June 22 marks the 72nd anniversary of the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, an event that had a profound impact on world history.
The consensus of historical opinion is that Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was surprised by Adolf Hitler’s attack. Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, wrote: “He had not foreseen that the pact of 1939 (a non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler) which he had considered the outcome of his own great cunning could be broken by an enemy more cunning than himself. ... It was his immense political miscalculation.”
Did Stalin really “miscalculate” or did Stalin outfox Hitler? Certainly Stain was aware that Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” described his plans to subjugate Russia. Why would Stalin, who trusted nobody else, ever put his trust in, of all people, Hitler?
Notwithstanding the 1939 pact and the benefits each dictator gained by it, including dividing Poland between them, there was a marked deterioration in German-Russian relations by mid-1940.
Interventions by Hitler in Finland and Romania violated the pact. For six months prior to the invasion, German armies of more than 3 million men were mobilized near the Soviet borders. Between January and June 1941, the Luftwaffe carried out more than 200 raids into Soviet territory to photograph Soviet air bases.
Britain sent Stalin detailed information about the German troop mobilization. On March 20, 1941, Stalin received Soviet intelligence reports that correctly identified the objective of the three German army groups, including tentative invasion dates.
Nevertheless, since Stalin refused to acknowledge war was imminent, no operational plans were issued in the event of war. Up-to-date weapons already designed and tested weren’t put into mass production. Soviet commanders were prevented from concentrating their troops close to the frontier.
When the Germans attacked on June 22, 1941, was Stalin really surprised or had he secretly lured them in, realizing the only way to remove the German threat and to replace Germany as the supreme power in Europe would be to trap and defeat the Germans in the depths of Russia?
Stalin was secretive, manipulative, cunning, unscrupulous and ruthless. In his rise to power, Stalin had an intuitive skill for understanding an opponent’s mentality and weaknesses. It was Stalin’s modus operandi to allow his opponents to make the first move and then to take them by surprise. Did Stalin want to be sure Hitler would not be discouraged from invading Russia? Stalin must have realized that potential Russian military strength, Russian geography and the Russian winter would eventually become the demise of any invader (as Napoleon learned in 1812).
In April 1941, Stalin signed a neutrality pact with Japan, the other nation that posed a threat to Russia. Britain was holding up against Germany. During a 1940 visit to Berlin, when Nazi officials insisted Britain was finished, Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov replied, “If this is so, why are we in this shelter, and whose are these bombs that are falling?” It would be Germany, not Russia, fighting a two-front war if Hitler attacked Russia.
Page 2 of 2 - Russian lives meant little to Stalin. Perhaps he was astute enough to realize the atrocities the Germans would commit in Russia would eventually work to Stalin’s advantage and his own long-range aspirations for an empire. Besides, particularly in the Ukraine, many of the would-be Nazi victims would be the same people Stalin mistrusted and hated.
During the first weeks of the invasion, according to the recollection of one Russian official, “Stalin was depressed, nervous and off balance.”
Such descriptions of Stalin are often cited as proof he was greatly hurt and surprised by the German attack. However, Stalin’s behavior could also be attributed to a temporary panic at the speed with which the Germans were advancing, with no prospect of stopping them. Stalin could have temporarily feared he miscalculated — not the invasion but the ability to triumph over it.
Stalin quickly regained his composure. It cost 27 million Russian lives but the Soviet Union was able to play a major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and to establish an empire in Eastern Europe that would last for several decades.
Had Stalin intentionally maneuvered Hitler to attach Russia? There may never be a definitive answer, but as with so many other historical events, the issues are thought-provoking and mind-boggling. And that is one reason why the study of history is exciting and fascinating.
Joel Freedman of Canandaigua is a frequent Messenger Post contributor and a member of the Daily Messenger’s Reader Advisory Board. His opinions do not reflect those of the advisory board.