There are those throughout human history who have ignored this wise saying leading to their ruin. Santayana’s quote could easily be revised to read, “Those who choose to ignore or flount the past are condemned to repeat it.” Case in point was Adolf Hitler and his invasion of the Soviet Union in the late summer of 1941.
Having conquered Poland and France by late June of 1940 Hitler hoped to remove the threat of Great Britain’s Royal Air-force over the English Channel in hopes of invading the English Island. This would fail and Hitler then turned his gaze from the English skies and planned for a grand invasion of Russia. Russia was Hitler’s goal all along with his intense hate of the Russians and his desire to gain the rich farm lands and oil fields of the country. The Nazis invasion of Russia, named Operation Barbarossa after a German medieval emperor who conquered much of Europe, began on June 22, 1941 almost one hundred and twenty nine years to the day of another invasion of Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion began on June 24, 1812 with his main objective to punish the Russia’s for breaking his Continental System which forbade any open trade with Great Britain. By 1812 Napoleon like Hitler in 1941 controlled virtually all of Europe. Napoleon marched a 400,000 man army towards Moscow in what would lead to his ultimate downfall. French general Michael Ney amply summed up Napoleon’s attempt to subdue Russia to his will in the following quote, “General famine and general winter, rather than Russian bullets have conquered the Grand Army.” After the Grand Army’s retreat from Russia, Napoleon’s force of 400,000 was reduced to 10,000. In giving a summary of Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Russia, General Ney’s comment would be prophetic for Hitler’s attempt to invade Russia in 1941. Hitler would indeed fulfill Ney’s prophecy and like Napoleon would never totally recover from his invasion of Russia. One has to ask why Hitler would repeat the same mistake and begin his invasion around the same day as his counterpart. Maybe he did this to prove that he was superior to Napoleon and could do it right. Some may argue that Hitler felt his army was invincible but I would argue that it was less that than his feeling of superiority over the Russians who he viewed as sub-human. Much is made of Hitler’s hatred of the Jews but his disdain for the Russian Bolsheviks was just as intense. Hitler believed they didn’t have the will to fight and would wither in the face of his modern air force and army just like the Poles and the French.
Whether a sense of invincibility or superiority one thing was for sure Hitler had changed the face of war by introducing a new type of warfare called Blitzkrieg. This lightening war would serve Hitler well as he took Poland and France in a matter of weeks. Prior to the Russian invasion, Hitler’s military might was the superior force to reckon with on the European continent but there was one force that Hitler would soon reckon with but never figured into his military plans, mother-nature. It would be her forces that would attack the Nazis in Russia with a bombardment of frigid cold that stopped the German army in its tracks.
Hitler believed his army would capture Russia within weeks. He failed to plan beyond that time and when the invasion began to stall because of wet roads in the fall and other problems Hitler still refused to consider that his army might be in Russia longer than expected. By September of 1941, Hitler’s general’s asked for winter supplies. The Nazis army was still dressed in their summer uniforms and the mechanized part of the army was not prepared for a cold winter. Despite the dire warnings from his generals, Hitler refused to send winter supplies fearing it would send the wrong message to the German people that there would possibly be a long winter campaign. Later in December of ’41 very much like the winter of 1812 a frigid air mass over took Russia plunging temperatures to well below zero. Tanks, jeeps and transport vehicles due to lack of antifreeze stopped and troops began to freeze to death without the winter clothes Hitler’s generals had begged for. Later a counterattack from the Russians at Moscow put the Nazis army in retreat. Later the German army would fail to take Leningrad and Stalingrad loosing an estimated 300,000 troops. Although the Nazis army would live on to fight, historians agree that this was the beginning of Hitler’s ultimate downfall. Having had an example of another world leader that failed to take Russia, why did Hitler make the same mistake? Again I believe it was his attitude of superiority and arrogance that lead to this disregard of history’s lessons. Certainly Hitler knew of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia but he had a modern army that had already proven it-self before and he would not fail.
The question remains what does this little history lesson have to do with us today? It goes back to my revised quote from Santayana “Those who ignore or flount the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It’s time to take a long look at how America’s leaders today are snubbing the lessons of history that could lead to our ultimate downfall and then ask why they are doing it. This question must be answered as patterns in history can give us a road map to follow into the future. After contemplating this question I have come up with three possible answers why our country’s leaders (the president and congress) have ignored historical precedence. One, America’s leaders are totally ignorant of history and its implications for the future. Two, our leaders know history and are using its lessons not to ensure the continuance of America but to destroy it, sink it on purpose. Third, the president and congress have an air of superiority that promotes the belief that America can ignore the past and get away with breaking basic social and economic laws. The first answer is not legitimate when you consider the fact that most of our leaders were educated at the world’s best academic institutions. The second answer may seem like the obvious one if you don’t believe answer one could be possible. (More on that one in a later column.) The third answer seems more logical and acceptable especially if you find answer two totally outlandish.
Of the three possibilities I would have to go for answer three. Our leader’s sense of superiority has taken our country down a road of ruin which I fear we are too far down to turn back. America is teetering on the edge of a major economic catastrophe that may take decades to recover from. Just like Hitler’s belief in his superiority over the Russians, the president and congress believe they are above the lessons of history and that a day of reckoning will never come. After all, this is America and we can never fall. But the Titanic was an unsinkable ship that sank on her first voyage. As a teacher and student of history, I have watched in horror as our so called leaders take us down the same road of destruction that other nations and empires have traveled down. Just like Hitler’s generals who warned him of the harsh realities of a Russian winter in 1941, historians today are warning Americans of an economic winter that is bound to hit any day. In upcoming columns I would like to explore some of the lessons that history has to teach us. I hope through these upcoming articles that you will gain knowledge and begin to see that the study of the past can give us a brief glimpse into the future and provide the means to avoid mistakes, mistakes that are too costly to repeat. I encourage your comments and questions by going to my blog at www.waltersworldhistory.weebly.com