Academic journal article Military Review

Stalin's Dangerous Game

Academic journal article Military Review

Stalin's Dangerous Game

Article excerpt

At 0330 on 22 June 1941, world war came to Russia for the second time in the 20th century. Three decades earlier, Czar Nicholas II's armies had gone forewarned into the offensive. This time Stalin's armies were caught by surprise and on the defensive.

Soviet troops on the frontier were at little more than peacetime strength. With timing and experience on their side, three German army groups tore their way with stunning rapidity through Russian air and ground defenses. In little more than a week, the Wehrmacht's momentum carried the banners of fascism deep into Soviet territory. By 3 July, even Chief of the German General Staff General Franz Halder, initially skeptical, wrote that the Russian Campaign had been won in only two weeks. Until the Battle for Moscow six months later, the fate of Josef Stalin's Russia hung by the slender threads of frantic improvisation, untold sacrifice and desperate, defensive battle.

Why So Unprepared?

Why was the Red Army so unprepared for Hitler's invasion? Some blame failure on the historical "malady"-Russia's curse to do poorly at the outset of all conflicts. Others blame native military incompetence magnified by German perfidy and martial skill. Still others blame Stalin's inept statecraft and his naivete for trusting Adolf Hitler while distrusting his own intelligence reports about war's imminence, which originated with the very security and intelligence organs he had recently and ruthlessly purged. Also, when war did come, the burden of troop leadership fell on the shoulders of an officer corps seriously impaired by the same purges. It was as if Stalin were out to prove the adage that "most wounds are self inflicted."

Subsequently, and not surprisingly, during Stalin's own lifetime, the initial period of the "Great Patriotic War" (the Russian term for World War II on the Eastern Front) was a black hole from which little historical light radiated. The postStalin period gave rise to occasional glimmers, but regard for the communist legacy and the reputations of Stalin's inheritors, who owed their rise and careers to preparation for and conduct of the war, precluded more than a few stray flickers of light.

After 1956, Stalin gradually emerged as scapegoat, but criticisms were often elliptical and superficial. To transcend formulaic indictments associated with "the cult of personality," one had either to readmostly in vain---between the lines or turn to the best western commentators, especially the dense, magisterial writings of British historian John Erickson.' Failing everything else, one could turn with less assurance to German writings of "the devil's disciples" for partisan explanations of why Hitler's generals initially did so well in order, ultimately, to fail so spectacularly.

These circumstances held true until the last years of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev's regime, when "openness" and a thirst for "filling in the blank spots" created a more positive atmosphere for pursuit of historical truth, including what occurred in 1941. For a brief period during the early 1990s, a few daring pioneers, such as Colonel General Dmitri Volkogonov, succeeded in prying open archival doors, only to have them slammed shut by the forces of political uncertainty and resurgent conservatism. Meanwhile, the darkness was lit by a few feeble rays emanating intermittently from the Kremlin's Presidential Archive and various military archives.

By Dim Candlelight

By this time Viktor Suvorov and Gabriel Gorodetsky had already begun lighting a few candles of their own. Suvorov is the pseudonym of the well-known Soviet defector Miron Rezun, who "earned his spurs" in the West as a former insider writing about the inner workings of the Soviet Army. As the Cold War waned, Suvorov shifted his literary barrage from present dying enemies to past dead enemies, finally zeroing in on Stalin's role in allegedly precipitating Hitler's invasion of Russia. …

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