History
David Kerans
June 22, 2011
© Photo: Public domain

June 22nd marks a somber anniversary indeed. On this day in 1941 Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, commencing the largest and most destructive struggle between two nations in mankind's history. For the great majority of thinking people who believe in the manifold mission of historical study—to interpret events, to locate patterns, to give meaning to social dimensions of the human experience, and even to draw lessons from the past—then the colossal tragedy of June 22nd, 1941 surely warrants the most careful reflection.

Alas, many who reflect on historical themes, ranging all the way from yellow journalists to some pedigreed historians, do so less than carefully, sometimes far less. The conscious or unconscious temptation to bend historical memory to the service of contemporary causes is ineradicable, because the influence of historical memory on current events can be so significant, especially as concerns momentous, ongoing struggles between nations, or social classes, or races. The temptation to steer historical memory is all the greater in the case of June 22nd, 1941, given the war's enormous geopolitical and ideological stakes, and given the emotional burdens so many people bear from the conflict.

Bluntly put, many people have axes to grind against the Soviet Union, against contemporary Russia, and against socialism. As a result, in recent years a good number of prominent publications have tried to reverse the long-standing historiographical consensus regarding the responsibility for the German-Soviet war, its necessity, and its geopolitical meaning. Some decline to accept the notion that Hitler's attack was unprovoked, and assert that Hitler attacked just a few weeks ahead of the Soviets (1); some insist that Stalin was set on attacking Germany and its allies in Eastern Europe within a year or two; some portray the USSR as an expansionist, tyrannical, and murderous scourge, and imply or proclaim that the German invasion was to a significant degree a defense of Western civilization (2). Others, more subtly, portray Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR as two sides of the same, totalitarian, anti-human coin, and demand we blacken both sides with a full measure of guilt for the horrors of the whole period in Central and Eastern Europe (3). Let us deal with these accusations in turn.

A Preemptive Attack?

To begin with, the accusation that Stalin was preparing an imminent attack on Germany and its allies in the summer of 1941 comes up very short. Stalin's celebrated mention of offensive warfare in a May 5th, 1941 speech to military academy graduates tells us nothing. The leader was obliged to bolster the morale of his officers, and also to imply for domestic and foreign consumption that his army was well prepared for war. Indeed, on May 15th Stalin declined to approve Chief of the General Staff Zhukov's proposal to launch an offensive strike in the upcoming summer. Planning for such an offensive must have been mature, therefore, but planning is what war ministries do. The Soviet Commissariat of Defense had defensive plans too, naturally. The important point is that Stalin did not feel the Red Army would be prepared for war with Germany before the spring of 1942, at the earliest. He went to great lengths to avoid war in 1941, refusing even to put the army on alert when German preparations for war became more apparent, lest his units do anything that could serve to provoke the Germans or legitimize a planned attack from their side (4). To quote historian Jonathan Haslam, the notion of Stalin preparing to attack Germany in the summer of 1941 “…would be comical if it weren't taken so seriously {by the broader public—DK}.” (5)

A Nefarious, Expansionist USSR?

Operation Barbarossa was unprovoked in the summer of 1941. But might we nevertheless understand the German offensive as a natural, preemptive campaign against a Soviet Union that harbored aggressive, imperial intent against Germany and the West? So argue some apologists for Operation Barbarossa. But the argument is crude. Does it ever occur to such critics of Soviet foreign policy that Stalin only ordered planning for offensive operations against Germany in August 1940, well after Hitler revealed his imperial designs and changed the face of geopolitics in 1939? Having faced invasion from a dozen or more countries after its revolution in 1917, should anyone expect the Communist regime to have sat back and waited to be attacked again, this time by a bloodthirsty Nazi Germany? Soviet deliberations regarding possible offensive operations against Hitler were nothing but common sense, given the extraordinary likelihood of hostilities.

The same context helps us to understand Stalin's annexation of eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic states, and also the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-40. Neither these annexations nor planning for a large-scale westward offensive testify to any nefarious, expansionist essence of the USSR. Realpolitik is quite sufficient to explain them, just as it explains Stalin's decision to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939. As we explained in an earlier piece, the Soviets did everything they could to formalize a military alliance with France and Britain against Germany in 1939. It was the Western Allies who torpedoed the alliance, essentially forcing the USSR to seek a rapprochement with Hitler, lest it wind up facing Germany on its own (6).

None of this, we hasten to add, is meant to imply Stalin's mastery or consistency as a diplomat. Historian Kenneth Slepyan's recent characterization of Stalin in this dimension convincingly captures the elements at work:

Stalin was a scared and delusional practioner of realpolitik…. Stalin's foreign policy before, during, and especially after the war… was hardly indicative of a fomenter of world revolution. Of course, Stalin's foreign-policy decisions were shaped by ideological concerns and visions, but the range of choices within his ideological framework permitted policies of relative accommodation with the West in order to preserve Soviet security, even if those relations were also marked by extreme suspicion and hostility. Then, too, it is important to remember that even pragmatists can be self-delusional, and can make mistakes(7).

An Ahistorical, Existential Threat to Civilization, or a Society in Motion?

Last, might the domestic crimes of the Stalinist regime in the 1930s somehow justify the German invasion? The essential callousness and brutality of the Stalinist system at its height are unmistakeable to a trained historical eye, even if one takes into account the many genuine achievements of the early Soviet period (a perspective we must raise, even if we have no time to elaborate on it here). Soviet reality in the 1930s was gruesomely distorted from the regime's advertised ideals—featuring a massive famine, an enormous gulag system, mind-bending Orwellian propaganda, pathological purges of leaders and highly-qualified personnel, and even some ethically-charged repressions. But is this really grounds for equating Stalinism and Nazism? The contrasts between the Stalinist system and its ideology on the one hand with Nazism on the other hand are simply too stark to be ignored. On an ideological-psychological level, the Stalinist period could not eradicate Marxism's roots in Enlightenment values of reason and justice, and these values remained latent in the Soviet experience. Likewise, on a practical-administrative level, Stalinist methods of despotic rule throughout society inevitably lost their usefulness and credibility inside the USSR, and quickly–a process historian Moshe Lewin traced convincingly in a number of works (8). The peremptory, despotic, command style of rule that predominated seemingly at all levels in the Stalin period would markedly recede in the 1950s. Well before that, in fact, the powerful economic ministries were ironing out methods of managing themselves and working together to run the country. They had no use for a tyrant in the Kremlin.

Nor did the economic ministries have any use for a secret police super ministry that could ravage whatever it pleased, and on whatever scale. The secret police's gulag empire had lost economic and penal effectiveness by the late-1940s, and so it would have to be abandoned. (9) Not coincidentally, the secret police was soon stripped of the power to judge and to punish people by themselves. The category of “counter-revolutionary” crime was abolished, and the secret police was brought under control. Consequent adjustments followed throughout society, with major ramifications, as Lewin summarized: “It is one thing when a worker cannot leave his job or legally protest against injustice in the workplace; it is quite another when he can do so. A system denying all rights was supplanted by a system of laws, rights, and guarantees.” (10)

Last, the system seemed even to be outgrowing and bypassing the Communist Party itself. This is not the place to describe and discuss the process in detail, but the power that accrued to economic ministries in a centralized economy on the scale of the Soviet Union must be obvious. And it should not surprise us to learn from recently unearthed documents that by the late 1940s top officials in the Central Committee of the Communist Party were concluding that they (the Party) had lost power (11).

Did this country really represent the ultimate threat to Western civilization?

The USSR, in other words, was a society and a system in fast historical motion, not the totalitarian caricature its critics so chronically and ahistorically imagine. Consequently, portrayals of Stalin's USSR as an imminent and mortal danger to Western civilization are laughable—all the more so for Stalin having done so much to rein in communist revolutionary agitation on many occasions in the 1930s, and again after signing the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in 1939. Can any sober assessment of the threats to Western civilization in 1941 really compare the USSR to the overt, full-throated barbarism of Nazism with its intrinsic marriage of rabidly racist, expansionist nationalism and genocide?

____________________________________

(1) The flag-bearer here is Viktor Suvorov, with many publications, most famously Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? Hamish Hamilton, 1990. There are many others, including Joachim Hoffman, Stalin's War of Extermination, 1941-45: Planning, Realization, Documentation, Capshaw, Ala., Theses and Dissertation Press, 2001.

(2) Open advocates of this line are not especially hard to find. See, e.g., Daniel W. Michaels, “Revising the Twentieth Century's 'Perfect Storm'”, in The Journal of Historical Review, Sept.-Dec. 2001 (Vol. 20, No. 5-6), pp. 59 ff. Michaels laments “The failure of the British, French, and American leaderships to perceive that the Soviet Union was by far the deadlier threat, even in 1939, was a mistake that has taken half a century to rectify, at the cost of countless millions of lives.”

(3) For example, such is the thrust of a recent bestseller, Timothy Snyder's, Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Basic Books, New York, 2010.

(4) Memoirs of some Soviet officers do mention receiving of a package of sealed instructions in June 1941, and receiving orders to open them just after midnight on June 22nd. No one has uncovered an order from Moscow to attack Germany at this time, however. And even if they did, it would only testify to a vigorous response to the German invasion, which was already getting underway (inflitrators were cutting communication lines that evening, etc.).

(5) Jonathan Haslam, combined review of R. Raack, Stalin's drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War, and G. Roberts, The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933-1941, inThe Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 4 (Dec. 1997).

(6) David Kerans, “Crude Stereotypes and Western Foreign Policy Blunders: Enduring Lessons from the Anglo-French Mishandling of 1939,” Strategic Culture Foundation, August 2009.

(7) Kenneth Slepyan. Review of Gorodetsky, Gabriel, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. June, 2003.

(8) See especially Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, Verso, London-New York, 2005.

(9) On which see Marta Kraven and Oleg Khlevniuk, “Krizis ekonomiki MVD – konets 1940ykh-1950ye gody”, Cahiers du Monde Russe, XXXVI (1-2), January-june 1995.

(10) Lewin, op. cit., pp. 198-99.

(11)Lewin, op. cit., p. 135-36.

The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.
Hitler’s Barbarossa, not Stalin’s

June 22nd marks a somber anniversary indeed. On this day in 1941 Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, commencing the largest and most destructive struggle between two nations in mankind's history. For the great majority of thinking people who believe in the manifold mission of historical study—to interpret events, to locate patterns, to give meaning to social dimensions of the human experience, and even to draw lessons from the past—then the colossal tragedy of June 22nd, 1941 surely warrants the most careful reflection.

Alas, many who reflect on historical themes, ranging all the way from yellow journalists to some pedigreed historians, do so less than carefully, sometimes far less. The conscious or unconscious temptation to bend historical memory to the service of contemporary causes is ineradicable, because the influence of historical memory on current events can be so significant, especially as concerns momentous, ongoing struggles between nations, or social classes, or races. The temptation to steer historical memory is all the greater in the case of June 22nd, 1941, given the war's enormous geopolitical and ideological stakes, and given the emotional burdens so many people bear from the conflict.

Bluntly put, many people have axes to grind against the Soviet Union, against contemporary Russia, and against socialism. As a result, in recent years a good number of prominent publications have tried to reverse the long-standing historiographical consensus regarding the responsibility for the German-Soviet war, its necessity, and its geopolitical meaning. Some decline to accept the notion that Hitler's attack was unprovoked, and assert that Hitler attacked just a few weeks ahead of the Soviets (1); some insist that Stalin was set on attacking Germany and its allies in Eastern Europe within a year or two; some portray the USSR as an expansionist, tyrannical, and murderous scourge, and imply or proclaim that the German invasion was to a significant degree a defense of Western civilization (2). Others, more subtly, portray Nazi Germany and Stalin's USSR as two sides of the same, totalitarian, anti-human coin, and demand we blacken both sides with a full measure of guilt for the horrors of the whole period in Central and Eastern Europe (3). Let us deal with these accusations in turn.

A Preemptive Attack?

To begin with, the accusation that Stalin was preparing an imminent attack on Germany and its allies in the summer of 1941 comes up very short. Stalin's celebrated mention of offensive warfare in a May 5th, 1941 speech to military academy graduates tells us nothing. The leader was obliged to bolster the morale of his officers, and also to imply for domestic and foreign consumption that his army was well prepared for war. Indeed, on May 15th Stalin declined to approve Chief of the General Staff Zhukov's proposal to launch an offensive strike in the upcoming summer. Planning for such an offensive must have been mature, therefore, but planning is what war ministries do. The Soviet Commissariat of Defense had defensive plans too, naturally. The important point is that Stalin did not feel the Red Army would be prepared for war with Germany before the spring of 1942, at the earliest. He went to great lengths to avoid war in 1941, refusing even to put the army on alert when German preparations for war became more apparent, lest his units do anything that could serve to provoke the Germans or legitimize a planned attack from their side (4). To quote historian Jonathan Haslam, the notion of Stalin preparing to attack Germany in the summer of 1941 “…would be comical if it weren't taken so seriously {by the broader public—DK}.” (5)

A Nefarious, Expansionist USSR?

Operation Barbarossa was unprovoked in the summer of 1941. But might we nevertheless understand the German offensive as a natural, preemptive campaign against a Soviet Union that harbored aggressive, imperial intent against Germany and the West? So argue some apologists for Operation Barbarossa. But the argument is crude. Does it ever occur to such critics of Soviet foreign policy that Stalin only ordered planning for offensive operations against Germany in August 1940, well after Hitler revealed his imperial designs and changed the face of geopolitics in 1939? Having faced invasion from a dozen or more countries after its revolution in 1917, should anyone expect the Communist regime to have sat back and waited to be attacked again, this time by a bloodthirsty Nazi Germany? Soviet deliberations regarding possible offensive operations against Hitler were nothing but common sense, given the extraordinary likelihood of hostilities.

The same context helps us to understand Stalin's annexation of eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic states, and also the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-40. Neither these annexations nor planning for a large-scale westward offensive testify to any nefarious, expansionist essence of the USSR. Realpolitik is quite sufficient to explain them, just as it explains Stalin's decision to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939. As we explained in an earlier piece, the Soviets did everything they could to formalize a military alliance with France and Britain against Germany in 1939. It was the Western Allies who torpedoed the alliance, essentially forcing the USSR to seek a rapprochement with Hitler, lest it wind up facing Germany on its own (6).

None of this, we hasten to add, is meant to imply Stalin's mastery or consistency as a diplomat. Historian Kenneth Slepyan's recent characterization of Stalin in this dimension convincingly captures the elements at work:

Stalin was a scared and delusional practioner of realpolitik…. Stalin's foreign policy before, during, and especially after the war… was hardly indicative of a fomenter of world revolution. Of course, Stalin's foreign-policy decisions were shaped by ideological concerns and visions, but the range of choices within his ideological framework permitted policies of relative accommodation with the West in order to preserve Soviet security, even if those relations were also marked by extreme suspicion and hostility. Then, too, it is important to remember that even pragmatists can be self-delusional, and can make mistakes(7).

An Ahistorical, Existential Threat to Civilization, or a Society in Motion?

Last, might the domestic crimes of the Stalinist regime in the 1930s somehow justify the German invasion? The essential callousness and brutality of the Stalinist system at its height are unmistakeable to a trained historical eye, even if one takes into account the many genuine achievements of the early Soviet period (a perspective we must raise, even if we have no time to elaborate on it here). Soviet reality in the 1930s was gruesomely distorted from the regime's advertised ideals—featuring a massive famine, an enormous gulag system, mind-bending Orwellian propaganda, pathological purges of leaders and highly-qualified personnel, and even some ethically-charged repressions. But is this really grounds for equating Stalinism and Nazism? The contrasts between the Stalinist system and its ideology on the one hand with Nazism on the other hand are simply too stark to be ignored. On an ideological-psychological level, the Stalinist period could not eradicate Marxism's roots in Enlightenment values of reason and justice, and these values remained latent in the Soviet experience. Likewise, on a practical-administrative level, Stalinist methods of despotic rule throughout society inevitably lost their usefulness and credibility inside the USSR, and quickly–a process historian Moshe Lewin traced convincingly in a number of works (8). The peremptory, despotic, command style of rule that predominated seemingly at all levels in the Stalin period would markedly recede in the 1950s. Well before that, in fact, the powerful economic ministries were ironing out methods of managing themselves and working together to run the country. They had no use for a tyrant in the Kremlin.

Nor did the economic ministries have any use for a secret police super ministry that could ravage whatever it pleased, and on whatever scale. The secret police's gulag empire had lost economic and penal effectiveness by the late-1940s, and so it would have to be abandoned. (9) Not coincidentally, the secret police was soon stripped of the power to judge and to punish people by themselves. The category of “counter-revolutionary” crime was abolished, and the secret police was brought under control. Consequent adjustments followed throughout society, with major ramifications, as Lewin summarized: “It is one thing when a worker cannot leave his job or legally protest against injustice in the workplace; it is quite another when he can do so. A system denying all rights was supplanted by a system of laws, rights, and guarantees.” (10)

Last, the system seemed even to be outgrowing and bypassing the Communist Party itself. This is not the place to describe and discuss the process in detail, but the power that accrued to economic ministries in a centralized economy on the scale of the Soviet Union must be obvious. And it should not surprise us to learn from recently unearthed documents that by the late 1940s top officials in the Central Committee of the Communist Party were concluding that they (the Party) had lost power (11).

Did this country really represent the ultimate threat to Western civilization?

The USSR, in other words, was a society and a system in fast historical motion, not the totalitarian caricature its critics so chronically and ahistorically imagine. Consequently, portrayals of Stalin's USSR as an imminent and mortal danger to Western civilization are laughable—all the more so for Stalin having done so much to rein in communist revolutionary agitation on many occasions in the 1930s, and again after signing the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in 1939. Can any sober assessment of the threats to Western civilization in 1941 really compare the USSR to the overt, full-throated barbarism of Nazism with its intrinsic marriage of rabidly racist, expansionist nationalism and genocide?

____________________________________

(1) The flag-bearer here is Viktor Suvorov, with many publications, most famously Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? Hamish Hamilton, 1990. There are many others, including Joachim Hoffman, Stalin's War of Extermination, 1941-45: Planning, Realization, Documentation, Capshaw, Ala., Theses and Dissertation Press, 2001.

(2) Open advocates of this line are not especially hard to find. See, e.g., Daniel W. Michaels, “Revising the Twentieth Century's 'Perfect Storm'”, in The Journal of Historical Review, Sept.-Dec. 2001 (Vol. 20, No. 5-6), pp. 59 ff. Michaels laments “The failure of the British, French, and American leaderships to perceive that the Soviet Union was by far the deadlier threat, even in 1939, was a mistake that has taken half a century to rectify, at the cost of countless millions of lives.”

(3) For example, such is the thrust of a recent bestseller, Timothy Snyder's, Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Basic Books, New York, 2010.

(4) Memoirs of some Soviet officers do mention receiving of a package of sealed instructions in June 1941, and receiving orders to open them just after midnight on June 22nd. No one has uncovered an order from Moscow to attack Germany at this time, however. And even if they did, it would only testify to a vigorous response to the German invasion, which was already getting underway (inflitrators were cutting communication lines that evening, etc.).

(5) Jonathan Haslam, combined review of R. Raack, Stalin's drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War, and G. Roberts, The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933-1941, inThe Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 4 (Dec. 1997).

(6) David Kerans, “Crude Stereotypes and Western Foreign Policy Blunders: Enduring Lessons from the Anglo-French Mishandling of 1939,” Strategic Culture Foundation, August 2009.

(7) Kenneth Slepyan. Review of Gorodetsky, Gabriel, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. June, 2003.

(8) See especially Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, Verso, London-New York, 2005.

(9) On which see Marta Kraven and Oleg Khlevniuk, “Krizis ekonomiki MVD – konets 1940ykh-1950ye gody”, Cahiers du Monde Russe, XXXVI (1-2), January-june 1995.

(10) Lewin, op. cit., pp. 198-99.

(11)Lewin, op. cit., p. 135-36.