On June 22, 1941, a day that will live in infamy (everywhere else but America), the Wehrmacht poured over the barely established line of partition between the Hun-dominated Third Reich and the Georgian-dominated Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. So began Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion in human history.
It was named for Frederick I Barbarossa, the twelfth century Holy Roman Emperor and Hohenstaufen powerhouse who went east on Crusade only to drown ignominiously in an obscure Anatolian river along the way. After his death, Barbarossa became a sort of Hun Arthur. Hun legend told that Barbarossa hadn’t died in the swirling mountain currents of the Saleph. Instead, Barbarossa was sleeping with his knights in a cave under a mountain in Hun-Land named Kyffhauser. Once the ravens stop circling this mountain, Barbarossa will arise and lead the Hun back to his ancient greatness.
If the Once and Future Hun ever does arise from his half-slumber and staggers out into the light from under his dank Hun mountain, I’m sure he’ll be dazed by all the American tourists who mistake him for the villain from some movie series based on a theme park rise.
Hitler, with a deep understanding of history gleaned from careful study of Viennese light operettas and the backs of Hun bubble gum cards, probably sought to summon the spirit of the Hun Under the Mountain to make his violation of the oldest strategic cliché in the book seem OK. Though, in the Führer’s defense, the last violation of the “don’t wage a land war in Asia” cliché had been a victory for the Hun over a collapsing Tsarist Russia in 1917-1918.
If he was drawing lessons from the European experience in World War I, Hitler should have followed that other cliché, especially àpropos for the Hun: don’t invade Belgium even though that benighted country has historically been Europe’s Scenic Invasion Speedway. Taking just the period since 1800, both Buonapartes, tragedy in 1815 and farce in 1870, Ludendorff in 1918, and Gamelin and Gort in 1940 found their end in Belgian induced complications.
The poor maligned “Maginot” Line would be the butt of less jokes if it’d been built around Belgium instead of along the Franco-Hun border. If the Flemings and Walloons were fenced off, there’d be less standing temptation for the next aspiring trans-European tyrant to go to war so his forces can speed along Belgium’s flat, flat, easy, easy terrain. Hitler should have known that Belgium is a quagmire and its green and smooth as marble fields hide the deadliest form of operational quicksand.
Unbeknownst to Americans, the Eastern Front during World War II was the main event. The Second Russo-Hun War of 1941-1945 swallowed the Hun whole and what emerged afterward was never the same as the pointy-headed militarist Hun of old. The pale imitation Hun of modern times seems more determined to wage wars of aggression against its poor neighbors in the name of Lebensraum for its bank’s balance sheets and not for racial purity. This despite the Hun being a repeat deadbeat and serial debt defaulter of Argentine proportions.
I wouldn’t go so far as this point of view:
The only thing approaching a unifying theme for this cataclysm we call “WW II” is the United States, THE major allied participant in the Pacific (think logistics all you commonwealth coalition guys that are thinking “what about us” as you read this) and the United States becomes the principal partner in the Western alliance which is handling, admittedly only 20-30% of the European War duties against the background of the massive Soviet-[Hun] war. I have written this before but will write it again, we say at CGSC that Overlord was simply a deception operation to support BAGRATION and the destruction of Army Group Center!
This leaves out celebrity military historian John Keegan’s reminder that, out of the four defeats of World War II where the Hun lost 200,000+ casualties or more, two (Tunisia and Normandy) were inflicted by the Western Allies. The accurate characterization of the American infantry as lacking the trained tactical sophistication of his Hun counterpart misses the fact that American artillery and tactical air support was superior to its Hun counterpart. Most Hun slaughtered by American forces, over 70%, were efficiently killed at a distance by superior American firepower.
The 70th anniversary of Barbarossa has more meaning for me this year than years past. My mother was born mere hours before the Hun rolled across the Soviet border. It was still the 21st here but the 22nd had already dawned half a world away in the dark early morning hours of Eastern Europe as 8 million men stirred themselves for the great offensive.
My mother would have been 70 yesterday but she passed away on May 2nd after a long battle with breast cancer, just 1 1/2 months shy. For whatever reason, I never connected the day she was born with Barbarossa until a couple of weeks before her passing as I thought of something to say at her funeral. This despite knowing the date of June 22, 1941 for 3/4s of my life and knowing that the 21st of June was far too late to either buy Mom a gift for her birthday or launch a land war in Asia. The flowers were out, the ground was dry after the spring rainy season, and the campaigning weather was perfect before the hot days of July and August. In the eulogy I gave at her funeral, I was able to use Barbarossa as one bookend of Mom’s life to frame the historical arc of her life.
Chances are 95% percent of the mourners at Mom’s funeral had never heard of Barbarossa and the great noise it produced. Chances are 95% of them didn’t specifically remember Barbarossa afterward. But maybe its vividness in the overall narrative tapestry of her life will help them remember Mom when the 21st of June and campaigning season roll around every year.
It will certainly help me remember.
16 thoughts on “Seventy Years Ago This Day”
My condolences on your mother’s passing.
God rest her soul.
My condolences. May she rest in peace.
A friend of mine, a neurosurgeon nearing retirement, was born in Poland on the day the Germans invaded. His parents were Jewish but managed to get him and his sister to Paris where they had another child and survived the war. They ended up coming to America where he went to medical school and did his residency at U of Washington. After he finished, he spent three years in the US Air Force as the only military neurosurgeon in Europe. While there, he did a daring (and probably stupid) stunt to see his place of birth. He went to Austria (I think), told them he’d lost his passport and got another that did not mention his status as a USAF Colonel. He visited his birth place, didn’t get caught, and ended up in southern California where he and his family lived with us while they found a place to live. His brother also finished medical school and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins and has been in practice with him for 30 years.
I met his parents some years ago and was in awe of them. I simply cannot imagine how they did it.
Please accept my sympathy, JF.
My condolences, JF. May she rest in peace.
“Arise children of the Fatherland, the day of glory is here.
The tyranny has raised against us its bloody flag.
Listen now, within our camps, the howling of those fierce soldiers.
They come within our reach in order to strangle our sons and consorts.
To arms, citizens! Form your battle columns,
that with an impure blood we may water our plow furrows!”
This is actually (my) translation of someone’s national anthem, and it is not Germany.
My condolences Joseph.
While I disapprove of the use of ethnic epithets such as ‘Hun’, I’ll restrain myself in honor of your mother by merely pointing out that the world would be a much better place if the US had stayed out of WW I. Oh, and that Friedrich Barbarossa’s army would have crushed Saladin’s, if only he has lived.
Ralf, Barbarossa conquering the Levant and establishing a Germanic eastern kingdom — that would be a a great alternative history novel.
the world would be a much better place if the US had stayed out of WW I.
I once shocked a friend of mine, a retired RAMC colonel, with that comment. I had used the pronoun “we” and quickly let him know that I included England. Germany made several fatal errors, one being unlimited submarine warfare, just as Hitler made the fatal error of declaring war on the US. Germany building the High Seas Fleet as an ego gratification measure to sooth the Kaiser’s jealousy of his uncle is another. Machiavelli could have warned them about that. “Never strike a Prince unless you kill him.”
The German actions in Belgium hung the term “Hun” on them for the duration of the war. The only vellum copy of Vesalius’ book, De humani corporis fabrica, was destroyed when the University of Louvain library was destroyed. The destruction was intentional as retribution for minor resistance to invasion by the Belgians. Prior to 1914, there had been worldwide preparations for the celebration of Vesalius’ 400th birthday.
Joseph, our mothers saw a world that is passing away and I wonder if it will ever be seen again.
My condolences on your loss, Joseph.
Your article reminded me of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands which highlighted, among other topics, the lands caught on the east side of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact–invaded first by the Soviets, then by Germany during Barbarossa, then by the Soviets again on their way to Germany.
While I disapprove of the use of ethnic epithets such as ‘Hun’…
It may interest you to know that the “epithet” originated with none other than Kaiser Wilhelm himself in a speech he gave to German troops departing to put down the Boxer Rebellion. He urged them to be as ruthless as the mythical Huns. The troops took him at his word and adopted the appellation for themselves. Their behavior during the Boxer Rebellion suppression presaged their behavior at the onset of WWI.
Hungarians are the ones who should be upset over the use of the term.
Gotta say, that Der Spiegel article about the history of German debt is just silly.
It’s nonsense to compare Germany’s debts from wars to Greek’s debt over social welfare spending. Even if we did, do we really want to get in the business of excusing out of control social spending to out of control military spending and say that they are morally and practically equivalent somehow? And criticizing them over the financial woes caused by reunification?
The Germans have been the engine pulling Europe’s train since at least the 1960s and I’m pretty sure they’ve got to be tired of it at times. How many more decades do Europeans like the Greeks think they can morally bully the Germans by evoking the sins of the WWII generation? The Greeks certainly have nothing to brag about. It took a lot of dirty tricks back in the late 40s to prevent them from going full on Stalinist. Eventually, the moral brow beating about the sins of the their grandparents will stop working on the Germans and then when will the Greeks be?
The Germans in the second half of the 20th century appear to have learned the right economic lessons from their failures in the first half. To bad a lot of others in Europe couldn’t learn by example.
I knew that, thanks. But why use it in the present?
BTW, the German troops didn’t behave in any other way than the other expeditionary forces during the Boxer rebellion, and the alleged German atrocities during WW I actually are products of Allied propaganda. Lex and I debated the topic several times already, as for example in the comments of this post.
But let’s not start discussing it, I am currently not up to blogging for God, Emperor and Fatherland (that’s Gott, Kaiser und Vaterland in the original German).
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