Did Stalin Prepare to Invade Germany?
Stalin’s foreign policy concerning Germany in the years 1939-1941
Egbert Dijkstra • November 6, 2021 •

Introduction

The largest military operation in history commenced on 22 June 1941. Millions of German troops crossed the German-Soviet border and clashed with the Red Army. Adolf Hitler and German commanders expected to be able to defeat the Soviet Union in three months.[1] By the end of September 1941, the Germans had managed to destroy 8160 Soviet combat aircraft, 20500 tanks and captured or killed over 5 million Soviet troops.[2] Despite these achievements, the Germans were shocked to discover that the Soviet Union had significantly more tanks, guns, aircraft and troops than they expected.[3] Many of these tanks and aircraft were stationed right on the German-Soviet frontier. Nearly 80% of the newest tanks such as the T-34 and the KV-series were stationed right at the Soviet border, in addition to 50% of all advanced Soviet aircraft.[4]The newest Soviet tanks were of superior design compared to whatever tanks the Germans deployed for their invasion.[5] The Germans also found huge stockpiles of fuel and munition close to the border.[6] What was Stalin planning to do with all that war material and all those troops stationed right at the German-Soviet frontier? Why did he stockpile resources such as oil and coal so close to the border? These questions lies at the heart of the so-called Soviet attack plans controversy.

The controversy was the result of the publishing of the highly controversial but widely read book Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War?by Viktor Suvorov. Suvorov’s main argument is that it was Stalin, not Hitler, who was responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War, believing that the war actually started in August 1939 when the Soviets were battling the Japanese in the Far East.[7] Stalin supposedly signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler to allow himself to build up his forces while Britain and France fought a war with Germany. The aim was to weaken Britain, France and Germany. Once these countries were sufficiently weak, Stalin would launch a colossal invasion of Europe aimed at Soviet domination.[8] That explains why Stalin had deployed all those troops so close to the border. Suvorov argues that Operation Barbarossa needs to be understood as a preemptive strike, because at some point Hitler caught wind of what Stalin was trying to do, and promptly launched his own invasion against the Soviet Union.[9]

Suvorov is not a historian, but his work has received both criticism and support from the academic community. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the state archives were opened to the public, allowing historians from the West to prove – or disprove Suvorov’s claims. Suvorov had worked for the Soviet military intelligence service (GRU) and purports to have had access to archival material not accessible to the Soviet public at large. In 1978 he defected to the West. During the eighties he had already published articles arguing that Operation Barbarossa was a preemptive strike and that Stalin masterminded the Second World War, but these received little attention compared to his book Icebreaker.[10] A possible explanation is that Western historians simply did not have access to the Soviet archives and so may have found Suvorov’s writings to be false if not outright fanciful.

Almost no historian to-day supports all of Suvorov’s points entirely, but some do support components of it.[11] Joachim Hoffmann, for example, in his book Stalin’s War of Extermination writes that Stalin did indeed have plans of his own to invade Germany, however he believes that Operation Barbarossa cannot be understood to have been a preemptive strike. Instead, he argues that both Hitler and Stalin had ambitions of their own to invade each-other, but Hitler just so happened to launch his invasion before Stalin could launch his.[12]

Gabriel Gorodetsky, who wrote his book Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German invasion of Russia in reaction to Icebreaker, contends that Stalin had no aim to invade Germany at all. Gorodetsky maintains that Stalin never abandoned his principle aim of national security for the USSR. The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, of the Baltic states, of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina needs to be understood within the context of Stalin’s desire for security arrangements rather than for realizing imperialist ambitions. Gorodetsky argues that the Soviet occupations were devoid of any ideological motives.[13] Stalin was afraid of a separate peace-deal between Great-Britain and Germany, especially after Hitler had managed to secure a swift victory over France. In the months leading up to Operation Barbarossa, Gorodetsky is convinced that all evidence points to Stalin wanting to appease Hitler in order to avoid war, not to invade Germany.

David Glantz also wrote his book Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War in response to Icebreaker. Based on extensive research into Red Army deployments, armaments and logistics he believes that the Red Army was unprepared to launch an invasion of Germany in 1941. Glantz shows that many divisions were only in the process of being created, many were not at their required strength, and much of the Soviet war material was obsolete.[14]

Albert Loren Weeks, author of the book Stalin’s Other War: Soviet Grand Strategy, 1939-1941states that Stalin was amassing troops on Soviet-German border with the intention of striking against Hitler’s forces. He points to the aggressive rhetoric used by Soviet officials such as Kalinin, Scherbakov and Zhdanov shortly before Operation Barbarossa.[15] He argues that the lack of a defensive strategy on the part of the Red Army is indicative that the Red Army was neither afraid of nor preparing for a German invasion.[16] He sees the May war plan as ultimate proof that the Soviets were gearing up for a war.

With so many historians having different opinions and perspectives on the Soviet attack plans controversy, it can be rather difficult to understand the debate in its entirety. Evan Mawdsley, author of the article Crossing the Rubicon: Soviet Plans for offensive war in 1940-1941 breaks the debate down into two camps, namely the traditionalists on one side and the revisionists on the other. This artificial dichotomy does not do all the individual historian’s work justice, but broadly it can be said that the traditionalist believe that Soviet foreign policy in the years 1939-1941 has been defensive in nature. The revisionists, on the other hand, argue that Stalin was preparing for an invasion of Germany at some point in the future.[17] David Glantz, Gabriel Gorodetsky, John Erickson and Richard Overy are considered to be traditionalists while historians such as Joachim Hoffmann, Ewan Mawdsley, Albert Loren Weeks and Mikhail Meltyukov are considered to be revisionists. There are more historians who could fall into either of the two categories, but there are simply too many to list them all here.

For the purposes of this thesis I decided to adopt Mawdsley’s compartmentalization of the debate. I will take up a revisionist position, thus arguing that Stalin planned to invade Germany, and was actively working towards that goal in the months leading up to Operation Barbarossa. I intend to evaluate sources that have not been sufficiently discussed within the context of the debate, including the Soviet mobilization plan of 1941. In addition I will pay close attention to the time-frame in which decisions were made, and also at the dates at which plans were introduced, because I believe the traditionalist too often argue from hindsight bias, that is they knew that Hitler was going to attack the USSR on 22 June 1941 and judge or frame Stalin’s actions and decisions with that knowledge in mind. By focusing on Soviet mobilization and by paying close attention to the time-frame in which events occurred and decisions were made, I hope to offer a fresh perspective on the controversy, and strengthen the revisionist position.

In the first chapter I will explain Stalin’s conception of foreign policy in 1939-1941. I will demonstrate that Stalin’s view of foreign politics would inevitably result in a war. I will also discuss the reason why Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, and answer the question if Stalin was aware of Hitler’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union. This chapter will to a large extent be based on a number of Stalin biographies, including biographies by Simon Montefiore, Robert Service and Oleg Khlevniuk. In the second chapter, I aim to discuss Soviet defensive strategy. While Soviet defense may not seem relevant given my hypothesis, I will show that Soviet defensive strategy had an innately aggressive component to it, which included conquering the lands of the attacker and defeating him on his own territory. It is within this framework wherein Soviet occupation of the Baltics and parts of Romania can be understood, and why Stalin miscalculated where the main thrust of a potential German invasion would come from. Soviet fortifications like the Molotov line and the Stalin line will be discussed in brief, and I shall argue how these fortifications fitted in poorly with Soviet conceptions about defense.

In the third chapter, I will evaluate the so-called May war plan drawn up by Georgy Zhukov. The evaluation will be corroborated with secondary literature in order to determine if the proposed preemptive strike was actually being implemented. To that end I will also look at Red Army deployments and (covert) mobilization in the months leading up to Barbarossa. The May plan can be found in a translated form in Albert Weeks’ book.[18] It has been included for easier reference in appendix II of this thesis. The so-called Mobilization Plan 1941 (MP-41 for short) is also important to discuss within the context of the May plan, but has never been translated to English. Since I lack the ability to read Russian, I have had to rely on a Russian friend to translate parts of the documents. Translating the whole document was not considered, because that’s a monumental task as the plans also contains inventories of all the troops and (war) material the Soviets had available as of 1 January 1941. I did not deem that to be relevant to my thesis. Instead, I will cite relevant passages that relate to actual mobilization and deployment procedures. Because of my lack of understanding of Russian, I will use an analysis provided by Bruce Menning and Jonathan House in their chapter Soviet Strategy in the book The Cambridge history of the Second World war. Volume I. MP-41 can be found in its untranslated form on the website alexanderyakolev.org.[19]

In the fourth chapter, I will interpret Stalin’s speech of 5 May 1941. Over the course of decades there has been much debate about whether or not the speech had taken place at all, and what has been said during the speech. Was it done to appease Hitler, or to prepare the Soviet Union for a war? Or perhaps both? Many historians have attempted to reconstruct the speech, based mostly on memoirs and diaries from people who were present during the speech, or purported to have been present. The result was many, often contradictory versions, with some versions explicitly mentioning a preemptive war against Germany and others not mentioning any attack against Germany at all.[20] A version of the speech has been found in the Soviet archives in 1992, which will be regarded as the original source. A German translation can be found in Lew Besymenski’s article Die Rede Stalin am 5. Mai: Dokumentiert und interpretiert. Besymenski’s article contains scans of the original speech. I have translated the speech from German to English and included it in appendix I.

Aside from Stalin himself, other figures like Joachim von Ribbentrop, Vyacheslav Molotov and Georgy Zhukov are all relevant given the topic, and so their memoirs will be used to strengthen points I make. It needs to be understood that memoirs are innately biased as the writers had every reason to cover up their own mistakes while overstating their achievements.[21] However, their writings can be contextualized with other sources and literature in order to evaluate the truthfulness of their statements.

The Soviet attack plans controversy has been connected to a larger debate known as the historikerstreit which was a dispute about how the Nazi-era should be remembered collectively in Germany. It has been argued by some historians that Hitler’s assault on the USSR was a preemptive strike, the implication being that the attack was therefore justified.[22] This paper does not focus on the morality of Hitler’s attack on the USSR, however it is important to distinguish between a preemptive war and a preventative war. In a preemptive war, a first strike is executed in anticipation of an imminent attack by another party. This is different from a preventative war wherein a potential belligerent could be deprived of his ability to attack, even if no imminent attack is anticipated.[23] It is my belief that the German attack can be construed as preventative, but not as preemptive. There is no evidence that the Germans feared an imminent Soviet invasion, Hitler was even so bold as to claim that one would only need to kick in the front door of the Soviet Union and the entire system would collapse.[24] The Germans would only come to learn of Soviet resources, manpower and manufacturing capabilities after they had already launched their invasion.

Stalin and his foreign policy in the years 1939-1941

In 1939, Stalin viewed foreign policy as a grand game of poker. In Europe, this game was attended by three players. The fascists were represented by Adolf Hitler, the capitalists were represented by Chamblerlain and finally the Bolsheviks were represented by Stalin himself.[25] The third player would try to entice the other two players to go to war against each other, giving him time to build up his military forces and invade when the other two players had weakened themselves sufficiently in combat. With this conception in mind, one must conclude then that war would be inevitable, and that Stalin would need to prepare for that inevitability in one way or another. But can evidence be found that Stalin put this conception of foreign politics into practice?

That Stalin pursued a policy of collective security against Germany is well known. What is not so well known, is that Stalin proposed a preventative strike with France and Britain against Germany. Kliment Voroshilov along with Boris Shaposhnikov had drawn up plans to allow 120 infantry divisions, 9500 tanks, 5000 artillery pieces and 5500 bombers and aircraft against Germany.[26] A precondition was that the Red Army would be allowed to move through Poland in order to reach Germany. Jozef Beck, the Polish foreign minister, refused on the basis that he feared that such an action would provoke an invasion from the Germans, the main concern being that most of the fighting would occur on Polish territory. In addition, the British and French believed that the plan would ultimately lead to Soviet domination of Baltic States, Poland and Romania.[27]

The British and the French felt that the Soviets presented their plan as if Britain and France needed Soviet assistance against Germany. At the same time, the Soviets were humiliated by the fact that the British and the French stalled talks for an alliance.[28] The Anglo-French coalition did not have the power to form any concrete agreements. That the Soviets proposed to commit so much war material and divisions apparently did not alarm the British and the French, probably because they considered it to be a bluff, especially after Stalin’s purges and the fact that the military build-up was carried out in utmost secrecy.[29] In addition, Germany must have been the more immediate danger given the fact that Hitler had gobbled up what remained of Czechoslovakia, thus breaking the Munich agreement.

With the collapse of the Anglo-Soviet-French talks in August 1939, Stalin shifted his focus to Hitler. During the Eighteenth Congress of the Communist party, Stalin lambasted Britain and France for not having checked German and Japanese aggression. He famously exclaimed that he would not pull the chestnuts out of the fire for what he deemed to be the ‘capitalist countries.’[30] In his memoirs, Ribbentrop states that he interpreted the speech as an attempt by Stalin to seek rapprochement with Hitler. When Ribbentrop later asked Stalin about the speech during the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, Stalin confirmed that rapprochement with Germany was precisely his goal.[31] This seems rather strange given that Stalin was very hostile to the Germans in his speech, but Von Ribbentrop had a very clear anti-British, pro-Soviet bias which may help explain his interpretation.

Further evidence that Stalin sought rapprochement with Germany was the replacement of his foreign minister, Maxim Latvinov, with Vyacheslav Molotov. Latvinov was known for his policy of collective security with the western powers against Germany, while Molotov had a more pro-German attitude. Latvinov’s jewish background certainly would have hindered re-establishing relationships with Germany. In addition, Stalin purged his embassies of jews. Molotov welcomed this change, saying that ”Stalin said to me: ‘Purge the ministry of jews.’ Thank God for these words! Jews formed an absolute majority in the leadership and among the ambassadors. It wasn’t good.[32]

The fact that talks with the Anglo-French coalition collapsed on 17 August 1939 and that Stalin signed a pact with Hitler shortly thereafter shows that Stalin liked to play both sides, keep communication lines open to see which side would be most beneficial to his interests. Gorodetsky maintains that Stalin’s principle aim always remained national security, however in light of the fact that Stalin proposed a preventative strike against Hitler, and failing that swapped one offensive strategy for another (capturing Poland with Hitler), certainly lends more credence to the revisionist rather than the traditionalist position. In both scenarios, the end result would be that Stalin’s territorial gains were enormous: Stalin captured the Baltics, parts of Romania and Poland. While the goal of the triple alliance was to halt Nazi-agression, it is difficult to imagine that the Red Army would have eagerly left countries like Poland and Romania, were the Soviets allowed to smash Germany in 1939. In light of the Stalin’s behavior and frame of mind, Gorodetsky’s contention that Stalin was mostly defense-oriented seems hard to maintain.

When Ribbentrop left Berlin for Moscow to sign an agreement with Stalin, he went there with the sole purpose of signing a pact of non-aggression. There is no evidence that the Germans had plans to carve up Europe with the Soviets beforehand. During the meeting, Ribbentrop had to call Hitler for approval of Stalin’s demands, despite the fact that he already had full powers to make agreements. This indicates that the secret clauses of the pact was Stalin’s brainchild, not Hitler’s. Stalin understood that Hitler wanted to attack Poland in haste and so made as many demands as possible. Upon hearing from Ribbentrop that Hitler had accepted Stalin’s demands, Stalin became visibly excited.[33] After the meeting with Ribbentrop concluded, Stalin exclaimed to Voroshilov, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Bulganin that ‘the great game‘ had begun and that ‘of course this is part of the game who can deceive who.[34] This is evidence that Stalin still held onto his poker-game conception of European politics after the pact was signed.

Stalin got what he wished for when Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. There are many theories about why Stalin delayed his invasion of Poland. Suvorov believes that Stalin waited because if he would immediately invade along with Hitler, then Britain and France would likely not declare war, thus undermining his own ambition of throwing Europe into chaos.[35] The allies at this point were probably not aware of the secret clauses of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Another reading has it that Stalin wanted to wait and see if the Germans would actually keep their end of the bargain, that it is to say if they would stop at agreed-upon demarcation line as stipulated in the pact.[36] I would argue that both readings could be true, but I add that even if Stalin wanted to invade Poland as early as 1 September, his armies simply would not have been ready given that the Germans were preparing for an invasion as early as April yet there is no evidence that the Soviets had the same idea in mind.

Stalin’s poker-game conception fell apart in June 1940 when the Germans achieved a swift victory over France. Stalin hoped that the German war machine would grind to a halt in front of the titanic fortifications of the Maginot line, the result of which would be a slow, grinding war of attrition in a similar fashion as the Western front during the First World War.[37] Yet the Germans simply penetrated weak links in the Maginot line, surrounded and destroyed the French armies and penetrated deeply into French territory. Nobody expected that one of the world’s greatest powers at the time could be defeated in a month, yet it happened regardless. This news sent shock-waves across the globe and caused a panic in the Soviet Union.

Upon hearing the news that France was defeated, Stalin flew into a rage.[38] The Soviet Union publicly congratulated Germany’s success, but on 26 June 1940, a day after the defeat of France, the Soviet workday was extended from seven to eight hours per day, with a seven day per week schedule.[39] Molotov says that ‘We abolished the seven hour work day. We built no apartment houses, but there was the construction of factories, the creation of new army units armed with tanks, aircraft… we drove all the designers; faster! Faster![40] This indicates that a possible war against Germany was already being considered. Indeed, these policies ring of wartime measures.

What did Stalin know?

Was Stalin aware of Operation Barbarossa? Stalin had received accurate reports about German deployments in the months preceding Barbarossa.[41] It was not the case that Stalin did not believe these reports, rather that he considered a German invasion unlikely. Stalin received a lot of inaccurate reports as well, and he had chosen to believe reports based on preconceived notions. These notions were that Stalin was convinced that the British Empire and the United States were trying to hoodwink the Soviet Union into a war with Germany.[42] In addition, Stalin had read Mein Kampf. Hitler’s analysis of the First World War was that the principle cause for Germany’s defeat was the war it had to fight on two fronts, in addition to the British blockade. Stalin, who believed Hitler to be a new Bismarck, simply could not fathom that Hitler would launch an invasion of the USSR before the war with the British Empire was concluded.[43]

At the same time the Germans were running a very extensive disinformation campaign to try and conceal their deployments.[44] Hitler even went so far as to write Stalin personal letters. In one letter he wrote that German divisions were stationed along the frontier because the divisions would be out of range from British bombers and he had actually intended to launch a major campaign into the Middle-East. Stalin seemingly believed Hitler.[45] When asked that that perhaps Stalin thought that Hitler would not engage the Soviet Union before dealing with Britain, Molotov said: ‘That’s right. Not only Stalin had this feeling, but I and others did, too.’[46] Even shortly before the invasion, there was no anti-Soviet hysteria in Berlin.[47]Furthermore, Hitler had not fully mobilized his economy for a war. While that might have helped to deceive Stalin in the short run, in the long run the Germans would struggle with military production as they only shifted to a war economy in 1943.

It is clear then that Stalin deluded himself into thinking that a German invasion would not happen in 1941. When the invasion did happen, the reaction of Stalin shows that he was both shocked and surprised.[48] He initially believed the invasion to have been the result of the personal initiative of several rogue German commanders, who hoped for a Soviet counterattack that could be used as a pretext for a full-scale German invasion.[49] Stalin believed – and this has been corroborated by British reports forwarded to the Soviet Union – that there was a breach between German commanders and Adolf Hitler. The breach entailed that Hitler did not want a war with the Soviet Union while certain German commanders did.[50] By provoking a Soviet attack, these commanders hoped that they would force Hitler to engage the Soviet Union in full force. Such a breach never existed and may have been part of the German disinformation campaign.

It is apparent that Stalin held onto this delusion even after 150 German divisions crossed the border. Stalin went so far as ordering his troops not to engage the Germans on German territory after hostilities began on 22 June.[51] Stalin assumed as late as 25 June that many of his armies were intact and that they would be able to launch counter attacks against the invading Germans, indeed Timoshenko and Zhukov issued directives ordering the North-Western and Western fronts to attack the Germans and capture Poland and East-Prussia.[52] A pervasive myth has it that Stalin drank himself into a stupor or that he locked himself in his dacha, but his Kremlin agenda as well as the fact that he heavily edited Molotov’s ominous speech on 22 June shows that he was present and active during the first week of Barbarossa.[53] The speed of the German invasion is what really baffled the Soviets.

Molotov said that ‘We were blamed because we ignored our intelligence. Yes, they warned us. But if we had heeded them, had given Hitler the slightest excuse, he would have attacked us sooner.’[54] The issue with this statement is that Hitler never needed a pretext in the first place, if he wanted to invade a country he would create a pretext himself like he did in Poland. It’s also hypocritical that this came from the mouth of Molotov when the Soviets invented pretexts themselves, such as the Shelling of Mainila which initiated the Winter War.[55] He goes on and says that ‘[you] could not trust intelligence agents as there were provocateurs everywhere.[56]Molotov also said that ‘June 1940 had passed [without a German invasion] and we felt that June 1941 would pass as well.’[57] The timing here is very important, as the Germans probably were not going to invade in autumn or winter.

Soviet defensive strategy

Molotov and Stalin lines examined

The main Soviet lines of defense were the so-called Stalin and Molotov lines. The Stalin line was constructed in the 1920s and it was built along the Soviet border at the time. The Stalin line was constructed with the realization that it took Soviet armies longer to mobilize than their potential enemies, thus the Stalin line had the intention to stall the attacker. It was not intended to stop a hypothetical invasion dead in its tracks.[58]

The Molotov line was a new line of fortifications that was being constructed in 1940 and ran from the city of Memel in Lithuania to Hungary. When the Germans arrived at the Molotov line, the defensive line had only been completed by about 25%.[59] This is in part because the Soviets did not seem to prioritize building it as quickly as possible. Construction on the Molotov line paused in the winter of 1940 because of the cold.[60] In addition, engineers who made mistakes were simply branded as saboteurs and were shot.[61] This resulted in a drop in efficiency of the work crews, and in some cases work crews simply left, either because there was no-one to supervise them or indeed because they were afraid of becoming targets themselves.

Later when the Germans arrived at the Stalin line, they were faced with neglected and in some cases abandoned fortifications, emplacements and bunkers. Curiously most of the firearms and cannons of the line were not transported to the new Molotov-line that was under construction, but instead stockpiled along the German-Soviet border.[62] This again indicates that the Soviets were preparing for offensive rather than defensive actions.

The Molotov line on the eve of Barbarossa. The numbers indicate fortified districts. As the red lines show, they are not all connected, highlighting the fact that the Molotov line was not a continuous line of fortifications.

The Molotov line on the eve of Barbarossa.[63] The numbers indicate fortified districts. As the red lines show, they are not all connected, highlighting the fact that the Molotov line was not a continuous line of fortifications.

So why did the Stalin and the Molotov lines appear to be either neglected or incomplete? Did the Soviets not have enough time to finish the Molotov line before the invasion? That may well have been the case. However, I would argue that the Molotov-line was not completed, and the Stalin-line abandoned, because static defenses did not fit into Soviet defensive strategy, and so were not given much priority.

Stalin line (in red) and German territorial gains from 22 June – 30 September 1941.

Stalin line (in red) and German territorial gains from 22 June – 30 September 1941.[64]

A defensive war from the Soviet perspective assumed that the opponent would declare a war before initiating hostilities. The Red Army would thus have time to mobilize and deploy its forces where needed. The Red Army would then launch a massive counter-offensive in which the opponent would to be destroyed within his own territory.[65] Hoffmann has found many interrogation reports in the Bundesarchiv militairarchiv of Soviet soldiers and officers believing that they would be ordered to attack Germany in the near future.[66] Furthermore, the captured troops were fully convinced of the absolute superiority of the Red Army over the Wehrmacht. Hoffman’s findings naturally needs to be regarded with a high degree of skepticism, given that the Soviet soldiers could simply have told their German interrogators what they had wanted to hear. However, the lack of a defensive posture on the part of Soviet divisions combined with light no to defenses on the border certainly lends more credence to the revisionist position.

A major flaw in the defensive strategy was the assumption that the Red Army would have time to counter-deploy in the first place. The Germans would give the Soviets no such luxury as they never declared war before the hostilities began. It is almost beyond belief that the Soviets did not keep the surprise factor in mind, as Hitler never declared war on any country before he initiated hostilities. The Soviets themselves recognized the surprise factor as an important element in an offensive war.[67]

Soviet conquests in 1940

The incomplete Molotov-line aside, what defenses the Soviets did have in their territorial gains in 1940 were light fortifications. However, they did built plenty of roads, telecommunication lines and aerodromes.[68] While roads and telecommunication lines could favor both an offensive and a defensive strategy, it hard to imagine what defensive purpose constructing new airfields so close to the border could have been. It is also a persistent problem that remains unanswered by the traditionalists. As Operation Barbarossa demonstrated, the Germans were either rapidly able to capture Soviet airfields or the Luftwaffe was able to destroy the airfields, giving the Germans air superiority in the first stages of Operation Barbarossa and depriving the Soviets of a huge portion of their airplanes, including some 50 % of their most advanced designs.[69]

Molotov believes that the Soviet territorial acquisitions were necessary and that he was convinced that a war with Germany would come: ‘We did everything to postpone a war and acquired as much territory to allow us to retreat’[70] The acquisition of as much territory as one can get for defensive purposes would have made sense if the Soviets followed a defense in depth strategy. This strategy is based on the assumption that the attacker will breach the front-line, but will be worn down deeper into enemy territory.[71] The tactic made sense given the immensity of the Soviet Union, but the Soviets never adopted the doctrine. David Murphey, author of the book What Stalin Knew: The Engima of Barbarossa, further calls the Soviet territorial acquisitions into question, given that the Soviets now had a much wider front to defend than before September 1939, and in addition had to contend with populations that were very hostile to Soviet rule, including but not limited to the Romanians, the Poles and the Baltic peoples.[72]

Soviet defense discussions

In defense discussions of September 1940, it was initially believed that in the event of a German attack, the Germans would likely choose the region north of the Pripyat Marshes into Belorussia for their main assault. It was there then where the strongest forces of the Soviet Union were to be deployed.[73] In October 1940 Stalin disagreed with the notion, and a new plan was drawn up which assumed a German main assault would come from the region south of Pripyat Marshes. This assumption remained unchanged when Operation Barbarossa was executed.

Main German thrust of the initial invasion. The Pripyat Marshes have been named and indicated. It should be clarified that army groups North and Centre invaded north of the Pripyat marshes, thus most of the German forces were concentrated in the north.

Main German thrust of the initial invasion. The Pripyat Marshes have been named and indicated.[74] It should be clarified that army groups North and Centre invaded north of the Pripyat marshes, thus most of the German forces were concentrated in the north.

Stalin’s reasoning was that the Germans were more interested in the food-rich country of the Ukraine and the oil rich-regions of the Caucasus, and so were likely to concentrate their main attack south of the Pripet marshes.[75] I speculate that there may have been more reasons for why Stalin disagreed on where the main German attack would come from. Stalin may have considered his northern front more secure because by 1941 he had already occupied the Baltics. In addition, the north was less suitable for large-scale tank warfare because it was a more forested region with a much softer, muddier ground. It was perhaps a stroke of luck that the Germans attacked when the north had a dry spell for weeks. Most importantly, the Soviets never expected that in the event of a German attack, the Germans would deploy all their forces at once. Even Zhukov had this faulty assumption as late as 22 June 1941 as he writes in his memoirs that:

‘We did not foresee the large-scale surprise offensive launched at once by all available forces which had been deployed in advance in all major strategic directions. We did not envisage the nature of the strike in its entirety. Neither the People’s Commissar nor I and my predecessors B. M. Shaposhnikov and K. A. Meretskov, nor the top officers of the General Staff, had expected the enemy to concentrate such huge numbers of armour and motorized troops, and commit them on the first day to action in powerful compact groupings in all strategic directions with the aim of striking powerful wedging blows.’[76]

So considering the territorial acquisitions in which the Soviets seemingly did not build any new defenses – at least did not prioritize defenses if the Molotov line is anything to go by – and had to contend with hostile populations, the negligence of the Stalin line, the construction of new aerodromes at the German-Soviet border and apparent confidence that the Soviets would be able to fend of German attackers at the border all point towards the fact that Soviets did not hold defense in high esteem, at least that they would be able to quickly launch a counter-attack into enemy territory. Since Stalin miscalculated where the main thrust would come from, it allowed the Germans to easily encircle entire Soviet armies that were deployed in the south. That’s not to say the Germans would not have punched through the south if they concentrated their main force there, but at least it would have significantly dampened the impact of Barbarossa, and possibly have resulted in higher German casualties. We can thus conclude that, although Stalin may have improved Soviet defenses somewhat, in contrast to both his own and Molotov’s words it was never for defensive purposes that the Soviet Union expanded westward, or procuring security arrangements such as Gorodetsky believes. The aim, rather, seemed to be realizing imperialist ambitions and expanding communism. The Stalinist system was brutally imposed on the newly acquired territories, including on the Ukrainians living in Poland who initially were very amiable to the Soviet occupation, thereby immediately alienating them.[77] These Ukrainians as well as other ethnicities would provide valuable assets in intelligence gathering for the Germans later on. Nothing so far indicates that Stalin was purely defense-oriented.

Soviet war plans

The triple alliance strategy proposed by Stalin can already be understood to have been a concrete plan to invade Germany by the Soviets, however its execution relied entirely on the approval of France, Britain and Poland. Since the collective security policy was a failure, the Soviet Union would now have to rely entirely on its own strength and initiative, especially after the fall of France. There were war plans before 1941, and these have been discussed by Evan Mawdsley.[78]For the purposes of this paper, the May plan remains the most significant offensive plan, given that it was the last one before Operation Barbarossa commenced and in that plan the Soviets were expected to deliver the first blow. The older plans can be interpreted to be contingency plans, and were drawn up with the expectation that the enemy would initiate the hostilities. So it is of import to evaluate if the Soviets were working towards executing the May plan. In order to fully understand the content of the plan, it is first important to talk about Mobilization Plan 1941 (MP-41) because MP-41 predated the May plan by three months and it was the plan that would have enabled the Soviets to carry out a first strike in the first place.

Mobilization plan 1941 (MP-41)

MP-41 was proposed no later than 12 February 1941, with revisions to the plan having been accepted on 11 March 1941 by the General Staff.[79] The plan in actual fact contained two documents – one called document number 272 and the other 273. The plan was to be introduced in different phases. In the first phase, reorganizing, rearming and re-equipping armed forces was to be the focal point of the plan. This phase was to start in February-March of 1941, but it was expected to be completed no earlier than July of the same year. The second phase of the plan concerned mobilization. Mobilization would start in April-June. We can find evidence for this when Stalin placed 500.000 reservist right up the border in March 1941, with another 300.000 days added later.[80] Mobilization thus started ahead of schedule. This happened in the manner described in document 273: ‘The 1941 mobilization plan provides for mobilization in two ways: the first option provides for the mobilization of individual military districts, units and formations… in a hidden order to so called large training camps (BTS)’[81] The second option described by the plan was ordering general mobilization, but we know that this did not happen before Barbarossa.

The first option no doubt held a preference, because ordering general mobilization would alarm the Germans and deprive a Soviet strike of its surprise factor, which would undermine the May plan. It should be noted that on 23 April 1941, 53 German divisions stood against 150 Soviet divisions.[82] It is therefore hard to construe the Soviet deployments in March as defensive measures against Hitler given the proportion of forces. The third phase of the plan would hypothetically be the last three weeks before the hostilities begin. In that case, troops were to be forward-deployed to allow for a major offensive.[83] It should be noted that MP-41 in itself was not a war plan, as it lacked concrete operational objectives.

Stalin deployed an extra 800.000 troops to the Soviet-German border on 13 May 1941, again in the same manner as the deployments in March.[84] German deployment only began to rapidly accelerate on 25 May 1941.[85] The correct interpretation therefore is that Soviet troop deployments to the border was done in accordance with MP-41, rather than an ad-hoc response to German deployments. For the western districts the mobilization plan envisioned that: ‘In the event that the western districts are raised – the number of troops in these districts will be 6,503,223.’[86] It is obvious that at least troop-wise, MP-41 was far too ambitious, however document 273 envisions that ‘mobilization according to the mob plan [mobilization plan] should begin immediately, with the expectation of the completion of all work, both in the center and in the field, by 1 July 1941.’[87] The reality was that by 22 June, the Red Army had some 5.5 million personnel, of whom 2.9 million were stationed in the western border districts.[88] While 1 July was still more than a week away from 22 June, it is highly unlikely that the Soviets would have been able to transport 3.5 million troops to the border in a little more than a weeks time.

I argue that the incomplete mobilization might have actually benefitted the Soviets, because there was still some distance between the first and the second echelons, many of the latter were still in the process of being redeployed or created. The distance between the first and second echelon allowed the second echelon to retreat and re-group. These second strategic echelons would make up much of the Soviets forces that would ultimately halt the Germans near places like Moscow and Leningrad. Germans may have actually been more successful had the second echelon been in the place they were supposed to be, given that the elimination a greater amount of Soviet forces near the border would have strained German logistics less once they reached their strategical objectives. This is corroborated by Zhukov when he said in his memoirs that ‘I believe that the Soviet Union would have been beaten early on, if we had deployed all our forces at the border. Then Hitler’s troops would have stepped up the campaign and Moscow and Leningrad would have fallen’[89] Yet deploying more troops to the border was exactly what was planned, if MP-41 is anything to go by. It was just that the deployment fell behind schedule.

May war plan

Concerning the May plan, there is an ongoing debate on whether or not it was accepted by Stalin, because it lacked Stalin’s signature. Teddy Uldricks even goes so far as to suggests that it is likely that Stalin never even saw the plan.[90]War plans to invade Finland notably lacked Stalin’s written approval but the Soviet Union did attack Finland regardless.[91] So I consider that argument to be faulty. Furthermore, if Zhukov and Timoshenko went behind Stalin’s back to draw up war plans against Germany, they would not have had long to live. The Tukachevsky affair must have been fresh on their minds. Stalin therefore must have seen the plan, and given the extensive military preparations in the months leading up to Barbarossa, accepted it, although likely verbally. The plan was proposed no sooner than 15 May 1941 following a speech by Stalin held on 5 May. The full document is called Considerations for a plan for the strategic deployment of the armed forces of the Soviet Union in the event of war with Germany and her allies, or ‘May plan’ for short .[92] The plan proposed a first strike while the Germans were still in a phase of deployment.

The first section contains an analysis of the strength of the Wehrmacht. Zhukov calculated that at present (May 1941) the German Army has about 284 division in total, which included divisions not located close to the German-Soviet border (such as divisions stationed in occupied France or elsewhere). Of the 284 divisions, 120 were stationed at the borders of the Soviet Union. It should be noted that Zhukov had overestimated the German strength, given that he did not realize that Hitler doubled the amount of tank divisions by cutting the tank strength per division in half.[93] So Zhukov believed that Hitler had well over 7000 tanks when in reality he only had about 3300 for his invasion.

Note that about 1000, or about one-third of Hitler’s tanks were comprised of Panzer 1s and 2s, both tanks were obsolete when the invasion commenced.[94] Though the Soviets had obsolete tanks themselves, they did have more tanks than the rest of the world combined.[95] It is true that most of the Soviet tanks were comprised of the T-26s, but they did have 10.000 of them. These tanks were certainly a match for the Panzer 1s and 2s that Hitler deployed. In addition, obsolete does not mean useless as the T-26 would serve the Soviets well enough, for example during the invasion of Iran in August 1941 and again when fighting the Japanese Kwantung army in 1945. Worse still for the Germans, was that the Soviets had about 1500 T-34s and KV-1s. These were state-of-the-art designs that had no comparison on the globe at the time.[96]

Zhukov believed that along with the allies of Germany, Hitler could deploy some 240 divisions against the USSR. This total included German, Hungarian, Romanian and Finnish divisions. Zhukov observed that the Germans were keeping their armies mobilized and had their rear deployed.[97] This, Zhukov writes, is what makes a surprise attack by the Germans possible. He suggests that no such initiative should be given to the Germans, and so proposes a series of steps to counter the Germans.

Zhukov believed in May 1941 that the German army was still in the phase of deployment and will not manage to organize their troops and initiate hostilities. The timing here is important as the plan was proposed no sooner than 15 May while the Germans only shifted to full mobilization at the end of May. German escapades in Yugoslavia and Greece may have obfuscated German intentions, this was certainly true in the eyes of Stalin.[98] But from 25 May onward, the Germans managed to transport an extra 47 divisions to the border, of which 28 were panzer/motorized divisions divisions.[99] This last detail is very important, because Germany used 34 panzer/motorized divisions in total for Barbarossa.

These divisions were the essential ingredients in mobile warfare.[100] Thus Zhukov may have had the faulty assumption that the Red Army would have the time to deploy its forces still, given that most of the mobile German forces were not in sight of Soviet intelligence services, or at least they were not deployed right at the frontier. Indeed, German tanks only started to roll forward eight days before Operation Barbarossa commenced.[101]

What a first strike would look like from the Soviet side according to the May plan. What is not shown on the map is that the 16th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 24th  and 28th armies were either on their way to the front-lines, or were in the process of being created. Remember that at this point a large portion of the German panzer divisions were not yet stationed at the border.

What a first strike would look like from the Soviet side according to the May plan.[102] What is not shown on the map is that the 16th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 24th and 28tharmies were either on their way to the front-lines, or were in the process of being created. Remember that at this point a large portion of the German panzer divisions were not yet stationed at the border.

The new armies that were being forward deployed would later form the core of the Soviet military resistance. Some of these armies, such as the 16th army, came from the Far East and was initially stationed in the Transbaikal military district. It just so happened that this army was redeployed to the west on 25 May 1941.[103]

How the Soviet divisions were deployed on 22 June 1941. As we can see on the map, the 16th, 19th, 21st , 20th, 22nd armies were either in the process of being created, or they were in the process of moving closer to the German-Soviet border. The Soviet deployments lacked depth which would have made sense for a defensive strategy. But there was still sufficient ground between the border and the second echelon to allow, for example the 16th, 19th  and 20th army to re-group near Smolensk. Although resulting in a decisive Soviet defeat, the battle at Smolensk was a protracted battle that some historians have argued bought the Soviets enough time to defend Moscow. Had these armies been forward-deployed, as they were intended to be, the Germans might have rolled through Smolensk unhindered.

How the Soviet divisions were deployed on 22 June 1941.[104] As we can see on the map, the 16th, 19th, 21st , 20th, 22nd armies were either in the process of being created, or they were in the process of moving closer to the German-Soviet border. The Soviet deployments lacked depth which would have made sense for a defensive strategy. But there was still sufficient ground between the border and the second echelon to allow, for example the 16th, 19th and 20th army to re-group near Smolensk. Although resulting in a decisive Soviet defeat, the battle at Smolensk was a protracted battle that some historians have argued bought the Soviets enough time to defend Moscow.[105] Had these armies been forward-deployed, as they were intended to be, the Germans might have rolled through Smolensk unhindered.

In section II of the May plan, Zhukov proposes that the main Soviet strike was to be delivered by the Kiev military district, which was to be renamed the South-Western front. The main goal was to defeat the German army that was deployed south of the Brest-Demblin line. Once that objective was achieved, the next territorial conquest would encompass the Narev River, Lovich, Lodz, Kreizburg, Oppeln and Olomouc.

Zhukov then intended to cut Germany off from Romania. This pincer movement was expected to result in the defeat of the German army west of the Vistula River. It would furthermore result in the capture of Katowice, which was located in the industrially developed region of Silesia. In addition, though not explicitly mentioned by Zhukov in his proposal, this would also effectively cut German troops off from the Balkans and thus remove Romanian oil as a strategic resource. Since the Germans relied on Romania for most of its oil, had the Red Army succeeded in executing Zhukov’s plans then effectively the Germans would have been deprived of about 90% of their oil. The dependence of the Germans on Romanian oil must have been well known by the Soviets.

Gorodetsky calls the plan limited in scope, yet it is obvious that it wasn’t limited at all.[106] The plan called for the conquest of objectives some 500 kilometers from the German-Soviet border as it stood in May 1941. In practice, if the plans was successfully carried out the Soviets would become the new masters of the entirety of Poland and East Prussia. It is difficult to imagine that the Red Army would not have marched into Germany as well, had the operational objectives of the plan been achieved and the German Army destroyed.

Section III-VIII covers the strategic deployment of the Soviet armed forces. Zhukov estimates that he can deploy about 303 divisions against the Germans. MP-41 also envisioned that many divisions to be available by 1 July 1941. In document number 272 we read that ‘on the mobilization within the Red Army, including the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuaian territorial corps, 300 divisions will be deployed.’[107] Stalin did actually have that many divisions come June 22.

An oft-heard argument by traditionalist is that Stalin had crippled his own armed forces by purging a section of his officer cadre, depriving the Red Army of the much-needed leadership against the German invaders.[108] Roger Reese has demonstrated in his book Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers that the impact on the purge has been highly overstated.[109] What was far bigger problem was that between 1939 and 1941, Stalin had expanded the army by about 280% in terms of army personnel alone.[110] In other words, Stalin never had enough experienced officers to fully outfit all the new divisions he was creating, even if he never initiated the purges. And where other than warfare were these newly promoted officers supposed to get experience from?

Section IX of the plan covers a list of specific demands. For example Zhukov demands the following: ‘Timely allow the consistent conduct of hidden mobilization and hidden concentration in the first order of all armies of the reserve of the High command and aviation’ as I have demonstrated, hidden mobilization was ongoing in the months March through May. In addition he asks the industry to ‘deliver the material parts of tanks and aircraft, as well as production and supply of ammunition’ as I shall demonstrate later, Stalin massively expanded his war economy in the years 1938-1941 that would have made this demand possible and lastly ‘approve the proposal for the construction of new facilities’ it is unclear what is meant in this instance by facilities but the construction of new airfields and factories were ongoing. Concerning new airfields, Dmitry Pavlov was executed in July 1941. He admitted to making the criminal mistake of allowing airfields to be located nearer to the border.[111] However in the system that Stalin had created especially after the purges, Pavlov was probably forced to admit to shift the blame of the political leadership on to the military leadership for the early German success in destroying Soviet air power. Orders to construct more airfields along the German-Soviet border could not have come from Pavlov alone.

The central point of David Glantz’ book Stumbling Colossus is that the Soviet Union could not have carried out a first strike because of material and structural deficiencies in the Red Army. Many divisions were not up to their intended strength or they were not properly trained or equipped. There are three main problems with that assertion which I will deal with here. First, there was a gap between the political leadership and the military leadership, so in this regard it is more important what Stalin thought than whatever Zhukov or Timoshenko thought. The decision to launch a first strike was Stalin’s to make, and he might not have been as acutely aware of the deficiencies as the military was. His speech of 5 May which I will discuss later certainly points in the direction that he was very confident in the Red Army’s ability to attack.

Secondly, a comparative analysis between German and Soviet preparations can prove to be insightful. While such an analysis warrants a thesis or indeed, an entire book of its own, I think it is important to highlight a couple of examples. In his book Operation Barbarossa and Germany‘s defeat in the East, David Stahel notes many deficiencies on the German side as well. For example, Air Corps VIII was still short some 600 motor vehicles, most communication equipment and 40% of its aircraft on the eve of Barbarossa. Most of the German war machine was not motorized, which meant that during the operation the infantry lagged far behind the much faster panzer/motorized divisions. Germans were also severely lacking in food, oil, rubber, metals and other resources which they acquired in part from the Soviet Union. Like MP-41, the Germans had equally ambitious plans like ‘armour programma 41’ that envisioned the construction of some 35000 tanks, which required the quadrupling of German manufacturing capabilities as of 1941. The fact that German manufacturing stagnated between 1940 and 1941 is highly indicative that they were dealing with structural deficiencies themselves. The Soviets, by comparison, doubled their industrial capacity in the same time-frame. For Barbarossa, half of the motorized divisions and two of the panzer divisions were inadequately trained. An evaluation of German infantry divisions revealed that 73 divisions were not ready for offensive actions for a host of reasons, which included improper training, lack of manpower or lack of arms or other equipment. Clearly, these deficiencies did not abstain Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union, despite the fact that the Soviet numerical superiority in both material as well as manpower was recognized by Hitler himself.[112]

The third is that the Soviet economy was geared towards waging a two-front war, and Stalin was preparing for a war of attrition at least since the mid-thirties.[113] Even civilian industries were constructed with war in mind: Factories producing consumer products could easily be converted into war factories.[114] It is very revealing that, despite the catastrophe which befell the Soviets on 22 June, the Soviets maintained a higher aircraft production than Germany throughout the war.[115] Meanwhile the Germans only planned to fight short wars on single fronts at times of their own choosing.[116]So whatever deficiencies the Soviets had could more rapidly be resolved, and it did once the German advance slowed down. The Soviets also mastered the concept of mass-production better, with vehicles being streamlined and standardized, which made them cheap and easy to produce and repair. German military production was over-specialized. Many parts of vehicles were not interchangeable, which made repairs in the field harder. A lack of standardization especially in the motor department made training harder. Just to give one example, Germans used 150 different trucks, from many different nations and manufacturers.[117] This made the manufacturing of replacement parts a nightmare. Most of the German armed forces still had to rely on horses to haul equipment such as cannons.

The biggest issue with the May plan is not that it lacked Stalin’s signature, rather that it lacked a schedule by which operations were presumed to start. Hitler had originally set his invasion of the USSR on 14 May 1941, but was forced to postpone it to 22 June. Pavel Bobylev has argued that mid-July would have been a possible date for the Soviets to strike, given that a (secretly) mobilized Red Army could not sit around doing nothing.[118] He also argues that the second strategic echelons would have been in their proper positions by mid-July, which would have enabled a first strike. If a first strike was executed, Stalin could order general mobilization and quickly fill in the remaining deficiencies in manpower. But unless other documents become available, deducing an exact date for a possible first strike is purely conjecture.

In conclusion, the many similarities between MP-41 and the May war plan, the fact that Stalin deployed massive concentrations of Soviet forces at the border before (full) German deployment even began, that mobilization in a covert manner was done to maintain a the surprise factor, that the second strategic echelon was moving further and further west all point to Stalin wanting to execute a first strike. It was simply the case that Hitler beat Stalin to the punch, mostly because of the underestimation of German deployment speed and the lingering uncertainty that a full-scale attack on the Soviet Union was even on Hitler’s mind.

Propaganda or appeasement?

On 5 May 1941 Stalin held a speech in front of an officer cadre. The content of the speech has been included in appendix I. It has generally been argued by traditionalists that this was a form of bravado – a speech intentionally leaked by Stalin in order to give the Germans the impression that the Red Army was strong, willing to fight and above all not afraid of them.[119] They argue that the speech needs to be understood as part of an extensive appeasement campaign Stalin was supposedly waging in the first half of 1941 to prevent or at least stall a war with Germany.

The speech included an analysis of why the German army was so successful. It was not because it was invincible, Stalin said, but because it could fight on single fronts and because their foes were either weak or foolish. The Poles, Stalin believed, were weak militarily, while the French had no taste for war and believed themselves safe behind their Maginot line. Stalin applauded the Red Army for actually having broken through the heavy fortifications of the Mannerheim line in Finland, contrasting their achievements with the Germans who had merely circumvented the Maginot line. Stalin reassures his audience that the same fate would not befall the Soviet Union. This reassurance is strange especially given the abandonment of the Stalin line and the Molotov line that was under construction.

Stalin also applauds the intense modernization the Red Army went through – and he solely points to advancements in military technology: Faster planes, tanks with four times as much armor as older models, more divisions, more accurate artillery and so on. Stalin certainly wasn’t bluffing here. He also highlights some deficiencies however, that the military leadership were still not properly trained to use all the new technology effectively, especially not on an operational or strategical scale. Again he stressed that lack of public support and love for the French army spelled their doom, implying that this mistake would not be repeated by the Soviet government. But can we find evidence that Stalin did anything to counteract this?

Stalin was drilling the Soviet people into a war mentality in the late thirties. In fact, propaganda from the time indicates that Stalin was preparing for a war explicitly against Germany. A book known as The First Blow: The story of the Coming War was widely circulated among servicemen.[120] This propaganda was removed from circulation following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, but began reappearing in April 1941. Anti-German films such as Alexander Nevskii (a movie directed by the jew Sergei Eisenstein) began being displayed in cinemas again, even though the film was three years old at that point. Strangely enough it was awarded that month with the Stalin prize, the highest award in the arts sector. In addition, Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg (who like Eisenstein was jewish) was allowed to publish his anti-fascist novel Fall of Paris.[121] This hardly sounds like the actions of a man who desperately attempted to appease the Germans. Why try to appease someone while simultaneously trying to vilify him? These developments could not have been kept secret from German observers after all.

During the same day the speech was held, a major-general who was also a speaker for that day applauded Stalin for his peaceful foreign policy. Stalin interceded:

‘Allow me to make a correction. The peaceful policy has ensured peace for our country…. up until a certain time we have taken the line of defense… But now that we have redesigned our army… now that we have become strong, we have to move from defense to attack… We have an obligation to act aggressively. We must move from defense to offensive action. We have to rebuild our education, propaganda and our press in an offensive spirit. The Red Army is a modern army, and a modern army is an offensive army’

Again, hardly the words of someone who tried to appease the Germans in any way he can. Still, other actions by Stalin have been regarded as being part of this so-called appeasement campaign. Gorodetsky for instance sees the non-aggression pact with Japan, signed on 13 April 1941, as the epitome of Stalin’s supposed appeasement campaign.[122] It seems more likely that Stalin was pulling wool over Hitler’s eyes, ensuring that his eastern regions were secure from Japanese invasion so that he could focus his attention on the west, while giving Hitler the impression that Stalin was currying favour with Hitler’s allies. As I have already demonstrated, the 16th army was being redeployed to the west, allowing him to create an even stronger second strategic echelon now that the Japanese were less of an immediate threat

Another issue with the appeasement hypothesis is why Stalin would make so many harsh demands during Molotov’s disastrous visits to Berlin in November 1940. While it is true at this point Operation Barbarossa had not yet been definitely decided upon, if Stalin’s principle aim was security, Stalin could have simply joined the tripartite pact, this would ensure security from both of the ‘capitalist powers’ as well as make it all the more likely that Hitler would concentrate his forces elsewhere. Yet Stalin never intended to join – his main reason for sending Molotov to Berlin was to find out what exactly the Germans were planning for the future.[123] The later counter proposal by Molotov, delivered to the Germans in December 1940, were too unreasonable to the Germans given that these proposals would have made the Germans even more dependent on the Soviet Union for crucial resources. The conclusion then, is that the speech clearly intended to drill the Soviets into a war-mindset, and his further actions both before and after the speech prove that he wasn’t exactly afraid of a German invasion, at least not on 5 May. He may not have wanted war with Germany as early as June 1941, but nothing indicates that Stalin’s main intention was appeasing the Germans. Instead his actions and his speech all point to him preparing his country for a war.

Conclusion

In the years 1939-1941, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with the idea that war would be inevitable. Stalin had been preparing for that inevitability both before and during those years: This is evidenced from many developments, from the economy, to propaganda, to Red Army deployments at the border. With his poker game conception, the only question that remained is who would become Stalin’s main adversary? After the fall of France – which happened so swiftly that it baffled and enraged Stalin – it became more and more obvious that the main adversary would be Hitler. Rather than picking up the scraps of two foes who had battled each-other to exhaustion, he would now have to face Hitler alone on the European continent

There were good reasons for Stalin to fear encirclement, but even the Soviet defensive strategy contained fundamentally offensive operations which included defeating and conquering the enemy on his own territory. The neglect of defensive lines, the offensive posture of Soviet divisions, Stalin lambasting the Maginot defense strategy of the French, the brutal imposition of the Stalinist system on the conquered territories in the years 1939-1940 all point to Stalin not being afraid of the Germans. Instead it points that he was confident enough to fend them off and counter-strike in case of an attack.

There have been many Soviet war plans, many of which can be regarded to be contingency plans in case of an attack. Germans had these too even before Operation Barbarossa was decided upon. The May war plan was the plan that contained proposals for the Soviets to strike first. To date, the revisionists, especially Ewan Mawdsley, have mostly compared the May war plan with other Soviet war plans, while I attempted to compare the Mar war plan with the mobilization plan of 1941 and saw many similarities. MP-41 predates German deployments to the Soviet border. The completion of MP-41 would have enabled the Soviets to carry out the May war plan. The biggest issue as I have already highlighted was the date at which the Soviets would launch their preemptive strike.

Stalin’s rhetoric and behavior in the months February-May cannot possibly be construed as him waging a campaign of appeasement against the Germans. Soviet deployments, along with aggressive propaganda campaigns that intended to fuel hatred against Germans, interrogation reports of captured soviet soldiers saying that they were expected to attack soon and the stepping-up of military production all point to Stalin intending to strike against Hitler. Stalin may have become concerned in June when Germans completed their deployments, probably a lot faster than he expected. But at that point, it was too late to shift all his armies from an offensive to a defensive posture. Alternatively, Stalin may have remained confident for his armies abilities to hold off the Germans at the border in order to launch a counter-attack. Zhukovs and Timoshenko’s directives on 25 June to counter-strike and capture Poland and East-Prussia certainly points in that direction.[124]

So did Stalin intend to invade Germany? Yes I think that he did. But it needs to be stated that both traditionalists as well as revisionists operate on circumstantial evidence alone, granted the burden of proof is on the revisionists. I hope to have convinced the reader that the evidence points into the direction of Stalin preparing to invade Germany. Oleg Khlevniuk, one of Stalin’s biographers and member of the Russian State Archives, has said that a definite answer to the question may still be locked behind the (now closed) Presidential Archives.[125] One can only hope that a definite answer to the question can be found in those archives, if they are ever to be opened again.

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