I noticed a thread on Reddit last night that discussed the great mistake ever in history. Everything from NASA accidentally taping over some of the original moon-landing tapes and Russia selling Alaska was mentioned. It makes fascinating reading.

For me, Hitler’s invasion of Russia stands out as the greatest mistake ever made.

It’s not as if he had to do it. By early 1941, Germany had achieved a stranglehold over Western Europe. Apart from the UK,  most of the major threats had been eliminated. With most of Central Europe under Nazi control, there was now a large buffer zone between Germany and any potential invaders from the East. To the West, only the UK stood in defiance of Nazi rule. With America not yet at war, it was isolated; still reeling from Dunkirk. German bombers were wreaking havoc across the UK from London, to Belfast, to Plymouth. Money, stolen valuables and great quantities of food were flowing into Germany from France and its neighbours, all now solidly under the German jackboot.

It wasn’t enough for Hitler. Instead he eyed the great country to the east with avarice, imagining a vast living space for the German population. Here was a region awash with copious quantities of food, oil, slaves and other key mineral resources. Given how quickly Germany had conquered most of Western Europe, the pervasive view was that Russia was merely a rotten door, just begging to be kicked in.

And for a time, this seemed to be the case. Between June and October 1941, the Wehrmacht inflicted over a million Red Army casualties, snatched the Baltic states, surrounded Leningrad, conquered Kiev, and was coming within firing range of Moscow itself. 

Then nature took over. The German advance slowed to a halt as the Rasputisa – the season of mud – heralded the beginning of the Russian winter. With Moscow and the key oilfields of the south still under Soviet control, the Germans found themselves inadequately prepared for the freezing temperatures and relentless blizzards. The slowing advance gave the Russians time to call in massive reinforcements and by early December they inflicted their first major defeat of German forces. 

1942 marked a turning point in German fortunes. While they gained more ground in the summer months, they failed to take the southern oilfields, nor any other key strategic targets. German supply lines were stretched, progress was slower and casualties kept on building by the thousands. With America now in the war and Russia developing huge stockpiles of weaponry further east, it was only a matter of time before their advance would be halted completely.

The reversal began in 1943, with the meat-grinder that was the Battle of Stalingrad. Using the bitter weather and a seemingly endless supply of manpower and armaments, Russian generals overpowered General Paulus’s 6th Army. From then on, Russia had the upper hand, despite losing more soldiers in almost every encounter with German forces. Even the great tank battle of Kursk failed to stop Red Army advances.

Ultimately, Russia reclaimed every inch of territory seized by the Germans, and more. They seized large areas of Germany itself exacting a terrible price from its civilian population. The “total war” in the East made their Western front vulnerable, and in 1944, Allied forces, under US leadership, invaded France. Deprived of air support, the cities of Germany were smashed to smithereens by Allied bombers. By the time peace was declared in 1945, this once-great nation, along with many countries around it, was on its knees.

Hitler’s decision to invade Russia ultimately destroyed everything he envisioned for his country. It was a decision made from a position of hubris, a belief that war was a boon to the young men of Germany, a belief in racial superiority above all the peoples of the Earth. Overconfidently, he believed he could demolish the Red Army in a matter of weeks, long before the Russian Winter arrived. Despite the formidable strengths of the Wehrmacht, he got it badly wrong. In the following years, relentless Russian aggression whittled his army down to size, making it a manageable target for all its enemies. 

We look at Germany today, and once again it is a great nation. As a modern, liberal, democratic republic, it’s a country very different to that envisioned by the Nazis. None of its success can be attributed to Hitler and his cohorts. The rebuilding fell to the surviving children and grandchildren, along with great help from the outside. Everywhere in Germany, as in Russia, as all across Europe, are the family memories; the lost uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers, friends and loved ones. Destruction and death on a vast scale were the only legacies of Operation Barbarossa. It was one heck of a mistake.

We could ask, what if Hitler had not invaded Russia? What then? It’s certainly possible that Nazi Germany would have lasted longer. Long enough, perhaps, to develop missile-borne nuclear weapons; thus making it almost impossible to attack from any angle without enormous reciprocal casualties. The UK, even with America on its side, would have been hugely vulnerable. Wave upon wave of German bombardment, along with a robust blockade of British and Irish ports, would have made everyday life very difficult indeed. The Nazis would possibly have had time to complete, then cover up, their policy of genocide on the Jews and all unfortunate people they perceived to be less than human. A hopeless detente between America, Russia and Germany, somewhat akin to the Cold War, might have transpired; with proxy wars in Africa, the Middle East, India, South America and anywhere mischief could be made.

Decades hence, perhaps, it might have been a different story. The viciousness, violence and corruption of the Nazi regime would surely have given way to saner minds once Hitler was out of the way. Maybe a collapse, akin to the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, would have been on the cards, given enough time.

It’s purely speculation, of course. Hitler’s great mistake resulted in the deaths of millions. Had he not made it, perhaps even more would have died through the cruelty of his policies, just stretched over a longer period of time.