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Eastern Front1st August 1939

Stalin and the Road to War


 Joseph Stalin was a tyrant responsible for the death of millions – but you wouldn’t have guessed it from meeting him. As Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Head of the British Foreign Office during the Second World War, remarked at the Yalta conference: ‘I must say I think Uncle Joe [Stalin] much the most impressive of the three men [ie more impressive than either Churchill or Roosevelt]. He is very quiet and restrained… The President flapped about and the PM boomed, but Joe just sat taking it all in and being rather amused.[1]’ And Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, later said that he had done his best to imagine Stalin ‘dripping with the blood of his opponents and rivals, but somehow the picture wouldn’t fit.[2]

            Stalin was an altogether more complex character than a blustering dictator in the style of Mussolini or Saddam Hussein. As the historian Simon Sebag Montifiore says, ‘He’d  [ie Stalin] come to power as the anti-charismatic charismatic ruler, in the sense that there were always people like Trotsky who were these brilliant speakers and flamboyant, but no one trusted them and they were very un-Russian. Though a Georgian he [Stalin] came across as the sort of Russian candidate and he cultivated a sort of gentleness and a sort of quietness, a lack of showiness which people trust, but also he was very charismatic in a sort of feline way. I mean, you only have to look at Roosevelt’s relationship with him to see how charming he could be, how fascinating, and that was his hold on the Russian leadership, it wasn’t just terror.’

            All of which is surprising, because Stalin – unquestionably – had no compunction about ordering the death of anyone whom he considered a threat; indeed, in his early days as a young revolutionary he had personally murdered people himself. But he had realized from almost his earliest days, fighting for the revolution, that his best chance of achieving power for himself was to be careful and guarded. ‘He started from a low base because he was so derided by the other leaders in the Bolshevik Party apex,’ says Professor Robert Service. ‘He didn’t know German or French or English, he hadn’t lived in the so-called emigration. He played along with this actually, he pretended that he hadn’t got much of an education when in fact he had, but he suffered because of this as other leaders and people just somewhat below the leadership tended to condescend to him. He hadn’t played a prominent role in the October revolution of 1917, and his career in the civil war that followed was less than glorious, so he didn’t have the ease that anyone else would have had in taking over the leadership, and in rallying opinion that a very worthy successor to Lenin had arrived. And this made him much more vengeful and much more violent in establishing his personal despotism than probably would have been the case if Leon Trotsky had succeeded to the position occupied by Lenin.’

Certainly, by the time he met with the Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, just days before the outbreak of the Second World War, Stalin had demonstrated just how ‘vengeful’ and ‘violent’ he could be. He was now, at the age of sixty, infamous for a whole range of bloody reasons – including the systematic starvation of millions of Ukranians during the transition to collective farming, and the destruction of thousands of military officers and men in the giant purge of the 1930s.

            But because - in no small measure - of this ruthlessness, when on 23 August 1939 Stalin received Ribbentrop in Moscow he was the undisputed ruler of the Soviet Union. Born the son of a Georgian cobbler, Stalin had elevated himself to a level of individual power that matched that other tyrant he so admired – Ivan the Terrible. But though he was a committed follower of the teachings of Karl Marx and an ardent Communist, he also was a deeply practical man where politics was concerned. He knew when he had to bargain rather than confront. So despite knowing that Hitler considered the Soviet Union his greatest ideological enemy, Stalin was willing to do a deal with the Nazis.

‘For him the Molotov –  Ribbentrop pact was a necessary compromise,’ says Russian historian Dr Kirill Anderson, ‘and a temporarily compromise at that. Stalin and people around him clearly understood that there could not be some long lasting alliance – not even a long lasting peace with Germany at that time. There were too many differences between the principles on which both countries were built. Hitler couldn’t change his race theory, it would destroy his government. In the same way as Stalin couldn’t change his policies – so a long lasting alliance was impossible as they spoke in two politically completely different languages. But Stalin did want a temporary compromise that would win him some time.’

In pursuit of this ‘temporary compromise’, Stalin partied with Ribbentrop in the Kremlin in the early hours of 24 August 1939. After several glasses of champagne the inherent absurdity of the meeting clearly appealed to Stalin’s sense of humour. ‘Let’s drink to the new anti-Cominternist,’ he said, ‘Stalin!’

But Stalin was well aware that whilst – ideologically – the two regimes were diametrically opposed to each other, in purely practical terms they were similar. Two of the qualities Stalin admired most of all were ruthlessness and straight talking. And in those respects Nazi Germany was a much more conducive partner than the democracies of the West. ‘I think that of course he [ie Stalin] found democracies contemptible and their decision making processes absurd,’ says Sebag Montefiore, ‘and their slowness and their cumbersomeness - these were all things that he just didn’t understand. He also regarded them as capitalist countries and as due for the chop at some point.’

However, whilst Stalin may well have believed that the capitalist countries of the West were ‘due for the chop’, it was the countries immediately on the border with the Soviet Union who were swiftly to suffer this fate as a consequence of the Nazi/Soviet pact. Stalin had agreed ‘spheres of influence’ with the Ribbentrop – which was a euphemistic way of saying that they had agreed to carve up much of Eastern Europe between them. As a consequence, on 17 September 1939, just over two weeks after the Germans had invaded Poland from the West, the Red Army invaded Poland from the East, heading towards the demarcation line that had been agreed at the August talks. 

Almost immediately, the Soviets instigated an appallingly repressive regime in their section of Poland – actions they were to repeat in the Baltic states the following year. ‘The scripts of the events were always very similar,’ says Kirill Anderson. ‘First the Soviet army entered the foreign territory, based on ‘an agreement about mutual cooperation between the Soviet Union and the other country.’ Then, pro-Soviet activities were ‘organised’. Simultaneously, the local government was put under a lot of pressure and anti-Soviet elements were replaced by pro-Soviet ones.  The script was always the same. After the annexation of the territory there would be a purge: arrest, evacuation or execution of the representatives of national political parties, then police, counterintelligence and intelligence people, then intelligentsia – that happened in all the countries annexed by the Soviets.’

Everything seemed to be working out just fine for Stalin during the first nine months of the pact with the Nazis. The Soviet Union was benefiting from German military technology – offered in exchange for the delivery of raw materials – and Hitler was clearly pre-occupied with the powerful Western powers that opposed him.

‘In every way this was an active alliance,’ says Professor Robert Service, ‘short only of Soviet soldiers fighting on the side of the Third Reich in its campaigns in Europe. It’s for that reason that the Soviet part in the war is always called the ‘great patriotic war’ and is dated to 1941. But in reality the USSR was taking part in the Second World War from 1939 like everybody else, only it was taking part in the war on the side of the Third Reich.’

But then, almost in an instant, Stalin’s comfortable ‘alliance’ with Nazi Germany suddenly seemed to make the Soviet Union intensely vulnerable. Because in just six weeks the Germans conquered France and the Low countries. ‘The nightmare scenario was exactly what happened,’ says Sebag Montefiore, ‘that France would be totally defeated - that was unthinkable to Stalin... For Stalin it was a total disaster, it changed everything. It turned what was a ruthless but perfectly sensible expedient decision to go into business with Hitler, to ally with Germany, to divide up Eastern Europe, it turned that into a complete disaster and the policy instantly became irrelevant really and a big mistake. Stalin’s personal reaction was collapse; he just couldn’t believe it. He was walking up and down all night just saying how could the French collapse like this? It made a mockery of his policy.’

Suddenly, with the threat from France removed, it seemed possible that Hitler might now try and make good his intention – clearly stated in ‘Mein Kampf’ – to create a new empire in the East. Just perhaps, he might try and invade the Soviet Union. As a result, over the next few months Stalin’s leadership and character were put to the test – and found wanting. To begin with he reacted to the German victory by pursuing a policy of active appeasement. Deliveries of raw materials to the Nazis increased and Stalin became anxious not to offer any ‘provocation’ to the Germans.

In November 1940 the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, traveled to Berlin to meet with Hitler and Ribbentrop in order to try and assess German intentions. The encounter was not a success. Hitler did not answer any of Molotov’s specific questions about German troop movements in Eastern Europe. Molotov returned to Moscow with doubts about the long term future of the relationship between the two countries. And then, shortly afterwards, Stalin began to receive intelligence report after intelligence report suggesting that the Nazis might be about to attack. Then, at this crucial point in the history of his country, Stalin seems to have almost entered a world of make-believe.

‘Somewhere around the winter of 1940, after Molotov’s visit to Hitler, something strange and very personal comes into all this,’ says Sebag Montefiore, ‘and that is that Stalin suffers from that thing which Saddam Hussein was later to suffer from. Tyrant blindness you could call it, or a sort of mental cul-de-sac, where he becomes the victim of his own tyranny….. I think he suddenly began to feel that he just simply could not turn, this had to be right, he had to stick with the Hitler pact because to turn would undermine all his prestige and credibility as a ruler, after having made this incredible decision to turn all Bolshevik tradition on its head and make an alliance with the Nazis on his own personal say so, trusting a German right-wing dictator more than the Western democracies. He suddenly found himself unable to turn, and therefore stuck on this kind of narrowing cul-de-sac which he simply couldn’t risk turning back from, and he believed that his own will, which had achieved such colossal things, impossible things - industrialisation, collectivisation against vast odds - he simply believed that it could be self-fulfilling. And so you enter, by the time you get to April, May, June [1941] a period where he really is under immense pressure and behaving quite irrationally and quite strangely and sort of trying to fight against impending doom and impending reality.’

In an attempt to shore up the far eastern approaches to the Soviet Union, Stalin managed to conclude a non-aggression pact with Japan in April 1941. And it was as he was saying goodbye at Moscow station to the Japanese Foreign Minister on 13 April that Stalin displayed extraordinary weakness. He saw Colonel Hans Krebs of the German embassy on the station platform and immediately embraced him, promising that: ‘We will be your friends –whatever will come!’ Krebs later remarked to a friend that Stalin seemed under great strain, and perhaps was drunk.

Stalin was displaying weaknesses that were all too human – anxiety, denial and fear. But these were not the qualities that would enable the Soviet Union to survive the storm that was to come.

[1] David Dilks (ed), ‘The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan OM 1938-1945’, Cassell, 1971, pp. 708-9, entry for 11 February 1945.

[2] Quoted in Ben Pimlott (ed), ‘The Second World War Diaries of Hugh Dalton 1940-1945’, Jonathan Cape, 1986, entry for 13 January, 1942, p348.