bureaucracybusters

TWO DICTATORS, TWO CRISES: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, History, Military, Politics, Social commentary on October 5, 2022 at 12:21 am

On June 22, 1941, with 134 Divisions at full fighting strength and 73 more divisions for deployment behind the front, the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin, the longtime Soviet dictator, was stunned. The invasion had come less than two years after Germany had signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.

On August 23, 1939, Stalin had signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact with German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler.

The reason: Each dictator got what he wanted—for the moment. Hitler was planning to invade Poland in a matter of days—and he wanted to avoid a war with the Soviet Union.

And Stalin got what he wanted: The eastern half of Poland.

Joseph Stalin

The agreement stunned the world. Since 1919, Nazis and Communists had fought bitter battles against each other in the streets of Germany during the Weimar Republic.

When this was replaced in 1933 by the Third Reich, German Communists were rounded up and imprisoned, if not murdered, by Hitler’s ruthless secret police, the Schutzstaffel (“Protective Squads”).

For the moment, however, all of that was conveniently forgotten.

And, surprising as it might seem, each dictator harbored a secret respect for the other.

After Hitler launched a blood-purge of his own private Stormtroopers army on June 30, 1934, Stalin exclaimed: “Hitler, what a great man! That is the way to deal with your political opponents!” 

And Hitler was equally admiring of Stalin’s notorious ruthlessness: “After the victory over Russia,” he told his intimates, “it would be a good idea to get Stalin to run the country, with German oversight, of course. He knows better than anyone how to handle the Russians.”  

Adolf Hitler

But Hitler hadn’t forgotten his life’s ambition to conquer the Soviet Union and utterly destroy “the scourge of Jewish-Marxism.”

Stalin received numerous warnings from the United States and Great Britain about the coming invasion. But he dismissed them as efforts by the West to trick him into violating the pact and turning Nazi Germany into his mortal enemy. 

When informed of the attack, Stalin at first believed it was being made by rogue German forces. He refused to order an immediate counterattack.

Upon being convinced that the Wehrmacht intended to wage all-out war, he went into a funk in his dacha and shut himself off from everyone. To his closest associates he wailed: “Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up!”

Meanwhile, the Red Air Force was destroyed on the ground by the awesome Luftwaffe. And the Wehrmacht was advancing at a rate of 25 miles a day.

German soldiers marching through Russia

On July 3, after 10 days of brooding (and probably drinking heavily) in his dacha, Stalin finally took to the airways across the Soviet Union.

Never a spellbinding orator, Stalin spoke in slow and faltering tones. Nevertheless, his opening words were startling: “Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! Men of our army and navy! I am addressing you, my friends!”

Stalin had never addressed an audience this way, and he never would again.

He said the “peace loving” Soviet Union had been attacked by “fiends and cannibals” who wanted to restore the rule of the landlords and Czars. He claimed the non-aggression pact with Germany had given the army much-needed time to rearm and reorganize its forces. 

This was accompanied by orders unprecedented in any other army: Those taken prisoner by the Germans were to be considered traitors—and shot or imprisoned. Those suspected of wounding themselves to avoid combat were also subject to summary execution. So were soldiers who had been legitimately wounded in battle but were suspected of inflicting those injuries.

The first two years of the war—1941 to 1943—proved disastrous for the Soviet Union.

During the first six months—June to December, 1941—German armies lured huge Soviet forces into gigantic “cauldron battles,” surrounding and exterminating them. An estimated 5.7 million prisoners of war (POWs) fell into German hands. Of these, at least 3.5 million died in custody.

But then the infamous Russian cold and snows of winter halted the Wehrmacht before Moscow.

In the summer of 1942 German forces once again mounted a ferocious offensive, driving all the way to the Volga—and Stalingrad.

But they became bogged down in bitter house-to-house fighting. With the arrival of winter, Soviet forces surrounded the Wehrmacht’s powerful Sixth Army. The besiegers became the besieged. On February 2, 1943, Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus surrendered what remained of his army. The battle cost Germany 500,000 men, including 91,000 taken prisoner. 

As the Red Army finally began to go over on the offensive, Stalin relaxed the iron controls that had long stifled creativity on the part of his commanders. 

The infamous political commissars were removed from control over Russian generals. Gold braid and fancy uniforms were manufactured and rushed to the front as morale boosters.

The war would last another two years—costing the Soviet Union at least 26 million citizens—before it ended with the Red flag flying over Berlin.

Almost the entire western half of the Soviet Union was devastated—first as the Germans overran territory from the Polish border to the gates of Moscow, and then again as the Soviets slowly pushed them back to Germany itself.

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