By 1941, Nazi Germany had swept much of Western Europe under its yoke. The Low Countries and France, Scandinavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia had all been conquered in rapid succession, and only Britain stood alone against the Nazi invaders, the Channel providing the final hurdle which Hitler could not surmount. Bereft then of enemies, Hitler turned East, against the Russian bear and the Slavs who for so long he had viewed as inferior, needing to be crushed to allow the spreading of the German populace. Yet by 1945, the USSR, in 1941 without notable allies, with half of their resources in German hands, with no professional army to speak of, were marching into Berlin and hoisting the Communist flag on the German Reichstag. The cause of this remarkable and dramatic turnaround has long been the subject of intense historical debate. Those sympathetic to the Soviet regime proclaim Stalin as the saviour of the Russians, those more sympathetic to the allies point out the German weaknesses, the help of the allies and the innate nature of Russia itself. Although Stalin’s leadership in the period 1941-1944 achieved remarkable turnarounds in both the Russian military and industry, many of the problems to do with the Red Army and Soviet economy stemmed from Stalin’s own earlier political mistakes. It was Stalin’s dismissing of the countless warning signs of the oncoming invasion which led to the last minute mass deportation of industry and economy from the Russian west to the Russian East needed, it was Stalin’s incessant purging of the Red Army in the 1930’s which left it so weak in the 1940’s. Had Stalin not made these earlier mistakes in his leadership, the Russian suffering would have been far less, the Russian victory complete far earlier. Furthermore, had it not been for the German alienation of almost the entire Soviet population through the systematic continuation of their racial policy, had they managed to unite and win the support of the millions of Russian peasants furious with Stalin’s collectivisation policy, the USSR would no doubt have succumbed to a far better army with far more support.
The impact of Stalin’s leadership and the strength of the Soviet Union were inevitably worshipped as the saviour of Russia by the many Soviet Historians writing after the war. Stalin himself became the man who saved Russia, and his image and reputation among the Russian people rose to its zenith. It is in many ways wrong to dismiss this interpretation as to why the USSR won as being typical Soviet sycophancy towards the regime, for there is no doubt that between November 1941 and the end of the war, many of Stalin’s policies were pivotal in turning the hopeless situation into the Russians greatest victory. Stalin was, once the disaster of the German advance had occurred, extraordinarily quick to realise the economic necessities of attempting to stave of the approaching Wehrmacht. This led to the mass deportation of Russian industry from the West to the safety of the Russian East behind the Ural Mountains. 1503 industrial units were shipped across, along with millions of workers, who succeeded in building 1, 360 new factories and over 2,500 new units of production in East Russia. It was this rapid movement which led to Russia overtaking Germany in military output by 1943, and to some of the great Russian weapons of the Second World War; the T-34 tank, the Katyusha rocket and the Yak-1 fighter aircraft were all seen as of higher quality than the German equivalents. Stalin’s economic policy was also vital in securing German defeat, though how much credit for the successful economic policy he can take is questionable; for example, the fact that the Soviet command economy was perfectly suited to the demands of war was vital in establishing the network of railways needed to transport troops and the allocation of food to the correct armed forces (the civilians came up short; over 5 million died of starvation), yet its use seems simply to be a fortunate coincidence, as the command economy was Russia’s economic policy throughout peace time as well; whether Stalin new of its beneficial qualities in war is therefore questionable. The Soviet use of total war, their high military spending (50% of their income, more than any other belligerent country), and their vast manufacturing of ammunition, which amounted to almost 80% of their overall production, can furthermore be ascribed to their ‘life or death’ situation; the fact that without the complete focus on war the USSR would be finished, and therefore an effort to balance the budget, for example would be completely pointless, highlights the fact that the great Soviet military economic drive was not Stalin’s stratagem derived from inspired leadership, but simply an (obvious) economic necessity.
One of Stalin’s greatest diplomatic coups which enabled him to hold of the Germans at the Battle of Moscow for example was the 1940 non-aggression pact with Japan. This diplomatic treaty which declared that the Japanese and was highly significant; the fact that he was prepared to seek peace with a long standing enemy in order to secure Russia’s borders and increase manpower on the Western front shows Stalin changing his own attitude and preconceptions (he went so far as to see the Japanese foreign minister Matsouka off at the train station) in order to help the security of his own country. Signs of his willingness to relax personal power for the sake of the war effort can also be seen in his domestic policy; he was willing for the first time to listen to and give in to others, most notably Zhukov, Russia’s most able general, as well as in his own private war cabinet. Although this paradoxically means Stalin must take less praise for several strategic and military decisions as, no longer having complete control, he no longer made all the decisions, but the willingness to use the advice of others more specialised in a different area demonstrates skilled leadership.
Unfortunately, the necessity of many of the drastic policies which Stalin introduced in order save the USSR from destruction often derives from Stalin’s previous inept leadership. When exploring Stalin’s leadership and its impact on the war, one must also take into account Stalin’s policies prior to 1941; as many of them had an impact on how the war panned out, they must therefore also be included when discussing Stalin’s leadership. Although it is fair to say that Stalin demonstrated his skills as a leader between 1941 and 1944, many of his previous policies undermine the attitude of many historian sympathetic to the Soviet Union who proclaim Stalin as the saviour of the USSR. For example, although they might champion the incredible reconstruction of the Russian economy in East Russia, one must first ask; why was such a drastic measure needed. The answer is Stalin’s own weakness as a leader. He himself, underestimating the power of the Germans had built the majority of the Russian factories responsible or the economic success of the 5 year plans in the West, open and undefended for the Germans to occupy. Even closer to the date, with the factories already built, he refused to believe the information of top spy Richard Sorge, a rogue German officer and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that the German were preparing to invade. Even though the Germans had stopped following the economic agreement between the USSR and Germany (Stalin still sent raw materials to Nazi Germany until May 1941) even though they had increased their military preparations, even though Hitler’s ideology was cemented around lebensraum to the East, Stalin refused to believe or prepare for a German attack. The German invasion not only left Stalin paralysed in shock in his summer house for 11 days, but the invaders soon occupied 63% of Russia’s coal, 68% of its iron, 58% of the steel and 45% of the railways, as well as 41% of the arable land. Such an economic catastrophe was eventually saved by the mass transportation described above which followed; yet had Stalin listened to others and seen the German threat (which was clear for all), firstly such drastic economic measures need not have been undertaken, and secondly Russia would have kept hold of much more of its natural resources.
Stalin’s mistakes prior to 1941 came back to haunt him in the army as well as the economy. In 1930, Stalin had embarked on the Great Purges, and the army was a section of society which bore the full brunt of Stalin’s political cleansing of the population. Three out of five of the marshals of the USSR, 14 out of 16 army commanders and half of all commissioned officer corps (over 30,000) were executed. No wonder that the Red Army was so weak, unprofessional, and untalented then, when the leader of the USSR himself had executed those men who had the ability to fight of the Germans. Even in 1941, Stalin had wanted a dual command system imposed; only after pressure from Zhukov did Stalin relent and unite all power under Zhukov, a far more efficient way of managing the army. It was due to these purges that Stalin was left with the incompetence of Generals such as Timoshenko, whose ill fated order to attack the Germans led to a Russian massacre.
The final factor for which Stalin has received much praise is the use of propaganda; those who sympathise with Stalin and the Soviet Union declare the mass of propaganda declaring the glory of Russia inspired the Russian populace into frenzied and impassioned action against the German invaders. Even among historians perhaps less sympathetic towards Stalin may sometime concede his use of propaganda was a key factor in Soviet victory and key evidence in showing his skills as a leader; they point out the fact that Stalin realised propaganda must highlight Russian patriotism and not communist commitments, so as to motivate the masses; they also point out Stalin’s concessions to the church as a sign of Stalin relaxing his personal anti-clerical attitude in order to motivate the Soviet populace. Much of Russian propaganda certainly glorified ‘mother-Russia and even Tsarist history (famous generals, for example, like Suvorov, the undefeated Russian commander during the 18th century, were glorified) in order to inspire the people, and the church rose rapidly in importance and size. A problem with assessing the impact of propaganda is the difficulty in assessing the actual psyche of the Russian citizen during World War II; how can one tell what a soldier was actually motivated by? Those sympathetic to Stalin will say Soviet propaganda, yet that actions of the Germans may just as well have been the crucial factor. Although Stalin had through his constant use of terror secured unrivalled power within the USSR, there remained millions of Russians and other nationalities who had been forcefully incorporated into the USSR who resented Stalinist rule. The peasants, for example, who had had their land taken away from them during Stalin’s brutal collectivisation policy. Or the factory workers, who were forced to work in appalling conditions in order to meet Stalin’s economic goals. Or even those in the army, who were threatened with their death and their families’ death, were they to attempt to escape, or the Finnish, Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Poles recently forcibly incorporated into Stalin’s empire. Again, some will claim that Stalin’s intelligent reference to Russia rather Communism as being the reason as to why you should sacrifice yourself managed to sway the industrial workers, or that promises of a better future and a reversal in agricultural policies helped sway the peasants, yet there was without doubt a large section of the populace who remained hopeful of working with the Germans in order to liberate themselves from Stalin’s tyranny. Therefore it can be seen as being only the German racial policy, which could not and would not accommodate such ethnic groups as allies, that eventually forced that great number of disenchanted Soviets to fight for Stalin not his propaganda or his concessions, which leads us nicely on to the subject and importance of German weaknesses.
In almost every war one could argue that the war was not won by the winners but lost by the losers, as the benefit of hindsight enables one to see where the mistakes of the losing nation or side was made. In some cases, one could see this assumption as too harsh; often, the benefit of hindsight makes wrong decisions too obvious to the armchair historian, when at that time, and in that context, they were perfectly rational decisions. Yet in the case of the German campaign on the Eastern Front, there lie a great many weaknesses which firstly seem pivotal in the downfall of Nazi Germany, but also glaringly obvious, and almost incomprehensible as to why such policies were allowed to exist. First there were the economic mistakes; while the USSR in desperation poured every available resource (and due to the size of Russia there were many) in an effort to ward of the invaders, Germany failed to switch to total war until January 1943. Without doubt, the gradual depletion of the quantity and quality of their military equipment was down to this economic mistake; and by 1943, they were being surpassed in both quality and quantity by their Russian counterparts, the belated switch coming far too late to alter this swing. Second there were the strategic mistakes. The Germans had based their strategy on the blitzkrieg; it centred on advancing into enemy territory as quickly as possible, therefore overrunning much of the economic centre’s their enemy was dependant upon and attempting to destroy the enemy opposition before it had time to organise itself properly. The tactic had worked perfectly in the Low Countries and against France, yet its applications against such a huge enemy (in terms of land mass) immediately presented the problems of the supply lines, which would thus be thinly stretched over a huge distance, susceptible to a number of partisan attacks. However, it is difficult to point to the strategy of blitzkrieg as being a mistake; although the supply lines were spread thinly due to the rapidity of the German advance, the only alternative was to allow the Russians to rescue much of their resources, and to have to spend the notorious bitterly Russian winter outside. No, the real mistake here was timing; the delaying of Operation Barbarossa for six ways from early May till the 22nd of June meant the German army did not have enough time to reach Moscow before the onset of winter. This failure brought their advance to a standstill in the thick snow of the Russian winter; had they advanced earlier, it may have been possible to take Moscow and potentially knock the USSR out of the war in one; instead, it gave Stalin and the Red Army time to regroup and counterattack. The second military mistake was Hitler taking control of the Wehrmacht; after the German failure to take Moscow after Operation Typhoon, Hitler himself took command of the army; not only was he completely inept at military strategy (for example his refusal to allow the German 6th army to withdraw at Stalingrad), but it alienated the rest of German’s most talented generals (later, in 1944, he forced his best general, Erwin Rommel, to commit suicide). The final strategic mistake was the fact that Germany were forced to fight on so many fronts, and had so little competent allies to help them. While the USSR had nominal support from America and Britain, who were eventually able to open a second front in France as well as hold the Germans in North Africa and Italy, the Germans were left with hopelessly inadequate allies. Italy had to be rescued by Germany after being not only held but pushed back by the Greek armies, while Finland and Romania both withdrew from the Eastern Front when the war appeared lost. The Germans themselves opened up far too many fronts (by 1944 they had armies in Italy, Russia and France, as well as those holding on to Belgium, Holland, Poland, Norway and Sweden.), and were simply unable to fight so many allies at once. Yet the greatest failure of the Germans was their racial policy, and thus their inability to procure any allies or support among the captured countries. This was most evident in Russia; the Nazi attitude to Slavs and Jews, which saw them as inferior beings, needing to be exterminated, meant any attempts to fight on Germany’s side were futile. The peasants in Russia for example would have been happy to fight alongside the Germans after the horror of collectivisation; yet the Germans burnt the farms and took all the food they could find with them. In villages, Jewish men, women and children were rounded up and executed, most prominently in the Babi Yar massacre of more than 30,000 Jews. Even in countries such as Byelorussia were the Germans were actively welcomed as liberators from Russian oppression, the Germans failed to make use of their advantage. For many people, it was not propaganda which motivated them to fight against the Germans; they had o choice. It was either live in fear, and live in poverty, or don’t live at all. The dogged continuation of the inhumane German racial cleansing destroyed all allies they would have had (and there were many), who, terrorised under Stalin’s rule, were looking for an ally and a liberator. Had the Germans shown any form of kindness towards the conquered nations as they drove towards Moscow, they may easily have stirred up the Russian population against Stalin, and then even Stalin’s economic policies, his military adjustments and his constant coercion would have been nullified. It was only this German weakness which ultimately proved crucial in turning the Russian people against the Germans, and in many cases to fight for another tyrant they detested.
Although it seems clear that the German racial policy was the key in alienating all support they may have had and only thus motivating the Russian people into action, two more factors must be analysed in assessing the importance of Stalin’s; leadership. One is the work of the allies, often derided by Soviet historians for their hesitation and uselessness in fighting against the Germans. During the outbreak of the Cold War, many Western historians were anxious to portray America and Britain as the true vanquishers of Nazi Germany, yet it is inescapable that the true nemesis of Nazi Germany was Soviet Russia. Although America did introduce the lend-lease programme in 1941 to offer financial help against the Nazi’s, Allied involvement in the Eastern Front was otherwise negligible; real help in the forms of American tanks arrived only in 1944. More important was their ability to tie down German forces in Italy, Northern Africa and France; simply put, it gave the Russians less Germans to deal with. It is debatable whether even this was the key factor as to why the Allies won the war; it may certainly have contributed, but the main factor and the main nation which defeated Nazi Germany was the USSR. It is probably apt to repeat Peter Kenez’s verdict, that the USSR would most likely have won anyway, but what Allied involvement did was to lessen Soviet loss of life.
When looking at the German invasion of Russia, and as to why it failed, one must finally assess the nature of Russia itself, and thus also compare the failure of this attempted invasion to the two previous attempts in modern times, those being Charles XII’s invasion of Russia with his Swedish army in 1709, and more famously Napoleon Bonaparte’s in 1812. Although these might seem irrelevant due to the time gap which exists between them, it is surprising to note the similarities in each case; all three featured the army considered best in Europe taking on the European economic backwater, all three contained a single driving figure with absolute authority hell-bent on Russian conquest, all three were forced into retreat to the extent where their empire shrunk and they themselves were eventually deposed of (or killed). In each case, the size of Russia’s land mass and the size of the Russia’s population played a vital factor. The importance of the latter can be seen in both the French and the German invasion; both had armies which at the outset of the invasion, dwarfed their adversaries, yet both suffered the problem of replenishment; after Borodino in 1812 and Stalingrad in 1942, horrific losses for the Germans and French played nicely into the hands of the Russians, who, able to replenish men easily, succeeded in driving back the armies eventually. The importance of the Russian winter has often been exaggerated, yet it still plays a role, albeit slightly differently, in all three; in 1709, it was Winter which killed off almost half of the Swedish army, Winter which forced Napoleon to retreat when supplies ran out, Winter which stopped the German armies outside Moscow and allowed the Russians to regroup and attack.
The similarities in each case highlight the possibility of any attempted invasion of Russia being an inevitable failure that the geographical and demographic problems which an invading army encounters in Russia are too great to surmount. Although both areas highlight major problems, there is however no reason to suggest they are insurmountable, and with the benefit of hindsight, even these problems could have bee avoided. Yet considering these demographic and geographic implications highlights the one key to conquering Russia; the support of the Russian people. Without the support of the Russian people, or at least the majority of the Russian people, an army cannot win; the area needing to be conquered is too great and supply lines are too thinly stretched, and too vulnerable to partisans. Were an army to move slowly, they would get bogged down by the Russian snow, and would freeze in their positions without food and reinforcements. Yet with the support of the Russian people, these problems are negated; there are enough reinforcements, enough manpower to defend the supplies and enough housing to protect the advancing soldiers. And to bring this back to 1941, one must see why the Russians did not join the German army; and it was the German weakness, the failure to secure allies by dropping their racial policies, which alienated a population already alienated from Stalin. It was this key weakness which destroyed any chance of a German victory, drove the Russian people to fight for Stalin, and ultimately secured an improbable Soviet Victory.