Roberts, Geoffrey.Â Stalin’s Wars, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006.
We are in a second “Cold War.” The global financial crisis has meant that capitalism is on shaky ground. The important thing for the Powers That Be is that there is no alternative.
Thus, those same Powers are busy at work trying to bury socialism once and for all. Scape-goatism and fascism are re-emergent in Europe and the US, and many states are seeking to outlaw any political party that references “communism” or “revolution” as part of its platform.
State intervention, public service and welfare are portrayed as old hat, and history is being rewritten to suit reactionary needs.
One very significant event being re-interpreted is the Second World War. At the end of this war the Soviet Union and its leader, Josef Stalin, were held in high esteem throughout the world. Most (rightly) saw Stalin and the Russian people as the single main force that had stopped Nazism and built the allied victory.
Many saw communism as a viable and workable society since it had withstood a terrible invasion, yet had the durability and strength, as a political and economic system, to overcome the German war machine in the long run.
The aim of the revisionist history, therefore, is to conflate Hitler and Stalin as roughly the same (after all, they were both “dictators”), revivify Hitler’s purpose in smashing the Soviet Union and the “communist menace”, and portray Stalin as a blundering and heartless leader who had needlessly sacrificed his people on the altar of Marxist ideology. Stalin is made responsible for the loss of some 20-30 million Russian lives in WW2.
Now, however, a goldmine of source material has been made available: the minutes of Politburo meetings, Stalin’s conversations with his many visitors in the Kremlin, wartime orders and military archives, as well as police files.
Geoffrey Roberts, an English don and no friend of communism, has written a revealing book (Stalin’s Wars) which gives the lie to the prejudices, assertions and downright falsehoods being spread in many present-day documentaries and media-grabs on the subject of Stalin and the German invasion of the Soviet Union .
Problems began for the Soviet Union (naturally) as soon as the 1917 revolution occurred, intensifying after the end of WW1. Apart from White counter-revolutionaries of the old ruling classes, at least 14 foreign powers (Britain, France, USA, Japan, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Turkey, Austria, etc.) sent 300,000 troops plus supplies, intelligence and money to, as Churchill hoped, “…strangle the Bolshevik baby in its crib.” The term “at least” is used here because imperialist powers such as Britain sent colonial troops as well. Australian diggers were offered double their normal WW1 pay (one pound a day) to go and fight their former Russian allies in their home territory. Two Australians won VCs [Victoria Crosses] in this endeavour.
By 1923 the Whites and foreigners had been driven from Russian soil. But the impact of the Civil War was dreadful: 15 million people had perished from war and famine, most of them civilians. Two million had been combatants, of whom 50,000 were loyal members of the Communist Party, and practically half the available livestock and grain foods had been destroyed as well. Despite their defeat in war, the capitalist powers maintained a trade embargo on the newly formed workers’ state, and kept up a hostile diplomacy against it.
When Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 he immediately outlawed trade unions and the Communist Party. Communists globally saw the threat that fascism posed. The Soviet Union became the bulwark of anti-fascism and openly supported republican forces in the Spanish Civil War to supply them with arms and munitions, while France and Britain took a “neutral” pose.
Throughout the mid-’30s Stalin and the Soviet leadership called for collective security against fascism generally and Germany in particular, but this repeatedly fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, fascist or pro-fascist states had sprung up in Japan, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Romania and Poland, and Hitler had already gobbled up Austria. Russian diplomacy now desperately sought a collective alliance of anti-fascist powers before Czechoslovakia suffered the same fate.
The importance of the Munich Agreement cannot be underestimated when assessing Soviet foreign policy decisions in 1939. The strategic importance of Czechoslovakia in central Europe was obvious: it bordered Germany , Poland , Hungary , Romania , and was a stone’s throw from the Soviet Union itself Â if the strongly fortified Czech state fell to Germany, Poland and/or the Soviet Union would be next.
So when the Czech crisis occurred, at least two significant players were excluded from the negotiations to resolve it at Munich: the Czech government itself, and the Soviet Union . British and French diplomats had read Mein Kampf. They understood that Hitler’s overriding target was the destruction of revolutionary socialism and the conquest of Eastern Europe, so, by “selling out Czechoslovakia in the interests of peace” (“appeasement”), they had, in fact, pointed Hitler and his fascist war machine eastward, towards the Soviet Union.
Betrayal, therefore, hadn’t occurred when Stalin signed the Non Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939, but at Munich in September of 1938. From that point Stalin was convinced there would be war with Germany , and he desperately sought a specific military alliance with Britain, France and Poland to contain Hitler. The sticking point always appeared to be Poland, which refused to give a guarantee allowing Soviet troops to cross Polish territory to fight Germany (in fact, Poland gleefully took part in the final German dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, thereby sealing its own fate).
In an age when diplomacy was increasingly being conducted by telephone and air-shuttle, the British and French continued to drag their feet. The atmosphere of negotiations convinced the Soviets that the West did not really want to fight, and that they were lining up Russian forces to bear the brunt of Nazi power. The decision, the incredibly difficult decision, to buy time and forestall invasion was made, and Ribbentrop was invited to Moscow.
In 1939, the Soviet Union was the only Workers’ State that had ever existed. Up till this time in world history, every attempted rebellion by toilers, from Spartacus’ slave revolt in Roman times to the Paris Commune and the Taiping Rebellion, had resulted in violent defeat and the widespread execution of its participants. Russia had, at great cost, won its workers’ revolution and then struggled to the point of exhaustion to build an industrial base, to modernise.
Stalin himself had spent his lifetime as a revolutionary: living in itinerant poverty raising funds, through whatever means necessary, for the Bolshevik party; organising strikes and sabotage; writing, printing and distributing propaganda; dodging police and Okhrana spies; serving time in prison and Siberian exile; surviving as a perpetual nomad and then, ultimately, rising to prominence in the revolutionary government, the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.
Stalin now found himself largely responsible for the success of international Marxism as well as the survival of the Soviet Union itself. It is hardly surprising that the option of saving the revolutionary homeland took precedence over international credibility. The Bolshevik revolution had to be saved at all costs.
After years of building the Comintern and anti-fascist United Fronts, violent struggle in Spain , purges and bitter propaganda wars throughout the 1930s, a Non Aggression Pact was signed with the fascist Beast. It was an agonising choice but one which, from a Soviet perspective, had to be made. It was “Stalin the pragmatist” in action. It cannot necessarily be a justification for the partition of Poland and the onset of war with Britain and France, but it can explain it Â the reactionaries in the West had simply been outmanoeuvred.
Was Stalin aware of impending attack?
So now, almost two years later, in June 1941, the stage was set for Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s secret plan for the invasion and conquest of the Soviet Union. Did Stalin ignore warnings of the impending attack?
Stalin and the Politburo had always expected war with Germany, the question was when? Many Russian analysts saw Hess’s (Hitler’s deputy) flight to Britain as an attempt to set up an Anglo-German alliance against communist Russia Â thus intelligence and warnings coming from Britain were regarded sceptically. Stalin also believed that Hitler would be crazy to start a war on two fronts after Germany’s experience in the First World War. He was furthermore anxious not to give the Germans any pretext whatsoever to break their Pact and attack any earlier than could be avoided. Thus all Soviet pronouncements remained moderate and sought not to create alarm.
Yet Stalin did not waste the available time gleaned from the Non-Aggression Pact. After Golikov (chief of Soviet military intelligence) reported on the increased concentration of German divisions (from 70 to 107) as well as Romanian and Hungarian forces, near the border, Stalin acted. In May 1941, 800,000 extra reservists were called up, and 28 further divisions were sent to the western border areas.
By June the Red Army had 300 divisions comprising some 5.5 million personnel, of whom 2.7 million were stationed in the western border districts. On the night of June 21-22, just prior to the blitzkrieg, this vast Soviet force was put on alert and warned to expect a surprise attack by the Germans. How so many western historians and commentators could regard all this reality as “unaware” and “unprepared” beggars belief!
Did Stalin react appropriately to the invasion?
Some of these self-same “Russia experts” claim that Stalin fell apart after the early German successes of Operation Barbarossa and left the defence of his socialist homeland leaderless, at least for several weeks. This view is usually based on the testimony of people with an axe to grind, and ignores the facts.
If, indeed, the Soviets’ defence was so poor, how much poorer was that of the French and British a year earlier? They too, had time to prepare (the six months of the Phoney War), and had more than five million men under arms, yet within weeks of Hitler’s first assault the French-British armies had been split in two and surrounded. A month later British troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk and the French had surrendered. The war in the west was over.
Stalin and his Chiefs of Staff were determined that the Soviet armies should not be trapped in a static defence like the French on the Maginot Line. Many defensive preparations were made, and many divisions were left in reserve, but this could not deny early German success. Heavily armoured and mechanised Panzer divisions burst through points of weakness and then turned to surround whole armies. As the infantry completed mopping up operations behind, the tanks proceeded forward to continue the surprise and foment further panic Â the German advance was rapid and spectacular.
Contrary to the picture of shock, catatonic inaction and depression presented by critics, according to Zhukov, one of the leading Soviet Generals, Stalin comported himself “…as [he] was supposed to, firmly”. On the day of the invasion, he authorised 20 different decrees and orders to counteract the German advance. The next day he established Stavka (headquarters) to oversee the general strategic direction of the war. On June 24 a Council of Evacuation and a Soviet Information Bureau were set up Â the whole country was being mobilised as it had never been before.
On June 29 Stalin issued an urgent directive to all party and state organisations in frontline areas to “…fight to the last drop of blood in defence of every inch of Soviet soil”. Stalin was consistently at work in the Kremlin: rising at 5am and working intensively but deliberately to all hours of the night. This was the pattern throughout the whole war.
Was the doctrine of counter-attack wasteful and futile?
In contrast to Hitler, Stalin consistently listened to his Generals. Unlike the German, who was convinced of his own military genius, Stalin had already experienced command (in the revolutionary Civil War) and had made mistakes. His style was always consultative, he was prepared to delegate, but he never shied from the ultimate responsibility of his position: to make critical decisions. He was ruthless with slackers, defeatists, and Generals who did not follow the directions of Stavka.
“Attack and Counter Attack” was the deeply embedded culture of Soviet military doctrine, derived from the Revolutionary Civil War. It suited the dashing, confrontationist tradition of Bolshevism with its constantly active, mobile warfare and guerrilla fighting behind the lines.
This overall strategy had the blessing of Stalin, but the Germans were well drilled and adept at handling it: when the “shock waves” of counter-attack hit, the Germans withdrew their front and rapidly reassembled to outflank and surround the Russians, repeatedly catching them in a net. This had been the pattern of the Nazi advance throughout western Russia as they rolled toward their target cities of Leningrad (” St Petersburg “), Moscow and Kiev .
At all stages, however, the fascist war machine encountered a fanatical resistance which slowed their progress. At Smolensk (on the road to Moscow ), they met their first major reverse.
After Smolensk was overrun Stavka appointed Zhukov, noted for his astute preparation and iron discipline, to command the counterattack. The city was retaken and a considerable chunk of conquered territory temporarily regained. The morale value of this albeit brief victory at Smolensk was immense and it held up the Germans for a vital two months, but it was awesome in its costliness: the Red Army’s total losses approached half a million dead or missing, and another quarter of a million wounded.
Soviet losses by the end of 1941 were indeed dreadful. They had lost nearly 200 divisions in battle, millions of whose soldiers had been taken prisoner and forced to work as slave labour behind the lines. Most never saw their homeland again. The Soviet Union had suffered a stunning 4.3 million casualties but already the infamy of the Eastern Front had grown inside the Reich: in the first three weeks of Barbarossa the Germans had suffered 100,000 casualties and had lost 1,700 tanks and 950 planes. By July they were forced to deal with 7,000 casualties a day, and with no relief from perpetual fighting. This was indeed a different war to “Victory in the West”, where a relatively meagre 30,000 German dead was the total cost.
Did “Winter” save the Soviet Union ?
A common claim made in most clichÃ© histories of Operation Barbarossa was that the onset of winter saved Moscow from German conquest. There is a certain undercurrent of racism (which suited Nazi explanations!) in this assertion, which implies that Slavic Russians are somehow better suited to cold than civilized Germans. Certainly a cold, sludgy, snowy winter set in during late November and early December when the German armies were in sight of the capital, but it was not weather that defeated the mighty Aryan Military Machine.
Hitler and the Wehrmacht Generals had always planned the conquest of Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev (which had indeed, fallen) in 1941, and thus should have planned proper logistical support for winter conditions deep in occupied Russia.
After all, they still had a substantial airforce, the support of many allies and millions of people working as slave labour behind the lines Â nonetheless, they could not supply sufficient food, clothing and munitions to troops fighting a sustained battle outside of Moscow. Something was wrong with the “efficiency” of German support systems!
By contrast, the Soviets had well provisioned, appropriately clothed, well armed and fresh reserves waiting in Moscow for the order to counterattack Â this, after the massive defeats, the shocking losses of men and materiel, the huge denuding of territory, the daily disruption to transport and supplies, the rumoured invincibility of the Wehrmacht and its ruthless German efficiency.
Real reasons for Soviet victory
On November 30, 1941 Zhukov submitted his plan for a counter-offensive outside Moscow to Stalin and Stavka. It was approved and five days later the massive assault began. By mid-December the Germans had been forced 100- 200 miles from Moscow , never to return. The strategic initiative had finally shifted, and the long, tragic struggle to drive barbarism back to Berlin had begun.
Hitler had predicted, at the outset of Operation Barbarossa, that all he needed to do was “…kick the door in and the whole rotten thing will come tumbling down”. The implication was that the Soviet socialist state was unstable, lacked support, and was incapable of fighting a sustained war against a modern, technologically superior army. In fact, the reverse happened.
The USSR , in its response to the utterly treacherous and ornately planned Operation Barbarossa, proved itself to be resilient, determined, technologically advanced and utterly committed to its own defence. Similar defeats and losses in WW1 had fomented a defeatist army and a populace bent on revolution. This was Hitler’s hope and Stalin’s nightmare, but it didn’t happen.
This was a war of annihilation, a clash of two completely opposite ideologies. Hitler was clear that conquest of the East meant enslavement of all Slavic peoples and widespread resettlement of the Master Race in their rural Paradise of servitude. Stalin made it plain from the outset that “Hitlers come and go, but the German people go on”. Yes, it was a war of national salvation for Russians, spurred by outrage over a brutal invasion, but more importantly it was a struggle for the survival of their socialist achievement and international brotherhood.
Technologically, Barbarossa’s surprise may have given the Germans some tactical advantage but ultimately, thanks to Soviet socialism and Stalin’s foresight in developing and preserving key industries, Soviet tanks, planes, rockets and small arms not only matched the Germans, but outshone them…
Geoffrey Roberts concludes that Stalin was, in fact, “…the greatest military leader of the twentieth century…”. Revisionist historians will continue to diminish his role, and that of socialism and its many adherents, but it is our duty, particularly in this era of “spin”, phoney mythologising and “dumbed down” history, to ensure that the truth is never forgotten.