During 1940, relations between the Soviet Union and Germany remained formally correct, but were increasingly strained. Hitler had strong misgivings about the Russians being so near to the Romanian oil fields. Stalin was alarmed by reports of German troops in Finland and of German designs on the Balkans. The ten-year pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan, signed in Berlin on September 27, 1940, and excluding Soviet Russia, added to his anxieties.
On November 12, on the invitation of Ribbentrop, Molotov arrived in Berlin to discuss “a long-term delimitation of interests.” He found that Hitler was concerned only with the division of the British Empire between the Soviet Union and the Axis powers. Molotov showed no interest and infuriated Hitler by firing question after question at him and demanding specific answers about German intentions in Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Hitler was not accustomed to interrogation of this kind, and he was antagonized by the rocklike obstinacy of the Soviet minister. As early as the summer of 1940, he had started thinking about the invasion of Russia, but this meeting with the persistent and imperturbable Molotov probably influenced him in deciding finally to launch Operation Barbarossa.
The façade of cordial relations was maintained in the first months of 1941. But tension was mounting. In March, Bulgaria joined the Axis; Yugoslavia also agreed to join. On March 27, however, a revolt in Yugoslavia against the pro-German policy resulted in the formation of a new government which looked to Moscow. Stalin was quick to sign a pact of friendship and nonaggression with the new Yugoslav regime but could do nothing when German forces invaded the country and Belgrade was mercilessly bombed.
On May 5, in the Kremlin, Stalin addressed several hundred young officers, newly graduated from the military academies. He emphasized the importance of modernization and re-equipment in building up the power of the Red Army. He went on to warn them that the situation was grave and a German attack in the near future could not be ruled out. He told them bluntly that the Red Army was not yet strong enough to smash the Germans easily; it suffered from shortages of modern tanks, aircraft, and other equipment, and its troops were still under training. The Soviet government by diplomacy and other means was striving to delay the Germans until autumn when the approach of winter would postpone any attack until 1942. If Soviet tactics succeeded, then the war with Nazi Germany would come almost inevitably in 1942, but valuable months would have been gained. The period “from now until August” was the most dangerous.
This meeting was followed by a series of desperate attempts to appease Hitler. Friendly economic and diplomatic gestures were made. Painful efforts to avoid even the semblance of provocation were continued. On June 14, 1941, TASS, the Soviet news agency, issued a communiqué emphasizing friendly relations with Germany, which was “unswervingly observing the conditions of the Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact, just as the U.S.S.R. is doing” and denying rumors, emanating from London, of an “early war between the two countries.” Berlin ignored these gestures. Hitler had already made his decision.
The tension in the Kremlin became unbearable during these weeks of waiting. Stalin felt the strain. He was irascible, and reports on relations with Germany could only be submitted to him “in fear and trepidation.” He had concentrated “all his thoughts and deeds” on averting war in 1941; he was confident, but not positive, that he would succeed. In the midst of the conflicting intelligence reports and rumors, he was deeply uneasy. The German chief of staff had issued on February 15, 1941, a special “Directive for Misinforming the Enemy” to provide cover for Operation Barbarossa. False information was leaked that German troop movements in the east were part of the “greatest misinformation manoeuvre in history, designed to distract attention from final preparations for the invasion of England.”
Stalin was undoubtedly influenced by this misinformation. He did not believe, however, that in the last resort, Hitler would depart from the traditions of Bismarck’s Ostpolitik, requiring that Germany should avoid military involvement in Russia while engaged in the west. At the same time, he had an exaggerated conception of the power and influence of the German generals even to the extent of believing that, contrary to Hitler’s specific instructions, they were trying to precipitate war against Russia.
Among members of the Politburo and the Soviet High Command, the firm opinion was that war would be averted in 1941. Zhdanov held that Germany was taken up with war against Britain and incapable of fighting on two fronts. On March 20, 1941, General Filipp Golikov, head of military intelligence, submitted to Stalin a report on German troop concentration in the borderlands, but expressed the opinion that the information must have originated from the British and German intelligence services. Early in May, Kuznetsov sent a similar report to Stalin, giving information received from the Soviet naval attaché in Berlin on the imminence of war. Like Golikov, he nullified the value of the report by adding that in his opinion, the information was false and planted by some foreign agency.
Early in April 1941, Churchill sent a personal message to Stalin, warning him of German troop movements and the imminence of attack on the Soviet Union. This was followed by an urgent warning given to the Soviet ambassador in London on June 18. Reports from the Soviet Embassy in Berlin and from Dr. Richard Sorge, the brilliant Soviet spy in Japan, gave the exact date of the German invasion.
Stalin regarded these reports with skepticism. He remained deeply mistrustful of Britain. There was, it seems, no limit to the perfidy of which he believed Britain capable. He was convinced that Britain and the United States were doing everything possible to incite Hitler to attack Russia and that Britain, in particular, saw a German campaign in the east as the one way to save itself from catastrophe. He believed that the British government had recently held secret talks with Nazi officials, seeking to reach an agreement at the expense of Russia. The solo flight of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, to Scotland on May 10–11, 1941, intensified his suspicions of British secret diplomacy.
On the evening of June 21, Zhukov learned by telephone from Kiev that a German sergeant major had crossed to the Soviet lines and informed the Soviet commander that the German forces would attack at dawn on the following morning.
Zhukov at once telephoned Stalin and Timoshenko. Stalin summoned them to the Kremlin. He received them alone and heard Zhukov’s report.
“But perhaps the German generals sent this deserter to provoke a conflict,” was his first response.
“No, we think the deserter is telling the truth,” they replied.
Members of the Politburo arrived. He asked for their opinions, but there was no response.
Timoshenko produced a draft directive, alerting all commands. But Stalin had not given up hope that it might be a false alarm. He had the directive redrafted and finally approved its dispatch. It ordered all units on the fronts of the Leningrad, Baltic, Western, Kiev, and Odessa military districts to come to immediate readiness for a possible sudden German attack. Transmission of the directive was completed by 0030 hours on June 22, 1941. At 0400 hours, the invasion began.
The German forces, comprising 3 million troops in 162 divisions with 3,400 tanks and 7,000 guns, advanced in three groups: the north group toward Leningrad, the center group toward Moscow, and the south group into the Ukraine. The sixteen months that followed were for the Germans, a period of immense gains; for the Russians, they were months of disastrous defeats and horrifying casualties and devastation.
By dawn on June 22, 1941, Timoshenko, Zhukov, and his deputy chief of the general staff, Vatutin, were receiving frantic communications from front commanders. All reported air attacks and requested orders. Timoshenko told Zhukov to telephone Stalin.
Stalin heard his report and proposal to order troops to retaliate. There was a long silence during which Zhukov could hear the sound of his breathing on the line. Then Stalin ordered him and Timoshenko to come to the Kremlin and to tell Poskrebyshev to summon the members of the Politburo.
At 4:30 a.m., all were assembled in Stalin’s office. He stood by the table, his face white, with an unlit pipe in his hand. He was visibly shaken.
Molotov hastened into the room from a meeting with the German ambassador. He reported that Germany had declared war.
Stalin sank into his chair and sat in silence. This was one of the most shattering moments in his whole life. He had used every means at his disposal to avert this war. He had desperately willed it to be delayed at least until the following spring. He thought he had succeeded, but he had failed. Armaments were beginning to flow to the armed forces from the defense industries, and the intensive training programs were bringing daily improvements in discipline and efficiency. Six months would have made a vast difference.
Stalin knew he had made a tragic miscalculation. The Politburo and senior military commanders, with all of whom he had discussed his decisions, had shared his views. But they were dominated by him and conscious of his intellectual superiority and his supreme authority. He was honest enough to recognize that it was wholly his responsibility. He had misjudged Hitler’s intentions. Soviet Russia was threatened now with a holocaust which could sweep away the communist regime and all that it had achieved.
It was later alleged that on this evening or during the following weeks when news of terrible defeats were reaching him, his nerve snapped and he surrendered to black despair. Khrushchev stated that about this time, Stalin thought the end had come. He exclaimed: “All Lenin created, we have lost for ever!” After this outburst, he did nothing “for a long time”; he returned to active leadership only after a Politburo deputation pleaded with him to resume command. But Khrushchev’s allegations are not supported by others who were at his side. In fact, Stalin had never been more in command than during these critical days when all seemed lost.
At the dawn meeting on June 22, Stalin came out of his brooding silence to authorize Directive No. 2, calling on all military districts to attack the invaders. The order was unrealistic. The Red Army was falling back in confusion. The breakdown in communications was posing acute problems. Moscow lost touch with the forces to the north of the Pripet and with other commands.
About 1:00 p.m. on June 22, Stalin telephoned Zhukov and said that, since front commanders lacked combat experience and were confused, the Politburo was sending him to the Southwest Front as the representative of the Stavka. Khrushchev would join him there. Shaposhnikov and Grigory Kulik were going to the West Front. In reply to Zhukov’s query as to who would manage the general staff at this critical time, Stalin answered tersely, “Leave Vatutin in your place. Don’t lose time! We’ll get along somehow!” He flew at once to Kiev and, joined by Khrushchev, traveled by car to Ternopol, where Mikhail Kirponos, the front commander, had his command post. Already on the first day of the war, Stalin was following Lenin’s practice in the Civil War of sending trusted personal representatives to critical areas. For him, it was not only a matter of keeping direct contact with the front and a watchful eye on unproven commanders but also a demonstration of his presence.
Shattered by the German onslaught, the Red forces fell back. Directive No. 3, sent by Stalin on the night of June 22, ordering the Southwest, the West, and the Northwest Fronts to attack, was utterly impracticable. The situation was confused, and information was not reaching Moscow. Stalin himself had no conception of the speed of the German advance or the chaos in the Red Army positions.
On June 26, Stalin phoned Zhukov in Ternopol, ordering him to return to the general headquarters at once. The enemy was approaching Minsk, and Dimitry Pavlov, commanding the West Front, had evidently lost control. Kulik had disappeared and Shaposhnikov was ill. On June 28, Russian troops surrendered Minsk, the capital of Belorussia. German troops carried out a savage massacre of the inhabitants and destroyed most of the city.
Twice on June 29, Stalin came to the general headquarters. He was in a black mood and reacted violently to the chaotic situation on the West Front. Zhukov conferred by telegraph with General Pavlov, but it was clear that the situation was hopeless. The next day, Stalin ordered Zhukov to summon Pavlov to Moscow. On his arrival, Zhukov hardly recognized him; he had changed so much in the eight days of the war. Pavlov was removed from his command, and with other generals from this front, he was put on trial. All were shot.
Stalin held them responsible for the destruction of the West Front. He attached special importance to this front against which he believed the Germans would deliver their main assault. But they were, in fact, victims of the war and specifically of his own miscalculations. The most serious mistake was that the troops were not deployed in depth along the extensive western frontier with the result that the German armored divisions, advancing at speed, were able to outflank and encircle strategic positions.
The court-martial and execution of Pavlov and his senior staff also had the effect of undermining the confidence of the troops and of the people in the army’s commanders. Many doubted the allegations of their treachery and feared a new purge was being planned. This fear was increased by the decree of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet on July 16, 1941, restoring the powers of the military kommissars. Stalin was quick to realize, however, that by this drastic action, he had not stiffened morale as he had intended but had aggravated the critical uneasiness within the Red Army at a time when cool and stubborn resistance was needed. He did not repeat this mistake. In future, commanders who failed were demoted, or they simply disappeared, and their fate remained secret.
The need to set up military and civil command structures had been overlooked in the preparations for war. Stalin had been concentrating on the defense industries and the equipping and training of the armed forces. He personally disliked time-consuming committee work and, since all major matters came to the Politburo and finally to him for decision, he may have thought he could dispense with supreme command organs. The outbreak of war had shown at once that many responsibilities had to be delegated.
Early on June 22, 1941, Timoshenko had submitted a draft plan to set up a high command with Stalin as commander in chief. Before signing the decree on the following day, Stalin redrafted it, naming Timoshenko as supreme commander and establishing a general headquarters of the high command, which consisted of a council of war with Timoshenko as chairman and a membership of Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Budënny, Zhukov, and Kuznetsov. This arrangement, according to Zhukov, complicated the command, for there were in effect, two commanders in chief, Timoshenko de jure and Stalin de facto. The general headquarters took the title of Stavka, which had been used for the tsarist supreme military headquarters. Stalin’s Stavka did not, however, have the same large support staff, but was at first merely a group of advisers.
The general headquarters’ orders and instructions were discussed and agreed in Stalin’s study in the Kremlin. It was a large, light, austerely furnished room, paneled in stained oak, with a long table, covered in green cloth. Portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin hung on the walls, and portraits of eighteenth-century military heroes Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov joined them later in the war. Stalin’s desk, covered with maps and papers, was to one side. Poskrebyshev’s office adjoined the study and next to it was a small room, occupied by security guards. Behind the study were a lounge and signal room with all the equipment used by Poskrebyshev to connect Stalin with the front commanders. This was the main communications center. Stalin’s office and sometimes the dacha at Kuntsevo served as the supreme headquarters of the Soviet armed forces throughout the war.
On June 30, the State Defense Committee (GKO) was set up. It was the supreme organ, and its orders were executed by the Council of People’s Kommissars through the machinery of the kommissariats. The Stavka, responsible for the conduct of military affairs, was renamed the Stavka of the Supreme Command. Its council now comprised Stalin as chairman, and Molotov, Timoshenko, Voroshilov, Budënny, Shaposhnikov, and Zhukov as its members. On July 19, 1941, Stalin became kommissar for defense, and on August 8, 1941, he was appointed Supreme commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R.
One of the first and most important directives of the State Defense Council (GKO), issued on July 4, was to transfer industries to the east. The evacuation of 1,523 industrial units, many of them enormous, including 1,360 major armament plants, was a tremendous undertaking and in human terms, a heroic achievement. But the dismantling and removal of these industries brought an immediate drop in production. Armament shortages were acute in the autumn of 1941 and spring of 1942. By the summer, production was reviving rapidly.
In the first fury of invasion, Stalin had been taken up with the collapse of the Soviet defenses, the organization of the high command, and resisting the invader. For a short time, he forgot the people and the need to invoke their fighting spirit and strengthen their morale. The nation was shaken and bewildered by the sudden devastating invasion. They had believed the Red Army would never permit an enemy onto Russian soil. Stalin himself was in some degree a victim of this propaganda. Although he knew better than anyone the weaknesses of the Red Army, he had not accepted in his heart that an invader could cross the frontiers. He had approved the Draft Field Regulations in 1939, which enshrined the themes that “the Soviet Union will meet any enemy attack by a smashing blow with all the might of its armed forces” and that “the military activity of the Red Army will aim at the complete destruction of the enemy and the achievement of a decisive victory at a small cost of blood.” This confidence had been shattered, and he knew that it was vital to rally the Russian people for the bitter ordeal ahead of them.
On July 3, twelve days after the invasion, Stalin broadcast to the nation. It was a historic speech, devoid of rhetoric, which appealed to the national pride of the people and to the sturdy Russian instinct to defend their homeland. He spoke as friend and leader, and it was this assurance that they had been waiting for. Russians everywhere and especially in the armed forces felt, as they listened, an “enormous enthusiasm and patriotic uplift.” General Ivan Fedyuninsky, who was to play a distinguished role on several fronts, wrote: “We suddenly seemed to feel much stronger.”
“Comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters, fighters of our army and navy! I am speaking to you, my friends,” were Stalin’s opening words. They differed strikingly from his usual form of address, and at once united them with him. Then, with a profound instinct for the mood and needs of the people, he described their predicament, and every word burned with his own implacable will to victory
At points, Stalin exaggerated and excused, but he did not obscure the truth. “Although the enemy’s finest divisions and the finest units of his air force have already been smashed and have gone to their death on the field of battle, the enemy continues to push forward.” The Soviet-German Pact had been designed to give peace or at least delay the war, but Hitler had perfidiously broken their agreement and had attacked with the advantage of surprise. He would not benefit for long.
Using simple concrete language, he brought home to the people what the war would mean for them. “The enemy is cruel and implacable. He is out to seize our lands, watered by the sweat of our brows, to seize our grain and oil, secured by the labour of our hands. He is out to restore the rule of the landlords, to restore tsarism . . . to germanize [the peoples of the Soviet Union] to turn them into the slaves of the German princes and barons.”
He told them bluntly that they were locked in a life-and-death struggle with a vile enemy and that they must be ruthless, utterly ruthless, in beating him. They must eradicate the chaos and panic in the rear of the lines. Then he stressed in detail the scorched-earth policy which they must follow. “In case of a forced retreat . . . all rolling stock must be evacuated, the enemy must not be left a single engine, a single railway car, a single pound of grain or gallon of fuel. The collective farmers must drive all their cattle and turn over their grain to the safe keeping of the authorities for transportation to the rear. All valuable property, including metals, grain and fuel, that cannot be withdrawn, must be destroyed without fail. . . . In areas occupied by the enemy, guerrillas, mounted and on foot, must be formed; sabotage groups must be organized to combat the enemy, to foment guerrilla warfare everywhere, blow up bridges and roads, damage telephone and telegraph lines, set fire to forests, stores and transport. In occupied regions, conditions must be made unbearable for the enemy and all his accomplices. They must be hounded and annihilated at every step, and all their measures frustrated.”
He expressed gratitude for the “historic utterance,” made by Churchill in a prompt broadcast on the evening of June 22 when he declared: “We shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people.” Stalin went on to speak of Napoleon’s invasion and of Russia’s victory over the French, adding that Hitler was no more invincible than Napoleon had been. Then as now, the Russian people were fighting “a national patriotic war,” and they were fighting for the freedom of all peoples. He called upon the Russians “to rally round the party of Lenin and Stalin.”