Friday, January 17, 2020

Was Stalin Planning to Attack Germany?

There Was A Plan...

Joseph Stalin.
One of the lingering controversies of World War II is whether Joseph Stalin was planning to attack Adolf Hitler's Reich when Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, began. This is a highly political question for some people and a matter of great national interest in several countries. There is an answer, but it gives ammunition to both sides of the controversy. Let's look at whether Stalin was planning to invade Germany in 1941.

Let me give you the short and dirty answer to that question right here: Yes. The backup to that answer is below.

What Stalin knew about Hitler's invasion plans and what he himself planned are interrelated, so let's go through both for clarity.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler had plans for the Soviet Union. Big plans. Big.

What Stalin Knew About German Intentions Pre-Barbarossa

Adolf Hitler issued his directive for Operation Barbarossa on 18 December 1940. While the details of the directive changed over time, it remained in effect until the invasion on 22 June 1941. While one would think that having a written document stating his intentions would be helpful to spies telling Stalin what was going to happen, it actually undermined some of their attempts to warn him.

The reason the Barbarossa directive undermined warnings is that it specified a target invasion date of 15 May 1941. This changed during the spring, however, as the Wehrmacht worked up its actual invasion plans. The fact that it was pushed back to mid-June, though, was not put in the directive, which remained unaltered. Thus, spies who knew about the Barbarossa directive and warned Stalin that an invasion was coming on or about 15 May were discredited when Soviet intelligence services gave information showing that date was wrong. Of course, the date came and went with no invasion, further undermining warnings.

Directive for Operation Barbarossa
An original typewritten copy of Othe directive for Operation Barbarossa. Only about a dozen of these were prepared and circulated to top generals.
The Soviets had a host of extremely credible parties giving it warnings. Let's go through them to see what Stalin was working with during the spring of 1941. These are not in chronological order but in a rough approximation of reliability.

The British were reading German codes, but they could not disclose the source of their knowledge in order to maintain the security of their Ultra decoding operation. Thus, while Churchill issued a direct warning about German troop movements in Poland to Stalin via Sir Stafford Cripps, who was in Moscow, they could not show why this information was accurate. Churchill sends a memo to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on 18 April 1941 asking, asking, "Has Sir Stafford Cripps yet delivered my personal message of warning about the German danger to Stalin?" The answer is yes, but Stalin does not believe the British. Cripps later returns to London on 11 June 1941, which Stalin notices. This, along with similar incidents such as the German ambassador sending his dog home to Germany around this time sets him to wondering whether these war warnings might be true after all.

Hitler with Japanese Ambassador Oshima
Adolf Hitler with Baron Hiroshi Ōshima, the Japanese ambassador to Berlin.
On 4 June 1941, the British intercept a message from Japanese Ambassador Ōshima to Tokyo concerning a meeting held with Adolf Hitler the previous day. Hitler, Oshima cables, had told him about the plans for Operation Barbarossa. The British have broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, but British intelligence did not forward the coded translation to The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for decoding until the 12th.

The United States officially warned Stalin, too. Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles passed along information in his possession about a coming attack on the Soviet Union on 1 March 1941. On 15 April 1941, United States Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt followed up that warning with a reiteration of the Welles warning. Stalin ignored these warnings, too.

Richard Sorge
Richard Sorge (Federal Archive Picture 183-1985-1003-020).
Beginning in late 1940, Soviet sleeper spy Richard Sorge (code name Ramsay) began sending warnings of an attack from his post in Japan. These continue throughout the spring right up to the actual invasion, with increasing specificity. Sorge follows this up with a warning on 6 May 1941 that states:
Possibility of outbreak of war at any moment is very high…. German generals estimate the Red Army’s fighting capacity is so low…[it] will be destroyed in the course of a few weeks.
Stalin, however, has a very low opinion of Sorge. He refers to Sorge as a "procurer of women" and worse and disregards these warnings. However, they are quite accurate and come straight from Sorge's sources within the German embassy in Tokyo.

The Sorge warnings were of such concern to some that Stalin addressed them at a 21 May 1941 Central Committee War Section meeting in the Kremlin. Incredibly, Air force General Proskurov, former head of Soviet military intelligence who had been replaced by sycophant General Filipp I. Golikov, spoke up and told Stalin he was wrong and that the Germans were about to attack. Proskurov was arrested after the invasion along with many other generals, perhaps for this breach of etiquette. Proskurov was shot in October 1941.

Sorge, meanwhile, sent further warnings on 30 May and 1 June with details about German strength that Stalin also disregarded. The 1 June warning set 15 June as the invasion date. Sorge further states that German Lt. Colonel Edwin Scholl has told him that the Germans had massed 170-190 divisions along the Soviet border. Stalin is furious at Sorge's continuing to send warnings. He has the latter Sorge transmission marked "suspicious and provocative." The message then is filed.

Spy Rudolf von Scheliha
Rudolf von Scheliha aka "Ariets."
On 28 February 1941, Soviet agent Rudolf von Scheliha (code name Ariets) issued a warning. Von Scheliha was a German diplomat who became radicalized by the horrors he witnessed in late 1939 while serving with the German Embassy in Warsaw. He was a leading member of the "Red Orchestra," a group of highly placed German dissidents who funneled military information to the Soviets via Switzerland. Stalin ignored this warning.

A spy ring centered in Prague (the mysterious "Lucy" ring) reported on or about 5 April 1941 that the invasion would begin on 15 May. The fact that this was Hitler's original intention as set forth in his 18 December 1940 Fuhrer Directive suggests that the Lucy ring had highly placed sources within the Wehrmacht. By now, however, Operation Marita in the Balkans was the top German priority and Operation Barbarossa was postponed past the original date. The Lucy ring followed this up with another warning on 23 April.

Karl Bömer with WIlliam Randolph Hearst
Karl Bömer is the second from the right (in German uniform) in this press photo featuring William Randolph Hearst.
At a diplomatic reception in the Bulgarian Embassy in Berlin on 13 May 1941, Professor Karl Bömer, head of the Foreign Press Department of the NSDAP, gets drunk and commits a major security breach. He states in a drunken stupor to diplomats and journalists that he was in line to be promoted to Gauleiter of Crimea. Considering that Crimea was well within Soviet territory, this comment draws a lot of attention. Bömer quickly was brought up on charges and sentenced by the People's Court for "negligent treason" to three years in prison. Bömer later was sent to the army to serve in Russia, where he perished in 1942.

The Soviets had one unquestionably reliable source that things were going wrong. Trade between the USSR and Germany was proceeding according to agreements reached in 1939 and 1940. They provided, in general terms, for shipment by the Soviets to Germany of raw materials such as grain. The Reich, in turn,  would ship finished goods to the USSR. This data was known by both sides. The German embassy in Moscow noted on 5 April 1941, without elaboration, that the Soviet exports to Germany increased during March 1941, while shipments in the other direction fell precipitously. This was an inescapable fact.

Hitler, of course, already was using trade as a weapon, He did not want to ship equipment to the Soviets that they could later use against the Wehrmacht. For some reason, the Soviets did not read any meaning into this trend. They scrupulously adhered to their trade obligations with the Reich. This comported with Stalin's rule that the Soviet Union should not give the Germans a valid reason to claim a breach of the trade agreements.

Ambassador von der Schulenburg with Stalin
German Ambassador Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, right, witnessed the signing of the 23 August 1939 pact between the Soviet Union and Germany. However, he opposed Operation Barbarossa and ultimately turned against Hitler.

Problems with the Warnings to Stalin

Somewhat paradoxically, one of the main problems with the Soviet military intelligence about Operation Barbarossa was that there were simply many warnings. Everyone was claiming that an invasion was imminent. The different sources, however, gave different dates and other particulars, and sometimes the same sources change their basic particulars such as the date.

The Germans themselves did not know when the invasion would occur - and there always remained an exceedingly slim possibility that it may not occur at all. There was a lot of opposition to Operation Barbarossa from Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering on down. It was all up to Hitler, and nobody knew what he would do. As late as 28 April 1941, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had German Ambassador Count Schulenburg give Hitler a memorandum arguing against Operation Barbarossa. Hitler angrily ends the interview with Schulenburg after half an hour, angrily shouting that Stalin had supported the recent anti-German "putsch" in Yugoslavia and already was an enemy.

Since the Germans were uncertain about Operation Barbarossa, the spies certainly could not be. They could report on intentions and probabilities, but the facts were fluid and unverifiable.

Heinrich Himmler gathers daisies with is family 19 June 1941
Heinrich Himmler picks daisies by the roadside on 19 June 1941.

The German Disinformation Campaign

The Germans went to great pains to allay any suspicions that Stalin might have about a German attack. These involved both direct and direct strategies.

In the direct category, Adolf Hitler himself sent Stalin personal letters denying any evil intent. The first was dated 31 December 1940, the other was dated 14 May 1941.

Hitler's two secret letters to Stalin (view them here) explained away all the intelligence reports as misunderstandings of what Hitler was actually doing. These letters are not fabrications. General Georgy Zhukov, in a 1965-66 interview session with Konstantin M. Simonov, confirmed discussing one during a meeting with Stalin in January 1941. He was there to discuss the large and growing German troop concentrations in Poland. Stalin told Zhukov he had “turned to Hitler in a personal letter, advising him that this was known to us, that it surprised us, and that it created the impression among us that Hitler intended to go to war with us.”

Soviet General Georgy Zhukov
Georgy Zhukov later verified that Hitler had written personally to Stalin.
Stalin told Zhukov that Hitler had replied in his own letter denying any evil intentions. Hitler explained to Stalin state that he was only moving troops to the East to protect those troops from British bombing. Stalin would have been well aware of such bombing because Molotov had been forced to take shelter from it during his visit to Berlin.

In addition, Hitler claimed, a little less believably, that the troop movements were actually preparations for the invasion of the British Isles. Hitler swore “on my honor as a head of state” that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union (Murphy, David E. What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2005 (hardcover, ISBN 0-300-10780-3); 2006 (paperback, ISBN 0-300-11981-X)). If Stalin actually believed Hitler, that would have been very unusual for the ruthless Soviet leader, but it's certainly possible and events suggest even likely.

The German disinformation campaign continued right up to the invasion. On 19 June 1941, SS leader Heinrich Himmler gathered some cameramen and went to Valepp Valley with his family. There, he ostentatiously got out of his vehicle with the "SS-1" plates into a field and picked daises with his wife and daughter. This un-warlike activity received major play in the Reich media.

Whether Stalin was actually deceived or not is debatable. However, he was uncertain enough about a German attack to keep defensive preparations at a very low level considering the gravity of the threat.

Soviet T-34 tanks in winter camouflage
A Soviet convoy with T-34/76 tanks in winter camouflage.

Stalin's War Plans

The Soviet Stavka, or military high command, entered 1941 without plans to invade the Reich. The Soviet doctrine was to have an aggressive defense. The standard plan which had been in place for years was to mount a counteroffensive into the West (with the opponent presumed but not actually stated to be German forces). This gradually morphed into an outright attack plan. Let's go through events within the Soviet hierarchy to see what happened.

On 11 March 1941, the Stavka issued a new Strategic Deployment Plan. Upon the outbreak of war, Deputy Commander of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff Aleksandr Vasilevsky proposed to put the main Soviet weight in the direction of southern Poland. Somewhat prophetically, the plan envisaged hostilities beginning on 12 June 1941. General Timoshenko, Zhukov, and Molotov meet with Stalin upon issuance of the report to discuss how to orient the troops.

Unbeknownst to the Soviets, the Germans were arming their north and south prongs heaviest, while leaving the center - the area Vasilevskiy proposes to attack the hardest - relatively weak. This was a subject of much debate throughout the spring, with a strong contingent of generals preferring a massive thrust straight to Moscow. Because Hitler had the final say and wanted to leave Moscow for last, though, they were overruled.

Stalin began hedging his bets as the warnings mounted. On 12 April 1941, he issued a secret directive to construct fixed defenses along the western frontier. This was somewhat contrary to established Soviet doctrine to mount a quick counterpunch to any attack rather than depend on holding a defensive line.

On May Day 1941, always a day of speeches and parades in the Soviet Union, Stalin ramps up his rhetoric slightly. He says:
The Red Army is ready, in the interests of the socialist state, to ward off every blow struck by the imperialists. The international situation is full of unexpected events. In such a situation the Red Army must step up its defensive readiness.
On the same day, the German military attache in Moscow noted that the Red Army had begun calling up recruits in the lowest age cohort six months earlier than usual. The Soviets also instituted a new rule that foreign diplomats could no longer travel freely but had to be escorted. These facts suggested that the Red Army was preparing for some kind of action.

A destroyed Soviet T-34 tank
German soldiers march by an abandoned soviet T-34/76 tank.
Stalin finally tips his hand on 5 May 1941. He delivers two secret speeches at a military function that are the basis for theories that he intended to attack the Reich. There is no way to sugar-coat these speeches, they are bellicose and threatening. They are done in an informal setting, with the vodka flowing freely.

In the first speech, Stalin states:
New tank models, the Mark 1 and 3, are on their way;  these are excellent tanks, whose armor can withstand 76-millimeter shells. In the near future there will also be a new tank graced with my own name. This tank will be a veritable fortress. Today we have up to a hundred armored and mechanized divisions which still need to be organized into an entity. Our war plan is ready, we have built the airfields and landing grounds, and the frontline aircraft are already there. Everything has been done by way of clearing out the rear areas: all the foreign elements have been removed. It follows that over the next two months we can begin the fight with Germany. Perhaps it surprises you that I tell you of our war plans. But we have to take our revenge for Bulgaria and Finland.
Stalin also said:
A good defense signifies the need to attack. Attack is the best form of defense... We must now conduct a peaceful, defensive policy with attack. Yes, defense with attack. We must now re-teach our army and commanders. Educate them in the spirit of attack.
Basically, Stalin was saying that the best defense is a good offense. Later, after some more drinking, Stalin gave a second speech that expanded on his earlier one:
The slogan of peaceful policies is now obsolete—it has been overtaken by events. During the years of the capitalist encirclement of the Soviet Union we were able to make good use of the slogan while we expanded the Soviet Union’s frontiers to the north and west. But now we must discard this slogan for the reactionary and narrow-minded slogan that it is, as it will not serve to win us one more square inch of territory. It is time to stop chewing that particular cud, Comrade Chosin:  stop being a simpleton! The era of forcible expansion has begun for the Soviet Union. The people must be schooled to accept that a war of aggression is inevitable; they must be in permanent mobilization.
These speeches did not become known to the Germans until after the outbreak of war when prisoners revealed them under interrogation. If Hitler had known, he probably would have pulled forward the start date of Operation Barbarossa.

A destroyed Soviet KV-1 tank
Soldiers with a destroyed Soviet KV-1 tank.
The Germans, though, quickly get a hint that things are changing. On 13 May 1941, a German consul in Chungking, China, spots revealing information in secret Soviet diplomatic circular. The circular stated that, on 7 May, the Soviets had instructed all missions to ascertain the probable attitude of other countries in the event of a German-Soviet conflict. Since the Soviets were presumed not to know about Operation Barbarossa, this suggests to the Germans that the Soviets were planning an attack of their own.

Coincidentally on the same day, 13 May 1941, the Soviet military makes several changes that suggested the Stavka was beginning to react in accordance with dramatic Stalin's 5 May speeches. Chief of General Staff Georgi Zhukov ordered four armies sent to the Western and Kyiv army groups. These troops were poorly equipped and understrength and not fit for offensive operations. The Soviet western border was roughly 2000 miles long, and four armies could only man isolated strong points, so this was only a gradual escalation in preparedness.

On 15 May 1941, General Zhukov submitted a plan of attack against the Soviet Union. In the Zhukov Plan of May 15, 1941, the Southwestern and Western Fronts (centered around Zhukov's former command at Kyiv) would be the axis of advance to the west. The objective of the invasion was to destroy the opposing Wehrmacht defense and advance across Poland toward the Reich border. This, Zhukov believed, would force the Wehrmacht to abandon Greece and Yugoslavia and cut the Germans off from their essential Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian allies (Romania was important more for its oil fields than its military). Once the Red Army had broken through, it could turn north and northwest to encircle the northern wing of the German defenses. Furthermore, the Red Army would invade Finland and complete the unfinished business from the Winter War.

There are several things to consider about the 15 May Zhukov Plan. Unlike an actual plan of attack such as Hitler's directive for Operation Barbarossa, it had no projected start date. It also reflected the poor state of Soviet military intelligence at this time. Zhukov was under the impression that the main Wehrmacht forces were across the border from Kyiv rather than further north, and that defeating them would eliminate the Wehrmacht's ability to resist. This was an easy mistake to make because Hitler preferred to place more emphasis on this sector than the Baltic states and Moscow, which he thought were pointless political objectives. The Wehrmacht generals, however, were of the opinion that taking Moscow was the top priority, so the OKW subtly has been orienting the main attack further north.

Soviet commissar Vsevolod N. Merkulov
Vsevolod N. Merkulov, the people's commissar for state security.
The low state of Soviet anxiety was illustrated on 13 June 1941, when Soviet Generals Timoshenko and Zhukov sought permission to alert troops at the border of an invasion threat and begin deploying forces. Stalin refuses. A few days later, on 17 June, Pavel M. Fitin, chief of the NKVD Foreign Intelligence sends Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin a report which asserts in part:
all preparations by Germany for an armed attack on the Soviet Union have been completed, and the blow can be expected at any time.
NKVD man Fitin knew this report was valid: his source was within Reichsmarschal Hermann Goering's own Air Ministry, which he included in the report. In the margin of the report, Stalin scrawled this note to Fitin’s boss, the people’s commissar for state security, Vsevolod N. Merkulov: “Comrade Merkulov, you can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his [expletive] mother."

On 19 June 1941, Stalin grudgingly signed a decree authorizing the construction of camouflage over installations. However, he continued to prohibit Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory, flights that continued right up until the day of the invasion.

Soviet defector "Viktor Suvorov"
Soviet defector “Viktor Suvorov” has fed many conspiracy theories about the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Post-War Claims

Russian sources have disputed the common belief that Stalin was deceived or ignorant about German invasion plans. The claim is that Stalin was not deceived at all.

“Viktor Suvorov,” a pseudonym for a former Soviet staff officer now resident in the West (Vladimir B. Rezun, a GRU officer who defected in 1978), wrote in the 1980s that Stalin was busy preparing his own invasion of Germany. Suvorov stated that the German attack on the Soviet Union only just preempted a planned Soviet attack on the German Reich. The Soviets themselves were building up forces near Germany, a well-known fact, but the strategic objective behind this, Suvorov claims, has been misunderstood. The Stavka built up its forces pursuant to the “State Frontiers Defense Plan 1941,” which put Soviet troops on the borders. This actually was for offensives purposes, according to Suvorov.

As shown above, there is some support for the argument that Stalin was contemplating an attack himself. However, there are many reasons for troop movements. Stalin may simply have been trying to impress Hitler with his own power. This would have flowed from the discussions during Molotov's Berlin trip in November 1940 about setting spheres of influence between the two regimes. Moving troops ostentatiously forward perhaps was an attempt to improve the Soviet Union's own bargaining position. This argument is supported by the fact that Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov repeatedly asked his counterpart, Ribbentrop, for a response to the Soviet's own negotiating proposals throughout the spring of 1941.



Stalin indicated prior to the German invasion that he intended to invade the Reich himself. The Stavka took some actions in accordance with this plan. For instance, it moved some troops to the border and General Zhukov submitted a plan of attack on 15 May 1941.

However, there is a long distance between preliminary planning for an invasion along with some secret speeches and an actual invasion. The Red Army was in no condition for an invasion during the spring of 1941. Preparation would have involved massive troop movements to the western frontiers that simply did not happen. The indications are that a Soviet invasion of the Reich was contemplated, but certainly not imminent when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa.


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