Operation Barbarossa (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa) also known as the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the code name for the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and some of its Axis allies, which started on Sunday, 22 June 1941, during World War II. The operation put into action Nazi Germany’s ideological goal of conquering the western Soviet Union so as to repopulate it with Germans. The German Generalplan Ost aimed to use some of the conquered people as slave labour for the Axis war effort while acquiring the oil reserves of the Caucasus as well as the agricultural resources of various Soviet territories. Their ultimate goal included the eventual extermination, enslavement, Germanization and mass deportation to Siberia of the Slavic peoples, and to create more Lebensraum (living space) for Germany.
In the two years leading up to the invasion, Germany and the Soviet Union signed political and economic pacts for strategic purposes. Following the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, the German High Command began planning an invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1940 (under the codename Operation Otto), which Adolf Hitler authorized on 18 December 1940. Over the course of the operation, about three million personnel of the Axis powers—the largest invasion force in the history of warfare—invaded the western Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 mi) front, with 600,000 motor vehicles and over 600,000 horses for non-combat operations. The offensive marked a massive escalation of World War II, both geographically and in the formation of the Allied coalition including the Soviet Union.
The operation opened up the Eastern Front, in which more forces were committed than in any other theater of war in history. The area saw some of the world’s largest battles, most horrific atrocities, and highest casualties (for Soviet and Axis forces alike), all of which influenced the course of World War II and the subsequent history of the 20th century. The German armies eventually captured some five million Soviet Red Army troops. The Nazis deliberately starved to death or otherwise killed 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war, and a vast number of civilians, as the “Hunger Plan” worked to solve German food shortages and exterminate the Slavic population through starvation. Mass shootings and gassing operations, carried out by the Nazis or willing collaborators, murdered over a million Soviet Jews as part of the Holocaust.
The failure of Operation Barbarossa reversed the fortunes of Nazi Germany. Operationally, German forces achieved significant victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union (mainly in Ukraine) and inflicted, as well as sustained, heavy casualties. Despite these early successes, the German offensive stalled in the Battle of Moscow at the end of 1941, and the subsequent Soviet winter counteroffensive pushed the Germans about 250 km back. The Germans had confidently expected a quick collapse of Soviet resistance as in Poland, but the Red Army absorbed the German Wehrmacht’s strongest blows and bogged it down in a war of attrition for which the Germans were unprepared. The Wehrmacht’s diminished forces could no longer attack along the entire Eastern Front, and subsequent operations to retake the initiative and drive deep into Soviet territory—such as Case Blue in 1942 and Operation Citadel in 1943—eventually failed, which resulted in the Wehrmacht’s retreat and collapse.