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Eastern Front1st October 1941

Stalin the War Lord

Josef Stalin
Josef Stalin

Just before dawn on Sunday, 22 Jun 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in the largest land invasion in the history of the world. More than 3 million troops advanced through the Baltic States, Belarus and the Ukraine.

            Initially, Stalin seems to have been in a state of denial about the German attack. He ordered Soviet forces not to confront the enemy in case the activity on the border was just some kind of ‘provocation’. But when, within hours, it became clear that this no ‘provocation, Stalin reacted by issuing a series of fantasy orders. In ‘Directive Number 3’, for example, he called for the Red Army to push forward into German territory. And in indulging in this kind of alternative military reality, Stalin illustrated part of the broader problem the Soviet military now faced.

‘The Soviet military doctrine was bizarre,’ says Professor Robert Service, ‘because it was based on the idea that no invasion would be effective, and that therefore no great defence works had to be put in hand, even after the Sovietisation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. There was no great hurry about that because the war would be fought on the territory of the enemy, and so all preparations were made on that basis. Together with the fact that the Red Army wasn’t allowed to respond actively to the first battles in which it was engaged, this was disastrous for the Soviet Union.’

Many soldiers of the Wehrmacht could scarcely believe their luck: ‘You thought it was a doddle,’ says Albert Schneider, who fought with the German 201st assault gun battalion in the initial days of the invasion. He thought ‘the war will be over in six months – a year at most.’ And it certainly appeared to be a ‘doddle’ for the Germans in those first days. For though there were isolated pockets of fierce Soviet resistance the wider picture was one of near-collapse.

Stalin’s leadership was largely to blame for this terrible catastrophe. It wasn’t just that his purges had weakened the Red Army, and that he had personally ignored intelligence reports which pointed clearly to the danger of an imminent German invasion, it was that his inability to trust the people who worked for him had resulted in a political and military system within the Soviet State that considered the exercise of personal initiative positively dangerous. Almost no one within the leadership structure wanted to take swift or courageous decisions.

It was a potentially fatal fault in the Soviet system that was made even worse by the fact that their German opponents were successful in large part because they practiced the opposite system of command – not rigid, but fluid. Their use of ‘Auftragstaktik’ (‘mission command’) meant that decision making on the battlefield could often be delegated right down to NCOs. Whilst commanders set the overall objective it was up to the soldiers on the ground to determine how best to achieve the desired result.

The realization of just how grim the situation had become hit Stalin at a meeting on 29 June in Moscow – just one week after the invasion had been launched. When he was told that they Germans were about to take Minsk, capital of the Soviet republic of Belrus, he stormed out the meeting, uttered an expletive, and went and sulked in his dacha. When he didn’t turn up for work at the Kremlin the next day, a delegation of the Politburo visited him. Several of those who went in to see Stalin later said that they believed that he thought he was going to be arrested. But this was no coup. Because, as Sebag Montefiore says, ‘They all still felt that he was a genius and that he was incredibly impressive and he was an amazing organiser, and it was going to take a huge organiser to do this [defeat the Germans]. There was no one with the authority to do it, no one, and there hadn’t really been anyone since Lenin who had the authority necessary to do this….. Stalin in a sense was protected by his reputation, by his cult of personality, because to remove him would undermine the whole regime. So they had to keep him, and they felt they needed him.’

It was Stalin who had largely been responsible for getting them into this mess, but because of the very repressive techniques that he had used in doing so, he was now the only person who had the authority to get them out of it.

But Stalin’s leadership was not subsequently decisive that summer – far from it, since by October 1941 the Germans were at the gates of Moscow. After victories at Kiev, Bryansk and Vyazma, it seemed as if the Wehrmacht might now take the Soviet capital itself. And it’s only since the fall of communism that we’ve learnt just how desperate the Soviet leadership felt at this crucial moment. There were plans to evacuate the government to safety further east, and there was panic in the air.

But Stalin held firm. He decided he would not leave the capital. He would stay and fight. ‘I think it was, from the point of view of morale, very important that Stalin stayed on in Moscow,’ says Professor Robert Service, ‘and he was tempted to move off to the Volga region for security, but at the last moment he changed his mind. He appreciated that if it was known that the leader was staying in Moscow within bombing range of the German armed forces then the morale of the Soviet defence effort would be all the greater.’

            This was the defining moment of Stalin’s war. He could easily have decided to cut and run – but he didn’t. Helped by knowledge from Intelligence sources (that this time he believed) that the Japanese were not planning to attack the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered a state of siege implemented in Moscow and reinforced the troops guarding the capital with fresh units from Siberia. It was a strategy that worked. Not only were the Germans – who were themselves almost broken with exhaustion – held back outside the Soviet capital, but early in December the Red Army was able to counter attack.

            ‘When he [ie Stalin] started to run the war, particularly after the early period when the whole thing was in free-fall and he really was out of his depth, he really did become a superb organiser of war materials,’ says Sebag Montefiore. ‘I mean even in the Battle of Moscow, which was the key battle of the war, his grasp of the material of war was astonishing, the fact that he had the number of tanks of the entire Soviet Army in a little notebook on his desk. This was very impressive to people, and it’s easy when we know about the colossal disasters, which he cared little about, to forget this.’

            But despite his undoubted gifts as an organizer, together with the strength of character he had shown in October 1941 with the Germans closing on Moscow, Stalin could still have lost the war for the Soviet Union. Because in the spring of 1942 he once again demonstrated – with catastrophic results – his incompetence as a military commander.

            On 12 May 1942, Soviet troops moved towards Kharkov in the Ukraine as part of an ambitious and widespread offensive ordered by Stalin. It turned out to be a disaster, as the Red Army were lured into a German trap. The Wehrmacht eventually took over two hundred thousand Soviet prisoners. It was a catastrophe reminiscent of the bleak days of the previous summer. Moreover, once again, it was Stalin’s fault. It had been Stalin who had championed the Kharkov attack and it had been Stalin who had refused to allow Red Army soldiers to pull back once it became clear that they were about to be encircled.

            Soviet forces had outnumbered the Germans at the battle of Kharkov by more than two to one – and yet still they had lost. It was a sign that no matter how many resources the Soviets might be able to bring to this war, Stalin’s military incompetence could still lose it for them. 

            But then, in the autumn of 1942, as the Germans tried to take Stalingrad, Stalin changed. ‘Stalin was a great learner,’ says Professor Robert Service. ‘He wasn’t a very good forgiver, but he was a great learner when his personal interests were at stake. And he came to the conclusion that he was running the army too brutally and that he had to trust the professional judgment of his own high command. That high command had to prove itself as having superior professional judgment, so he kept on at them to tell him why, for example, they had to make tactical retreats. He didn’t like retreats of any kind, but he came to admire the professional expertise of Zhukov, Vasilievsky and others, people whom previously he wouldn’t have given much time to. So there was a change in Stalin’s attitude. That’s not to say that the commanders didn’t still fear for their lives in his presence; they did. So he kept this severe, suspicious demeanor right the way through to the end while taking seriously the purely professional questions that came up in planning the campaign.’

            Stalin first showed this new desire to listen rather than dictate to his Generals in September 1942, in connection with the planning of Operation Uranus. He let Marshal Zhukov and Marshal Vasilievsky devise this massive offensive against the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad without interfering in any of the detail. And when the offensive was a triumphant success, Stalin had all the proof he needed that his interests – and those of the Soviet Union – were best served when he let the professionals do their job.

            And it wasn’t as if Stalin didn’t have plenty to do within his own area of expertise – politics. Because, as it became clear that the Germans would lose the war, Stalin realized that the decisions he reached with the other Allied leaders would now help determine the future of the post war world. And in this respect, Stalin, most definitely, had his own agenda.