A column of German troops heading toward the front passing a column of Soviet prisoners of war and their German guards after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in July, 1941. –United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Archiwum Dokumentacji

Why Americans Should Remember the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union

Most of us remember December 7, 1941. It was a “date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously characterized the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This event catapulted the United States into the Second World War and unified a deeply divided nation to fight the Axis powers.

Few of us, however, will recall June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. This is not surprising, the collective memories of nations tend to be shaped by incidents that directly involve those populations. In summer 1941, many in the United States still hoped to avoid entanglement in another world war and viewed the Soviet Union with as much disfavor as Nazi Germany.

This year, the American and western European media largely ignored the 75th anniversary of this tragic event. It was different in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Germany, where the memory of the Nazi attack still resonates. In Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, June 22 is known as the Day of Memory and Grief to honor the 25 to 27 million Soviet citizens who died in World War II. The vast majority of the dead, perhaps some 18 million of them civilians, were victims of shootings, starvation, reprisals, and other brutalities. This murderous undertaking marked perhaps the first time that a sovereign state carried out genocide against civilians outside of its borders.

This murderous undertaking marked perhaps the first time that a sovereign state carried out genocide against civilians outside of its borders.

At this year’s ceremony in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the West for isolating Russia, precipitating “aggressive actions” on the country’s borders, and ignoring the lessons of the 1930s. Just as the world failed to unite against Nazi Germany so, he argued, the world today has failed to unite against international terrorism. Putin added that Russia today was militarily prepared to deter any future attacks.

While the German invasion of the Soviet Union may not have directly affected the lives of most Americans in 1941, it is important to remember this event for a variety of reasons. For one, it provides an important lens through which we can understand contemporary politics in Eastern Europe. The wounds of the 1930s and 40s caused by Soviet and Nazi rule are not yet fully healed in the Baltic countries, Ukraine, or Russia.

Secondly, the Nazi campaign in “the East” was a pivotal turning point both in the Second World War and the Holocaust. World War II was decided on the battlefields of the Soviet Union, not in Western Europe. The German military’s failure to take Moscow and the oil fields of the Caucasus and stiff Soviet resistance put a slow end to Hitler’s dreams of an empire.

German infantry during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. –US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In the weeks that followed the invasion, the Nazis implemented what we have come to know as the Holocaust, the systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews. While violence had accompanied the Nazis since the party’s inception, what occurred in the Soviet Union marked the major turning point in Nazi anti-Jewish policy. For the first time, Jews were targeted for complete and utter annihilation. By the end of 1941, Nazi perpetrators had killed 500,000 Jews — men, women, and children had been killed in mass shootings and gas vans. Beginning in the fall of 1941, the Nazis expanded the killing of Jews to the rest of Europe.

From Hitler on down the Nazi hierarchy, the occupied Soviet Union was perceived as a vast laboratory for racial engineering. It was to be the killing fields for “inferior races” and the breeding ground for the “master race.” In planning for the attack, Nazi officials cold-bloodedly calculated that tens of millions of Soviet inhabitants probably would die from starvation as a result of food policies aimed at provisioning for the invading troops and supplying the German population with surplus agricultural products.

This played out most clearly in the German military’s treatment of Soviet prisoners of war, whose daily ration was generally lower than the Nazi-prescribed 700 to 1000 calories per day. Frequently, confined in open fields, with no food, shelter, or medicine, the captives died in droves after stripping the ground of grass and the trees of bark. Death came quickly and often. In less than a year, 2 million Soviet prisoners of war died as the result of Nazi policies. Only the German demand for increased sources of forced labor prevented more casualties.

For the second time in less than 10 years, the populations of Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union experienced famine and mass death as a result of state policies aimed at radical social engineering. The first coming with Stalin’s efforts at forced collectivization.

In recent years, scholars studying the Holocaust in the Soviet Union have provided us with a more nuanced picture of how genocide unfolded. This research has challenged existing paradigms by exposing the complex factors that led to mass violence. Regional studies have revealed that local Nazi officials often initiated actions or policies rather than wait for orders from Berlin. They have also revealed that Nazi occupation authorities pursued competing and conflicting policies, and that the number of officials and agencies, whether pencil-pushers or planners in German bureaucracies or the military, was much greater than previously thought. We also have learned how petty jealousies, greed, and other non-ideological factors played a role in fueling pogroms or denunciations carried out by native populations, with or without SS instigation.

The results of this new scholarship are not purely academic. They shed light not only on the Holocaust, but on contemporary episodes of genocide and mass atrocities. Since 1945, most examples of such extreme violence have taken place in the places where the targeted populations lived, just as in the German-occupied Soviet Union. Mass murder by bullets rather than deportation to modern killing centers, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, has been the rule, not the exception, in contemporary cases.

By studying the German invasion of the Soviet Union and recalling its tragic consequences, we might learn not only about the complex factors that led to mass death and genocide, but find ways to stop or impede such lethal actions in the future.

Written by Steven Luckert, PhD, senior program curator in the William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.