The early days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union were chaotic ones for both the Red Army and the whole leadership of the country.
‘We were retreating embarrassingly,’ says Ivan Kulish, a Soviet soldier who fought near Lwow. ‘There was complete chaos in the troops… No communications; commanders of divisions, commanders of the army didn’t know where their troops were or where they were… Panic.’
Initially, Stalin had clung to the belief that maybe the German invasion was just some terrible mistake or perhaps only a ‘provocation’. And then, when he realized the immense scale of the German offensive, he started issuing orders that were a fantasy. His ‘Directive Number 3’, for example, ordered the Red Army to advance into German territory and conduct the war on the soil of the Nazis.
But it’s not surprising that Stalin showed signs of simply not coping in those early hours of the German invasion. After all, for many months he had been in a state of denial about German intentions, willfully ignoring intelligence reports that told him about Hitler’s plans. As a result, the Red Army had been unable to mobilize in sufficient strength to meet the German attack. And the situation grew so bad on the front line in the first days of the Nazi offensive that a senior military figure like Major General Nikolai Vashugin decided to kill himself – shooting his brains out in front of Stalin’s emissary Nikita Khrushchev.
On 29 June, just one week after the Nazis had launched their invasion, Stalin learnt that the Germans were about to take Minsk, capital of Belorussia. When he heard the news, Stalin grew so angry during a military briefing that he stormed out, declaiming, ‘Lenin founded our state and now we’ve f**ked it up!’i
Stalin then left for his dacha, just outside Moscow, and stayed there. And when he didn’t turn up at this office in the Kremlin the next day his colleagues grew worried. A delegation – including Mikoyan, Beria and Molotov – drove off to see him. It was to be one of the most emotionally charged encounters of the war. Stalin seemed to be a million miles from his normal, confident self; greeting his comrades with the question: ‘Why have you come?’
Mikoyan later wrote that ‘He [Stalin] appeared very guarded, somehow strange, and it was even stranger that he asked us that question. After all, considering the situation he should have called us himself. I have no doubt that he had decided that we had come to arrest him.’ii
No one knows for sure whether Stalin did genuinely fear that, at this lowest moment in his country’s history, his colleagues had come to remove him from office and take him to the torture cells of the Lubyanka. One theory is that Stalin, a keen student of history, had actually deliberately feigned an emotional collapse in order to see who would turn on him. But that seems unlikely. Mikoyan’s view is the most plausible. Stalin – the great Iron Man of Soviet history – had simply been unable to take the pressure.
But the Politburo had not come to arrest him. Quite the contrary. They all knew that the only hope the Soviets had of resisting the Germans lay in Stalin’s continued leadership. A combination of the purges during the 1930s of Red Army officers and communist politicians, of the propaganda personality cult that had been created around Stalin, and the sheer lack of any credible candidate around whom others could gravitate, meant that it was almost impossible to dispense with his services.
Molotov told Stalin that they had come to see him to ask him to become chairman of a new Government Committee on Defence. Stalin agreed, and – with his composure recovered – he resumed work in the Kremlin on 1 July. Two days later he spoke on the radio for the first time to the Soviet people since the war had begun. ‘Comrades, brothers and sisters,’ he famously began – speaking almost as if the whole Soviet nation was his family. He then called on all Soviet citizens to repulse the ‘perfidious’ Germans, before ending with the rousing words: ‘Forward to victory!’
But victory seemed far away for the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. So much so that one of Lavrenti Beria’s agents, Pavel Sudoplatov, even approached the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow, Ivan Stamenov, to see if the Germans could be persuaded to come to some kind of peace settlement with the Soviets. At the time, Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, even remarked that if the Soviets could get out of the war by giving up large amounts of territory to the Germans – like Ukraine and the Baltic States – then this would be a ‘possible second Brest-Litovsk Treaty’ (the treaty which the fledgling Soviet state had concluded with Germany in 1918). And that ‘if Lenin could have the courage to make such a step, we had the same intention now.’iii
But the Germans were not about to make any form of peace with the Soviets. Because by the end of July some Panzer units of Army Group Centre were more than 350 miles inside the Soviet Union. Indeed, they had journeyed so far, so fast, that they were ordered to halt, whilst an attack south on Kiev, capital of Ukraine, was planned.
This led, by the middle of September, to the fall of Kiev and the capture of more than 600,000 Red Army troops in the largest military encirclement in history. It now seemed that Moscow itself might fall to the Germans before winter. And Stalin would need to show more courage in the forthcoming months than he had in the initial days of the invasion if the Soviet Union was to survive.
But there was at least one sign that all was not going well for the Germans. Because no matter how many Red Army units the Wehrmacht captured or destroyed in the summer of 1941, it seemed as if there were always more on the horizon. On 19 August, Goebbels had written in his diary: ‘The Fuehrer is very annoyed at himself for letting himself be fooled about the potential of the Bolsheviks by reports from the Soviet Union. His underestimation of the enemy’s armoured divisions and Air Force, in particular, has meant an extraordinary amount of trouble for our military operations…'iv
And in October 1941, Stalin would reveal he was a very different character to the leader who had almost buckled under pressure in the early days of the conflict.
i Strobe Talbott (ed.), Khrushchev Remembers, Deutsch, 1971, p. 307
ii Anastas Mikoyan, Tak Bylo (That’s how it was), Vagrius, 1999, p. 390
iii Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991, p. 413
iv Quoted in Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning from History, BBC Books, 2005, p. 184
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