June 22nd is an important date. It is my birthday. It is also the day when the Nazi’s commenced their invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. Barbarossa was the largest military invasion in history. The Eastern Front, which can be best described as hell on earth, stretched over a thousand miles. In general the German’s had three objectives: conquer Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. A northern campaign held Leningrad under siege for 900 days. The Nazi’s came within 40 miles of Moscow but were unable to take it. They actually managed to enter Stalingrad but lost the brutal urban battle that followed and, as a consequence, the war. In retrospect the Nazi invasion seemed doomed to fail, but it was very nearly successful. It wasn’t until 1943 that the Soviets were able to turn the tide. Anyone watching the opening battles of the Eastern Front would have bet on the Nazis. Hitler was almost correct in his famous prediction of how the invasion would go: “You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” Hitler was partly correct. A significant portion of the “rotten structure” did collapse. Hitler failed to predict that the structure would collapse on top of him.
Why was this opening move so devastating? Thus far I have talked little of Stalin, which is remarkable given his impact on Soviet history. Kenez (2006) wrote that Stalin was the centerpiece of Soviet history: he was the product of the revolution, he presided over the USSR’s key years, and all subsequent leaders constantly wrestled with the legacy of Stalin and his methods. Stalin was often attributed with the success of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Many Soviet citizens loved him and Ally propaganda always spoke favourably of him. It was not until 1956 that people began to question his role in the war.
The power accumulated in the hands of one person, Stalin, led to serious consequences during the Great Patriotic War.
When we look at many of our novels, films and historical-scientific studies, the role of Stalin in the Patriotic War appears to be entirely improbable. Stalin had foreseen everything. The Soviet Army, on the basis of a strategic plan prepared by Stalin long before, used the tactics of so-called “active defense,” i.e., tactics which, as we know, allowed the Germans to come up to Moscow and Stalingrad. Using such tactics, the Soviet Army, supposedly thanks only to Stalin’s genius, turned to the offensive and subdued the enemy. The epic victory gained through the armed might of the land of the Soviets, through our heroic people, is ascribed in this type of novel, film and “scientific study” as being completely due to the strategic genius of Stalin.
We have to analyze this matter carefully because it has a tremendous significance not only from the historical, but especially from the political, educational and practical points of view. What are the facts of this matter? (Khrushchev 1956, Secret Speech taken from Marxists.org).
Khrushchev goes on to list all the failures of Stalin during the war. The Vozhd remained willfully ignorant of fore-warnings of the war. He hindered the Soviet war effort by purging military leaders years before. He did not adequately ensure that troops were provided for. During the battle of Kharkiv Stalin’s ignorance led to the unnecessary deaths of many Soviet soldiers. Khrushchev is fair to make these critiques of Stalin since he was actually the Party presence on the battlefield. Khrushchev, who was closely tied to Ukraine, was usually on the front lines. He was also present at Stalingrad. He had indirectly prepared for the coming War: in the 1930s when the Moscow Metro was being built it was his idea to make the subway’s deeper so that they could double as bomb shelters. Khrushchev frequently challenged Stalin’s orders, and it was Khrushchev who had called the Kremlin to try to save the aforementioned soldiers at Kharkiv. Stalin couldn’t be bothered to answer the phone. Stalin was never at the front (although he did stay at Moscow when the Nazi’s approached). Stalin apparently also planned out military operations on a globe. While some of this is likely embellished by Khrushchev in the Secret Speech and in his memoirs as a ploy to win legitimacy, historians generally agree that Stalin was completely unprepared for World War II and mishandled it.
Most egregiously, Stalin took a vacation. When he learned of the invasion Stalin retreated to his dacha and drank heavily for several days. Nobody heard from him. Imagine building an autocratic dictatorship only to abandon ship when it needed you most.
So lets take a time machine back to 1941. Actually we’ll have to visit some points before this as well. Lets figure out exactly what resulted in Stalin’s handling of 22 June 1941. Why did he go have a drunken cry fest? Was Stalin an effective war leader? This is one of the prickliest subjects of Soviet history. Most mainstream scholars will likely say “NO.” Stalinists, students, some scholars, and history buffs will be inclined to say “SURE.” Plenty of people like to apologize for Stalin. The Soviet Union emerged as a superpower under his rule, so he must have done well. He was serving history! He was a brutal dictator, he could not have been as stupid as the evidence suggests. I myself am not sure of what went on. Scarily enough there is an argument to be made that Stalin actually handled WWII intelligently for his own purposes. Did Stalin use the war as a means of building his own power? A lot of layman may see it this way but scholars are less inclined to make such judgments. Stalin may have been a mad dictator but he was not stupid and he was absolutely committed to Marxism-Leninism and believed he was serving that (this too is a very controversial point). I am going to present what I see as the major events leading up to the war and indications of Stalin’s worldview. Only then can we properly assess the events of 22 June 1941. I will divide arguments into two categories: skeptic and apologist. Please note that these don’t necessarily correspond to academic or Communist views, I am just trying to present views. At times we may find that both sides are inadequate. This is an exercise in straw-men of course, but hopefully we will learn something.
1) Marxist-Leninist Worldview
First we are going to actually look at a specific event of 22 June 1941. After learning of the invasion Khrushchev alleges that Stalin withdrew into apathy, isolation, and alcoholism for several weeks. Apparently he had declared to the Politburo: “Lenin left us a great legacy and we’ve lost it forever.” Historical assessments lend credence to Khrushchev although it should be noted that Stalin’s actual quote used the Russian equivalent of the F-word. The reason I have this first in the list, and apparently in violation of chronology, is because it is a matter of worldview. Many people use Stalin’s withdraw to say that he was totally unprepared for the war and that he didn’t expect it.
In reality Stalin was expecting war at some point. It was part of his Marxist-Leninist heritage which stipulated that Imperialist (read: Capitalist) countries would inevitably start wars as they struggled for markets. Stalin’s perception of conflict as inevitable drove him to adopt a policy of Socialism in One Country which saw the Soviet Union turn inwards and focus intensely on development. This gave birth to the Five Year Plans. Stalin’s concerns of war are visible in many speeches he gave.
The majority of the questions boil down to one: shall we have war this year, in the spring or autumn of this year?
My reply is that we shall not have war this year, neither in the spring nor in the autumn.
The reason we shall not have war this year is not that there is no danger at all of imperialist wars. No, the danger of war exists. There will be no war this year because our enemies are not ready to go to war, because they more than anyone else fear the outcome of a war, because the workers of the West do not want to fight the U.S.S.R., and to fight without the workers is impossible, and, lastly, because we are conducting a firm and unwavering policy of peace, and this fact makes it difficult to make war on our country (Stalin, 1927 Speech to railway workers)
Wait was Stalin a pacifist? This seems awfully un-paranoid of him. Well wait. A later speech that same year clarifies his position. During the 20s Capitalism was stabilising. This stabilisation was fleeting however, and the Vozhd predicted that Capitalism would eventually contort into crisis that would lead to wars (Stalin 1927, 15th Congress Party Speech). Stalin used this fear to justify his Five Year Plan and crash course industrialization. He used The Great Depression would fulfill Stalin’s prophesy of crisis, although whatever pride Stalin may have had in predicting its onset would be buried under the fear of conflict. Luckily Stalin was quite assured that the Soviet Union had at least bought itself some time. In a 1933 speech extolling the success of the First Five Year Plan Stalin said that the Soviet Union had adequately laid a strong foundation for defense against the capitalist powers which, by that time, were in crisis. The Soviet Union made it through the Depression relatively unscathed: their policy of inward development gave them some of the best growth in the world. How does this relate to 22 June?
Skeptic: Stalin was unprepared for War. His stressing of war merely created a crisis atmosphere that he could use to inspire industrialization and create a climate of fear that he could take advantage of. It was a smokescreen, not an actually policy. Stalin was not actually worried about war.
Apologist: Stalin predicted WWII and was preparing for it. His Marxist-Leninist training imbued him with a need to prepare for inevitable conflict and the events of the 1930s show it. (Incidentally I hear mention of a source written in 1931 where Stalin predicts war 10 years later. I have yet to find this source but it may be out there.
Verdict 1: We may reject the skeptic view with qualifications. Stalin was most likely prepared for war but he did use the fear of war to drive industrialization and promote his own power base. It seems like we can accept the apologist view although perhaps we should be wary of portraying Stalin as an omniscient god.
2) Diplomatic Maneuverings
This covers a long period of time from the 1930s to the very eve of the war so I hope you excuse me for using less sources. The Soviets actually built a lot of ties with Capitalist countries and attracted plenty of private investment. Stalin saw no lapse in logic between predicting war with the Capitalist countries and trying to use their resources to prepare the USSR for the war. The Soviet Union finally got recognition from the US in 1933. FDR may have foreseen conflict with Germany, although the more likely story (given by the Office of the Historian) suggests that recognition was granted with the aim of containing Japan (which was forming the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere at the time).
The Soviets were wary of German expansion and vibrancy. Ironically they themselves had helped Germany to re-arm itself in violation of international law, but the USSR likely did not predict that Germany would emerge as powerful as it had.The Soviets were still industrializing and were still behind, so they sought to avoid war at all costs. This drove them to join the League of Nations in 1934 in hopes of containing Germany by reinforcing the doctrine of collective security. As we all know the League of Nations was unable to constrain Hitler and prevent him from grabbing various territories, so the Soviet Union naturally came to reject the feasibility of the League as a strategy. The Soviets would try to join with Britain and France in curbing German ambitions (why not play the Imperialists off one another?) but with Munich, Britain and France resigned themselves to inaction. Where were the Soviet’s to go from here? Britain and France would not join them in the coming fight against Germany?
Why not ally with Germany against Britain and France then? By 1939 the USSR realized that its “alliances” in the West were hollow and so it decided to ally with the only game in town. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact brought together Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The pact promised non-aggression but also had…other stipulations. These secret aspects of the treaty split Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviets. The German invasion of Poland to claim what the treaty offered them was the event which led to the onset of World War II in Europe as France and Britain declared war on Germany. The Soviets meanwhile were able to coalesce their holdings in Eastern Europe, taking over the Baltic States, half of Poland, and parts of Southeast Europe.
Skeptic: Stalin ultimately sought to avoid any kind of war with Germany, however they falsely believed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact assured security for them. Stalin was also focused on conquest of Eastern Europe and took advantage of the deteriorating political situation to fulfill these goals.
Apologist: Stalin ultimately sought to avoid any kind of war with Germany but still recognized that War was inevitable. After exhausting options he realized that the only promise of success was to split Eastern Europe with Germany. This would buy more space and time in the event of invasion that would prove critical.
Verdict 2: I am inclined to adopt the apologist view here. Stalin’s behavior was always formulated with war with Germany in mind. Stalin wanted to not only avert war but, when it came, to ensure that the Soviet Union was in the best possible position. This view is great and rational, but we shall find that it ultimately contradicts other verdicts I reach. Specifically, Stalin squandered the space and time that the Pact afforded him.
3) The Great Purge
In the 1930s (and 1920s) Stalin purged many party members/kulaks/government officials/etc. Most were killed or exiled to Siberia. The purge reached its apex in the late 1930s, which saw an almost total turnover of party and military leadership. I have not read Robert Conquest and will refrain from saying much, but let it suffice that many military leaders (and military engineers) with experience were killed. The Soviet Union was stripped of many of its greatest minds.
Skeptic: Stalin succumbed to his paranoia and insanity. He killed his military leaders out of a fear of their prestige and influence.
Apologist: Stalin recognized the need for strong centralized rule and realized that only his autocratic leadership could ensure success. By killing military leaders he was ensuring the construction of a completely unitary military structure that he could lead. The Purge also brought new blood into the military that was needed to accommodate modern tactics.
Verdict 3: Stalin was paranoid, but I do not think that he was power mad. The purges were a valid strategy for Stalin. I do not want to sound like an apologist: the purge did not have to happen and I think the purges damned innocent people and ultimately destroyed whatever hope the USSR had. I will therefore clarify: the purges made sense TO STALIN. Presiding over such a large political system, Stalin believed that terror held the most promise over granting him control and he was absolutely right. To what extent did Stalin run the purge? The “beauty” (if it can be called that) of the purges were that they decentralized terror. To a great extent the Great Purge was just Stalin letting the entire system get carried away. That being said, Stalin bears primary responsibility for the Purges and is a horrible person. The Purges challenge the notion that Stalin was ultimately concerned with survival: why would he kill so many military leaders when the prospect of war was ever-growing? Maybe Stalin was crazy. Maybe Stalin was worried about a fifth-column. Conclusions are made even more difficult by the fact that certain individuals (both in the Party and in the military) survived the Purge. Regardless the Purge throws a great wrench into an conceptions of Stalin as a genius who was always preparing for the war…
4) The Winter War and Peace with Japan
In 1939, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was made, the Soviet Union went to war with one of its neighbors, Finland, over land. They were kicked out of the League of Nations for this (not that it mattered). Did the Soviet Union want to conquer Finland or just gain some land? Finland was very close to Leningrad, and a Finland sympathetic to Germany (which was the case) could spell disaster in the event of war. The war proved to be a disaster and the Soviets were hopelessly defeated by the Finns. The Soviet’s threatened continued warfare and the Finns relented and gave up, but the war is still considered a general defeat for the Soviets. At the very least the Soviets gained a buffer zone, although when war broke out Leningrad was surrounded. Maybe this buffer zone was the one thing keeping Leningrad from being overrun?
In 1941, only two months before the fateful Operation Barbarossa began, the Soviets made peace with Japan. They had several skirmishes near Manchuria and it looked like they might fight but the Soviets managed to arrange a peace treaty with Japan. This saved the USSR from having to worry about East Asian security (and enabled them to transfer battle hardened troops led by an experienced Zhukov to the European front). Japan liked this treaty likely because they were beginning to eye up America and, likewise, wanted to avert a two-front war. The USSR would abrogate this treaty in August 1945 with Operation August Storm. In the process they were able to play a critical role in the future of East Asia, so this treaty was overwhelmingly positive to the Soviets.
Verdict 4: I am not going to present “skeptic/apologist” arguments here. I think it is pretty obvious what Stalin was going for. If anything the skeptic might suggest that the Winter War was an unnecessary risk undertaken for conquest that only exposed Soviet weakness and made war with Germany more likely. The Winter War and Japanese Peace treaty represent perhaps the most important of Stalin’s preparations for the war.
5) 22 June 1941
Let us return to the date in question. 22 June 1941. Remember that Stalin completely withdrew when he heard of the Nazi invasion. He did not believe it was happening and his orders were ambiguous at best. The Soviets could have fought back and launched counterattacks, but Stalin gave no orders to this effect. The opening weeks of Operation Barbarossa saw enormous destruction of life and property, and rapid gains by the Germans deep into Soviet territory. So why did Stalin withdraw from public life?
Skeptic: Stalin was absolutely unprepared for the war. He was confident that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would last or, at least, had hoped that it would have last longer. He likely believed that the Soviet Union would be defeated and that the cause was hopeless.
Apologist: Stalin retreated from public life on purpose to increase his power over the system and reveal the dependency of the Soviet Union on his judgment. Much like how Lenin would threaten to resign to make people bend to his will, Stalin retreated so that people would ask for him back.
Final Verdict: WHO KNOWS?
Stalin was a complicated man, but I think we should start by remembering that he was a man (Kenez talks a lot about this). There is a temptation to think of him as a demon or a god, or some combination thereof. I think any historiography of Stalin needs to start with reminding the reader that he is a man. He killed 40-60 million people yes, but he is still a man. Maybe he withdrew because he was depressed. It seems a perfectly normal thing to do when Hitler decides to invade your country. After some time Stalin jumped into the war effort and lead the Soviet Union to victory (although not by himself) although his record, as we have mentioned, is a mixed bag. On the one hand he demanded that factories be moved East of the Urals, a move which protected Soviet industry from Nazi attack. On the other hand he often made obvious blunders with massive loss of life, such as by refusing to move regiments in Kharkiv.
My conclusion is anti-climactic isn’t it? That is fine. I still haven’t decided yet. I likely never will. I am not sure if anyone will ever be able to ascertain why Stalin withdrew from his office and, like the proverbial ostrich, stuck his head in the ground after the Nazi invasion. Stalin expected war, and took all kinds of steps to prepare for war and then, in his moment of truth, he completely failed as a leader and temporarily gave up. It is one of the great paradoxes that makes Russian history so frustrating for academics and yet so perfect for armchair history. How do we reconcile the various verdicts I have reached? How do we make sense of all this information and the progression of history? In the wake of uncertainty and difficulty we are left alone and in the dark, wrestling with concepts over an alcoholic beverage or two. Maybe in this musing lies the answer. When confronted with such a strange and paradoxical history that defies sense and reason we just have to think it to death. Maybe that is precisely what Stalin did during his sudden war onset vacation. In history and in life it is not enough to expect the unexpected, we also have to accept it.
Oh and as if this wasn’t all complicated enough some argue that Stalin never retreated into his shell like Khrushchev suggests…I tend to be biased towards Khrushchev and the Stalin-apathy story is what is commonly taught and assumed to be true, so lets just go with it. Russian historiography is unique in that you have to make some tenuous assumptions to get anywhere…