Eastern Front

Eastern Front

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The Eastern Front was the vast theatre of the First World War that took place between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. All three countries expected conflict in this area. The German Schlieffen Plan assumed an invasion of Russia and the Russian Army had its own Plan 19, that involved an attack on Germany.

General Alexander Samsonov was given command of the Russian Second Army for the invasion of East Prussia in August, 1914. He advanced slowly into the south western corner of the province with the intention of linking up with General Paul von Rennenkampf advancing from the north east.

General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff were sent forward to meet Samsonov's advancing troops. They made contact on 22nd August and for six days the Russians, with their superior numbers, had a few successes. However, by 29th August, Samsanov's Second Army was surrounded. General Alexander Samsonov attempted to retreat but now in a German cordon, most of his troops were slaughtered or captured. Only 10,000 of the 150,000 Russian soldiers managed to escape. Shocked by the disastrous outcome of the Battle of Tanneberg Samsonov committed suicide.

The slow Russia invasions of Galicia were more successful against the poorly organised Austro-Hungarian Army. Eventually Austria-Hungary ordered a counter-attack at Komarow. After initial progress, the Austro-Hungarian troops were forced to retreat to the Carpathian Mountains. The German attack, led by General Erich Ludendorff, on the Russian Army at Lodz, inflicted heavy casualties.

In September, 1915, Russian forces were driven from Galicia. By this stage it was estimated that the Russian Army had lost over 2 million men in six months. General Erich Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff of the German Army, considered the Russians had been badly damaged but decided they could not be beaten and brought a halt to the offensive. Instead, German forces were concentrated on the Western Front at Verdun.

Attacks by the Central Powers on Russia were resumed in the autumn of 1916. By the end of the war it was estimated that the Russian Army had lost another million men. The failed Russian Kerenski Offensive in July, 1917, broke both the army and the will of the government. The October Revolution brought Lenin to power in Russia. The Bolshevik government immediately entered into negotiations and fighting on the Eastern Front officially ended on 16th December, 1917.

Brussilov was the ablest of the army-group commanders. His front was in good order. For that reason we were sent to it. The impression I got in April was the Russian troops, all the men and most of the officers, were magnificent material who were being wasted because of the incompetence, intrigues, and corruption of the men who governed the country.

In June Brussilov's advance showed what they could do, when they were furnished with sufficient weapons and ammunition. But that effort was wasted, too, for want of other blows to supplement it, for want of any definite plan of campaign.

The Russian officers, brutal as they often were to their men (many of them scarcely considered privates to be human), were as a rule friendly and helpful to us. They showed us all we wanted to see. They always cheerfully provided for Arthur Ransome (a fellow journalist), who could not ride owing to some disablement, a cart to get about in.

It was March 1916 before I was given my first limited permission to visit the Russian front as a war correspondent. We went to Kiev and thence to the South Western Army Headquarters at Berditchev, where we met for the first time General Brusilov, the smartest-uniformed and most elegant of all Russian generals, later to be famous for his break-through in the west, and for the disasters his armies suffered in retreat.

I remember interminable driving in vehicles of all kinds along roads that war had widened from narrow cart-tracks to broad highways half a mile wife. Drivers had moved out of the original road to ground on either side of it not yet churned to mud. As each new strip turned to a bog, the drivers steered just outside it, so that in many places two carts meeting each other going in opposite directions would be out of shouting distance.

I saw a great deal of that long-drawn out front and of the men who, ill-armed, ill-supplied, were holding it against an enemy who, even in his anxiety to fight was no greater than the Russian's, was infinitely better equipped. I came back to Petrograd full of admiration for the Russian soldiers who were holding the front without enough weapons to go round.

Slowly we drew near the leisurely sound of the cannon, that defined itself sharply out of the all-echoing thunder audible at Novo Sielitza. And topping a steep hill crowned with a straggling thatched village, we came in sight of the batteries. They lay on the hither side of an immense rolling hill, where a red gash in the fields dribbled along for miles. At intervals of half a minute a gun spat heavily; but you could see neither smoke nor flame - only minute figures running about, stiffening, and again springing to life. A twanging drone as the shell soared - and then on the leafy hills across the river puffs of smoke unfolding.

In the very field of the artillery, peasants were calmly ploughing with oxen, and in front of the roaring guns a boy in white linen drove cattle over the hill toward the pasture along the river. We met long-haired farmers, with orange poppies in their hats, unconcernedly driving to town. Eastward the world rolled up in another slow hill that bore curved fields of young wheat, running in great waves before the wind. Its crest was torn and scarred with mighty excavations, where multitudinous tiny men swarmed over new trenches and barbed-wire tangles. This was the second-line position preparing for a retreat that was sure to come.

World War Two’s Eastern Front: 8 Facts You Must Know

WWII’s Eastern Front, between June 1941 to May 1945 – Nazi Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union with Joseph Stalin as its leader was engaged in a fight that would go down war history as one of the biggest and deadliest.

Not only was this deadly contest between these two leaders and their armies eventually turned the tide against Nazi Germany and their hopes of conquering whole of Europe, it was also marked with gaffes when it came to war strategies as well as human sufferings and atrocities in massive numbers.

Let’s take a trip down war history lane and get to know these 8 facts concerning the brutal but often overlooked Eastern Front of World War Two.

1. Stalin ignored early warnings of possible German attacks.

Nazi Germany attacking what was then known as the Soviet Union may have been the biggest surprise attack in the annals of military history but several sources point out that it shouldn’t have been the case at all had its leader heeded the early warnings about it happening.

While there was an existing non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia – signed in 1939 – the time the former attacked the latter, many believed Hitler intended to attack the Russians in his own time as he viewed them a race inferior to his own.

However, Russian leader Joseph Stalin appeared blind to the true intentions of the Nazi leader.

Soviet spies had already warned Stalin that Germany’s attack was imminent months before it actually happened but he did not listen to them. Furthermore, he believed Hitler when the dictator said the reason behind why German troops were on the Soviet border was to keep them out of range of British warplane strikes. Stalin even ordered his own soldiers not to fire out at German spy planes in spite of the countless times they invaded Soviet’s airspace.

Finally, Stalin’s perplexing trust on Hitler got shattered completely when Nazi Germany sent in over three million of its troops to invade Soviet Union in what was called Operation Barbarossa giving birth to WWII’s Russian Front [Eastern Front].

2. Germany would crush Soviet Union quickly . . . wrong!

Operation Barbarossa’s original intent was to totally defeat Soviet Union within a three-to-six-month period. In its early days, many war analysts believed and started predicting that Soviet Union’s defeat would be dealt earlier than the operation’s time span.

Nazi German troops, tanks and planes were very ruthless killing and wounding 150,000 Soviets just within a week through the campaign in the Eastern Front while its air force – the Luftwaffe – destroyed 2,000 Soviet warplanes just within the first two days of the operation.

However, in spite of these massive setbacks in the early days of the duel, Soviet Union continued to fight back and its ostensibly unending supply of troops carried on and eventually became too much for Nazi Germany to handle.

While several million Russians died because of Germany’s continuing campaign, Hitler also lost 700,000 men in it. Moreover, the Soviets showed they were not pushovers they fought back as ferociously that Germany’s believed swift victory dragged on for years and ended in defeat.

3. Perpetual winter in the Eastern Front – an important factor in Soviet victory.

Russia’s never-ending and deadly frost – aptly called General Winter – played a crucial role in the victory of the Russians against the Germans.

Hitler’s invasion plan was set out for the German troops to conquer Russia before the country’s legendary cold climate set in. But then, the German army’s problem with supplies coupled with the dauntless resistance Soviet Union put up stall their advance to Moscow until late 1941. By this time, General Winter had already started which proved too much for the German army still clad in their summer uniforms.

“Frostbite epidemic” quickly spread with an estimated number of 100,000 cases reported at the end of 1941. This resulted to the amputation of about 15,000 limbs.

It’s not just the German soldiers who had to contend with the biting cold of the Eastern Front. Their equipment had, too. Their guns and artillery froze and could not be fired while their tanks and jeeps refused to start as these also got frozen. Not only was the annual cold a thorn on the side of the Germans, the other seasons were quite “hellish”, too. Russian summer proved to be too hot oftentimes while Russian spring and fall brought in rasputitsa, the miserable rainy season that clogged roads rendering them impassable.

Of course, the Russians were more accustomed to the weather conditions of the Eastern Front as it was their own country. They had skis, camouflage and specially designed rifles to use.

4. Russian women had large contribution in the Eastern Front.

Soviet Union and Nazi Germany differ greatly in views regarding women. Hitler made it clear that a woman’s role revolved around the Kinder, Küche, Kirche or children, kitchen/home and church.

Though this phrase was never used by the Third Reich’s officials, Hitler encouraged women during his reign to get married, bear as many children as they could – with rewards – and not to hold paying jobs. As a matter of fact, when the Nazi party came into power, many women doctors as well as those who held offices in the government were sacked.

On the other hand, the Soviet-era communism had the tendency to embrace equality among sexes and so, women who took to arms was quite common during the Second World War. They served in many of WWII’s front lines, including the Eastern Front, as anti-aircraft gunners, snipers, partisan guerrillas and even as pilots of Russian fighter planes.

Russian women fighting in the front lines of the Second World War did not just boost the numbers of the Russian army, they also contributed greatly and a number of them earned reputations as fierce fighters like ace pilots Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova and sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. And don’t forget the Russian Night Witches.

5. Fight to the last man was Stalin’s order for his troops.

In the early days of the German invasion in the Eastern Front, Stalin saw millions of his own soldiers being captured by the enemy. This made him declare “Order No. 270” in August 1941 stating that any Russian soldier who surrendered or allowed themselves to be captured by the Germans would be treated as traitors of their homeland and executed if ever they return to Russia.

Later on, he upped this order with another one — the famous “Order No. 227” or the “Not One Step Backward!” rule which was declared July of 1942. This order decreed that cowards would be instantly killed on the spot. And though it was meant to boost the morale of Russian soldiers, Stalin’s order wasn’t something without merit. Special units called blocking detachments were really placed behind their own lines in the Eastern Front with the orders of executing any Russian soldier who fled. As many as 150,000 were killed in line of Stalin’s “Not One Step Backward!” decree with about 15,000 in the Battle of Stalingrad.

6. The Eastern Front saw the biggest tank battle in the whole military history.

The Siege of Leningrad, which went down history as one of the longest and most destructive with countless casualties, as well as the grisly Battle of Stalingrad all happened in the Eastern Front.

While these two are the best known battles that occurred in the Eastern Front, this battlefield is also known for something else — being the “site of the largest armored confrontation of all time”, the Battle of Kursk which occurred July of 1943.

The Battle of Kursk involved 6,000 tanks, 5,000 warplanes and about 2 million soldiers. It started with the Germans playing offensive wanting to get the 70-mile salient or bulge in the Soviet lines located in western Russia. But Hitler, wanting his new Tiger tanks to reach the front, delayed the attack. This allowed Stalin to fortify the region.

By the time the Germans started their campaign, the Soviets met them head on with mines and artillery fires that eventually destroyed many of the former’s Tiger tanks and left some 350,000 dead on both sides.

Finally, the Germans – seeing that they were no match against the Soviets – retreated on July 13. It was their last offensive operation in the Eastern Front.

7. Both the Germans and the Russians committed war crimes and atrocities in large numbers.

If the Western Front and the Eastern Front were compared, the struggle in the latter was far costlier and bigger. Furthermore, it was by far more brutal.

Both the Germans and the Russians disregarded international laws and acted cruel against the enemy — towards the opposite side’s soldiers, prisoners and even civilians.

As they advanced through the Eastern Front, German soldiers wiped out countless Russian villages with Jews, as well as other minorities, constantly rounded up and either shot or poisoned through their mobile gassing vans. Additionally, Nazi Germany’s troops also engaged in starving Russian cities to submission the most famous case being that of Leningrad. The Germans’ 28-month siege of the city resulted to the death of as many as one million civilians.

Soviet Union’s Red Army responded to Nazi Germany’s brutality in the Eastern Front with their own as they advanced to Berlin in 1945. They shot, burned alive, crushed through the use of their tanks and even crucified scores of civilians as they headed towards Germany’s capital. There are also studies that state that the Red Army may have also raped as many as 2 million German women during WWII’s last days.

8. The Soviet Union did not release the last of its German POWs until after a decade after WWII ended – in 1956.

Western Allies released the last of their POWs in 1948. But that was not the case in the Eastern Front as a number of German POWs were still locked up in the Soviet Union for a longer period of time.

Many of the German POWs in the USSR were used as laborers in coal or copper mines. It was estimated that about 400,000 to 1 million POWs died while in the hands of the Soviets.

When Stalin died in 1953, there were still about 20,000 former Nazi soldiers under the Soviet’s custody. Eventually, the last 10,000 of these prisoners of wars were released until 1955-1956.

Hitler Turns East

Stymied in his attempt to invade Britain in 1940, Hitler refocused his attention on opening an eastern front and conquering the Soviet Union. Since the 1920s, he had advocated seeking additional Lebensraum (living space) for the German people in the east. Believing the Slavs and Russians to be racially inferior, Hitler sought to establish a New Order in which German Aryans would control Eastern Europe and use it for their benefit. To prepare the German people for an attack on the Soviets, Hitler unleashed a broad propaganda campaign that focused on the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin's regime and the horrors of Communism.

Hitler's decision was further influenced by a belief that the Soviets could be defeated in a brief campaign. This was reinforced by the Red Army's poor performance in the recent Winter War (1939-1940) against Finland and the Wehrmacht's (German Army) tremendous success in swiftly defeating the Allies in the Low Countries and France. As Hitler pushed planning forward, many of his senior military commanders argued in favor of defeating Britain first, rather than opening an eastern front. Hitler, believing himself to be a military genius, brushed these concerns aside, stating that the defeat of the Soviets would only further isolate Britain.

The Eastern Front

Dive into the bitterly contested, racial, furious battles of the Eastern Front, where more combatants were killed than in all other theaters combined.

Primary image: map showing the advance of the Allied armies from both the east and west at the end of World War II. (Image: The National WWII Museum.)

The US involvement in the European theater of operations was mainly confined to western Europe and Italy, but some of the war’s most savage fighting occurred on the Eastern Front, where the Axis powers had set out to conquer the Balkan Peninsula and the immense reaches of the Soviet Union. More combatants were killed on the Eastern Front than in all other theaters of World War II combined. These bitterly contested, racial battles (Adolf Hitler had vowed to exterminate the eastern Slavs) prevented Germany from mounting a more resolute defense against Allied armies in Normandy, and later, on the Reich’s western borders.

As early as 1923, when Hitler authored Mein Kampf, he believed Germany’s destiny lay in defeating its historic enemy, France, and pushing eastward into the Soviet Union, exterminating both communism and the Slavic peoples. But he didn’t want to fight both countries at the same time, especially if Great Britain came to the defense of France.

Accordingly, in August 1939, Hitler signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. The treaty also included a secret agreement to divide Poland, the Baltic States (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), Finland, and Romania into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Neither country fully trusted the other, but the agreement achieved short-term goals for both parties. Germany was free to attack Poland and France without worrying about a Soviet invasion, and the Soviets could take control over parts of eastern Europe without fear of German retaliation.

After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Soviet troops moved into parts of eastern Europe, occupying 286,000 square miles of territory containing 20 million people. This action was permitted under the terms of the nonaggression pact, but it endangered Hitler’s plans for expansion eastward. “The sooner Russia is smashed the better,” he told his generals.

On June 22, 1941, Hitler took his greatest gamble, unleashing Operation Barbarossa, a three million-man invasion of the Soviet Union. The invasion was spectacularly effective in its early stages. By September, the Red Army had sustained some 2.5 million casualties. But it turned out to be a fatal mistake. The Soviet Union was one of only two countries (the other was the United States) Germany could not defeat. The Red Army was the largest in the world, comprising over 250 divisions, and the Soviet Union was the world’s largest country by area, with vast natural resources. Undaunted, Hitler was confident the Soviet Union would fall to his armies in a matter of months. Its military equipment was outmoded, its generals were inept, and it had great difficulty defeating tiny Finland the previous year. There was also strong opposition to Joseph Stalin’s repressive regime in the Ukraine and other Soviet provinces. “We have only to kick in the door,” Hitler said, “and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”

The United States and Great Britain were barely on speaking terms with Stalin’s communist regime but both eventually joined forces with the “Reds” because they shared a common enemy. “Any man or state who fights on against Nazism will have our aid,” Winston Churchill told the British people in a radio address.

The fighting on the Eastern Front was terrible and incessant, brutal beyond belief. Both sides fought with demonic fury—the Germans to crush the hated Slavs, and the Soviets to defend the sacred soil of Mother Russia. Atrocities including beheadings and mass rapes occurred daily. Millions of captured soldiers died of exposure and maltreatment. The Germans besieged Leningrad and tried to subdue it by starving its entrapped people.

10 Facts About the Soviet War Machine and the Eastern Front

The Axis Power’s invasion of the Soviet Union began the largest land war in history, drawing much of Germany’s power away from the war in Western Europe. Throughout the course of the war, the Soviets had the greatest casualties in both military and overall losses, contributing the most of any side to the Allied victory against the Nazis.

Here are 10 facts about the Soviet contribution to the Second World War and the theatre of the Eastern Front.


Germany and the Soviet Union remained unsatisfied with the outcome of World War I (1914–1918). Soviet Russia had lost substantial territory in Eastern Europe as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March, 1918), where the Bolsheviks in Petrograd conceded to German demands and ceded control of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and other areas, to the Central Powers. Subsequently, when Germany in its turn surrendered to the Allies (November 1918) and these territories were liberated under the terms of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 at Versailles, Soviet Russia was in the midst of a civil war and the Allies did not recognize the Bolshevik government, so no Soviet Russian representation attended.

The Brusilov offensive

The German assault on Verdun began on February 21, and on March 18, at the request of French commander in chief Joseph Joffre, the Russians started a relief offensive on their Western Front. The point of attack chosen was on either side of Lake Naroch (Narach), east of Wilno. After a preliminary success, the Russians persisted in attacks although a thaw had rendered the ground practically impassable. By the end of March, they had lost 150,000 men and had little to show for their losses. The Russians then commenced to prepare an offensive south of Lake Naroch, to take place in July, in combination with the Franco-British offensive in the west. Gen. Aleksey Brusilov, who had succeeded Ivanov in command of the Southwestern Front, had been ordered to prepare such offensives as he could stage with his own resources, to serve as distractions to the enemy from the main Russian effort.

In the middle of May, Austria-Hungary, contrary to the wishes of the German Supreme Command, made an attack on Italy which initially met with considerable success. Italy appealed to Russia to pressure Austria-Hungary and prevent the Austro-Hungarian formations deployed on the Eastern Front from crossing over to Italy. Brusilov’s offensive, loosed on June 4 in response to this request, shattered the Austro-Hungarian lines. The Austro-Hungarian front, from which the best troops had been withdrawn for the Italian attack, crumbled into collapse. The Russians, however, proved unable to take full advantage of their opportunity. Their reserves were all in the north and could not be moved down before the Germans could produce divisions to fill the gaps. Through the summer of 1916, Brusilov’s men continued their advance, but by the end of August they had lost their momentum. Bukovina and a large portion of eastern Galicia had been occupied and nearly 400,000 prisoners taken, but the Russian losses had been enormous. By the end of autumn, they amounted to something over one million on Brusilov’s front alone. Holding offensives made on the Russian Western Front at Baranovicze (Baranavichy) had also cost the Russians heavy losses with no gain. Outside Russia, Brusilov’s success had two important results—the entry of Romania into the war on August 27 and Falkenhayn’s replacement at Supreme Command by Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Eastern Front (WWII)

Some of germany's best generals and tacticians were in command on the eastern front 41-45. Would the forum agree that despite some brilliant tactical operations throughout this campaign, they were not given enough
autonomy to achieve their objectives?.

I do not want to start a 'what if' thread, but can we agree that despite the initial sucesses of Barbarossa, this campaign was lost before it started?

I would be interested in your opinions.


Some of germany's best generals and tacticians were in command on the eastern front 41-45. Would the forum agree that despite some brilliant tactical operations throughout this campaign, they were not given enough
autonomy to achieve their objectives?.

I do not want to start a 'what if' thread, but can we agree that despite the initial sucesses of Barbarossa, this campaign was lost before it started?

I would be interested in your opinions.


My point is, and in my opinion, generals such as Erich von Manstein, Von Rundstet etc would have conducted this campaign differently if they had been given complete control of the Wehrmact on this front.


It seems that he (Hitler) had a tendancy to dismiss initial advice at his daily conferences and later, communicate the same action as if it was his
decision. At the subsequent conferences, he would then turn to those around the map table, smile and say 'I told you so'.


My point is, and in my opinion, generals such as Erich von Manstein, Von Rundstet etc would have conducted this campaign differently if they had been given complete control of the Wehrmact on this front.

You are of course entirely right.

Herr Hitler constantly interfered (usually for the worse) from the very beginning of Barbarossa e.g:

- He delayed this operation for at least three critical weeks at the expense of the Balkan campaign,
- He determined to invade in June 1941 with an still undefeated UK, and
- As early as July 19, 1941 (less than a month after invading the USSR) he obstructed the advance of the Group Centre to Moscow by removing some its best panzer units to Ukraine, in hindsight one of the critical blunders of the campaign of 1941.

. all that long before any significant German defeat had actually happened.

Why the Eastern Front of World War II Was Hell

The war between Germany and the Soviet Union officially began in late June 1941, although the threat of conflict had loomed since the early 1930s. Germany and the USSR launched a joint war against Poland in September of 1939, which the Soviets followed up with invasions of Finland, Romania, and the Baltic states across the following year.

After Germany crushed France, and determined that it could not easily drive Great Britain from the war, the Wehrmacht turned its attention back to the East. Following the conquests of Greece and Yugolavia in the spring of 1941, Berlin prepared its most ambitious campaign the destruction of Soviet Russia. The ensuing war would result in a staggering loss of human life, and in the final destruction of the Nazi regime.

(This first appeared in May 2018.)

The Fight on Land

On June 22, 1941, the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe struck Soviet forces across a wide front along the German-Soviet frontier. Romanian forces attacked into Soviet-occupied Bessarabia on the same day. The Finnish armed forces joined the fight later that week, with Hungarian troops and aircraft entering combat at the beginning of July. By that time, a significant contribution of Italian troops was on its way to the Eastern Front. A Spanish volunteer division would eventually join the fight, along with large formations recruited from Soviet prisoners of war and from the local civilian population of occupied Soviet territories.

The course of the war is far too complicated to detail in this article. Suffice to say that the German enjoyed overwhelming success for the first five months of the war, before weather and stiffening Red Army resistance led to a Soviet victory in the Battle of Moscow. Germany resumed the offensive in 1942, only to suffer a major defeat at Stalingrad. The Battle of Kursk, in 1943, ended the Wehrmacht’s offensive ambitions. 1943, 1944, and 1945 saw the pace of Soviet conquest gradually accelerate, with the monumental offensives of late 1944 shattering the German armed forces. The war turned the Wehrmacht and the Red Army into finely honed fighting machines, while also draining both of equipment and manpower. The Soviets enjoyed the support of Western industry, while the Germans relied on the resources of occupied Europe.

The Fight in the Air

Mercifully, the nature of the war did not offer many opportunities for strategic bombing. Russia launched a few sorties against German cities in the first days of the war, usually suffering catastrophic casualties. For their part, the German Luftwaffe concentrated on tactical support of the Wehrmacht. Germany did launch a few large air raids against Russian cities, but did not maintain anything approaching a strategic campaign.

Notwithstanding the improvement of the Soviet Air Force across the war, and the effectiveness in particular of attack aircraft, in general the Luftwaffe mauled its Soviet foe. This remained the case even as the Soviet aviation industry far outstripped the German, and as the Combined Bomber Offensive drew the attention of the Luftwaffe to the west.

The Fight at Sea

Naval combat does not normally loom large in histories of the War in the East. Nevertheless, Soviet and Axis forces fought in the Arctic, the Baltic, and the Black Sea for most of the conflict. In the north, Soviet air and naval forces supported convoys from the Western allies to Murmansk, and harassed German positions in Norway. In the Black Sea, German and Romanian ships struggled against the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, winning important victories until the tide of the land battle turned. In the Baltic, Russian submarines and small craft fought a guerilla conflict against Germany and Finland for the first three years, although the Germans successfully leveraged their surface naval superiority in support of retreats in the final year of the war.

The Fight Against Civilians

The Holocaust is perhaps the most remembered legacy of the War in the East. The invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union brought the bulk of Eastern Europe’s Jewish population under Nazi control, facilitating a German policy of extermination. For non-Jews, German occupation policies were nearly as brutal, although populations sympathetic to the anti-Soviet crusade were sometimes spared.

Towards the end of the war, the Soviets did their best to return the favor. Soviet depredations against the German civilian population of East and Central Europe do not generally received the same degree of attention as German actions, in no small part because of an enduring (if problematic) sense that the German deserved what they got. Other Eastern European populations were caught in the crossfire, suffering starvation and other depredations from both sides. Nevertheless, there is no question that the Soviets (and the peoples of Eastern Europe) suffered far more deeply from the war than the Germans.

The raw statistics of the war are nothing short of stunning. On the Soviet side, some seven million soldiers died in action, with another 3.6 million dying in German POW camps. The Germans lost four million soldiers in action, and another 370000 to the Soviet camp system. Some 600000 soldiers from other participants (mostly Eastern European) died as well. These numbers do not include soldiers lost on either side of the German-Polish War, or the Russo-Finnish War.

The civilian population of the territory in conflict suffered terribly from the war, in part because of the horrific occupation policies of the German (and the Soviets), and in part because of a lack of food and other necessities of life. Around 15 million Soviet civilians are thought to have been killed. Some three million ethnic Poles died (some before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, but many after) along with around three million Jews of Polish and another two million of Soviet citizenship (included in the Soviet statistics). Somewhere between 500000 and 2 million German civilians died in the expulsions that followed the war.

Statistics of this magnitude are inevitably imprecise, and scholars on all sides of the war continue to debate the size of military and civilian losses. There is little question, however, that the War in the East was the most brutal conflict ever endured by humankind. There is also little question that the Red Army provided the most decisive blows against Nazi Germany, causing the vast majority of German casualties during World War II as a whole.

The end of the War in the East left the Soviet Union in control of a vast portion of the Eurasian continent. Red Army forces occupied Germany, Poland, Czechosolvakia, parts of the Balkans, the Baltic states, and parts of Finland. The Western allies remained in control of Greece and much of western Germany, while Joseph Tito established an independent communist regime in Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union redrew the map of Eastern Europe, annexing large chunks of Poland, Germany, and the Baltics, and ceding much of Germany to Polish control. Russian domination over the region would last into the early 1990s, when the layers of the Soviet Empire began to peel away.

The scars of the war remain, not least in the absence of the populations exterminated during the conflict. The states occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the war (including Poland, the Baltics, and Ukraine) remain deeply suspicious of Russian intentions. For its part, memory of the war in Russia continues to condition Russian foreign policy, and Russia’s broader response to Europe.

Robert Farley is a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as an Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs atLawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.

Remembering the Khatyn Massacre

78 years after the Nazis’ murder of 149 residents of a Belarusian village, the tragedy has taken on layers of meaning far removed from the attack itself

Viktor Andreevich Zhelobkovich was 8 years old at the time. He’d recall decades later that the invading Nazi troops and their collaborators forced him, his mother and the other residents of Khatyn, a tiny village in Belarus, to wait in a barn for about an hour while the enemy plotted outside. Though they tried to convince themselves that the soldiers were just trying to scare them, glimpses of gasoline being poured on stacks of hay outside suggested otherwise.

“People went out of their minds from fear, realizing that they were to be burned,” Zhelobkovich said. Soon after the barn went up in flames, its roof collapsed, prompting the desperate villagers to break down the locked doors and run outside, where they were easy targets for the machine gun–wielding attackers.

Zhelobkovich’s mother saved his life. “I wanted to get up,” he said, “but she pressed my head down: ‘Don’t move, son, lie still.’ Something hit me hard in my arm. I was bleeding. I told my mom, but she didn’t answer—she was already dead.”

Everything around me was burning, even my mother’s clothes had begun to glow. Afterwards I realized that the punitive squad had left and the shooting had ended, but still I waited awhile before I got up. The barn burned down, burned corpses lay all around. Someone moaned: “Drink.” I ran, brought water, but to no avail, in front of my eyes the Khatyn villagers died one after another.

Another survivor, Vladimir Antonovich Yaskevich, managed to hide in a pit used to store potatoes. Two German soldiers discovered the 13-year-old but departed without shooting him. Later, when he emerged from the pit and saw the smoldering ruins of his home, he held out hope that his family had escaped to the forest. When morning came, however, he saw nothing but charred bones. “Among the burned corpses,” Yaskevich said, “I recognized the bod[ies] of my father, brothers and sisters.”

Vladimir Yaskevich (right) survived the massacre, which claimed the lives of his sister Sophia (left) and the rest of his family. (Courtesy of the Khatyn State Memorial Complex)

The March 22, 1943, massacre at Khatyn (pronounced HA-teen) left 149 villagers from the Eastern European community, then part of the Soviet Union, dead. Just six people—five children and one adult—survived. Ostensibly in reaction to Belarusian partisans’ ambush killing of German Olympic shot putter Hans Woellke, Nazi soldiers and their collaborators converged on the village and enacted total warfare on its civilian inhabitants. As described so vividly by Zhelobkovich, the attackers herded all of the villagers into a large barn, set the building on fire and then waited outside with machine guns. Those who managed to escape the inferno were quickly mowed down. Before departing, the Germans looted everything of value and burned Khatyn to the ground.

It was far from an isolated incident. By one historian’s count, occupying forces murdered all the inhabitants of 629 razed Belarusian villages, in addition to burning down another 5,454 villages and killing at least a portion of their residents. As Peter Black, former senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, explains, these punitive operations paved the way for the planned repopulation of Soviet territory with German settlers. The Nazis, he says, hoped to conquer, secure and exploit the Soviet Union’s resources, “both natural and human, … for the benefit of the German Reich.”

Though it looms large in the Belarusian cultural consciousness, Khatyn—and the scope of devastation it speaks to—is relatively unknown in Western Europe and the United States. Per Anders Rudling, a historian at Lund University in Sweden, notes that Nazi reprisals at Lidice and Oradour-sur-Glane, villages in Czechoslovakia and France, respectively, “are rather well known in the West because [they] took place in a Western setting.” But the fact that massacres of this kind, isolated incidents within their countries, took place “on a scale incomparably greater” in the Soviet Union is largely overlooked, he says.

The Khatyn State Memorial Complex features a symbolic graveyard that contains dirt from 186 razed Belarusian villages. (Photo by Viktor Drachev / TASS via Getty Images)

In the broader story of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the tragedy of Khatyn left deep scars that continue to resonate today. Far from being a clear narrative of good and evil, of Nazi atrocity and Soviet bravery, the events of the massacre—and the way it became a symbol in the post-war era—instead represent a prism through which to examine the power of nationalism, patriotism and historical memory.

As German forces bore down on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Nazi armed forces’ high command, issued an ominous directive: “Since we cannot watch everybody, we need to rule by fear.”

Keitel’s comment reflected the stark reality of life on the Eastern Front. Though some 78 percent of Adolf Hitler’s soldiers were stationed there, the sheer size of the Soviet Union left Germany’s troops spread too thin, says Rudling.

Beyond the challenges posed by the massive Soviet army, the Germans also struggled with attacks by partisans, or ragtag bands of resistance fighters who relied on guerrilla tactics to disrupt the occupation. To discourage resistance against outnumbered German soldiers, Keitel ordered the deaths of 50 to 100 Soviets for every Nazi killed by partisans.

The brutal policy, enforced with the help of local collaborators, served a dual purpose, quelling uprisings while enabling the mass murder of Eastern Europe’s Slavs, the dominant ethnic group in the region, whom the Germans viewed as inferior and targeted as they did the continent’s Jews. (Though the Holocaust claimed the lives of 2.6 million Jews from the Soviet Union, post-war U.S.S.R. authorities tended ignore the victims’ faith in favor of grouping them with other Slavs as part of a broader narrative of genocide against peaceful Slavic citizens, notes Black.)

“It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that what happened on the Eastern Front was a war of racial extermination,” says Rudling. “And Hitler made it very clear that it was a different conflict than what they called the European ‘normal war’ in the West,” where the Nazis were more concerned with keeping conquered countries dependent on Germany than in waging a campaign of total annihilation.

German troops occupy a burning Russian village in summer 1941. (Imperial War Museums / © IWM HU 111384)

Belarus, then known as Belorussia, bore much of the brunt of this systematic violence, with an estimated 2.2 million Belarusians—around one in four—dying during World War II. The scale of the country’s population loss, writes historian David R. Marples, was “proportionally higher than practically any other theater of war.”

Rudling attributes the Nazis’ “particularly brutal” occupation of Belarus to two key factors: First, the country was home to a thriving community of Ashkenazi Jews (90 percent of whom were killed during the Holocaust), and second, its landscape of swamps and forests was well suited for guerrilla warfare. Acts of resistance by partisans led, in turn, to widespread massacres of civilians—like what happened in Khatyn, located around 30 miles north of the capital city of Minsk.

Diaries, archival records and eyewitness accounts studied by Rudling suggest that a group of 75 Belarusian partisans ambushed the Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118, an auxiliary unit dominated by collaborationist Ukrainians, on the morning of March 22. For every German soldier stationed on the Belarusian front line, between 15 and 20 collaborators were on hand to help oversee occupied territory and quash partisan resistance. Acting alternatively out of ambition, nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-communism sentiment or self-preservation, these individuals came largely from western Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, where loyalty to the Soviets was low-to-nonexistent due to atrocities committed under premier Joseph Stalin, including the intentional starvation of 3.9 million Ukrainians. (Though Belarusian collaborators existed, none were present at Khatyn specifically, according to Black.)

In the fighting that morning, the partisans killed four men, among them the Olympian Woellke. A journal kept by a partisan brigade reports that they “rested” in Khatyn after the attack by the time the soldiers arrived, all of the partisans had departed, leaving just civilians in the village. Though the Nazis and their collaborators could have pursued the partisans, they decided not to, perhaps out of fear of meeting another ambush. Instead, says Artur Zelsky, director of the Khatyn State Memorial Complex, “They got down to … safer, but more terrible work—looting and extermination of innocent people.”

Victor Zhelobkovich, one of the few survivors of the Khatyn massacre (Courtesy of the Khatyn State Memorial Complex) The only known photo of Khatyn victim Vanda Yaskevich (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Khatyn memorial’s website lists extensive information about the attack, including the names and birth years of the 149 victims. But details on the perpetrators’ identities, as well as the events leading up to the killings, are sparse: The page simply states that “German fascists”—with no mention of Ukrainian collaborators—murdered the village’s innocent residents.

Official government accounts of Khatyn and other wartime massacres tend to obscure the role of Nazi collaborators while celebrating the actions of Belarusian partisans, who are widely lauded as patriotic heroes. Recent research, however, complicates this narrative. As Alexandra Goujon, a political scientist at the University of Burgundy in France, points out, some partisan activity amounted to little more than pillaging, rape and murder. The targets of their attacks weren’t just Nazis, she adds, but suspected collaborators and locals who refused to support the partisan movement. Moreover, all partisan action was undertaken with the full awareness that the Nazis would target innocent civilians in retaliation.

“The partisan knows that if they are going to hide in a village, this village might be burned,” says Goujon.

The fact that the March 22 ambush’s victims included an Olympic medalist likely factored into the severity of the reprisal meted out. As Rudling recounts, the battalion’s leader, Erich Körner, dispatched his men, as well as reinforcements from the Dirlewanger Brigade, a German unit known for its brutality, to Khatyn. Though Körner reported that “[t]he enemy put up fierce resistance and opened fire from all houses in the village,” necessitating his men’s use of anti-tank guns and heavy grenade launchers, eyewitness accounts leave no doubt that the killings were an outright massacre.

In the years following the war, the tragedy of Khatyn faded from memory, rendered banal by the scale of devastation wrought in Belarus. The majority of the roughly 250 men responsible for the Khatyn massacre never faced repercussions. “Most of the members of the 118th [Battalion] survived the war [and] post-war retaliation,” says Black. “Some of them fled to the West. Some of them returned to the Soviet Union to take up their old lives,” often under false names.

Just three individuals involved in the killings—including two Ukrainians who’d received commendations for the operation—were executed for their crimes. One Ukrainian collaborator, Vladimir Katriuk, moved to Canada, where he worked as a beekeeper. Katriuk died in 2015, at age 93, just two weeks after Russia requested his extradition.

Leaders of the Nazi Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118, an auxiliary unit dominated by Ukrainians who collaborated with the German invaders, in 1942 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This historical amnesia changed in the mid-1960s, when Pyotr Masherov, leader of the Belorussian Communist Party and a former partisan himself, came to power. Emphasizing wartime resistance as a central aspect of Belarusian identity, Masherov oversaw the erection of monuments commemorating the conflict’s dead and celebrating partisan heroism—a strategy that “stressed [his government’s] own legitimacy and heroism,” says Rudling.

Masherov and the politicians who followed him, including current President Alexander Lukashenko, cultivated a narrative that paints Belarusian heroism, as exemplified by partisans, as unmatched “in the entire war history and … therefore deserving of praise the world over,” according to Goujon. Omitted from this version of events, she adds, are foundational aspects of Belarusians’ wartime experiences: namely, partisan violence against civilians, the existence of local collaborators who helped the Nazis commit atrocities and “the fact that many people avoided taking sides during the war.”

Goujon argues, “Any attempt to construct a more complex picture of Belarusian partisan warfare than the state’s black-and-white narrative of WWII is [considered] a threat.”

Khatyn’s transformation into a symbol of broader Belarusian suffering coincided with the creation of a new founding myth for the Soviet Union—one that painted the so-called Great Patriotic War in broad, nationalistic strokes. Instead of acknowledging the singular suffering experienced by victims of the Holocaust, officials grouped the genocide of Soviet Jews with the killings of ethnic Slavs, ignoring underlying differences in favor of presenting a unified front. The Holocaust, according to Rudling, could not be allowed to overshadow the myth of the Great Patriotic War.

Survivor Iosif Kaminsky standing in front of a monument to the victims of Khatyn (Courtesy of the Khatyn State Memorial Complex)

“The Soviet narrative was very much a replacement for the memory of the [October] Revolution,” says Simon Lewis, a cultural historian at the University of Bremen’s Institute for European Studies in Germany. “… And when you create this narrative of glory against ‘fascism’ and victory, of pretty much saving the world actually, then these other events [like the Holocaust] don’t seem so relevant anymore. They’re a bit of a nuisance to the master narrative of they, the Nazis, being the bad guys, and [us] defeating them.”

The Khatyn State Memorial Complex, established in 1969 by the U.S.S.R., epitomizes the monumental nature of this new founding myth. Designed to honor not just Khatyn, but all of Belarus’ wartime victims, the 50-hectare site—equivalent to ten football fields—features a symbolic cemetery with soil from the 186 villages that were never rebuilt, a black marble “Wall of Sorrow” and an eternal flame representing the one in four Belarusians who died during the war. Funded by the state, the memorial echoes government talking points, with an official tour guide telling visitors that the villagers were targeted because “they were Belorussians with honest hearts who wanted to live in their dear Fatherland and work their land without any fascist ‘new order.’”

At the entrance to the complex, a 20-foot-tall statue of Iosif Kaminsky, the only adult to survive the massacre, stares ahead stoically while holding the body of his murdered son. A seeming testament to Belarusian endurance in the face of tragedy, the sculpture’s “spirited invincibility,” as Lewis wrote in a 2015 paper, offers a stark contrast to Kaminsky’s own mournful account of the attack. Despite being severely injured, he managed to reach his son, who had called out for help. “I crawled over, lifted him slightly, but saw that bullets had ripped him in half,” Kaminsky recalled in 1961. “My son Adam managed to ask ‘is Mummy still alive?’ and then he died on the spot.”

A 20-foot-tall statue of survivor Iosif Kaminsky stands at the entrance of the Khatyn State Memorial Complex, pictured here during a ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the massacre (Photo by Natalia Fedosenko / TASS via Getty Images)

Upon seeing the statue, titled Unbowed Man, at the memorial’s opening ceremony, Kaminsky again struck a different tone “from the measured pathos of the party officials,” noted Lewis in 2015. Crying, he simply said, “Every time I think of Khatyn, my heart spills over. … All that was left of the village was chimneys and ash.”

Why Khatyn, out of the thousands of burned villages in Belarus, was chosen for elevation is a point of contention. Multiple scholars have argued that the site was selected because of its name’s similarity to Katyń, the site of a 1940 Soviet massacre of upward of 20,000 Polish prisoners of war. Given that it took until 1990 for Soviet authorities to admit to those killings, which they’d tried to pin on invading German forces, the idea that they picked Khatyn to sow confusion is “not unlikely,” according to Rudling, but has not been confirmed.

The Khatyn-Katyń debate touches on an aspect of local history omitted from the memorial complex, as well as the broader state narrative: namely, the Soviets’ own repression of Belarus in the years preceding the Nazi occupation. When the Germans invaded, some Belarusians actually welcomed them as liberators. Among other atrocities, the Soviet secret police had executed more than 30,000 Belarusian civilians in Kurapaty, a wooded area outside of Minsk, as part of Stalin’s Great Purge of dissenters in the late 1930s.

“The Stalinist terror instilled fear and paralyzed society,” says Rudling. But the sheer brutality of the Nazi occupation led most Belarusians to “remember this selectively,” he adds, with the restoration of Soviet rule viewed as a “legitimate liberation.” The rise of the cult of the Great Patriotic War in the 1960s, coupled with seismic improvements in Belarusians’ quality of life, further contributed to this phenomenon of selective memory.

German troops in front of a burned village in the Rogachyevo district of Gomel, Belarus, in 1941 (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Courtesy of Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War)

“For many Belarusians, the Soviets brought civilization, modernity, social advancement, technology, healthcare, literacy and all that jazz,” Rudling explains. Today, he adds, Belarusian President Lukashenko capitalizes on this fondness for the Soviet Union as he attempts to model his own regime on that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. By portraying Belarusians’ wartime suffering as the result of Nazi genocide against Slavs, Lukashenko appeals to “the Slavic ethnic base as a focus of loyalty” and emphasizes his people’s shared history with Russia and other countries in the former Soviet bloc.

Seventy-eight years after Khatyn’s destruction, the massacre has assumed mythic proportions in Belarus. Weaponized as propaganda by authoritarian regimes, the deaths of the 149 villagers have taken on layers of meaning far removed from the 1943 attack itself. Though they and other victims of the German occupation are viewed as people who died for “peace, freedom and independence,” says Black, such lofty ideals were “probably not what was top of the mind, in fact, for the victims of Khatyn.”

In Lewis’ words, “Turning the villagers of Khatyn into loyal Soviet citizens who ‘loved their Motherland,’ the authorities spoke on their behalf, and by extension, for all of the victims of the occupation. The dead villagers became puppets of memory.”

Watch the video: Eastern Front of WWII animated: 19441945 (May 2022).

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