Sixty-three years ago, on June 22, 1941, 3 million German soldiers and half a million from other Nazi-dominated countries went over the lines and attacked the Soviet Union. This, not D-Day, was the largest military invasion in human history.
Some 2,700 German planes took out 4,000 Soviet planes; over 300,000 Red Army soldiers were captured. For the next two years and 11 months, more men fought on the Eastern Front than in all the other theaters of the war put together. The siege of Stalingrad from November 1941 to February 1943 was the largest siege battle ever, with hand-to-hand fighting as the Soviets defended the last block before the Volga River. The battle between the two armies' tanks at Kursk in July 1943 was the largest tank battle ever.
We are the fortunate legatees of this terrible warfare. Hitler and Stalin became allies when they signed their pact on Aug. 23, 1939; with Hitler's victories and Stalin's land grabs, most of the landmass of Eurasia was under totalitarian control when the attack of June 22, 1941, came. On that date, the United States was still six months away from war, and it is far from clear that the United States and Britain together could have dislodged either Hitler or Stalin. A very large part of the world seemed fated to live permanently in George Orwell's as yet unwritten "1984."
Hitler's attack meant a battle to the death between his Nazism and Stalin's communism. We think we know the outcome: Stalin won, and Eastern Europe remained communist until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
But in another sense, the outcome is still unfolding. In 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union were demographically the two largest nations in Europe: Prewar Germany had 80 million people, and the prewar Soviet Union 170 million, at a time when the United States had 130 million and Britain 46 million. Now those two great nations, which fought this horrifying war with such enormous casualties, are shrinking before our eyes. It is almost as if Russia and Germany are committing suicide, Russia rapidly and violently, Germany more slowly and in a more orderly fashion.
Life expectancy for males in Russia declined nearly five years between 1962 and 2002. Deaths exceeded births staring in the 1970s, and female fertility declined from 2.2 births in 1986 (2.1 is the replacement rate necessary for a stable population) to 1.2 in 1999. As a result, the population of the pared-back Russia fell from 148 million in 1992 to 144 million in 2003. Violent death rates doubled between 1965 and 2001, partly because of increasing alcoholism.
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