HITLER'S RUSSIAN BLUNDER
By Drew Middleton; Drew Middleton, the military correspondent of The New York Times, gathered some of the information for this article when he reported from the Soviet Union in 1946-47.
Published: June 21, 1981
The first light touched the Kremlin's towers and the bulbous steeple of St. Basil's on Red Square. The rising sun cast long shadows across the sleeping cities and villages that lay between Moscow and the frontier that Stalin and Hitler had drawn across a conquered Poland.
The silence of that Sunday morning, June 22, 1941, was shattered at 3:15 A.M. by the thunder of 7,000 German guns firing along 3,000 miles of frontier from Finland to the Black Sea. Beneath that earsplitting barrage and escorted by 2,700 warplanes, 186 divisions - 154 German, 18 Finnish and 14 Rumanian - smashed forward into Russia.
The invasion of the Soviet Union, 40 years ago tomorrow, was one of the turning points of World War II. The hitherto invincible German Wehrmacht, after a series of stunning victories, was bled into impotence by the long, agonizing Russian national effort. Four years later, as the Russian armies rolled westward, the Soviet Union emerged as the most powerful state on the Eurasian land mass and the long duel with the United States began.
Unity in victory for the Soviet Union established the country as a superpower. The United States, also emerging from World War II as a superpower, was a capitalist state and consequently an enemy of Russian Communism, or so Stalin thought.
At a cost of 20 million casualties, Russia won her war. The suspicion and anxiety which its leaders show today toward American military and political policies go back to that titanic Soviet effort and the memories of its dead. A combination of ideological hostility to capitalism, those memories and chronic Russian xenophobia and envy are the mainsprings of current Communist international attitudes.
Hitler's decision to invade Russia was the product of the convictions and illusions of the dictator's demonic psyche. Since the 1918 Armistice ending World War I, he had been convinced that Bolshevism had helped defeat Wilhelmine Germany and that the German Communist Party, which he fought as the Nazi leader, would deliver the Reich to Moscow.
Even before Hitler wrote ''Mein Kampf,'' he identified the Soviet Union as the enemy. In secret, the Nazis regarded Germany's 1939 nonaggression pact with Russia as a useful way of buying time and avoiding a two-front war. The economic benefits it brought Germany were useful, but in the eyes of Hitler and the more radical Nazi chiefs these were only a pittance compared with what could be gained by conquest. Lebensraum in the east would insure the 1,000-year Reich against economic want as well as military threat.
The illusions were many. Hitler saw only Communist Russia and not the enduring, intensely patriotic people whose faith in Mother Russia had survived both czars and commissars. The prospect that many Russians would rally to the support of the Germans was overrated by the Nazi leadership.
One of the gravest mistakes made by the Nazis during the invasion was the dispatch of S.S. execution squads to eliminate party functionaries. Their brutalities, as much as any factor, turned the people against the invaders and bolstered the partisan movement.
Finally, of course, Hitler held the illusion that the Soviet state was already tottering and that it would fall under the hammer blows of the Wehrmacht. So confident was he of this that he ignored such inexorable military truths as the vast distances of Russia, the early and cruel winters, the lack of paved roads for his mechanized troops.
''We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down,'' Adolf Hitler told his generals. Forty years later, the reasons for his confidence are obvious.
Germany deployed the most powerful military forces in the world. They had conquered Denmark and Norway, then the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940 and, in the same year, had driven the British from continental Europe. Only the Royal Air Force had saved the United Kingdom from invasion. Two months before the invasion of Russia, German armies - preceded by mass bombing - had overrun Yugoslavia and Greece.
As that fateful June dawn broke, the swastika flew from Norway's North Cape to the sands of Libya. German U-boats hunted successfully in every ocean. The ruins of Rotterdam, London, Coventry and Belgrade testified to the power of the Luftwaffe.
The firestorm that burst on the 119 Russian divisions distributed along the long frontier stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea was unprecedented in its volume and fury. The German armored spearheads, accompanied by the ubiquitous Stuka dive bombers, tore gaps in the Russian covering forces while other bombers destroyed hundreds of Soviet aircraft on their airfields. Behind the armor, the motorized and marching infantry divisions swept forward. Panzer units reported gains of 30 and 35 miles on that first day.
The Red Army and air force performed unevenly. Some troops fought with stoic bravery until they were overwhelmed by floods of tanks and infantry. Others, stunned by the bombs and the shells, surrendered. To ''Landser Fritz,'' the German G.I., the offensive seemed a repetition of the previous year's dismemberment of the French army.