In the modern era, no people, no country has ever suffered what the Russian people endured during World War II, known in Russia as “The Great Patriotic War.”
The Russian people faced the possibility that they would be annihilated -- "extermination" is how Fuehrer Adolf Hitler described his strategy – at the hand of the greatest organized evil the world has ever known -- and yet, they survived.
In all, 26 million Russians and other Soviet citizens would die in the war. Equally staggering, the Soviet Union lost more people -- 1 million soldiers -- in one battle, the Battle Of Moscow, than her Allies the United States and United Kingdom lost during the entire war.
In Hitler’s warped ideology, Russians, because they are Slavic, were viewed as an inferior, subhuman "race." Hitler would soon learn, however, that in their ability to sacrifice for the greater good, perseverance and heroism, the Russian people were more superhuman than anything else.
An Epic Battle
And 72 years ago, on Dec. 5-6, 1941, one of the greatest contributions to the cause of freedom occurred, an epic turning point in World War II, a point that marked start of the downfall of Hitler's Nazi Germany: the Siberian Counter-Offensive by Russia (then the Soviet Union) in the Battle of Moscow.
And the irony is that the people who made an enormous contribution to freedom -- the Russian Army (then the Soviet Red Army), weren't free at the time: The Soviet Union was a Communist union of republics then, under the bloody tyrant Josef Stalin.
Americans aware of their history are and should continue to be eternally grateful to U.S. veterans, and to the other Allied forces who fought against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in Europe and against Imperial Japan in the Pacific and Asia during World War II, as they are grateful for all U.S. veterans who have fought in other wars to preserve freedom and democracy. Unless one has been in war, or has lost a loved one or friend in war, it has hard to understand the level of sacrifice offered by these servants of the United States. The departed U.S. veterans paid the ultimate price in battles at Lexington and Concord, at Gettysburg, in Belgium and France, on the beaches of Normandy, on the Korean Peninsula, and in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
But Americans also should be grateful for the roughly 1.5 million Russians -- some military historians say the total is much higher -- who died fighting in the Battle of Moscow.
The Luckless Russians - Heroes
The contribution of these heroes, whom "The World at War" documentary producer Jeremy Isaacs mourned as "luckless Russians," was heroic and eternal, for it was on the fields of the Russian Front that the death machine that was Nazi Germany was broken.
As producer Isaacs brilliantly outlined in his "World at War" documentary series, in 1941 Hitler's goal was a quick conquest of Russia, via a swift, four-month campaign code-named Operation Barbarossa.
Already victorious in Poland, and having conquered Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France -- and having already killed hundreds of thousands, not including those murdered in concentration camps in The Holocaust -- Hitler then turned his sights on the only remaining major power on the European continent -- Russia -- something Hitler outlined and predicted in his political treatise, "Mein Kampf."
(Photo: During World War II, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany was broken by the Red Army of Russia, then the Soviet Union. On Dec. 5, 1941 Russia's Siberian Counter-Offensive began. Siberian troops pictured. It was the beginning of the end for Hitler and Nazi Germany. Credit: WikiCommons.)
"When we speak of new territory, we must speak of Russia. Destiny itself points the way there." - Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf"
Hitler had thought about invading Britain in 1941, but he couldn't airlift enough troops, and amphibious warfare was not to his liking.
So Hitler was drawn in to attack the only power left in continental Europe for the Nazis' invincible Sixth Army -- drawn eastward, ever eastward, to the vast, boundless motherland that is Russia.
The Battle of Moscow: Hitler's Attempted Conquest Of Russia
Initially, the German offensive, which began June 22, 1941, captured a huge amount of territory in a relatively short period. In quick fashion, more than 660,000 Russian troops, or roughly 40 percent of the Red Army, had been isolated. Further, due to Stalin's brutal, blood-letting purges of the 1930s, Soviet Russia's military was unprepared -- and sorely short of officers -- for the initial Nazi thrust.
Hence, to offset the lack of manpower and officers, Red Army Gen. Georgy Zhukov decided to deploy the traditional Russian tactic of trading land for time (used against Napoleon in 1812). In other words, withdrawing troops, and almost everything else that could be of value to the Nazi Sixth Army, and creating a reserve ring around Moscow.
Nazi Germany Advanced 2,000 Kilometers or 1,242 Miles East
Publication standards prevent a full description of the horror of the Nazi occupation here. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed; countless rapes and other brutalities and other violations of human rights occurred, in one of the darkest periods in human history.
By November 1941, the Wehrmacht's Sixth Army had advanced almost 2,000 kilometers or 1,242 miles east -- capturing a space twice the size of Germany. But despite the fact that they conquered an unprecedented amount of Russian territory, and eliminated more than half of the Red Army, Germany's generals were not overjoyed: They knew that with a supply line that long, if anything went wrong, it would leave the German Army exposed. And things did go wrong for the Germans in late 1941.
(Photo: With all men at the front line, Moscow women dig anti-tank trenches around Moscow in 1941. Credit: WikiCommons.)
The Russian winter had begun in November. In fact, the winter of 1941-42 was one of the coldest, most severe winters since modern record-keeping started.
What's more, back in June, Hitler, so convinced of a quick, four-month victory over Russia, did not require that the Sixth Army pack winter clothing and gear.
Hitler's miscalculation proved to be costly for the Sixth Army: Soon the temperature was 30, 40 even 50 degrees below the 32 degrees Fahrenheit / 0 degrees Celsius freezing point. Equipment and men froze, with the Wehrmacht reporting more than 100,000 cases of frostbite in the first winter alone.
But the Russians, although still undermanned, were better-equipped for winter war: They had the proper clothing and gear, and equally significant, their tanks had a lubricating oil that flowed at temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hence, when Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Goering summoned Western journalists to Berlin in early December to announce the impending capture of Moscow, he most certainly spoke too soon.
The Siberian Counter-Offensive
For even as the Sixth Army was within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of Moscow, it had extended itself far beyond a normal, safe supply line. Even worse, its morale was weakened by winter-related troop and equipment losses, and by the continual resistance of the Soviet Army: There always seemed to be another wave of Russians to fight on the horizon ahead to the east. And another beyond that. And still more beyond that.
Then, on Dec. 5, although Hitler had been told that Russia had no army reserves left, Zhukov unleashed his counter-attack: the Siberian Counter-Offensive -- 400,000 of the top soldiers in the Red Army -- the Siberians -- trained to fight in winter conditions.
(Photo: Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Soviet Red Army general who led the Battle of Moscow, 1941-1942. Zhukov was, arguably, the greatest general in the history of modern warfare. Credit: WikiCommons.)
The Red Army's counter-offensive drove the Wehrmacht from the skirts of Moscow and did something no other army had done: forced the Sixth Army to retreat.
The Battle of Moscow did not immediately defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany: Russia was still too weak in the winter of 1941-42 to do that.
But the successful Soviet counter-offensive did mean that there would be no sudden, easy Nazi victory over Russia the way the Nazis had rolled over many other nations.
The Russian victory in the Battle of Moscow also meant that if the Nazis could not stop Russia's rearmament and mobilization, over time, Russia would amass troops and equipment in far greater numbers than Germany, and eventually would defeat Hitler.
And that's what Russia did: it was in the Battle of Moscow that Hitler -- the greatest evil the world has ever known -- was broken.
And for that every American and every supporter of freedom should be grateful.