On June 22, 1941, Hitler's troops, as well as units and subunits of the armies of Hitler's Germany's allies, crossed the border of the Soviet Union. The Great Patriotic War began. Meanwhile, a few years before its start, German propaganda was actively preparing the population of the Third Reich for aggression against the Soviet Union.
Anti-Soviet myths and clichés were replicated by the powerful propaganda apparatus of Hitlerite Germany. The task was simple - to form in an ordinary German an idea of the Soviet Union as a terrible, barbaric country at the lowest stage of cultural development and threatening Europe and European culture. And, I must say, Hitler's propaganda did a good job of this task.
However, from the very first days of the war, the soldiers and officers of the German armies began to understand that propaganda, to put it mildly, exaggerated the horrors of life in the Soviet Union, the poverty and lack of culture of the Soviet people. The longer the Nazis were on the territory of the USSR, having occupied Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states, the more the soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht were convinced that propaganda was lying. In the stories of the official German press about life in the Soviet Union, about the Red Army, about the Russian people, German servicemen were disappointed in several ways at once.
Thus, German propaganda actively spread the myth about the low combat effectiveness of the Red Army, the cowardice of Soviet soldiers and their unwillingness to obey commanders. But already the first months of the war showed that this is far from the case. The blitzkrieg failed, and the fact that they had to face a very strong and serious enemy, the German soldiers and officers understood already during the battle for Moscow. Naturally, in the first days of the war, almost all the soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht were convinced that the Soviet Union could be defeated and conquered without much difficulty. After all, the Wehrmacht coped without problems with the numerous and strong French and Polish armies, not to mention the armed forces of other European states. But the battle of Moscow made total adjustments to the views of Hitler's soldiers about their enemy.
On the Eastern Front, I met people who can be called a special race. The very first attack turned into a life-and-death battle!
- recalled a serviceman of the 12th Panzer Division Hans Becker.
The soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht were amazed by the soldiers of the Red Army, who fought to the last. Even with grief alive, left without a leg or an arm, bleeding to death, the Russian soldiers continued to fight. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans had never encountered such resistance anywhere. Of course, in other European countries there were isolated exploits of military personnel, but in the Soviet Union almost every soldier showed heroism. And this both admired and frightened the Germans at the same time.
It is easy to understand the feelings of a soldier or an officer of the Wehrmacht when he faced Russian fighters who fought to the last, ready to self-detonate with a grenade along with the opponents around him. So, one of the officers of the 7th Panzer Division recalled:
You just can't believe it until you see it with your own eyes. The soldiers of the Red Army, even burning alive, continued to shoot from the burning houses.
Any warrior respects a strong opponent. And after the first battles on the territory of the Soviet Union, the majority of Hitler's servicemen, faced with the heroism of Soviet soldiers, began to be imbued with respect for the Russians. It was clear that they would not defend a bad country to the last drop of blood, that the people “at the lowest stage of development,” as Hitler’s propaganda said, would not be able to show miracles of heroism.
The courage of the Soviet soldiers dispelled the myths of the Goebbels propaganda machine. German servicemen wrote in their diaries, in letters home, that they could not imagine such an outcome of the military campaign in Russia. The fallacy of the idea of a quick victory was recognized not only by privates, non-commissioned officers and junior officers of the Wehrmacht. The generals were no less categorical. Thus, Major General Hoffmann von Waldau, who served in a high command position in the Luftwaffe, emphasized:
The quality level of Soviet pilots is much higher than expected … The fierce resistance, its massive nature, does not correspond to our initial assumptions.
The words of the general of German aviation had factual confirmation behind them. On the first day of the war alone, the Luftwaffe lost up to 300 aircraft. Already on June 22, Soviet pilots began to use ramming German aircraft, which plunged the enemy into a real shock. Never before have the Air Force of the Third Reich, the pride and hope of Adolf Hitler, commanded by the Fuhrer's favorite Hermann Goering, have suffered such impressive losses.
The uniqueness of the country and the uniqueness of the character of the Russians give the campaign a special specificity. The first serious opponent
- already in July 1941, Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, commander of the Wehrmacht ground forces, wrote down.
The sixty-year-old Brauchitsch, who had served forty years in the Prussian and German armies at the start of the war with the Soviet Union, understood a lot about the enemy. He went through the First World War and had the opportunity to see how the armies of other European states are fighting. It is not for nothing that the saying “Better three French campaigns than one Russian” came into use among the troops. And such a saying was common at the beginning of the war, and by its end most of the soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht would boldly compare one Russian campaign with thirty French or Polish ones.
The second propaganda myth, in which the soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht also became disillusioned, asserted the allegedly low level of cultural development of the Soviet country. In fact, even then, at the very beginning of the 1940s, the Soviet Union was already ahead of most countries of the then world in terms of the level of development and coverage of the education system. Over the twenty post-revolutionary years of the Soviet country, it was possible to practically eliminate illiteracy, an excellent system of higher education was created.
The commander of the 5th company of the 2nd infantry regiment of one of the SS divisions, Hoffmann wrote:
At present, schooling in the USSR is at a high level. Free choice according to ability, no fee. I think that the internal construction of Russia was completed: the intelligentsia stratum was created and brought up in a purely communist spirit.
In none of the countries of Eastern Europe, be it Poland or Czechoslovakia, not to mention Romania or Bulgaria, the education system at that time could not be compared with the Soviet one, either in quality or in accessibility. Of course, the most attentive and thoughtful German soldiers and officers noticed this circumstance, imbued, if not with sympathy, then with respect for the country, which managed to ensure the right of its citizens to receive not only school, but also higher education.
Regardless of the subjective attitude towards the Soviet regime, the majority of Russian people and representatives of other nationalities of the USSR loved their native country. Even white emigrants, who, as it seemed to the Nazis, should have hated Soviet power, for the most part refused to cooperate with the Third Reich, many of them did not hide the fact that with all their hearts they "rooted" for the Soviet Union - Russia and wish the Russian people victory over the next invaders …
Hitler's soldiers were surprised that many of the Russians they met in the occupied territories or among the prisoners of war were superior in education even to the German commanders. They were no less surprised that German was taught even in rural schools in the Soviet Union. There were Russian people who read German poets and writers in the original, played the works of German composers beautifully on the piano, and understood the geography of Germany. And after all, it was not about the nobles, who in the majority left the country after the revolution, but about the most ordinary Soviet people - engineers, teachers, students, even schoolchildren.
The German press portrayed the Soviet Union as a hopelessly backward country in terms of technology, but Hitler's soldiers were faced with the fact that the Russians were well versed in technology, were able to fix any breakdown. And the matter was not only in the natural ingenuity of the Russians, which the vigilant Germans also noticed, but also in the fact that in the Soviet Union there was a very high-quality system of both school and out-of-school education, including numerous Osoaviakhim circles.
Since there were a lot of people among the Germans, including the servicemen of the active army, who were brought up in a religious, Christian spirit, Hitler's propaganda sought to present the Soviet Union as a "godless" country in which the line of state atheism had hopelessly triumphed.
Of course, throughout the 1920s - 1930s, the Orthodox Church, like other traditional religions of Russia and other union republics, was subjected to severe persecution. But a significant part of the population of the Soviet country retained a deep religiosity, especially if we talk about rural residents, about the older and middle generations of that time. And the Germans could not help but notice this, and fighting against Christians praying and celebrating Christian holidays was much more difficult psychologically.
The third myth - about the immorality of the Russians, allegedly "corrupted" by the Soviet regime - was also dispelled during the invasion of the Soviet Union. Thus, in Breslau, at the Wolfen film factory, where the labor of people hijacked from Russia was used, a medical examination of girls aged 17-29 was carried out. It turned out that 90% of those examined are virgins. This result amazed the Germans, who never ceased to be amazed not only by the high morality of Russian girls, but also by the behavior of Russian men, who also shared this morality. I must say that European countries, including Germany itself, could not boast of such indicators. In fact, by the early 1940s, Europe was more corrupted than the Soviet Union.
The Germans were also struck by the deep kindred feelings that the Russian people had for each other. Of course, German servicemen also sent letters from the front home, sent their photographs and kept photographs of their wives, children, and parents. But among the Russians, as the German soldiers noted, correspondence with the family was a real cult. Russian people really needed to maintain family relations, took care of their loved ones. And this circumstance also could not but touch the soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht.
The longer the Nazis got bogged down in the "Russian campaign", the more difficult conditions they were. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht were taken prisoner and there, in captivity, they faced the humane attitude that shocked them from the side of the Red Army and civilian Soviet citizens. It would seem that after the atrocities that the Nazis committed on Soviet soil and about which, one way or another, most of the Wehrmacht soldiers were still aware, the Soviet people had to mock and mock the prisoners.
Violent attitudes did occur, but they were never widespread. In general, compassionate Russians, and especially women, felt sorry for the German prisoners of war and even tried to help them in some way, often giving food, clothing and household items that were already far from superfluous in the harsh war years.
Almost every German prisoner of war who visited the Soviet Union and left memories of years or months of captivity finds words to admire the Soviet people who committed good-hearted deeds. Here, in distant and incomprehensible Russia, German soldiers and officers began to think about what the very “Russian soul” is that makes the Soviet people show humanism and kind-heartedness to the invaders, the executioners of the Soviet people.