People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 09, 2010

Soviet Union and Origins & Progress of World War II:

Some Currently Debated Questions




Irfan Habib


ON May 9 of the year 1945 just after the passage of midnight the representatives of Nazi Germany signed in Berlin the Instrument of Unconditional Surrender to the Soviet army and the army of Allied Expeditionary Force (US, Britain and France). With this the War (1939-45) that has caused the greatest slaughter in history came to an end in Europe, upon the total defeat of its main author, Hitler�s Germany.




Though it is called World War II it was essentially different in its consequences from World War I (1914-18). Whereas World War I had ended in the triumph of one set of imperialist powers and a restrengthening of colonialism all over the world (except for the areas affected by Russia�s October Revolution of 1917), World War II was followed by the rapid spread of national liberation across Asia, Africa and Latin America, and by the creation of a chain of socialist countries, extending from China and North Korea to Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Much of this result was due to the fact that the victory over Germany was brought about mainly by the Soviet Red Army through the immense sacrifices of the Soviet people.

It serves many today to slur over this simple truth, even in countries that were liberated by the Red Army alone. But facts speak for themselves. From the day (22 June 1941) that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, with an initial onslaught by 190 divisions, the bulk of the German forces remained exclusively engaged in sanguinary battles with the Red Army, right down to the day of unconditional surrender. And it was the Soviet Union, as a consequence, which suffered the most hugely in loss of life and resources among all countries involved in the War. As many as 27 million Soviet people perished in the War, amounting to an incredible 13.5 per cent of the pre-war population of the USSR. By the side of Stalingrad, where in 1942-43, were smashed the largest number of troops the German Command put at any one point, one must set the defence of Moscow of the autumn and winter of 1941, the 900-day siege that Leningrad successfully withstood, and the battle of the Kursk salient, 1943, the greatest tank battle in history. These were the major decisive events of World War II, not forgetting the belated Allied landing in Normandy in June 1944. The Russian Prime Minister Putin recently correctly reminded his critical Polish interlocutors that 300,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in liberating Poland from the Nazis in 1944.




While overlooking the major Soviet contribution to the victory over Fascism in World War II, it has also become customary to accuse the Soviet Union of having been a collaborator with Hitler Germany when the War began in 1939, and to argue that the Soviet Union by the neutral position it assumed during the first phase of the World War, 1939-41, itself brought about the situation in which Germany, victorious over Europe, could now turn on Russia: the Soviets were thus responsible, it is claimed, for their own misfortune and partly for the misfortune of other victims of earlier Nazi aggression.

One needs here, first, to remind oneself that until the eve of the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union and the Communists in general had been the most resolute opponents of all shades of Fascism, especially German Nazism. They had been from the beginning opposed to the harsh terms that the English and French imperialists, as victors, had imposed on Germany through the Versailles Treaty and other punitive measures. The territory of Germany was greatly truncated and back-breaking Reparations were imposed on her along with other restrictions. The harsh terms imposed on Germany played into the hands of the Nazis who found in a hysterical opposition to them the most popular plank of their national-chauvinistic programme. Recognising the aggressive aims of the Nazis, concealed under opposition to the Versailles Treaty, the Communists both inside and outside Germany still consistently opposed the Nazis. When the Nazis came into power in Germany towards the close of January 1933, the Communists were the first victims of Nazi terror and concentration camps. At the  Reichstag Fire trial (1933), Georgi Dimitrov, the future Secretary-General of the Communist International, electrified the world by his bold and brilliant defence and exposure of the Nazi ideology and methods of terror, forcing even the German court to acquit him and the other accused Communists. In his Report to the 17th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (January 1934) J V Stalin called attention to the new situation created �primarily� by German fascism with its revanchist aims that could lead to a new �imperialist war�. In 1935 in his main report, �Fascism and the Unity of the Working Class�, at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International, Dimitrov identified Fascism as the major enemy of the working-class on the world scale and called for tactics of a broad-based united front to confront Nazism.

The Soviet Union�s foreign policy after Hitler�s seizure of power in Germany was closely based on this assessment. While not still overlooking the inequities of the post-World War I political arrangements, it opposed all attempts to overthrow existing territorial boundaries by war and aggression. In order to promote international action to protect all states from the policy of �revenge� and expansion openly espoused by Hitler (and other powers like Japan and Italy), the Soviet Union became the main consistent and active proponent of Collective Security. The Soviet Union constantly expressed its willingness to commit its own military resources to any common mechanism among non-fascist powers to prevent and thwart aggression.




But Britain and France, which had tried their best to overthrow the Soviet Regime from the days of their unsuccessful armed intervention in Russia, 1918-20, and had thereafter maintained a �cordon sanitaire� around the USSR, by no means shared the perspective set forth by the USSR. Leading politicians in these countries saw Communism, not Fascism, as their major enemy, posing a threat to their countries� capitalist structure and colonial fabric. Given Hitler�s bitter denunciations of Communism, reinforced by his forcible destruction of the powerful German Communist Party, and the loudly propagated Anti-Comintern Pact of the Fascist Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) concluded in 1936, it could be assumed by his admirers in Britain and France that he would, if rightly encouraged and aided, turn all his armed power against the USSR and destroy it for ever. They therefore let him develop his military strength and fed his territorial ambitions by a succession of concessions under a truly squalid policy of collusion. He was thus allowed to tear up all the constraints on German militarisation imposed by the Versailles Treaty. A blind eye was first turned to his covert expansion of German armed forces from the day he took power. Then what was kept covert was made overt by a series of steps in 1935: Germany was allowed to rearm up to a level of parity with other great powers; its organisation of a powerful airforce was allowed to be proclaimed without objection; and a new Anglo-German Naval Agreement allowed Germany to expand its navy at breakneck speed � all in defiance of the Versailles Treaty. Saar was given over to Germany the same year, and in March 1936, Hitler sent troops into Rhineland, with no more than a bleat of protest from France. In March 1938 Hitler annexed Austria, an independent country, through a simple act of military occupation. In all these cases, the protests of the Soviet Union and expressions of its readiness to act in concert with the main Western Powers, Britain and France, went unheeded: Where such collusion with Germany would lead to became clear on 30 September 1938, when the prime ministers of Britain and France (N Chamberlain and E Daladier) joined Hitler and Mussolini (the dictator of Italy) in placing the fate of Czechoslovakia, with its large modern industry and strong modern army fully into German hands. This was done without reference to either the government of Czechoslovakia or to the Soviet Union, which had agreements with France for jointly defending Czechoslovakia and had officially expressed its readiness to do so. In March 1939 German troops overthrew the Czech government and occupied the whole country, without any one lifting a finger in Britain and France, the signatories to the Munich Agreement.         




Western statesmen so inclined could now feel confident that Germany had now the required strength for the hoped-for conflict with the Soviet Union. The gift of Czechoslovakia to her had meant immediately an addition to the number of Germany�s tanks by more than a fourth, not to speak of what that country�s developed armament industry could provide Germany with in future. But Germany still did not have common borders with the USSR, for starting a fight with it. It was mainly Poland that lay between Germany and the Soviet Union. Poland was a state that had so far behaved with its neighbours very much like what Germany was doing now. Created in 1919 by the victorious Allies, it immediately got a large chunk out of Germany; and, then, by 1922 by a process of naked aggression it moved its boundaries far east of the �Curzon Line� that the Allied Powers themselves had fixed for it. Poland now seized from the Soviet Union the regions of north-western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia, and from Lithuania its very capital, Vilna. When Hitler came to power Poland was governed by a dictatorial group of �colonels� and landlords put in power by a coup in 1926. This government followed a policy of close friendship with Nazi Germany, while maintaining extreme hostility to the Soviet Union. Characteristically, it colluded with Germany at the time of Munich in 1938 and obtained a sizeable piece of Czech territory in reward. One could imagine that given such a history of mutual collusion Germany and Poland could combine in an onslaught on the Soviet Union, with all the blessings that Britain and France could bestow on the effort.

The only difficulty in the scheme was posed by the German territory that had been transferred to Poland in 1919. Hitler wished first to possess himself of this, before any enterprise could be taken up through a subservient, rump Poland. The Anglo-French policy was now to prop up Poland as a faithful ally, but keep alive the prospect of the  Soviet Union as an inviting target of attack for Germany. Under this impulse, while, on the one hand, on 31 March 1939, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced a unilateral Anglo-French guarantee for Poland against aggression, both these powers, on the other hand, tried to exclude the Soviet Union from any effective role in the defence of Poland. The trick was to ask the Soviet Union to go to war with Germany if Poland was attacked, but without permitting it to send its troops into Poland. In other words, in the event of an attack on Poland by Germany, the latter would be allowed to conquer Poland (since geography precluded the presence of Anglo-French forces in Poland) whereafter it could attack the Soviet Union from the extended frontiers that Poland had acquired in 1922. Even Soviet proposals for minister-level talks were turned down by the two Western Powers, and neither in the �political� talks at Moscow (ending 2 August 1939) nor in the following military talks (11-25 August) did Britain and France send any representative authorised to make a decision, or to work out with the Soviet side the details of military commitments. Clearly, the Allied Powers were not prepared to exclude a situation where Germany could turn its guns against the Soviet Union and so fulfil the grand mission they had all the time assigned to it.




One must keep in mind this situation that was clearly so critical for the Soviet Union in order to understand the turn in its policy that now followed. On 10 March 1939, Stalin in his report to the 18th Party Congress gave an assessment of the real aim of the Western Powers on lines we have described above, and warned that the Soviet Union would not allow itself to be �drawn into conflict [with Germany] by warmongers.� On 3 May V Molotov, then prime minister, took the reins of the foreign ministry from M Litvinov, the main Soviet spokesman external for the regime of Collective Security that USSR had consistently stood for. The subsequent Soviet attempts at negotiations with Britain and France showed that the Soviet leadership had not abandoned its previous policy, but was no longer prepared to be a part of an Anti-German coalition without any political or military commitments by the other powers. In the light of what had so far happened, and of how much German military might had gained in the meantime, this was surely an unexceptionable position.

Germany responded to these Soviet anxieties for reasons of its own (mainly to prevent a two-front war), and the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939. Its advantage lay for the USSR in that the possibility of a German attack at that moment was warded off. But there was a further advantage. To the Pact was annexed a Secret Additional Protocol wherein Germany recognised Soviet special �interest� in the Baltic states and eastern Poland (the Ukrainian and Byelorussian areas). This was of immense strategic significance for the USSR since control over these areas ultimately put a far greater distance between the German lines and the cities of Moscow and Leningrad than would have been the case if the USSR had retained just its pre-1939 frontiers. One could perhaps, even say that the two great Soviet cities were saved thereby, when Germany did invade the USSR less than two years later.

It has been argued, as even Eric Hobsbawn has done in his Age of Extremes, despite his criticism of the Western Powers� earlier policies, that the Moscow Non-Aggression Pact freed Germany�s hands, so that it could now invade Poland with impunity. This it did on 1 September 1939, so that two days later, bound by their guarantee to Poland, both Britain and France declared war on Germany, thereby starting World War II.

Hobsbawm and others who pursue this line of argument alleging a Soviet complicity in the outbreak of World War II, fail to consider what strategic aims Britain and France now pursued after the war had actually begun. The French army was a very strong force with large quantity of armour and aircraft, and Britain, though backward in its infantry mobilisation, had also large number of tanks and aircraft and a formidable navy (see the analysis in Len Deighton�s informative work Blitzkrieg). There was no reason why the two powers did not immediately go on the offensive against Germany. On the contrary, a �Phoney War� ensued with French and British troops sitting idle, and British aircraft bombing Germany � with leaflets! As late as the spring of 1940, both Britain and France were preparing to divert a large number of their troops (57000 men) for an Anglo-French Expeditionary Force to be sent to Finland � to fight the Red Army! The Finnish acceptance of Soviet terms (designed mainly to protect Leningrad and the Murmansk railway) on 12 March put a stop to the adventure; but the episode does show how casual were Britain and France about pursuing their war with Germany. It was widely expected that there would be a long war of position between France and Germany, very much like World War I.  Had the Soviet Union earlier committed itself to a war against Germany, as the critics wish it to have done, the Western Powers, while conducting their �Phoney War�, would have been delighted to see the Soviet Union ravaged by Germany, while they themselves just kept their troops in the trenches.




In these circumstances it was natural for the Soviet Union to see World War II in the same light as World War I, having come about as a result of inter-imperialist conflicts of interest in the period of Finance capital, a conflict where no decision was likely to arrive any time soon. An analysis on these lines was provided by Dimitrov in an article on behalf of the Comintern, �War and the Working Class�, written before the end of 1939. In it both sides were held responsible for the War, though to different degrees in different phases. The tactics of the National United Fronts were therefore to be given up in Europe, though these were still to be pursued �in China and also in colonial and dependent countries� fighting for National Liberation. In Europe the Communist Parties were advised to direct their fire against their own rulers, the �war-makers� within their countries, thus reviving the line of action that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had pursued during World War I.

World War II turned out, however, to be very different from World War I here too, in that one side very quickly overwhelmed the other. All of this happened within six weeks, 10 May to 25 June 1940. The Phoney War ended when the German forces went on the offensive (�blitzkrieg�) and overran France. On 22 June the representatives of the French government signed an armistice that was little better than unconditional surrender. A string of countries had already fallen into Germany�s clutches: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium: and two others would follow France within less than a year, namely, Yugoslavia and Greece, not to speak of others like Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, allies in name, but in reality puppet states. In all these occupied or subjugated countries, the tactics recommended against one�s own war-makers were now irrelevant; what was obviously on agenda now in these countries was the struggle for national liberation from the German yoke. The picture that the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg drew, already in 1941, of France during the German invasion and after, in his Fall of Paris  is precisely that of such a situation, where the German conquerors and the collaborating traitors were now the enemy. At the official level the Soviet Union itself strongly protested to Germany against the entry of German troops in Romania and Bulgaria, and especially at the brutal German attack on Yugoslavia and invasion of Greece, both the latter events occurring in March-April 1941. Clearly, in much of Europe the ground was already being laid for a People�s War. The beginning of the Soviet Union�s own Great Patriotic War that began with Hitler�s invasion on 22 June 1941 was thus the final, not the initial, point of the transformation of the basic character of the War.




Much criticism has been levelled by many writers, including the distinguished Soviet commander Marshal G K Zhukov in his memoirs, about the fact that before the Hitlerite invasion of the USSR, Stalin and the Soviet leadership did not make adequate preparations to meet the �surprise attack� that the German invasion of 22 June 1941 proved to be. Even the �Alert� order was finally sent to the main commands barely four hours before the attack began, so that Soviet troops over large sectors of the frontier could not be alerted in time. Hundreds of Soviet aircraft were destroyed by German bombers in open airfields. Despite heroic resistance masses of Soviet troops were encircled, while others were forced to retreat. Minsk, the Byelorussian capital, fell on a mere eighth day of the war! There is no doubt that after the event, we can confidently say that the failure to correctly weigh intelligence reports about the imminence of the Nazi invasion, as well as the failure to infer it also from the massive accumulations of German forces from Finland down to Romania constituted a major error � one of the �no few mistakes� that Stalin acknowledged in May 1945 as having been committed by the Soviet Government.

Yet one cannot ignore the circumstances in which the error and its practical consequences occurred. Unlike Germany, the Soviet Union was not a militarist state; it needed peace to expand its industrial production and stabilise its collective-farm agriculture, after the foundations had been laid of a socialist economy in the first two Five-Year Plans. Moreover Soviet military strength was still no match for what the German Army possessed, in armour, aircraft, and war experience. It was obvious that any improvement in Soviet military resources that had taken place could have had only have a German attack in mind for geography precluded an attack on Russia from any other European power. But it would be time before such improvement gave to the Red Army anything approaching parity with the German Army and its allies. Till then the utmost caution seemed necessary in respect of any action that gave offence or provocation to the Germans. Their very presence in such large numbers on the Soviet border seemed to call for such caution. Marshal Zhukov himself recalls how on 13 June, nine days before the German invasion, Stalin refused to let troops on the border be reinforced in order to match in number the Germans massing on the Soviet border, lest it may provoke the Germans. Alerts, exercises, let alone mobilisation were all to be avoided. That such caution still did not deter Germans from inventing grievances and attacking the USSR shows only that not every effort results in success; and, in hindsight, the policy of caution, maintained in the face of strong evidence of German preparations for attack, must further be regarded as the product of a grave misreading of the extent to which German invasion could be delayed by a mere policy of non-provocation.

Error of judgement, it certainly proved to be. But not anywhere near as gross an error as of the Nazi dictator and his courtiers who were firmly convinced that the victory over Russia would be theirs in a few months, by the onset of winter within 1941 at the latest! The belief was shared by the US General Staff, which in July 1941 �confidentially� informed American editors and journalists that the collapse of the Red Army was a matter of  �a few weeks� (as reported by William L Shirer). But many of those now invading the Soviet Union were themselves soon undeceived. Gerd van Runstedt, German Field Marshal, put it in these simple words: �I realised soon after the attack was begun that everything that had been written about Russia was nonsense.� Much �nonsense� continued to be propagated later by many people from all kinds of interested motives: Khrushchov�s �secret speech� dwelt on how Stalin ran away from Moscow and how he planned operations on a globe � allegations that have been shown to be baseless by all serious accounts from Soviet generals as well as foreign diplomats and journalists.

What no calumny can cloud over are the bravery and dedication of the Soviet soldier, the determination and loyalty of the Soviet people, and the resolute conduct of the war by the Soviet leadership, that together not only smashed the dreams of the Nazi invaders but also saved the entire world from the clutches of Fascism. For this they will for ever deserve the gratitude of all people of the world, whatever country they belong to.