Seventy years ago today, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. For millions who lived in Eastern Europe, this marked the end of a brutal Soviet occupation that had begun in October 1939. The successive occupations brought uncertainty, fear, and even hope that the new army would be better than the last. This brief excerpt is taken from my book in progress, SCATTER WITH THE WIND, which tells the story of two Ukrainian brothers and their experience during the Second World War. The excerpt describes how the events of June 22, 1941 unfolded in the area around the city of Stanislaw/Stanyslaviv, now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine.
The circus came to Stanyslaviv in late June. The 1:00 p.m. performance on June 22, 1941 was packed with children and teenagers who had finished their school year the day before. The acrobats, clowns, and animal trainers were even more thrilling for those feeling the euphoria of an entire summer stretching before them. The audience cheered throughout the first hour, the first of three hours scheduled in the show.
Then everything stopped, and member of the circus stepped forward to address the audience. The performance was over, they were terribly sorry to say, but the show could not continue due to circumstances beyond their control. The crowd, disappointed and confused, filtered out into the city. A group of Polish boys walked toward the train station to travel back to Lackie Szlacheckie. At the station, they learned most of the trains had been cancelled. There was no explanation for that either.
The Polish boys had no way to get home other than to walk, and it was a warm day so they set off immediately. Their route took them past an airfield. The languid quiet of the afternoon gave way to an explosion. The boys turned to see where it had come from, and they saw planes roaring toward them so low that they glimpsed the pilots’ heads. The boys threw themselves on the ground and gazed up. The planes had black crosses painted on their fuselages.
“Germans!” the boys yelled.
After life under the Bolsheviks the boys were overjoyed to see the Germans, even though the German army had humiliated Poland less than two years before. Hitler had now sent his army to defeat the Soviets, and if Germany succeeded that could be forgiven.
A group of Poles back in Lackie Szlacheckie stood watching black smoke fill the southern sky. The oil refinery in Nadvirna was burning, they figured. The sight pleased them. The Poles’ optimism recalled Ukrainian anticipation of the Soviets in 1939.
“The Germans are intelligent people, cultured,” one of the Poles said. “They aren’t like this Bolshevik rabble. Let’s pray they come as quick as possible.”
The Soviet leadership was as surprised by the German invasion as the people of Lackie Szlacheckie. Stalin dismissed intelligence about the invasion, refusing to believe Hitler would renege on the treaty the two powers signed in 1939. The attack was as massive as it was unexpected. The German invasion, named Operation Barbarossa, comprised three million men. The front stretched more than nine hundred miles from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, about the distance from New York City to Florida. The campaign, which would last six months, remains the largest military operation in history. One million Germans overwhelmed Soviet forces in Ukraine on their way to Kyiv.
In the first few months of the invasion, Germany inflicted losses on the Soviet military that were greater than many of the chief combatants would sustain throughout the entire war. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to V-J Day on August 14, 1945, 362,561 members of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps were killed.[i] By the end of September 1941, 2,067,801 members of the Red Army were killed or missing,[ii] including 172,323 in Ukraine during the first two weeks of fighting.[iii] Another 616,304 Red Army personnel were killed or missing between July 7 and September 26, 1941 during the battle for Kyiv.[iv]
[i] Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History, Revised Edition. (New York: Owl Books, 1989), 746.
[ii] David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hiter. (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1995), 292.