The Holocaust Historiography Project

Revising the Twentieth Century’s 'Perfect Storm'

Russian and German Historians Debate Barbarossa and Its Aftermath

Daniel Michaels

  • Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia by Gabriel Gorodetsky. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 408 pages.
  • Samoubiystvo (Suicide) by Viktor Suvorov. Moscow: AST, 2000. 380 pages. Illustrations.
  • Upushchennyy shans Stalina (Stalin’s Lost Opportunity) by Mikhail Meltiukhov. Moscow: Veche, 2000. 605 pages. Illustrations, maps.
  • Stalin’s War of Extermination, 1941-45: Planning, Realization, and Documentation by Joachim Hoffmann. Capshaw, Ala.: Theses and Dissertations Press, 2001. 415 pages. Illustrations.

Revising the history of the Second World War’s crucial Russo-German campaign is very much a work in progress, nowhere more so than in Russia and Germany. Ever since Viktor Suvorov (Vladimir Rezun) broke the ice a decade ago with his sensational Ledokol (published in English as Icebreaker [reviewed in the Journal of Historical Review 16, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1997)]), Russian historians have been reexamining the many myths, legends, and fantasies associated with the outbreak of the death duel between Communism and National Socialism. The role of Joseph Stalin, in particular, has aroused the most heated controversy.

In Russia, the debate has involved two major groups. The first asserts that the Soviet Union had no aggressive designs against Germany or Europe and was unprepared for war, while the second maintains that Stalin and the Red Army indeed had plans for a surprise attack against Germany and Europe, but were beaten to the punch by Hitler.

Contending Factions

To the first group have belonged such notables as the late Marshal Georgi Zhukov, journalist Lev Bezymenski (also professor at the Academy of Military Sciences), General M. A. Gareyev, V. A. Anfilov, and Yu. A. Gorkov. This group, in general, also contends that Stalin had decapitated the Red Army by purging many high-ranking officers just before the war; that he was too trusting of Hitler, wrongly believing that the Führer would never deliberately initiate a two-front war; and that Stalin was the cause of Communism’s failure. These views are shared by many, regardless of political leanings.

An Israeli, Gabriel Gorodetsky, much ballyhooed in the English-speaking world, also fits in this company. Gorodetsky is a colleague of Lev Bezymenski, as he was of the late General Dmitri Volkogonov. Gorodetsky, Suvorov contends, has been granted unparalleled access to selected archives of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the General Staff, the NKVD, the GRU, and other records usually closed to researchers, above all revisionists, who might probe too deeply. For this reason Suvorov suspects Gorodetsky of being a conduit for information that the Russian government chooses to have disseminated.

To the second group belong military historians such as Viktor Suvorov, Mikhail Meltiukhov, V. A. Nevezhin, V. D. Danilov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as several Germans (Joachim Hoffmann, Wolfgang Strauss, Fritz Becker) and Austrians (Heinz Magenheimer, Ernst Topitsch). (See review of Topitsch’s Stalin’s War in JHR 8, no. 2 [summer 1988]). They argue that Stalin trusted no one, least of all Hitler; that Stalin had, together with Marshal Zhukov, devised his own plan for a surprise offensive against Germany, with the ultimate goal of establishing Communism in Europe; and that it was the USSR, not Germany, which was better prepared for war. Suvorov has also argued that Stalin’s purges actually improved the Red Army, by ridding it of the heavy-handed political commissars, most of whom were Trotskyite thugs despised by the people. As is well known, many of Trotsky’s followers were his fellow Jews, often foreign born rather than native to Russia.

The American historians Richard Raack and R. H. S. Stolfi (see review in JHR 15, no. 6 [Nov.-Dec. 1995]) have joined the debate, lending it a worldwide dimension. Professor Raack in particular has reinforced the arguments of the Suvorov group, writing that “in fact the discussion is now international … the genie of truth is out of the bottle.”

The first group has been taxed with harboring Stalinist apologists for the old Soviet Establishment, the second of seeking to justify Hitler’s German invasion. Polemics aside, the historiographical roots of the division are manifest in the reliance of the first group on the Soviet political literature to substantiate its arguments, as opposed to the second group’s reliance on historical analysis based on military science, studying and comparing troop deployments, weapons systems, and so on.

In the past few years, several major books have appeared from representatives of both sides of the dispute. Gorodetsky, supported in his research by many former Soviet Jews now residing in Israel, has recently published Grand Delusion. Widely circulated in the West, it has won the acclaim of most of its Anglo-American reviewers. The irrepressible Suvorov, who resides in England, has published his fourth major book on the war, entitled Samoubiystvo ("Suicide"), dealing with events immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities, while Meltiukhov, currently associated with the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Documentation and Archival Science, has just published Upushchennyy shans Stalina ("Stalin’s Lost Opportunity"). Regrettably, with the exception of Icebreaker, none of Suvorov’s and Meltiukhov’s works are currently available in English, and they have only rarely been reviewed or evaluated in the English-speaking world. Finally, an excellent translation of Stalin’s War of Extermination, by Joachim Hoffmann, historian at Germany’s Military History Research Office (MGFA), has now been made available to English speakers. This book has gone through several editions in Germany and is widely read there.

Suvorov’s works enjoy the greatest sales and circulation of serious Russian literature on the war. At first his opponents (almost all professional historians) tried to ignore him. Later, when compelled to recognize his work, they attempted to dismiss his theses as the product of a fantast who had had no access to official documents whatsoever. Yet, working solely from Soviet open source literature on the war, Suvorov deduced the Soviet plan to invade Germany, predicting that in time official documents would be found to substantiate his conclusions. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, such documents have surfaced with increasing frequency, and in recent years Suvorov has found a perfect partner in Meltiukhov, who, with his experience in documentation and archival science and his easier access to Soviet-era records, has provided documentation for Suvorov’s theses.

Plan of attack

The Zhukov Plan of May 15, 1941, discussed briefly in these pages last year (see JHR 19, no. 6 [Nov.-Dec. 2000]), continues to be the focus of analysis and discussion. Recently, on the fifty-ninth anniversary of the German attack, Vladimir Sergeyev described and published excerpts from the Zhukov document, which was discovered in the Archives of the President of the Russian Federation some years ago. For ultimate security, the original twelve-page text had been handwritten by then Major General, later Marshal, A. M. Vasilevski, and addressed to the chairman of the USSR Council of Peoples Commissars, Joseph Stalin. The document, marked “Top Secret! Of Great Importance! Stalin’s Eyes Only! One Copy Only!,” was authorized and approved by People’s Defense Minister S. K. Timoshenko and Zhukov, then chief of the Red Army general staff.

A key passage in the war plan not previously cited in these pages reads:

In order to prevent a surprise German attack and to destroy the German Army, I consider it essential that under no circumstances should the initiative for freedom of action be given to the German High Command[. I consider it essential] to preempt enemy deployment, to attack the German Army when it is still in the stage of deployment and has not yet had time to organize his front and the interaction between his service arms.[The word for “preempt” was underlined twice in the original document. — D. M.]

Thus did Zhukov propose to Stalin precisely what the German Army would do to his forces a month later.

The Suvorov school and certain German military analysts speculate that Stalin’s failure to attack before the German onslaught of June 22, 1941, was probably because his own forces had not yet fully deployed for the offensive. Sergeyev, on the other hand, suggests that the attack plan prepared by Zhukov was faulty.

Upon his return from the successful blitzkrieg operation he had orchestrated in the battle of Khalkin-Gol in Mongolia (August 1939), Marshal Zhukov was put in charge of the Kiev Special Military District, where he commanded the Soviet Southwestern and Western fronts. His plan of May 15, 1941, assigned these fronts the task of destroying the Wehrmacht units before them, then advancing southwest across Poland to the German border. This operation was intended to cut German forces off from the Balkan theater of operations and from their Romanian and Hungarian allies, including their vital oil fields.

Zhukov was unaware that the main deployment of German forces was not on the Soviet left flank, but in Army Group Center, further to the north. Thus, had Soviet forces attacked toward Cracow-Lublin, as Zhukov’s plan called for, Army Group Center could easily have cut through the exposed right (northern) flank of the Soviet thrust, upset the Soviet offensive, and then advanced along the Minsk-Smolensk line toward Moscow. In that event, the Red Army would have found itself in an even worse situation than after the outbreak of the actual German offensive on June 22. Zhukov admitted as much later to military historian V. A. Anfilov: “In retrospect it is good that he [Stalin] did not agree with us. Otherwise, our forces might have suffered a catastrophe.”

Stalin’s Aims

In a more detailed study of the May 15 document, L. A. Bezymenski notes that the plan had even more ambitious goals. After completion of the first stage of the offensive, Soviet forces were to turn north and northwest to destroy the northern wing of the German front, thereby occupying East Prussia and all of Poland. Meanwhile, to the north, the Red Army would once again invade Finland. According to Bezymenski, Zhukov’s bold offensive plan had very probably been influenced by Stalin’s speech of May 5 to Soviet military academy graduates, in which the Soviet leader emphasized the superiority of offensive over defensive military planning.

Soviet mobilization and deployment in the period January-June 1941 took place in three stages:

  • first stage, January-March, the call-up of about a million reservists, industry ordered to step up production of T-34 and KV tanks, first echelon troops brought up to strength;
  • second stage, April-June, second echelon forces moved up to the western border, Far Eastern troops moved west;
  • third stage, June 1-June 22, Stalin agrees to open mobilization and to advancing second echelon armies to the front. All these operations were to be carried out in secrecy, without the enemy taking note. Once mobilized and in position, the Soviet forces were to launch a sudden, decisive offensive against Germany and her allies.

According to Meltiukhov, the correlation of forces along the front from Ostroleka (Poland) to the Carpathians at the time of the planned Zhukov offensive was as shown in the table below.

Red Army Wehrmacht Ratio
Divisions 128 55 2.3:1
Troop strength 3,400,000 1,400,000 2.1:1
Field guns 38,500 16,300 2.4:1
Tanks 7,500 900 8.7:1
Aircraft 6,200 1,400 4.4:1

The attack was to begin in typical blitzkrieg fashion — without warning, with air raids on enemy airfields, and with heavy artillery bombardment of front-line enemy forces. The USSR would thus have had the clear advantage of superior forces and the benefits of the first strike. Why Stalin did not give the order to attack is unknown.

In “Stalin’s Lost Opportunity,” Meltiukhov establishes, with meticulous documentation, that in the years 1938-40 the Soviet Union had carried out a massive build-up of military muscle that made it the superpower of the day, far exceeding the might of any enemy. Meltiukhov presents the comparative strength of the major belligerents for August 1939, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland, as shown in the table above.

Accounting for Stalin’s Delay

Meltiukhov minces no words on Stalin’s intent: “The content of the Soviet operational plans, the ideological guidelines and the military propaganda, combined with information on the immediate military preparations of the Red Army for an offensive, attest unambiguously to the intention of the Soviet government to attack Germany in the summer of 1941.” He concludes that at first the opening strike against Germany (Operation Groza [Thunderstorm]) was scheduled for June 12, 1941, but that the Kremlin later fatefully shifted the date to July 15. According to Meltiukhov: “Unfortunately, what we now know today was a secret in 1941. The Soviet leadership made a fateful miscalculation by not striking first.”

Meltiukhov speculates that Stalin delayed the date for the attack when he learned, on May 12, of Rudolf Hess' flight to Scotland. Stalin feared that if the Hess peace mission succeeded, and the British withdrew from the war, the Red Army would be left to stand alone against the Germans. When it became clear that the Hess mission had failed, Stalin set July 15 as the date for Operation Thunderstorm — twenty-three days after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. Had the Red Army attacked on the originally scheduled date, Meltiukhov believes, it would have succeeded.

Although Soviet intelligence had been informed of the precise date of the German attack by its agent Richard Sorge in Japan, and by its “Korsikanets” and “Starshina” sources in Berlin, Stalin refused to be convinced. Moreover, Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt had also warned Stalin, to no avail: Stalin knew that Britain desperately needed the USSR in the war against Germany for its own sake. By failing to strike first, as planned, the USSR lost 800,000 men (Germany, 80,000), 4,000 aircraft (Germany, 850), 21,500 field guns and 11,800 tanks (Germany, 400) during the first two and a half weeks of the war. By the end of 1941 the Soviet Union had lost three million Red Army troops.

Meltiukhov rejects the term “preventive war.” For a true preventive war, it is necessary for the attacker to know definitely that his adversary is about to invade. Meltiukhov maintains that, while the each side was aware of the other’s build-up and deployment of forces, neither the Germans nor the Russians knew with certainty that the other was about to attack. Stalin believed, with some logic, that Hitler would never open a second front while the Britain was still in the war, but the German leader chose not to wait until the Red Army launched its attack: he unleashed his own blitzkrieg. The situation best resembles two cats sitting on a fence waiting to see which will jump off first. On the day before the attack, Hitler signaled his frame of mind in a letter to Mussolini:

Even if I were forced to lose 60-70 divisions in Russia by the end of the year, this would still only be a small fraction of the forces I would have to maintain constantly on the eastern border under the present conditions.

In the end Germany failed, Meltiukhov states, simply because it had neither the resources nor the reserves necessary to bring a long war to a successful conclusion.

A Suicidal Invasion?

The ever controversial, iconoclastic Suvorov dedicates his new book to his adversaries. He writes, “You can’t dedicate a book with this title [Ledokol, or “Suicide"] to friends, so I dedicate it to my enemies.” An enemy of the Soviet regime who defected to England, Suvorov was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. Although his opponents are legion, including many in the post-Soviet as well as the Anglo-American establishments, in today’s Russia he is the most popular writer on the history of the Second World War.

Suvorov joins Meltiukhov in the belief that if any side was unprepared for the war that ensued, it was the Germans. On June 22, 1941 when Germany launched its desperate attack, Stalin had some 13,000 aircraft to Hitler’s 2,500. Moreover, the Red Army had an even greater advantage in numbers and quality of tanks (24,000:3,700).

In “Suicide” Suvorov analyzes secondary sources in German, just as he did in his books on Russian war plans, and concludes that Hitler had lost the war even before the first shot was fired. It is Suvorov’s contention that Hitler and the Nazi leadership were irresponsible in launching a war against the much larger, better prepared, and better armed Soviet Union in the absurd belief that the USSR could be defeated in ninety days — July-August-September. Hitler and the German high command unpardonably underestimated the strength of the Soviet armed forces, which Stalin had been building up since the mid-1920s. Germany, of course, did not begin rearming until the mid-1930s, and would delay mobilizing for total war until around 1943.

Stalin and his advisors knew that the Wehrmacht lacked all the essentials for a protracted war under conditions of extreme cold. Through their intelligence services and agents, the Soviets had learned that: German tanks were inferior to their own in both quantity and quality; Germany was critically short of oil; Germany did not manufacture cold-resistant lubricants; the German forces had not been issued winter clothing; Germany was dependent for its war effort on the import of many raw materials; and much more.

Exasperated by the short-sighted, superficial German plan for victory in three months, Suvorov asks a few rhetorical questions: Did Hitler think that May followed October in Russia? Had he learned nothing from Napoleon’s campaign? Did he not know that, even if he reached Moscow, Russia would have continued the war from the Urals in the interior, far beyond the reach of German long-range bombers?

By the end of the fourth month of Barbarossa, the German economy was already groaning. Fritz Todt, chief of arms production, advised Hitler to arrange for an armistice. Large-scale German tank operations had to be curtailed for lack of fuel. The German panzer units, with their limited number of tanks, were often forced to cover long distances to quell unforeseen exigencies, thereby further exhausting fuel supplies. (Large-scale blitzkrieg operations, ensuring the greatest possible encirclement and bag of prisoners, require that the tanks moving out from one pincer proceed with minimum diversion in order to meet those jumping off from the other pincer, thereby closing the encirclement.)

Beyond the Propaganda

Suvorov’s list of villains is long indeed. Hitler, Goebbels, and the subservient German generals are castigated for their recklessness. But Suvorov’s venom is mostly directed at the Communist and post-Communist establishment, whose spokesmen continue to mouth the Party line. He ridicules and mocks what he considers the falsehoods, misconceptions, myths, and errors about the German-Russian war invented and circulated by the various Soviet and post-Soviet “scientific institutes,” including the Institute of Marxism-Leninism and the Institute of Military History, whose researchers have tried to dismiss Suvorov’s findings as “unscientific.”

Suvorov dismisses typical official Soviet sources for the war as specious propaganda devoid of hard facts or figures. The main message of the original six-volume History of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, 1941-45, Suvorov contends, is that Nikita Khrushchev (under whose administration the work was compiled) won the war single-handedly. Suvorov goes on to observe that when the twelve-volume revised edition of this official history was written under Leonid Brezhnev, it was revised to show that it was actually Brezhnev who had won the Great Patriotic War.

Suvorov singles out the memoirs of Marshal Zhukov for special criticism. He hazards that these were probably written by Glavpur (the Main Political Directorate of the Red Army). Thus “Zhukov” writes that on June 22, 1941, the Germans enjoyed a 5-6:1 advantage over Soviet forces in field pieces, tanks and aircraft, when in fact the ratio was to Russia’s advantage.

Suvorov considers Stalin to have been Hitler’s superior in cleverness, rationality, emotional stability, international politics, cruelty, and blood-letting. Stalin was much better informed about German capabilities than Hitler was of Russian. Suvorov introduces a Russian adage to demean Hitler’s attempt to outwit Stalin: “Never try to trick a trickster.” The only reason for Hitler’s initial success, for Suvorov, was that Barbarossa was an entirely irrational decision, which the thoroughly logical Stalin could not possibly have anticipated. In the opinion of this reviewer, that was precisely why Hitler took the gamble. Suvorov’s Russian nativism shines forth when he writes: “Only a fool would consider defeating Russia! Only a complete idiot would ever think of defeating it in a three-month campaign!”

As brilliant as Suvorov has been in exposing the historical lies of the corrupt Communist and post-Communist regimes, even sympathetic readers must take issue with him on certain points. As with Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of Troy, Suvorov’s findings may not satisfy the more professional historians in every detail — and some of them will be subject to revision.

Overrating Stalin

Occasionally Suvorov contradicts himself. For example, he argues that when Hitler turned his troops southward to Kiev before Moscow was taken, he all but lost the war. But elsewhere Suvorov recognizes that in war the best strategy is to defeat the enemy’s armed forces, not to take prestige cities. In fact the German forces turned south not so much to take Kiev as to destroy another Soviet army. The German generals, who after all had some experience in the conduct of war, were of course perfectly aware of the pointlessness of capturing large cities merely for trophy value. When the enemy’s armed forces are destroyed, his cities will fall on their own.

Only in the case of Stalingrad did the German invaders commit all their forces and energies to take a city — with disastrous results. The previous winter, after the failure to take Moscow, reason had prevailed and the Germans retreated to a more defensible line, where they were able to regroup and reinforce their armies. Without the help of the Finns, German forces were inadequate to take Leningrad, so they bypassed the city. But Hitler forbade any retreat from Stalingrad. Its capture had been aimed, among other things, at blocking oil shipments up the Volga north to the Soviets. The Wehrmacht was no less concerned to fuel its own war machine: it had secured the Crimea in order to protect its chief sources of petroleum, in Romania and Hungary, from Soviet air attack from that peninsula.

Suvorov’s excessive regard for Stalin’s leadership and his equally overdone criticism of Hitler’s ignores the fact that Germany nearly did defeat the Red Army. Had the United States, Great Britain, France, and other allies not supported Stalin with arms, trucks, provisions, and other necessities of war, the outcome might have been quite different. It must also be recalled that, throughout much of the long Russian-German conflict, Germany was compelled to divert twenty to thirty percent of its war effort to the Western front.

Suvorov’s main contention, that Stalin groomed Hitler to do his dirty work in Europe, is untenable. It gives far too much credit to the Soviet dictator. Germany never wanted a war in the west, let alone one against Britain. True, the Germans suspected France — especially under the government of Léon Blum’s popular front — of further mischief.

It must be recalled that Germany’s ill-fated attack on the Soviet Union followed several successive attempts at its encirclement by its enemies. In the 1930s British and French diplomacy had succeeded in surrounding her with hostile nations. Then came the attempted Scandinavian and Balkan encirclement, and finally that of the U.S.,UK, and USSR. With both Soviet and Western forces increasing in strength, Germany took a desperate gamble to break the ring, rather than wait until the Red Army seized the most opportune time to pounce. True, the gamble failed. Today’s Germany, however, is a prosperous country, much smaller than it might have wished, but the remnant of Stalin’s USSR, stripped of the Tsar’s empire, is not much more than an overgrown economic basket case.

Suvorov exaggerates Stalin’s “genius.” While it is true that he created a police state and built up the Red Army to superpower status, his armed forces failed miserably at the time they were most needed, June 1941. It is also true that Stalin dominated Churchill and Roosevelt, above all in the several conferences that determined postwar arrangements among the “Big Three,” but the Western leaders had cast themselves in the role of supplicants who needed the Red Army to contain and destroy Germany.

For all that, Suvorov has made a great contribution to correcting the history of the Second World War by dispelling, once and for all, the myth of a peace-loving Soviet Union invented by Communist propagandists and circulated in the West by their dupes and sympathizers.

Trusting Stalin

According to Gorodetsky’s version of the Soviet Union, the USSR planned only counter-attacks in defense of the homeland, and its leader, Stalin, was too trusting of Adolf Hitler. Gorodetsky completely ignores the Soviet Union’s military build-up from the 1930s until the outbreak of hostilities in 1941. The tens of thousands of advanced tanks and aircraft; the training of hundreds of thousands of paratroopers; the forward deployment of airfields, depots, and attack units on the eve of the attack in June 1941 are all hard evidence of Stalin’s real intentions.

The Israeli researcher has limited himself almost entirely to examining statements from official Soviet sources. For the most part, he ignores military analysts (whether Russian, German, or American), who are better equipped than he to evaluate military capabilities and designs. These researchers tend increasingly to agree with Suvorov.

Gorodetsky retains the stale support of the old Soviet establishment, while Suvorov has gained many post-Soviet adherents in recent years. While Gorodetsky is read mostly in England and the United States, erstwhile allies of Stalinist Russia, Suvorov is read widely in Russia and Germany, whose peoples experienced Stalin’s and Hitler’s war first hand.

No Room for Chivalry

In Stalin’s War of Extermination Joachim Hoffmann examines both the underlying causes and the ruthless execution of the war by Russians and Germans alike, in a thoroughly engrossing, systematic approach that is unsurpassed with respect to comprehensiveness, objectivity, and documentation. Hoffmann has made extensive use of interrogations of Soviet prisoners of war, ranging in rank from general to private, conducted by their German captors during the war. These interviews, combined with the traditional exploitation of open-source, unclassified literature and recently declassified materials, irrefutably dispel the myth of a peace-loving Soviet Union led by a trusting, pacific Joseph Stalin. Hoffmann’s research confirms conclusively that the Soviet Union was making final preparations for its own preemptive attack when the Wehrmacht struck.

Besides the POW interrogations, Hoffmann cites such military authorities as Dmitri Volkogonov, to the effect that Stalin needed only a few more weeks to bring his forces into complete battle readiness; Soviet military analyst Colonel Danilov, who agrees that the “vozhd” (commander) only needed a bit more time; and Colonel Karpov, who has written:

In the early grayness of a May or June morning, thousands of our aircraft and tens of thousands of our guns would have dealt the blow against the densely concentrated German force, whose positions were known down to battalion level — a surprise even more inconceivable than the German attack on us.

Hoffmann contends that war between these two mutually hostile, ideologically driven nations was inevitable: it was merely a question of which side would initiate hostilities. He reminds that the First World War had brought Communism to power over the one sixth of the one sixth of the Earth’s surface that had been the Russian empire. A second world war, Lenin preached, would advance Communism throughout Europe. Stalin, Lenin’s faithful disciple in propagating Communism, acted from the outset of his rule to increase the USSR’s military might to that end. By 1941, the Red Army’s aircraft, tanks, and field artillery exceeded Germany’s by a factor of at least six to one in each category. In that year, the USSR’s paratroops and submarines, exclusively offensive forces, exceeded those of the rest of the world combined.

The main principles of Soviet military doctrine in the spring of 1941 were: 1) the Red Army is an offensive army; 2) war must always be fought on enemy territory, with minimum friendly losses and the total destruction of the enemy; 3) the working class in the enemy’s country is a potential ally and should be encouraged to rebel against its masters; and 4) war preparations must serve to ensure offensive capabilities.

So confident was Stalin of Soviet military superiority, Hoffmann asserts, that he doubted Germany would ever be foolish enough to attack, especially as long as Britain remained in the war. Dumbfounded at the German successes at the outset of Barbarossa, the Soviet dictator realized that he had underestimated Germany’s chances of defeating the Red Army. Suvorov has described Stalin’s probable state of mind as comparable to that of the designer of the Titanic after learning it had sunk. Nevertheless, vowing vengeance, still confident of ultimate victory, Stalin demanded the total extermination of the German invaders. On November 6, 1941, he declared:

Well now, if the Germans want a war of extermination, they will get it. From now on it will be our task, the task of the peoples of the Soviet Union, the task of our fighters, commanders, and the political officials of our Army and Navy to exterminate to the last man all Germans who have invaded Homeland as occupiers. No mercy to the German occupiers! Death to the German occupiers!

Hitler, for his part, by underestimating the military strength of the Soviet Union, led his country to a catastrophic defeat. Goebbels, in his diary, suggested that had Hitler known the actual strength of the Red Army, he might have at least paused before taking his fateful gamble. Yet, however disastrous the Axis attack finally proved for the German nation in the end, Hoffmann believes that all Europe would have suffered as grim a fate had the Red Army succeeded in striking first.

This clash to the death between two ideologically driven states, Hoffmann observes, left no room for chivalry, or for the strict observance of international conventions on land warfare. Stalin insisted that Soviet soldiers not surrender, and used maximal terror to prevent them from doing so. Soviet POWs were deemed deserters, and any Soviet soldier who surrendered was to be killed on falling into Soviet hands. (Near the end of the war German soldiers who refused to fight were shot and hanged from lamp posts for all to see.) Throughout the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets dubbed it, “Soviet patriotism” and “mass heroism” were heavily dependent on terrorism. As Hoffmann writes, the head of Red Army Political Propaganda, Commissar Lev Sakharovich Mekhlis, was empowered by Stalin to use every device of terror to keep the Red Army fighting. This Mekhlis did with relish. In consequence of the activity of this and other commissars, Stalin’s terror against his own people (soldiers and civilians) during the war accounted for a substantial percentage of the estimated twenty-five million Soviet war dead. (See also Walter Sanning’s essay on Soviet losses, “Soviet Scorched-Earth Warfare,” in JHR 6, no. 1 [spring 1985]). Even so, more than five million Soviet soldiers managed to surrender to the invaders by the end of the war. Of those who survived the war, many had cause to wish they hadn’t following their repatriation to the USSR.

Unpunished Crimes, Aggressive Plans

From the onset of the war, German soldiers unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner were often mutilated and murdered. When the Soviet forces entered Germany, men and boys were murdered or drafted for forced labor; the women were often raped, sometimes murdered, and, if strong enough, dragooned for forced labor.

Although by about 1950 Stalin decided to lessen the influence of Jews in the Communist Party, Jews were very much involved in murderous assignments during the war. In addition to Mekhlis, there was Lazar Kaganovich, responsible for the deaths of millions; General Abakumov, who headed the NKVD/MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs, or secret police), and Generals Reichman and Chernyakhovski, who were especially ruthless. Hoffmann hastens to add that the criminal actions of individual Jews should no more reflect on the Jewish people as a whole than the criminal actions of individual Nazis on the German people. Yet Nazis charged with war crimes have been, and continue to be, tried and punished, while, curiously, no courts appear to be interested in bringing Communist criminals to justice.

The thoroughness and reliability of Hoffmann’s work (which helpfully includes an appendix containing key original documents in Polish, Russian, English, and German) is nicely exemplified in his treatment of Zhukov’s plan of May 15, 1941. While Sergeyev and Bezymenski seem to suggest that the plan was only recently discovered, Hoffmann makes manifestly clear that the plan has long been known and analyzed. Colonel Valeri Danilov and Dr. Heinz Magenheimer examined this plan and other documents that indicate Soviet preparations for attack almost ten years ago in an Austrian military journal (Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift, nos. 5 and 6, 1991; no. 1, 1993; and no. 1, 1994). Both researchers concluded that the Zhukov plan of May 15, 1941, reflected Stalin’s May 5, 1941 speech (see above) heralding the birth of the new offensive Red Army. Hoffmann reproduces an original document, referred to as “Short Notation of Comrade Stalin’s Speech to the Red Army Academy on May 5, 1941,” which concludes with the words:

But now that we have reconstructed our army and abundantly saturated it with the technology to wage modern warfare, now that we have become strong — now we are obliged to go from defense to attack. In defending our country we are obliged to act in an offensive manner. To switch over from defense to a military policy of offensive action. We must reconstruct our training, our propaganda, our agitation, and our press in the spirit of attack. The Red Army is now a modern army, and a modern army is an army of attack.

The Zhukov plan of May 15, 1941, indicates clearly that the Red Army planned a preemptive strike against the German forces across the border. Hoffmann further notes that a few days later, on May 20, 1941, Mikhail Kalinin, then chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet and nominally head of state, gave a speech in which he said:

War is a very dangerous business, laden with sorrows, but when a time comes when it is possible to expand the realm of Communism, war should not be discounted … and the zone of Communism must be expanded. The capitalist world can only be destroyed by the red hot glowing steel of a holy revolutionary war.

Kalinin thus strongly implied that the war the USSR was about to wage was not a preventive war forced upon it by Germany, but a war of conquest to expand the Communist empire.

The Perfect Storm

The preponderance of documents uncovered in the past decade, including further analyses of the Zhukov plan of May 15, 1941, by members of the Suvorov school, should convince the impartial reader that: Germany was woefully unprepared for a long war; that the Soviet Union was not only armed to the teeth, but poised to spring in July 1941; that Stalin was Lenin’s disciple in striving to advance Communism to the rest of Europe, especially to Germany; and that the governments of Britain and France were totally oblivious of the greater danger Communism posed to them when they declared war on Germany over its border dispute with Poland.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.

Hoffmann concludes that the war between the two irreconcilable ideologies was inevitable and unavoidable. Stalin’s fanatical adherence to Communism (class hatred) and Hitler’s equally fanatical adherence to racial theories (Hoffmann cites Disraeli: “The race question is the key to world history") led their peoples to a catastrophe unmatched since the Thirty Years' War. Hoffmann blames the horrible excesses the Red Army inflicted on German civilians on hate-obsessed war propagandists such as Ilya Ehrenburg in Russia who deliberately exaggerated German crimes. Thus, Hoffman notes, Ehrenburg announced a death toll of four million for Auschwitz on January 4, 1945, weeks before the capture of the camp. Likewise, months before the war’s end, Ehrenburg reported that six million Jews had been murdered by the Germans. Moreover, in many instances, including the infamous Katyn forest massacre of Polish prisoners, Red propagandists shamelessly tried to blame the German army for crimes committed by the Soviets.

Like his colleague Wolfgang Strauss, Hoffmann advocates reconciliation between the peoples of Germany and Russia. The policies of both Stalin’s Communist regime and Hitler’s National Socialist state were aberrations far removed from the traditional friendship between the two peoples as prevailed under Bismarck and before him. In that spirit Hoffmann makes special mention of Drs. Heinz Magenheimer, Werner Maser, Ernst Topitsch, Günther Gillessen, Alfred M. de Zayas, Viktor Suvorov, and also Aleksandr Moiseevich Nekrich and Lev Kopelev, two former Soviet wartime commissars of Jewish extraction, for their courageous contributions to revisionist history. (Nor has Hoffmann been less than courageous: he testified in a German court to the scholarly quality of Germar Rudolf ’s Holocaust revisionist anthology, Grundlagen zur Zeitgeschichte, later published in English as Dissecting the Holocaust.)

The extreme economic and political conditions that afflicted much of the first half of the twentieth century devastated Germany and Russia. The slaughter of the First World War, the triumph of Communism in Russia, the treaty of Versailles, and the Great Depression combined to culminate in the political storm of the century, the Second World War, much as unique and unforeseen meteorological conditions in October 1991 — three merging hurricanes — combined to create what writer Sebastian Junger called “the perfect storm,” a devastating “nor'easter” in the North Atlantic. In historians such as Suvorov and Hoffmann, the historical tempest of the twentieth century is, increasingly, finding able and objective chroniclers.

About the author

Daniel W. Michaels is a Columbia University graduate (Phi Beta Kappa, 1954) and a Fulbright exchange student to Germany (1957). Now retired after 40 years of service with the U.S. Department of Defense, he writes from his home in Washington, DC.

Bibliographic information
Author: Daniel W. Michaels
Title: Revising the twentieth century’s 'perfect storm': Russian and German historians debate Barbarossa and its aftermath (review)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: September/December 2001
Issue: Volume 20 number 5/6
Location: page 59
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.