Stalin was the Dictator of the USSR and Commander in Chief of the USSR’s Armed Forces. Stalin was suspicious of the army and its commanders and in order to get their complete loyalty in 1937 he had purged all those he considered suspect. In 1939 Stalin knew that the USSR was not ready for war, so he made a non-aggression pact with Germany. He abandoned his traditional allies in eastern Europe and in September 1939 annexed part of Poland. Stalin’s dreams of expansion received a setback in November 1939 when the invasion of Finland ran into unexpected opposition. The lesson that was learnt was that the Red Army was not the formidable fighting unit it was previously thought to be.
HITLER’s invasion in June 1941 went smoothly and Stalin’s mass Armies could not stop the German troops who had superior weapons, tanks and training. In the first months of the war Stalin’s lack of experience as a war leader showed. He relied on his friends from the 1st Cavalry Army of 1920: BUDENNY, VOROSHILOV and TIMOSHENKO and they were not brilliant army commanders. Finally ZHUKOV was called in and he executed the counterattack which saved Moscow in December 1941. Stalin’s tactics had been to rely on scorched earth policy and the Russian winter. As much industrial plant as possible was moved east of the Urals and the Ukraine and Belorussia were left ravaged. Millions of people had perished in the first six months but the USSR recovered as its armies became more experienced and because the T-34 tank which appeared on the battlefield in 1941 was vastly superior to anything the Germans had produced. The second turning point in the war on the Eastern Front was at Stalingrad where the Russians cut off General PAULUS’ Sixth Army and scored a tremendous victory.
Stalin’s confidence as a military commander grew and he relied heavily on his staff officers VASILIEVSKY and ZHUKOV, who prepared plans and issued directives. It is unlikely that Stalin originated operational concepts but the choice of plans was his. If Stalin disliked a front Commander he would dismiss him without warning and this meant some Generals were reluctant to report setbacks. In 1944 the Soviet Armies swept over the Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic states and eventually took Berlin in April 1945.
Stalin’s other main role was as a political negotiator and he showed great cunning in his dealings with CHURCHILL and ROOSEVELT. From the first Moscow Conference held in December 1941, Stalin kept up the pressure on the Western Powers to open up a second front in Europe as soon as possible. At various points he threatened to make a separate peace with Hitler and maintained that if Britain and France had opposed Hitler more effectively, the USSR would not have had to suffer such terrible losses. These constant demands for a second front created much suspicion among the Allies: Churchill thought that as few concessions as possible should be made while Roosevelt thought he could reason with Stalin and accommodate him. In mid-1944 it became clear that Stalin wished to settle the political future of eastern Europe. In Poland he promoted the Lublin Committee and recognized it before attending the Yalta Conference
(February 1945). At Yalta Churchill and Stalin divided up countries into spheres of influence and Stalin made promises to hold free elections in Poland which he never kept. At the Potsdam Conference he also staved off pressure to hold elections in Poland from the inexperienced TRUMAN and eventually set up puppet Communist regimes in eastern Europe, the last country to fall being Czechoslovakia.
Stalin was a violent man, bent on acquiring as much for the USSR as he could get. The eastern European countries were milked for equipment and supplies after the war to pay back the USSR for all its suffering. Stalin insured that the USSR was a force to be reckoned with in world politics, not to be isolated as in the first years of the revolution. Her military might was feared the world over.