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Operation Barbarossa

Did Stalin plan to invade Germany before Operation Barbarossa?

(07 October 2007)

The Russian military historian Mikhail Ivanovich Meltyukhov argued in his book Stalin’s Missed Chance(2000) that Stalin planned to attack Germany on 12 June 1941, ten days before Hitler’s launch of Operation Barbarossa. His work was based on a speculative theory proposed by Russian historian Viktor Suvorov. Meltyukhov used archive material and newly declassified information to put together a persuasive case endorsing Suvorov’s thesis. However, whereas Suvorov attempted to present Operation Barbarossa as a pre-emptive strike by Germany, Meltyukhov concluded that each side was entirely ignorant of the other’s intentions and both were independently preparing invasions.

Traditionally, Western historians have dismissed the possibility that Stalin was planning an attack on Germany in 1941. So, how plausible is Meltyukhov’s case?

Pre-war USSR was inevitably regarded with hostility and suspicion by the Capitalist West. To an astute politician like Stalin, the conflict between the Western powers in 1940 presented him with a spectacular opportunity to expand the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence without interference. A bitter campaign between Germany and Italy on the one side and France and Britain on the other would allow the Soviet Union unprecedented scope to launch aggressive operations in Eastern Europe.

This was exactly what happened. Just before the French surrender in June 1940, Soviet forces marched into Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. At the end of June, the Russians compelled Romania to cede the provinces of Bessarabia and northern Bucovina. In July, the Soviet Government renewed its hostile stance towards Finland. These facts illustrate that whatever the condition of the Red Army following the Great Purge, Stalin was fully prepared to adopt an offensive posture, and was actively pursuing territorial acquisitions.

The big surprise of 1940 was the rapid collapse of France, one of the world’s great military powers. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact notwithstanding, the prospect of continental Europe being dominated by fascist Germany could not have been viewed with equanimity by Stalin. His ideal scenario was for a long, costly war to rage in the West, as it had in WWI. He no doubt authorised the non-aggression pact in order to ‘encourage’ Germany to engage in a war in the West that was likely to have just this outcome. In fact, Suvorov claimed it was always Stalin’s plan to use Nazi Germany as a proxy against the West.

Stalin and Hitler both unquestionably viewed the non-aggression pact as a temporary expedient, and both parties would have been in no doubt that a conflict between Nazism and Bolshevism was inevitable. The respective ideologies were diametrically opposed, and Hitler had never concealed his detestation of Bolshevism, his expansionist plans in the East, or his ferocious contempt for Slavs: üntermenschen, in his view. His position was explicitly stated in Mein Kampf.

If Germany were allowed time to consolidate its hold over continental Europe, its power would grow to a frightening level. Its military machine, already demonstrably formidable, would become even more fearsome. For Stalin, then, it was essential to decide on a time-frame for attacking Nazi Germany in order to defeat it before it became too strong. The summer of 1941 was exactly the logical time. With the Russian winter out of the way and the spring rains over, Soviet forces could rapidly deploy to the front lines in Poland. Significant German forces were at that time tied up in North Africa, the Balkans and in occupying a number of European nations, thus reducing the number of German armies available for resisting a Soviet offensive. A year’s delay might see Germany triumphant in North Africa and the Balkans, Britain on the verge of surrender and the resources of practically the whole of Europe harnessed by the Nazi war machine. Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania were already allied to Germany, Finland was a partner in the north, and Spain might also abandon its neutrality and declare its support for Germany. Germany would then be in a position to switch its attention to the USSR.

Stalin probably imagined the Soviet Union safe from attack in 1941 because Hitler surely wouldn’t contemplate an invasion until Britain was forced to come to terms. After all, Hitler asserted that it was the strain of having to fight a war on two fronts that had led to Germany’s defeat in WWI. Stalin received abundant intelligence that the Germans were assembling large troop formations near the Soviet borders, yet it seems he concluded that these were purely a means for Hitler to apply political pressure. He expected Hitler to issue an ultimatum, containing a large element of bluff, just as Hitler had done with the Western powers throughout the thirties.

Historians typically characterise the Red Army as lacking any state of preparedness on the eve of Barbarossa. However, Meltyukhov asserts that the Red Army General Staff began planning an offensive against Germany as early as October 1939. This was sensible given that the conquest of Poland had removed the buffer between Germany and the USSR. These invasion plans were subsequently refined through 1940 and early 1941. In May and June of 1941 the preparations for the Soviet offensive reached their final stages, and the full-scale deployment of troops to their starting positions commenced, disguised as military manoeuvres.

It is factually undeniable that the Soviets had large troop concentrations near the borders of Greater Germany. This has usually been taken to imply that the Red Army was aware of a potential German offensive and was making prudent defensive and counteroffensive preparations. However, if this were the case, why was it caught so dramatically off-balance? Both Stalin and the Red Army’s demeanour at the opening of Barbarossa indicate definitively that they had no expectation whatever of a German attack. Moreover, no sensible defensive and counteroffensive strategy would involve having so many men pushed so far forward along the borders. Instead, they would be held further back, ready to counterattack once the first wave of the offensive was exhausted. Massing men on borders is exactly what characterises offensive operations. Naturally, after the war, the Soviets were been keen to portray themselves as victims of aggression rather than aggressors themselves, so it was strictly forbidden for anyone to mention their thwarted offensive plans.

According to Meltyukhov, the Soviet invasion would have commenced with attacks by the Soviet Air Force on the Axis airfields of East Prussia, Poland and Romania. Ground forces would then have struck in two directions: West, through Poland and East Prussia, and South into Romania. The attack was supposedly scheduled for June 12 1941, but was postponed. This was said to have been a result of Stalin’s alarm at the notorious flight of Rudolf Hess to Britain on May 12 1941. Stalin allegedly feared that this might signal an Anglo-German reconciliation. This scenario seems improbable in the extreme. More probably, Stalin was advised that preparations had not been completed satisfactorily and more time was needed. Postponements are not unusual: Barbarossa itself was postponed.

The new date set for the Soviet attack was July 15 1941. Events on the ground overtook this, of course. One would expect Soviet surprise and confusion to be at a maximum if, instead of attacking as they were planning, they found themselves attacked. There would have been confusion even in the well-disciplined German lines if they’d suffered a full-scale attack on the eve of Barbarossa.

If the Soviets had attacked on 12 June, what impact would it have had on the war? If the Soviet airforce had performed well, immense damage would have been done to the massed German infantry, to the Luftwaffe and Panzer divisions. In all probability, the better-trained, better-led, better-equipped and more experienced German forces would have repelled the Soviet assault in due course, but might have sustained such losses as to prohibit their own invasion of the USSR, or to radically limit its scope.

Meltyukhov optimistically believed that a Soviet first strike would have seen the Red Army in Berlin some time in 1942. Most of Europe, he believed, would subsequently have fallen under Stalin’s control. Since this would be regarded in most people’s estimation as a catastrophic outcome, it might be considered a welcome fact that Hitler struck first. In fact, it could be regarded as disastrous for Europe that Germany lost the Battle of Stalingrad. Arguably, the optimal outcome of WWII would have been for the Germans and Soviets to fight themselves to a standstill on the Eastern Front while the Western Allies comprehensively defeated Germany in Europe, probably in 1946, and occupied all of Greater Germany. In these circumstances, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War would have been averted, and the sort of Europe we have now might have been realised decades earlier.

It’s a sobering thought that the Allies’ bombing campaign and strategic operations to relieve pressure on the Soviets, and their eleven billion dollars’ worth of lend-lease aid to the USSR, might all in hindsight be viewed as counterproductive, paving the way for the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the Cold War.

As Kierkegaard observed, ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’