make note of the more “Idealistic” motivations behind the invasion (although of course there were logistical, millitary, and political motivations as well, as you have noted), but these are definitely the more facinating aspects. I also like the way you used the map. It helps to contextualise and provide a more clear idea of what was going on here. This is really a a case of a picture being worth 1000 words.

  6. peterg says:

    Hi ratsof,
    World War II History never gets old! Well done on this and your capstone project!

  7. Great piece. I have been keeping an eye on the representations of the current Ukraine conflict and it is amazing how much WWII eastern front language and memory is being brought up by politicians on both sides, as well as the media. Your point about the skeptical use of autobiographies written after the war is an excellent observation. I guess one must always ask the question ‘would their portrayal of events and their actions be different had Germany won the war’. In your opinion, do you think that if Germany had sorted out it’s other fronts before invading the USSR, then the invasion could have been a success, or was it always going to end the way it did?

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