Military history

23. BARBAROSSA: THE TURN OF RUSSIA

WHILE HITLER WAS BUSY that summer of 1940 directing the conquest of the West, Stalin was taking advantage of the Fuehrer’s preoccupations by moving into the Baltic States and reaching down into the Balkans.

On the surface all was friendly between the two great dictatorships. Molotov, acting for Stalin, lost no opportunity to praise and flatter the Germans on every occasion of a new act of aggression or a fresh conquest. When Germany invaded Norway and Denmark on April 9, 1940, the Soviet Foreign Commissar hastened to tell Ambassador von der Schulenburg in Moscow that very morning that “the Soviet Government understood the measures which were forced on Germany.” “We wish Germany,” said Molotov, “complete success in her defensive measures.”1

A month later, when the German ambassador called on Molotov to inform him officially of the Wehrmacht’s attack in the West, which Ribbentrop had instructed his envoy to explain “was forced upon Germany by the impending Anglo–French push on the Ruhr by way of Belgium and Holland,” the Soviet statesman again expressed his pleasure. “Molotov received the communication in an understanding spirit,” Schulenburg wired Berlin, “and added that he realized that Germany must protect herself against Anglo–French attack. He had no doubt of our success.”2

On June 17, the day France asked for an armistice, Molotov summoned Schulenburg to his office “and expressed the warmest congratulations of the Soviet Government on the splendid success of the German Wehrmacht.”

The Foreign Commissar had something else to say, and this did not sound quite so pleasant in German ears. He informed the German envoy, as the latter wired Berlin “most urgent,” of “the Soviet action against the Baltic States,” adding—and one can almost see the gleam in Molotov’s eyes—“that it had become necessary to put an end to all the intrigues by which England and France had tried to sow discord and mistrust between Germany and the Soviet Union in the Baltic States.”3 To put an end to such “discord” the Soviet government, Molotov added, had dispatched “special emissaries” to the three Baltic countries. They were, in fact, three of Stalin’s best hatchetmen: Dekanozov, who was sent to Lithuania; Vishinsky, to Latvia; Zhdanov, to Estonia.

They carried out their assignments with the thoroughness which one would expect from this trio, especially the latter two individuals. Already on June 14, the day German troops entered Paris, the Soviet government had sent a nine-hour ultimatum to Lithuania demanding the resignation of its government, the arrest of some of its key officials and the right to send in as many Red Army troops as it pleased. Though the Lithuanian government accepted the ultimatum, Moscow deemed its acceptance “unsatisfactory,” and the next day, June 15, Soviet troops occupied the country, the only one of the Baltic States to border on Germany. During the next couple of days similar Soviet ultimatums were dispatched to Latvia and Estonia, after which they were similarly overrun by the Red Army.

Stalin could be as crude and as ruthless in these matters as Hitler—and even more cynical. The press having been suppressed, the political leaders arrested and all parties but the Communist declared illegal, “elections” were staged by the Russians in all three countries on July 14, and after the respective parliaments thus “elected” had voted for the incorporation of their lands into the Soviet Union, the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) of Russia “admitted” them into the motherland: Lithuania on August 3, Latvia on August 5, Estonia on August 6.

Adolf Hitler was humiliated, but, busy as he was trying to organize the invasion of Britain, could do nothing about it. The letters from the envoys of the three Baltic States in Berlin protesting Russian aggression were returned to them by order of Ribbentrop. To further humble the Germans Molotov brusquely told them on August 11 to “liquidate” their legations in KaunasRiga and Tallinn within a fortnight and close down their Baltic consulates by September 1.

The seizure of the Baltic States did not satisfy Stalin’s appetite. The surprisingly quick collapse of the Anglo–French armies spurred him on to get as much as he could while the getting was good. He obviously thought there was little time to lose. On June 23, the day after the French formally capitulated and signed the armistice at Compiègne, Molotov again called in the Nazi ambassador in Moscow and told him that “the solution of the Bessarabian question brooked no further delay. The Soviet government was determined to use force, should the Rumanian government decline a peaceful agreement.” It expected Germany, Molotov added, “not to hinder but to support the Soviets in their action.” Moreover, “the Soviet claim likewise extended to Bucovina.”4 Bessarabia had been taken by Rumania from Russia at the end of the First World War, but Bucovina had never belonged to it, having been under Austria until Rumania grabbed it in 1919. At the negotiations in Moscow for the Nazi–Soviet Pact, Ribbentrop, as he now reminded Hitler, who had questioned him about it, had been forced to give Bessarabia to the Russian sphere of interest. But he had never given away Bucovina.

There was some alarm in Berlin, which spread to OKW headquarters in the West. The Wehrmacht was desperately dependent on Rumanian oil and Germany needed the foodstuffs and fodder it also got from this Balkan country. These would be lost if the Red Army occupied Rumania. Some time back, on May 23, at the height of the Battle of France, the Rumanian General Staff had sent an S.O.S. to OKW informing it that Soviet troops were concentrating on the border. Jodl summed up the reac.ion at Hitler’s headquarters in his diary the next day: “Situation in East becomes threatening because of Russian concentration of force against Bessarabia.”

On the night of June 26 Russia delivered an ultimatum to Rumania demanding the ceding to it of Bessarabia and northern Bucovina and insisting on a reply the next day. Ribbentrop, in panic, dashed off instructions from his special train to his minister in Bucharest telling him to advise the Rumanian government to yield, which it did on June 27. Soviet troops marched into the newly acquired territories the next day and Berlin breathed a sigh of relief that at least the rich sources of oil and food had not been cut off by Russia’s grabbing the whole of Rumania.

It is clear from his acts and from the secret German papers that though Stalin was out to get all he could in Eastern Europe while the Germans were tied down in the West, he did not wish or contemplate a break with Hitler.

Toward the end of June Churchill had tried to warn Stalin in a personal letter of the danger of the German conquests to Russia as well as to Britain.5 The Soviet dictator did not bother to answer; probably, like almost everyone else, he thought Britain was finished. So he tattled to the Germans what the British government was up to. Sir Stafford Cripps, a left-wing Labor Party leader, whom the Prime Minister had rushed to Moscow as the new British ambassador in the hope of striking a more responsive chord among the Bolsheviks—a forlorn hope, as he later ruefully admitted—was received by Stalin early in July in an interview that Churchill described as “formal and frigid.” On July 13 Molotov, on Stalin’s instructions, handed the German ambassador a written memorandum of this confidential conversation.

It is an interesting document. It reveals, as no other source does, the severe limitations of the Soviet dictator in his cold calculations of foreign affairs. Schulenburg sped it to Berlin “most urgent” and, of course, “secret,” and Ribbentrop was so grateful for its contents that he told the Soviet government he “greatly appreciated this information.” Cripps had pressed Stalin, the memorandum said, for his attitude on this principal question, among others:

The British Government was convinced that Germany was striving for hegemony in Europe … This was dangerous to the Soviet Union as well as England. Therefore both countries ought to agree on a common policy of self-protection against Germany and on the re-establishment of the European balance of power …

Stalin’s answers are given as follows:

He did not see any danger of the hegemony of any one country in Europe and still less any danger that Europe might be engulfed by Germany. Stalin observed the policy of Germany, and knew several leading German statesmen well. He had not discovered any desire on their part to engulf European countries. Stalin was not of the opinion that German military successes menaced the Soviet Union and her friendly relations with Germany …6

Such staggering smugness, such abysmal ignorance leave one breathless. The Russian tyrant did not know, of course, the secrets of Hitler’s turgid mind, but the Fuehrer’s past behavior, his known ambitions and the unexpectedly rapid Nazi conquests ought to have been enough to warn him of the dire danger the Soviet Union was now in. But, incomprehensibly, they were not enough.

From the captured Nazi documents and from the testimony of many leading German figures in the great drama that was being played over the vast expanse of Western Europe that year, it is plain that at the very moment of Stalin’s monumental complacency Hitler had in fact been mulling over in his mind the idea of turning on the Soviet Union and destroying her.

The basic idea went back much further, at least fifteen years—to Mein Kampf.

And so we National Socialists [Hitler wrote] take up where we broke off six hundred years ago. We stop the endless German movement toward the south and west of Europe and turn our gaze toward the lands of the East … When we speak of new territory in Europe today we must think principally of Russia and her border vassal states. Destiny itself seems to wish to point out the way to us here … This colossal empire in the East is ripe for dissolution, and the end of the Jewish domination in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state.7

This idea lay like bedrock in Hitler’s mind, and his pact with Stalin had not changed it at all, but merely postponed acting on it. And but briefly. In fact, less than two months after the deal was signed and had been utilized to destroy Poland the Fuehrer instructed the Army that the conquered Polish territory was to be regarded “as an assembly area for future German operations.” The date was October 18, 1939, and Halder recorded it that day in his diary.

Five weeks later, on November 23, when he harangued his reluctant generals about attacking in the West, Russia was by no means out of his mind. “We can oppose Russia,” he declared, “only when we are free in the West.” At that time the two-front war, the nightmare of German generals for a century, was very much on Hitler’s mind, and he spoke of it at length on this occasion. He would not repeat the mistake of former German rulers; he would continue to see to it that the Army had one front at a time.

It was only natural, then, that with the fall of France, the chasing of the British Army across the Channel and the prospects of Britain’s imminent collapse, Hitler’s thoughts should turn once again to Russia. For he now supposed himself to be free in the West and thereby to have achieved the one condition he had laid down in order to be in a position to “oppose Russia.” The rapidity with which Stalin seized the Baltic States and the two Rumanian provinces in June spurred Hitler to a decision.

The moment of its making can now be traced. Jodl says that the “fundamental decision” was taken “as far back as during the Western Campaign.”8 Colonel Walter Warlimont, Jodl’s deputy at OKW, remembers that on July 29 Jodl announced at a meeting of Operations Staff officers that “Hitler intended to attack the U.S.S.R. in the spring of 1941.” Sometime previous to this meeting, Jodl related, Hitler had told Keitel “that he intended to launch the attack against the U.S.S.R. during the fall of 1940.” But this was too much even for Keitel and he had argued Hitler out of it by contending that not only the bad weather in the autumn but the difficulties of transferring the bulk of the Army from the West to the East made it impossible. By the time of this conference on July 29, Warlimont relates, “the date for the intended attack [against Russia] had been moved back to the spring of 1941.”9

Only a week before, we know from Halder’s diary,10 the Fuehrer had still held to a possible campaign in Russia for the autumn if Britain were not invaded. At a military conference in Berlin on July 21 he told Brauchitsch to get busy on the preparations for it. That the Army Commander in Chief and his General Staff already had given the problem some thought—but not enough thought—is evident from his response to Hitler. Brauchitsch told the Leader that the campaign “would last four to six weeks” and that the aim would be “to defeat the Russian Army or at least to occupy enough Russian territory so that Soviet bombers could not reach Berlin or the Silesian industrial area while, on the other hand, the Luftwaffe bombers could reach all important objectives in the Soviet Union.” Brauchitsch thought that from eighty to a hundred German divisions could do the job; he assessed Russian strength as “fifty to seventy-five good divisions.” Halder’s notes on what Brauchitsch told him of the meeting show that Hitler had been stung by Stalin’s grabs in the East, that he thought the Soviet dictator was “coquetting with England” in order to encourage her to hold out, but that he had seen no signs that Russia was preparing to enter the war against Germany.

At a further conference at the Berghof on the last day of July 1940, the receding prospects of an invasion of Britain prompted Hitler to announce for the first time to his Army chiefs his decision on Russia. Halder was personally present this time and jotted down his shorthand notes ofexactly what the warlord said.11 They reveal not only that Hitler had made a definite decision to attack Russia in the following spring but that he had already worked out in his mind the major strategic aims.

Britain’s hope [Hitler said] lies in Russia and America. If that hope in Russia is destroyed then it will be destroyed for America too because elimination of Russia will enormously increase Japan’s power in the Far East.

The more he thought of it the more convinced he was, Hitler said, that Britain’s stubborn determination to continue the war was due to its counting on the Soviet Union.

Something strange [he explained] has happened in Britain! The British were already completely down.* Now they are back on their feet. Intercepted conversations. Russia unpleasantly disturbed by the swift developments in Western Europe.

Russia needs only to hint to England that she does not wish to see Germany too strong and the English, like a drowning man, will regain hope that the situation in six to eight months will have completely changed.

But if Russia is smashed, Britain’s last hope will be shattered. Then Germany will be master of Europe and the Balkans.

Decision: In view of these considerations Russia must be liquidated. Spring, 1941.

The sooner Russia is smashed, the better.

The Nazi warlord then elaborated on his strategic plans which, it was obvious to the generals, had been ripening in his mind for some time despite all his preoccupations with the fighting in the West. The operation, he said, would be worth carrying out only if its aim was to shatter the Soviet nation in one great blow. Conquering a lot of Russian territory would not be enough. “Wiping out of the very power to exist of Russia! That is the goal!” Hitler emphasized. There would be two initial drives: one in the south to Kiev and the Dnieper River, the second in the north up through the Baltic States and then toward Moscow. There the two armies would make a junction. After that a special operation, if necessary, to secure the Baku oil fields. The very thought of such new conquests excited Hitler; he already had in mind what he would do with them. He would annex outright, he said, the UkraineWhite Russia and the Baltic States and extend Finland’s territory to the White Sea. For the whole operation he would allot 120 divisions, keeping sixty divisions for the defense of the West and Scandinavia. The attack, he laid it down, would begin in May 1941 and would take five months to carry through. It would be finished by winter. He would have preferred, he said, to do it this year but this had not proved possible.

The next day, August 1, Halder went to work on the plans with his General Staff. Though he would later claim to have opposed the whole idea of an attack on Russia as insane, his diary entry for this day discloses him full of enthusiasm as he applied himself to the challenging new task.

Planning now went ahead with typical German thoroughness on three levels: that of the Army General Staff, of Warlimont’s Operations Staff at OKW, of General Thomas’ Economic and Armaments Branch of OKW. Thomas was instructed on August 14 by Goering that Hitler desired deliveries of ordered goods to the Russians “only till spring of 1941.”* In the meantime his office was to make a detailed survey of Soviet industry, transportation and oil centers both as a guide to targets and later on as an aid for administering Russia.

A few days before, on August 9, Warlimont had got out his first directive for preparing the deployment areas in the East for the jump-off against the Russians. The code name for this was Aufbau Ost—“Build-up East.” On August 26, Hitler ordered ten infantry and two armored divisions to be sent from the West to Poland. The panzer units, he stipulated, were to be concentrated in southeastern Poland so that they could intervene to protect the Rumanian oil fields.13 The transfer of large bodies of troops to the East could not be done without exciting Stalin’s easily aroused suspicions if he learned of it, and the Germans went to great lengths to see that he didn’t. Since some movements were bound to be detected, General Ernst Koestring, the German military attaché in Moscow, was instructed to inform the Soviet General Staff that it was merely a question of replacing older men, who were being released to industry, by younger men. On September 6, Jodl got out a directive outlining in considerable detail the means of camouflage and deception. “These regroupings,” he laid it down, “must not create the impression in Russia that we are preparing an offensive in the East.”14

So that the armed services should not rest on their laurels after the great victories of the summer, Hitler issued on November 12, 1940, a comprehensive top-secret directive outlining new military tasks all over Europe and beyond. We shall come back to some of them. What concerns us here is that portion dealing with the Soviet Union.

Political discussions have been initiated with the aim of clarifying Russia’s attitude for the time being. Irrespective of the results of these discussions, all preparations for the East which have already been verbally ordered will be continued. Instructions on this will follow, as soon as the general outline of the Army’s operational plans have been submitted to, and approved by, me.15

As a matter of fact, on that very day, November 12, Molotov arrived in Berlin to continue with Hitler himself those political discussions.

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