Thursday, October 8, 2009

German Invasion

Stalin’s Folly concentrates on a single episode in World War I, and a single episode of Stalin’s long career in politics. This is a story of the first few days of the German invasion of Russia during World War II. If the subject seems narrow it has the virtue of being momentous, since the conflict is supposed to have led to the deaths of 15 or 20 million Russians, to say nothing of the Germans who never returned to their homeland.

The book is an unambiguous indictment of Stalin as war leader. There are those who say that Stalin deserves some credit for winning Russia’s most important war. This book is a refutation of this thesis. The author describes the enervating effects of Stalin’s systematic purges of talent and experience in the military leadership in the years leading up to the invasion. Further, it describes the extent to which Stalin ignored intelligence from many different quarters that should have tipped him off about the Germans’ intentions. Russian planes notices odd military maneuvers, Russian and allied spies reported massive troop buildups, and Winston Churchill made a direct and personal appeal to Stalin to prepare for the onslaught.

Stalin did nothing, and indeed ordered his troops to avoid anything that might smack of provocation even after the attack had begun. The author’s worst criticism of Stalin is that he had approved a ridiculous strategic plan that would have made only if Stalin intended to attack Germany, which he plainly did not in this time period. Thus, Russia lost a large part of its army that was positioned near the German border but could have been stationed further back in defensive postures. On a personal level, the author accuses Stalin of falsely believing he was a good military strategist.

He also says that Stalin had created a culture of tight control that inspired fear and a lack of initiative among his generals. For this reason, few were able to counterattack or retreat in good order. For the author, the most telling moment in these early days occurred when Stalin allegedly came near to nervous collapse as the extent of Russian losses became clear. According to the author, Stalin was nearly paralyzed at the beginning of the war, and even feared that his chief cronies had arrived to replace him when a delegation arrived asking him to take formal command of Russia’s defense. It was Molotov, not Stalin, who famously told the Russian people by radio that the attack had commenced.

The book is a neat reminder that Stalin failed as a Russian leader, even when judged by the most inhumane standards of real politick. But one does wonder if Stalin’s brutality helped quell internal opposition that might have divided the Russian response to the German invasion. And it’s not entirely clear from this book whether Stalin’s pact with Hitler and related territorial annexations helped Russia’s defense in any significant way.

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