For the Russians, May 9, 1945 is the day marking the end of the Second World War in Europe, and it is celebrated every year, including this one, with a giant military parade through Red Square in Moscow. For the former Soviet and now the post-communist Russian government, it is hailed as the day that “Soviet power” under the leadership of Joseph Stalin defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe from the permanent clutches of Adolph Hitler and Nazi tyranny.
What is forgotten is that it was Stalin and the Soviet Union that were Hitler and Nazi Germany’s ally in starting this horrific war that took the lives of well over 50 million people, and set the stage, after the defeat of Hitler, for the nearly half-century enslavement of the eastern half of Europe under communist tyranny.
It is the fairy tale of Russian innocence and victimhood in starting and fighting the Second World War that is still used by the post-Soviet government of Vladimir Putin to justify a nostalgia for the “good old days” of Soviet power, and for the Russian president to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geo-political tragedy of the twentieth century.”
Among the lies and distortions of Soviet history that Vladimir Putin’s government continues to perpetuate is a downplaying of the human cost of trying to “build socialism” during the nearly 75-year reign of communist rule in the Soviet Union, from 1917 to 1991. It is estimated that as many as 64 million innocent men, women and children were killed in the Soviet Union in the name of building the socialist workers’ paradise.” (See my article: “The Human Cost of Socialism in Power.”)
The Soviet Fairy Tale About the Start of World War II
So it seems worthwhile at the time of another “victory” parade in Moscow’s Red Square to set the record straight about the start of the Second World War in Europe. First, there is the propaganda story that the Soviet government and now Putin’s government has been indoctrinating their own people with and many others around the world about Soviet foreign policy before the start of the war in Europe in September 1939. The “party line” story runs something like the following:
In the 1930s Great Britain and France had failed to show decisiveness in standing up to the growing threat from Hitler’s Germany. Stalin, in the Soviet Union, had a clearer understanding of this threat and showed greater resolve to resist fascism’s increasing power. He ended the Soviet Union’s aggressive propaganda against the West, and attempted to form a “popular front” with other anti-fascist nations and groups in Europe on the basis of “collective security.”
Britain’s and France’s appeasement policies, which allowed Hitler to occupy Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and early 1939, made Stalin realize that to save the Soviet Union from having to possibly face Nazi aggression alone without support from the Western powers, he had to “buy time” to build up Soviet military defenses.
Thus, he chose to enter into a nonaggression pact with Hitler in August of 1939. He agreed in a secret protocol of that pact to divide up Poland with Nazi Germany in the event of war breaking out, so as to widen the buffer zone separating Nazi military power from the Soviet heartland. Stalin’s fears were proven right when Hitler broke the pact in June of 1941 and invaded the USSR.
It may have been unsavory and unfortunate for the Poles, who had their nation carved up by the two totalitarian giants in September 1939; or for the Finns, who were invaded by the Red Army and lost border territory to the Soviet Union in the winter of 1939-1940; or for the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which were annexed by Stalin in June 1940; or for the residents of the Romanian provinces of Bessarabia and Bukovina, which were also occupied by Stalin’s forces in June 1940. But these lands provided “breathing space” for the Soviet Union to peacefully prepare for the inevitable war and do its part, after it was invaded, to destroy the Nazi threat to humanity.
Stalin’s Plan for Bringing About World War II
This interpretation has been increasingly challenged over the last three decades. Ernst Topitsch’s Stalin’s War (1987), Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker (1990), Heinz Magenheimer’s Hitler’s War (1998), and Albert Weeks’ Stalin’s Other War (2002), for example, all argue that Stalin’s purpose was not to protect the Soviet Union from an early attack. Instead, Stalin’s strategy was to intentionally create the conditions for a war to more easily break out between Nazi Germany and the Western powers. Such a war would weaken the “capitalist nations” and produce the conditions for communist revolution throughout Europe at the point of Soviet bayonets and tanks.
These authors also have argued that Stalin was planning an aggressive war against Nazi Germany, with the only problem being that Hitler attacked the Soviet Union before Stalin could break the nonaggression pact and invade Germany. Magenheimer even reproduced maps from the Soviet archives showing the planned directions of attack into the German heartland by Soviet military units. The differences of opinion among these writers have been about the date for Stalin’s aggressive war on Germany. Was it to have been in the summer of 1941 or the spring of 1942?
World Wars as a Way to Weaken Capitalist Nations
Vladimir Lenin, the Marxist revolutionary who successfully led the Russian Revolution in November 1917, believed that World War I served as the catalyst for weakening the “capitalist nations.” Out of their war with each other came the opportunity for socialist revolution and the overthrow of the property owning “exploiters.” The proof of this, according to Lenin, was shown by the success of his communist movement coming to power in Russia in 1917, and maintaining their control over one-sixth of the landmass of the world after a three-year civil war between 1918 and 1921.
Stalin accepted Lenin’s view and believed that another equally exhausting new world war among those capitalist nations would enable the socialist revolution to be extended all the way across the European continent. In a secret speech in Moscow before Communist Party members in January 1925, Stalin said that the Soviet Union would not be able to stay out of a future war; but when action was taken by the USSR it should be at the end of the conflict to tip the scales toward an outcome favorable for world revolution.
In Stalin’s own words, “But if war breaks out we shall not be able to sit with folded arms. We shall have to take action, but we shall be the last to do so. And we shall do so in order to throw the decisive weight in the scales, the weight that can turn the scales.”
Stalin Deal with Hitler to Ignite a World War
Again, according to the “official” interpretation of Soviet foreign policy in the middle of the 1930s, Stalin made an appeal for “collective security” among the European nations against Nazi Germany. But the evidence really suggests that in the typical Marxist paranoia of “class” conspiracy and conflict, the trick, in Stalin’s mind, was to prevent all the capitalist countries from ganging up on the homeland of socialism in Soviet Russia.
The former Soviet archives have produced a previously secret speech that Stalin delivered on August 19, 1939, four days before the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact was signed in Moscow on August 23. Stalin explained that peace prevented the spread of communism; war, on the other hand, provided the destruction and destabilization that was the entrée to revolution:
Comrades! It is in the interest of the USSR, the Land of the Toilers, that war breaks out between the [German] Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French bloc. Everything must be done so that the war lasts as long as possible in order that both sides become exhausted. Namely for this reason we must agree to the pact proposed by Germany, and use it so that once this war is declared, it will last for a maximum amount of time.
In Stalin’s mind, if the Nazis were defeated “the Sovietization of Germany follows inevitably and a Communist government will be established.” And if the war had weakened the Western allies enough, “This will likewise ensure the Sovietization of France.”
If the Nazis were to win at the end of a long war they would be exhausted and have to rule over a large area, which would pre-occupy them from attacking the Soviet Union; and “these peoples who fell under the ‘protection’ of a victorious Germany would become our allies. We would have a large arena in which to develop the world revolution.” But regardless of the eventual victor, the Communist Parties in all these countries needed to keep up their propaganda and subversion so the groundwork would have been prepared for that revolution when the time came.
Stalin Frees Hitler to Fight Britain and France
Thus, in Stalin’s mind, Hitler’s drive for a Europe dominated by Nazi Germany was in fact a tool for him to use for advancing the global cause of communism. By freeing Hitler of the fear of a two-front war, Nazi Germany would invade Poland, the British and French might then declare war on Germany, and a prolonged war in central and western Europe would drain the capitalist nations, while leaving the Soviet Union neutral in the world conflict. This would enable Stalin to continue to build up Soviet military power, enter the war at a time of his own choosing, and bring communism to Europe through use of the Red Army.
This is why, after Hitler ordered the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, a little more than two weeks later, on September 17, 1939, Stalin ordered the Soviet occupation of the eastern half of Poland, bringing about the end of Poland on the map of Europe before September of that year had come to a close.
Hitler could now turn his military fury on to the Western Allies, Great Britain and France, and bring about that war-caused exhaustion of the “capitalist enemies” that would set the stage at some point for a Soviet victory over the European continent.
But the swift defeat and German occupation of France in June 1940 changed the configuration of forces and the likely length of the war. Hitler attempted to draw Stalin actively into the Axis alliance against the British Empire in November 1940; when that failed because Stalin’s price for participation seemed too high, Hitler ordered the plans to be set in motion for the invasion of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941.
Stalin’s Plan for an Aggressive War Against Germany
From documents that became available from partially opened formerly secret Soviet archives during the 1990s, it is evident that Stalin now shifted to a more aggressive military strategy against Nazi Germany. A huge military buildup of Soviet forces along the border with Germany (in what had been Poland) was set in motion. But the controversy has been about whether this buildup was for defensive or offensive purposes.
The documents show that no plan or preparations were organized for the construction of defense positions. The deployment and order of battle were virtually all consistent with an offensive strategy, not the repulse of an anticipated attack. The configuration of these forces explains why the Germans faced no serious defense positions when they invaded the Soviet Union, and why they were able to initially capture so many Soviet soldiers and advance so rapidly into Soviet territory—in the first six months of the German invasion, seven million Red Army soldiers were either captured or killed, and 500,000 square miles of Soviet territory were occupied.
Furthermore, there has come to light the text of a Soviet General Staff document from May 15, 1941, that explicitly presents the plan to “Preempt the enemy by deploying against and attacking the German Army at the very moment when he has reached the deployment stage but is still not able to organize its forces into a front or coordinate all his forces.”
Was this just a standard strategy plan prepared by the Soviet military, or was this reflective of Stalin’s intentions? Ten days earlier, on May 5, Stalin spoke at a reception for recent graduates of Red Army officer schools, and declared that the time for mere defense was now over, and that the Soviet military had been reconstructed and was ready for battle. “Now is the time to go from defense to offense.”
Stalin’s Mistakes Still Led to a Communist Eastern Europe
It is fairly clear that Stalin, having helped to start the Second World War through his pact with Hitler, was readying to attack Germany and begin the process of Sovietizing the European continent. Hitler, guided by his own aggressive ambitions, merely beat him to the punch by striking first. But even out of the actual turn of events, Stalin succeeded in imposing communism on half of Europe for half a century.
Stalin, however, was not pleased with even this successful outcome. At the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945 after the defeat of Germany, President Harry Truman went up to Stalin and congratulated him on the Soviet Army’s conquest of Berlin in the closing weeks of the war. Stalin, however, glumly replied that the Russian Army under Czar Alexander I had reached Paris in the war against Napoleon.
Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, instigation of and participation in a virtual civil war in eastern Ukraine, and his recent military adventure in Syria all suggest that he, too, has imperial dreams to restore Russia to the “glory” and super-power status that Stalin had left to the Soviet Union that Putin had served so loyally as a member of the KGB before the demise of the communist regime in 1991.