Military history

THE PLIGHT OF THE KREMLIN

Despite all the evidence of Hitler’s intentions—the build-up of German forces in eastern Poland, the presence of a million Nazi troops in the nearby Balkans, the Wehrmacht’s conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece and its occupation of Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary—the men in the Kremlin, Stalin above all, stark realists though they were reputed to be and had been, blindly hoped that Russia somehow would still escape the Nazi tyrant’s wrath. Their natural suspicions, of course, could not help but feed on the bare facts, nor could their growing resentment at Hitler’s moves in southeastern Europe be suppressed. There is, however, something unreal, almost unbelievable, quite grotesque, in the diplomatic exchanges between Moscow and Berlin in these spring weeks (exhaustively recorded in the captured Nazi documents), in which the Germans tried clumsily to deceive the Kremlin to the last and the Soviet leaders seemed unable to fully grasp reality and act on it in time.

Though they several times protested the entry of German troops into Rumania and Bulgaria and then the attack on Yugoslavia and Greece as a violation of the Nazi–Soviet Pact and a threat to Russian “security interests,” the Soviets went out of their way to appease Berlin as the date for the German attack approached. Stalin personally took the lead in this. On April 13, 1941, Ambassador von der Schulenburg telegraphed an interesting dispatch to Berlin recounting how on the departure of the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, that evening from Moscow, Stalin had shown “a remarkably friendly manner” not only to the Japanese but to the Germans. At the railroad station

Stalin publicly asked for me [Schulenburg wired] … and threw his arm around my shoulders: “We must remain friends and you must now do everything to that end!” Somewhat later Stalin turned to the acting German Military Attaché, Colonel Krebs, first made sure that he was a German, and then said to him: “We will remain friends with you—through thick and thin!”91

Three days later the German chargé in Moscow, Tippelskirch, wired Berlin stressing that the demonstration at the station showed Stalin’s friendliness toward Germany and that this was especially important “in view of the persistently circulating rumors of an imminent conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union.”92 The day before, Tippelskirch had informed Berlin that the Kremlin had accepted “unconditionally,” after months of wrangling, the German proposals for the settlement of the border between the two countries from the Igorka River to the Baltic Sea. “The compliant attitude of the Soviet Government,” he said, “seems very remarkable.”93 In view of what was brewing in Berlin, it surely was.

In supplying blockaded Germany with important raw materials, the Soviet government continued to be equally compliant. On April 5, 1941, Schnurre, in charge of trade negotiations with Moscow, reported jubilantly to his Nazi masters that after the slowdown in Russian deliveries in January and February 1941, due to the “cooling off of political relations,” they had risen “by leaps and bounds in March, especially in grains, petroleum, manganese ore and the nonferrous and precious metals.”

Transit traffic through Siberia [he added] is proceeding favorably as usual. At our request the Soviet Government even put a special freight train for rubber at our disposal at the Manchurian border.94

Six weeks later, on May 15, Schnurre was reporting that the obliging Russians had put on several special freight trains so that 4,000 tons of badly needed raw rubber could be delivered to Germany over the Siberian railway.

The quantities of raw materials contracted for are being delivered punctually by the Russians, despite the heavy burden this imposes on them … I am under the impression that we could make economic demands on Moscow which would even go beyond the scope of the treaty of January 10, demands designed to secure German food and raw-material requirements beyond the extent now contracted for.95

German deliveries of machinery to Russia were falling behind, Schnurre observed, but he did not seem to mind, if the Russians didn’t. However, he was disturbed on May 15 by another factor. “Great difficulties are created,” he complained, “by the countless rumors of an imminent German–Russian conflict,” for which he blamed German official sources. Amazingly, the “difficulties,” Schnurre explained in a lengthy memorandum to the Foreign Office, did not come from Russia but from German industrial firms, which, he said, were trying “to withdraw” from their contracts with the Russians.

Hitler, it must be noted here, was doing his best to contradict the rumors, but at the same time he was busy trying to convince his generals and top officials that Germany was in growing danger of being attacked by Russia. Though the generals, from their own military intelligence, knew better, so hypnotic was Hitler’s spell over them that even after the war Halder, Brauchitsch, Manstein and others (though not Paulus, who seems to have been more honest) contended that a Soviet military build-up on the Polish frontier had become very threatening by the beginning of the summer.

Count von der Schulenburg, who had come home from Moscow on a brief leave, saw Hitler in Berlin on April 28 and tried to convince him of Russia’s peaceful intentions. “Russia,” he attempted to explain, “is very apprehensive at the rumors predicting a German attack on Russia. I cannot believe,” he added, “that Russia will ever attack Germany … If Stalin was unable to go with England and France in 1939 when both were still strong, he will certainly not make such a decision today, when France is destroyed and England badly battered. On the contrary, I am convinced that Stalin is prepared to make even further concessions to us.”

The Fuehrer feigned skepticism. He had been “forewarned,” he said, “by events in Serbia … What devil had possessed the Russians,” he asked, “to conclude the friendship pact with Yugoslavia?”* He did not believe, it was true, he said, that “Russia could be brought to attack Germany.” Nevertheless, he concluded, he was obliged “to be careful.” Hitler did not tell his ambassador to the Soviet Union what plans he had in store for that country, and Schulenburg, an honest, decent German of the old school, remained ignorant of them to the last.

Stalin, too, but not of the signs, or of the warnings, of what Hitler was up to. On April 22 the Soviet government formally protested eighty instances of border violations by Nazi planes which it said had taken place between March 27 and April 18, providing detailed accounts of each. In one case, it said, in a German reconnaissance plane which landed near Rovno on April 15 there was found a camera, rolls of exposed film and a torn topographical map of the western districts of the U.S.S.R., “all of which give evidence of the purpose of the crew of this airplane.” Even in protesting the Russians were conciliatory. They had given the border troops, the note said, “the order not to fire on German planes flying over Soviet territory so long as such flights do not occur frequently.”97

Stalin made further conciliatory moves early in May. To please Hitler he expelled the diplomatic representatives in Moscow of BelgiumNorway, Greece and even Yugoslavia and closed their legations. He recognized the pro-Nazi government of Rashid Ali in Iraq. He kept the Soviet press under the strictest restraint in order to avoid provoking Germany.

These manifestations [Schulenburg wired Berlin on May 12] of the intention of the Stalin Government are calculated … to relieve the tension between the Soviet Union and Germany and to create a better atmosphere for the future. We must bear in mind that Stalin personally has always advocated a friendly relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union.98

Though Stalin had long been the absolute dictator of the Soviet Union this was the first mention by Schulenburg in his dispatches of the term “Stalin Government.” There was good reason. On May 6 Stalin had personally taken over as Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, or Prime Minister, replacing Molotov, who remained as Foreign Commissar. This was the first time the all-powerful secretary of the Communist Party had taken government office and the general world reaction was that it meant the situation had become so serious for the Soviet Union, especially in its relations with Nazi Germany, that only Stalin could deal with it as the nominal as well as the actual head of government. This interpretation was obvious, but there was another which was not so clear but which the astute German ambassador in Moscow promptly pointed out to Berlin.

Stalin, he reported, was displeased with the deterioration of German–Soviet relations and blamed Molotov’s clumsy diplomacy for much of it.

In my opinion [Schulenburg said] it may be assumed with certainty that Stalin has set himself a foreign-policy goal of overwhelming importance … which he hopes to attain by his personal efforts. I firmly believe that in an international situation which he considers serious, Stalin has set himself the goal of preserving the Soviet Union from a conflict with Germany.99

Did the crafty Soviet dictator not realize by now—the middle of May 1941—that this was an impossible goal, that there was nothing, short of an abject surrender to Hitler, that he could do to attain it? He surely knew the significance of Hitler’s conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, of the presence of large masses of German troops in Rumania and Hungary on his southwest borders, of the Wehrmacht build-up on his western frontier in Poland. The persistent rumors in Moscow itself surely reached him. By the beginning of May what Schulenburg called in a dispatch on the second day of that month “rumors of an imminent German–Russian military showdown” were so rife in the Soviet capital that he and his officials in the German Embassy were having difficulty in combating them.

Please bear in mind [he advised Berlin] that attempts to counteract these rumors here in Moscow must necessarily remain ineffectual if such rumors incessantly reach here from Germany, and if every traveler who comes to Moscow, or travels through Moscow, not only brings these rumors along, but can even confirm them by citing facts.100

The veteran ambassador was getting suspicious himself. He was instructed by Berlin to continue to deny the rumors, and to spread it about that not only was there no concentration of German troops on Russia’s frontiers but that actually considerable forces (eight divisions, he was told for his “personal information”) were being transferred from “east to west.”101 Perhaps these instructions only confirmed the ambassador’s uneasiness, since by this time the press throughout the world was beginning to trumpet the German military build-up along the Soviet borders.

But long before this, Stalin had received specific warnings of Hitler’s plans, and apparently paid no attention to them. The most serious one came from the government of the United States.

Early in January 1941, the U.S. commercial attaché in Berlin, Sam E. Woods, had sent a confidential report to the State Department stating that he had learned from trustworthy German sources that Hitler was making plans to attack Russia in the spring. It was a long and detailed message, outlining the General Staff plan of attack (which proved to be quite accurate) and the preparations being made for the economic exploitation of the Soviet Union, once it was conquered.*

Secretary of State Cordell Hull thought at first that Woods had been victim of a German “plant.” He called in J. Edgar Hoover. The F.B.I, head read the report and judged it authentic. Woods had named some of his sources, both in various ministries in Berlin and in the German General Staff, and on being checked they were adjudged in Washington to be men who ought to know what was up and anti-Nazi enough to tattle. Despite the strained relations then existing between the American and Soviet governments Hull decided to inform the Russians, requesting Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to communicate the substance of the report to Ambassador Constantine Oumansky. This was done on March 20.

Mr. Oumansky turned very white [Welles later wrote]. He was silent for a moment and then merely said: “I fully realize the gravity of the message you have given me. My government will be grateful for your confidence and I will inform it immediately of our conversation.”102

If it was grateful, indeed if it ever believed this timely intelligence, it never communicated any inkling to the American government. In fact, as Secretary Hull has related in his memoirs, Moscow grew more hostile and truculent because America’s support of Britain made it impossible to supply Russia with all the materials it demanded. Nevertheless, according to Hull, the State Department, having received dispatches from its legations in Bucharest and Stockholm the first week in June stating that Germany would invade Russia within a fortnight, forwarded copies of them to Ambassador Steinhardt in Moscow, who turned them over to Molotov.

Churchill too sought to warn Stalin. On April 3 he asked his ambassador in Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps, to deliver a personal note to the dictator pointing out the significance to Russia of German troop movements in southern Poland which he had learned of through a British agent. Cripps’ delay in delivering the message still vexed Churchill when he wrote about the incident years later in his memoirs.103

Before the end of April, Cripps knew the date set for the German attack, and the Germans knew he knew it. On April 24, the German naval attaché in Moscow sent a curt message to the Navy High Command in Berlin:

   The British Ambassador predicts June 22 as the day of the outbreak of the war.104*

This message, which is among the captured Nazi papers, was recorded in the German Naval Diary on the same day, with an exclamation point added at the end.105 The admirals were surprised at the accuracy of the British envoy’s prediction. The poor naval attaché, who, like the ambassador in Moscow, had not been let in on the secret, added in his dispatch that it was “manifestly absurd.”

Molotov must have thought so too. A month later, on May 22, he received Schulenburg to discuss various matters. “He was as amiable, self-assured and well-informed as ever,” the ambassador reported to Berlin, and again emphasized that Stalin and Molotov, “the two strongest men in the Soviet Union,” were striving “above all” to avoid a conflict with Germany.106

On one point the usually perspicacious ambassador couldn’t have been more wrong. Molotov, at this juncture, was certainly not “well-informed.” But neither was the ambassador.

The extent to which the Russian Foreign Commissar was ill-informed was given public expression on June 14, 1941, just a week before the German blow fell. Molotov called in Schulenburg that evening and handed him the text of a Tass statement which, he said, was being broadcast that very night and published in the newspapers the next morning.107 Blaming Cripps personally for the “widespread rumors of ‘an impending war between the U.S.S.R. and Germany’ in the English and foreign press,” this official statement of the Soviet government branded them as an “obvious absurdity … a clumsy propaganda maneuver of the forces arrayed against the Soviet Union and Germany.” It added:

In the opinion of Soviet circles the rumors of the intention of Germany … to launch an attack against the Soviet Union are completely without foundation.

Even the recent German troop movements from the Balkans to the Soviet frontiers were explained in the communiqué as “having no connection with Soviet–German relations.” As for the rumors saying that Russia would attack Germany, they were “false and provocative.”

The irony of the Tass communiqué on behalf of the Soviet government is enhanced by two German moves, one on the day of its publication, June 15, the other on the next day.

From Venice, where he was conferring with Ciano, Ribbentrop sent a secret message on June 15 to Budapest warning the Hungarian government “to take steps to secure its frontiers.”

In view of the heavy concentration of Russian troops at the German eastern border, the Fuehrer will probably be compelled, by the beginning of July at the latest, to clarify German–Russian relations and in this connection to make certain demands.108

The Germans were tipping off the Hungarians, but not their principal ally. When Ciano the next day, during a gondola ride on the canals of Venice, asked Ribbentrop about the rumors of a German attack on Russia, the Nazi Foreign Minister replied:

“Dear Ciano, I cannot tell you anything as yet because every decision is locked in the impenetrable bosom of the Fuehrer. However, one thing is certain: if we attack them, the Russia of Stalin will be erased from the map within eight weeks.”*

While the Kremlin was smugly preparing to broadcast to the world on June 14, 1941, that the rumors of a German attack on Russia were an “obvious absurdity,” Adolf Hitler that very day was having his final big war conference on Barbarossa with the leading officers of the Wehrmacht. The timetable for the massing of troops in the East and their deployment to the jumping-off positions had been put in operation on May 22. A revised version of the timetable was issued a few days later.109 It is a long and detailed document and shows that by the beginning of June not only were all plans for the onslaught on Russia complete but the vast and complicated movement of troops, artillery, armor, planes, ships and supplies was well under way and on schedule. A brief item in the Naval War Diary for May 29 states: “The preparatory movements of warships for Barbarossa has begun.” Talks with the general staffs of Rumania, Hungary and Finland—the last country anxious now to win back what had been taken from her by the Russians in the winter war—were completed. On June 9 from Berchtesgaden Hitler sent out an order convoking the commanders in chief of the three Armed Services and the top field generals for a final all-day meeting on Barbarossa in Berlin on June 14.

Despite the enormity of the task, not only Hitler but his generals were in a confident mood as they went over last-minute details of the most gigantic military operation in history—an all-out attack on a front stretching some 1,500 miles from the Arctic Ocean at Petsamo to the Black Sea. The night before, Brauchitsch had returned to Berlin from an inspection of the build-up in the East. Halder noted in his diary that the Army Commander in Chief was highly pleased. Officers and men, he said, were in top shape and ready.

This last military powwow on June 14 lasted from 11 A.M. until 6:30 P.M. It was broken by lunch at 2 P.M., at which Hitler gave his generals yet another of his fiery, eve-of-the-battle pep talks.110 According to Halder, it was “a comprehensive political speech,” with Hitler stressing that he had to attack Russia because her fall would force England to “give up.” But the bloodthirsty Fuehrer must have emphasized something else even more. Keitel told about it during direct examination on the stand at Nuremberg.

The main theme was that this was the decisive battle between two ideologies and that the practices which we knew as soldiers—the only correct ones under international law—had to be measured by completely different standards.

Hitler thereupon, said Keitel, gave various orders for carrying out an unprecedented terror in Russia by “brutal means.”

“Did you, or did any other generals, raise objections to these orders?” asked Keitel’s own attorney.

“No. I personally made no remonstrances,” the General replied. Nor did any of the other generals, he added.*

   It is almost inconceivable but nevertheless true that the men in the Kremlin, for all the reputation they had of being suspicious, crafty and hardheaded, and despite all the evidence and all the warnings that stared them in the face, did not realize right up to the last moment that they were to be hit, and with a force which would almost destroy their nation.

At 9:30 on the pleasant summer evening of June 21, 1941, nine hours before the German attack was scheduled to begin, Molotov received the German ambassador at his office in the Kremlin and delivered his “final fatuity.”* After mentioning further border violations by German aircraft, which he said he had instructed the Soviet ambassador in Berlin to bring to the attention of Ribbentrop, Molotov turned to another subject, which Schulenburg described in an urgent telegram to the Wilhelmstrasse that same night:

There were a number of indications [Molotov had told him] that the German Government was dissatisfied with the Soviet Government. Rumors were even current that a war was impending between Germany and the Soviet Union … The Soviet Government was unable to understand the reasons for Germany’s dissatisfaction … He would appreciate it if I could tell him what had brought about the present situation in German–Soviet relations.

I replied [Schulenburg added] that I could not answer his questions, as I lacked the pertinent information.111

He was soon to get it.

For on its way to him over the air waves between Berlin and Moscow was a long coded radio message from Ribbentrop, dated June 21, 1941, marked “Very Urgent, State Secret, For the Ambassador Personally,” which began:

Upon receipt of this telegram, all of the cipher material still there is to be destroyed. The radio set is to be put out of commission.

Please inform Herr Molotov at once that you have an urgent communication to make to him … Then please make the following declaration to him.

It was a familiar declaration, strewn with all the shopworn lies and fabrications at which Hitler and Ribbentrop had become so expert and which they had concocted so often before to justify each fresh act of unprovoked aggression. Perhaps—at least such is the impression this writer gets in rereading it—it somewhat topped all the previous ones for sheer effrontery and deceit. While Germany had loyally abided by the Nazi–Soviet Pact, it said, Russia had repeatedly broken it. The U.S.S.R. had practiced “sabotage, terrorism and espionage” against Germany. It had “combated the German attempt to set up a stable order in Europe.” It had conspired with Britain “for an attack against the German troops in Rumania and Bulgaria.” By concentrating “all available Russian forces on a long front from the Baltic to the Black Sea,” it had “menaced” the Reich.

Reports received the last few days [it went on] eliminate the last remaining doubts as to the aggressive character of this Russian concentration … In addition, there are reports from England regarding the negotiations of Ambassador Cripps for still closer political and military collaboration between England and the Soviet Union.

To sum up, the Government of the Reich declares, therefore, that the Soviet Government, contrary to the obligations it assumed,

1. has not only continued, but even intensified its attempts to undermine Germany and Europe;

2. has adopted a more and more anti-German foreign policy;

3. has concentrated all its forces in readiness at the German border. Thereby the Soviet Government has broken its treaties with Germany and is about to attack Germany from the rear in its struggle for life. The Fuehrer has therefore ordered the German Armed Forces to oppose this threat with all the means at their disposal.112

“Please do not enter into any discussion of this communication,” Ribbentrop advised his ambassador at the end. What could the shaken and disillusioned Schulenburg, who had devoted the best years of his life to improving German–Russian relations and who knew that the attack on the Soviet Union was unprovoked and without justification, say? Arriving back at the Kremlin just as dawn was breaking, he contented himself with reading the German declaration.* Molotov, stunned at last, listened in silence to the end and then said:

“It is war. Do you believe that we deserved that?”

   At the same hour of daybreak a similar scene was taking place in the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin. All afternoon on June 21, the Soviet ambassador, Vladimir Dekanozov, had been telephoning the Foreign Office asking for an appointment with Ribbentrop so that he could deliver his little protest against further border violations by German planes. He was told that the Nazi Foreign Minister was “out of town.” Then at 2 A.M. on the twenty-second he was informed that Ribbentrop would receive him at 4 A.M. at the Foreign Office. There the envoy, who had been a deputy foreign commissar, a hatchetman for Stalin and the troubleshooter who had arranged the taking over of Lithuania, received, like Molotov in Moscow, the shock of his life. Dr. Schmidt, who was present, has described the scene.

I had never seen Ribbentrop so excited as he was in the five minutes before Dekanozov’s arrival. He walked up and down his room like a caged animal …

Dekanozov was shown in and, obviously not guessing anything was amiss, held out his hand to Ribbentrop. We sat down and … Dekanozov proceeded to put on behalf of his Government certain questions that needed clarification. But he had hardly begun before Ribbentrop, with a stony expression, interrupted, saying: “That’s not the question now” …

The arrogant Nazi Foreign Minister thereupon explained what the question was, gave the ambassador a copy of the memorandum which Schulenburg at that moment was reading out to Molotov, and informed him that German troops were at that instant taking “military countermeasures” on the Soviet frontier. The startled Soviet envoy, says Schmidt, “recovered his composure quickly and expressed his deep regret” at the developments, for which he blamed Germany. “He rose, bowed perfunctorily and left the room without shaking hands.”113

The Nazi–Soviet honeymoon was over. At 3:30 A.M. on June 22, 1941, a half hour before the closing diplomatic formalities in the Kremlin and the Wilhelmstrasse, the roar of Hitler’s guns along hundreds of miles of front had blasted it forever.

   There was one other diplomatic prelude to the cannonade. On the afternoon of June 21, Hitler sat down at his desk in his new underground headquarters, Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair), near Rastenburg in a gloomy forest of East Prussia, and dictated a long letter to Mussolini. As in the preparation of all his other aggressions he had not trusted his good friend and chief ally enough to let him in on his secret until the last moment. Now, at the eleventh hour, he did. His letter is the most revealing and authentic evidence we have of the reasons for his taking this fatal step, which for so long puzzled the outside world and which was to pave the way for his end and that of the Third Reich. The letter, to be sure, is full of Hitler’s customary lies and evasions which he tried to fob off even on his friends. But beneath them, and between them, there emerges his fundamental reasoning and his true—if mistaken—estimate of the world situation as the summer of 1941, the second of the war, officially began.

DUCE!

I am writing this letter to you at a moment when months of anxious deliberation and continuous nerve-racking waiting are ending in the hardest decision of my life.

The situation:* England has lost this war. Like a drowning person, she grasps at every straw. Nevertheless, some of her hopes are naturally not without a certain logic … The destruction of France … has directed the glances of the British warmongers continually to the place from which they tried to start the war: to Soviet Russia.

Both countries, Soviet Russia and England, are equally interested in a Europe … rendered prostrate by a long war. Behind these two countries stands the North American Union goading them on….

Hitler next explained that with large Soviet military forces in his rear he could never assemble the strength—“particularly in the air”—to make the all-out attack on Britain which would bring her down.

Really, all available Russian forces are at our border … If circumstances should give me cause to employ the German Air Force against England, there is danger that Russia will then begin its strategy of extortion, to which I would have to yield in silence simply from a feeling of air inferiority … England will be all the less ready for peace for it will be able to pin its hopes on the Russian partner. Indeed this hope must naturally grow with the progress in preparedness of the Russian armed forces. And behind this is the mass delivery of war material from America which they hope to get in 1942 …

I have therefore, after constantly racking my brains, finally reached the decision to cut the noose before it can be drawn tight … My over-all view is now as follows:

1. France is, as ever, not to be trusted.

2. North Africa itself, insofar as your colonies, Duce, are concerned, is probably out of danger until fall.

3. Spain is irresolute and—I am afraid—will take sides only when the outcome of the war is decided …

5. An attack on Egypt before autumn is out of the question …

6. Whether or not America enters the war is a matter of indifference, inasmuch as she supports our enemy with all the power she is able to mobilize.

7. The situation in England itself is bad; the provision of food and raw materials is growing steadily more difficult. The martial spirit to make war, after all, lives only on hopes. These hopes are based solely on two assumptions: Russia and America. We have no chance of eliminating America. But it does lie in our power to exclude Russia. The elimination of Russia means, at the same time, a tremendous relief for Japan in East Asia, and thereby the possibility of a much stronger threat to American activities through Japanese intervention.

I have decided under these circumstances to put an end to the hypocritical performance in the Kremlin.

Germany, Hitler said, would not need any Italian troops in Russia. (He was not going to share the glory of conquering Russia any more than he had shared the conquest of France.) But Italy, he declared, could “give decisive aid” by strengthening its forces in North Africa and by preparing “to march into France in case of a French violation of the treaty.” This was a fine bait for the land-hungry Duce.

So far as the air war on England is concerned, we shall, for a time, remain on the defensive …

As for the war in the East, Duce, it will surely be difficult, but I do not entertain a second’s doubt as to its great success. I hope, above all, that it will then be possible for us to secure a common food-supply base in the Ukraine which will furnish us such additional supplies as we may need in the future.

Then came the excuse for not tipping off his partner earlier.

If I waited until this moment, Duce, to send you this information, it is because the final decision itself will not be made until 7 o’clock tonight …

Whatever may come, Duce, our situation cannot become worse as a result of this step; it can only improve … Should England nevertheless not draw any conclusions from the hard facts, then we can, with our rear secured, apply ourselves with increased strength to the dispatching of our enemy.

Finally Hitler described his great feeling of relief at having finally made up his mind.

… Let me say one more thing, Duce. Since I struggled through to this decision, I again feel spiritually free. The partnership with the Soviet Union, in spite of the complete sincerity of our efforts to bring about a final conciliation, was nevertheless often very irksome to me, for in some way or other it seemed to me to be a break with my whole origin, my concepts and my former obligations. I am happy now to be relieved of these mental agonies.

With hearty and comradely greetings,

Your
ADOLF HITLER114

At 3 o’clock in the morning of June 22, a bare half hour before the German troops jumped off, Ambassador von Bismarck awakened Ciano in Rome to deliver Hitler’s long missive, which the Italian Foreign Minister then telephoned to Mussolini, who was resting at his summer place atRiccione. It was not the first time that the Duce had been wakened from his sleep in the middle of the night by a message from his Axis partner, and he resented it. “Not even I disturb my servants at night,” Mussolini fretted to Ciano, “but the Germans make me jump out of bed at any hour without the least consideration.”115 Nevertheless, as soon as Mussolini had rubbed the sleep from his eyes he gave orders for an immediate declaration of war on the Soviet Union. He was now completely a prisoner of the Germans. He knew it and resented it. “I hope for only one thing,” he told Ciano, “that in this war in the East the Germans lose a lot of feathers.”116 Still, he realized that his own future now depended wholly on German arms. The Germans would win in Russia, he was sure, but he hoped that at least they would get a bloody nose.

He could not know, nor did he suspect, nor did anyone else in the West, on either side, that they would get much worse. On Sunday morning, June 22, the day Napoleon had crossed the Niemen in 1812 on his way to Moscow, and exactly a year after Napoleon’s country, France, had capitulated at Compiègne, Adolf Hitler’s armored, mechanized and hitherto invincible armies poured across the Niemen and various other rivers and penetrated swiftly into Russia. The Red Army, despite all the warnings and the warning signs, was, as General Halder noted in his diary the first day, “tactically surprised along the entire front.”* All the first bridges were captured intact. In fact, says Halder, at most places along the border the Russians were not even deployed for action and were overrun before they could organize resistance. Hundreds of Soviet planes were destroyed on the flying fields. Within a few days tens of thousands of prisoners began to pour in; whole armies were quickly encircled. It seemed like the Feldzug in Polen all over again.

“It is hardly too much to say,” the usually cautious Halder noted in his diary on July 3 after going over the latest General Staff reports, “that the Feldzug against Russia has been won in fourteen days.” In a matter of weeks, he added, it would all be over.

* Halder uses the English word “down” here in the German text.

† The emphasis in the report is Halder’s.

* In his report on this Thomas stresses how punctual Soviet deliveries of goods to Germany were at this time. In fact, he says, they continued to be “right up to the start of the attack,” and observes, not without amusement, that “even during the last few days, shipments of India rubber from the Far East were completed [by the Russians] over express transit trains”—presumably over the Trans-Siberian Railway.12

† The Germans had kept only seven divisions in Poland, two of which were transferred to the West during the spring campaign. The troops there, Halder cracked, were scarcely enough to maintain the customs service. If Stalin had attacked Germany in June 1940, the Red Army probably could have got to Berlin before any serious resistance was organized.

* It cost King Carol his throne. On September 6 he abdicated in favor of his eighteen-year-old son, Michael, and fled with his red-haired mistress, Magda Lupescu, in a ten-car special train filled with what might be described as “loot” across Yugoslavia to Switzerland. General Ion Antonescu, chief of the fascist “Iron Guard” and a friend of Hitler, became dictator.

* Minus southern Dobrudja, which Rumania was forced to cede to Bulgaria.

* It was signed in Berlin on September 27, 1940, in a comic-opera setting and ceremony which I have described elsewhere (Berlin Diary, pp. 532–37). In Articles 1 and 2, respectively, Japan recognized “the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe,” and the two countries recognized Japan’s leadership for the same in Greater East Asia. Article 3 provided for mutual assistance should any one of the powers be attacked by the United States, though America was not specifically mentioned, only defined. To me, as I wrote in my diary that day in Berlin, the most significant thing about the pact was that it meant that Hitler was now reconciled to a long war. Ciano, who signed the pact for Italy, came to the same conclusion (Ciano Diaries, p. 296). Also, despite the disclaimer, the pact was, and was meant to be, a warning to the Soviet Union.

* Their accuracy on this occasion was later confirmed by Stalin, though not intentionally. Churchill says he received an account of Molotov’s talks in Berlin from Stalin in August 1942 “which in no essential differs from the German record,” though it was “more pithy.” (Churchill,Their Finest Hour, pp. 585–86.)

* Churchill says the air raid was timed for this occasion. “We had heard of the conference beforehand,” he later wrote, “and though not invited to join in the discussion did not wish to be entirely left out of the proceedings.” (Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 584.)

* Molotov’s parting shot is given by Churchill, to whom it was related by Stalin later in the war. (Churchill, Their Finest Hour, p. 586.)

* Sweden, which had refused transit to the Allies during the Russo–Finnish War, permitted this fully armed division to pass through. Hungary, of course, later joined in the war against Russia.

† The italics are Hitler’s.

* A good many historians have contended that Hitler in this first Barbarossa directive did not go into detail, a misunderstanding due probably to the extremely abbreviated version given in English translation in the NCA volumes. But the complete German text given in TMWC, XXVI, pp. 47–52 discloses the full details, thus revealing how far advanced the German military plans were at this early date.36

* Although they did not learn the contents of the secret accord at Montoire, both Churchill and Roosevelt suspected the worst. The King of England sent through American channels a personal appeal to Pétain asking him not to take sides against Britain. President Roosevelt’s message to the Marshal was stern and toughly worded and warned him of the dire consequences of Vichy France’s betraying Britain. (See William L. Langer, Our Vichy Gamble, p. 97. To write this book, Professor Langer had access to German documents that eleven years later have not been released by the British and American governments.)

* The Navy’s italics.

† By this time a ramshackle British desert force of one armored division, an Indian infantry division, two infantry brigades and a Royal Tank regiment—31,000 men in all—had driven an Italian force three times as large out of Egypt and captured 38,000 prisoners at a cost of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing. The British counteroffensive, under the over-all command of General Sir Archibald Wavell, had begun on December 7 and in four days Marshal Graziani’s army was routed. What had started as a five-day limited counterattack continued until February 7, by which time the British had pushed clear across Cyrenaica, a distance of 500 miles, annihilated the entire Italian army of ten divisions in Libya, taken 130,000 prisoners, 1,240 guns and 500 tanks and lost themselves 500 killed, 1,373 wounded and 55 missing. To the skeptical British military writer General J. F. Fuller it was “one of the most audacious campaigns ever fought.” (Fuller, The Second World War, p. 98.)

The Italian Navy had also been dealt a lethal blow. On the night of November 11–12, bombers from the British carrier Illustrious (which the Luftwaffe claimed to have sunk) attacked the Italian fleet at anchor at Taranto and put out of action for many months three battleships and two cruisers. “A black day,” Ciano began his diary on November 12. “The British, without warning, have sunk the dreadnought Cavour and seriously damaged the battleships Littorio and Duilio.

* The italics and double exclamation points are Raeder’s.

† Operation Marita was promulgated in Directive No. 20 on December 13, 1940. It called for an army of twenty-four divisions to be assembled in Rumania and to descend on Greece through Bulgaria as soon as favorable weather set in. It was signed by Hitler.53

* The strategy was essentially that laid down in Directive No. 21 of December 18, 1940. Again in comments to Brauchitsch and Halder, Hitler emphasized the importance of “wiping out large sections of the enemy” instead of forcing them to retreat. And he stressed that “the main aim [his emphasis] is to gain possession of the Baltic States and Leningrad.”

* “The war against Yugoslavia should be very popular in Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria,” Hitler sneered. He said he would give the Banat to Hungary, Macedonia to Bulgaria and the Adriatic coast to Italy.

† It had originally been set for May 15 in the first Barbarossa directive of December 18, 1940.

* On April 12, 1941, six days after the launching of his attack, Hitler issued a secret directive dividing up Yugoslavia among Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. Croatia was created as. an autonomous puppet state. The Fuehrer helped himself liberally, Germany taking territory contiguous to the old Austria and keeping under its occupation all of old Serbia as well as the copper- and coal-mining districts. Italy’s grab was left somewhat vague, but it did not amount to much.65

* Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero flyer, who had seemed to this writer to have fallen with startling naïveté, during his visits to Germany, to Nazi propaganda boasts, was already consigning Britain to defeat in his speeches to large and enthusiastic audiences in America. On April 23, 1941, at the moment of the Nazi victories in the Balkans and North Africa, he addressed 30,000 persons in New York at the first mass meeting of the newly formed America First Committee. “The British government,” he said, “has one last desperate plan: … To persuade us to send another American Expeditionary Force to Europe and to share with England militarily, as well as financially, the fiasco of this war.” He condemned England for having “encouraged the smaller nations of Europe to fight against hopeless odds.” Apparently it did not occur to this man that Yugoslavia and Greece, which Hitler had just crushed, were brutally attacked without provocation, and that they had instinctively tried to defend themselves because they had a sense of honor and because they had courage even in the face of hopeless odds. On April 28 Lindbergh resigned his commission as a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve after President Roosevelt on the twenty-fifth had publicly branded him as a defeatist and an appeaser. The Secretary of War accepted the resignation.

* “It was the first time I found myself involved in a conflict between my soldierly conceptions and my duty to obey,” Field Marshal von Manstein declared on the stand at Nuremberg in discussing the Commissar Order. “Actually, I ought to have obeyed, but I said to myself that as a soldier I could not possibly co-operate in a thing like that. I told the Commander of the Army Group under which I served at that time … that I would not carry out such an order, which was against the honor of a soldier.”74

As a matter of record, the order, of course, was carried out on a large scale.

* “A man of straw,” Hitler later called him. (Hitler’s Secret Conversations, p. 153.)

† The emphasis is in the original order.

‡ On July 27, 1941, Keitel ordered all copies of this directive of May 13 concerning courts-martial destroyed, though “the validity of the directive,” he stipulated, “is not affected by the destruction of the copies.” The July 27 order, he added, “would itself be destroyed.” But copies of both survived and turned up at Nuremberg to haunt the High Command.

Four days before, on July 23, Keitel had issued another order marked “Top Secret”:

On July 22, the Fuehrer after receiving the Commander of the Army [Brauchitsch] issued the following order:

In view of the vast size of the occupied areas in the East, the forces available for establishing security will be sufficient only if all resistance is punished not by legal prosecution of the guilty, but by the spreading of such terror by the occupying forces as is alone appropriate to eradicate every inclination to resist amongst the population.77

* Churchill has graphically described how he received the news late that Saturday night while visiting in the country and how at first he thought it too fantastic to believe. (The Grand Alliance, pp. 50–55.)

* At Nuremberg Hess told the tribunal that Lord Simon had introduced himself to him as “Dr. Guthrie” and had declared, “I come with the authority of the Government and I shall be willing to discuss with you as far as seems good anything you would wish to state for the information of the Government.”89

* Hess, a sorry, broken figure at Nuremberg, where for a part of the trial he faked total amnesia (his mind had certainly been shattered), outlived Hitler. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by the International Tribunal, escaping the death sentence largely due to his mental collapse. I have described his appearance there in End of a Berlin Diary.

The British treated him as a prisoner of war, releasing him on October 10, 1945, so that he could stand trial at Nuremberg. During his captivity in England, he complained bitterly at being denied “full diplomatic privileges,” which he constantly demanded, and his none too balanced mind began to deteriorate and he had long stretches of amnesia. He told Dr. Kelley, however, that he twice tried to kill himself during his internment. He became convinced, he said, that the British were trying to poison him.

* On April 5, the day before the German attack on Yugoslavia, the Soviet government had hastily concluded a “Treaty of Nonaggression and Friendship” with the new Yugoslav government, apparently in a frantic attempt to head off Hitler. Molotov had informed Schulenburg of it the night before and the ambassador had exclaimed that “the moment was very unfortunate” and had tried, unsuccessfully, to argue the Russians into at least postponing the signing of the treaty.96

* Sam Woods, a genial extrovert whose grasp of world politics and history was not striking, seems to those of us who knew him and liked him the last man in the American Embassy in Berlin likely to have come by such crucial intelligence. Some of his colleagues in the embassy still doubt that he did. But Cordell Hull has confirmed it in his memoirs and disclosed the details. Woods, the late Secretary of State relates, had a German friend, an anti-Nazi, who had contacts high in the ministries, the Reichsbank and the Nazi Party. As early as August 1940, this friend informed Woods of conferences taking place at Hitler’s headquarters concerning preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union. From then on this informant kept the commercial attaché au courant of what was transpiring both at the General Staff and among those planning the economic spoliation of Russia. To avoid detection, Woods met his informant in various movie houses in Berlin and in the darkness received scribbled notes from him. (See The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, II, pp. 967–68.)

I left Berlin in December 1940. George Kennan, the most brilliant Foreign Service officer at the embassy, who remained there, informs me that the embassy learned from several sources of the coming attack on Russia. Two or three weeks before the assault, he says, our consul at Koenigsberg, Kuykendall, relayed a report specifying correctly the exact day it would begin.

* This is from the last diary entry of Ciano, made on December 23, 1943, in Cell 27 of the Verona jail, a few days before he was executed. He added that the Italian government learned of the German invasion of Russia a half hour after it began. (Ciano Diaries, p. 583.)

* Hassell confirms this. Writing in his diary two days later, June 16, he remarks: “Brauchitsch and Halder have already agreed to Hitler’s tactics [in Russia]. Thus the Army must assume the onus of the murders and burnings which up to now have been confined to the S.S.”

At first the anti-Nazi “conspirators” had naively believed that Hitler’s terror orders for Russia might shock the generals into joining an anti-Nazi revolt. But by June 16 Hassell himself is disillusioned. His diary entry for that date begins:

A series of conferences with Popitz, Goerdeler, Beck and Oster to consider whether certain orders which the Army commanders have received (but which they have not as yet issued) might suffice to open the eyes of the military leaders to the nature of the regime for which they are fighting. These orders concern brutal … measures the troops are to take against the Bolsheviks when Russia is invaded.

We came to the conclusion that nothing was to be hoped for now … They [the generals] delude themselves … Hopeless sergeant majors! [The Von Hassell Diaries, pp. 198–99.]

* The expression is Churchill’s.

* Thus ended the veteran ambassador’s diplomatic career. Returning to Germany and forced to retire, he joined the opposition circle led by General Beck, Goerdeler, Hassell and others and for a time was marked to become Foreign Minister of an anti-Hitler regime. Hassell reported Schulenburg in 1943 as being willing to cross the Russian lines in order to talk with Stalin about a negotiated peace with an anti-Nazi government in Germany. (The Von Hassell Diaries, pp. 321–22.) Schulenburg was arrested and imprisoned after the July 1944 plot against Hitler and executed by the Gestapo on November 10.

* Hitler’s emphasis.

* There is a curious notation in Halder’s diary that first day. After mentioning that at noon the Russian radio stations, which the Germans were monitoring, had come back on the air he writes: “They have asked Japan to mediate the political and economic differences between Russia and Germany, and remain in active contact with the German Foreign Office.” Did Stalin believe—nine hours after the attack—that he somehow might get it called off?

† General Guenther Blumentritt, chief of staff of the Fourth Army, later recalled that a little after midnight on the twenty-first, when the German artillery had already zeroed on its targets, the Berlin-Moscow express train chugged through the German lines on the Bug and across the river into Brest Litovsk “without incident.” It struck him as a “weird moment.” Almost equally weird to him was that the Russian artillery did not respond even when the assault began. “The Russians,” he subsequently wrote, “were taken entirely by surprise on our front.” As dawn broke German signal stations picked up the Red Army radio networks. “We are being fired on. What shall we do?” Blumentritt quotes one Russian message as saying. Back came the answer from headquarters: “You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?” (The Fatal Decisions, edited by Seymour Freidin and William Richardson.)

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