The Second World War (1939 1945) was the most devastating and dreadful in the history of humanity. As the German troops and its allies advances in the western and eastern fronts of Europe as well as in Africa , the Middle East and Asia, thousands of lives were lost and the damaged to property was almost incalculable. Perhaps fifty million people died, both soldiers and civilians (Perry 713).
In the early days and months of the war, it seems that the Allied forces was in the losing end of the battle as European nations were invaded and occupied by the German Nazi forces. The Allied powers (Britain and France) were no matched for the German army for the former were not prepared for the war. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union so that in the Eastern Front a fierce war broke out on June 22, 1941. Victory looks inevitable for Germany as they surrounded the city of Leningrad, and advances towards Moscow and Stalingrad. However, the Russian armies and civilians put up a courageous stand, refusing to surrender to Nazi troops for three years amidst the loss of lives in fighting and starvation. Soviet Unions courageous resistance to German invasion was a major factor in the Allies ultimate victory in Europe, as the Germans suffered critical losses and depletion of resources on the war in the Eastern Front (Perry 700-713).
This paper discusses why the Soviet victory in the eastern front was critical for allied victory in the Second World War. The condition of the Allies in the western front is described as well as the situation in the eastern front where Germany suffered its major losses.
II. Allied defeat in the western front
By the time that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, he was already successful in conquering and occupying most of Europe and rendered the Allied forces in the western front almost at his mercy. There are several reasons for this:
A. Germany was prepared to dominate Europe
Germanys invasion of other European nations was planned in spite of the worlds efforts to prevent another world war. The Treaty of Versailles, as part of its provision for Germany, ordered the nation to reduce its army, limiting it only to 100,000 to ensure that it will not indulge in another foolish idea of starting another war which the world had horribly witnessed and endured in 1914-1918. However, Adolf Hitler, the German Fuhrer, rose to power in the early 1930s. His first step in restoring Germanys power was to rebuild its military forces, which the Versailles Treaty forbade. Under the Weimar Republic, Germany had begun secretly to rearm on a small scale. In 1935, Hitler openly declared that Germany would build a peacetime army of 550,000 men. This was a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles (Perry 696).
In 1939, the German Imperial Office for Economic Planning of Warfare published the results of the census. They had stated In the course of Germanys rearmament, the economic planning of warfare increasingly came to the forefront. As the experience of the World War has shown for a country as Germany a clarification of the economic problems of warfare is of paramount importance for the result of a war ( Fremdling 3 ). Moreover, Hitler had assessed that a slow form of warfare will only deplete their resources and led the people to be discouraged with war. He had envisioned a quick invasion and occupation through the use of the nations resources, advance technology and preparation. Hitler also prepared the people psychologically for the upcoming war. Propaganda campaigns were successively launched to prepare the population for wartime sacrifices (Overy 2000).
Britain and France renounced German rearmament, but neither nation took action. Both wanted to preserve peace. Britain was not prepared for war and France was not ready to fight alone. Overall, in spite of its preparation, Germany could not be considered as superior to the combine powers of Britain or France or other European nations that it had invaded. The Germans had in fact fewer and poorer-quality tanks but they emphasized high standards of training and operational preparation and technical efficiency. Furthermore, the policy of appeasement, where peacekeeping nations granted Hitlers demands to avoid war, had largely helped Hitler to occupy European nations and territories in the first days and months of the war. He then used the food resources of this conquered nations to feed his forces and use their weapons, fuel and machines for warfare (Perry 699).
At the start of the war, then, the German army was already prepared to dominate Europe. In the years following the First World War, they had studied their mistakes, especially with the use of trench warfare, and opted for Blitzkrieg, a lightning attack that employed tanks and mobility to defeat an enemy before help from the allies arrived. They spent years perfecting the use of the new weapons of war tanks, armored divisions and air power (Overy 2000; Perry 698).
B. Allied powers and Europe was unprepared and opposed war
Despite the increasing aggression of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s, Britain and France were reluctant to opposed Germany. It was because they were not yet prepared for another war; for they had not anticipated that a war would break out so soon. They had dutifully observed disarmament and appeasement to avoid conflict in Europe especially as they had just witnessed the horrors of the First World War. So both psychologically and militarily, the two nations were not geared for battle when Germany turned aggressive. Moreover, in the years after World War I, Britain faced staggering economic problems. Merchant ships had been lost in the war and it was losing markets to other nations so that Britain had drastically reduced spending for armaments.
Like Britain, postwar France faced economic problems, too, for under its soil most of the wars in the First World War were fought. Villages, farms and railroads had been destroyed. Retreating Germans had wrecked mines, factories, forest, and orchards. In addition, millions of young Frenchmen had been killed or wounded. To help them rebuild, the French had counted on Germanys payment of reparations. In 1922, however, Germany declared it cannot pay no more. By the time Germany threatened the peace in Europe, France was able to form a large army but it relied mainly on the defenses of the Maginot Line, its huge border fortifications. Built in the 1930s the line was a series of massive forts and underground shelters, proceeded by minefields. It stretched the length of Frances border with Germany (Perry 699).
Aside from the reluctance of the two Allied superpowers ( Britain and France) to enter the war, the early victory of Germany was due to the fact that other Europeans, including the British, thought that the treaty of Versailles were treating the Germans unfairly hence, there was a widespread German sympathy at first. That is why Germany was unopposed when it invaded territories under the argument of self-determination (the right of national groups to determine their own political status, for example, Czech lands occupied by Germans would belong to Germany). Besides, communism, led by Russia, was rising in Europe and to many people in Europe, Hitlers fascism seemed more acceptable and stable (this was of course in the days when nations did not yet see how cruel Hitler really was)(Perry 670).
C. United States noninvolvement
The United States was a big help in winning the First World War for the allies. Like in the first war, United States at first did not interfere with what happened in Europe. In short, the American people once again wish to stay out of European wars. In the 1930s, many believed that US decision to participate in the First World War was a grave mistake so that Congress passed the Neutrality Act that isolates the US from any armed conflict around the world. The provision of the Act does not allow the US to intervene, participate or interfere in a war between two countries (Perry 699).
D. Nazi-Soviet Pact prevents Russia from stopping Germany
Although the Soviet Union fought against Germany in the First World War, in the second war it agreed to enter in a Nazi-Soviet Pact. This pact of friendship and nonaggression was signed between Germany and Soviet Union in August 1939. In this pact, the Soviet Union agreed, in return for half of Poland, not to interfere with Hitlers invasion. Although Britain and France do not trust the Soviet Union, this move stunned France and Britain for they needed Soviet Union, which had a large army, at their side especially to defend Poland. Therefore, because the powers of the Soviet Union was put on hold as a consequence of the pact, early on the morning of September 1, 1939 , German troops marched into Poland, and German planes bombed railroad and cities.
Country after country then fell to Germany and its allies, the Axis powers. In 1940, Nazi forces occupied Denmark and attacked Norwegian ports which were vital for German war effort. In the next month, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg also surrendered to Hitler, after heavy bombings had devastated cities and terrorized the civilian population. France then fell to German hands in June 1940. With the fall of France, Britain now stood alone to oppose Germany. Meanwhile, Germany became stronger as German troops were feed with the supplies of conquered lands and use their weapons for wars (Perry 700).
III. Soviet invasion and victory in the eastern front
Historians agree that Germanys invasion of the Soviet Union was Hitlers biggest mistake (Perry 699). Hitler had ensured before that the Soviet Union will not interfere with his war plans in Europe and the latter had been successful in occupying almost all European countries, and even those in Africa, without any intervention of Russia. Yet he pushed beyond his limits and chose to takeover a country that had been unconquered in all wars, the Soviet Union. In this nation, Hitler squandered most of his military resources. Two decisive battles that was a turning point for the Allies was the battle in Stalingrad and Kursk.
A. Hitlers ambition
While British resistance continued in the western front, Hitler was planning to open a second front and attack the Soviet Union. Even though Hitler and Stalin had made a nonaggression pact, one of Hitlers aims had always been to destroy communism and seize Soviet territory. He wanted land for German settlers, rich grain fields to feed the German nation, and oil, and coal, and iron ore to supply the German war machines. To prepare the way for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitlers forces occupied Bulgaria and overran Greece and Yugoslavia. By June 1941, Germany had 3,300 tanks, 5,000 planes and nearly four million soldiers (including from Italy, Romania, Finland and Hungary) massed long the Soviet border.
Although Britain and other democratic western countries do not trust the Soviet Union, nevertheless, they were ready to extend aid when Germany attacked it. Soviet Union was included in the United States Land-Lease Act of March 1941, wherein President Roosevelt was allowed by the US Congress to sell, lease or lend military equipment to nations whose defense was vital to American security. Aid was estimated to have reached about $11 billion in war material under that program (Perry 703).
B. Soviet Union Resistance and victory
At first, it seemed that Hitler was unstoppable even in the eastern front. It was in December 1940 that Hitler planned to invade the Soviet Union after he was successful in the western front. His war tactics in invading Russia was no different from what he had used in the west, which was using blitzkrieg or lightning war that used quick massive attacks on land and in the air. He began his assault in June 1941 wherein he divided his three million forces into three groups to attack the north, center and south of Russia using a series of devastating pincer movements. The Soviets were surprised and unprepared for this invasion so that it took only four months for German forces to penetrate towards Leningrad and Moscow (Overy 2000).
Soviet armies suffered enormous losses in the first months of the German offensive, holding back the invaders while slowly retreating. By the first week in October 1941, German troops were only fifty miles from Moscow. The people of the Soviet Union suffered great hardship. In September, German forces surrounded the city of Leningrad, trapping some three million people there with only enough food and supplies for a short time. The siege was not completely ended for more than two years. Nearly a million people died from starvation and disease (Perry 701; Werth 442).
As the Soviet troops withdrew, they burned crops in the fields and destroyed equipment. These scorched earth tactics left no food or supplies for the advancing Germans. The arrival of autumn rains and winter snow slowed the German offensive, for blitzkrieg tactics were not effective on muddy, snowy roads. Fresh Soviet troops arrived from Siberia with winter equipment, while the Germans shivered in summer uniforms as the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero. The Russian winter stopped the German army much as it had defeated Napoleons Grand Army over a century earlier. The attacking Germans were nearing to their target but failed to capture it because of physical and mental exhaustion and shortage of personnel (Perry 701).
Despite the setbacks of the winter of 1941-1942, the next spring and summer brought a new German offensive in the Soviet Union. The main target of the German attack was Stalingrad on the Volga River. The city was a vital center for north-south transportation by river, railroad and canal (Fitzgibbon 214). In late August, German troops reached the Volga. Six hundred German planes bombarded Stalingrad, enveloping it in flames and killing 40,000 civilians. By September 1, German soldiers were in the suburbs, but people would not abandon their city. Soviet soldiers and civilians fought house to house and street to street.
In the words of a Soviet general, the defenders fought for every brick and stone, for every yard of Stalingrad earth. Stalingrad became no longer a town. By day, it was an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke. In late November, Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov brought in new troops. They began a pincer movement, closing in from two sides and threatening to trap the German Sixth Army in the city (Perry 702). Zhukov had stated It was clear to me that the battle of Stalingrad was of the utmost military and political importance. The fall of the city would enable the German command to cut off the south of the Soviet Union from the rest of the country.
We might lose the great waterway of the Volga River, on which a heavy flow of goods was moving from the Caucasus (Slabad 132). Exhausted and short of food, medical supplies, weapons, and ammunition, the German commander begged Hitler to order a withdrawal. Instead, Hitlers Lufwaffe commander, Herman Goering, tried unsuccessfully to send in supplies by plane (Perry 702). Finally, in February 1943, the remnants of the German troops in Stalingrad surrendered. In this surrender, it was estimated that 300,000 German soldiers from the German 6th Army was taken prisoner by the Russians and this capture was considered by most historians as one of the turning points for the fall of Germany.
The German armies attributed this defeat directly to Hitler who had been undecided when and where to actually strike in the Soviet Union so that his troops had suffered in the Russian winter. Many had felt that Hitler had led his forces to danger in overstretched steppe of southern Russia. In addition, they blamed Hitler for interfering in military strategies when he took direct command of the German forces in December 1941. Nevertheless, in spite of this, there was a general belief among Hitlers generals that the Soviet Union was weak in the south and therefore was not capable of any serious resistance (Overy 2000).
Meanwhile, in 1943 the Germans attacked Kursk in Operation Citadel (the German code name for the Kursk offensive). Kursk was situated halfway between Moscow and the Black sea. In this attack an order was issued that German tank production be increased to a capacity of 600 units per month.(Fitzgibbon 215). Around 900,000 German troops was deployed for this battle including 2, 700 tanks and 2,000 warplanes around Kursk (Dupuy & Martell 76). The Soviets were not ignorant of this attacked for the Russian intelligence and Lucy spy ring delivered to them pertinent information regarding the details of the offense.
The Germans planned the attack in Kursk well; they build a defense stretching 250-300 kilometers from west to east (Caidin 74). Yet the fierce resistance of the Russian army forced the Germans to give up long stretches of held ground and before long they had retreated in Dnieper so that instead of pushing inland in the eastern front they were repelled to the west (Overy 2000). Needles to say, the Soviet Supreme Command was victorious in the battle at Kursk and were now preparing to liberate Soviet territories that were overtaken by the Germans in the south. In 1943, two-thirds of those German occupied territories were liberated and slowly but surely the Russians were now pushing the battles towards the west, approaching the borders of other German conquered nations. The Russian offensive would eventually take them to Berlin (Perry 705).
Yet Hitlers potential to conquer Russia was big at first especially if he drove straight to Moscow, the heart of Russia, instead of maneuvering down to the south after he already incurred severe Russian losses. Winning Russia at his side would greatly increase his capacity to dominate all of Europe and remove the Russian threat. However, his mistaken military diversions in Russia had needlessly plunged his troops to face the Russian winter in summer clothing and made him lose war resources. The Soviet Union also had other advantages.
The advantage of the Soviet Union to other nations in times of battle is that it is a big country of large army and fierce winter that can stop its enemies in their tracks. Instead of expanding its power, it is in the battle in the eastern front that Germany suffered it severest losses, for they had deployed millions of men there along with thousands of tanks. The Soviet Union was in fact the place where Hitler gambled in the war. It is estimated that 80% of German casualties was incurred in the battle in the eastern front which stretches 1000 miles (Perry 703). Historians were unanimous in declaring World War II was won in the east (Overy 2000).
Many historians agree that as long as Hitler was not in war with Russia, he had options and possibilities of winning the Second World War. And even if he did invade Russia, he should have gone to Moscow directly and convinced the Russian people that he was going to liberate them from Stalins communism but as such, he was already known for Nazi brutality (Perry 703).