The Invasion of the Soviet Union | Facing History & Ourselves

The Invasion of the Soviet Union

Learn about role the Soviet Union played in the Nazis’ plans for “space and race.”


  • History


English — US


The Nazis in Vilna

In his testimony for USC Shoah Foundation, Holocaust survivor Jack Arnel describes what he saw as a 12-year-old when the Nazis occupied Vilna, Lithuania in 1941.

Territories within the Soviet Union were crucial to Nazi plans to acquire Lebensraum, or prime “living space” for “Aryan” Germans. With continental western Europe firmly under German control, Hitler was ready for war with the Soviets in the summer of 1941. For Hitler, according to historian Wendy Lower, “the ultimate aim of this Vernichtungskrieg (war of destruction) against the Soviet Union was to make a ‘Garden of Eden’ out of the newly won territories in the East.” 1 Germany planned to colonize western parts of the Soviet Union, especially the resource-rich lands of the Ukraine, as it had colonized the Warthegau in Poland. This would involve expelling the supposedly inferior “races” of Slavs and Jews who lived there and settling ethnic Germans in their place. 2

Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, which was code-named Operation Barbarossa, on June 22, 1941, deliberately breaking the nonaggression pact that the two countries had signed two years before. The invasion was the largest German military operation of World War II. Battle victories came quickly throughout the rest of 1941, as Germany conquered Soviet-controlled Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. A month after the invasion began, Hitler described his vision for the lands Germany would conquer from the Soviet Union:

The German colonist ought to live on handsome, spacious farms. The German services will be lodged in marvelous buildings, the governors in palaces. . . . What India was for England, the territories of Russia will be for us. If only I could make the German people understand what this space means for our future! Colonies are a precarious possession, but this ground is safely ours. Europe is not a geographic entity, it's a racial entity. 3

From the Nazis’ point of view, in order to establish Europe as a “racial entity,” Operation Barbarossa would need to be fought as a “racial war” against the Jewish and Slavic “races.” Therefore, according to historian Richard Evans, German military officers believed they “were not just officers but also leaders in a racial struggle against ‘Jewish Bolshevism [Communism].’” 4 In May 1941, German General Erich Hoepner issued the following orders to his soldiers:

The war against Russia is a fundamental part of the German people’s struggle for existence. It is the old struggle of the Germans against the Slavs, the defence of European culture against the Muscovite, Asiatic deluge, the defence against Jewish Bolshevism. This struggle must aim to smash the Russia of today into rubble, and as a consequence it must be carried out with unprecedented harshness. 5

As a result of those orders and similar ones issued by other German generals, many Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) were shot and killed immediately after being captured, in violation of long-standing international agreements. In July 1941, General Hermann Reinecke, the officer in charge of prisoner affairs in the Armed Forces High Command, allowed security forces to screen Soviet POWs for “politically and racially intolerable elements.” Who were those “elements”? They were “intellectuals,” “fanatic Communists,” and Jews. Their executions did not take place in POW camps. Instead, prisoners were transferred to a remote area and shot.

Not all Soviet POWs were executed. But many others died in POW camps as a result of malnutrition and starvation as well as typhus and other diseases that went untreated. The chart below shows the percentage of deaths in the POW camps of various nations.

Deaths of POWs in Prisoner-of-War Camps during World War II


Soviet POWs held by Germans


British POWs held by Germans


German POWs held by Soviets


German POWs held by British


German POWs held by French


The Germans fought their “racial war” not only against Soviet soldiers but also against Soviet civilians. Attacks on civilians were carried out by four SS units, known as the Einsatzgruppen, that trailed the German army as it advanced eastward into the Soviet Union. Each of the four units had its own assigned territory: unit A served in the north, unit B along the central Russian front, unit C in northern Ukraine, and unit D in southern Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Crimea. Each had orders to murder anyone the Nazis considered an “enemy of the state,” eventually including hundreds of thousands of Jews, officials of the Soviet Communist Party, Sinti and Roma, and others. According to historian Doris Bergen, “Officially their goal was to secure conquered territory by combating bolshevism and preventing guerrilla warfare. In fact, during the summer of 1941, they began to interpret their primary job as slaughter of all Jews, including women, children, and old people.” 7 (See readings, Mobile Killing Units and Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Chapter 9.)

  • 1Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 13.
  • 2Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 24.
  • 3Adolf Hitler et al., Hitler's Table Talk, 1941–1944: His Private Conversations (New York: Enigma Books, 2008), 21.
  • 4Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 176.
  • 5Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 176.
  • 6Niall Ferguson, “Prisoner Taking and Prisoner Killing in the Age of Total War: Towards a Political Economy of Military Defeat,” War in History 11, no. 2 (2004): 186.
  • 7Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 195.

A Sinister Alliance: Soviet-German Relations 1939–1941

Joshua Rubenstein, author and associate at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies, details the relationship between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the decade before World War II.

Connection Questions

  1. What part did the territory controlled by the Soviet Union in early 1941 play in the Nazis’ plans for “race and space”?
  2. How did Hitler try to persuade his listeners of the importance of his plan for the Soviet Union?
  3. What do you think is the difference between a “geographical entity” and a “racial entity”? How did viewing Europe as a “racial entity” affect the way Germans treated Soviet soldiers and civilians after the invasion of the Soviet Union?
  4. What rules or standards should be followed by a country in its treatment of prisoners of war and civilians? Why do such rules and standards exist? What might be the consequences of breaking them?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “The Invasion of the Soviet Union”, last updated August 2, 2016.

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