The unflinching heroism and sacrifice of the USSR in stopping the Nazis’ genocide on the Eastern Front must never be diminished by those trying to score political points, writes PHIL KATZ in the final part of his anniversary article
THE Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union 80 years ago was based on three strategic objectives — Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and the oilfields of Baku in the south. It was to be a war of extermination. The specific battle order to ordinary soldiers includes the word “annihilation.”
Moscow was to be flooded and covered over. A research group attached to Barbarossa was calculating how long it would take to starve all the inhabitants of Leningrad to death. One million died, 90 per cent through starvation.
Up to 30 million Ukrainians were to be starved to death with their land and property given over to resettled Germans. This was the reality of Lebensraum. All Jews would be killed. With the notorious Commissar Order all communist officials would be killed.
A special and secret order accompanied Barbarossa, which allowed ordinary officers to convict Jews and communists, often civilians, leading to what historian Stewart Binns calls “one of the most notorious in military history… carte blanche for brutal and murderous war crimes on a vast scale.”
Soviets manoeuvre for peace
Given this context it is wrong to criticise those in the Soviet leadership who did everything they could, including signing a non-aggression “pact with the devil,” to buy time and delay war. Yet the non-aggression pact has become a weapon in the hands of the resurgent and revisionist right who accuse the Soviets of starting the war and even of causing the Holocaust.
Other countries, including Britain, signed pacts with Germany in the 1930s. The governments of Poland and Romania, Yugoslavia, Finland and Lithuania played footloose with all Soviet attempts to create an anti-fascist front. At the time the Soviets signed the non-aggression pact with Germany, Britain was also working on negotiating a similar pact through Swedish intermediaries.
Nowhere was ruling-class thinking made clearer than in a note from Orme Sargant, under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office: “the need for expansion will force Germany towards the east as being the only field open to her, and as long as the Bolshevist regime exists in Russia it is impossible for this expansion to take merely the form of peaceful penetration.” And Sargant was a long way from being the worst.
Soviet strengths and weaknesses
The Soviets had to defend a vast territory spanning six time zones in the biggest country on the planet. Hitler only had to pick a few square miles to punch his way through defences. This was the essence of blitzkrieg tactics. The Soviets were not yet an effective offensive military force, they were defensive, caught in the middle of a major overhaul which would not be finished until 1942. They were also greatly weakened by the purge of military personnel and unresolved political struggles between different schools of military science.
This was offset by the heroism, improvisation, patriotic pride and sacrifice of workers, peasants and the ordinary communists that became a material force in the struggle. There were redoubts such as the fortress of Brest, which held out longer than Paris or Brussels.
The Soviets thought that Germany would never fight in the east whilst hostilities continued in the west. Indeed the entire leadership thought Hitler would be suicidal to break this cardinal rule of warfare. But he was desperate to get the first blow in before the US could join the war.
A war of survival
Once Barbarossa began, all of this was replaced with a desperate struggle to survive and prevail. It is one thing to know an enemy is about to invade. Quite another to be able to stop them at the border. Germany amassed 3.8 million military personnel, 3,500 tanks and 3,000 aircraft for the attack. It even included 600,000 horses.
The Soviets had barely glimpsed the kind of war that would follow. War on this scale and of this character was without precedent. Who could guess the effect on civilians? From day one, 25 million citizens began to evacuate eastwards. War of position had given way to one of mobility, based on new kinds of weapons, engine and tank warfare which could take territory of 30 kilometres a day, communications that allowed combined operations of air, fleet and arms on a gigantic scale, across thousands of miles. All this had to be co-ordinated. The fascists’ assault on the west had given them a great deal of practice and experience.
Two kinds of internationalism
It was to be an international invasion. On the day Germany invaded, Italy and Romania declared war on the USSR. The attack force was made up of Germans, Romanians, Italian, Hungarian, Slovak, Spanish and French volunteer units. Facing them was the country that had once been known as the tsarist “prison house of nations.” Chechens, Mongolians, Russians and Ukrainians fought in the same regiments.
Many of these factors could not have been predicted and were unprecedented.
Soviets defy the odds
The desperation to paint the Soviets in a bad light has obscured many important facts. By December 1941, outside Moscow, Hitler’s forces suffered their biggest defeat in battle since 1939, just 20 weeks after the invasion began.
In the first 10 days of the war (when Stalin had his “breakdown”) the Soviets took the major decisions which later led to victory. These included the creation of a Soviet council for evacuation and relocation of war industries, the reorganisation of the High Command, Order 34 leading to the safe removal and protection of state gold reserves, precious metals and the artworks of the Hermitage.
Most importantly, on June 27, a People’s Commisariat for Defence was formed modelled on the revolutionary defence of Paris Commune, bringing together all forces of society. On July 3 Stalin spoke to the people, “A danger hangs over our motherland…” Survival was he said, “a matter of life or death.” Plans began to remove Lenin from his mausoleum in Red Square.
Churchill faces down the appeasers
On the evening of the invasion, across Britain, families and factory workforces gathered round the radio to listen to prime minister Winston Churchill. What would he say? Would he support the Soviets or give way to those in his Cabinet associated with Cliveden who wanted to sue for peace and leave the Soviets to fight alone?
Memorably he said, “At 4 o’clock this morning Hitler attacked and invaded Russia. All his usual formalities of perfidy were observed with scrupulous technique. A non-aggression treaty had been solemnly signed and was in force between the two countries. No complaint had been made by Germany of its non-fulfilment…
“The terrible military machine which we and the rest of the civilised world so foolishly, so supinely, so insensately allowed the Nazi gangsters to build up year by year from almost nothing – this machine cannot stand idle… It must be in continual motion, grinding up human lives and trampling down the homes and the rights of hundreds of millions of men…
“The Russian danger is therefore our danger… The cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.”
The Soviets, our allies
Historians and politicians who delight at every seeming fault of the USSR’s conduct in the war, forget that they were our allies in a joint endeavour to rid the world of fascism. That cannot be unmade.
They say that history is written by the victors. But in the case of Barbarossa and the history of the defence of the USSR, it is being written not by losers, but in many cases by governments where the ruling class were complicit in the Nazi invasion and all that followed.
The fury unleashed through Barbarossa, the genocide, the murder of defenceless prisoners of war, the ideological and race theory put into practice by Einsatzgruppen paramilitary death squads behind the advancing tanks, was surely the most terrible low point in human history since the slave trade.
For this reason we must mark Barbarossa. We need to grasp what led up to it. And despite the first six months of desperate struggle and losses that followed June 22, it is important that we learn the lessons of first struggle that blocked fascism.
This article is the second in a two-part series. Read part one here. Phil Katz is the author of Freedom From Tyranny — The Fight Against Fascism and the Falsification of History (Manifesto Press).
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