In June 1941, Hitler’s Third Reich launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Dubbed “Operation Barbarossa”, it was to be the death knell of the twenty year old Communist state. Hitler and his generals were so assured of victory that they made absolutely no plans for a long, drawn-out conflict fought in a brutal Russian winter.
Which is exactly what happened.
Had Hitler not be so convinced of his own military genius, he could have learned a thing or two about the cost of a protracted campaign in Russia from French leader Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Becoming “Emperor” in 1804, Napoleon was a bitter enemy of the British, and enacted a “continental system” in 1806 whereby nations allied with or dependent upon France were to completely sever ties with the British Empire. This was done largely in retaliation to a British blockade of the French coast. The system proved almost totally ineffective as goods were smuggled into and out of Britain. Two of the main French allied nations flaunting Napoleon’s decree were Spain and Russia.
He invaded both.
With Russia, things were a bit more complex. Czar Alexander, who once enjoyed an amiable relationship with Napoleon, had been pressured by members of nobility to end the alliance with France. By 1812, his advisors were urging him to launch an invasion of France, with one of the ultimate goals being the recapture of Poland. Napoleon caught wind of the deceit, and quickly swelled the strength of the Grande Armée to almost 500,000 men, and, against the advice of his cabinet, invaded Russia on June 24 (Hitler would begin his own invasion on the 22 of June, 1941 – almost exactly 129 years later.
The Russian Army under General Barclay de Tolly opted not to face Napoleon’s forces head-on, instead retreating deeper into the Russian interior and burning everything behind them. There were many small-scale skirmishes, but not the apocalyptic confrontation Napoleon was hoping for.
The Russian aristocracy had grown uneasy about the French advancement, and pressured Czar Alexander to replace Tolly with Mikhail Kutuzov. Kutuzov made his stand near the village of Borodino in a last-ditch attempt to spare Moscow. In what is believed to be the single bloodiest day in the history of warfare up to that point, the two nations met in battle, and 35,000 Frenchmen were killed; 44,000 Russians were felled.
Napoleon had hoped for a decisive victory, but Borodino was anything but. The Russians retreated, and on September 14, Napoleon’s forces marched into Moscow, only to find the city virtually deserted. In the early morning hours of September 15, Russian patriots started several fires throughout the city.
Napoleon waited five weeks for the Russians to surrender. When it became apparent that they wouldn’t, Napoleon, on October 19, ordered a retreat to avoid the bitter Russian winter.
But he was too late.
His Grande Armée fled through snow sometimes knee-high, facing frigid cold and dogged by the Russian Army, who stayed on them the entire time. On the night of November 8-9 alone, close to 10,000 men and horses froze to death. At one point, Napoleon was forced to ford a river, only to burn his bridge behind him, leaving thousands of his soldiers stuck between the river and the Russians. On December 8, Napoleon and several of his closest henchmen abandoned the army and went ahead to Paris. A week later, the rest of the Grande Armée finally escaped Russia, frost-bitten and half starved. From June to December, 1812, the Grande Armée lost an astonishing 400,000 men.