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Lost Opportunity: Operation Barbarossa and the Decision Not to Kill Josef Stalin

“Everything which Lenin created we have lost forever!”

– Josef Stalin after receiving news of Operation Barbarossa

At 3 o’clock in the morning on June 22, 1941, six thousand German army cannon belched fire and destruction at Russian outposts along a frontier border through what was once Poland. Up and down the line, terrified Russian guards radioed their headquarters with the same message: “We are being fired on; what shall we do?” The replies from headquarters were one of disbelief: “You must be insane. And why is your signal not in code?” But the outpost guards were not insane. Operation Barbarossa, Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, had begun.

The basic facts of the first fateful weeks are widely known: despite 87 warnings (by one count) from sources that included spies (including Richard Sorge in Japan), heads of state (Churchill and Roosevelt), and even a report from a German non-commissioned officer deserter one day before the invasion was launched, Soviet leader Josef Stalin was caught flat-footed.

Soviet tank burning during opening days of Operation Barbarossa

A German infantryman in front of an enemy KIA and a burning BT-7 light tank in the southern Soviet Union during the early days of Operation Barbarossa. The purges of the Soviet military by Stalin left the Soviet Union ill prepared to counter the German army in the early days of the invasion. Photo courtesy of Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Stalin’s actions in the first ten days of the German offensive have been a focus of study and controversy ever since. According to Western orthodoxy, when he received the news of the invasion, Stalin went so far as to announce he was going to resign, and went into seclusion in his dacha near Moscow. At one point during this period, a group of Politburo members arrived one day at his dacha. Stalin thought they had come to shoot him. But instead of delivering a 7.62 mm ticket to the afterlife, they had come to seek his leadership and guidance on what to do next.

What? Josef Stalin was given a second chance?

Given the brutal, bloody, and unforgiving history of Russian politics, such an act by the Politburo was unprecedented.

On the surface of things, one of the great opportunities of the war – the elimination of a tyrant (one worse than Hitler) who had condemned tens of millions of Soviet citizens to death through purges and economic policies – was lost.

So, what exactly happened during those ten days? More to the point – how in hell was Stalin able to survive and reassert his power?

Future Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, a commissar in the Ukraine during World War II, wrote in his memoirs published in 1970 that Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, closer to the scene, agrees, having written “[Stalin] had shut himself away from everybody, was receiving nobody, and was not answering the phone.” But Molotov is also on record saying that Stalin was active during this period, taking visitors and issuing orders – a complete reversal.

These and other anecdotal remarks were all that were available for decades. Then in 1991 Communism collapsed. Suddenly the archives of the former Soviet government – more than 40 million documents – were available.

Captured Soviet artillery during Operation Barbarossa

Captured Soviet artillery that fell into German hands in the early days of Operation Barbarossa. Stalin’s stand-and-die orders resulted in the capture and destruction of many Soviet military formations. Photo courtesy of Marek Tuszyński

So, while this moment in history is still undergoing study, records do tend to confirm Khruschev’s statement, and both sides of Molotov’s statements. In addition to issuing orders to field units to stand and fight to the death, Stalin made secret diplomatic overtures through Bulgaria and other embassies offering to cede to Germany all of the land it had conquered thus far. So, even though Stalin did appear emotionally shaken in his first public speech on July 3, the duration of his nervous collapse had to have been short.

It also appears that Stalin’s years of cunning and brutality wound up saving him from a fate he would have meted out to another without a second thought. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin began consolidating his power. Publicly, he developed a cult of personality. Within the Kremlin, he began eliminating rivals. This process culminated with the Great Purges of 1937-39 in which any Old Guard communists not beholden to him, as well as countless other officials, and thousands of senior commanders in the Red Army were liquidated.

Referring to the Soviet Union shortly before Barbarossa, Hitler said, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come falling down.” Hitler was in one sense right. Stalin had gutted the Soviet government and military to the point where he was the only real power left standing. But in order to survive, the members of the Politburo had to renew their deal with the devil they knew.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...