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Two Centuries and Two Mistakes

1812 AND 1941

It is not impossible to successfully invade Russia, just really hard. This was accomplished many times in history. The Vikings did it, and they became the local lords. Later the Mongols invaded and controlled Russia for more than two centuries. It can be done, but in the last two centuries, two of the world’s greatest conquerors have tried and failed. What there is to note here are the many similarities shared by the two invasions set more than a century apart: invasions staged by Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler.

Both Napoleon and Hitler had been elected first, taking absolute power once in office.

Both invasions came while also at war with Britain. France had been at war with Britain for more than a decade when the Grande Armée entered Russia. Germany had failed to break the RAF in the summer of 1940 and invaded a year later.

Both were fighting a war on two fronts. France against the resistance and Wellington in Spain, and Hitler had sent the Afrika Korps to bail out Italy six months before invading Russia.

Both times, invaders or their allies had control of virtually all of Europe except Russia and Britain.

Both invasions were the largest attack force ever seen up to that time. The Grande Armée consisted of more than 600,000 soldiers, hundreds of thousands of horses, and hundreds of cannons with contingents from all over Europe. The Nazi invasion, Operation Barbarossa, began with 3 million soldiers, 3,580 tanks, 7,184 artillery guns, 1,830 planes, and 750,000 horses.

Both invasions began in June: June 12 by Napoleon and June 22 for Barbarossa.

Both invasions sought a knock-out battle that would force a surrender on Russia. Neither managed to find one.

Both Hitler and Napoleon thought the invasion would be over fast, and the Russians would collapse even faster. Napoleon was quoted as saying he would defeat Russia in twenty days and be back in Warsaw within a month. Hitler and his generals expected such a quick victory that they did not even bother to stockpile winter clothing for the troops.

Both found themselves still fighting as that first winter began.

Both invaders saw Moscow as the key to victory. Bonaparte captured the city, but that did not force a Russian surrender. The German army got units to within fourteen miles of Moscow’s city center, but they were still unable to take the Russian capital.

Napoleon was unwilling to give up Moscow and waited too long into the winter before trying to march back out of Russia. His men froze and were slaughtered along the march back to Poland. Hitler was unwilling to give up any conquered ground in Russia, issuing a no-retreat order to all of his units. This meant thousands of men were killed or captured who would be desperately needed in later years. Hitler was unwilling to allow a withdrawal from Stalingrad, and so a half million veteran soldiers ended up dead or captured.

Both badly overestimated the condition and usefulness of the Russian roads and the ability of the countryside to supply food for their troops.

Both armies were defeated as much by the winter as they were by the Russians. Napoleon’s men died from a lack of supplies and the intense cold as they marched out; the German army lost men and were unable to fight effectively because of the rough Russian winter.

Partisan actions forced both invaders to assign a large part of their army to protecting the rear areas and supply lines.

During both invasions, the first winter was one of the coldest and fiercest of that century.

Both France under Napoleon and Germany under Hitler lost so many men in Russia that their empires were destroyed. Napoleon led 422,000 men into Russia in 1812; less than 10,000 returned. Of the almost 3 million men who invaded Russia in 1941, less than half remained by the spring of 1943.

Both nations never recovered from the losses taken in their Russian invasions.

Among the armies that invaded France in 1813 there was a very large Russian army. Among the armies that invaded Germany in 1944 the largest army was Russian.

For both leaders, the invasion of Russia ended an unbroken run of victories that had put them in control of most of Europe.

Hitler and Napoleon made many of the same mistakes invading Russia. Neither was prepared for a long war, both armies were broken by the harsh Russian winter, and both men failed to move quickly enough to save a vital army trapped there. But the biggest mistake has to be Hitler’s alone, since he took almost exactly the same missteps as Napoleon had 130 years earlier while invading Russia. They say hindsight is 20/20, and Hitler was offered that hindsight had he picked up any world history book. He apparently hadn’t studied his Russian history enough to pass that test.

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