The Soviet Union during World War II: The History and Legacy of the USSR’s Participation in the War

Written by Charles River Editors
Category: · History

*Includes pictures
*Includes accounts of fighting
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

World War II was fought on a scale unlike anything before or since in human history, and the unfathomable casualty counts are attributable in large measure to the carnage inflicted between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during Hitler’s invasion of Russia and Stalin’s desperate defense. The invasion came in 1941 following a nonaggression pact signed between the two in 1939, which allowed Hitler to focus his attention on the west without having to worry about an attack from the eastern front. While Germany was focusing on the west, the Soviet Union sent large contingents of troops to the border region between the two countries, and Stalin’s plan to take territory in Poland and the Baltic States angered Hitler. By 1940, Hitler viewed Stalin as a major threat and had made the decision to invade Russia: “In the course of this contest, Russia must be disposed of…Spring 1941. The quicker we smash Russia the better.” (Hoyt, p. 17)

In the warm predawn darkness of June 22, 1941, 3 million men waited along a front hundreds of miles long, stretching from the Baltic coast of Poland to the Balkans. Ahead of them in the darkness lay the Soviet Union, its border guarded by millions of Red Army troops echeloned deep throughout the huge spaces of Russia. This massive gathering of Wehrmacht soldiers from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and his allied states – notably Hungary and Romania – stood poised to carry out Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s surprise attack against the country of his putative ally, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

The Soviets were so caught by surprise at the start of the attack that the Germans were able to push several hundred miles into Russia across a front that stretched dozens of miles long, reaching the major cities of Leningrad and Sevastopol in just three months. The first major Russian city in their path was Minsk, which fell in only six days. In order to make clear his determination to win at all costs, Stalin had the three men in charge of the troops defending Minsk executed for their failure to hold their position. This move, along with unspeakable atrocities by the German soldiers against the people of Minsk, solidified the Soviet will.

Entering 1943, the Allies looked to press their advantage in the Pacific and Western Europe. The United States was firmly pushing the Japanese back across the Pacific, while the Americans and British plotted a major invasion somewhere in Western Europe to relieve the pressure on the Soviets. By the time the Allies conducted that invasion, the Soviets had lifted the siege of Stalingrad. The Allies were now firmly winning the war. Even before the British and Americans were able to make major strategic decisions in 1943, a massive German surrender at Stalingrad in February marked the beginning of the end for Hitler’s armies in Russia. From that point forward, the Red Army started to steadily push the Nazis backward toward Germany. Yet it would still take the Red Army almost an entire two years to push the Germans all the way out of Russia.

In April 1945, the Allies were within sight of the German capital of Berlin. The Soviets, closing in from hard fought battles in the east, had lost millions of men in the war already, and with an invasion force 2.5 million strong, they longed for revenge and a chance to right the wrongs of not only this war but the last. Even for Berliners too exhausted to be saddened by a German loss, “liberation” by the Soviets was unthinkable.

The battle would technically begin on April 16, 1945, and though it ended in a matter of weeks, it produced some of the war’s most climactic events and had profound implications on the immediate future. In the wake of the war, the European continent was devastated, leaving the Soviet Union and the United States as uncontested superpowers.

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