UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Stalin 1939-1945 - Wartime Commander

The war came unexpectedly to the Soviet Union, both for the people and the government. MSU R.Ya. Malinovskiy described rather accurately the situation and state of Soviet troops in the border districts on the eve of the war. "The requests of certain district commanders," he wrote, "to permit them to bring the troops to an alert and to move them closer to the frontier were personally rejected by I.V. Stalin.

The troops continued to train as if in peacetime: the artillery of the rifle divisions was in the artillery camps and at the ranges, the antiaircraft weapons were at the antiaircraft firing ranges, the combat engineer units were in the engineer camps and the 'naked' rifle regiments of the divisions were separately in their camps. With the approaching threat of war, these major errors bordered on a crime. Could this have been avoided? It could and should have been. The inability of the leadership to understand the situation and its unusual laxness played the main role in the fact that the enemy attack was a surprise for the troops of border districts.

The army was unprepared, arms were inadequate in quality and quantity, morale was low, the best military brains of the country had been destroyed, no provision had been made for the needs of the civilian population: there were no food reserves, no shelters, no emergency housing. Pronouncements about the "transfer of the war to the enemy's territory" proved to be empty bragging.

To Stalin, the news that a shooting war had actually started came as such a blow that at first he refused to believe it. To the short-sighted leader, the war meant the failure of his foreign policy of cooperation with Germany. The future looked bleak.

When the fascist armies had actually invaded Soviet territory and military operation had begun, Moscow issued the order that the German fire was not to be returned. Why? It was because Stalin, despite evident facts, thought that the war had not yet started, that this was only a provocative action on the part of several undisciplined sections of the German Army, and that a Soviet reaction might serve as a reason for the Germans to begin the war.

The German armies, which had invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, advanced rapidly; resistance was ineffective. Stalin was disoriented; he lost faith and hope. Stalin thought that this was the end. In one of his speeches in those days he said : "All that which Lenin created we have lost forever." Stalin did not even try to direct military operations. Aware of the weakness of his military forces and with no expectation as yet of massive shipments of arms from the West, he was pessimistic in the extreme. In despair, he left it to Molotov to face the nation, while he remained silent.

Stalin resumed active leadership. He became chairman of the new State Committee of Defense ; later he took the title of marshal, and finally generalissimo, in order to stress the superiority of his rank over that of Soviet marshals and generals. As a commander in chief, however, Stalin proved totally inadequate.

On June 30, the GKO, or State Defense Committee, was created to coordinate Soviet war efforts. It consisted of only five people: Stalin (chairman), Molotov (deputy chairman), Voroshilov, Malenkov, and Beria. This group, for all intents and purposes, replaced the Politburo during World War II and made all crucial defense-related decisions. Each GKO member was responsible for a particular group of industries or army supplies.

Additionally, the Stavka (Supreme High Command) was formed to coordinate the military planning of the Red Army, the Navy Commissariat, the NKVD border and interior troops, and the partisan movement. It was chaired by NKO Commissar Timoshenko, later Stalin, and included Chief of the General Staff Zhukov, Molotov, marshals Voroshilov and Budennyi, and Navy Commissar Kuznetsov; there was also a board of advisers. Formally, all military campaigns designed by the General Staff were approved by the Stavka. However, until mid-1942, Stalin actually made all military decisions alone.

The Soviet Supreme High Command did not immediately free itself of those ailments which beset it on the first days of the war. There were still relapses of ignoring the real situation, a consideration of troop capabilities was lacking and careful calculations were replaced by the demand for continuous offensive actions at any price.

The consequence of all of this was the enormous losses in personnel, the disorganization of the troops, but this was not taken into account. The disastrous style of strategic leadership was also apparent in the desire for excessive centralization in troop command and control. At the outset of the war, when troop control was not marked by stability, the importance of enterprising actions by the command of the fronts and armies was greater. But frequently this initiative was nipped in the bud.

During World War II the Supreme High Command regularly dispatched its representatives to the front, where they virtually assumed command of operations of single fronts or groups of fronts. Some front commanders and staffs developed a deep resentment of what they saw as the tutelage of "commanders" and staffs from Moscow who descended upon them and appeared to usurp their prerogatives. Some of this resentment surfaced after the war in the memoirs of former field commanders and their political officers, including Khrushchev. The latter, for example, was still bridling at the General Staff long after his forced retirement and accusing its wartime leaders of attempting to cover up their mistakes.

Boris Yefimov, a political caricaturist for Pravda and Izvestia, recalled the summer of 1941 in his memoirs: "Of course, Stalin did not think that the drastically worsening situation at the fronts was a result of his own mistakes and errors. His own infallible wisdom and categorical opinion were axiomatic. Only others could make mistakes." The hunt for scapegoats began.

Even after the war began, the nervousness and hysteria which Stalin demonstrated, interfering with actual military operations, caused the Army serious damage. Stalin was very far from an understanding of the real situation which was developing at the front. This was natural because, during the whole Patriotic War, he never visited any section of the front or any liberated city except for one short ride on the Mozhaisk highway during a stabilized situation at the front.

Stalin became the curse of Russia in the Second World War. Numerous military defeats could have been avoided, the German advance could have been stopped at an earlier stage and millions of lives could have been saved had it not been for Stalin's guidance of the war. Without the help from the West, total defeat would have been certain. Stalin and the Soviet regime were saved primarily by Britain and the United States, acting in the interests of their own nations.

Two hours after the first German air raids on Russia, on the night of June 22, 1941, the government ordered many arrests, which were carried out in accordance with previously prepared lists. Among those seized were many suspect Communists who had been permitted to remain at liberty and many nonpartisans who it was thought might become dangerous. Where it was not possible to evacuate prisoners in Soviet jails and camps before the arrival of the Germans, the prisoners were ordered summarily liquidated; trains evacuating prisoners were set on fire by Soviet police if they were in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy. The Defense Commissariat issued an instruction on August 28, 1941, to the effect that prisoners sentenced under paragraph 58 of the criminal code (relating to political offenses) were to be liquidated if they could not be evacuated.

There was a ruthless purge of all prisoners. Those whose cases were still being investigated were sent away, if there was time, to camps in remote regions. But prisoners in towns close to the German advance were executed without further inquiry, lest they should be captured and go over to the service of the enemy. Punishment battalions were formed, in which political prisoners and criminals were told that they could expiate their crimes by death or glory; these battalions were sent wherever the fighting was hottest.

The first six months (second half of 1941) of the Patriotic War is characterized by the huge transfer of the productive forces of the USSR to the east under the guidance of Stalin's State Committee for Defense. Millions of people moved, hundreds of enterprises were shifted, tens of thousands of machine tools, rolling mills, presses, beetles, turbines and motors. In about three months in 1941 over 1,360 large enterprises, mainly military ones, were evacuated to the eastern regions of the U.S.S.R. Of these, 455 were moved to the Urals, 210 to Western Siberia, and 250 to Middle Asia and Kazakhstan.

In the several addresses each year that Stalin made to the nation during the war he emphasized his demand for a "second front" in the west of Europe, meaning an Allied invasion of the Continent from the Atlantic side. "The absence of a second front in Europe," he said on November 7, 1941, "greatly relieves the German army," which was a fact. Until 1944, however, the Western Allies, who were righting Japan, Italy and Germany on many other fronts all over the world, did not gather the force necessary for such an invasion and this was interpreted as "reluctance" on the part of the Allies and as help to the Nazis.

It is true that the absence of the "second front" during 1941-44 was another reason why many millions of soldiers and civilians had to die on the fields of Russia. The absence of the second front was, however, the result of the Soviet policy of collaboration with Gennany between 1939 and 1941. At the time of Hitler's attack, the Soviet government had maneuvered itself into an impossible political situation. The "first front" in France had succumbed as a consequence of this policy. Because of the foreign policy Russia had pursued, Germany was able for a period of eighteen months to advance in Russia and ravage her lands. By political means the Soviet government was destroying what its armies would have been able to defend in warfare.

Since the spring of 1943 the advance of the Red Army had been making the defeat of Germany likely; by mid- 1944 a final rout appeared certain. With the advance of the Soviet forces, the self-assurance of the Soviet leadership grew and its attitude toward the Western Allies was becoming independent, sometimes challenging. Emphasis on the Communist party as the real factor in defeating the Nazi Reich was becoming stronger. The philosophy that was taking shape held that the anti-German coalition was winning the war only because one of its main elements, the Soviet Union, was a socialist nation ruled by a Communist party and led by Stalin. The new Soviet ambition was tied up with a conception of a postwar Europe in which Russia would play the predominant role.

The victory in war solidified and magnified the trend toward Russian nationalism, a trend propagated and supported by the government. The principle of equality of all Soviet nations, previously announced as sacred and incorporated in the Soviet constitution, was now openly put aside and the Russians, now proclaimed as superior to the other peoples of the Union, were hailed as the real victor in the war. At a reception of Soviet marshals and generals in the Kremlin on 24 May 1945, celebrating the armistice, Generalissimo Stalin raised his glass "to the health of our Soviet people and, first of all, of the Russian people." (Here the record notes "stormy, prolonged applause; shouts of 'Hurrah!'").

Among the first acts of the Soviet government after the war, therefore, was the degradation of the military and the raising of the rank and prestige of the army's mortal rivals, the leaders of the Soviet police organization. Lavrenti Beria was elevated to the rank of marshal and his closest collaborators to the rank of generals. Most of the venerated army leaders gradually disappeared from the public eye. This was especially the case with Marshal Georgi Zhukov, whose role in the defence of Stalingrad and even Moscow was gradually blurred in the official accounts of the war, until, on the third anniversary of the battle of Berlin, Pravda managed to commemorate the event without mentioning Zhukov even once.

About one fifth of the adult population perished during the war. Russia had won the war, the new philosophy held, because its economy is socialist, its policies are Communist and its leader is Stalin. Stalin began to expand this theory almost immediately after the end of the war. Belittling or totally disregarding the role of his Western allies, Stalin attributed the victory to Russia alone; and the Russian victory was tantamount to a victory of the Soviet system.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list