Military history

MOLOTOV IN BERLIN

Relations between Berlin and Moscow had for some months been souring. It was one thing for Stalin and Hitler to double-cross third parties, but quite another when they began to double-cross each other. Hitler had been helpless to prevent the Russians from grabbing the Baltic States and the two Rumanian provinces of Bessarabia and northern Bucovina, and his frustration only added to his growing resentment. The Russian drive westward would have to be stopped and first of all in Rumania, whose oil resources were of vital importance to a Germany which, because of the British blockade, could no longer import petroleum by sea.

To complicate Hitler’s problem, Hungary and Bulgaria too demanded slices of Rumanian territory. Hungary, in fact, as the summer of 1940 approached its end, prepared to go to war in order to win back Transylvania, which Rumania had taken from her after the First World War. Such a war, Hitler realized, would cut off Germany from her main source of crude oil and probably bring the Russians in to occupy all of Rumania and rob the Reich permanently of Rumanian oil.

By August 28 the situation had become so threatening that Hitler ordered five panzer and three motorized divisions plus parachute and airborne troops to make ready to seize the Rumanian oil fields on September 1.16 That same day he conferred with Ribbentrop and Ciano at the Berghof and then dispatched them to Vienna, where they were to lay down the law to the foreign ministers of Hungary and Rumania and make them accept Axis arbitration. This mission was accomplished without much trouble after Ribbentrop had browbeaten both sides. On August 30 at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna the Hungarians and Rumanians accepted the Axis settlement. When Mihai Manoilescu, the Rumanian Foreign Minister, saw the map stipulating that about one half of Transylvania should go to Hungary, he fainted, falling across the table at which the signing of the agreement was taking place, and regaining consciousness only after physicians had worked over him with camphor.*17 Ostensibly for her reasonableness but really to give Hitler a legal excuse for his further plans, Rumania received from Germany and Italy a guarantee of what was left of her territory.*

Light on the Fuehrer’s further plans came to his intimates three weeks later. On September 20, in a top-secret directive, Hitler ordered the sending of “military missions” to Rumania.

To the world their tasks will be to guide friendly Rumania in organizing and instructing her forces.

The real tasks—which must not become apparent either to the Rumanians or to our own troops—will be:

To protect the oil district …

To prepare for deployment from Rumanian bases of German and Rumanian forces in case a war with Soviet Russia is forced upon us.18

That would take care of the southern flank of a new front he was beginning to picture in his mind.

The Vienna award and especially the German guarantee of Rumania’s remaining territory went down badly in Moscow, which had not been consulted. When Schulenburg called on Molotov on September 1 to present a windy memorandum from Ribbentrop attempting to explain—and justify—what had taken place in Vienna, the Foreign Commissar, the ambassador reported, “was reserved, in contrast to his usual manner.” He was not too reserved, however, to lodge a strong verbal protest. He accused the German government of violating Article III of the Nazi–Soviet Pact, which called for consultation, and of presenting Russia with “accomplished facts” which conflicted with German assurances about “questions of common interests.”19 The thieves, as is almost inevitable in such cases, had begun to quarrel over the spoils.

Recriminations became more heated in the following days. On September 3 Ribbentrop telegraphed a long memorandum to Moscow denying that Germany had violated the Moscow Pact and accusing Russia of having done just that by gobbling up the Baltic States and two Rumanian provinces without consulting Berlin. The memorandum was couched in strong language and the Russians replied to it on September 21 with equally stern words—by this time both sides were putting their cases in writing. The Soviet answer reiterated that Germany had broken the pact, warned that Russia still had many interests in Rumania and concluded with a sarcastic proposal that if the article calling for consultation involved “certain inconveniences and restrictions” for the Reich the Soviet government was ready to amend or delete this clause of the treaty.20

The Kremlin’s suspicions of Hitler were further aroused by two events in September. On the sixteenth, Ribbentrop wired Schulenburg to call on Molotov and “casually” inform him that German reinforcements for northern Norway were going to be sent by way of Finland. A few days later, on September 25, the Nazi Foreign Minister got off another telegram to the embassy in Moscow, this time addressed to the chargé, Schulenburg having returned to Germany on leave. It was a most confidential message, being marked “Strictly Secret—State Secret,” and directing that its instructions were to be carried out only if on the next day the chargé received from Berlin by wire or telephone a special code word.21

He was to inform Molotov that “in the next few days” Japan, Italy and Germany were going to sign in Berlin a military alliance. It was not to be directed against Russia—a specific article would say that.

This alliance [Ribbentrop stated] is directed exclusively against American warmongers. To be sure this is, as usual, not expressly stated in the treaty, but can be unmistakably inferred from its terms … Its exclusive purpose is to bring the elements pressing for America’s entry into the war to their senses by conclusively demonstrating to them that if they enter the present struggle they will automatically have to deal with the three great powers as adversaries.22

The chilly Soviet Foreign Commissar, whose suspicions of the Germans were now growing like flowers in June, was highly skeptical when Werner von Tippelskirch, the chargé, brought him this news on the evening of September 26. He said immediately, with that pedantic attention to detail which so annoyed all with whom he negotiated, friend or foe, that according to Article IV of the Moscow Pact the Soviet government was entitled to see the text of this tripartite military alliance before it was signed, including, he added, the text of “any secret protocols.”

Molotov also wanted to know more about the German agreement with Finland for the transport of troops through that country, which he had heard of mostly through the press, he said, including a United Press dispatch from Berlin. During the last three days, Molotov added, Moscow had received reports of the landing of German forces in at least three Finnish ports, “without having been informed thereof by Germany.”

The Soviet Government [Molotov continued] wished to receive the text of the agreement on the passage of troops through Finland, including its secret portions … and to be informed as to the object of the agreement, against whom it was directed, and the purposes that were being served thereby.23

The Russians had to be mollified—even the obtuse Ribbentrop could see that—and on October 2 he telegraphed to Moscow what he said was the text of the agreement with Finland. He also reiterated that the Tripartite Pact, which in the meantime had been signed,* was not directed against the Soviet Union and solemnly declared that “there were no secret protocols nor any other secret agreements.”24 After instructing Tippelskirch on October 7 to inform Molotov “incidentally” that a German “military mission” was being sent to Rumania and after receiving Molotov’s skeptical reaction to this further news (“How many troops are you sending to Rumania?” the Foreign Commissar had demanded to know),25 Ribbentrop on October 13 got off a long letter to Stalin in an attempt to quiet Soviet uneasiness about Germany.26

It is, as might be expected, a fatuous and at the same time arrogant epistle, abounding in nonsense and lies and subterfuge. England is blamed for the war and all its aftermaths thus far, but one thing is sure: “The war as such has been won by us. It is only a question of how long it will be before England … admits to collapse.” The German moves against Russia in Finland and Rumania as well as the Tripartite Pact are explained as really a boon to Russia. In the meantime British diplomacy and British secret agents are trying to stir up trouble between Russia and Germany. To frustrate them, why not send Molotov to Berlin, Ribbentrop asked Stalin, so that the Fuehrer could “explain personally his views regarding the future molding of relations between our two countries”?

Ribbentrop gave a sly hint what those views were: nothing less than dividing up the world among the four totalitarian powers.

   It appears to be the mission of the Four Powers [he said]—the Soviet Union, ItalyJapan and Germany—to adopt a long-range policy …by delimitation of their interests on a world-wide scale.

   The emphasis is Ribbentrop’s.

There was some delay in the German Embassy in Moscow in getting this letter to its destination, which made Ribbentrop livid with rage and inspired an angry telegram from him to Schulenburg demanding to know why his letter had not been delivered until the seventeenth and why, “in keeping with the importance of its contents,” it was not delivered to Stalin personally—Schulenburg had handed it to Molotov.27 Stalin replied on October 22, in a remarkably cordial tone. “Molotov admits,” he wrote, “that he is under obligation to pay you a visit in Berlin. He hereby accepts your invitation.”28 Stalin’s geniality must have been only a mask. Schulenburg wired Berlin a few days later that the Russians were protesting the refusal of Germany to deliver war material while at the same time shipping arms to Finland. “This is the first time,” Schulenburg advised Berlin, “that our deliveries of arms to Finland have been mentioned by the Soviets.”29

A dark, drizzling day, and Molotov arrived, his reception being extremely stiff and formal. Driving up the Linden to the Soviet Embassy, he looked to me like a plugging, provincial schoolmaster. But to have survived in the cutthroat competition of the Kremlin he must have something. The Germans talk glibly of letting Moscow have that old Russian dream, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, while they will take the rest of the Balkans: Rumania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria …

Thus began my diary entry in Berlin on November 12, 1940. The glib talk of the Germans was accurate enough, as far as it went. Today we know much more about this strange and—as it turned out—fateful meeting, thanks to the capture of the Foreign Office documents, in which one finds the confidential German minutes of the two-day sessions, all but one of them kept by the ubiquitous Dr. Schmidt.*30

At the first meeting between the two foreign ministers, during the forenoon of November 12, Ribbentrop was in one of his most vapid and arrogant moods but Molotov quickly saw through him and sized up what the German game was. “England,” Ribbentrop began, “is beaten and it is only a question of time when she will finally admit her defeat … The beginning of the end has now arrived for the British Empire.” The British, it was true, were hoping for aid from America, but “the entry of the United States into the war is of no consequence at all for Germany. Germany and Italy will never again allow an Anglo-Saxon to land on the European Continent … This is no military problem at all … The Axis Powers are, therefore, not considering how they can win the war, but rather how rapidly they can end the war which is already won.”

This being so, Ribbentrop explained, the time had come for the four powers, Russia, Germany, Italy and Japan, to define their “spheres of interest.” The Fuehrer, he said, had concluded that all four countries would naturally expand “in a southerly direction.” Japan had already turned south, as had Italy, while Germany, after the establishment of the “New Order” in Western Europe, would find her additional Lebensraum in (of all places!) “Central Africa.” Ribbentrop said he “wondered” if Russia would also not “turn to the south for the natural outlet to the open sea which was so important for her.”

“Which sea?” Molotov interjected icily.

This was an awkward but crucial question, as the Germans would learn during the next thirty-six hours of ceaseless conversations with this stubborn, prosaic, precise Bolshevik. The interruption floored Ribbentrop for a moment and he could not think of an answer. Instead, he rambled on about “the great changes that would take place all over the world after the war” and gabbled that the important thing was that “both partners to the German–Russian pact had together done some good business” and “would continue to do some business.” But when Molotov insisted on ananswer to his simple question, Ribbentrop finally replied by suggesting that “in the long run the most advantageous access to the sea for Russia could be found in the direction of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.”

Molotov sat there, says Dr. Schmidt, who was present taking notes, “with an impenetrable expression.”31 He said very little, except to comment at the end that “precision and vigilance” were necessary in delimiting spheres of interest, “particularly between Germany and Russia.” The wily Soviet negotiator was saving his ammunition for Hitler, whom he saw in the afternoon. For the all-powerful Nazi warlord it turned out to be quite a surprising, nerve-racking, frustrating and even unique experience.

Hitler was just as vague as his Foreign Minister and even more grandiose. As soon as the weather improved, he began by saying, Germany would strike “the final blow against England.” There was, to be sure, “the problem of America.” But the United States could not “endanger the freedom of other nations before 1970 or 1980 … It had no business either in Europe, in Africa or in Asia”—an assertion which Molotov broke in to say he was in agreement with. But he was not in agreement with much else that Hitler said. After the Nazi leader had finished a lengthy exposition of pleasant generalities, stressing that there were no fundamental differences between the two countries in the pursuit of their respective aspirations and in their common drive toward “access to the ocean,” Molotov replied that “the statements of the Fuehrer had been of a general nature.” He would now, he said, set forth the ideas of Stalin, who on his departure from Moscow had given him “exact instructions.” Whereupon he hurled the book at the German dictator who, as the minutes make clear, was scarcely prepared for it.

“The questions hailed down upon Hitler,” Schmidt afterward recalled. “No foreign visitor had ever spoken to him in this way in my presence.”32

What was Germany up to in Finland? Molotov wanted to know. What was the meaning of the New Order in Europe and in Asia, and what role would the U.S.S.R. be given in it? What was the “significance” of the Tripartite Pact? “Moreover,” he continued, “there are issues to be clarified regarding Russia’s Balkan and Black Sea interests with respect to Bulgaria, Rumania and Turkey.” He would like, he said, to hear some answers and “explanations.”

Hitler, perhaps for the first time in his life, was too taken aback to answer. He proposed that they adjourn “in view of a possible air-raid alarm,” promising to go into a detailed discussion the next day.

A showdown had been postponed but not prevented, and the next morning when Hitler and Molotov resumed their talks the Russian Commissar was relentless. To begin with, about Finland, over which the two men soon became embroiled in a bitter and caustic dispute. Molotov demanded that Germany get its troops out of Finland. Hitler denied that “Finland was occupied by German troops.” They were merely being sent through Finland to Norway. But he wanted to know “whether Russia intended to go to war against Finland.” According to the German minutes, Molotov “answered this question somewhat evasively,” and Hitler was not satisfied.

“There must be no war in the Baltic,” Hitler insisted. “It would put a heavy strain on German–Russian relations,” a threat which he added to a moment later by saying that such a strain might bring “unforeseeable consequences.” What more did the Soviet Union want in Finland, anyway? Hitler wanted to know, and his visitor answered that it wanted a “settlement on the same scale as in Bessarabia”—which meant outright annexation. Hitler’s reaction to this must have perturbed even the imperturbable Russian, who hastened to ask the Fuehrer’s “opinion on that.”

The dictator in turn was somewhat evasive, replying that he could only repeat that “there must be no war with Finland because such a conflict might have far-reaching repercussions.”

“A new factor has been introduced into the discussion by this position,” Molotov retorted.

So heated had the dispute become that Ribbentrop, who must have become thoroughly frightened by this time, broke in to say, according to the German minutes, “that there was actually no reason at all for making an issue of the Finnish question. Perhaps it was merely a misunderstanding.”

Hitler took advantage of this timely intervention to quickly change the subject. Could not the Russians be tempted by the unlimited plunder soon to be available with the collapse of the British Empire?

“Let us turn to more important problems,” he said.

After the conquest of England [he declared] the British Empire would be apportioned as a gigantic world-wide estate in bankruptcy of forty million square kilometers. In this bankrupt estate there would be for Russia access to the ice-free and really open ocean. Thus far, a minority of forty-five million Englishmen had ruled six hundred million inhabitants of the British Empire. He was about to crush this minority … Under these circumstances there arose world-wide perspectives … All the countries which could possibly be interested in the bankrupt estate would have to stop all controversies among themselves and concern themselves exclusively with the partition of the British Empire. This applied to Germany, France, Italy, Russia and Japan.

The chilly, impassive Russian guest did not appear to be moved by such glittering “world-wide perspectives,” nor was he as convinced as the Germans—a point he later rubbed in—that the British Empire would soon be there for the taking. He wanted, he said, to discuss problems “closer to Europe.” Turkey, for instance, and Bulgaria and Rumania.

“The Soviet Government,” he said, “is of the opinion that the German guarantee of Rumania is aimed against the interests of Soviet Russia—if one may express oneself so bluntly.” He had been expressing himself bluntly all day, to the growing annoyance of his hosts, and now he pressed on. He demanded that Germany “revoke” this guarantee. Hitler declined.

All right, Molotov persisted, in view of Moscow’s interest in the Straits, what would Germany say “if Russia gave Bulgaria … a guarantee under exactly the same conditions as Germany and Italy had given one to Rumania”?

One can almost see Hitler’s dark frown. He inquired whether Bulgaria had asked for such a guarantee, as had Rumania? “He (the Fuehrer),” the German memorandum quotes him as adding, “did not know of any request by Bulgaria.” At any rate, he would first have to consult Mussolini before giving the Russians a more definite answer to their question. And he added ominously that if Germany “were perchance looking for sources of friction with Russia, she would not need the Straits for that.”

But the Fuehrer, usually so talkative, had no more stomach for talk with this impossible Russian.

“At this point in the conversation,” say the German minutes, “the Fuehrer called attention to the late hour and stated that in view of the possibility of English air attacks it would be better to break off the talk now, since the main issues had probably been sufficiently discussed.”

That night Molotov gave a gala banquet to his hosts at the Russian Embassy on Unter den Linden. Hitler, apparently exhausted and still irritated by the afternoon’s ordeal, did not put in an appearance.

The British did. I had wondered why their bombers had not appeared over Berlin, as they had almost every recent night, to remind the Soviet Commissar on his first evening in the capital that, whatever the Germans told him, Britain was still in the war, and kicking. Some of us, I confess, had waited hopefully for the planes, but they had not come. Officials in the Wilhelmstrasse, who had feared the worst, were visibly relieved. But not for long.

On the evening of November 13, the British came over early.* It gets dark in Berlin about 4 P.M. at this time of year, and shortly after 9 o’clock the air-raid sirens began to whine and then you could hear the thunder of the flak guns and, in between, the hum of the bombers overhead. According to Dr. Schmidt, who was at the banquet in the Soviet Embassy, Molotov had just proposed a friendly toast and Ribbentrop had risen to his feet to reply when the air-raid warning was sounded and the guests scattered to shelter. I remember the hurrying and scurrying down the Linden and around the corner at the Wilhelmstrasse as Germans and Russians made for the underground shelter of the Foreign Ministry. Some of the officials, Dr. Schmidt among them, ducked into the Adlon Hotel, from in front of which some of us were watching, and were unable to get to the impromptu meeting which the two foreign ministers now held in the underground depths of the Foreign Office. The minutes of this meeting were therefore taken, in the enforced absence of Dr. Schmidt, by Gustav Hilger, counselor of the German Embassy in Moscow, who had acted as one of the interpreters during the conference.

While the British bombers cruised overhead in the night and the antiaircraft guns fired away ineffectively at them, the slippery Nazi Foreign Minister tried one last time to take the Russians in. Out of his pocket he pulled a draft of an agreement which, in substance, transformed the Tripartite Pact into a four-power pact, with Russia as the fourth member. Molotov listened patiently while Ribbentrop read it through.

Article II was the core. In it Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union undertook “to respect each other’s natural spheres of influence.” Any disputes concerning them would be settled “in an amicable way.” The two fascist countries and Japan agreed to “recognize the present extent of the possessions of the Soviet Union and will respect it.” All four countries, in Article III, agreed not to join or support any combination “directed against one of the Four Powers.”

The agreement itself, Ribbentrop proposed, would be made public, but not, of course, its secret protocols, which he next proceeded to read. The most important one defined each country’s “territorial aspirations.” Russia’s was to “center south of the national territory of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Indian Ocean.”

Molotov did not rise to the bait. The proposed treaty was obviously an attempt to divert Russia from its historic pressure westward, down the Baltic, into the Balkans and through the Straits to the Mediterranean, where inevitably it would clash with the greedy designs of Germany and Italy. The U.S.S.R. was not, at least at the moment, interested in the Indian Ocean, which lay far away. What it was interested in at the moment, Molotov replied, was Europe and the Turkish Straits. “Consequently,” he added, “paper agreements will not suffice for the Soviet Union; she would have to insist on effective guarantees of her security.”

The questions which interested the Soviet Union [he elaborated] concerned not only Turkey but Bulgaria … But the fate of Rumania and Hungary was also of interest to the U.S.S.R. and could not be immaterial to her under any circumstances. It would further interest the Soviet Government to learn what the Axis contemplated with regard to Yugoslavia and Greece, and likewise, what Germany intended with regard to Poland … The Soviet Government was also interested in the question of Swedish neutrality … Besides, there existed the question of the passages out of the Baltic Sea …

The untiring, poker-faced Soviet Foreign Commissar left nothing out and Ribbentrop, who felt himself being buried under the avalanche of questions—for at this point Molotov said he would “appreciate it” if his guest made answer to them—protested that he was being “interrogated too closely.”

He could only repeat again and again [he replied weakly] that the decisive question was whether the Soviet Union was prepared and in a position to co-operate with us in the great liquidation of the British Empire.

Molotov was ready with a cutting retort. Hilger duly noted it in the minutes.

In his reply Molotov stated that the Germans were assuming that the war against England had already actually been won. If therefore [as Hitler had maintained] Germany was waging a life-and-death struggle against England, he could only construe this as meaning that Germany was fighting “for life” and England “for death.”

This sarcasm may have gone over the head of Ribbentrop, a man of monumental denseness, but Molotov took no chances. To the German’s constant reiteration that Britain was finished, the Commissar finally replied, “If that is so, why are we in this shelter, and whose are these bombs which fall?”*

   From this wearing experience with Moscow’s tough bargainer and from further evidence that came a fortnight later of Stalin’s increasingly rapacious appetite, Hitler drew his final conclusions.

It must be set down here that the Soviet dictator, his subsequent claims to the contrary notwithstanding, now accepted Hitler’s offer to join the fascist camp, though at a stiffer price than had been offered in Berlin. On November 26, scarcely two weeks after Molotov had returned from Germany, he informed the German ambassador in Moscow that Russia was prepared to join the four-power pact, subject to the following conditions:

1. That German troops are immediately withdrawn from Finland, which … belongs to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence …

2. That within the next few months the security of the Soviet Union in the Straits is assured by the conclusion of a mutual-assistance pact between the U.S.S.R. and Bulgaria … and by the establishment of a base for land and naval forces by the Soviet Union within range of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles by means of a long-term lease.

3. That the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognized as the center of the aspirations of the Soviet Union.

4. That Japan renounce her rights to concessions for coal and oil in northern Sakhalin.33

In all Stalin asked for five, instead of two, secret protocols embodying his new proposals and, for good measure, asked that, should Turkey prove difficult about Russian bases controlling the Straits, the four powers take military measures against her.

The proposals constituted a price higher than Hitler was willing even to consider. He had tried to keep Russia out of Europe, but now Stalin was demanding Finland, Bulgaria, control of the Straits and, in effect, the Arabian and Persian oil fields, which normally supplied Europe with most of its oil. The Russians did not even mention the Indian Ocean, which the Fuehrer had tried to fob off as the center of “aspirations” for the U.S.S.R.

“Stalin is clever and cunning,” Hitler told his top military chiefs. “He demands more and more. He’s a cold-blooded blackmailer. A German victory has become unbearable for Russia. Therefore: she must be brought to her knees as soon as possible.”34

The great cold-blooded Nazi blackmailer had met his match, and the realization infuriated him. At the beginning of December he told Halder to bring him the Army General Staff’s plan for the onslaught on the Soviet Union. On December 5 Halder and Brauchitsch dutifully brought it to him, and at the end of a four-hour conference he approved it. Both the captured OKW War Diary and Halder’s own confidential journal contain a report on this crucial meeting.35 The Nazi warlord stressed that the Red Army must be broken through both north and south of the Pripet Marshes, surrounded and annihilated “as in Poland.” Moscow, he told Halder, “was not important.” The important thing was to destroy the “life force” of Russia. Rumania and Finland were to join in the attack, but not Hungary. General Dietl’s mountain division at Narvik was to be transported across northern Sweden to Finland for an attack on the Soviet arctic region.* Altogether some “120 to 130 divisions” were allotted for the big campaign.

In its report on this conference, as in previous references to the plan to attack Russia, General Halder’s diary employs the code name “Otto.” Less than a fortnight later, on December 18, 1940, the code name by which it will go down in history was substituted. On this day Hitler crossed the Rubicon. He issued Directive No. 21. It was headed “Operation Barbarossa.” It began:

TOP SECRET

The Fuehrer’s Headquarters
December 18, 1940

The German Armed Forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign before the end of the war against England. For this purpose the Army will have to employ all available units with the reservation that the occupied territories will have to be safeguarded against surprise attacks …

Preparations … are to be completed by May 15, 1941. Great caution has to be exercised that the intention of an attack will not be recognized.

So the target date was mid-May of the following spring. The “general purpose” of Operation Barbarossa Hitler laid down as follows:

The mass of the Russian Army in western Russia is to be destroyed in daring operations by driving forward deep armored wedges, and the retreat of intact, battle-ready troops into the wide spaces of Russia is to be prevented. The ultimate objective of the operation is to establish a defense line against Asiatic Russia from a line running from the Volga River to Archangel.

Hitler’s directive then went into considerable detail about the main lines of attack.* The roles of Rumania and Finland were defined. They were to provide the jumping-off areas for attacks on the extreme north and south flanks as well as troops to aid the German forces in these operations. Finland’s position was especially important. Various Finnish–German armies were to advance on Leningrad and the Lake Ladoga area, cut the Murmansk rail line, secure the Petsamo nickel mines and occupy the Russian ice-free ports on the Arctic Ocean. Much depended, Hitler admitted, on whether Sweden would permit the transit of German troops from Norway, but he correctly predicted that the Swedes would be accommodating in this.

The main operations were to be divided, Hitler explained, by the Pripet Marshes. The major blow would be delivered north of the swamps with two whole army groups. One would advance up the Baltic States to Leningrad. The other, farther south, would drive through White Russia and then swing north to join the first group, thus trapping what was left of the Soviet forces trying to retreat from the Baltic. Only then, Hitler laid it down, must an offensive against Moscow be undertaken. The Russian capital, which a fortnight before had seemed “unimportant” to Hitler, now assumed more significance. “The capture of this city,” he wrote, “means a decisive political and economic victory, beyond the fall of the country’s most important railroad junction.” And he pointed out that Moscow was not only the main communications center of Russia but its principal producer of armaments.

A third army group would drive south of the marshes through the Ukraine toward Kiev, its principal objective being to roll up and destroy the Soviet forces there west of the Dnieper River. Farther south German–Rumanian troops would protect the flank of the main operation and advance toward Odessa and thence along the Black Sea. Thereafter the Donets basin, where 60 per cent of Soviet industry was concentrated, would be taken.

Such was Hitler’s grandiose plan, completed just before the Christmas holidays of 1940, and so well prepared that no essential changes would be made in it. In order to secure secrecy, only nine copies of the directive were made, one for each of the three armed services and the rest to be guarded at OKW headquarters. Even the top field commanders, the directive makes clear, were to be told that the plan was merely for “precaution, in case Russia should change her previous attitude toward us.” And Hitler instructed that the number of officers in the secret “be kept as small as possible. Otherwise the danger exists that our preparations will become known and the gravest political and military disadvantages result.”

There is no evidence that the generals in the Army’s High Command objected to Hitler’s decision to turn on the Soviet Union, whose loyal fulfillment of the pact with Germany had made possible their victories in Poland and the West. Later Halder would write derisively of “Hitler’s Russian adventure” and claim the Army leaders were against it from the beginning.37 But there is not a word in his voluminous diary entries for December 1940 which supports him in this. Indeed, he gives the impression of being full of genuine enthusiasm for the “adventure,” which he himself, as Chief of the General Staff, had the main responsibility for planning.

At any rate, for Hitler the die was cast, and, though he did not know it, his ultimate fate sealed, by this decision of December 18,1940. Relieved to have made up his mind at last, as he later revealed, he went off to celebrate the Christmas holidays with the troops and flyers along the English Channel—as far as it was possible for him to get from Russia. Out of his mind too—as far as possible—must have been any thoughts of Charles XII of Sweden and of Napoleon Bonaparte, who after so many glorious conquests not unlike his own, had met disaster in the vast depths of the Russian steppes. How could they be much in his mind? By now, as the record shortly will show, the one-time Vienna waif regarded himself as the greatest conqueror the world had ever seen. Egomania, that fatal disease of all conquerors, was taking hold.

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