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A German infantryman walks toward the body of a killed Soviet soldier and a burning BT-7 light tank in the southern Soviet Union during the early days of Operation Barbarossa. 1941.Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archive/Ryan Stennes
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Belle the hippo with her caretaker, Yevdokia Dashina, during the siege of Leningrad in 1943. Belle survived the war thanks to Dashina. In 1941 water was turned off throughout the city and Belle’s pool was empty, so her skin began to dry out and crack. Every day, Dashina would drag a 40-liter barrel of water from the Neva river and rub the suffering hippo with camphor oil. Eventually, Belle’s skin healed and she was able to hide underwater through the air raids.BigPicture.ru/Ryan Stennes
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An abandoned horse stands among the ruins of Stalingrad in December of 1942.AP/Ryan Stennes
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Red Army female snipers gather before leaving to the front. 1943.Krasutskiy/AFP/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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Sometime in the fall of 1942, a German soldier hangs a Nazi flag from a building in downtown Stalingrad.NARA/Ryan Stennes
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Soviet soldier stands guard behind a captured German soldier. February, 1943. Months after being encircled by the Soviets in Stalingrad, the remnants of the German Sixth Army surrendered, after fierce fighting and starvation had already claimed the lives of some 200,000.Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archive/Ryan Stennes
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A dejected German Grenadier carrying a machine gun on his shoulder in front of a building on fire during the German retreat in Russia. 1944.Keystone/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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In October of 1942, a German Junkers Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bomber attacks during the Battle of Stalingrad.Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archive/Ryan Stennes
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The ruins of Stalingrad — nearly completely destroyed after some six months of brutal warfare — seen from an aircraft after the end of hostilities, in late 1943.Michael Savin/Waralbum.ru/Ryan Stennes
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Romanian soldiers being drawn by a camel on the Stalingrad front. September 1942. Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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Soviet soldiers charge during the Siege of Leningrad. January 1, 1943.
Vsevolod Tarasevich/Russian International News Agency via Wikimedia Commons/Ryan Stennes
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Three Russian war orphans stand amid the remains of what was once their home, in late 1942. After German forces destroyed the family's house, they took the parents as prisoners, leaving the children abandoned.AP/Ryan Stennes
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Captured Jewish civilians who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are marched out of the city by Nazi troops, Warsaw, Poland, April 19, 1943. Frederic Lewis/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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Heinrich Himmler inspects a prisoner of war camp in Russia. c. 1941.U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons/Ryan Stennes
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German soldiers pass Adolph Hitler during their campaign in Poland. April 2, 1940.German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons/Ryan Stennes
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German prisoners of war captured during the battle of Stalingrad. 1942 or 1943.Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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A serpentine line stretches to the far horizon as German soldiers, routed from their last forts in the vicinity of Stalingrad, are marched to prison camps. c. 1943.Keystone/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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The commander of a Nazi Cossack unit on active service in the Kharkov region of Ukraine, on June 21, 1942.AP/Ryan Stennes
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A German armored car amidst the debris of the Soviet fortress Sevastopol in Ukraine on August 4, 1942.AP/Ryan Stennes
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Russian snipers fighting on the Leningrad front during a blizzard. 1943.Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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Ukrainian cavalrymen on parade in front of Hans Frank, Nazi Governor-General of occupied Poland. Lviv, Ukraine. September 1939.Wikimedia Commons/Ryan Stennes
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An old German woman walks through the smoking ruins of Berlin after the city was captured by the Red Army. 1945.Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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In the winter months of 1942, citizens of Leningrad dip for water from a broken main during the nearly 900-day siege of Leningrad by German invaders. Unable to capture the city, the Germans cut it off from the world, disrupting utilities and shelling the city for more than two years.AP/Ryan Stennes
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Kazimiera Mika, a 12-year-old Polish girl, mourns the death of her older sister Andzia, 14, who was killed in a field in Warsaw during a German air raid.
Photographer Julien Bryan described the scene: "As we drove by a small field at the edge of town we were just a few minutes too late to witness a tragic event, the most incredible of all. Seven women had been digging potatoes in a field. There was no flour in their district, and they were desperate for food. Suddenly two German planes appeared from nowhere and dropped two bombs only two hundred yards away on a small home. Two women in the house were killed. The potato diggers dropped flat upon the ground, hoping to be unnoticed. After the bombers had gone, the women returned to their work. They had to have food.
"But the Nazi fliers were not satisfied with their work. In a few minutes they came back and swooped down to within two hundred feet of the ground, this time raking the field with machine-gun fire. Two of the seven women were killed. The other five escaped somehow.
"While I was photographing the bodies, a little ten-year old girl came running up and stood transfixed by one of the dead. The woman was her older sister. The child had never before seen death and couldn't understand why her sister would not speak to her...
"The child looked at us in bewilderment. I threw my arm about her and held her tightly, trying to comfort her. She cried. So did I and the two Polish officers who were with me."Julien Bryan/Wikimedia Commons/Ryan Stennes
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Red Army soldiers raise the Soviet flag over the Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin. May 2, 1945.Yevgeny Khaldei/Wikimedia Commons/Ryan Stennes
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Sometime in the fall of 1942, Soviet soldiers advance through the rubble of Stalingrad.Georgy Zelma/Waralbum.ru/Ryan Stennes
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Street fighting at Berlin during the battle to gain control of the capital. Ivan Shagin/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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German Gestapo officers execute Russian peasants. September 1943. This photo was taken by a German soldier captured by the Red Army.Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
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German soldiers, supported by armored personnel carriers, move into a burning Russian village at an unknown location on June 26, 1941.Imgur/Ryan Stennes
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Soviet soldiers, on their backs, launch a volley of bullets at enemy aircraft in June of 1943.Waralbum.ru/Ryan Stennes
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A motorized column of the Wehrmacht is welcomed by Ukrainian women at the entrance to a Ukrainian village. June 22, 1941.Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo/Ryan Stennes
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A Russian woman watches a building burn sometime in 1942.NARA/Ryan Stennes
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Young girls assembling machine guns in a Russian factory. 1943.Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images/Ryan Stennes
33 Colorized Images That Capture The Endless Brutality Of World War II’s Eastern Front
In the United States, World War II’s Western Front gets most of the attention. D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the Nazi occupation of France — these all conjure vivid images in America’s collective imagination. But it was in the war's Eastern Front between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union where some of the war’s most barbaric fighting occurred.
The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact in August 1939, wherein each country agreed to not fight the other for 10 years.
According to the deal, the Soviet Union would acquire Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, as well as the eastern half of Poland.
Poland’s western half, which bordered Germany, could therefore be invaded by the Nazis without a fight from the Soviets — which is exactly what Adolf Hitler did on September 1, nine days after the pact was signed. It was this invasion that started World War II in Europe.
Both sides secretly knew they would in all likelihood enter a war against each other, but their pact gave them time to prepare. Hitler focused on expanding its reach in western and central Europe – in France, Denmark, Belgium, and elsewhere – while Joseph Stalin rounded up millions of Soviets, mostly convicts and political prisoners, into gulags to perform forced labor.
Operation Barbarossa Begins On The Eastern Front
But on June 22, 1941, that all changed. Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet deal with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south with some 3 or 4 million men. About a quarter of the Axis forces were non-German, with many Hungarians, Romanians, Finnish, Ukrainians, and others.
Within a week, German forces advanced 200 miles into Soviet territory. Within a couple months, 2.5 million Soviets soldiers were either killed, wounded, or missing. By December, that figure skyrocketed to nearly 7 million — the current populations of Los Angeles and Chicago combined.
The fighting was beyond brutal; beheadings and mass rapes occurred daily. Instead of deporting Jews and Roma to concentration camps, 3,000 members of the German Einsatzgruppen — literally "operational groups" — killed civilians in their own cities and villages. They murdered well over 1 million civilians, usually in mass shootings.
But the Germans got a reality check once the bitter Russian winter set in. Expecting a quick Soviet collapse — "We have only to kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down," Hitler said before the invasion — the Germans didn’t prepare for an extended war.
The Nazis also apparently didn’t anticipate just how long it would take to traverse the vastness of Russia and siege Moscow, which is 1,000 miles east of Berlin. By the time the Germans reached Moscow, they were stretched beyond effectiveness. That year, the Red Army beat back the Germans when they tried to take Moscow.
The Devastation At Stalingrad
But Hitler set his sights on a more strategic victory. In 1942, he sought to seize and destroy Stalingrad, an industrial city in Russia’s southwest that was a major producer of artillery for Soviet troops. The city’s Volga River was also an important shipping route connecting the city to the Black and Caspian Seas.
Stalingrad was the largest and bloodiest battle not only in World War II, but in the history of warfare. During five months of dozens of German airstrikes and savage hand-to-hand combat, 2 million were killed, wounded, or captured. Many of those killed were civilians; tens of thousands of people were forced into slave labor camps in Germany.
The battle left the city of Stalingrad — once an economic hub of 400,000 — in complete ruins. Like all over the Eastern Front, men, women, and children had to desperately scrounge for food and water.
Both sides suffered heavy losses at Stalingrad, but the encircled German army inside of Stalingrad ended up surrendering to the Soviets. It ended up being one of the most decisive battles of the war, forcing the Germans to retreat until their eventual surrender on May 9, 1945, after the Battle of Berlin.
Above, photos from the bloody battles and daily struggles of the Eastern Front have been brought to life in full color. Take a look.