Sunday marks the anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, 67 years ago. That was Hitler's greatest mistake of the war, leading to the inexorable defeat of Germany four years later.
We in the West tend to underestimate just how gigantic a killing machine the Eastern Front was during World War II. More than three-quarters of all German casualties were incurred on that front, and the Soviet Union lost well over twenty million dead, both military and civilian. The precise number will never be known, but some estimates put the total - including dead, wounded and missing - as high as fifty million. Certainly, no country paid a higher price than the Soviet Union during the war.
The war inflicted huge losses and suffering upon the civilian populations of the affected countries. Behind the front lines, atrocities against civilians in German-occupied areas were routine, including the Holocaust. German and German-allied forces treated civilian populations with exceptional brutality, massacring villages and routinely killing civilian hostages. Both sides practiced widespread scorched earth tactics, but the loss of civilian lives in the case of Germany was incomparably smaller than that of the Soviet Union, in which at least 20 million civilians were killed by the Nazis.
When the Red Army invaded Germany in 1944, many German civilians suffered from vengeance taken by Red Army soldiers. After the war, following the Yalta conference agreements between the Allies, the German populations of East Prussia and Silesia were displaced to the west of the Oder-Neisse Line, in what became one of the largest forced migrations of people in world history. The German minority scattered over large swaths of Eastern Europe was thus expelled and those who did not manage to leave were exterminated.
Much of the combat took place in or close by populated areas, and the actions of both sides contributed to massive loss of civilian life as well as a tremendous material damage. According to a summary, presented by Lieutenant General Roman Rudenko at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, the property damage in the Soviet Union inflicted by the Axis invasion was estimated to a value of 679 billion rubles. The largest number of civilian deaths in a single city was 1,2 million citizens dead during the Siege of Leningrad. The combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Seven million horses, and 17 million sheep and goats were also slaughtered or driven off.
It's also worth remembering that the only reason the Normandy landings in 1944 were possible is that two-thirds of the German armed forces were concentrated on the Eastern Front, facing the Soviet juggernaut. The remaining third had to be split between combat duty in the Balkans and Italy, garrison duties in Western Europe and Norway, and defense of the Reich against the attacks of the Allied air forces. All those demands meant that relatively few divisions were available to confront the Anglo-American invasion forces when they arrived.