Barbarossa June 1941: Who Attacked Whom?

By Erickson, John | History Today, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Barbarossa June 1941: Who Attacked Whom?


Erickson, John, History Today


John Erickson reviews the recent controversies surrounding Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.

IN LITTLE MORE than the last ten years, perceptions of the Soviet-German war, formerly known as the `Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union 1941-1945', have been dramatically transformed both in Russia and in the West. Before this, decades had to pass before it was possible to establish a wholly reliable operational narrative of the war in the east. Much time and energy was taken up by historians in countering the preponderance of German documentation and interpretation. Conversely, the suffocating blanket of the `heroic myth' overlaid by Soviet propaganda on Soviet wartime behaviour proved to be as misleading and cloying, as it was in most instances impenetrable.

That same calculated obfuscation, equally prolonged and governed by the vagaries of internal politics, `de-Stalinisation' and `re-Stalinisation', reduced the catastrophe of the initial German onslaught of June 22nd, 1941, to a bizarre conundrum of `when is a surprise not a surprise?'. Little wonder that much Soviet historiography was either discounted or ignored, but unfortunately along with it, the rare nugget of documentary gold was hidden.

Given the accomplishments of post-Soviet and Western historiography over the past decade, it is no longer appropriate to describe the `Great Patriotic War' as the `unknown war'. It has not been so for some time; indeed, presenting its epic battles is currently high literary fashion plus the domain of film and television, particularly the latter, recently with BBC Timewatch's War of the Century. In this context some might argue that we risk substituting one set of myths for another. Whatever the drama and the variety of its presentation to a wider public, the nature of this war still remains imperfectly understood, especially its social psychology, its human cost and demographic dimensions.

What nevertheless ranks high in these accomplishments in the decade preceding the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Barbarossa has to be the reconstruction and elucidation of German and Soviet intentions in 1941. This has furnished a convincing explanation of Hitler's intention to invade Russia, and unravelled the riddle of Stalin's behaviour in the summer of 1941. It was at the beginning of the 1990s that Russian historians were finally able to embark on a deeper analysis of the immediate pre-war period. With new access to the archives, they were able to direct their attention to the role of Stalin and his entourage, and investigate the basis of his foreign policy and `military-strategic' decisions. They attempted to uncover the causes of the catastrophic outcome of the `initial period' of the war when the `invincible' Red Army went down to death and defeat. The declassification of hitherto secret strategic plans for Red Army deployment covering 1940-41 -- in particular, the May 1941 document outlining a Red Army pre-emptive strike against German concentrations in the east -- provided greater cogency to these investigations of Stalin's military-political attitude and outlook. It took considerable time for that document to appear in print. Work that signalled a radical departure, drawing extensively on archives, was the analysis of Soviet propaganda directives, inquiry into the emphasis on `offensivism' and the importance of Stalin's major speech of May 5th, 1941, publicly available for the first time as a complete, authentic text.

This `relatively peaceful discussion', as the Russian historians described it, prompted by the limited release of archival materials dealing with the crisis of 1941, was rudely interrupted in 1992 by the appearance in Russia of a literary bombshell, Viktor Suvorov's `nonfantastical tale' Ledokhod, previously published in English (though with much less impact) as Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War? in 1990. V. Rezun, better known as Suvorov, had earlier defected to the UK from Soviet Military Intelligence, the GRU, subsequently embarking on a literary career. …

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