Constantine Pleshakov. Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2005, 312 pp.
As the title of Constantine Pleshakov’s book implies, the author, a Russian historian, holds Stalin personally responsible for the debacle that befell the Red Army at the outbreak of hostilities on the Russo-German front in the early morning hours of 22 June 1941 and for the catastrophic losses that ensued in the first ten days of a war that was to last four more years. It is Pleshakov’s contention that by January 1941, Stalin, convinced that Germany would never open a second front against the Soviet Union until it had first settled with Britain, and also assured in Moscow by the envoy from the Empire of the Rising Sun that Japan would not attack the Soviet Union in the East, felt secure enough to have his generals plan a preemptive invasion of Germany. Initially Stalin scheduled his attack for the summer of 1942, but in the face of urgent warnings from a multitude of sources that Germany was massing her own forces on the Soviet border, moved his blitzkrieg date up to July 1941. So certain of the success of his own offensive plans, the Soviet dictator ordered absolutely no defensive measures to be taken, resulting in near catastrophic losses for the peoples of the Soviet Union.
Pleshakov cites from a succession of previously highly classified sources to trace the development of Soviet war plans. They include the People’s Commissar of Defense [Marshal Semen Timoshenko] and Chief of General Staff [Marshal Georgy Zhukov] memos to I. V. Stalin and V. M. Molotov On the principles of the USSR’s armed forces deployment in west and east in 1940 and 1941, prepared in August, September, and October 1940; the People’s Commissar of Defense and Chief of Staff’s memo to the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars I. V. Stalin, Considering the plan for the strategic deployment of the armed forces of the Soviet Union in case of war with Germany and its Allies, issued in May 1941; the People’s Commissar of Defense and Chief of General Staff’s directives to the commanders of the Western Military District, the Kiev Military District, and the Odessa Military District, issued in 1941; I. V. Stalin’s talk to the Red Army military academies graduates in the Kremlin, delivered May 5, 1941; the Chief of the Red Army Propaganda Directorate A. S. Shcherbakov’s directive On current military and political propaganda, also in 1941. However, Pleshakov considers two urgent meetings convoked in Stalin’s study in the Kremlin on May 24 and June 21, 1941, to be the times when the Red Dictator actually informed his top military leaders that the preemptive strike was to be set in motion (p. 285).
Author Pleshakov believes that Stalin first entertained the idea of launching a preemptive strike against Germany in the summer of 1940, and hardened the plan after Hitler turned a cold shoulder to the Red Dictator’s further territorial demands (the whole of Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria, and pieces of Turkey, Hungary, and Iran), relayed by Molotov in November of that year in Berlin. It was at this point that Hitler, too, decided that further negotiations with Stalin were impossible and ordered plans for Barbarossa. Only a handful of top Soviet and Wehrmacht military planners were made privy to their respective dictator’s intentions.
Pleshakov attributes much of the initial strategic military planning and deployment for the attack to the then chief of staff, General Boris Shaposhnikov and his aide General Aleksandr Vasilevsky. On January 2, 1941, Stalin called his leading generals to the Kremlin to discuss the war games scheduled for the following. In addition to strategist Shaposhnikov, General Georgy Zhukov, then commander of the Kiev Military District, and General Dmitry Pavlov, commander of the Western Military District, dominated the proceedings. Zhukov gave a report on the nature of modern offensive operations, while Pavlov discussed modern panzer operations. Also attending the meeting were, among others, Red Army commanders Kliment Voroshilov and Semen Budenny (who with Stalin led the Red forces to victory over the Whites at Tsaritsyn, later called Stalingrad and now Volgograd). At this juncture, according to Pleshakov, only Stalin, Shaposhnikov, and Vasilevsky knew of Stalin’s plan to undertake a surprise attack.
The war games commenced on January 3. In the first exercise, the Blues, commanded by Zhukov and representing the Wehrmacht, smashed through the Red defensive forces commanded by Pavlov, quickly conquering the Baltic States and Byelorussia. In the second exercise, played on Ukrainian territory, Zhukov and Pavlov switched sides. On January 13, Stalin again convoked his generals in the Kremlin for a debriefing and an evaluation of the games. Stalin was again impressed by Zhukov and demanded to know why the Red Army defensive line was so easily breached. Zhukov, apparently not yet informed about Stalin’s plans for a preemptive strike, said that in his opinion the deployment of the Red Forces was entirely wrong. Zhukov, the author states, insisted that the two salients in the Red Army deployment protruding to the West, one in the Ukraine and the other at Bialystok, were especially vulnerable. The deployment of course had been planned by Shaposhnikov and his staff in accordance with Stalin’s plans for the salients to be used as jumping off points for the offensive campaign. Moreover, according to Pleshakov, Zhukov warned that the troops were deployed too close to the border and therefore vulnerable to a surprise German spoiling action.
In early 1941, when the aforementioned memos and directives were issued, Stalin appointed Zhukov chief of the general staff. Interestingly, Shaposhnikov had been chief of the general staff from 1937 to January 1941, when he was replaced by Zhukov, who only remained in that office until July, when the Germans attacked.
The Red Army deployment, as arranged by General Shaposhnikov and/or Zhukov, was broken down into four fronts: the Northwestern Front, facing the Baltic States and East Prussia; the Western Front, facing northern Poland; the Southwestern Front, facing southern Poland; and the Southern Front, facing Romania. Shaposhnikov believed that the predominant strength of the Red Forces should be concentrated in the Northwestern Front, where he expected German forces to be strongest. Stalin, on the other hand, believed that the main Soviet force should be in the Southwestern and Southern Fronts, where he thought the Germans would deploy their main forces and an area that Zhukov was most familiar with. Stalin of course prevailed. When Shaposhnikov, as chief of the general staff, insisted on his deployment, Stalin relieved him of his command. This difference of opinion is reflected in changes made in the final draft. In an early directive, reflecting Shaposhnikov’s strategy, the preemptive strike was “to defeat the German forces concentrated in East Prussia and around Warsaw.” But the last prewar directive, echoing Stalin’s strategy, set the objective “to cut Germany off from the Balkans in order to deprive it of paramount economic resources and to energetically influence the Balkan countries as far as their participation in the war is concerned.” As Pleshakov notes, this formula meant that Romania and Bulgaria, and probably Hungary and Yugoslavia, would cease to exist. When successfully implemented, the plan would place the Red Army deep into Europe. (In the final analysis, Shaposhnikov’s assessment of German strength deployment proved closer to reality than did Stalin’s.)
The final draft also clearly advocated a preemptive strike, reading, “It is necessary to deprive the German command of all initiative, to preempt the adversary and to attack.” The 15-page black-ink memo, handwritten by Vasilevsky, was classified “Top Secret. Very Urgent. Exclusively personal. The Only Copy” (p. 79).
Several events, as Pleshakov relates the sequence of events, affected the dictator’s decision to move the date of attack from the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1941. In April of 1941 Japan’s foreign minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, who had just visited Hitler in Berlin, arrived in Moscow to conclude a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. Matsuoka assured Stalin in no uncertain terms that “though Japan is Germany’s ally, this does not mean Japan will engage the Soviet Union in the event of war. To the contrary, if something happens between the Soviet Union and Germany, Japan would like to mediate.” This personal assurance, combined with corroborating information from the Richard Sorge spy ring in the Far East, gave the dictator the opportunity to shift forces from the Far East to the European theater.
When countless reports from British and Russian military intelligence, which could no longer be ignored, warned Stalin that a German attack was imminent, the dictator accelerated his timetable. On May 5 Stalin appointed himself chairman of the Council of Peoples Commissars. On the same day, Pleshakov continues, the dictator spoke at the Red Army commencement. Referring to the Wehrmacht, Stalin emphasized that no army in the world was invincible, not even the German Army. He concluded with the ominous statement:
A policy promoting peace did indeed secure peace for our country, and it was a good thing. For a while we emphasized the need for defense until we rearmed our troops and gave them modern weaponry. Now, with the army restructured and possessing equipment for modern combat – now that we have become strong – it is time to go from a posture of defense to one of attack (p. 76).
But Stalin had not yet informed the military and political leadership of the USSR of his plan for a preemptive strike.
Only the report that Rudolf Hess on May 10 had flown to Scotland to initiate peace talks with the British gave the dictator pause. He never trusted the English and feared that at the last moment they would join with Germany in a campaign against the Soviet Union.
Apparently reassured that the British had no intention of switching sides, the Soviet commanders of the various fronts received a directive on May 20 stating that if the situation is favorable, all defending troops and reserves of the armies had to be ready to launch forceful blows. The version sent to the Kiev Military District, which was expected to launch the main blow, was even more explicit. It read: “Be ready to launch forceful blows to devastate enemy troops, transfer hostilities to the enemy’s territory, and secure advantageous positions there.”
Then, author Pleshakov continues, on May 24 Stalin convened an urgent meeting of the Soviet Union’s top political and military leadership at the Kremlin. Joining Stalin and Molotov were Zhukov, Timoshenko, the commanders of the frontier military districts (Dmitry Pavlov /Western Front/, Fedor Kuznetsov /Northwestern Front/, Mikhail Kirponos /Southwestern Front/, Markian Popov /Northern and Leningrad Fronts/, and Yakov Cherevichenko) together with their commissars, the commander of the air force P. F. Zhigarev, and at least sixteen other generals. Although the agenda of this meeting has never been publicly revealed, author Pleshakov, believes that it was at this gathering that the dictator informed the leadership about the preemptive strike plan.
Meanwhile German reconnaissance aircraft had been constantly violating Soviet airspace, often penetrating 20-30 miles into Soviet territory. Between June 10 and June 19, Pleshakov notes, the frontier was violated almost a hundred times, and on June 20 and 21, fifty-five times. German commandos infiltrated Soviet lines just before the German spoiling attack to sever all communications lines.
Stalin still procrastinated in responding. He still did not believe Hitler would dare attack while the war with Britain remained unresolved. He feared a provocation of some sort, instigated perhaps by the English or even high officers in the Wehrmacht, would ignite a war for which the Soviet Union was not yet ready.
Finally, late in the afternoon of 21 June, Stalin, according to Pleshakov, again summoned political and military leaders to the Kremlin. In addition to the usual group, the head of the Mobilization Department, and the Soviet naval attaché to Germany, Captain Mikhail Vorontsov, also attended. Vorontsov, whose presence was requested by Admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov, had just arrived from Berlin and told the admiral, “It’s war.” Again the transcript of this meeting has not been uncovered, but author Pleshakov believes that Stalin ordered his preemptive strike to be launched, perhaps in a week or two.
Stalin sent out directives out to the military districts that night but they were never received by Zhukov or the other front commanders. Presumably, German commandos had successfully severed all lines of communication.
At 0400 hours on 22 June—the early morning hours of the next day—Barbarossa got underway, spoiling the Red Army’s plans. Stunned by the mounting disaster, and concerned about State security, Stalin spent a good part of the 22nd with his Bolshevik stalwarts: NKVD-boss Lavrenty Beriya, ideological watchdog Lev Mekhlis, and “stone-ass” Molotov. Pleshakov describes the chaos endured among the Soviet forces in the next ten days in great detail. Pockets of heroic resistance illuminated the general bleak picture, among which were the defense of the Brest Fortress; the intrepid Soviet Fourth Army under General Korobkov; the two defensive arcs (the first, roughly along the western Dvina and Dnieper Rivers, the second, fifty miles to the east from Lake Selizharovo to Gomel), quickly improvised by Zhukov that succeeded in slowing the German advance on Moscow; and along which lines millions of “Uncle Vanyas” in the end wore the Germans down (p. 187).
However, even as the dictator was building up the Red Army, mobilizing the reserves, and waging war, he continued to rule by terror by purging high-ranking officers in the Red Army whom he suspected of disloyalty and by maintaining a fresh supply of slave labor for the Gulag. Often Gulag prisoners were given a Stalinist “amnesty” in the form of service in penal battalions, actually death battalions from which few survived the war. At the same time he had the NKVD ruthlessly purge possible counterrevolutionaries from the territories he had acquired through the German-Russian Nonaggression Pact. Great numbers of former policemen, landowners, bureaucrats, capitalists, religious leaders, and military officers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Polish, and Romania, often with family members, were deported to the Gulag.
Pleshakov blames Stalin’s stubborn refusal--against the good advice of his own and even Western intelligence sources--to recognize the immediacy of the German threat as well as the dictator’s purge of the military in the late 1930s and even into the early forties for the near catastrophe.
The greatest service of this book, written by a Soviet- educated historian, is that it presents in English for an American audience many of the revisionist views currently held by Russian, German, and Austrian historians. For too many years the English-speaking world has clung to the simplistic notion, generated during World War II, when we were Stalin’s allies, that the perfidious Germans were responsible for all the wickedness and crimes associated with the war. To this day many Americans still entertain the naive notion that the Soviet Union was the victim of an unprovoked German assault. Top German generals Jodl and Keitel, after explaining that the German attack was actually a preemptive strike in self-defense against the Soviet war build-up, were hanged in Nuremberg by the International Tribunal for planning aggressive war. The Russians and their allies were the judges. Incidentally, the execution of the two German generals violated the Geneva Convention.
Among other violations of Western jurisprudence by the Tribunal were: 1) the suspension of the principle of nullum crimen sine lege, nulla poene sine lege, which states that no crime or punishment can exist when there is no preexisting law that covers the case; 2) the Germans were denied the use of the tu quoque defense at Nuremberg, which prevented them from pointing out that their accusers had done the same things they were accused of; and 3) some of the prisoners were tortured. Readers of this book must ask themselves why all war guilt was put upon the Germans. Was it to somehow justify the Western allies for their alliance with Stalin’s USSR against Europe, the result of which was to enslave half of Europe for half a century and spread Communism to China, North Korea, and Vietnam?
|||Konstantin Viktorovich Pleshakov, born in Yalta in 1959, took his PhD in history at Moscow State University in 1982 where he majored in U.S. relations with China after World War II. He was affiliated with the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of the United States and Canada and has lived and taught in the United States for many years, most recently at Amherst in Massachusetts. He is the author, among other works, of The Tsar’s Last Armada, The Flight of the Romanovs, and Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War.|
|||Stalin’s reliance on and relationship with General Shaposhnikov is especially interesting in that the general had served in the Tsarist Army in World War I before joining the Red Army in the Civil War. He is said to have been the only high official that Stalin routinely addressed with his patronymic Boris Mikhailovich. The father of Vasilevsky, who was mentored by and a favorite of Shaposhnikov, had been a priest.|
|||Zhukov had performed well in Mongolia in 1939 against the Japanese in the Battle of Khalkin Gol.|
|||Viktor Suvorov in his book, The Purge, believes that Stalin actually improved the Red Army by ridding it of many high-ranking political officers.|