For any and all people who know the story about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, it typically goes as follows: “On June 22nd, 1941, the German Army (The Wehrmacht) easily and effortlessly defeated the Russians and pushed them back all the way to Moscow, before the Russian winter came and defeated the Germans who failed to prepare winter equipment”. However, as commonplace as this statement is, it not only is a vast oversimplification, but it also leaves out many details during the initial months of the German invasion. This is also proof of how many topics can have multiple streams of misinformation, and that not everything is always simple. So first, I will answer what the true situation was before and during the invasion, and why people believe and are being taught the worse story.
The beginning of World War 2
Before the German invasion of the Soviet Union came, we must look at the war prior to June 22nd, 1941. On September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and used their blitzkrieg (Lighting Warfare) strategy to break through the Polish army, to encircle and crush them. On September 17th, the Soviets attacked on the Eastern side, and before long Poland was defeated and partitioned between the Germans and the Soviets. This was due to a German non-aggression pact with the Soviets, where its main purpose was to ensure peace between the two powers, as well as outlining their spheres of influence. The Germans used this to give the Soviets a small sense of hope, before the upcoming invasion in 2 years. However, Stalin also used this to buy him some time for improving military capabilities.
After the Polish invasion and the Germans took Norway to ensure safety of the Swedish iron trades, the Germans invaded France. Now, France actually scared the German high command, and for good reason. In World War 1, a war in which many of those in the high command were veterans of, it took the Germans 4 years of bloody brutal war for them to lose the war to France, and a repeat of this might’ve been likely. However, thanks to an idea from German Field Marshal, then General Eric von Manstien, the Germans used the majority of their tank division to plunge through the ardennes, a hilly forest region, and with this offensive, they encircled the best French forces as well as the majority of the British Expeditionary Force. Long story short, the French surrendered after only a month since the invasion.
Next on the German priority list was to conquer the Soviet Union, and to make room for “living space” or “lebensraum” for the Germans, one of the many goals of the Nazis. However, compared to France, the Germans weren’t at all afraid as they had defeated the Russians in World War 1, and their military capabilities were hindered by Stalin’s officer purges, as shown by the Winter War, a conflict between the Soviet Union and the much smaller Finland, and it ended as a substantial Soviet Pyrrhic victory, or a victory in which the cost for it negates the victory. So now the stage is set, the Germans are overconfident and the Red Army’s capabilities are, for the time being, blunted. What could go wrong?
The initial invasion and losses
So, now the invasion has begun and the Wehmacht has entered the Soviet Union. During the beginning of the war, Soviet casualties compared to German ones were substantially higher, and showed a bit of the inexperience of the Red Army and the strength of the Germans. However, many of the German casualties were in their tank divisions, which were the bread and butter for the Germans, being their superior divisions, and would only suffer from great casualties. Not only that, but these divisions, being in vehicles, have been going much faster than the army, leaving a massive gap in the lines, and allowing partisans, or essentially civilian rebellions, to rise up and to destroy German supply lines. In fact, some Soviet forces escaped being taken prisoner, and a pocket of resistance was behind the German armor.
Speaking of supply lines, the Germans have been taking a toll on attrition, with the roads being in significantly worse quality than they expected, as well as the Soviets burning food and destroying roads as a part of scorched earth tactics. Not only that but the dust from the roads usually got into engines and stopped the vehicle from working, and trucks coming with replacement engines usually had the same problems. German trains have smaller sizes compared to Russian ones due to the nation size differences, meaning German trains cannot fit on Russian railways, and if they changed the rails, it would be a slow and tedious process, with many partisans who’d destroy these changed rails, making the task futile. Many materials of war usually got stuck in these bottlenecks of supply lines, including many of the German winter equipment.
While this is all in mind, remember: all of this is before winter. In fact, right before the winter, the fall mud had slowed down German soldiers, making their speed go to a snail’s pace. In fact, according to Briannica.com, the mud started appearing in mid-July, very early in the war. Not only this but now the Germans realized they’d be fighting a war longer than they expected and prepared for. Also, the Soviet resilience was incredibly fierce compared to what is thought, with the Soviet population willing to fight to a bitter end, despite the weakness of the Red Army officer corps. However, I will not deny the effect of the winter on the Germans, as it froze soldiers causing casualties, froze fuel causing dysfunctions for vehicles, and overall slowed the Germans down. However, the winter, while effective, was nothing compared to the rest of the initial invasion. So, now we go to the question, why is this story not as common as the oversimplified one?
The reasons of the misinformation
I will mainly use my experience and thoughts on why the main story that is taught for the Eastern Front is less informative than the one I stated. First of all, sometimes there isn’t enough time to teach this during the teachings of World War 2. Teachers are stretched thin on what to teach, and sometimes they can’t teach everything. Second of all is from my experiences, where World War 2 in US classes has been Americanized so much to the point that in textbooks, they would barely have a page for anything Soviet or British related, while having a whole section dedicated to Pearl Harbor. Lastly is just stereotyping and memes, and the latter of which is known for lack of research, especially for historical ones. Usually the “Russia so cold” stereotype does it, and the thousands of Russian winter memes definitely doesn’t help, especially when it is easily broadcasted on the internet. Due to many of these factors, certain teachings will have numerous problems, and so it is typically best to read from sources outside of school, to personally educate yourself.
The main takeaway is to not believe anything you hear or read in any topic, especially if that topic has many “professional” opinions or takes. Not everything is as simple and dumbed down as some people make it to be. I also encourage you to read about certain topics that interest you, and to make sure that misinformation isn’t as commonly believed as it is today. If you see many parallels in the topics you’re interested in, where it is either simplified statements or plenty of others being misinformed, make a difference. Inform others about the truth, and try and quell misinformation for the sake of proper education. However, that is all, and thank you for reading this.
Britannica.com Operation Barbarossa
Britannica.com Winter War
Britannia.com Red Army
Potential History’s 3 part Barbarossa series on YouTube
History.com German Soviet Non-Aggression pact
Sammy Adnane – St. Patrick High School – DMSF Class of 2026
Image: Natalia Ventskovskaya