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.