Hitler and Stalin: Operation Barbarossa and the Decision to Attack the Soviet Union

Frank McDonough

Frank McDonough, acclaimed historian of Nazi Germany, looks at the talks between the two powers that ended in Hitler's catastrophic decision.
Nazi troops in Russia
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Before Operation Barbarossa

On 18 June 1940, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, made a speech in the House of Commons, as Hitler neared victory in the Battle of France, ‘I expect the Battle of Britain to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole might and fury of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.’

On 16 July 1940, Hitler signed ‘Directive No.16’, on the ‘Preparation of a Landing Operation Against England [Britain]’, codenamed ‘Operation Sea Lion’. There remains serious doubt as to whether ‘Operation Sea Lion’ was ever a serious plan. The German Navy doubted even if air superiority was achieved – and it was a big if – a large Germany army could be transported across the Channel in the face of the overwhelming naval power of the Royal Navy. The leading German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt commented in 1945: ‘The proposed invasion of England was nonsense, because adequate ships were not available.’

Hitler still hoped the British government would agree to a peace settlement. In a speech on 19 July 1940, Hitler made a ‘final peace offer’, appealing to the ‘common sense’ of the British. Hitler ended his speech by saying: ‘I can see no reason why this war must go on.’ Hitler was disappointed when Lord Halifax flatly rejected his so called ‘peace offer’ in a live BBC radio broadcast three days later.

After this rebuff, Hitler held a deeply significant military conference with his military chiefs at the Berghof on 31 July 1940. Hitler told his colleagues he thought the war in Europe was already won but was dismayed by continued British intransigence. He provisionally agreed to the planned invasion of Britain to begin on 15 September 1940. German naval chief Admiral Raeder stressed the difficulties of a seaborne invasion.

Hitler then turned to the Soviet Union. He said Britain still pinned hope on Russian intervention on the Allied side, but if the Soviet Union was smashed, Britain’s last hope would be extinguished. This idea had been floated in a planning paper, compiled by Franz Halder, a few days prior to the meeting which argued it made strategic sense to defeat the Soviet Union as defeating Britain might take at least two years, and during this time the USA and the USSR might intervene on Britain’s side.

Stalin meets Ribbentrop in Moscow in 1939 at the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

Hitler, clearly influenced by Halder, then suddenly said he was resolved to attack the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941: ‘The quicker we defeat Russia the better. The operation makes sense if we destroy this state in one strike.’ Halder ordered German staff officers to draw up detailed plans before Hitler issued a formal Directive for an attack on the Soviet Union.

It has become traditional for historians to view this meeting as the key moment for Operation Barbarossa, and to suggest Hitler was driven to this decision by deciding to foolishly rip up the Nazi-Soviet Pact and move back to his ideological obsession – outlined in Mein Kampf – the ultimate objective of which was gaining living space (Lebensraum) and territory at the expense of the Soviet Union.

In fact, Hitler made no strong ideological case at this meeting for an attack on the Soviet Union. There was no mention of ‘destroying Bolshevism’ or of a ‘war of annihilation’. Hitler’s decision was based on the strategic view that knocking Britain out of the war quickly was unlikely to happen, and an attack on the Soviet Union stood a better chance of gaining a knockout blow that might induce the British government to finally give up.

Operation Sea Lion hinged on the Luftwaffe’s ability to secure air superiority over Britain in just six weeks. This was not achieved during the Battle of Britain. On 14 September 1940, Hitler held a crucial meeting with leading figures in the Wehrmacht, on the eve of what should have been the beginning of ‘Operation Sea Lion’. He conceded the precondition of air superiority was ‘not yet there’ and he had therefore decided to postpone Operation Sea Lion ‘indefinitely’.

This did not immediately lead to Hitler ordering the attack on the Soviet Union. On the contrary, during the latter months of 1940, Hitler attempted to create an ‘anti British’ world-wide coalition, holding a series of diplomatic meetings to test out whether this idea was feasible. The idea was to encourage this ‘anti British’ coalition to attack areas of the British Empire and thereby force the British government to conclude a peace settlement.

In no other period of World War Two did Hitler engage in such feverish and pro-active diplomatic activity. These meetings, in which Hitler met several foreign leaders, show he still had the elimination of Britain and its imperial allies as his key war-time priority.

The first move was to strengthen the Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan. To this end, a 10-year Tripartite pact between Italy, Japan and Germany was signed on 27 September 1940. The three powers agreed to co-operate with each other in the event of any being attacked by an external power not currently involved in the European and Sino-Japanese conflicts: this clearly meant the USA. It was emphasised the pact did not affect exiting political agreements between the three contracting parties, and the Soviet Union.

Hitler was pleased with the new Axis agreement as it fitted in with his embryonic plan of creating an anti-British coalition. The Japanese government felt the defeat of France and the weakening of Britain offered opportunities for expansion in south-east Asia. For Italy, the agreement offered the prospect of Italian expansion in the Mediterranean and Africa at the expense of the British Empire.

Hitler attempts to woo Stalin

On 13 October 1940, Ribbentrop wrote a letter to Stalin, pointing out the Nazi-Soviet Pact had proven advantageous to both countries. Ribbentrop reassured Stalin the recently signed Tri-Partite Pact was not in any way aimed against the Soviet Union. To further clarify the current state of German-Soviet relations, Ribbentrop informed Stalin that he would welcome a visit to Berlin by the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov soon.

On 22 October 1940, Stalin replied positively to Ribbentrop’s invitation for Molotov to hold talks in Berlin. He thanked Ribbentrop for his ‘constructive’ comments and agreed to discussions for a further improvement in relations. Stalin added that Molotov had already agreed to come to Berlin. Hitler next made an effort to persuade Spain to join his anti-British coalition. On 23 October 1940, Hitler met with the Spanish dictator General Franco at the Hendaye railway station on the Spanish border. Franco began their talks inside Hitler’s special train by saying Spain was always ideologically allied with the new Germany. In the current war, Spain would gladly fight on Germany’s side, but involvement required extensive economic, military and political preparations. At present, Franco admitted Spain must mark time and would only enter at the right time.

Hitler admitted that he found the meeting with Franco tiring and deeply frustrating, telling Mussolini that he would ‘prefer to have three or four teeth taken out’ than ‘go through that again’. Franco commented of Hitler and Ribbentrop: ‘These people are intolerable. They want us to come into the war in exchange for nothing’

On the next day, Hitler met Marshal Pétain, the leader of the Vichy government of on his special train at Montoire-Sur-Le-Loir railway station. In principle, Pétain made clear he was supportive of close collaboration between France and Germany and supported Hitler’s determination to carry out the ‘annihilation of the British Isles’, but he admitted he needed to consult the matter with the French Vichy government and to call on Parliament to declare war on Britain. In the end, Pétain had promised nothing, leaving Hitler once again deeply frustrated. The diplomatic meetings with Franco and Petain had put Hitler no nearer to creating of a broad anti-British coalition.

Molotov meets Ribbentrop in Berlin, November 1940. Credit: Bundesarchiv

The real crunch meeting proved to be the visit of the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov to Berlin from 12 to 14 November 1940. Hitler told Major Gerhard Engel that he viewed the talks as a means of testing whether Germany and the Soviet Union could remain closely associated in the future.

On the afternoon of 12 November 1940, Molotov met Hitler for the first time. Hitler said Germany and Russia both had strong leaders at the helm and did not want to wage war for the sake of it, but needed peace to carry out key important domestic reforms. Hitler invited the Soviet Union to join the Tri-Partite Pact with Japan and Italy. Molotov said Soviet participation in the Tri-Partite Pact seemed acceptable, provided Russia cooperated as a partner. Molotov then proceeded to ask several probing questions on German plans in Eastern Europe and Asia. Hitler seemed visibly shaken by Molotov’s didactic cross examination. Hitler’s interpreter Paul Schmidt could not recall any foreign statesman having spoken in such a forthright manner to Hitler before.

On the next day, Hitler and Molotov resumed their heated conversation. Hitler began by stating that Germany had honoured the Nazi-Soviet Pact from the beginning, while the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states in the summer had occurred without any discussion. As for Finland, Germany had no political interests there and accepted it lay within the Soviet sphere of interest.

This answer did not satisfy Molotov at all. He wanted to know why German troops were stationed in Finland since it had been assigned as part of Soviet spheres of influence under the Nazi-Soviet Pact. If Germany and Russia could agree on Finland, Molotov added, this would be a great help in easing tension.

Hitler then changed the subject to the opportunities presented by a German conquest of the British Empire. Russia would profit greatly from its territory being shared out. Hitler admitted that in the long term he wanted to create a world coalition of Germany, Russia, Italy, Japan, Spain, and France, all of which could profit from the end of the British Empire.

At this point, Hitler called Molotov’s attention to the late hour and the possibility of a British air attack. In reality, Hitler was so angry and perturbed by his talks with Molotov that he sullenly withdrew from any further talks and failed to even turn up to the farewell banquet for Molotov, held at the Soviet Embassy on the following day.

The exchanges between Hitler and Molotov were deeply significant for the future course of events. Hitler told Göring his encounter with the Soviet Prime Minister had been crucial in making up his mind to attack the Soviet Union. Göring told him Germany must drive the British out of the Mediterranean first before turning on the Soviet Union.

Operation Barbarossa is signed

All of Hitler’s feverish and frustrating diplomatic activity of the autumn of 1940 had failed to create a broad anti-British coalition. Hitler now decided to move in a completely different military direction. On 18 December 1940, he signed Directive No.21, codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’: a plan to attack the Soviet Union. It began: ‘The German Wehrmacht must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign even before the conclusion of the war with England [Britain].’ For this purpose, the Wehrmacht would ‘have to employ all available units’, but the occupied territories must be secured in case of any ‘surprises’. The campaign would be supported by the Luftwaffe. The main effort of the Navy would remain directed against the Royal Navy. Preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union were to be completed by 15 May 1941. There was no objection from the German General Staff who had drafted and approved the Directive Hitler had signed. Significantly, there was no mention, at this stage, of any ideological reasons for destroying the Soviet Union.

On the same day, Hitler addressed a group of officer candidates in the Berlin Sport Palace. He said he had dedicated everything to make Germany militarily strong, and in battle ‘to stake everything on one throw’. If the national unity of the German people remained strong ‘then the future of Europe belongs to this Volk’. If not, ‘then this Volk will perish, shall sink back and it will no longer be worthwhile to live in this Volk’.

Hitler’s biggest gamble would turn out to be his biggest mistake.


Professor Frank McDonough is an internationally renowned expert on the Third Reich. The Hitler Years: Disaster 1940-1945 is the second volume in a new, immensely readable narrative of the rise and catastrophic fall of the Nazi regime.

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