Total War in Eastern Europe

The Holocaust was undoubtedly the greatest crime in history, the deliberate attempt to annihilate the Jewish people with the murder of 6 million Jews.  But as Jews we tend to overlook the context that it was part of an even larger crime, the total war inflicted on the populations of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by the German Nazi forces.  The largest land invasion in history occurred on June 22, 1941, when Hitler gave the order to commence Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union by ca. 3 million German soldiers.  They were given orders to be totally ruthless in killing soldiers and civilians.

This was another phase of WWII when Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and threw all Germany’s armed might against his main adversary, Stalin.  Stalin was amazingly taken by surprise, notwithstanding many warnings, and the Red Army was at first unprepared for this onslaught.  Hitler estimated 6 weeks for the three main German armies (north, center and south) to achieve their objectives, and at first their usual tactic of blitzkrieg (lightening war) worked very successfully.  They achieved about 2/3 of their strategic depth in a month.

But the Soviets had in fact engineered many defensive structures before their main cities, and the German Army North was held up outside Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the German Army Center was held up at Stalingrad and the German Army South was held up first at Kiev and then Sevastopol and finally when they reached the Soviet oil fields they found them on fire.  The Germans were not used to slow, hard, slogging warfare, and the Soviets had 7 times the reserves the Germans had available and 4 times the war production. Furthermore, with the incredibly long supply lines and lack of fuel, it was predictable that the German armies would eventually come to a standstill, as they did just before Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad.   

Then two major things happened, the Russian winter caught the German Army without winter clothing and the Soviets defeated the German Army at Stalingrad in Aug, 1943 (the Germans lost ca. 750,000 men, killed or captured).  Almost simultaneously the Allies invaded and took Sicily in July 1943.  Feeling the threat from the south to be greater than that from the east, Hitler quickly withdrew his strategic reserves from Russia and sent them to occupy Italy before the Allies could. 

The Germans still managed a last major attack in the east sending nearly 3,000 new tanks into battle in Operation Citadel, in an attempt to encircle Soviet forces at Kursk in July 1943.  But, the Russians had over 5,000 tanks that were much more maneuverable than the heavy over-engineered German tanks (Tiger and Panzer).  The Russians concentrated their forces against the smaller German pincer and then out-maneuvered the German tanks on the open ground in the largest tank battle in history.  Over 2 million men were involved in this titanic battle.

The defeat of the German Army at Kursk, without strategic reserves, left the terrain from there to Berlin almost open for the Soviet forces under Gen. Zhukov.  The last major battle in Europe was in May, 1945, at the last significant German defensive line at the Selow Heights, 45 km east of Berlin, that was undermanned by mostly Volksturm volunteers and was quite easily over-run by Soviet Forces.  The rest is history, and the Holocaust was part of that monstrous bloody war, in which an estimated 15 million died on the Eastern Front and a total of ca. 70 million people died!

PS. This was written for the anniversary of the end of WWII on May 8, 1945


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