Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union, was the largest military invasion of all times with a total of 3,8 million German soldiers and soldiers from allied countries taking part in the attack. But while the outcome of Hitlers’ war against the Soviet Union is well known one question often remains unanswered.
Why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union? What motivated him the risk of another large invasion after having already conquered Western Europe?
There were basically 5 reasons why Hitler attacked the Soviet Union:
By colonizing the western parts of the Soviet Union with German settlers Hitler planned on creating a continental empire that could not be hit by blockades. Defeating the Soviet Union would have also secured German dominance in Europe and would have deprived England of its last ally on the Continent. And annihilating Bolshevism was one of Hitlers’ main goals that he had formulated in his political manifesto „Mein Kampf“ in 1925.
Let`s find out more about these 5 reasons!
- 1 Hitler’s goal of „Lebensraum“ (living space) in the East
- 1.1 The German dependency on Soviet deliveries
- 1.2 The Soviet-German trade pact of 1940
- 1.3 The „Generalplan Ost“: The Plan to colonize the East
- 1.4 The German plan to structure the occupied western parts of the Soviet Union
- 1.5 The effects of the decision to attack the Soviet Union on German foreign politics in 1940
- 2 Making Germany and Europe blockade-proof
- 3 Securing German dominance over Europe
- 4 Forcing England into negotiations by eliminating its last ally on the continent
- 5 Bolshevism as Hitlers arch-enemy
- 6 Sources
Hitler’s goal of „Lebensraum“ (living space) in the East
As early as 1925, years before he actually became chancellor, Hitler had already propagated his plans of expanding the German territory into the East.
When writing his political manifesto „Mein Kampf“ Hitler clearly stated his political program. And that program was built on expanding Germany into the East, demolishing Bolshevism, and eradicating any Jewish live in Germany and the occupied territories.
To understand why the East was so important to Hitler we have to take a brief look into his world views, especially his thoughts on Social Darwinism.
According to Hitler, the different human races were in a constant fight for living space. And in order to ensure the survival of Germany, it was absolutely necessary to expand and populate the occupied territories with German settlers.
Especially since, according to Hitler, the German people were threatened by the spreading of Marxism. More on why Hitler despised Marxism in the last paragraph.
That demand for large territories that could be settled by German farmers was also the reason why the revision of the Treaty of Versailles and the return of the territories Germany had lost after WW I alone was not enough for Hitler.
As early as 3 February 1933, four days after becoming chancellor, Hitler had declared that he saw it as absolutely necessary to expand into the East and colonize these eastern territories since Germany did not offer enough land to supply the German people and the demands of the German industry.
And in February of 1939, in the year WW II would begin, Hitler, prepared his generals that the coming war for living space would not be a regular but a racial war and a war of ideologies.
Are you interested in how German soldiers experienced that war at the Eastern Front? For an eye-witness report about the intense fighting in the East, I would like to recommend you the diary of Armin Scheiderbauer, a german soldier who spent 4 years on the eastern front, was wounded 6 times and experienced the end of the war at only 21 years old. Originally he only wrote down his memories for his daughter but the book has now been translated into English. You can find it here* on Amazon.
That war of ideologies is also the fifth reason why Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, but more on that later.
For now, I would like to give a brief insight into the German plans for colonizing the East.
The German dependency on Soviet deliveries
When World War II started Germany and the Soviet Union actually collaborated in attacking and splitting up Poland, more on that here.
And even after Poland had been split up between Hitler and Stalin, both Nations remained close. In 1940 a trade pact was closed that obliged Germany to deliver military equipment and industrial goods to the Soviet Union while the Soviet Union would deliver raw materials like oil and grains to Germany.
Germany was actually quite dependent on these deliveries, especially the Caucasian oil was crucial for the German Blitzkrieg. By the way, the caucasian oil (and the transportation route on the Volga) would later become one of the reasons why Stalingrad would become so important to both Germany and the Soviet Union.
Please feel free to check out my articles for more information on why Stalingrad was so important to Germany (here) and to the Soviet Union (here).
While Germany would not stick to its part of the trade deal of 1940 the Soviet Union was cautious to not give any reason for German aggression (mostly because Stalin knew that the Red Army would not be at full strength before 1942).
That dependency on Soviet deliveries and the richness in natural resources of the Soviet Union convinced Hitler to start planning to attack as soon as possible. He hoped that by conquering living space and the natural resources of the Soviet Union he would be able to proof Europe against an English Sea Blockade.
But more on that later.
Let`s now take a look at the goods (and the quantities) that the Soviet Union delivered to Germany in 1940.
The Soviet-German trade pact of 1940
|Grains:||1,5 Million tons|
|Oil:||2 Million tons|
|Wood:||1,5 Million tons|
The „Generalplan Ost“: The Plan to colonize the East
The first version of the Generalplan Ost, the plan of how to colonize the East, was presented to Heinrich Himmler on 15 July 1941, not even a month after the attack on the Soviet Union had started.
The plan had been made with the help of several agronomists from the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University of Berlin.
According to the Generalplan Ost, the Eastern part of Poland, the Baltic states, and parts of Ukraine should be populated by German settlers within 30 years while 31 million native inhabitants would be deported to western Siberia. Only 15 million native inhabitants would have been allowed to remain.
That means that between 80 and 85% of the Polish population, 75% of the Belarusian population, and 65% of the Ukrainian population would have been deported to make room for German settlers!
But these western parts of the Soviet Union would have not only been settled by German colonists but would have also been restructured into 4 administrative units.
The German plan to structure the occupied western parts of the Soviet Union
|Reichskommisariat Ukraine:||Ukraine was especially valuable because of its fertile soil|
|Reichskommisariat Ostland:||Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and parts of Belarus|
|Reichskommisariat Moskowien (never realized):||The northern and central parts of the European part of Russia|
|Reichskommisariat Kaukasus (never realized):||The Northern Caucasus and the Southern parts of Russia|
The effects of the decision to attack the Soviet Union on German foreign politics in 1940
On 29. June 1940 Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command informed his close colleagues that Hitler planned on eliminating the Bolshevist threat as soon as possible by a surprise attack.
So we know that as early as the summer of 1940, one year before Operation Barbarossa, Hitler had decided to pursue an attack on the Soviet Union. And that caused several changes in the foreign politics of Germany.
According to the secret protocol that was added to the Molotov-Ribbentrop – pact of August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union did not only split up Poland between them but also established that Eastern Europe would be split into a German and a Soviet sphere of influence.
Not only the eastern part of Poland but also the Baltic states and Finland now belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence and Germany had agreed to keep out of any Soviet aggression against these countries.
But with Hitlers’ decision from 31. June 1940 to attack the Soviet Union as soon as possible, states like Finland and Romania that were part of the Soviet sphere of interest were suddenly important to Germany and had to be secured. Especially the Romanian oilfields but also the Finish nickel mines of Petsamo were seen as crucial for the German plans for a war against the Soviet Union.
Germany supplied Finland with weapons and even stationed troops in Northern Norway to secure the Finish nickel mines of Petsamo in the case of a Soviet attack. Other troops (the XXXX. Armee corps) were stationed at Vienna to push through Hungary and seize the Romanian oilfields within days in case of a Soviet attack.
So we can state that as early as the second half of 1940 Hitler was already preparing his attack by securing smaller states with crucial resources.
You might have realized by now that the control over resources was one of the main reasons for Hitlers’ attack on the Soviet Union. Securing these resources became even more important under the historical background of the English sea blockade during World War I that caused massive starvation in Germany and negatively influenced public opinion about the war.
And since England had established another sea blockade after Germany (and the Soviet Union) had attacked Poland in 1939 Hitler was worried about the consequences such a blockade could have.
Making Germany and Europe blockade-proof
But not only the English sea blockade worried Hitler. He, as stated above, was also under the impression that Germany did not have enough land to satisfy the needs of its population and its industries.
His idea was that by occupying and exploiting the rich natural resources of the Soviet Union (we already talked about how much raw materials the Soviet Union exported to Germany) he could make Germany independent from imports. And that independence would negate the effect of any future sea blockades.
Especially the supply with Oil worried Hitler. Originally Germany had imported most of its oil from Iran, Venezuela, and the United States (more on that here). But with the beginning of World War II and the English sea blockade, these deliveries ended.
Suddenly Germany was limited to the Hungarian and Romanian oilfields and Soviet imports. So securing the soviet oil, mostly the Caucasus, was crucial for Hitlers’ war efforts. He even stated that if he could not get the caucasian oil he would have to liquidate the war.
Occupying and exploiting large parts of the Soviet Union (including the Caucasian oilfields) would have made Germany and its occupied territories independent from oil deliveries and would have negated the effects of the English blockade.
But defeating and breaking up the Soviet Union would have also had two other benefits in regards to England.
Securing German dominance over Europe
In 1940 and 1941 after France had been defeated within 6 weeks (here you can find out more about the reasons why the British military was so weak during the early stages of WW II), the Soviet Union was the last big military power that had remained on the European continent.
In 1940 Great Britain tried its best to loosen the collaboration between Germany and the Soviet Union. And although Stalin refused the English overtures on 1 July 1940 and even informed Hitler about these overtures Hitler knew that Stalin could change his mind.
And that obviously worried him.
It is certainly not a coincidence that Hitler decided in late July of 1940 that a surprise attack that would happen as soon as possible would be his best chance to remove the Bolshevik threat.
Removing the last remaining big military power on the European continent would have secured Germanys’ dominance over Europe. And the resources that could be found in the East could have been used to force the resisting English Nation into capitulation.
But there was an even better scenario than having to force England into peace: Hitler and other high-ranking National socialists had the idea that England might be willing to negotiate a peace treaty if its last ally on the continent broke away.
To understand why Hitler hoped to convince England to make peace by defeating the Soviet Union we have to take a brief look at the failed attempts of forcing England into submission.
Forcing England into negotiations by eliminating its last ally on the continent
After Germany had defeated France in the summer of 1940 the German airforce was tasked with attacking targets in England. The goal was to either prepare an invasion or (better) force England into capitulation.
But England resisted!
And in the middle of September of 1940, the planned German landing operation in Great Britain (Operation Sea Lion) was indefinitely postponed. Hitler must have realized that his airforce was neither strong enough to prepare a landing, nor able to break the English will to defend themselves.
So he needed another plan to push England out of the war.
England’s main hopes during the Battle for Britain were the United States and the Soviet Union. The latter had already renounced the English overtures but Hitler knew that Stalin could change his mind.
According to a meeting between Hitler and the heads of the navy, airforce, and the High Command of the German Armed Forces at the Obersalzberg on 31 July 1940 Hitler hoped to force England into peace by eliminating the Soviet Union as the last potential ally on the continent.
Additionally, Hitler also hoped that defeating the Soviet Union would keep the United States from entering the war against Germany. His plan was pretty simple: If the Soviet Union is defeated then that helps Japan. If Japan grows in strength then the US has to focus on Japan and is also not able to help Britain.
Bolshevism as Hitlers arch-enemy
As already stated: On 29. June 1940 Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command informed his close colleagues that Hitler planned on eliminating the Bolshevist threat as soon as possible by a surprise attack.
But why did Hitler hate the idea of Bolshevism?
Hitler was a convinced nationalist who grew up in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, a multicultural empire that at Hitlers’ time was already breaking apart.
In Hitlers’ memory, the aggression that came along with the clashes between the different nationalities within the Austrian-Hungarian empire was mostly projected against the German culture that had been dominant in the multi-national Austrian-Hungarian empire.
Additionally, Socialist and Marxist ideas were spreading since the middle of the 19th century. Even Otto von Bismarck, the famous German chancellor, had to deal with these politics. Here you can find out more about why Bismarck hated Socialism and if he was able to push Socialism back.
Hitler, a convinced nationalist, saw Marxism as an anti-national ideology full of lies that would eventually lead to the downfall of humanity. In his opinion, it was necessary to protect the German people from being destroyed by Marxism by destroying Marxism first.
The term Bolshevist, the stylization of the war against the Soviet Union as a war between two opposing ideologies of which only one could survive, and the equation of Bolshevism and Jewism was not invented by Hitler himself but by Alfred Rosenberg.
Alfred Rosenberg, who was not only a founding member of the NSDAP but would also develop into one of its leading ideologists, and his ideas strongly influenced Hitler.
And this is where we can close the circle to the idea of Social Darwinism that was mentioned in the first paragraph. The war against the Soviet Union was simply not just a war for resources or dominance over Europe. It was a war of ideology!
Hitler believed that by attacking and defeating the Soviet Union he would secure Germany and Europe from being destroyed by the ideas of Marxism. And in his mind, that kind of goal justified all measures and would make the war in the East completely different from the war in the West or North Africa.
Just one brief example:
On 22 January 1943 Hitler prohibited the encircled German 6th army in Stalingrad to capitulate and gave the order that the army had to defend itself until the last. And after Stalingrad had fallen the 6th army was praised for their sacrifice in the crusade against Bolshevism.
By the way. If you want to learn more about the 5 reasons that influenced Hitler to prohibit any retreat from Stalingrad you might want to check out my article here. 150.000 German and 125.000 Italian soldiers of the Africa Corps (that was obviously not fighting the Red Army but American and English troops) on the other hand were allowed to capitulate on 12 May 1943.
I think that the last example should really emphasize that point that Hitler did not only see Bolshevism and the Soviet Union as his arch-enemy but that he also saw the war against the Soviet Union as a Crusade against Bolshevism.
There we have it. 5 reasons why Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. I hope you found the topic just as interesting as I did while researching.
For an eye-witness report about the intense fighting in the East, I would like to recommend you the diary of Armin Scheiderbauer, a german soldier who spent 4 years on the eastern front, was wounded 6 times and experienced the end of the war at only 21 years old. Originally he only wrote down his memories for his daughter but the book has now been translated into English. You can find it here* on Amazon.
And if you want to learn more about World War II and the answer to the question of why the British and French troops didn`t immediately invade Germany in 1939 despite having numeric superiority you might want to check out my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
H. Boog, W. Rahn (u.a.), Der Globale Krieg. Die Ausweitung zum Weltkrieg und der Wechsel der Initiative 1941-1943; in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Bd. 6 (Stuttgart 1990).*
H. Boog, W. Rahn (u.a.), Der Angriff auf die Sowjetunion; in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Bd. 6 (Stuttgart 1990).*
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