It is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. A jointly-made US-Soviet documentary during the detente years was called The Unknown War (1978) in its US release, The Great Patriotic War in the Soviet release. Burt Lancaster narrated the American version:
New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury did the English-language companion volume, The Unknown War (1978). The American title refers to the fact that the German's "eastern front," the war with the USSR, was little known in the US compared to the war in western Europe and the Pacific. That is still true today.
The script for the American version of the documentary reflects a sentimental view of the war. Salisbury's book conveys a more jaded Cold War version.
I'm not fond of sentimental histories. But understanding the sentiment and the propaganda are also part of understanding wars. And historical accounts also have to be read with a mind to the current and previous propaganda spins that might be reflected in them.
Farley sets the stage this way:
On June 22, 1941, the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe struck Soviet forces across a wide front along the German-Soviet frontier. Romanian forces attacked into Soviet-occupied Bessarabia on the same day. The Finnish armed forces joined the fight later that week, with Hungarian troops and aircraft entering combat at the beginning of July. By that time, a significant contribution of Italian troops was on its way to the Eastern Front. A Spanish volunteer division would eventually join the fight, along with large formations recruited from Soviet prisoners of war and from the local civilian population of occupied Soviet territories.That Battle of Kursk, by the way, was the largest tank battle in history. It took place in July and August, 1943. It was a massive German counterattack. The 2012 Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite article on the battle describes it this way: "The Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle in history, involving some 6,000 tanks, 2,000,000 troops, and 4,000 aircraft. It marked the decisive end of the German offensive capability on the Eastern Front and cleared the way for the great Soviet offensives of 1944–45."
The course of the war is far too complicated to detail in this article. Suffice to say that the German enjoyed overwhelming success for the first five months of the war, before weather and stiffening Red Army resistance led to a Soviet victory in the Battle of Moscow. Germany resumed the offensive in 1942, only to suffer a major defeat at Stalingrad. The Battle of Kursk, in 1943, ended the Wehrmacht’s offensive ambitions. 1943, 1944, and 1945 saw the pace of Soviet conquest gradually accelerate, with the monumental offensives of late 1944 shattering the German armed forces. The war turned the Wehrmacht and the Red Army into finely honed fighting machines, while also draining both of equipment and manpower. The Soviets enjoyed the support of Western industry, while the Germans relied on the resources of occupied Europe.
It noteworthy that this was a summer battle. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear that it was the Russian winter that defeated the Germans on their eastern front.
The German invasion and occupation were gruesome business. The mass killing in the Holocaust began just after the invasion of the USSR. One of the horrifying aspects of the situation was that many Russian Jewish communities had regarded the treatment they had received from the Germans in occupied areas during the First World War as better than what they received from the Russians. So there were many cases in the Second World War of Russian Jews in contested areas fleeing to get behind German lines.
Hitler had incorporated into his Nazi ideology an old Neitszchian concept of the "superman." The superman in his definition was a German "aryan," blond, clean-cut, healthy, obedient. Hitler was waging war, he insisted, to provide lebensraum, living space, for this new breed of super-German. He proposed to clear the eastern spaces of untermenschen, that is, all subhuman species such as Russians, Ukranians, Poles, Jews, "Asiatics," etc., etc.It was very ugly stuff.
The German armies moved eastward with special orders, such as the "commissar" order under which every Communist official who was captured would automatically be shot. There was also the "kugel" order, a bullet in the head for any prisoner who attempted to escape or was believed to be thinking of escaping.
Under this philosophy millions of Russians, Jews and Poles died. There were six million Jewish victims in Europe including possibly two million in Russia. The Germans did not always bother with bullets or concentration camp furnaces. They simply starved their victims to death. The Germans captured about 5,754,000 Russian soldiers in the war. The number who survived' as prisoners of war was a little more than 1,000,000. That is, only one in five or six of the men and women who fell into German hands survived to the end of the war. (And, shameful to say, most survivors were sent straight from German prisoner camps to Soviet labor camps by Stalin.) Several million Russians were driven into Germany as forced labor. Probably half this total died of starvation and disease.
No one knows how many persons in Russia were killed by the Germans out of hand ... But there was no doubt that the number ran to millions.
Farley gives this summary:
Towards the end of the war, the Soviets did their best to return the favor. Soviet depredations against the German civilian population of East and Central Europe do not generally received the same degree of attention as German actions, in no small part because of an enduring (if problematic) sense that the German deserved what they got. Other Eastern European populations were caught in the crossfire, suffering starvation and other depredations from both sides. Nevertheless, there is no question that the Soviets (and the peoples of Eastern Europe) suffered far more deeply from the war than the Germans.
The raw statistics of the war are nothing short of stunning. On the Soviet side, some seven million soldiers died in action, with another 3.6 million dying in German POW camps. The Germans lost four million soldiers in action, and another 370000 to the Soviet camp system. Some 600000 soldiers from other participants (mostly Eastern European) died as well. These numbers do not include soldiers lost on either side of the German-Polish War, or the Russo-Finnish War.
The civilian population of the territory in conflict suffered terribly from the war, in part because of the horrific occupation policies of the German (and the Soviets), and in part because of a lack of food and other necessities of life. Around 15 million Soviet civilians are thought to have been killed. Some three million ethnic Poles died (some before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, but many after) along with around three million Jews of Polish and another two million of Soviet citizenship (included in the Soviet statistics). Somewhere between 500000 and 2 million German civilians died in the expulsions that followed the war.