In June 1941, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler violated a non-aggression pact with Josef Stalin and launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. This offensive, named “Operation Barbarossa,” was motivated by a desire to crush one of Europe’s last holdouts against Nazi domination as well as Hitler’s disdain for communism and the Slavic people. Additionally, Hitler sought to commandeer the Soviet Union’s natural resources, including natural oil and gas and vast agricultural areas of Ukraine that could serve as the Nazi “breadbasket.”
With Operation Barbarossa, Germany divided its military resources between combat on the new Eastern Front and existing Western Front. In planning this latest attack, Hitler and his military leadership underestimated both Stalin’s preparedness for war and the will of the Soviet Union to resist Nazi occupation at any price. In response to early Nazi successes in the westernmost Soviet-held territories, the Soviets employed a “scorched earth” approach—burning and destroying any resource, asset, field, or town before it could be seized and drawing the Nazi forces deeper into the Soviet Union with few means to provision their troops. As a result, the Nazi invasion took much longer than anticipated and Hitler’s troops experienced the brutal hardships of combat in the frigid Russian winter.
The failed Sieges of Stalingrad and Leningrad proved to be “nails in the coffin” for the Nazi forces because Russian civilians held out without surrender for years and exhausted Nazi efforts to take control of their cities. Germany’s forces were depleted through this unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, with a loss of 775,000 soldiers due in part to harsh winter conditions and lack of food and supplies. However, the Soviets paid a higher price for their hard-fought victory. 800,000 Soviet soldiers died in battle, another six million were wounded or captured, and historians estimate Soviet civilian death totals at an unfathomable fifteen million. Operation Barbarossa still stands today as the largest military engagement in world history. Germany’s defeat by Soviet forces was the single most significant factor in the collapse of the Third Reich and the end of Nazi control of Europe.