As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

World War II – The Eastern Front

Winter battle at Stalingrad

In the summer of 2008, I began a journey into an academic world about which I had very little previous knowledge - WWII from the perspective of those who fought on the Eastern Front. As an American Historian, I had only a rudimentary understanding of the war that focused solely on the American involvement.

So today I will share some of my thoughts, experiences, and many resources in the hope that it will broaden your understanding of this important, but little told, perspective.

Let's begin today's discussion by asking you to imagine that on 9/11, six hours after the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon, terrorists had carried out a second wave of attacks on the United States, taking an additional 3,000 lives.

This is roughly what the Soviet Union suffered during World War II. As the British historian, Catherine Merridale explains in her book Ivan's War, " ... this war defied the human sense of scale. The numbers on their own are overwhelming." (p. 2) While we will discuss these overwhelming grim facts toward the end of our discussion, it is important to keep this idea of unimaginable death and horror alive as we explore WWII from the Eastern Front - the war that the Russians call The Great Patriotic War.  It is the second war to receive this title in Russian history - the first being the War of 1812 that ended with a Russian victory over Napoleon..

Discussion Goals:

  1. To convince you that understanding WWII requires an analysis of the Eastern Front.
  2. To understand the chronology of the war on the Eastern Front.
  3. To think about the experiences of the Russian soldiers during WWII.

Discussion Goal #1: To convince you that understanding WWII requires an analysis of the Eastern Front

Power point presentation

Discussion Goal #2: To understand the chronology of the war on the Eastern Front

1917- Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik revolution overthrew Tsar Alexander’s monarchy. Because of the Revolution, the Russians had to end their involvement in WWI. To that end, they signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty conducted with Russian, Map  of Brest-Litovsk TreatyGerman, and Austrian representatives. After 9 weeks of failed discussion, the German army advanced into Russia, thus forcing the Russians to accept German terms for their withdrawal from the war. Russia surrendered its former provinces of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland, all of which became independent sovereign states. In all, Russia lost about a third of her pre-war population, half of her industry and nine-tenths of her coal mines. 

1918 - World War I.  The War ended, resulting in the death of 1.8 million Russian soldiers and over 2 million German soldiers.  Russian civilians deaths numbered 1.5 million, while German civilian deaths numbered 426,000.  Russia suffered the greatest losses of all the European powers: 3.3 million soldiers and civilians and much of its pre-war territory as determined in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.

1922 - Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR was officially declared. It eventually consisted of 15 constituent republics, each of which was home to a specific ethnic nationality: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Russia, Tajik, Turkmen, Ukrainia, and Uzbek.

Map of the USSR in 1950

1937-1940 - Red Army purgesStalin began purging the Red Army of its professional and skilled soldiers.  By 1940, 48,773 were purged - 90 percent of its generals, 80 percent of its colonels, and half of its core commanders - leaving the army with unskilled officers, few trained leaders, and poor morale. The purges encouraged Hitler to believe the Red Army was weak and could be easily defeated.

1938 - German occupation of Austria and SudentenlandGerman troops occupied Austria in March and Czechoslovakia’s Sudentenland in September.  Marked the beginning of WWII for Germany.

1939 - Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  In August, Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact, thereby allowing Hitler to assure the German people that the war would not be fought on two fronts.  

Poland invasionOn September 1, Germany invaded Poland from the west and two weeks later, Soviet troops invaded from the east.   Marked the beginning of the WWII for Poland. By early October, Polish resistance was crushed. Thereafter, the USSR annexed eastern Poland, the Soviets began deporting Poles to Siberia, and Germany annexed western Poland.

World War II began in Europe.  On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany in response to Polish aggression. 

Soviet Winter War with FinlandIn November, three months after Germany invaded Poland and began WWII, the USSR attacked Finland after the Finnish refused to allow Soviet naval base rights. (Finland had been Russian territory from 1809-1917.  It had won its independence in 1917 after fighting against Russian and local Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War.) 

1940 - USSR annexations.  In mid-June, the USSR annexed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The U.S. and Britain refused to recognize the annexations in mid-July. In late-June, the USSR annexed the Romanian provinces of Bessarbia and North Bukovina. These latter annexations made Hitler nervous; Stalin was uncomfortably close to the only source of German oil to supply Hitler's army - the Rumanian oil wells of Ploesti (see map below).

Map of Ploesti oil fields in Rumania

Hitler’s plan for the USSR.  In July at the pinacle of his success in France, Hitler told his military commanders about his  plan to invade Russia. 

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact revisited.  In November, Molotov and Hitler met to discuss the increasingly contentious relations between Germany and the USSR. Molotov made it clear that Russia wanted the freedom to pursue its interest in the Black Sea region of Bessarbia – an interest guaranteed under the 1939 Pact.  Molotov revealed the Soviet plan to annex Finland and force Sweden’s neutrality so the USSR could gain control of the Baltic exit to the North Sea – a plan that challenged Germany's plans for the area.  Hitler was furious and became convinced he must begin the final struggle with what he called “Jewish Bolshevism” in the USSR.

1941 - Hitler’s warning.  In an address to his generals in early March, Hitler unveiled his plans for the upcoming attack on the USSR, warning: “The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion; the struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness.” Several of his generals warned Hitler about conducting a war on two fronts. Hitler argued that the war with Britain was almost over and that a war with the USSR would be over quickly - thus, Germany would continue to fight the war on one front.

Hitler’s Commissar Order. In March, Hitler issued the "Commissar Order that required the extermination of the Jews and Bolsheviks of Soviet Russia so that Germany could colonize and exploit the lands of the East.  The order additionally instructed Hitler's soldiers to immediately kill all captured Soviet political officers as well as all those prisoners who could be identified as thoroughly bolshevized or as active representatives of the Bolshevist ideology. The order exonerated his soldiers of any future excess. "Any German soldier who breaks international law will be pardoned... .Russia did not take part in the Hague Convention and, therefore, has no rights under it."

Stalin warned. Stalin had plenty of prior warning before the invasion: Roosevelt and Churchill warned Stalin of a German attack; Soviet sources close to Stalin warned him about the attack; and the German build-up of forces in Poland was clear. Stalin ignored all warnings - including the German mobilization of 3 million troops to the Russian border in May - telling his advisors that they were an American and British plot to pit the Russians against the Germans.

Operation Barbarossa MapOperation BarbarossaOn June 22, Germany invaded the USSR with 3.6 million soldiers, 3,600 tanks, 2,700 aircraft, 7,000 artillery pieces, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 625,000 horses.   Marked the beginning of WWII for USSR.

Painting of Stalin

Stalin responds.  Stalin remained silent for 11 days.  In his first address of July 3rd, Stalin asked Russians to give their “unlimited love for the motherland” and to act upon their “deep outrage and hatred of bestial Fascists.”  He asks all Soviet citizens to fight for a war of Communist victory.

German success. By the end of July, the German Army was in control of Russian territory two times the size of Germany.

Order 270In August, Stalin issued Order 270 which claimed that any officer who surrendered, retreated to the rear, or deserted would be a “malicious deserter” who could be shot in the field by their superiors. The order also declared that the families of malicious deserters were liable to arrest.

Siege of LeningradGermany began the siege in early September.  Leningrad had great military significance as it prevented the Germans from sweeping around the north of Russia and attacking Moscow from behind. Immediately after the invasion, the population of Leningrad dug antitank ditches around the city. Two hundred thousand Red Army defenders protected the city's 3,000,000 inhabitants. An estimated 800,000 - 1,000,000 civilians died during the seige. After 900 days, the siege ended with the defeat of the Photo of living in Leningrad during the seigeGermans in January 1944. 

Babi YarIn September, one of the most brutal of German mass exterminations in the USSR occurred at a ravine named Babi Yar near the Ukranian city of Kiev.  About 34,000 “Jewish Bolsheviks” were systematically machine-gunned in a two-day execution.  These mass shootings, as well as those of POWs, continued in many other Soviet communities.

German success. In October, Hitler publicly boasted that the Soviet Union was broken and would never rise again. It appeared that the USSR was in bad shape: 45% of her pre-war population - virtually all of western Russia - was living in German-occupied territory; the siege of Leningrad was causing widespread civilian starvation; and the loss of the Ukraine greatly curtailed food production.

Battle of Moscow. In October, the Germans attacked Moscow. Hitler believed that once he destroyed Moscow - the heart of Russia - the whole nation would collapse. The German army had great success for the first week, but the tide turned with an early snow. By January, Hitler's army, totally unprepared for a winter battle, was defeated.

The Great Patriotic War.  In November, Stalin revised his rhetoric about the war.  It was not just a war of Communist victory, but more appropriately a Great Patriotic War that spoke to their past.  He calls upon Russians to emulate their heroic ancestors in the War of 1812 against Napoleon.

Pearl Harbor.  On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Marked the beginning of WWII for the U.S. 

Soviet Losses. By December, the Red Army had lost 4.5 million men.

1942 - German advances.  By summer, the Ukraine, Southern Russia, and the Northern Caucasus were under German control.

Map of Hitler's planned march to  BakuHitler's new battle plan. In April, Hitler revealed his new plan - Operation Blue - to stop Russian oil from getting to Soviet troops, block the Russian oil industry, and take the oil fields at Maikop, Grozny, and Baku for Germany. His initial plan for Operation Blue was to first block the Volga River and then take the oil fields.

Stalin's Order 227. In July, Stalin ordered that every soldier had to fight until his final drop of blood. and that "panicmongers and cowards must be destroyed on the spot." The new war slog became "Not step back!" An officer who permitted his men to retreat without explicit orders was to be arrested on a capital charge.

Operation Blue.  In July, Hitler changed his mind about Operation Blue and ordered that Army Group South split into two separate fronts - Army Group A and Army Group B.

Battle of StalingradIn September, the Germans began to encircle Stalingrad. After six months, the Soviet Army prevailed. The total Axis deaths (Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) was estimated at 800,000. Of those taken captive, only 6,000 lived to return to their homeland. Official Russian military historians estimated that 1,100,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the campaign to defend the city.

November German front.  By November, the Germans had pushed east to Stalingrad and north to Leningrad.

1943 - Lend Lease.  The U.S. sent vast amounts of war materials to the USSR. From March 1941 until October 1945, the United States provided the Russians with 15,000 aircraft, 7,000 tanks, 350,000 tons of explosives, 51,000 jeeps, 375,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, 11,000 rail wagons, 3 million tons of gasoline, and 15 million pairs of boots. Britain contributed another 5,000 tanks and 7,000 aircraft.

Battle at KurskIn July, the greatest tank battle of WWII and the last major German offensive in the east commenced in Kursk.  In 11 days, the Soviets were victorious, but the cost was enormous: 3.5 million men were involved in the battle; half the Russian tank fleet was destroyed and the Germans had only 100 tanks left after beginning with 450. 

October German front.  By October, the Red Army successfully pushed the Germans west to the Dnieper River.

Photo of Big Three - Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill - at Tehran Conference in 1943Tehran Conference.  In November, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met to discuss their collaborative roles in the war and in the peace that would follow.  Stalin demanded that any post-war peace settlement must include a territorial buffer between the Soviet Union and Germany to be made up of the former Baltic nations, Poland, and part of Germany.

1944 - Soviet gainsBy June, the Red Army successfully pushed the Germans further west into Poland.

October German front.  By October, the Red Army successfully pushed the Germans to Warsaw.

1945 - January German front.  By January, the Red Army successfully pushed the Germans into Eastern Germany, barely 50 miles from Berlin.

Berlin encircledOn May 1st, the Red Army encircled Berlin. 

VE DayOn May 8th, British and American crowds thronged their streets to celebrate the end of the war in Europe.

The War’s end...

Soviet Union



Eastern European Nations and the Soviet Republics.

Some Possible Conclusions:

  1. The guiding principal of the war on the Eastern front was the ideology of its leaders, while its ultimate goal was to annihilate the enemy.
  2. The ideology of the people was unimportant to their ideological leaders. While the war began with Germans and Russians expressing patriotism, as the war continued, it became impossible to tell who fought for patriotism and who fought out of terror.
  3. While the Germans were destined to lose World War II after the fall of Stalingrad in 1943, Hitler refused to end the war because he had not yet achieved his primary goal - a genocidal final solution that would save Europe from the Jews.
  4. Revisionist interpretations about the war on the Eastern Front abound. Among two of the most interesting are:

Discussion Goal #3: To think about the experiences of the Russian soldiers during WWII

Most Americans have a fairly good understanding of the American, German, and Japanese soldiers who fought in WWII. However, we all could benefit from a better understanding of the Russian soldier who fought in World War II. To that end, at least three really broad questions arise about the Soviet soldier:

  1. Why do we so know little about the soldiers who fought in the Red Army? We know a great deal about the soldiers in World War II who fought on the Western and Pacific fronts, so why is there little understanding of the soldiers who fought for the Red Army on the Eastern Front?
  2. Who were the soldiers who fought in the Red Army? What was their background? What were they like?
  3. What were the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the Red Army?

Why do we so know little about the soldiers who fought in the Red Army?

Who were the soldiers who fought in the Red Army?

While it is impossible to provide characteristics that describe every Red Army soldier, the following describe most of the Soviet soldiers.

Photo of Russian soldiers

What were the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the Red Army?

Discussion Goal #4: To provide you with further resources about the Great Patriotic War

Annotated Film List – WWII on the Eastern Front

Ballad of a Soldier (1959). This Russian film follows a Russian trooper who, by virtue of some accidental bravery, receives a pass home to visit his mother and, while traveling back through the drained country, meets a young woman with whom he falls in love. Instead of gory brutality, this film is about romance and hope, as well as reflections on how people were affected by the war. Many consider this to be the ultimate Russian classic movie about WWII.

Blockade (2005) Made entirely from footage discovered in Russian archives, and featuring a meticulously reconstructed soundtrack, this film vividly re-creates the 900 day siege of Leningrad during World War II. To learn more, see

Come and See (1985). This Russian film views the Eastern Front through the eyes of a Russian child partisan. It is a haunting story, written from the Russian perspective, that illustrates the atrocities the German troops committed against the Soviet civilian population in Byelorussia. (Now, the Republic of Belarus.)

Cross of Iron (1977). Sam Peckinpah's violent and confrontational film focuses on German troops in the Eastern Front's final phase: the bloody push by the Russians all the way back to Berlin.

Enemy at the Gates (2001). This Hollywood film about the Battle of Stalingrad is a hugely atmospheric piece with stunning battle scenes. The central plot - a sniper battle between a Russian hero and a German officer - is loosely based on real life. Rather than focus on the entire six-month battle, the film reduces it to a duel between a single Russian (who actually existed) and a single German sniper (who never existed). See a great review of the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of this film at

Kanal (1957). This is the story of resistance fighters who retreat into Warsaw's sewers (Kanaly) to fight during the failed uprising of 1944. The effort eventually failed because the Russian army stopped and waited for the Nazis to finish killing the rebels.

Mein Krieg (My War) (1990). This German film includes an extraordinary assemblage of interviews with veterans and the footage they filmed - privately, on hand held cameras - during their time on the Eastern Front. Material from six German soldiers has been used and, as each fought in different units, there's a good range of material. The film's strength is their commentary, recollections giving us a deep insight into the changing views and emotions of these average Wehrmacht soldiers.

My Name is Ivan (1962). In this highly symbolic and psychological film, Ivan is a Russian adolescent drawn into WWII, a conflict from which no age, sex, or social group was immune. Bleak, honest and often deeply saddening, the stark and lethal reality of the war is blended - thanks to Ivan - with a child's dreamlike view of the world.

Nowhere in Africa (2001). In this German film, which won the 2002 Oscar for best foreign film, a Jewish couple and their young daughter immigrate to Kenya from Germany to escape the Nazis. Not all members of the family are happy with this drastic change, but going home isn't an option. Ultimately, they must all come to terms with a new life in a new continent and with the loss of their families who remained in Germany.

Sophie Scholl (2005). This German film, based on true events, tells the story of young anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl. Arrested for her membership in the resistance movement, Sophie is subjected to a highly charged interrogation by the Gestapo, testing her loyalty to her cause, her family, and her convictions.

Stalingrad (1958). This German film follows one group of German soldiers who must fight against both Russian forces and the bitter Russian weather in a struggle that one officer recognizes will end for most of his men in death.

Stalingrad (1993). This film by German director Joseph Vilsmaier follows a group of German soldiers through the famous Battle of Stalingrad in an episodic format that includes tank battles, factory storming, and starvation. This distinctly anti-war film focuses on the individual men, their bonds, and how they suffer in a war they haven't chosen.

Stalingrad: Dogs, do you want to live forever? (1958). This German film traces the changes experienced by one German lieutenant by the terrible battle. It covers many facts and events, while blending actual footage of the battle seamlessly into the main story line.

The Great Battle on the Volga (1962). This Russian film compiles the work of 50 Soviet combat photographers who filmed the Battle of Stalingrad. Because this was made in the Khrushchev era, the documentary avoids references to Stalin and Stalingrad. The entire 1 hour and 15 minute film can be viewed online at

The Grey Zone (2002). Based on actual events, this film is the powerful story of the Auschwitz's 12th Sonderkommando - one of thirteen consecutive "special squads" of Jewish prisoners forced by the Nazis to help exterminate fellow Jews in exchange for a few more months of life.

The Lives of Others (2007). This German film,which earned an Oscar for Best Foreign Language, tells a story of life under the watchful eye of the Stasi state police as a high-profile couple is bugged. When a successful playwright and his actress companion become subjects of the Stasi's secret surveillance program, their friends, family, and even those doing the watching, also find their lives changed.

The Train (1964). This American film tells the story of a French train engineer who attempts to stop a Nazi-led train from leaving France with valuable works of art stolen from a museum.

The Unknown Soldier (2007). This German documentary describes the controversy over the Wehrmacht-Exhibition, which was shown in eleven major cities in Germany between 1999 and 2004 and was visited by more than 500,000 people. The Exhibition challenged ordinary Germans to rethink what their fathers and grandfathers did during the war. Whereas most had been led to believe that the cold-blooded murder of civilians had been a crime of a minority of officers, for the first time Germans saw photos and footage of ordinary soldiers gleefully tormenting and executing civilians on the Eastern front.

The Winter War (Talvisota) (1989). This Finnish film is the story of the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish War seen through the eyes of a reserve infantry unit. We see them leaving their farms on mobilization, to assembly at the border, and follow them into battle until the armistice some 110 days later.

Miscelleanous Resources

Annotated list of books about the Eastern Front contains a great compilation of books that are excellent academic and readable resources about the Eastern Front from a variety of perspectives.

I Remember provides a great primary source treasure of first-hand accounts about the war from Russian veterans and German veterans. Many interviews are in English and most are accompanied by photographs of the veterans.

In Pictures: Red Square Celebration contains photographs of the 60-year anniversary of the end of WWII celebrated at Red Square. Contains several great images that illustrate how the heroic soldier myth still lives on into contemporary Russia.

Lyrical Songs of the War contains over 600 Russian war songs. Lyrics are included - mostly in Russian but some have an English translation - and most can be downloaded.

Rarities of the USSR Photochronicles contains terrific photos with excellent commentary.

"The Soviet German War 1941 - 1945" by British Professor Richard Overy provides a six-page overview of the history of the war. Readable and useful for the classroom.

You Tube Videos. Be prepared to get lost in You Tube Land if you begin browsing for WWII videos from the Eastern Front. There are hundreds out there. These videos have all been previewed and while it is not a comprehensive list, it contains films that would be useful in the classroom.

World War II in Photos has an incredible array of photos on the Eastern Front.