In the Second World War, there is nothing as perplexing as to how Adolf Hitler fooled Joseph Stalin so completely in launching Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Nor are there many debates that are still so relevant to the politics of a nation than Emperor Hirohito’s role directing the war for Japan. It is also a tragedy for posterity that most people don’t know the names of either General George C. Marshall or Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. Even fewer know the incredible story of how German and Italian POWs were kept by the Allies, especially the camps in the United States. However there is a more pressing introduction before getting down to your questions.
Over the last several years during my myriad published pieces on the Second World War, as well as critiquing its role in Amazon Prime’s adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, I have received many emails from readers asking questions about the subject as a whole. Its amazing hearing from people who have a strong curiosity about the wars history, and want the best information possible. After I was encouraged by those reaching out to me to start a reader submitted question and answer column, providing informed answers to any questions relating to WW2, I have chosen to take up the gauntlet.
First things first, what the hell is a brain bucket? A brain bucket is a military colloquialism for a combat helmet. When searching for answers and historical understanding, the process is often volatile and incendiary. So, it’s always good to wear that brain bucket.
Here are the Brain Bucket Q&A ground rules:
- I will choose several questions a month. If your e-mail isn’t picked, don’t be discouraged. I can only answer so many at a time. Feel free to resubmit the question for the following month.
- Any question about or related to the Second World War is fair game. Even if you think its a little strange and off the beaten path, send it in. More often than not, history is both of those things and more. That also includes its place or role in popular culture, current or ongoing controversies related to the subject, and pretty much anything else you can fathom.
- My replies to your questions will be thorough. If you have taken the time to e-mail a question I have chosen, you deserve the best possible answer.
- Most importantly as an unequivocal rule, I am only interested in evaluating history within the context of the era concerned. Imposing contemporary values and societal norms on history accomplishes less than nothing. One can learn from history and take those lessons to help better guide to a better future, but viewing entirely within the scope of a modern worldview is an exercise in futility. It has been said that the past is like another country, and much like learning about another culture it can only be evaluated in the context of its people and their ways. In the end, the only real goal is understanding, whether or not it comports to the beliefs of the present.
- My answer to your question is only the tip of the iceberg. I will include recommended reading and viewing so you can research the specific issue further.
Do you have a question about WW2? E-mail the Brain Bucket!
Now, down to business and your questions!
Q: I am just getting into the history of the Eastern Front. The more I learn, the more I can’t understand how Stalin was actually so caught off guard by the Nazi invasion of Russia. It seemed pretty obvious even at the time. How did Germany dupe Stalin so completely?
– Kyle, Macon, GA
This really goes under the category of Stalin being too close to the forest to see the trees. While contemporary Soviet propaganda would have you picture the despot ruling benevolently and omnisciently from his Kremlin perch, Stalin was just as limited as his fellow dictators at the time. In short, he was still human and fully capable of misinterpreting even the best of intelligence about Nazi duplicity, as we shall see.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact: A “Non-Agression Pact” That Was Really A Pact of Mutual Assistance
So it is important to recall that prior to 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were bound together in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (named after each country’s respective foreign ministers). Publicly each side was very careful to refer to the new political relationship as only a pact of non-aggression. However their two year affiliation went much further despite neither side forgetting the near decade worth of mud each had slung at the other. They both were, after all, ideologically opposing powers.
To begin, the two antithetical nations fired the war’s opening salvo practically hand-in-hand. The Soviets discreetly contributed operational support for Germany during the Poland invasion by transmitting Luftwaffe navigational signals from Minsk. Additionally Stalin personally obliged a German request for use of a small U-Boat base outside Murmansk, Basis Nord, prior to the invasion of Norway in April 1940. Furthermore, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union negotiated large commercial agreements for the duration of the pact; with the Soviet Union trading raw materials that helped Germany compensate for the British blockade at sea, in exchange for highly coveted German industrial manufacturing goods and civil/military technologies.
The pact also carved out distinct “spheres of influence” between the two countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Specifically, the prostrate Poland would be partitioned between the two powers; while the Baltic states would be ceded to Moscow. Likewise, the region of Bessarabia – modern day Moldova – would be annexed from eastern Romania and transferred to the Soviet Union. In addition to the more contentious Romanian Northern Bukovina, which was not included in the aforementioned pact.
In exchange for these territories, Germany secured their eastern flank from Soviet intervention, allowing them to concentrate on their wars in the West. Without a doubt, both Germany and the Soviet Union gained firm, tangible yields from their association.
For Stalin, the biggest benefit from the pact was possibly bogging down Germany in their war with the West. Stalin believed that with a German invasion of the West, a major war of attrition between the waring powers would ensue. Stalin hoped that such a quagmire would be similar to the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War, keeping his German partner wholly engaged against Britain and France. If that become so Stalin figured, the Soviet Union would be given a free hand to do as it pleased. Perhaps even with the Soviet Union playing agent provocateur to keep both sides in a vicious fight indefinitely.
Stalin was also buying time to ready the then chaotic state of the Red Army, before the growing conflict engulfed the Soviet Union. After decapitating his officer corps with politically motivated purges in the 1930’s, while reorganizing the Red Army to adopt new doctrinal priorities, and implementing an array of new weapons technology – the Red Army was pretty much a mess between 1939 – 1941. This reality strongly bore out in their humiliating, yet ultimately successful, Winter War with Finland to seize the Karelian Isthmus, and the Finnish second city of Viipuri – now Russian Vyborg.
As events unfolded in continental Europe, Stalin became quickly disabused. Hitler would complete his conquest of Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and France by the end of June 1940.
Ideology vs. Strategy
Regardless of the realistic benefits the pact provided, ideology eventually won out in Hitler’s mind. One of National Socialism’s main philosophical tenets was a violent rejection of Soviet communism. The Nazi movement has, in fact, it’s genesis as a reaction to the various far left movements in Germany following its defeat in the First World War.
Even worse to Hitler, Soviet communism was directly connected to the groups Nazism infamously targeted most – above all others, the Jews and Slavs. It did not help that many major Bolshevik figures involved in the 1917 October coup were both. To this day, Nazism’s views roughly informed what was known as “The Judeo-Bolshevik Conspiracy.”
To explain this ridiculous ideological patchwork, it can be best understood as follows:
The conspiracy boils down to the idea that Judaism, by virtue of a massive international conspiracy, seeks to dominate and enslave humanity through Communism. Moreover Soviet communism, specifically Moscow itself, was viewed as the epicenter of this conspiracy. This is due to prominent cohorts of the Bolshevik party leader Vladimir Lenin being of Jewish descent. Though Hitler’s designs of the Soviet Union expand beyond the mere ideological.
Accompanying the fact the USSR and Nazi Germany were natural economic partners, Hitler much preferred conquering those Soviet assets rather than trading for them. In Mein Kamp Hitler spoke of German “Leibensraum” – living space – for colonization in what was the western Soviet Union. Ultimately seeking to forcibly seize the very raw materials Germany was trading for, and enslaving the Slavic population. This idea was not unique to Nazism in Germany. Leibensraum roughly comports to the 19th century German nationalistic concept of “Drang nach Osten” or “Drive to the East,” that promoted a unified Germany conquer the traditional Slavic lands.
What is quite interesting is that if you look at the entirety of the European war, almost everything Nazi Germany did was clearly outlined in Hitler’s so-called autobiography he dictated serving prison time, Mein Kampf.
Did Stalin even read Mein Kampf?
Apparently so. Stalin was an avid reader, accumulating a vast personal library. It included many books one might not expect to see on the shelf of Marxist-Leninist number one – like say, the Bible. Stalin had a translated copy of Mein Kampf and marked it up extensively. He knew exactly the ideology that Nazism embodied, as well as the target sitting on his back.
Yet in the first half of 1941, the Vhoz had reason to believe himself outside the Nazis’ crosshairs.
The Soviet Pre-Barbarossa Intelligence Debacle
Historian Stephen Kotkin explains in his newest release, Stalin Volume II: Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941 that Soviet intelligence sources were unknowingly blinded to Hitler’s true intentions through disinformation campaigns skillfully run by German counterintelligence in early 1941.
Before their invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi regime conveyed many different but equally plausible reasons for the Wehrmacht’s growing presence in Eastern Europe. In one such explanation, the German’s asserted that their presence, at what was essentially Stalin’s doorstep, was only a temporary stop en route to operations against the British Empire in the Middle East. Even Hitler actively participated in the deception. He communicated directly to Stalin that his troops in Poland and East Prussia were nothing to worry about; that they were only there to be out of range of RAF bombers hitting Germany.
Moreover, Germany was actively feeding disinformation to their diplomats in Moscow. However German officials tasked with managing Soviet-German relations did not know the information provided by their own government was in fact disinformation. Nazi Germany’s own diplomatic presence was not in on the Operation Barbarossa secret.
These mis/disinformation operations could only succeed so long as they fit Stalin’s preconceptions of Hitler’s military goals. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, they fit a little too well. The paranoid dictator may not have accepted the stated reasons for Germany’s presence, but he did believe that Hitler was trying to put pressure on the Soviet Union by his military buildup on their frontier, hoping to coerce various concessions from the Kremlin to Germany’s benefit. Speculation to this end varied from hoping to extract greater material benefit via trade, to the Soviet Union leasing Ukraine to Germany for 99 years.
Throughout this ordeal, the Soviet Union’s main intelligence arms the GRU (military intelligence), and the separate NKVD, was not asleep at the wheel. The NKVD specifically created a bulging intelligence dossier codenamed “Zateya” or “Venture” to examine Hitler’s true intentions. Though as far reaching as GRU and NKVD assets were, they did not impress Stalin. For example, in early 1941 there were countless reports from Soviet agents portending the German date of invasion – that would invariably pass without incident. These instances only reinforced Stalin’s own diposistion and views. Moreover, any Soviet apparatchik was careful to report intelligence the Soviet despot didn’t want to hear, or didn’t conform to his interpretation of events. Many had been purged and executed for less. Naturally this created a perilous situation for the Soviet nation.
Still, some Soviet intelligence assets did try to raise the alarm with accurate reports about impending Nazi betrayal. The most historically prominent was Richard Sorge, a German journalist posted to the German embassy in Tokyo working in service to the NKVD. Sorge’s position at the embassy enabled him to provide the exact date for the invasion to his superiors. Yet Sorge was one voice among many, however, and no leader has ever lost an empire by taking all their spies reports at face value.
Furthermore, Stalin slavishly believed that Hitler would never attack the Soviet Union while still being at war with the British. In Mein Kampf Hitler was unequivocal about his belief that Germany lost the First World War because it was engaged in war on two fronts. Stalin hitched a great deal to this oft stated opinion by the Führer. Stalin’s conviction neglected one obvious fact: Germany may still have been at war with the British Empire, however, the British Army did not have a single fighting soldier in continental Europe at the time. Yes, there was the fighting happening in colonial North Africa and British strategic bombing, but this hardly constituted a second front great enough in Hitler’s eyes to deter his Soviet ambitions.
Who was really calling the shots in the Third Reich at war?
Last, but hardly least, Stalin had a major misperception of how power was exercised within the structure of the Third Reich at war. Stalin, by using the First World War as precedent, assumed that German military leadership once again had the real decision making powers for use of force during war; thus paralleling Kaiser Wilhelm II ceding effective control of Germany to the duumvirate of Paul von Hiddenburg and Erich Ludendorff. As such, Stalin supposed that the Wehrmacht generals – not Hitler himself – wanted war with the Soviet Union. In truth more the opposite was true, even though no one in Wehrmacht leadership spoke out in opposition to Barbarossa at the time – despite post-war claims. Based on this erroneous assumption, Stalin issued strict orders to avoid doing anything that could be perceived as a Soviet provocation, creating a German Casus belli. Especially at their common western border in occupied Poland.
With the benefit of hindsight and access to archival records from both sides, Hitler’s intentions appear incredibly obvious now; while for some the Führer’s schemes may have seemed just as clear at the time. Yet when using prospective history, as opposed to retrospective history, one can see how this calamity came to pass. When you consider the highly effective disinformation campaigns employed by Germany, a Soviet intelligence apparatus unwilling to tell their mercurial boss something he didn’t want to hear, combined with Stalin’s devotion to his own interpretation of events, disaster ultimately ensued. In short, the only opinion that mattered was Stalin’s, and the Vhoz drastically misread the Nazi dictator. Now you know the rest of the story, as it were.
- “The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939 – 1941” by Roger Moorhouse
- “Stalin, Volume II: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941” by Stephen Kotkin
- “What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa” by David E. Murphy
- “Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia” by Gabriel Gorodetsky
- “World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, The Nazi’s and the West” directed by Laurence Rees
- “World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel” hosted by David Reynolds
- “Warlords” (2007) directed by Simon Berthon
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