Almost two years into World War II, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union (USSR) on June 22nd, 1941. Named Operation Barbarossa, the invasion was crucial for achieving two of Hitler's primary goals: exterminating the Slavs and Jews and creating Lebensraum (living space) in the east. The Wehrmacht (the German Army) was divided into three main strategic formations. Army Group South's goal was to secure Ukraine and the oil fields in the Caucasus. Army Group Center's aim was to capture the capital, Moscow. Finally, Army Group North's objective was Leningrad, known today as Saint Petersburg. All three campaign groups participated in atrocities. However, none were more horrific than the siege of Leningrad.
Leningrad was a key strategic and symbolic objective, as it contained a port to the Baltic Sea and was viewed as the "capital" of the Russian Revolution. Thus, the plan to capture the city was as follows: as Army Group North made its way from the south through the Baltic states, the Nazi-allied Finnish army would come down from the North, thereby surrounding the city. However, as the Finns were more concerned with regaining territory lost in the 1939-1940 Winter War, which did not include Leningrad, this encirclement never happened. Nevertheless, by August 20th, 1941, the last rail connection to the city was destroyed, and by September 8th, all the roads into Leningrad had been blown up. The city was completely isolated. Convinced that Leningrad was about to fall, Hitler redirected parts of Army Group North to help with the assault on Moscow.
In accordance with Hitler's orders, the German army intended to annihilate the city completely. However, how to do this was not immediately obvious. An occupation was deemed too costly, both financially and in terms of potential German casualties. Therefore, the German high command decided on bombardment as an attempt to either starve Lennigraders or kill them directly. Thereafter, they planned to enter the city and destroy what was left via controlled demolitions. Despite anticipating that the city's population would either be killed or unable to resist by early 1942, this was not the case. Indeed, Leningrad stood until January 27th, 1944, when the Red Army managed to push back the Germans. In total, the siege lasted 872 days.
The Resilience and Horror
This resilience can partially be attributed to the nearby Lake Ladoga. During the winter, it froze over, allowing for trucks of food and medicine to reach the city. This passage also enabled the evacuation of 1.4 million Leningraders, thereby lessening the number of people who needed supplies. Moreover, by 1943, so much of the city had been destroyed that gardens could be planted throughout, further easing food shortages.
Despite these reliefs, life during the siege can best be described as hell on earth. The worst came in the winter of 1941-1942 when the only food available was 0.28 pounds a day of sawdust-laden bread. Reports of cannibalism were common, including instances of mothers smothering babies to feed their other children. Tanya Savicheva's experience encapsulates the suffering of Leningraders. As an eleven and twelve-year-old, she witnessed the death of her sister, grandmother, brother, uncles, and mother. Tanya herself later died of progressive dystrophy. This example is far from an isolated incident. Indeed, estimates of the civilian death toll range from 600,000 to a million.
The Legacy and Importance:
The legacy of the Siege of Leningrad cannot be overstated. It is widely considered one of, if not the, deadliest sieges in history, and the victims are still commemorated in Russia today. Furthermore, many historians view the siege as a genocide due to Hitler's annihilistic intentions. This perspective may prove useful for understanding the true nature of modern-day events with similar levels of destruction, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.