The events leading to the great patriotic war and the response of the Soviet citizen

In “The Icebreaker Controversy: Did Stalin Plan to Attack Hitler?”, T.J. Uldricks opens with the question of how could the Red Army, a large and heavily equipped force, be so thoroughly decimated by the Wehrmacht, especially when evidence of the impending attack was plentiful.

There have been many attempts to answer this question; most have fallen into three categories: 1 – Germany attacked the USSR because they feared an attack by Stalin, and this attack had the effect of catching the Soviets of balance; 2 – Stalin and Russia were not acting as rational actors with regard to German aggression. Stalin was delusional about the safety of the non-aggression pact with Hitler; 3 – Stalin was not only rational, but acted along the only course of action that he could based on the Soviet Union’s capabilities and geopolitical realities during the 1930’s. This short paper will show that the last category comes closest answering Uldrick’s question.

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Why Germany Invaded

Germany’s decision to invade Russia was born of Hitler’s decision to destroy a Marxist/Communist Soviet Union as early as 22 years earlier. In May of 1933, when Hitler was addressing a public rally he declared: ” Some 14 to 15 years ago I stated to the German nation that I saw my historical duty in destroying Marxism. Since then I have consistently repeated those words. They are not empty words but a sacred oath which I will carry out until I give up the ghost.”i The war could be seen as two diametrically opposed ideologies, Fascism and Communism, which eventually would clash on the world stage in spectacular fashion. This conflict and threat from Fascism was predicted as early as 1923 by Georgi Chicherin, then the people’s commissar for foreign affairs, noted: “A fascist triumph in Germany could be the first step in a crusade against us.”ii

Hitler’s decision was based on two other driving concerns (apart from anticommunism): race and space. The Nazi party and Hitler had open contempt for the Slavs. Hitler lumped them into the same category as the Jews: an inferior race and equated bolshevism with Zionism. He boasted of them being “vermin” and “subhuman” who were intended to serve the Aryan master race. The Nazi’s and Hitler had long looked eastward to find “lebensraum”, living space, for the German people. “If we speak of new land in Europe today, we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states”`, he wrote in Mein Kampf. “Her fate itself seems desirous of giving us a sign.”iii

Hitler’s plan for Russia dictated Germany’s overall strategy for the war. To secure his jumping-off point of into Russia, Poland, Hitler signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviets and agreed to give them eastern Poland and the Baltic’s. This ensured the success of the invasion launched in September of 1939 by protecting Germany’s rear while the Wehrmacht invaded Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France. This was an option that allowed Germany to stall for time, secure its western flank then turn eastward. Hitler smugly told members of his inner circle, “we will crush the Soviet Union.”iv He was confident that the Soviet Union would prove no problem for his battle-hardened troops and that the war would be over in six weeks.

Hitler chose the spring of 1941 to attack for two reasons: Stalin’s aggressiveness and the conquest of Britain. The attack did not commence until that summer because of delays. The first concern was Stalin’s move to occupy the Baltic’s, which was given to him by Hitler, but also their move to occupy Romania and Finland, which was not part of the deal. Hitler’s other reason was the perceived notion that Great Britain would hold out as long as there was hope that Russia’s army, called “England’s continental sword”, could come to England’s assistance.v

Military of the Soviet Union

Russia’s military and its failings is an additional reason that Germany attacked and could be grouped into the segment of “Why Germany attacked?” but is large enough to be listed separately. German preplanning presupposed superiority over the Russian’s in the quality of personnel and equipment, even though they were out numbered in quantity. The great bulk of the Russian forces were outmoded and useless. The Red Army still maintained more than a dozen divisions of horse cavalry. The Germans also knew that the Soviets lacked experienced leaders. The entire world knew that the purges had destroyed the officer corps. This was made painfully clear during the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939, when more than one million led Russians were needed to defeated barely 200,000. This should have come as no surprise to any intelligence agency in the world. An estimated 30,000-army and navy officers were executed, including 90 percent of the generals and 80 percent of the colonels.vi The purges not only decimated the experience of the officer corps, but it silenced most, if not all, of its forward thinking strategists. One of these was Marshal of the Soviet Union M. N. Tukhachevskii, First Deputy Commissar for Defense, Chief of Red Army Ordnance and potential commander-in-chief in the event of war. In the winter of 1935 Tukhachevskii proposed a special war game to the general staff, with the intention to investigate the situation arising out of a German attack on the Soviet Union.

He wrote numerous papers to Marshal Voroshilov, Defense Commissar of the Soviet Union, detailing serious strategic problems of the Soviet Union only to have his war game neutered. Voroshilov would not allow the German side of the war game to have a qualitative advantage or surprise attack.vii This, as history has shown, was precisely what happened six years later. Tukhachevskii stated that Germany’s preparations for war made it imperative that the defense of the Soviet western frontiers be undertaken in all seriousness and it was clear that the “classic” form of entry into war with phases of concentration was a thing of the past. War could begin with large-scale operations with sudden, surprise initiation, conducted by the belligerents on land, at sea and air. It followed that an enemy could forestall the Russians and strike first.viii From June 1937 to the end of 1938, Tukachevskii and many Russian military visionaries were shot, these purges continued through 1941.

Starting in 1940, the Soviet command, now staffed with marginally competent officers, made the mistake of concentrating only on offensive operations. They made no attempt to plan for defensive formations. Finally, after the debacle of the Finnish-Soviet war, Stalin started to see the weaknesses of his military represented in the war games of that same year. He recommended that his generals should pay close heed to the lessons of the war-game. He began to realize that his staff was not seeing the reality of the situation and his military was unprepared. There were many in Europe that witnessed the same weaknesses.ix

Geopolitics:

The main concern for Stalin and the Soviet Union in 1940 was neither lands they could conquer nor spreading the revolution past their borders, but the politics and perceived dangers from their neighbors in Europe. They maintained a suspicion of all imperialist powers and this drove a desperate search for security.x Since the early 1930’s Russia called for, at various international conferences, agreements that would have stopped Hitler’s plans. These proposals ranged from complete and total disarmament (1932) to the creation of a system of collective security to eradicate the threat of a new World War (1938). Russia saw many problems to their existence, but the main two were the leading capitalist’s of the time – Great Britain, and the rise of a fascist Germany that was being appeased by the west.

In 1935, Germany introduced conscription and announced the creation of the Luftwaffe, both in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The West did nothing. That same year Great Britain signed a sea treaty with Germany, allowing the Germans a navy – another violation. In 1936, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia and Germany occupied the Rhineland. The West did nothing. Why did the West do nothing and why did this disturb Russia? The answer can be found in a statement by Lord Halifax after a meeting with Hitler at Obersalzberg in 1937: ” I and other members of the British government fully realize that the Fuhrer has achieved much not only for Germany itself but, as the result of having destroying communism in his country, he has barred the latter from Western Europe. And Germany may therefore rightfully be considered the West’s bastion against Bolshevism.”xi

Stalin was starting to understand that the West’s hopes were their appeasement would help Germany to would strike eastward and destroy the only socialist state. It explains why Hitler was allowed to take Austria and why most of Europe sold out Czechoslovakia with regard to the Sudetenland. The culmination of the Western Powers turning a deaf ear to Soviet proposals that would have allowed it to protect itself and a policy of full appeasement towards Hitler drove Stalin to accept the non-aggression pact with Germany. This had an unseen, yet profound effect on the rest of the world. The combination of French and British appeasement, U.S. isolationism, and ignoring Soviet proposals had the effect of leaving the leadership of the anti-Nazi struggle to the USSR by default.xii

Stalin knew that a confrontation with Germany was inevitable and would replace Great Britain as their main enemy when Hitler had made it unmistakably clear his implacable hostility towards the Soviet Union. Stalin was then trying to buy time to rebuild his military after the Finnish war. Stalin knew that the mobilization of Czar Nicholas II tripped Germany’s attack in WWI. He did not want to provoke Hitler; he restrained his military with regard to meeting Germany aggression and border incursions. He restrained them even to the degree of ignoring multiple warnings of the attack to come in the summer of 1941. He knew his military needed the time.

The Russian Citizen

This section will answer how the Russians, being initially decimated, did not sustain larger loses than they had due to the average Russian citizen helping the Red Army buy time to regroup and eventually triumph. The evidence of this lies in Leningrad, Stalingrad, Moscow and the other besieged cities of the Soviet Union. The Russian citizen was one of Russia’s most powerful weapons because of their convictions, they believed in their country. They were the first to stop the German military machine. Normal citizens stopped their lives to take up arms, work in factory’s, dig and erect defense’s, and performed many other services that were course and bitter work, but needed to be done.

The desire to help was almost universal. Contributions came not only from young men, but also from children, women, and people of all ages. Women enlisted willingly and served as partisans, fighter pilots, factory workers, and numerous other vocations. Children worked in factories building munitions, tanks, and support equipment. Women and children worked along side soldiers building defenses for the cities that were to come under attack. It should be noted that there were some citizens that were excited about the German invasion and looked upon them not as invaders or oppressors, but as liberators. Many Ukrainian villagers offered the advancing Germany army plates of salt and bread, a traditional gift of welcome. But this group was an extremely small part of the population.xiii

It was the Soviet citizen that rebuilt the Dnieper Dam, moved 84% of Soviet industry to the east, and replaced plough horses with themselves to work the land when there were no more horses.xiv It was the Soviet citizen that donated blood even when they were to weak to spare any, worked in their homes to knit millions of scarves and socks for the soldiers of the Red Army, and sold what little valuables they had to donate the funds to the defense fund. It was the Soviet citizen that refused to give up the fight even though it meant sleeping with their families on the ground in burnt out homes, consistently coping with starvation and freezing, and burying their children. They won because of the spirit and determination of the Soviet citizen.