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How to Cast a God into Hell: The Khrushchev Report

Domenico Losurdo

Translated using the Portuguese edition of the book, often consulting the Spanish edition, not the original Italian edition.

Translated by David Ferreira

A “Huge, Grim, Whimsical, Morbid, Human Monster”

If today we analyze On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences, read by Khrushchev at a closed door session during the Congress of the CPSU, and later hailed as the Secret Report, one detail immediately draws our attention: what’s before us is a condemnatory speech that intends to liquidate Stalin in all his aspects. The man guilty of so many horrendous crimes was an individual worthy of contempt both at the moral and intellectual level. Aside from being ruthless, the dictator was also an absurd figure: he learned about the country and the agricultural situation “only through movies”; films that, moreover, embellished reality to the point of making it unrecognizable.28 Instead of being driven by political logic or Realpolitik, the bloody repression unleashed by him was dictated by his capriciousness and his pathological lust for power (libido dominandi). Thus emerged―Deutscher observes with satisfaction in June of 1956, astonished by Khrushchev’s “revelations” and having forgotten the respectful and at times admiring portrait of Stalin he himself made three years earlier―the depiction of “the huge, grim, whimsical, morbid, human monster."29 The despot so lacked moral qualms that he was suspected of having plotted the assassination of the man who appeared to be his best friend, Kirov, in order to denounce and liquidate his real, potential or imaginary opponents one after another for that crime.30 The merciless repression didn’t only fall upon individuals or political figures. Instead, it would include “the mass deportations of entire peoples”, arbitrarily accused and collectively condemned for connivance with the enemy. But at least Stalin had contributed to saving his country and the world from the horrors of the Third Reich? On the contrary―Khrushchev insisted―the Great Patriotic War was won despite the dictator’s madness: it was only because of his shortsightedness, his stubbornness, the blind trust he placed in Hitler, that the Third Reich’s troops had initially managed to enter deep into Soviet territory, causing death and destruction on a massive scale.

Yes, it’s Stalin’s fault that the Soviet Union had been unprepared and poorly defended for the tragic encounter: “We had only started to modernize our military equipment on the eve of war [...]. At the start of the war we didn’t even have a sufficient number of rifles to arm all the soldiers called up." As if that wasn’t more than enough, “after the first defeats and first disasters on the frontlines”, the man responsible for all this had given into despair and even apathy. Overtaken by a sense of defeat (“we have forever lost all that Lenin had created”) and unable to react, “Stalin refrained from overseeing military operations and stopped dealing with anything."31 It’s true that, after some time had passed, and finally ceding to pressure from other members of the Politburo, he returned to his post. If only he hadn’t! At the time when it faced a mortal threat, the man who had despotically  ruled the Soviet Union had been such an incompetent dictator that he didn’t have “any familiarity with the conduct of military operations." It’s a charge that the Secret Report firmly insists on: “We should note that Stalin planned operations on a globe. Yes, comrades, he used to take a globe and trace the front line on it."32 Despite everything, the war had ended favorably, but still the bloody paranoia grew worse. Now the Secret Report's portrait of the “morbid, human monster”―according to Deutscher's observations―can be considered complete.

Only three years had passed since the demonstrations of grief provoked by Stalin's death, and his popularity was still so solid that, at least in the USSR, the campaign launched by Khrushchev was initially met by “strong resistance”:

On March 5th, 1956, students in Tbilisi took to the streets to place flowers at the monument to Stalin on the occasion of the third anniversary of his death, and that gesture in honor of Stalin turned into a protest against the deliberations of the Twentieth Congress. The demonstrations and assemblies continued for five days, until the afternoon of March 9th, when tanks were sent into the city to restore order.33

That possibly explains the characteristics of the text we are examining. In the USSR and in the socialist camp, a hard political struggle was taking place, and the absurd depiction of Stalin would ideally serve to delegitimize the “Stalinists” who could overshadow the new leadership. The “cult of personality” that had reigned until that moment didn’t allow for nuanced judgments: it was necessary to cast a god into hell. Some decades earlier, during another political battle with different characteristics, but no less tough, Trotsky had also painted a picture of Stalin that sought not only to condemn him at the political and moral level, but also ridicule him at a personal level: he had been a “small provincial man”, an individual characterized from the beginning by an irredeemable mediocrity and pettiness, which he regularly demonstrated in the political, military and ideological fields, who was never able to overcome “his peasant rudeness." Certainly, in 1913 he had published a work of undeniable theoretical value (Marxism and the National Question), but the true author was Lenin, and the man whose signature is on the text should be considered a “usurper” of the great revolutionary’s “intellectual rights."

28. Khrushchev (1958), pp. 223-224.

29. Deutscher (1972b), p. 20.

30. Khrushchev (1957), pp. 121-122.

31. Khrushchev (1958), pp. 164-165 and 172.

32, 33. Zubkova (2003), p. 223.

There was no lack of similarities between the two depictions. Khrushchev insinuated that the real instigator of Kirov’s assassination had been Stalin, and Stalin had been accused (or at least suspected) by Trotsky of having hastened Lenin’s death with his “Mongolian ferocity."34 The Secret Report denounced Stalin for the cowardly neglect of his responsibilities at the start of Hitler’s invasion, but already on September 2nd, 1939, while anticipating Operation Barbarossa, Trotsky wrote that “the new aristocracy” in power in Moscow was characterized, among other things, for “its inability to conduct a war”; the “ruling caste” in the Soviet Union was destined to assume the attitude “proper to all regimes destined to die: ‘after us, the deluge’."35

With great similarities between them, to what point do these two depictions withstand historical examination? It’s worthwhile to begin analyzing the Secret Report which, made official by a CPSU party congress and by the party’s top leadership, immediately imposed itself as a revelation of a long suppressed but now incontestable truth.

The Great Patriotic War and Khrushchev’s Inventions

Starting with Stalingrad and the defeat inflicted on the Third Reich (the latter with a might that had seemed unbeatable), Stalin acquired enormous prestige around the whole world. And, not by chance, does Khrushchev give particular attention to this matter. He describes in catastrophic terms the lack of military preparedness by the Soviet Union, whose army in some cases lacked the most basic armaments. Arguing against this is the overview that emerges from a study that appears to come from those connected to the Bundeswehr and makes ample use of their military archives. In it they speak of the “numerical superiority of the Red Army in armored cars, planes and artillery pieces.” Further, “the industrial capacity of the Soviet Union had reached such dimensions that they could supply the Soviet armed forces with an almost unimaginable amount of weaponry." It rises at an ever-increasing rate as Operation Barbarossa approached. One stat is particularly eloquent: while in 1940 the Soviet Union produces 358 advanced armored cars, measurably superior to those available to other armed forces, in the first half of the following year 1,503 are produced.36 For their part, the documents from the Russian archives demonstrate that, at least during the two years before the Third Reich’s aggression, Stalin was literally obsessed with the problem of the “quantitative  increase” and the “qualitative improvement of the entire military apparatus." Some data speaks for itself: while in the first five-year plan the defense budget reached 5.4% of total state spending, in 1941 the military budget increased to 43.4% of spending; “In September of  1939, by order of  Stalin, the Politburo made the decision to construct in the year of 1941 nine new factories for the production of planes." By the time of the Nazi invasion, Soviet “industry had produced 2,700 modern planes and 4,300 armored cars."37 Judging by this data, we can say that the USSR arrived anything but unprepared for the tragic confrontation.

A decade earlier, an American historian dealt a substantial blow to the myth of the despair and abandonment of responsibilities by the Soviet leader soon after the start of the Nazi invasion: “for however shocked he was, on the day of the attack Stalin had an eleven-hour meeting with leaders of the party,, government and military, and did the same the following day.”38 But now we have at our disposal the registry of those that visited Stalin in the Kremlin, discovered at the beginning of the 1990s: it appears that, in the hours immediately following the military aggression, the Soviet leader was immersed in a series of uninterrupted meetings and initiatives to organize the resistance. They are days and nights characterized as “strenuous” but organized. In any case, “the entire episode [narrated by Khrushchev] is a complete invention”, this “story is false."39 In reality,  from the start  of Operation Barbarossa, Stalin not only makes challenging decisions, giving the order for the relocation of residents and industrial installations from the frontline areas, but “he controls everything in a meticulous way, from the size and shape of the bayonets, to the authors and titles of the articles in Pravda."40 There is no sign of panic or hysteria. Dimitrov offers the following account in a diary entry: “At seven in the morning they urgently called me to the Kremlin. Germany has attacked the USSR. The war has started [...]. It’s surprisingly calm, with resolve and confidence in Stalin and all the others.” More impressive yet is the clarity of ideas. It’s  not only a matter of  carrying out “the general mobilization of our forces.” It’s necessary as well to define the political situation. Yes, “only communists can defeat the fascists,” and put an end to the apparently irresistible rise of the Third Reich, but it’s necessary not to lose sight of the real nature of the conflict: “The [communist] parties develop locally a movement in defense of the USSR; not putting forward the question of the socialist revolution. The Soviet people fight a patriotic war against fascist Germany. The question is the defeat of fascism, which enslaved a series of nations and tries to enslave other nations as well.”41

34. Trotsky (1962), pp. 170, 175-76 and 446-47.

35. Trotsky (1988), p.1259 and pp. 1262-63.

36. Hoffman (1995), pp. 59 and 21 37. Wolkogonow (1989), pp. 500-504 38. Knight (1997), p. 132

39. Medvedev, Medvedev (2006), pp. 269,270

40. Montefiore (2007), p. 416

41. Dimitrov (2002), pp. 320-321

The political strategy that had presided over the Great Patriotic War is well defined. Already some years earlier Stalin had stressed that the expansionism carried out by the Third Reich “is in pursuit  of the enslavement and submission of other nations.” These nations respond with just wars of resistance and national liberation. To those that academically counterpose patriotism and internationalism, the Communist International had responded once again before Hitler’s aggression, as is shown in the entry in Dimitrov’s diary from May 12th, 1941, that:

It is necessary to develop a line of thought that combines wise nationalism, properly understood, with proletarian internationalism. Proletarian internationalism should be based on the nationalism of individual countries [...], between that properly understood nationalism and proletarian internationalism there can be no contradiction. Nationless cosmopolitanism, which denies national sentiment and the idea of the nation, doesn’t have anything in common with proletarian internationalism.42

Far from being an improvised and desperate reaction to the situation created by the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the strategy of  the Great Patriotic War  expresses a theoretical orientation of a general character maturing for some time: internationalism and the international cause of the emancipation of nations led directly to the wave of wars of national liberation, made necessary by Hitler’s intention to seize and radicalize the colonial tradition, by first subjecting and enslaving the supposedly inferior races of Eastern Europe. These are the recurring themes in the speeches and statements delivered by Stalin during the war: they constituted “important cornerstones in the clarification of Soviet military strategy and its political objectives, and played an important role at  the hour of restrengthening popular morale."43 They took on international importance as well, as Goebbels observed to his own annoyance: [Stalin’s] radio speech on July 3rd, 1941 “earned enormous admiration in England and the United States.”44

42. Dimitrov (2002), p. 314

43. Roberts (2006) p 7.

44. Goebbels (1992) p. 1620 (annotation from the diary on July 5th, 1941).

A Series of Disinformation Campaigns and Operation Barbarossa

Even in the strict realm of military conduct, the Secret Report has lost all credibility. According to Khrushchev, Stalin paid no attention to the “warnings” coming from many directions regarding the imminent invasion and went irresponsibly toward disaster. What is there to say about this accusation? Even the information coming from a friendly country can be wrong. For example, on June 17th, 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned Stalin of an imminent Japanese attack that never materialized.45 Especially in the lead-up to Hitler’s aggression, the USSR was forced to navigate around enormous diversion and disinformation operations. The Third Reich was determined to make it appear that the gathering of troops in the East was aimed only at camouflaging the crossing of the English Channel, and this seemed very possible after the conquest of the island of Crete. “The entire state and military apparatus is mobilized”, Goebbels notes with satisfaction in his diary (May 31st, 1941), to stage the “first great round of misdirection” in Operation Barbarossa. Thus,  “14 divisions are transported to the West."46 On top of this, all the troops stationed on the Western front were placed on the highest state of alert.47 Nearly two weeks later, the Berlin issue of Völkischer Beobachter published an article that indicated that the occupation of Crete was a model for the coming settling of accounts with England; a few hours later the journal was censored with the aim of giving the impression that it had betrayed secret information of great importance. Three days later Goebbels wrote in his diary: “The English radios announce that our maneuvers against Russia are only a bluff, that behind them we seek to hide our preparations for the invasion [of England].”48 In addition to this disinformation campaign, Germany spread rumors according to which the military maneuvers in the East were aimed at pressuring the USSR, eventually resorting to an ultimatum so that Stalin agrees to the revision of the German-Soviet pact and to export greater quantities of grain, petroleum and coal which the Third Reich lacked, involved in a war with an unpredictable outcome. They therefore wanted to give the impression that the crisis could be resolved with new negotiations and additional concessions on Moscow’s part.49 The British intelligence services arrived at that conclusion and the military, as late as May 22nd, warned the Minister of War: “Hitler still hasn’t decided to pursue his objectives [in the direction of USSR] either by persuasion or by force of arms.”50 On June 14th Goebbels writes with satisfaction in his diary: “Overall, they still believe in the bluff or in the attempted blackmail.”51

It’s also important not to underestimate the disinformation campaign carried out on the other side and initiated two years earlier. In November of 1939, the French press published a fabricated speech (supposedly delivered before the Politburo on August 19th of the same year) in which Stalin had revealed a plan to weaken Europe, encouraging a fratricidal war in order to Sovietize it later. There are no doubts about it: this was a forgery that sought to unravel the pact of German-Soviet non- aggression and redirect the Third Reich’s expansionist fury to the East.52 According to a much circulated legend of history, on the eve of Hitler’s aggression, London had warned Stalin without success, for Stalin―as to be expected of a dictator―only trusted in his counterpart in Berlin. However, while Great Britain informs Moscow of information related to Operation Barbarossa,  they spread rumors about an imminent USSR attack against either Germany or territories occupied by it.53 Their interest in making inevitable, or in precipitating as quickly as possible, the German- Soviet conflict is both evident and understandable.

Then there’s the mysterious flight by Rudolf Hess to England, clearly motivated by the hope of reconstructing the West’s unity in the struggle against Bolshevism, and thereby putting into motion the program described in Mein Kampf of an alliance and solidarity between the Germanic nations  in their civilizing mission. Soviet agents abroad inform the Kremlin that the number two in the Nazi regime took the initiative with the full agreement of the Führer.54 Moreover, personalities of particular importance in the Third Reich continued believing until the end the theory that Hess had acted at the encouragement of Hitler. In any case, Hitler felt the need to immediately send to Rome the minister of Foreign Affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop for the purpose of reassuring Mussolini  that Germany wasn’t planning a separate peace with Great Britain.55 Obviously, even stronger is the concern in Moscow caused by this suspected stagecraft, especially as the British government’s attitude encourages it. It doesn’t exploit the “capture of the deputy-Führer” for the purposes of getting “the maximum propaganda value, something that both Hitler and Goebbels feared”; instead of this, the interrogation of Hess―as Stalin was told by the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maiski―is entrusted to a supporter of appeasement. While they left the door open to an Anglo-Soviet rapprochement, the secret services of His Majesty concentrate on spreading rumors of a separate peace that is imminent between London and Berlin. All of this with the aim of adding pressure on the Soviet Union (that maybe had sought to prevent the feared alliance between Great Britain and the Third Reich with a preemptive attack by the Red Army against the Wehrmacht) and thereby strengthening England’s position.56

The Kremlin’s caution and distrust is well understood: the imminent threat of a second Munich on a larger and far more tragic scale. One can also raise the hypothesis that the campaign of disinformation promoted by the Third Reich had played a role, based on the transcripts found in the archives of the Soviet communist party. Expecting the imminent involvement of the USSR in the conflict, in his speech on May 5th, 1941, given to graduates of the military academy, Stalin stressed how historically Germany achieved victory when it was focused on only one front, while it suffered defeat when forced to simultaneously fight in the East and the West.57 Yes, maybe Stalin had underestimated the possibility that Hitler was ready to attack the USSR. On the other hand, he knew very well that a premature total mobilization would have given the Third Reich a casus belli on a silver plate, as had happened at the start of World War I. In any case, one point is clear: even while acting with caution in a very complicated situation, the Soviet leader moved toward an “acceleration in war preparations.” In fact, “between May and June 800,000 reservists were called up, in mid-May, twenty-eight divisions are relocated to the western districts of the Soviet Union, while work on the border fortifications and the camouflaging of sensitive military objectives are accelerated. “On the night between the 21st and 22nd of June, that vast force is placed on alert and ordered to prepare  for a surprise attack by the Germans.”58

To discredit Stalin, Khrushchev stresses the spectacular initial victories by the invading armies, but leaves out the predictions made at the time by the West. After the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the entrance of the Wehrmacht into Prague, Lord Halifax continued to reject the idea of a rapprochement between England and the USSR, resorting to the following argument: it didn’t make sense to ally with a country whose armed forces were “insignificant.” On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, or at the moment when its unleashed, the British secret services had calculated that the Soviet Union would be “liquidated in 8-10 weeks”; the advisor of U.S. Secretary of State (Henry L. Stimson) had predicted on June 23rd that it would all be over within one to three months.59 Moreover, the lightning breakthrough by the Wehrmacht―as observed in our days by an illustrious scholar of military history―is easily explained by geography:
The width of the front―1,800 miles―and the absence of natural obstacles gave the aggressors immense advantages for penetration and maneuvers. Despite the colossal dimensions of the Red Army, the relation between its forces and the territory was so unfavorable that German mechanized units could easily find opportunities to indirectly maneuver into the adversary’s rear. In addition, remote cities where roads and railways converged offered the aggressors the possibility of targeting alternative objectives, leaving the enemy in the difficult situation of having to predict the advance's real direction and where to face one challenge after the next.60
45. In Butler (2005), pp. 71-72.

46. Goebbels (1992), p. 1590.

47. Wolkow (2003), p. 111

48. Goebbels (1992), pp. 1594-95 and 1597.

49. Besymenski (2003), pp. 422-425.

50. Costello (1991), pp. 438-439

51. Goebbels (1992), p. 1599

52. Roberts (2006), p. 35

53. Wolkow (2003), p. 110

54. Costello (1991), pp. 436-437

55. Kershaw (2001), pp. 581, 576-577.

56. Kershaw (2001), pp. 584-587; Ferro (2008), p 115 (in what is said with respect to Maiski).

57. Besymenski (2003), pp. 380-386 (and particularly p. 384).

58. Roberts (2006), pp. 66-69.

59. Ferro (2008), p. 64; Benes (1954), p. 151; Gardner (1993), pp. 92-93.

60. Liddel Hart (2007), pp. 414-415.

The Quick Unraveling of the Blitzkrieg

It’s important not to fall for appearances. Looking closely, the Third Reich’s project of repeating the Blitzkrieg's victory in the West, but this time in the East, started to show problems in the very first weeks of the gigantic confrontation.61 On this, the diaries of Joseph Goebbels are revealing. In the immediate lead-up to the assault he stresses the unstoppable might of the imminent German attack, “without a doubt the most powerful the world has ever known”; no one could seriously oppose “the strongest army in all of history.”62 Therefore, “we are before a triumphal march without precedent[...]. I consider the Russian military force to be very weak, even weaker than the Führer believes. If anything is a sure thing, it is this.”63 In fact, Hitler is no less confident, some months earlier with a Bulgarian diplomat he referred to the Soviet Army as but a “joke.”64

However, from the start the invaders found, despite everything, unpleasant surprises. “On June 25th, during the first aerial attack on Moscow, the anti-aircraft defenses proved to be so effective that the Luftwaffe is forced to limit itself to a reduced amount of night raids.”65 It took only ten days of war for the pre-war assumptions to be shaken. On July 2nd, Goebbels writes in his diary: “overall, the fighting is hard and stubborn. We can in no way speak of a walk in the park. The red regime mobilized the people.”66 This course of events continued on and the mood of the Nazi leaders changed radically, as is repeatedly demonstrated in the diary written by Goebbels.

July 24th:
We can have no doubt whatsoever about the fact that the Bolshevik regime, which has existed for nearly a quarter of a century, left its mark on the peoples of the Soviet Union [...]. Therefore, It would be right to announce and with great clarity, before the German people, the difficulty of the struggle that rages in the East. It’s necessary to say to the nation that this operation is very difficult, but that we can overcome it and that we will overcome it.67
August 1st:
In the Führer’s headquarters [...] it’s also openly admitted that they were somewhat mistaken in their evaluation of the Soviet military force. The Bolsheviks reveal a greater resistance than we had suspected; in particular, the material resources available to them were greater than we thought.68
August 19th:
Privately, the Führer is very irritated with himself for having been misled to such an extent―regarding the strength of the Bolsheviks―by the reports [by German agents] coming from the Soviet Union. In particular, the underestimation of the enemy’s armored vehicles and planes caused us many problems. He suffers a lot because of this. We’re dealing with a grave crisis [...]. Put in comparison, the previous campaigns were like a walk in the park [...]. Regarding the West, the Führer has no reason to worry [...]. With rigor and objectivity, we Germans always overestimated the enemy, except in this case with the Bolsheviks.69

September 16th:

“We have totally underestimated the strength of the Bolsheviks.”70

Scholars in military strategy stress the unforeseen difficulties that soon challenge that powerful war- machine, experienced and cloaked in the myth of invincibility upon its entry into the Soviet Union.71 ”The battle of Smolensk, in the second half of  July 1941, is particularly significant for the success  of the Eastern Front (up until now it has been overshadowed by research into other events).72 The observation is from an illustrious German historian who passes on these eloquent entries from a diary written by general Fedor von Bock from the 20th and 26th of July:
The enemy seeks to recapture Smolensk at all costs and is constantly sending in new forces. The theory expressed by some that the enemy acts without plans is not reflected in the facts [...]. We’ve verified that the Russians have brought up across the front a new and compact deployment of forces. In many areas they seek to go on the offensive. It’s surprising for an adversary which suffered so many blows; they must possess an unbelievable amount of resources, in fact our troops still lament the power of the enemy artillery.
Even more worried, or even decidedly pessimistic, is admiral Wilhelm Canaris, leader of counter- espionage, who, in speaking with General von Bock on July 17th, says: “I see it as very bleak.”73

Not only does the Soviet army not break down in the first days and weeks of the assault but, to the contrary, it offers “tenacious resistance”, and is also well commanded, as revealed by, among other things, the “decision by Stalin at the time of halting the German advance at a point decided by him.” The results of this astute military command are revealed as well in the diplomatic sphere: it is precisely because it is “impressed by the fierce battle around Smolensk” that Japan, present there as an observer, decides to reject the request by the Third Reich for it to join the war against the Soviet Union.74 The analysis of the vehemently anti-communist German historian is fully confirmed by Russian scholars who distinguished themselves as champions in the struggle against “Stalinism” in the wake of the Khrushchev report: “The plans of  the Blitzkrieg were already sunk by the middle  of July.”75 In this context, in no way formal is the tribute paid to the Soviet army's "splendid  defense” by Churchill and F.D. Roosevelt on August 14th, 1941.76 Even outside diplomatic and governing circles, in Great Britain―we are informed by a diary entry from Beatrice Webb―common citizens, including those of a conservative orientation, show “lively interest in their surprising courage and initiative, as well as the magnificent equipment of the Russian armed forces, the only sovereign state able to oppose the almost mythical power of Hitler’s Germany.”77 In Germany itself, just three weeks after the start of Operation Barbarossa, rumors start to circulate which deeply question the regime’s triumphalist line. It’s what appears in the diary of an eminent German intellectual of Jewish origin: judging by appearances, in the East “we suffer immense loses, we had underestimated the strength of the resistance by the Russians”, which “was inexhaustible in terms  of men and military resources.”78

For a long time read as an example of political-military ignorance or even blind faith in the Third Reich, the extremely cautious approach by Stalin in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of hostilities now appears under new light: “The concentration of forces by the Wehrmacht along the entire front with the USSR, the violation of Soviet airspace, and another number of provocations had a single aim: attract the bulk of the Red Army as close as possible to the border. Hitler intended to win the war in a single, gigantic battle.” Even valiant generals were enticed by this trap, and expecting the onslaught of the enemy, insisted on a massive relocation of troops toward the border. “Stalin categorically rejected the request, insisting on the necessity of maintaining plenty of reserves at a considerable distance from the frontline.” Later, after reading the strategic plans by Operation Barbarossa’s architects, marshall Georgy K. Zhukov recognized the correctness of the line pursued by Stalin: “Hitler’s orders counted on the relocation of the bulk of our troops toward the border, with the intention of surrounding them and destroying them.”79

As a matter of fact, in the months following the invasion of the USSR, arguing with his generals, Hitler observed: “The problem of the Russian territory. The infinite width of the territory makes concentrating on decisive points necessary.”80 Later, in a conversation he clarified his thinking about the already initiated Operation Barbarossa: “In world history there had been until now only three battles of annihilation: Cannae, Sedan, and Tannenberg. We can be proud of the fact that two of them had been victoriously fought by German armies.” However, for Germany the third and greatest battle of annihilation and submission, which Hitler had longed for, is increasingly complicated, and one week later he sees himself obligated to recognize that Operation Barbarossa had seriously underestimated the enemy. “The military preparations by the Russians must be considered incredible.”81 The desire by the chess player to justify the failure of his forecasts is apparent here. However, the previously cited English military scholar reaches the same conclusions: the reason for the French defeat lies “not in the quantity or quality of their resources, but in their military doctrine”; further, an excessively advanced deployment of the army had a disastrous effect, because it “gravely compromised their strategic flexibility; a similar mistake was made in Poland as well, driven by “national pride and overconfidence in the soldiers.” None of this happened in the Soviet Union.82

More important than the individual battles is the overall picture. “The Stalinist system was able to mobilize the immense majority of the population and nearly all resources”; particularly “extraordinary” was “the Soviet ability”―in such a difficult situation as the one that arose in the first months of the war―“of evacuating and later reconverting to military production a considerable number of industries.” Yes, “created two days after the German invasion, the Evacuation Committee managed to move to the East 1,500 major industrial companies, after titanic operations of great logistic complexity.”83 Moreover, that process of relocation had already begun in the weeks or months before Hitler’s aggression (infra, pp. 235-236), which is another confirmation of the fanciful character of the accusation delivered by Khrushchev.

There’s more. To some degree, The Soviet leadership understood the scenario of the war looming  on the horizon as they were promoting the industrialization of the country. With a radical turn with respect to the previous situation, they identified “Asian Russia as a key point”, at a distance to and sheltered from possible aggressors.84 In fact, Stalin had insisted repeatedly and vigorously on this. On January 31st, 1931, he pushes forward the “creation of a new and well-equipped industrial base in the Ural Mountains, Siberia and Kazakhstan.” A few years later, the report read on January 26th, 1934, at the Seventeenth Congress of the CPSU had with satisfaction called attention to the powerful industrial development that has been achieved “in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, in the Tatar, Buryat and Bashkirian republics, in the Ural mountains, in Eastern and Western Siberia, in the Far-East, etc.”85 Trotsky didn’t miss the implications of all this a few years later while analyzing the dangers of war and the Soviet Union’s level of preparation, and in highlighting the results achieved by the “planned economy” in the “military” sphere, he observed: “The industrialization of remote regions, especially Siberia, gives the steppes and forest regions new importance.”86 Only now does the great territorial expanse assume its full value, making the lightning warfare traditionally favored and prepared for by the German high command more difficult than ever.

It’s precisely in the field of the industrial apparatus built in preparation for the war where the Third Reich is confronted with even more bitter surprises, as shown in Hitler’s notes:

November 29th, 1941:
“How is it possible that such a primitive people can reach such technical objectives in such a short period of time?”87
August 26th, 1942:
“With respect to Russia, it is incontestable that Stalin raised the standard of living. The Russian people don’t go hungry [at the moment when Operation Barbarossa was launched]. In general, it’s necessary to recognize that they have built factories of similar importance to Hermann Goering Reichswerke where two years ago nothing but unknown villages existed. We come across railway lines that aren’t on the maps.”88
At this time, it’s worthwhile to consult three scholars, each very different (one Russian and the two others Western). The first, who was director of the Soviet Institute of Military History and who participated in the militant anti-Stalinism of the Gorbachev years, appears motivated by the  intention of furthering and radicalizing the investigations by the Khrushchev report. However, from the results of the study he feels obligated to formulate a much more nuanced judgment: without being an expert, much less the genius portrayed by official propaganda, even in the years before the start of the war, Stalin gives particular attention to issues of defense, the defense industry, and the war economy as a whole. Yes, at the strictly military level, only through effort and mistakes, including serious mistakes, and “thanks to the hard practice of daily military life,” he “gradually learns the principles of strategy.”89 In other fields, his thinking proves to be “more developed than many Soviet military leaders.” Thanks as well to the long experience of managing political power, Stalin never loses sight of the central role of the war economy and he contributed to strengthening the USSR’s resistance with the relocation of war industry to the interior: “it’s almost impossible to overestimate the importance of that enterprise.”90 Finally, the Soviet leader paid great attention to the moral-political dimension of the war. In that field, he “had totally unconventional ideas”, as shown by the “courageous military” decision “of celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7th of 1941, in a besieged Moscow harassed by the Nazi enemy.” In conclusion, one can say that, with respect to career military officers and his inner circle, “Stalin demonstrated his more universal mindset.”91 It is a mindset―we can add―that doesn’t neglect any  of the smallest aspects of the life and morale of the soldiers: informed that they didn’t have cigarettes, and thanks as well to his ability to handle “an enormous workload”, “at a crucial moment in the battle of Stalingrad, [Stalin] found time to call Akaki Mgeladze, party chief in Abkhazia, the principal region for the production of tobacco: ‘Our soldiers can no longer smoke! Without cigarettes, the front won’t hold!’”92

In their positive evaluation of Stalin as a military leader, two Western authors go further. While Khrushchev stresses the overwhelming initial successes of the Wehrmacht, the first of the aforementioned experts references these same facts in very different terms: it’s not shocking that the “largest invasion in military history” had achieved initial successes; the response of the Red Army after the devastating blows by the German invasion in June of 1941 was “the greatest feat of arms that the world had ever seen.”93 The second scholar, a professor at an American military academy, starting from the understanding of the conflict in terms of its long duration, the attention given to the rear and the front, its economic and political dimension, as well as the military aspect of the war, speaks of Stalin as a “great strategist”, and “the first true strategist of the twentieth century.”94 Obviously we can debate and qualify these flattering judgments; it’s true however, at least as it relates to the topic of war, that the evaluation made by Khrushchev loses all credibility.

Even more so because, at this crucial moment, the USSR proved itself quite prepared from another essential point of view. Let us again consult Goebbels, who upon explaining the unforeseen difficulties of Operation Barbarossa, points to another factor besides the enemy’s military power:

For our men of confidence and our spies, it was almost impossible to penetrate the Soviet interior. We couldn’t get a precise overview. The Bolsheviks made a great effort in fooling us. Of the kinds of arms that they possessed, especially heavy weapons, we didn’t have a clue. It was the exact opposite to what had taken place in France, where we knew everything in practice and couldn’t be surprised in any way.95

61. Liddel Hart (2007), pp. 417-418.

62. Goebbels (1992), pp. 1601 and 1609.

63. Goebbels (1992), pp. 1601-1602

64. Fest (1973). p. 878

65. Ferro (2008) p. 189.

66. Goebbels (1992), p. 1619.

67. Goebbels (1992), pp. 1639-40.

68. Goebbels (1992), p. 1645.

69. Goebbels (1992), pp. 1656-58.

70. Goebbels (1992) pp. 1665-66.

71. Liddel Hart (1991), p. 354.

72. Hillgruber (1991), p. 354.

73. Recorded in Hillgruber (1991), pp. 358-360.

74. Hillgruber (1991), pp. 372 and 369.

75. Medvedev, Medvedev (2006), p. 252.

76. In Butler (2005), p. 41.

77. Webb (1982-1985), vol. 4, p. 472 (diary entry from August 8th, 1941).

78. Klemperer (1996), vol. 1, p. 647 (diary entry from July 13th, 1941).

79. Medvedev, Medvedev (2006), pp. 259-260.

80. Hitler (1965), p. 1682 (stance taken on March 20th, 1941).

81. Hitler (1989), p. 70 (conversation on September 10th, 1941) and Hitler (1980), p. 61 (conversation from September 17-18th, 1941).

82. Liddel Hart (2007), pp. 404, 400 and 392.

83. Werth (2007a), pp. 352 and 359-360.

84. Tucker (1990), pp. 97-98.

85. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 13, pp. 67 and 274.

86. Trotsky (1988), p. 930 (=Trotsky, 1968, p. 207).

87. From an exchange with Fritz Todt, recorded in Irving (2001), p. 550.

88. Hitler (1980), p. 366 (conservation from August 26th, 1942).

89. Wolkogonow (1989), pp. 501 and 570.

90. Wolkogonow (1989), pp. 501, 641 and 570-72.

91. Wolkogonow (1989), pp. 597, 644 and 641.

92. Montefiore (2007), p. 503.

93. Roberts (2006), pp. 81 and 84.

94. Schneider (1994), pp. 278,79 and 232.

95. Goebbels (1992), p. 1656 (diary entry from August 19th, 1941).

Lacking “Common Sense” and “The Mass Deportations of Entire Populations”


The Cult of Personality in Russia, from Kerensky to Stalin

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