Key point: Berlin struck first and hard. It caused more damage than Stalin ever dreamed, and yet they blundered enough that they could not win.
“War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” —Winston Churchill (1950)
On Sunday, June 22, 1941, as the sun slumbered, 3.6 million soldiers, 2,000 warplane pilots, and 3,350 tank commanders under skilled German command crouched at the border of Soviet-occupied Poland ready to invade the Communist nation Joseph Stalin had ruled with steel-fisted brutality for years.
Shortly after 3 am, in an operation Adolf Hitler called “Barbarossa,” a three-million-man Axis force struck Soviet positions along a 900-mile-long front. German aircraft bombed military bases, supply depots and cities, including Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Brest in Belarus, and others up and down the frontier. The night before, German commandos had snuck into Soviet territory and destroyed Red Army communications networks in the West, making it difficult for those under attack to obtain direction from Moscow.
By the end of the first day of combat, some 1,200 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed, two-thirds while parked on the ground. The poorly led Soviet troops who were not killed or captured buckled under the German onslaught.
Stalin was staggered by the German ambush. Germany’s unannounced act of war violated the nonaggression pact that Hitler and Stalin had signed less than two years earlier and placed at risk the very survival of the Soviet Union.
At first, Stalin insisted that it was just a provocation triggered by some rogue German generals and refused to order a counterattack until he heard officially from Berlin. The German declaration of war finally arrived four hours later.
Hitler justified Barbarossa on the basis that the Soviet Union was “about to attack Germany from the rear.” Eventually, after much dithering, Stalin ordered the Red Army to “use all their strength and means to come down on the enemy’s forces and destroy them where they have violated the Soviet border,” but oddly directed that until further orders “ground troops were not to cross the border.”
The Soviet dictator lacked the heart to inform the Russian people that the Germans had invaded. That bitter task fell to Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, who reported the assault in a radio broadcast more than eight hours after the conflict began. Sadly, Axis bombs and bullets had already alerted millions to the disaster.
Despite the urging of his military officers, Stalin, fearing he would be blamed for the losses, declined to take on the title of commander in chief of the Red Army. He did not even meet with the Politburo until 2 pm on that traumatic day.
Lacking sufficient skilled military leadership, the shocked Red Army reacted slowly and fearfully. As the Germans stormed east and mauled the Soviet troops, Stalin’s generals asked for permission to retreat to reduce casualties, move to defensive positions, and prepare for a counterattack. Stalin refused. His poorly equipped, trained, and led soldiers were ordered to stand their ground regardless of the consequences.
In the first 10 days of combat, the Germans thrust some 300 miles into Soviet territory and captured Minsk and more than 400,000 Red Army troops. At least 40,000 Russian soldiers died each day. Axis forces gained almost total air control and destroyed 90 percent of Stalin’s mechanized forces. Twenty million people who had been living under Soviet control were suddenly living in Axis territory. Many of those in areas previously invaded by Stalin (e.g., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland) initially welcomed the Germans as liberators.
Stalin seemed close to a nervous breakdown. The losses were so humiliating that, despite being the head of government, he retreated to his summer home and, during several gloomy June days of heavy drinking, refused to answer his phone or play any role in his nation’s affairs, leaving the ship of state to flounder helplessly. On June 28, he muttered, “Lenin left us a great legacy, but we, his heirs, have ****ed it up.”
Senior Soviet leaders mustered the courage to visit Stalin’s dacha on June 30. Upon arrival, they found him despondent and disheveled. He nervously asked, “Why have you come?” Stalin apparently thought that his underlings were there to arrest him. But they, long cowed by the dictator’s brutal intimidation, simply beseeched him to return to work at the Kremlin. He eventually did so.
Certainly, Operation Barbarossa was spawned by Hitler’s hatred of communism and dream of world domination. But Stalin’s many missteps in the previous two years enticed Hitler to attack and contributed significantly to Barbarossa’s early successes. Stalin’s blunders included purging the Soviet military of its leaders, entering into a treaty with Hitler that triggered a world war that subsequently ravaged Russia, launching a bumbling attack on Finland in late 1939, misreading Hitler, adopting a flawed plan of attack on Germany, and ignoring warnings of Hitler’s forthcoming Axis invasion of the Soviet Union.
In furtherance of Lenin’s goal of provoking a worldwide communist revolution, Stalin sought to undermine capitalist governments across Europe. He sought to destroy anyone abroad or at home who might stand in the way of his brand of communism. According to Stalin, “As long as the capitalist encirclement exists there will continue to be present among us wreckers, spies, saboteurs and murderers.”
In a 1937 speech, the “man of steel” (which is what “Stalin” means in Russian) made his brutal stance clear: “Anyone who tries to destroy the unity of the socialist state, who aims to separate any of its parts or nationalities from it, is an enemy, a sworn enemy of the state and of the peoples of the USSR. And we will exterminate each and every one of these enemies, whether they are old Bolsheviks or not. We will exterminate their kin and entire family. We will mercilessly exterminate anyone, who with deeds or thoughts threatens the unity of the socialist state.”
This thinking gave rise to the Great Terror in which Stalin had millions of Soviet citizens arrested for “counterrevolutionary crimes” or “anti-Soviet agitation.” In 1937 and 1938, at least 1.3 million people were convicted of being “anti-Soviet elements.” More than half were executed—on average 1,500 people shot dead each day.
Stalin used the Great Terror to eliminate potential threats within the Soviet military. He removed some 34,000 Red Army officers from service. Of those, 22,705 were shot or went “missing.” Out of 101 members of the Red Army’s supreme leadership, Stalin had 91 arrested and 80 shot. Eight of nine senior admirals in the Soviet navy were put to death. By 1939, he had essentially decapitated the military forces responsible for protecting the Soviet Union from invasion.
In Hitler’s 1925 autobiography, Mein Kampf,he declared both his fierce opposition to Marxism and Germany’s need to acquire more territory to provide “living space” for its people. Hitler made clear that one source of such lands would be “Russia and her vassal border states.”
Following Hitler’s 1933 rise to power in Germany, the fascist policies he implemented were directly targeted against Stalin’s communism. Over the next half-dozen years, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty that basically forbade Germany from rearming, Germany’s military might and expansionist aspirations grew at a fearsome rate. Hitler added to Germany’s territory by absorbing Austria in 1938 and large parts of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. His gaze then fell upon neighboring Poland.
Stalin was right to fret about Hitler’s goal of seizing fertile lands to the east of Germany, including Ukraine. Stalin recognized that the Soviet Union and its Red Army in the late 1930s were not ready for war. He could buy time and seek to retard Hitler’s appetite either by forming an alliance with Germany’s traditional foes, Great Britain and France, or by pursuing a nonaggression treaty with Hitler.
In early 1939, Stalin began negotiations with France and Great Britain aimed at a treaty that would leave Hitler facing opponents to the east and west of Germany. These efforts, however, were impeded by the reluctance of both France and Great Britain to enter into a treaty with a communist nation bent on undermining capitalist democracies and especially one led by an unpredictable and ruthless dictator like Stalin. The negotiations proceeded fitfully.
Several months later, seeking to thwart a treaty among Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, Hitler secretly invited Stalin to discuss a nonaggression pact (the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the two countries’ foreign ministers). Hitler’s covert plan for a late summer attack on Poland, which both France and Great Britain had promised to defend, motivated him to strike a deal with Stalin so that Germany would not face a hostile military to the east.
In late August 1939, Hitler and Stalin stunned the world by announcing that their two nations had agreed to a trade and nonaggression pact. This came about only after Stalin obtained Hitler’s secret promise that the two nations would invade and carve up Poland between them, and Germany would facilitate Stalin’s desire to take over Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia, and parts of Finland.
On August 19, Stalin justified his unlikely deal with Hitler to the Politburo: “The question of war and peace has entered a critical phase for us. Its solution depends entirely on the position which will be taken by the Soviet Union. We are absolutely convinced that if we conclude a mutual assistance pact with France and Great Britain, Germany will back off from Poland and seek a modus vivendi with the Western Powers. War would be avoided, but further events could prove dangerous for the USSR.