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Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front

by Constantine Pleshakov; Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2005, $26.

Constantine Pleshakov’s new book is a skillfully wrought portrait of a catastrophe. During the first 10 days of Operation Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht pounded the Red Army senseless (see story, P. 34), methodically encircling and destroying entire Soviet armies at Bialystok and Minsk. In this opening phase, the Germans fought the Kesselschlacht (the “cauldron battle,” or battle of encirclement) to perfection, taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners and overrunning a chunk of territory as large as Great Britain. The operational plan for Barbarossa called for destroying much of the Red Army before it could retreat into the endless depths of the country, and the plan could not have worked much better than it did. The disaster has no parallel in military history: The world’s largest army was essentially destroyed and the richest portions of the earth’s largest country conquered. It would take the Soviets four long years and tens of millions of casualties to undo the damage the Germans inflicted in those opening days.

It is common knowledge that the roots of this catastrophe lay in a shocking failure on the part of Soviet intelligence, and Pleshakov gives it to the reader chapter and verse. With warnings coming from all quarters—including such diverse sources as the Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill—of a massive German buildup on the border, with a network of reliable intelligence agents abroad that was unparalleled in terms of its size and motivation and with a steady stream of German deserters crossing the border before the operation, Josef Stalin should at least have been able to prepare for the German blow. The only trouble was that the Soviet leader did not believe it—any of it.

It was all a “provocation,” he swore. The intelligence bounty must be either a Western trick to get him mixed up in a war with Germany, or a Nazi one to get him to move first and thus justify a German counterblow. “You cannot always trust the intelligence,” he once snapped at his chief of staff, General Georgi Zhukov, who was trying—gingerly, as always—to talk some sense into the boss’ paranoid skull. The evidence mounted, but Stalin remained unmoved. By late June, at least 10 German reconnaissance flights were crossing Russian airspace daily, one of which actually flew all the way to Moscow and landed there, some 650 miles inside the Soviet Union.

The Red Army, therefore, not only had to fight the Germans in those early days, but also what Pleshakov aptly calls the “staggeringly inept” nature of its own regime. Stalin’s pigheadedness kept it from meeting the Germans in anything approaching a state of preparedness. His deployment of the army had it hard up along the border where the Germans could smash it immediately, and his first operational orders warned commanders above all “not to yield to any provocation” on the part of the Germans. This vague phrase placed each Soviet commander in the nearly impossible situation of deciding on his own what was a provocation and what was a general act of war. Once that had been decided, the commander had the responsibility of deciding whether to shoot at the approaching Germans. All this was taking place within a system where military commanders well knew that any decision they made could get them either a medal or reassignment to a slave labor camp.

The resulting level of confusion still boggles the mind. Communications between Moscow and the front broke down immediately, although perhaps it is more accurate to say that they were never really established. Stalin’s technological conservatism, shared by old civil war cronies like the greatly mustachioed cavalry officer Marshal Semen Budenny, ensured that the Red Army’s communications net consisted almost entirely of cable rather than radio. A relative handful of German agents in the country disabled it utterly before the main body had even crossed the border. Likewise, it took months for something like a valid supply system to get up and running. Some Soviet soldiers in those terrible early days actually marched into battle with no food but anchovies of all things, a particularly terrible repast in light of the June heat and the lack of drinking water. Pleshakov describes one moment that may stand as representative of the entire opening phase of Barbarossa: the Soviet VIII Mechanized Corps trundling up the single road from Drogobych to Sambor and crashing into the Soviet XIII Mechanized Corps, which was, unfortunately, moving from Sambor to Drogobych. The result, needless to say, was a traffic jam of epic proportions. They might still be there, sorting themselves out, if the Germans had not destroyed them both.

Once Stalin and the high command did realize what was happening at the front— that instead of German provocations they were facing a full-scale invasion—they compounded the problem by ordering virtually every formation along the border into an immediate counterattack. Often portrayed in the literature on Barbarossa in a positive light (i.e., as an indication of the Red Army’s aggressiveness), these counterblows receive extremely rough treatment at Pleshakov’s hands. They were senseless, he writes, “one of the worst blunders of the 1941 campaign,” amounting to little more than suicide on the part of the attacking units.

Everyone involved—from Zhukov on down to the local commanders who had to carry them out—knew it, but no one had the courage or the will to say so. In Stalin’s Russia, more than in any other contemporary state, orders were orders.

If there is one problem with the book, it is Pleshakov’s insistence that Stalin intended to launch a preemptive strike at Germany in July. The idea has been floating around for a while now, ever since the publication of Viktor Rezun’s 1990 book Icebreaker (written, like all the works by this Soviet-era defector, under the pseudonym “Suvorov”). Historians have been bashing away at it (and him) ever since, and most recently David Glantz made the definitive statement debunking the preemptive war thesis in his 1998 opus, Stumbling Colossus. Pleshakov ups the drama by having Stalin discussing it with his generals at a meeting on June 21, the day before the German invasion.

The only problem with that line of argument is that it is based almost exclusively on inference, not evidence. Even Pleshakov has to admit that the records simply are not there, and he is reduced to using qualifying terms like “probably” and “in all likelihood,” which are by definition problematic in historical writing. To his credit, Pleshakov is aware of the problem, and he is surely closer to the truth when he writes that “the preemptive war remained a researched option, not a definitive plan.” A preemptive strike, in other words, was one of many possibilities Stalin was considering. Pleshakov thus paints a convincing portrait of a Red Army perched precariously between offensive and defensive plans in the summer of 1941, with the supreme leadership unable to decide what it wanted to do, and its advisers paralyzed with fear.

This is a fine book, extremely wellwritten, and one that succeeds in satisfying the scholar while also reaching the general reader. Pleshakov is a first-class writer, a novelist and journalist as well as a historian, equally adept at pithy character sketches of the main actors and homey details of life in the 1941 Soviet Union. His description of Stalin sitting in a funk at his dacha and being surprised by a visit from members of the Politburo is priceless. “Why have you come?” Stalin stammered, apparently believing that they had come to arrest him.

Likewise, the discussion of Stalin’s famous radio address to the Soviet people after nearly two weeks of silence is filled with insight. During the buildup to the speech, Stalin had the famous Moscow newscaster Yuri Levitan in to the Kremlin for some coaching. “How should I present?” Stalin asked. “As you always present, Comrade Stalin,” Levitan answered uncomfortably. “Where should I make pauses?” “Where you always make them, Comrade Stalin.” Even Stalin had to laugh. The speech itself, however, was a watershed. Actually addressing his listeners as “brothers and sisters,” Stalin seemed to be offering a new “social contract” to the Soviet people. Many who heard it, Pleshakov notes, “wept with relief.”

Although his performance had nearly wrecked the firm, at least the boss was back on the job. In the next few months, they would die for him in droves on the road to Moscow. It took millions of ordinary Soviet soldiers—“Uncle Vanyas” Pleshakov calls them—to put right what Stalin had so cavalierly ruined. In the end, Pleshakov lays the disaster squarely at Stalin’s door. The brutality and inhumanity of his regime, the incessant bloody purges and the slave labor camps all created an atmosphere of fear that crippled the armed forces. Many of the postpurge generals were hacks, but even the decent ones like Zhukov or Semen Timoshenko could not lead effectively in this sinister atmosphere. Terror had another effect, however. It cowed civilians and generals alike into a mute acceptance of the regime that kept Stalin in power, even after he had placed his incompetence on display for all to see. “The Great Terror saved the dictator and his system,” Pleshakov argues. “Instead of collapsing in the summer of 1941, as it should have, it survived for another fifty years.” This may be the worst indictment of all. For Stalin, the mountain of corpses he had created—purge victims and war dead alike—was simply a form of job security.

Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.