Q: Was Josef Stalin planning to attack Adolf Hitler in 1941, which would explain the Red Army’s forward deployment?
David Van Horn
Brooklyn Center, Minn.
A: Was Stalin planning a preemptive strike against Hitler in 1941? An article by Victor Suvorov in June 1985, since discredited, argued that case. According to Suvorov, the German buildup of forces in occupied Poland, including vast new airfields, created an urgent need for the Soviet Union to prevent their employment. Stalin had indeed ordered plans for a possible offensive; however, military contingency studies for every variety of possibility were normal among nations. Between the world wars, the United States had developed “Rainbow” contingency plans, each color representing a hypothetical enemy—for example, red for Britain, black for Germany, green for Mexico, and orange for Japan. Each was regularly updated.
The contingency plan favored by the Red Army general staff was, if attacked, to move munitions factories from threatened areas toward the Urals, and to retreat deep into Russian territory, toward the Volga, to create critical strains on enemy reinforcement and supply. This was implemented, but only after Stalin duped himself into believing he could put off the Germans by dragging out negotiations over differences. He had decimated the military leadership by paranoid purges in 1937, and exacerbated a climate of fear among surviving generals. His absorption of the Baltic republics and the division of Poland with Germany, his 1939-1940 Winter War with Finland to seize a buffer area to secure Leningrad, and his Balkan ambitions, especially for Romanian oil fields, challenged Hitler’s own Eastern greed.
After France fell in June 1940, Hitler boasted to his generals that toppling Russia would be Sandkastenspiel (sandbox play), for the torpid Soviets could not defend themselves before 1943. When the prospect of invading Britain late in 1940 proved impractical, he set Operation Barbarossa for May 1941, but a thrust into suddenly unreliable Yugoslavia and taking Greece and Crete delayed the offensive for what proved, given the early Russian winter, a fatal month.
Worrisome intelligence flooded in, but Stalin gave the Red Army no orders for a preemptive attack. Informants furnished Stalin with the invasion timetable—even a message from Winston Churchill, which Stalin claimed was intended to entrap him. His most effective spy, Victor Sorge in Tokyo, was derided as a “bastard.” A Ger – man deserter furnished the same date (June 22) and was shot, and a second deserter was derided for his “disinformation” and ordered executed, but was still being interrogated when three million Wehrmacht troops backed by thirty-five hundred aircraft shocked Russia.
Stanley Weintraub recently retired from a teaching career at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of numerous biographies and histories.
Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.