Germany launches Operation Barbarossa—the Invasion of the Soviet Union
On this day in 1941, over 3 million German troops invade Russia in three parallel offensives, in what is the most powerful invasion force in history. Nineteen panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces pour across a thousand-mile front as Hitler goes to war on a second front.
Despite the fact that Germany and Russia had signed a “pact” in 1939, each guaranteeing the other a specific region of influence without interference from the other, suspicion remained high. When the Soviet Union invaded Rumania in 1940, Hitler saw a threat to his Balkan oil supply. He immediately responded by moving two armored and 10 infantry divisions into Poland, posing a counterthreat to Russia. But what began as a defensive move turned into a plan for a German first-strike. Despite warnings from his advisers that Germany could not fight the war on two fronts (as Germany’s experience in World War I proved), Hitler became convinced that England was holding out against German assaults, refusing to surrender, because it had struck a secret deal with Russia. Fearing he would be “strangled” from the East and the West, he created, in December 1940, “Directive No. 21: Case Barbarossa”–the plan to invade and occupy the very nation he had actually asked to join the Axis only a month before!
On June 22, 1941, having postponed the invasion of Russia after Italy’s attack on Greece forced Hitler to bail out his struggling ally in order to keep the Allies from gaining a foothold in the Balkans, three German army groups struck Russia hard by surprise. The Russian army was larger than German intelligence had anticipated, but they were demobilized. Stalin had shrugged off warnings from his own advisers, even Winston Churchill himself, that a German attack was imminent. (Although Hitler had telegraphed his territorial designs on Russia as early as 1925–in his autobiography, Mein Kampf.) By the end of the first day of the invasion, the German air force had destroyed more than 1,000 Soviet aircraft. And despite the toughness of the Russian troops, and the number of tanks and other armaments at their disposal, the Red Army was disorganized, enabling the Germans to penetrate up to 300 miles into Russian territory within the next few days.
Exactly 129 years and one day before Operation Barbarossa, another “dictator” foreign to the country he controlled, invaded Russia–making it all the way to the capital. But despite this early success, Napoleon would be escorted back to France–by Russian troops.
On June 22, 1898, Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the great World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, is born in Osnabruck, Germany.
A student at the University of Munster, Remarque was drafted into the German army at the age of 18. He fought on the Western Front during World War I and was wounded no fewer than five times, the last time seriously. After the war, he worked various jobs—teacher, stonecutter, race-car driver, sports journalist—while working to complete the novel he had had in mind since the war. Published in Germany in 1929 as Im Westen Nichts Neues, it sold 1.2 million copies within a year; the English translation, All Quiet on the Western Front, published the same year, went on to similar success. It was subsequently translated into 12 languages, and made into a celebrated Hollywood film in 1930.
The smashing success of All Quiet on the Western Front was due in large part to its reflection of a widespread disillusionment with the war that took hold of many during the 1920s. Praised as a novel of unyielding realism, All Quiet on the Western Front described in stark detail the physical trauma of war. Remarque also articulated the numbing frustration and anger of the conscript soldier, sent into battle by government and military leaders for reasons of politics and power that he struggled to understand. In the words of his protagonist, Paul Baumer: I see how peoples are set against one another and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one anotherI see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.
The celebrated American journalist H. L. Mencken called All Quiet on the Western Front “unquestionably the best story of the World War.” Both the book and the 1930 film version were banned by the Nazis after their rise to power in Germany in 1933 as prejudicial to German national prestige. Remarque went on to write nine more novels, all dealing with the horror and futility of war and the struggle to understand its purpose; his last novel, The Night in Lisbon, was unsparing in its condemnation of World War II as Adolf Hitler’s attempt to perpetrate the extermination of Jews and other nonpeople on behalf of the master race.
Though he became a naturalized American citizen and was during the 1930s a frequent participant in New York City nightlife and a companion for several years in Hollywood of the actress Marlene Dietrich, Remarque lived for most of his later life at Porto Ronco, on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. He died at Locarno in 1970 with his wife, the actress Paulette Goddard, at his side.