In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Germany's Eastern Front in 1941

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • German Conceptions of the “East”
  • Intelligence and Barbarossa
  • German Plans
  • Preventive War Myth
  • Operation Barbarossa—The Campaign
  • The Siege of Leningrad
  • Operation Typhoon—The Battle for Moscow
  • The First Winter Campaign, 1941–1942
  • The Air War, 1941
  • Partisan Warfare, 1941
  • German Allies, 1941
  • Commanders of the Eastern Army
  • German Soldiers on the Eastern Front
  • German (and Axis) War Crimes and Occupation Policies
  • The Holocaust, 1941
  • Cultural Impact and Memory

Military History Germany's Eastern Front in 1941
David Stahel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0218


Given the numbers involved, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 made it unambiguously the decisive theater of the Second World War. Almost four million German and Axis (or Axis allied) forces drove East, initially opposed by some 2.7 million Red Army men with millions more being quickly mobilized. Not only was the conventional war unprecedented in scale, but Nazi Germany also unleased a parallel war against the Soviet Jewish population that murdered some 700,000 men, women, and children before the year was over. Older historiography treated the German military and genocidal campaigns separately. With few exceptions until the 1980s the Wehrmacht was seen to fight a conventional “clean” war against the Red Army, while the SS conducted mass murder in the occupied territories. This led to a distorted understanding not only of how Germany’s war was conceived and conducted, but also of the degree to which major German institutions were intellectually, culturally, and structurally integrated. Importantly, although Operation Barbarossa is at least as much a Soviet event as a German one, the aim in this article is to provide a distinctly German perspective on the invasion. Moreover, the priority has been to provide, wherever possible, English-language books, including for German studies available in translation.

General Overviews

Until relatively recently, high-quality scholarly overviews of Germany’s Eastern Campaign were few and far between. Access to German wartime records was possible only from the mid-1960s, and, as a result, the first generation of histories was dominated by the available German memoir literature. This ensured that Operation Barbarossa was devoid of any serious critique for its military failings and that the Wehrmacht also escaped any blame for its ubiquitous role in Germany’s criminal activity. Despite the availably of records, it would take decades before the so-called myth of the Wehrmacht began to be debunked. The works cited here include concise overviews for undergraduates (Hartmann 2013) and much more comprehensive works with rich bibliographies for researchers to explore (Müller and Ueberschär 2009). Barbarossa is broken down into useful statistics in Liedtke 2016, while Fritz 2011 and Shepherd 2016 each provide a majestic synthesis of the vast German literature on 1941. Mawdsley 2016 and Glantz and House 2015 achieve something similar, but they also deal with the Soviet perspective on Barbarossa. Hill 2016 is explicitly Soviet in focus, and while this list is concerned with the German historiography of the war, some contrasting exceptions for outstanding Soviet-themed literature will be made. Finally, Kay 2021 is an excellent new history of Nazi mass killing, which beyond the military events, provides an essential overview of the genocidal dimension to Hitler’s European New Order. Overall, these general accounts serve as excellent starting points for understanding Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

  • Fritz, Stephen G. Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2011.

    See chapters 1–5. The first major study of Germany’s war in the East to integrate a balanced account of the conventional military conflict with the war of annihilation in the rear. This is a seminal work.

  • Glantz, David M., and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015.

    See chapters 1–6. One of the best overviews of the war, its early chapters are a great summary of Barbarossa. While mainly an operational narrative, the opening chapters also set up the opposing armies as well as the political, economic, and structural changes instituted by Stalin in the wake of invasion.

  • Hartmann, Christian. Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    See chapter 1–4. In spite of its somewhat misleading title this is without doubt the shortest overview of the whole war from a scholarly perspective. Useful for undergraduates, but in a war of this scale brevity quickly sacrifices important information.

  • Hill, Alexander. The Red Army and the Second World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781139107785

    Hill expertly balances scholarly depth with general accessibility, providing a single-volume guide to the Red Army’s experience of war in 1941. The analysis and subject range are especially impressive, but, most importantly, Hill makes clear that the failure of the Ostheer in 1941 was not simply the result of a German “missed opportunity” and that the Red Army, at tremendous cost, frustrated Hitler’s plans.

  • Kay, Alex J. “Part II: Summer 1941–Spring 1942.” In Empire of Destruction: A History of Nazi Mass Killing. By Alex J. Kay, 57–193. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.12987/9780300262537

    This first-rate survey history of German mass murder in the Second World War illustrates the many dimensions in which the killing program took place and how many of these were concentrated within the Soviet Union, especially in 1941–1942. It is at times a harrowing read, which accurately represents the prominence of the German army relative to the other Nazi institutions involved in mass murder.

  • Liedtke, Gregory. Enduring the Whirlwind: The German Army and the Russo-German War, 1941–1943. Solihull, UK: Helion, 2016.

    See chapters 1–4. This is a good operational account of Germany’s war, which focuses on metrics in its analysis and offers many well-organized tables and other useful data. The analysis is also of strong value.

  • Mawdsley, Evan. Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War, 1941–1945. 2d ed. London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781474279437

    See chapters 1–4. An outstanding work that covers the war from many angles and provides insightful analysis for each turn of events. The endnotes and bibliography are also well worth consulting for those interested in exploring the vast historiography on the Nazi-Soviet war.

  • Müller, Rolf-Dieter, and Gerd R. Ueberschär. Hitler’s War in the East, 1941–1945: A Critical Assessment. Oxford: Berghahn, 2009.

    Showcasing the vast scope of literature covering Germany’s war in the East, Müller and Ueberschär’s bibliographical listings and essays provide insight for researchers at all levels. The chapters on 1941 show how studies of Barbarossa have dominated the historiography. A revised fourth edition is hopefully at some point forthcoming.

  • Shepherd, Ben. Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

    See chapters 7–9. Using a handful of German divisions as case studies allows Shepherd to explore Barbarossa with an eye for both detail as well as the generalized experience. Although this is a larger study of the German army, his chapters on the Eastern Front in 1941 are excellent.

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