In the hour before dawn on 22 June 1941 the German armed forces started Operation Barbarossa. There was no warning from Hitler; this was a classic Blitzkrieg and Stalin was in bed at the time in his Blizhnyaya dacha. In the diplomatic crisis of recent weeks he had judged that intelligence sources predicting a German invasion were just a provocation. Timoshenko as People’s Commissar of Defence and Zhukov as Chief of the General Staff thought him mistaken and had stayed up on duty all that last night. At 3.30 a.m. they received reports of heavy shelling along the Soviet–German frontier. They knew this for what it was: the beginning of war. Timoshenko ordered Zhukov to call Blizhnyaya by telephone. Zhukov obediently asked a sleepy Vlasik, the chief of Stalin’s bodyguard, to rouse the Leader.
Like a schoolboy rejecting proof of simple arithmetic, Stalin disbelieved his ears. Breathing heavily, he grunted to Zhukov that no counter-measures should be taken. The German armies had had no more compliant victim. Stalin’s only concession to Zhukov was to rise from his bed and return to Moscow by limousine. There he met Zhukov and Timoshenko along with Molotov, Beria, Voroshilov and Lev Mekhlis. (Mekhlis was a party bureaucrat who had carried out many tasks for Stalin in the Great Terror.) Pale and bewildered, he sat with them at the table clutching an empty pipe for comfort. He could not accept that he had been wrong about Hitler. He muttered that the outbreak of hostilities must have originated in a conspiracy within the Wehrmacht. Always there had to be a conspiracy. When Timoshenko demurred, Stalin retorted that ‘if it were necessary to organise a provocation, German generals would bomb their own cities’. Ludicrously he was still trying to persuade himself that the situation was reversible: ‘Hitler surely doesn’t know about it.’ He ordered Molotov to get in touch with Ambassador Schulenburg to clarify the situation. This was clutching at a final straw while Armageddon erupted. Schulenburg had in fact already requested an interview with Molotov in the Kremlin. In the meantime Timoshenko and Zhukov went on imploring Stalin’s permission to organise armed counter-measures.
Schulenburg, who had sought to discourage Hitler from invading, brought the unambiguous military news. Molotov reported back to Stalin: ‘The German government has declared war on us.’ Stalin slumped into his chair and an unbearable silence followed. It was broken by Zhukov, who put forward measures to hold up the forces of the enemy. Timoshenko corrected him: ‘Not to hold up but to annihilate.’ Even then, though, Stalin continued to stipulate that Soviet ground forces should not infringe German territorial integrity. Directive No. 2 was dispatched at 7.15 a.m.
The Germans swarmed like locusts over the western borderlands of the USSR. Nobody, except perhaps Stalin, seriously expected the Red Army to push them back quickly to the river Bug. A military calamity had occurred on a scale unprecedented in the wars of the twentieth century. Stalin had not yet got a grip on himself. He was visibly distraught and could not focus his mind on essential matters. When Timoshenko returned from the People’s Commissariat of Defence to confer, Stalin refused to see him. Politics, even at this moment, had to come first and he insisted that a Politburo meeting should take precedence. Finally at nine o’clock in the morning Timoshenko was allowed to present a plan for the creation of a Supreme Command. The Politburo meanwhile gave Molotov the task of speaking on radio at midday. Stalin still felt disoriented. If he had wanted, he could have given the address himself. But shock and embarrassment deflected him. He was determined to stay at the centre of things, however – and he knew that Molotov would not let him down at the microphone. Stalin was not wasting time with resentment about what Hitler had done to him. War had started in earnest. He and the USSR had to win it.
How had he let himself be tricked? For weeks the Wehrmacht had been massing on the western banks of the River Bug as dozens of divisions were transferred from elsewhere in Europe. The Luftwaffe had sent squadrons of reconnaissance aircraft over Soviet cities. All this had been reported to Stalin by his military intelligence agency. In May and June he had been continuously pressed by Timoshenko and Zhukov to sanction the dispositions for an outbreak of fighting. Richard Sorge, the Soviet agent in the Germany embassy in Tokyo, had raised the alarm. Winston Churchill had sent telegrams warning Stalin. The USSR’s spies in Germany had mentioned the preparations being made. Even the Chinese Communist Party alerted Moscow about German intentions.
Yet Stalin had made up his mind. Rejecting the warnings, he put faith in his own judgement. That Stalin blundered is beyond question. Yet there were a few extenuating circumstances. Stalin expected there to be war with Germany sooner or later. Like military planners everywhere, he was astonished by Hitler’s easy triumph over France. The success achieved by the Wehrmacht in the West was likely to bring forward any decision by the Führer to turn eastwards and attack the USSR. But Stalin had some reason to believe that the Germans would not risk an attack in the year 1941. Although France had been humbled, Hitler had not dealt a fatal blow to the British. His armed forces had also met difficulties in the Balkans in the spring when action against the German occupation of Yugoslavia diverted troops needed for Operation Barbarossa. Stalin continued to hold to the belief that a successful invasion of the USSR would have to be started in early summer at the latest. Napoleon’s fate in 1812 had shown the importance of beating Russians without having to trudge through snow. By mid-June 1941 it looked as if the danger of a German crusade had faded.
Some Soviet intelligence agents were also denying that a German attack was imminent. A fog of reports befuddled Stalin’s calculations. He made things worse by insisting on being the sole arbiter of the data’s veracity. The normal processing of information was disallowed in the USSR. Stalin relied excessively on his personal intuition and experience. Not only fellow politicians but also People’s Commissar of Defence Timoshenko and Chief of the General Staff Zhukov were kept in the dark about reports from embassies and intelligence agencies. The Germans took advantage of the situation by planting misinformation; they did much to induce Stalin to believe that a military campaign was not in the offing. Thus Stalin in the early months of 1941 moved along a dual track: he scrupulously observed the terms of his pact with Nazi Germany while telling gatherings of the Soviet political and military elite that, if the Germans attacked, they would be repulsed with ferocious efficiency. He had been taking a massive gamble with his country’s security. Cautious in so many ways, Stalin trusted in his ability to read the runes of Hitler’s intentions without discussing the evidence with anyone else.
Stalin was shocked by Operation Barbarossa, but Molotov always defended the Boss against the charge that he collapsed under the strain:
It can’t be said he fell apart; certainly he was suffering but he did not show it. Stalin definitely had his difficulties. It would be stupid to claim he didn’t suffer. But he’s not depicted as he really was – he’s represented as a repentant sinner! Well, of course, that’s absurd. All those days and nights, as always, he went on working; he didn’t have time to fall apart or lose the gift of speech.
Stalin’s visitors’ book confirms that he did not lapse into passivity. Zhukov too insisted that Stalin’s recovery was swift. By the next day he had certainly taken himself in hand, and over the next few days he seemed much more like his old self. His will power saw him through. He had little choice. Failure to defeat the German armed forces would be fatal for the communist party and the Soviet state. The October Revolution would be crushed and the Germans would have Russia at their mercy.
On 23 June Stalin worked without rest in his Kremlin office. For fifteen hours at a stretch from 3.20 a.m. he consulted with the members of the Supreme Command. Central military planning was crucial, and he allowed his political subordinates to get on with their tasks while he concentrated on his own. Then at 6.25 p.m. he asked for oral reports from politicians and commanders. Molotov was with him practically the whole time. Stalin was gathering the maximum of necessary information before issuing further orders. Visitors are recorded as having come to him until 1.25 a.m. the next morning.
The Supreme Command or Stavka – the term used under Nicholas II in the First World War – had also been established on 23 June. Stalin was initially disinclined to become its formal head. He was not eager to identify himself as leader of a war effort which was in a disastrous condition. So it was Timoshenko who as Chairman led a Stavka including Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Budënny, Zhukov and Kuznetsov. The others also tried to persuade Stalin to permit his designation as Supreme Commander. He refused even though in practice he acted as if he had accepted the post. The whole composition of Stavka was shaped by him, and it was noticeable that he insisted that leading politicians should belong to this military body. Not only Molotov but also Voroshilov and Budënny were basically communist party figures who lacked the professional expertise to run the contemporary machinery of war. Timoshenko, Zhukov and Kuznetsov were therefore outnumbered. Stalin would allow no great decision to be taken without the participation of the politicians, despite his own gross blunders of the past few days. He called generals to his office, made his enquiries about the situation to the west of Moscow and gave his instructions. About his supremacy there was no doubt.