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by Yaroslav RENKAS, Cand. Sc. (Hist.)
Sixty years ago Hitler's Germany launched its perfidious attack against the Soviet Union and this country plunged into the Great Patriotic War. Piles of memoirs, scholarly studies and novels have been written about this war over the years. But the public interest towards the epic tragedy of the past century remains as strong as ever, and every new book about it always attracts the attention of both-scholars and reading public in this and other countries.
One latest addition to publications on the subject has been a monograph "On the Eve of June 22, 1941" by Oleg Vishlev, Cand. Sc. (Hist.), senior researcher of the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences (M., Nauka, 2001. - 230 pp.). The book is written in the genre of documentary essays and one of its main assets probably consists in the fact that the "diary" of the pre-war events draws not only on the Russian, but also on German evidence, from the Political Archives of the German Foreign Ministry. Many of these documents are being revealed to the general public for the first time.
In the beginning the author submits to a detailed scrutiny the pre-war period of Soviet- German relations starting from the agreement signed between Berlin and Moscow on August 23, 1939. Hitler often called this treaty within his narrow circle a "marriage of convenience". In making this deal formally known as a Non-Aggression Pact - the leaders of the Third Reich proposed a division of the spheres of interest in Eastern Europe accompanied by an agreement on trade and credits. In taking this step Hitler wanted to prevent
Soviet participation in the then European conflict on the side of Britain and France which would save the Nazis from waging a war on two fronts something Germany was afraid of on the basis of her previous unfortunate experience. Apart from that food and raw materials supplies from Russia, specified by the Treaty could help Berlin to deal with its shortages in these areas which an expected Western economic blockade was anticipated to cause after the opening of hostilities.
At the same time Hitler was always mindful of the key point of his general foreign policy strategy which was outlined in his book Mein Kampf. His basic objective consisted in smashing the Soviet state in order to obtain the vitally needed "lebensraum" - living space - for the Third Reich. In the spring of 1939 the Nazi leaders embarked upon a temporary strategy of equality and economic cooperation with Moscow while at the same time Hitler made it quite clear that after the hostilies are over on the Western front, he would launch a powerful and decisive strike against the Soviet Union.
The author of the new book cites certain evidence which calls into question the views of Western historical scientists that, having embarked upon a policy of "building bridges" with Germany, Stalin was thus trying to precipitate another world war that would trigger a revolutionary upsurge in the West. The Soviet government, the author points out, could not have had any such plans because another imperialist war was already in progress, manifesting itself in acts of aggression and territorial inroads and acquisitions by Japan, Italy and Germany. In the opinion of the Soviet leaders of that time this war, which affected many countries and hundreds of millions of people, was bound to escalate all by itself into a world conflict which did not have be provoked or hastened from the side.
The author of the new book also objects to a common opinion in Western literature on the subject about the aforesaid German-Soviet Treaty as giving a "green light" for the attack on Poland. Oleg Vishlev points out that Hitler took his final decision on invading Poland in February 1939 and issued a formal directive in early April of that year - several months before the German-Soviet rapprochement. And it should be pointed out that neither at that time nor later, according to the available documents, Hitler drew any connection between his plans against Poland and his agreements with Moscow. What is more, while confirming his determination to achieve a radical settlement of the Polish problem in June 1939 (as proved by Soviet intelligence information), Hitler stressed that he would not be stopped even by a military and political alliance between Britain, France and Russia - that is by Moscow's direct participation in an anti-Hitler coalition.
Vishlev insists that the assumption about the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact provoking Hitler's
invasion of Poland holds no water because preparations for any such campaign take time: one has to work out plans of military operations, mass troops and move them into positions for the attack, conduct a call-up, etc. All of these things could not have been done within the few days after the signing of the German treaty with Moscow or even during a month when there appeared signs of some progress in the German-Soviet talks. And by August 23, 1939 the German armies were already in combat readiness for an attack on Poland in accordance with a strategic plan which had been approved as early as June 15 of that year.
In discussing the evidence surrounding the signing of the German-Soviet Pact Oleg Vishlev quotes a number of original sources. These indicate that neither the Non- Aggression Pact, nor the attached secret protocol contained any clauses on bilateral military cooperation. The two sides did not assume obligations on joint military operations against any third countries or on mutual aid to one another in case of one of the parties being involved in a military conflict.
Thus the Non-Aggression Pact signed by the Soviet Union with Hitler did not turn them into allies either formally or in practice although some historians hold different views on this matter. Vishlev points out that in signing the secret additional protocol with the Germans the Soviet government was not motivated by any plans for the liquidation or annexation of some East European countries, but was only trying to set a limit to Hitler's expansion to the East. In case of the occupation of Poland, the Germans were also denied the opportunity of unilaterally deciding its future fate and its borders. They also assumed the obligation to recognize the sovereignty of Lithuania over the Vilnus Region which had been annexed by Poland in 1920. As it turns out, the introduction of Red Army units into the Eastern Regions of Poland on September 17, 1939 and on the territory of the Baltic state in the summer of 1940 was undertaken by the Soviet government not in keeping with Soviet-German accords, but in order to prevent the capture or political submission of these regions by Nazi Germany...
Oleg Vishlev points out that the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact between Moscow and Berlin was a diplomatic and political landmark of the final phase of the pre-war crisis which was precipitated by the mounting contradictions between Germany, Italy and Japan on the one side and Britain, France, the United States and their allies on the other. The Pact was signed in the conditions when the prevention of a military conflict in
Europe, as was formally maintained by the Soviet government, was no longer possible and the move permitted the Soviet Union to maintain its neutrality. In its content the Non-Aggression Pact did not contradict the norms of international law and the accepted international practice. The author of the monograph points out that from the point of view of political experience and political morality of the time the secret Soviet-German territorial agreements were nothing extraordinary. For the sake of a comparison, the author gives an example of the Franco-Italian and Anglo-Italian treaties of 1935 on a division of their spheres of interests in Africa, of the 1939 Munich accord between Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy on the seizure of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, the Anglo-Japanese pact on China of July 24, 1939 and the secret Anglo-German negotiations in the summer of 1939. He also takes the same stand on the nature of the British peace proposals to Germany made through secret channels in the autumn of the same year.
In other words, for the sake of their own security the Western powers were prepared to sacrifice (and did sacrifice) the third countries to the aggressors and did not stop at violating their sovereignty when they deemed it necessary. In the conditions when the flames of war threatened to engulf all Europe, when the borders of European countries were openly and cynically redrawn, the Soviet Union only tried to prevent the inclusion into the orbit of Germany's aggressive policy of some of the bordering countries and territories, including regions which had earlier belonged to the Russian state and which were torn away in 1918-1920.
Incidentally, the Soviet government made no secret of its special interest in protecting these areas and of the fact that it will not remain indifferent in case of crisis towards attempts at overt or covert infringements upon them from any third countries.
A large section of the monograph under review is dealing with the problems of the Soviet Union consolidating its security and preparing its armed forces for foiling a possible aggression from Germany and its satellites. And right from the start Vishlev substantiates his disagreement with historians and political analysts upholding the view that
Stalin never expected Hitler to break their bilateral agreements and attack the Soviet Union as a result of which he did not prepare the Red Army for a military conflict.
Documents sited in the book make it clear that already in the summer of 1940, after the capitulation of France, it was quite clear to the Kremlin leaders that the war was at their door steps, so to say. Soviet intelligence reports coming in from late June of that year spoke of German army units being moved from Western Europe to the Soviet border and of German military preparations in the Baltic. The first report about the German General Staff preparing war plans against the Soviet Union reached Moscow in October 1940. On December 19-11 days after Hitler had signed his Directive 21 ("Barbarossa Operation") - the men in the Kremlin knew about this plan (although the Soviet government did not have the full text of the document). And as the D-day of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union drew near, the torrent of warnings continued to swell. The mounting military threat from Berlin was also confirmed by its foreign policy moves (the signing of a tripartite military pact with Italy and Japan, active pressure on the Soviet East European neighbors in order to make them join the aforesaid pact and the movements of German army units to Romania and Finland, etc.) all pointed to a mounting military threat from Germany.
Numerous facts cited in the monograph make it quite clear that the Soviet government not only did not ignore information about Hitler's military preparations, but was drawing its own practical conclusions. For example, as of the summer 1940 efforts were stepped up for putting the national economy on a military footing, including the mass production of new types of arms and military equipment, and serious administrative measures were launched in order to gear the country's resources to the needs of an approaching war. Steps were taken to consolidate the "top brass" of the USSR People's Commissariat of Defense and the Red Army General Staff. In their turn these agencies got down to the job of drafting detailed plans for the consolidation of the state borders, and for drafting the necessary manpower in the event of an enemy attack. During that period the ranks of our armed forces were increased with the formation of new units and steps were taken for an accelerated organizational and structural updating of the Red Army. By May 1941 it had a total of 300 divisions, instead of only 120 as before, and almost 100 of these new units were tank and motorized ones.
At the same time the Soviet political leadership, as proved by concrete documents quoted by Oleg Vishlev, had to admit the sad truth that the Soviet Union was not yet ready for war with Germany. There were delays,
for example, in the construction of fortifications on the country's new western border. A re-equipment of the Red Army, formation of big mechanized units in keeping with the demands of present-day combat, was only beginning, and the state of combat readiness of the troops in line with the up-to-date requirements left much to be desired same as the soldiers' skill in handling modern weapons. The recent experience of the war with Finland and of the German military operations in Europe called for a revision of the tactical principles of the Red Army. The situation was further exacerbated by a campaign of political "purges" of the previous years which stripped the army of its experienced officers especially from the rank of a division commander and upwards. And the truth of the matter is that most of the aforesaid problems remained unresolved up to the fatal date of June 22, 1941. Red Army units were still overburdened with obsolete arms and equipment. With an approximately equal numerical strength of the German and Red Army units on both sides of the border, the Germans boasted considerable numerical superiority (5 min against 3 min) and the unbalance was especially tangible in the first strategic echelon. At some sections of the border this unbalance was two- and even three-fold.
Within the contest of this general analysis of the situation one comes across one very important question which is causing debates up to this day. This question is: did Stalin really expect at these critical pre-war months and days that Hitler would turn his troops westwards and launch a strike across the English Channel? The author of the book points out that the Kremlin was of the opinion that if a German-Soviet conflict was unavoidable, it would be proceeded by one of the two possible scenarios of events. In the first the Germans were to step up their military operations against Britain to force its surrender. In the second-an Anglo-German compromise was to be achieved. In Moscow's eyes the first scenario was more preferable because it gave the Soviet side more time! And since no one could predict the outcome of a German-British conflict and further development of the situation, including Britain's defeat (the countries of the Tripartite Alliance would be unavoidably faced with the problem of sharing and "mastering" of the British "legacy"), it was very likely for Germany to abandon its aggressive plans against the Soviet Union for a very long time.
But Moscow's hopes of Hitler being bogged down in a war with Britain began to crumble already in May 1941. The Fuhrer made no hesitations in his stand on the "Russian problem" because he took his decision on an Eastward expansion a long time before. From a military-political angle the motivation of that decision, however, ran counter to the basics of the geopolitical situation of that time and it was that which had disoriented the politicians of many countries including the Soviet Union. The Fuhrer was planning a war on two fronts and his calculations were utmostly simple and adventurist. Hitler was counting on a lightning strike for smashing the Soviet Union in a matter of weeks (within this short time, thought Hitler, the British would not be able to launch any meaningful counteractions from the West and could be kept at bay by relatively small forces). This was one of the main foreign policy doctrines of the Third Reich. The way Hitler saw it - having done away with the Soviet Union as a world politics factor, and having captured its resources, Germany could also gain a dry-land route to the Near and Middle East. And the way Berlin saw it, the smashing of the Soviet Union would dash London's hopes of having an ally on the continent and erode its will for resistance.
The author of the monograph offers several documentary essays shedding light on the activities of the tense combat waged by the diplomatic and propaganda services of the adversaries who were doing their best to hide their military preparations in areas along the border. The monograph cites facts and examples proving the fact that in the final days and hours before the war the Nazi machine of misinformation was going full swing, resorting to all sorts of tricks-from open lies to crude intimidation. And the main objective was to conceal the D-day as best as they could and ensure the tactical success of the surprise first strike.
And, needless to say, this objective could not be achieved without offering Moscow some hopes for the preservation of peace, or, as a minimum, creating an illusion about Germany's course of actions in case of some controversy developing between Moscow and Berlin after all. The monograph contains excerpts from the diary of the German Foreign Minister Erich von Weitszecker which make it clear that the Nazi leadership tried to make Moscow believe that if and when Germany launches a strike against the Soviet Union this will be proceeded by negotiations and that there will be a normal diplomatic procedure of the declaration of war and not a surprise attack.
Prior to June 22, 1941 the Soviet government kept up attempts to open a dialogue with Berlin. It wanted to receive some explanations concerning rumours circulating in foreign embassies about an impending German attack on the Soviet Union and also about the known facts of the aggressive preparations conducted by Berlin. And, as Vishlev notes with irony, the Germans did give their answer which was quite different from what the Kremlin expected. Berlin broke the Non-Aggression Pact and Hitler's armies rolled into the USSR.
In the closing chapters of his book Oleg Vishlev discusses measures taken by the Soviet leadership, above all by Stalin, for countering the strategy of Hitler and his staff. He also offers an analysis of the Kremlin's miscalculations in its assessments of the military and political situation on the eve of the German attack.
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