The battles on the Eastern Front constituted the largest military confrontation in history. They were characterized by unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction, mass deportations, and immense loss of life due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres.
The Eastern Front, as the site of nearly all extermination camps, death marches, ghettos, and the majority of pogroms, was central to the Holocaust.
Over the course of four years, more than 400 Red Army and German divisions clashed in a series of operations along a front that extended more than 1,000 miles. Some 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians and nearly 4 million German troops lost their lives along the Eastern Front during those years of brutality.
To make things even more complex, forces within the Soviet Union were often fractured among themselves, early in the war, some groups had even welcomed the Germans and fought against the Red Army, in the hopes that Hitler’s troops would liberate them from Stalin.
Later, as battles became desperate, Stalin issued Order No. 227 “Not a Step Back!” which forbid Soviet forces from retreating without direct orders. Commanders who sought to pull back faced tribunals, and foot soldiers faced “blocking detachments” of their own fellow soldiers, ready to gun down any who fled.
The Eastern Front was decisive in determining the outcome of the European portion of World War II, eventually serving as the main reason for the defeat of Nazi Germany.
(Photo credit: AP Photo / Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Library of Congress).