Berlin, Germany · December 25, 1941

On this date in 1941 Japanese citizens celebrated the 15th anni­ver­sary of the suc­ces­sion to the Impe­rial Throne of Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa), according to tradi­tion the 124th direct des­cen­dant of Jimmu, the legen­dary first ruler of the Empire of the Rising Sun. Fes­tive toasts invoked the Impe­rial reign, 2‑1/2 weeks after Japan pro­voked the United States into war against that country and its Axis partners, Germany and Italy.

Half a world away, people all over Ger­many cel­e­brated Christ­mas as best they could. Because the new religion of the Reich was Nazism, Ger­mans were for­bidden to send Christ­mas cards, or even New Year’s greetings, which had become a co­vert sub­sti­tute, allegedly because they wasted valu­able paper. Adolf Hitler’s minis­ter of infor­ma­tion and czar of public com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Joseph Goeb­bels, for­bade radio sta­tions to play Christ­mas hymns except for “O Tannen­baum,” whose words made no refer­ence to the Christ­ian holi­day. Trees were scare and candles rationed, so even the 200‑year-old Ger­man tradi­tion of placing gifts around a lighted tree on Christmas Eve took a drubbing.

There wasn’t much worth cele­brating, it seemed, any­way. To the east, in a white Russian nether­world where tem­per­a­tures stood at 36 degrees below zero, fuel froze, ma­chine guns ceased firing, Ger­man soldiers lacking cold-weather gear died from severe frost­bite, and only a few replace­ments for worn-out men and mate­riel were avail­able. (The same cold weather, typical for the sea­son, hit Soviet troops and equip­ment, but they were better pre­pared.) The Nazis’ June 1941 in­va­sion of the Soviet Union, Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, and their planned Octo­ber coup de grâce, Opera­tion Typhoon, which aimed to knock the Soviet Union out of the war by cap­turing its capi­tal and largest city, Mos­cow, had ended in a single recon­nais­sance bat­tal­ion seizing a bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal and glimpsing through a tele­scope the fabled spires of the Krem­lin 14 miles in the dis­tance—this on Decem­ber 2, 1941—but that’s as close as any­one in Hitler’s army ever got to the end goal. Facing a slew of battle­field rever­sals and limited un­sanc­tioned with­drawals by his gen­er­als in the first three weeks of Decem­ber, Hitler assumed com­plete con­trol of the battered Wehr­macht (German armed forces) six days before Christmas in an effort to forbid further shameful episodes.

Germany’s Eastern Front, Late 1941

Camouflaged Soviet soldiers, December 1941Soviet soldiers attack German positions, December 1941

Left: Camouflaged Soviet soldiers on the forest’s edge in the Moscow region, December 1941.

Right: Soviet soldiers during a counterattack on German positions during the Battle of Moscow, December 1941.

Commander and staff examine captured German vehicles, December 10, 1941Remains of defeated Nazi unit, December 20, 1941

Left: The commander of the Soviet 16th Army, Lt. Gen. Konstan­tin Rokos­sov­sky (second on left), and his staff examine captured German vehicles, December 10, 1941.

Right: Remains of a defeated Nazi unit after its surrender, December 20, 1941.

Fighting near Moscow, September 21, 1941German evacuation of wounded, winter 1941

Left: Fighting in the vicinity of Moscow, September 21, 1941.

Right: Germans evacuate their wounded in the winter of 1941 against the backdrop of a burning Russian village near Moscow.

Fresh Soviet troops march to front, December 1941German retreat from Moscow, 1941

Left: Fresh Soviet troops march through Moscow on their way to the front, December 1, 1941.

Right: German soldiers during the retreat from Mos­cow, 1941. The num­ber of casu­al­ties on the Soviet and Ger­man sides is open to debate, partly because the dates for the Battle of Mos­cow (as it is known in Russia) or Opera­tion Typhoon (Ger­man offen­sive against Mos­cow) are var­i­ously given and partly owing to the elas­tic scope of battle. Per­haps the best approach is to say that esti­mated casual­ties be­tween Septem­ber 30, 1941, and Janu­ary 7, 1942, range from 174,000 to 400,000 for Germany’s Army Group Cen­ter and from 650,000 to 1,280,000 for the Soviet Red Army. Regard­less of the huge spread between the low and high num­bers, the Battle of Moscow must be con­sidered among the most lethal campaigns in World War II.

Hitler’s Strategic Gamble: Operation Barbarossa, 1941