This Wednesday, 22 June, marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. It was to be the biggest, and the bloodiest, military campaign in history, concluding in the ruins of the Reichstag in May, 1945.
In retrospect Hitler’s precipitate decision, which was to mark the beginning of the end of the Third Reich, looks disastrous, was disastrous, because there were all sorts of reasons why Germany could not defeat the Soviets in a major war. Russia not only had the space to absorb the shock of Blitzkrieg, a tactic pursued hitherto with such dramatic results, but it also had the capacity to survive defeats in battle that would have finished any other nation on earth.
But this is looking at history retrospectively, a God’s eye view, so to speak. There is one question, looking from the ground up, that is still legitimate to ask: namely, how close did the German invasion of Russia come to success?
The answer is far, far closer than many people care to allow. The suggestion that the whole thing was a piece of political and strategic madness by Hitler, pushed most assiduously after the war by Franz Halder, the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff, among others, does not stand up to examination. His own wartime diaries reveal that he was as keen on the whole operation as anyone. As early as 3 July he wrote, “It is thus probably no overstatement to say that the Russian campaign has been won in a space of two weeks”.
We now known, from documents released by the Russian archives since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that this was a view even Stalin was close to accepting.
At the end of July, with German tanks advancing rapidly on Moscow, one of the agents of Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD, made attempts through the Bulgarian ambassador to discover if Hitler would accept large territorial concessions in return for peace. Dimitri Volkogonov, a Russian historian, has also uncovered evidence to suggest that the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, was actively preparing for a second Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which had ended Russian involvement in the First World War. The thinking seems to have been that of Lenin in 1918: trade territory for political survival.
The real crisis came in October after the great enveloping battle at Vyazma and Briansk, the opening move of the final advance on Moscow, when the Germans took 660,000 prisoners, leaving a mere 90,000 men to face the whole of Army Group Centre. It is even rumoured that some Muscovites put out welcome posters for the Germans. Georgy Zhukov, the leading Soviet general, later reported that Stalin was more desperate than ever for peace. He was also on the point of leaving Moscow. Document No. 34 of the State Defence Committee, dated 15 October 1941, and now in the public domain, shows just how serious Stalin believed matters had become. It is resolved, the document proceeds;
To evacuate the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the top levels of Government…(Comrade Stalin will leave tomorrow or later, depending on the situation)…In the event of enemy forces arriving in Moscow, the NKVD are ordered to blow up business premises, warehouses and institutions which cannot be evacuated, and all underground railway electrical equipment.
The following night an armoured train made ready to carry Stalin east.
It is by no means certain that the Soviet Union would have fallen even if Moscow had been taken, but it would have given the Germans crucial control over the whole Russian transport network. More than that, the collapse of Russia’s ancient capital, and the flight of Stalin, is likely to have had the most devastating effect on both morale and fighting ability. If Stalin was a coward, it has rightly been written, then everyone could be a coward.
There are two things surely that saved Russia at this most crucial point in its history; the decision of Stalin, for reasons unknown, to remain in Moscow, and crucial intelligence forwarded from Tokyo by Richard Sorge, a Communist secret agent, that the Japanese were not going to attack Russia, not at least until after Moscow had fallen.
In a huge gamble the guard on Manchuria, occupied by the powerful Kwantung Army, was dropped, and the Siberian divisions moved west. If Sorge had been wrong it is difficult to know how the Soviet Union could have survived. But he was not wrong. Zhukov deployed his fresh units to the north and south of Moscow. For once it really is appropriate to say that the rest is history.
I would like to add a postscript here. Earlier this week I watched World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel, a television documentary presented by David Reynolds (it may still be available on BBC iPlayer for those who can get it.) In this he drew my attention to a piece by Vasily Grossman, arguably the greatest of Russia’s war correspondents.
It’s October 1941. The war is in its most critical phase. Grossman is with the army before Moscow, falling back by steady degrees. Near Tula he is billeted in the home of an old peasant woman:
Having graced us with warmth, food, light and soft beds, she retires to a cold part of the hut. She sits down and there begins to sing.
I went to her and said: “Babushka, are you going to sleep here in the darkness, in the cold, on bare wood? She just waved me off with her hand. “How do you live here alone? Do you have to sleep in the cold and dark here every night?”
“Ah, well, I sit in the dark, sing songs and tell stories to myself…Oh, I used to be so healthy, like a stallion”, she told me. “The devil came to me last night and gripped my palm with his finger nails. I began to pray: ‘May God rise again and may His enemies be scattered.’ And the Devil paid no attention. Then I said f**k off and he went away immediately.”
If we do win this terrible, cruel war it will be because there are such noble hearts in our nation, such righteous people, souls of immense generosity, such old women, mothers of sons who, from their noble simplicity, are now losing their lives for the sake of their nation and with the same generosity with which this old woman from Tula has given us all that she had. There is only a handful of them in our land, but they will win.
12 thoughts on “Cursing the Devil”
Thanks for this Ana – I really enjoy reading your contributions. 🙂
Me too, hence the ‘like’ earlier.
Hitler had the chance to defeat Russia …except he spent far too much time trying to destroy Leningrad, all his generals kept telling him to bypass it and lay siege to it, this would have allowed his troops to move in and block virtually “all” of Russias supply and communication lines …. but Hitler refused because he wanted to show the world that nothing could stop his armies.
In the end he was the one who brought the forward momentum to a halt and doomed his army to the elements of the Russian winter .. ill prepared for it .. they all DIED 😦
So I don’t think he lost the war because of the winter setting-in or lack of supplies, etc … he lost it because he was nothing more than a little corporal pretending to be a Napoleon.
Considering the significance of that campaign it is remarkable how little of it is aired in popular culture. Most WW2 movies and books cover the western or Pacific campaigns. That will be the American/Hollywood effect, I suppose. However, I was completely enthralled by Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad which put into perspective the sheer scale and horror of the enterprise. I could not help but feel sorry for Von Paulus. For visual and personal effect, Enemy at the Gate does a superb job in my view. One of my all time favourite films.
Ooops – I had the wrong city … Sipu got it right, it was the fight for Stalingrad that took so much out of the German army that they stood defeated even before the Russians began to counter-attack 😦
One more thing …. As an army the Russians were as good as teats on a bull, totally useless … it was a concentrated re-arming effort by allied shipping that gave the Russian army enough impetus to hold back the Nazis .. they certainly wouldn’t have done it on their own … later on they managed to re-equip their army on their own but it was the Allied effort that saved their butts in the first place.
Vladivostok .. I believe that’s the name of the port where all the munitions were shipped to .. and many an allied merchantman died in the process.
Donald, Napoleon too was basically a little corporal.
Thank you, Ana, for a very interesting piece. I did not know Stalin was on the point of leaving Moscow.
In Max Hastings’s book, ‘Finest Years’, about Churchill, he maintains that the Allies actually gave relatively small amounts of aid to Russia, especially if you consider the scale of the task. Not only that the equipment was not up to much. Russia’s tanks were better than those offered by the British which were on the whole pretty useless. It was a large reason for Stalin’s antipathy towards Churchill. In fact the Russians won huge and lasting sympathy both in Britain and the US for the immense sacrifices they made and their willingness to engage the Germans. Churchill and his generals took a lot of stick for their relative inactivity leading up to D Day. Even then Churchill had to be persuaded by the Yanks that June 1944 was the right time and that Normandy was the right place.
Curiously, America gave the armaments to Russia, but made Britain pay for those that she received.
As for the port, I think it was Archangel and Murmansk that many of the convoys sailed to. A friend of mine, whom I have mentioned before, sailed 8 Russian convoys. He was also involved in the sinking of the battleships Bismarck and Scharnhorst.
At the age of 87 he has written a book. I can’t vouch for it as I have not read it. It is only available on Kindle and I don’t yet have one. But you can download it here. Perhaps one for John Mackie, though he will have to pay for it. The book may be crap, for all I know, but he is a true gentleman. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sailing-into-Danger-ebook/dp/B004W4MH06
And we all know why, don’t we?
Sipu – Yeah, Murmansk! … that’s the name I was thinking off .. you wouldn’t believe it but I got advanced passes in History and Science for my HSC 😦
Not sure about the quality of the equipment sent but I do know that more than 40 ships worth of munitions were sunk by the Germans in their attempts to stop the shipping of munitions. As far I can remember bullets, some tanks and lots and lots of planes were part of the cargo, some of the planes had engines that were no good for Russian conditions so the Russians used their own engines in them.
There was also food ration packs, winter clothing for the soldiers and trucks for troop transport.
Can’t remember much more 🙂
Sorry – ignorant person here – why?
Great post Ana thanks. My step grandmother had a close friend Henry Mettleman who was a Panzer driver on the eastern front – his first book entitled “Through Hell for Hitler” describes life for an average soldier on the eastern front – I can vouch for it, a fascinating, emotional and brilliant book for those interested.
Another interesting post, Ana. Thank you.
Not a subject I know much about, but I had no idea that Stalin came so close to leaving Moscow.