Last Wednesday was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. If I made a list of mistakes to avoid if you want to conquer the world, it would have just three things on it. First, don't mess with the Royal Navy. Second, don't underestimate American resolve. And third, whatever you do, absolutely never, never, never invade Russia.
Hitler broke all three of these rules, and a good many others, in his bid for world domination. He underestimated British resolve and, crucially, failed to understand the advantage the British had in the form of the Royal Navy. He terribly misunderstood the character of the American people and foolishly declared war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, even though he was under no treaty obligation to do so. His interference in military procurement led to countless delays in the development of new weapons systems that could have greatly impacted the course of the war. He thought that the Italians would be a useful ally, he ordered foolish offensives when his generals urged caution, he diverted critical resources away from the war effort towards his sinister program of industrial-scale murder, and generally made a thorough mess of being a war leader. Indeed, there have been some suggestions that proposals to assassinate Hitler were rejected by the Allies because removing him from the stage would only help the German war effort.
But of all his mistakes, none matched the sheer stupidity of his invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. It was a mistake that would bring to ruin Hitler's sick dreams of a European empire centered around his conception of Aryan racial purity, as well as cost him his life. True, the Soviet victory would not have been possible without the crucial contribution of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the other Allied nations (most directly in the form of Lend-Lease supplies sent directly to the USSR, without which the Soviets would not have been able to resist the Nazis). But we can see that the invasion of the Soviet Union was the event around which the outcome of the Second World War swung. From the moment the panzer divisions crossed the border, Nazi Germany was probably doomed.
Hitler was fully confident that his armies could crush the Soviet Union quickly and easily. After all, they had already conquered Poland, Denmark and Norway, the Low Countries, and the Balkans. Most impressively, they had defeated the French, believed before the war to have the strongest army in Europe, in a mere six weeks of fighting. The might of the German panzers on the ground and the Luftwaffe in the air had appeared to be invincible. The Red Army, by contrast, had had a humiliatingly difficult time defeated the Finns in 1940, despite outnumbered them by a massive margin, and many of the best Russian commanders had been executed in Stalin's political purges.
The invasion led to the most brutal and nightmarish war that the world has ever seen, a titanic struggle between two equally evil dictators and two equally malevolent political ideologies. At the onset, it seemed that nothing could stand in the way of the Germans, whose panzer divisions sliced through the Soviet lines as though they were butter and whose Luftwaffe obliterated the Soviet Air Force before it could take off. For months, the German armored spearheads advanced, killing or capturing millions of Soviet soldiers, taking Kiev and Minsk, and coming within a hairsbreadth of Leningrad and Moscow.
It was then that two crucial elements played into Russian hands. First, the weather turned on the Germans, trapping them at the end of their supply lines in subzero temperatures beyond anything they had ever experienced. Second, Russian reserve armies launched a massive counteroffensive, for the Germans had failed to grasp the power of the Russians to raise armies of enormous size almost at will. In nightmarish fighting around Moscow in the winter of 1941-42, the Germans were hurled back.
They tried against the following year, launching a spring offensive that drove eastwards towards the Volga River, threatening the city of Stalingrad and the crucial Russian oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains. This ended in complete disaster that winter, with the massive Russian victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, which snuffed an entire German army out of existence. The following year, a last ditch German offensive was turned back in the Battle of Kursk, by some accounts the largest land battle in history. After that, the Russian steamroller really got going. Soviet war production, by itself, now significantly outstripped that of the Germans and the Soviet armies seemed to have almost limitless reserves of manpower. By the spring of 1945, the shattered remnants of the German forces were utterly defeated in the Battle of Berlin, Hitler shot himself inside his famous "Fuhrerbunker", and the Soviet flag was raised over the Reichstag. The Second World War in Europe was over.
The German Fuhrer wasn't the first man to invade Russia with dreams of an easy victory. One hundred and twenty-nine years ago almost to the day, the enormous army of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, had crossed the Neman River to begin the invasion of the Russian Empire. His army of six hundred thousand men, not only Frenchmen but Germans, Italians, Poles, and Dutchmen, was quite possibly the largest army ever marshaled in European history up to that point. Napoleon had defeated Russian armies in the past, at Austerlitz and Friedland, having always found them poorly led and slow to maneuver. The French Emperor, perhaps the greatest military genius in history, had no doubt that his invasion of Russia would succeed and leave him master of the world.
Napoleon's invasion of Russia went off in much the same way as that of Hitler's a century-and-a-quarter later. The Russian armies withdrew in the face of the overwhelming onslaught of Le Grande Armée trying to avoid being pinned down and losing much territory in the process. Eventually, the Russians stood and fought at the cataclysmic Battle of Borodino, the largest and bloodiest single-day battle of the 18th Century. Napoleon won a tactical victory, but a Pyrrhic one at best, for he suffered massive casualties and the Russian army withdrew to survive as a fighting force. Napoleon entered Moscow a week later, but the city almost immediately began to go up in flames thanks to Russian arsonists. He found that he had taken not a grand city, but a charred ruin.
The great retreat began a month later. It was a nightmare almost without parallel in human history. The Russian winter engulfed the French and allied soldiers, like the icy grip of the Grim Reaper, to the point where men who fell out of the ranks from exhaustion froze to death on the side of the road. Food ran short and many men starved; there were scenes of men frantically rushing towards any horse that fell down to cut away its flesh and consume it in a frenzy, whether or not the poor animal was dead. The Russian army constantly sought to interpose itself between the French army and its route of retreat, nearly succeeding in November at the Battle of Berezina, where the French suffered heavy losses as they crossed the river from which the battle took its name. Through it all, Cossacks and rural partisans swarmed around the French army like white blood cells attacking bacteria. The horrific tortures they inflicted upon French prisoners are almost too terrible to bear reading about and I shall not repeat them here.
Napoleon had entered Russia with an army of 600,000 men. When it limped out of Russia six months later, only about 100,000 had survived. Although Napoleon would miraculously raise another army and fight on for another three years, the disaster in Russia spelled the true end of his dreams for dominating Europe. He was never able to recover from the disaster of 1812 and the combined might of the British, Russian, Austrian, Prussian, and Swedish armies gradually wore him down. Napoleon met his final defeat at Waterloo in the summer of 1815, but his doom had probably been sealed when he had invaded Russia three years before.
Hitler and Napoleon are the two best known would-be conquerors who came to grief in the snows of Russia, but they are not alone. Just over a century before Napoleon's invasion, the Swedish king Charles XII had tried his luck. A figure almost unknown to modern Americans, Charles XII was one of the most fascinating people of the 18th Century. He led his nation through the long and bitter Great Northern War for the first two decades of the 18th Century, fighting against an alliance of Denmark-Norway (then united as a single realm), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, various German states, and the Russian Empire. Against such a coalition, no one gave Sweden much of a chance.
Yet Charles XII quickly proved himself to be one of the most gifted military leaders of his time. At the Battle of Narva in 1700, with only 10,000 men, he destroyed a Russian force four times his strength, seemingly knocking them out of the war altogether. That accomplished, Charles turned to campaigning in Germany and Poland for the next several years, winning many victories and attempting, with varying degrees of success, to place friendly monarchs on the thrones of the various states.
Unfortunately for Charles, the Russian Empire at this time was led by the most ferocious and implacable man who would ever sit on the throne, Czar Peter the Great. Stung by the humiliating defeat at Narva, he embarked upon a massive military reform program, slowly building up the strength of the Russian army, improving its training and tactics, and equipping it with up-to-date weapons. With his new forces, Peter began attacking Swedish holdings along the Baltic Sea, slowly chipping away at vital Swedish territory.
Realizing that he had been wrong to write Russia off after the victory at Narva, Charles XII now decided upon a full-scale invasion. With a battle-hardened army, he set off on his march to Moscow in January of 1708. At first, everything went well. Despite superior numbers, Russian forces were defeated in a number of battles, including the Battle of Holowczyn that summer, in which 12,000 Swedes trounced twice their number of Russian troops. But inevitably, things began to go wrong. An anticipated anti-Russian uprising by the Cossacks was thwarted by a devastating preemptive Russian attack. A reinforcing Swedish army was intercepted by the Russians and defeated at the Battle of Lesnaya. Worst of all, the Swedes were forced to endure what the French and Germans in future turns would endure, as the winter of 1708-08 turned into the coldest in living memory, resulting in countless Swedish soldiers freezing to death amid the wastes of Russia.
With a weakened army reduced to less than 25,000 men, Charles XII faced off against Peter the Great's much larger army at the Battle of Poltava in the summer of 1709. The result was probably a foregone conclusion. Attacking with great gallantry, the Swedes fought as hard as men could fight, but against vastly superior numbers, strongly entrenched and backed by strong artillery, they had no chance. The Swedish army was crushed in one of the decisive battles of history, forever ending Sweden's status as a great power and marking the emergence of Russia on the stage of the world. Charles himself would escape into the Ottoman Empire, to pursue further adventures in the years left to him, but his dream of conquering Russia ended in the bloodbath at Poltava.
Adolf Hitler. Napoleon Bonaparte. King Charles XII. In each of the last three centuries, a mighty warlord has attempted to conquer Russia. Each of them failed, and for remarkably similar reasons. In each of these three examples, the same three factors inevitably led to failure.
First, the Russians were always able to put into the field enormous numbers to resist the invaders. Even if the invaders were qualitatively superior in fighting capability, Russian numbers often proved able to turn the tables. No matter how many Russians were killed by the Germans of Hitler, the Frenchmen of Napoleon, or the Swedes of Charles XII, there were always more to replace them. This was due not only to the large Russian population, but to the autocratic nature of the Russian government under both the Czars and the Communist dictatorship of Stalin, which could mobilize an unimaginable proportion of their people into military use. Anyone invading Russia can expect to be at a severe numerical disadvantage.
Second, Russia is simply too big to be conquered. Invaders might inflict defeats upon the Russians, but there was always enough territory behind the Russians for them to retreat and regroup.This is why several serious defeats, such as the Battle of Holowczyn during Charles XII's invasion, the Battle of Smolensk and the Battle of Borodino during Napoleon's invasion, and the Battle of Kiev during Hitler's invasion, did not turn out to be truly decisive. The Russians were able to regroup and reorganize their forces father to the east and continue their resistance. Even Napoleon, who actually was able to capture Moscow, simply discovered that the Russian army withdrew to the east and remained ready to fight. There was simply too much land in Russia for it to be taken under any kind of occupation.
Third, and finally, the Russian winter played a critical role in defeating all three of the invasions. It's entirely likely that more German, French, and Swedish soldiers froze to death as were killed in battle. It not only killed and maimed men, but it destroyed morale and made the movement of food and supplies all but impossible. The Russians were quite familiar with this extreme form of weather and operated much more freely under its constraints. Making a bad situation even worse, the spring thaw following the winter turned the roads into a morass of mud and sludge, almost immobilizing the movements of the invaders. This was especially problematic for the mechanized German forces in the Second World War.
These underlying three aspects of Russia - its ability to mobilize immense numbers, its vast size, and the terrible ferocity of the winter - make the country effectively immune to direct invasion. So please take my advice. If you're in the world-conquering business, don't invade Russia. Trust me on this one. It's just an all-around terrible idea.
Unless, of course, you happen to be the Mongols.