Key point: Europe would have had much stronger competitors to the Soviet Union.
After suffering more than twenty million military and civilian deaths in World War II, Russia has little cause to thank Hitler.
But with Wednesday, June 22 marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, it is time to recall one of history’s greatest ironies. Adolf Hitler was obsessed with turning Russia into a vast German colony and the Russian people into slaves. Instead, half of Germany was occupied by the Red Army, its people subjects of the Russian empire. When four million Nazi soldiers crossed the Soviet border in the early hours of June 22, 1941, they dreamed of seeing the spires of the Kremlin. Instead they unleashed a chain of consequences that still shape the world today.
To claim that Russia was not a great power before Hitler would be silly. Abundant in territory, resources and population, Russia has been a heavyweight since at least the eighteenth century, a behemoth strong enough to destroy the army of Napoleon (who also thought Russia would be easy prey). Yet three-quarters of a century later, it is hard to appreciate just how different the global balance of power was back then.
In the late 1930s, the United States had an army smaller than Romania’s. Britain, whose destroyers today can’t sail in warm water, owned a quarter of the Earth’s surface, and was reckoned to have the world’s most powerful navy. France, now the butt of many “I surrender” jokes, was considered to have the most powerful land army in Western Europe. Germany, whose military today appears barely functional, had been terrifying its neighbors since 1870.