Friday, March 13, 2009

Stalin's surprise at Barbarossa and nervous breakdown

One of the mysteries about World War II that is discussed over and over is why Stalin was caught by surprise by the German Barbarossa invasion. Intelligence agencies from other countries were warning him that it was about to happen. One of his own intelligence agents warned him that it was about to happen; so why wasn’t he prepared? Davies in one place offers a somewhat typical interpretation: He believed Hitler. Hitler sent Stalin messages swearing on his honor that what other nations were saying about him was false. He promised Stalin that they were in this together, and he intended to keep his word. As to Stalin’s own intelligence agent, well, he chose to defect; so who can believe a traitor?

Edvard Radzinsky in his Stalin presents to us Vladimir Rezun. He writes on page 451, “Vladimir Rezun, an officer in the intelligence division of the KGB, chose to remain in the West in order to publish a discovery which had troubled him all his life. In the Military Academy, Rezun, had heard in lectures on strategy that if the enemy is planning a sudden assault he must first (a) concentrate his forces near the frontier and (b) locate his airfields as closely as possible to the front line.

“In lectures on military history Rezun heard that Stalin, because he had trusted Hitler, was completely unprepared for war. He had committed a number of very serious mistakes. In particular, he had (a) concentrated his best units near the frontier and (b) located his airfields right on the boundary in occupied Poland. Rezun began studying the question, and was astonished to find that trustful Stalin had stepped up arms production with feverish haste after the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and that on the eve of war he had deployed more and more divisions on his frontier with Hitler. He was following the strategic rules for a surprise attack. What, Rezun asked himself, was the obvious inference? Was it that Stalin was planning to attack Hitler?”

Davies is obviously referring to Rezun when he writes on page 95, “Many years later an ex-Soviet officer was to claim that Stalin had been on the point of attacking Germany, and that the Red Army was caught out at the very last minute by the amazing speed of the Wehrmacht’s final preparations. The thesis has been as vehemently denied as supported, but no conclusive evidence has been produced one way or the other about Stalin’s real intentions. One possibility is that Soviet military doctrine viewed attack as the best means of defense, and hence that the unorthodox deployment was inspired by faulty military calculations, not by plans of aggression. Certainly, last-minute requests by front-line officers to assume a more orthodox defensive stance were turned down. And Stalin’s first reaction on 22 June was to order them to advance.”

Gabriel Gorodetsky in his Grand Illusion, Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia, on page 232 takes the traditional view that Stalin believed Hitler and accounts for Rezun’s concern. Stalin wasn’t intending any sneak attack. General Zhukov wasn’t in agreement with Stalin. Zhukov didn’t believe Hitler: “. . . in the Kremlin Stalin continued to be obsessed with efforts to reconcile the Germans and was engulfed by deep suspicion of the British efforts to embroil Russia in war. Zhukov therefore set out to accomplish the impossible task of boosting the defensive plan of the previous month without aggravating the Kremlin.” So it was probably Zhukov and not Stalin that had “stepped up arms production with feverish haste after the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.” So this would be consistent with what we read about Zhukov’s views at the time. But It is not consistent with Stalin’s views.

And then, Radzinsky on page 454 of Stalin, writes “’No, Stalin was not planning an attack on Germany in 1941.’ That is the view of D. Volkogonov, author of a book on Stalin. A lieutenant general and eminent Russian historian, Volkogonov was the first person to be permitted to work in all the secret archives.” He finds quite a lot about the deployment of troops, but all for defensive purposes. He found nothing about Soviet invasion. Radzinsky, however, writes that he sees the matter differently from Volkogonov:

“I see the situation differently.

“The document cited by Volkogonov has been preserved in full and is to be found in the Historical Archive and Military-Memorial Center of the General Staff.

“The title of the document is ‘Reflections of a Plan for the Strategic Deployment of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union in the Event of war with Germany and Her Allies.’ It is addressed to Stalin.

“The authors devote fifteen pages of text to discussion plans for a surprise attack on Germany. ‘At present,’ they say, ‘Germany and its allies can field 240 divisions against the USSR.’ They therefore suggest ‘forestalling the enemy in deploying our forces and attacking. . . . Our armies would be set the strategic objective of smashing the main forces of the German army . . . and emerging by the thirtieth day of the operation along a front from Ostrolenko to Olomuc. . . . To ensure the realization of the plan. . . [it goes on].

Radzinsky writes on page 456 that on May 15, 1941, military units received a “directive from the Main Political Administration intended to stiffen morale: ‘Many political officers,’ they were told, ‘have forgotten Lenin’s well-known statement that ‘just as soon as we are strong enough to deal with capitalism as a whole, we shall take it by the scruff of its neck.’ The same directive explained that a false distinction is sometimes drawn between ‘just’ and ‘unjust wars’; ‘If a particular country is the first to attack, its war is considered an unjust one, whereas if a country is the victim of attack and merely defends itself, its war must be considered a just one. The conclusion drawn is that the Red army is supposed to wage only defensive war: this is to forget that any war waged by the Soviet Union will be a just one.’"

Radzinsky follows this by saying “It could not be put more clearly.”


So why did Stalin have a nervous breakdown after the Germans invaded? If we accept Radzinsky’s view, it may be that Stalin was appalled at himself for not launching the first strike. The May 15, 1941 directive for stiffening the troops was designed to make these troops comfortable with a first strike. So why didn’t he strike first? The Germans launched their strike more than a month later on June 22, 1941.

But if Davies is right and Stalin believed Hitler and what we see are some really dumb defensive preparations on the part of the Red Army, then Stalin would have been appalled at himself for believing Hitler.

I take it as a principle that we never do anything for just one reason, especially in foreign affairs. So what may have occurred is all of the above (to oversimplify). Zhukov was allowed to plan for a first strike and the directive could have come from his office. But these plans were contingent upon events, events as Stalin judged them. Stalin was afraid that the West (Britain) was attempting to get the USSR and Germany into a fight to relieve Britain of pressure. And surely, Hitler didn’t plan to invade Russia this late in the season. If he did, he would be getting lamb-skin coats for his troops. So much lamb-skin would be purchased that this would be reflected in the prices, but that wasn’t happening. Hitler wasn’t equipping his troops for a cold-weather war. Therefore, he wasn’t going to invade. He probably meant the assurances he sent Stalin.

We usually think that Hitler bungled things by not equipping his troops with cold-weather gear, but it may be that was part of his plan to gull Stalin. If Hitler could destroy enough of Stalin’s Red Army and move quickly enough, he wouldn’t have to worry about cold-weather gear. Davies, if memory serves me, someplace else says that Hitler came within a hair of pulling it off.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

Was Vladimir Rezun the alius Viktor Survorov who wrote "Icebreaker". Suvorov wrote that the Red Army was set up offensively but not defensively because Stalin did not believe Hitler would attack Russia