Soviet Union in World War II

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For the additional information, see Military history of the Soviet Union
Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference, November 1943

The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany on 23 August 1939. In addition to stipulations of non-aggression, the treaty included a secret protocol that divided territories of Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland into German and Soviet "spheres of influence", anticipating potential "territorial and political rearrangements" of these countries.[1] Stalin and Hitler later traded proposals after a Soviet entry into the Axis Pact.

Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and Joseph Stalin ordered his own invasion of Poland on 17 September.[2] Part of southeastern (Karelia) and Salla region in Finland were annexed by the Soviet Union after the Winter War. This was followed by Soviet annexations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Romania (Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and the Hertza region). It was only in 1989 that the Soviet Union admitted the existence of the secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet pact regarding the planned divisions of these territories.[1]

In June 1941, Hitler launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, prior to which Stalin had ignored reports of a German invasion. Stalin was confident that the total Allied war machine would eventually stop Germany,[3] and the Soviets stopped the Wehrmacht some 30 kilometres from Moscow. Over the next four years, the Soviet Union repulsed German offensives, such as at the Battle of Stalingrad and Battle of Kursk, and pressed forward to victory in large Soviet offensives such as the Vistula-Oder Offensive. Stalin began to listen to his generals more after Kursk.

Soviet soldiers of the Eastern Front during a short rest after fighting, 1 April 1944

The bulk of Soviet fighting took place on the Eastern Front—including a continued war with Finland—but it also invaded Iran (August 1941) in cooperation with the British and late in the war attacked Japan (August 1945).

Stalin met with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference and began to discuss a two-front war against Germany and future of Europe after the war. Berlin finally fell in April 1945, but Stalin was never fully convinced his nemesis Adolf Hitler had committed suicide. Fending off the German invasion and pressing to victory in the East required a tremendous sacrifice by the Soviet Union, which suffered the highest military casualties in the war, losing approximately 20 million men.

Stalin became personally involved with questionable tactics employed during the war, including the Katyn massacre, Order No. 270, Order No. 227 and NKVD prisoner massacres. Controversy also surrounds rapes and looting in Soviet-held territory, along with large numbers of deaths of POWs held by the Soviets, and the Soviets' abusive treatment of their own soldiers who had been held in German POW camps.

Pact with Adolf Hitler

Stalin and Ribbentrop at the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939.

In August 1939, Stalin accepted Hitler proposal to mariage into a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, negotiated by the foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov for the Soviets and Joachim von Ribbentrop for the Germans.[4] Officially a non-aggression treaty only, an appended secret protocol,[citation needed] also reached on 23 August 1939, divided the whole of eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.[5][6] The USSR was promised an eastern part of Poland, then primarily populated by Ukrainians and Belarusians, in case of its dissolution, and Germany recognised Latvia, Estonia and Finland as parts of the Soviet sphere of influence,[6] with Lithuania added in a second secret protocol in September 1939.[7] Another clause of the treaty was that Bessarabia, then part of Romania, was to be joined to the Moldovan SSR, and become the Moldovan SSR under control of Moscow.[6]

The pact was reached two days after the breakdown of Soviet military talks with British and French representatives in August 1939 over a potential Franco-Anglo-Soviet alliance.[8][9] Political discussions had been suspended on August 2 when Molotov stated they could not be restarted until progress was made in military talks late in August,[10] after the talks had stalled over guarantees of the Baltic states,[11][12] while the military talks upon which Molotov insisted[11] started on 11 August.[8][13] At the same time, Germany—with whom the Soviets had started secret discussions since July 29[4][14][15][16][17] – argued that it could offer the Soviets better terms than Britain and France, with Ribbentrop insisting, "there was no problem between the Baltic and the Black Sea that could not be solved between the two of us."[8][18][19] German officials stated that, unlike Britain, Germany could permit the Soviets to continue their developments unmolested, and that "there is one common element in the ideology of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies of the West."[18][20] By that time, Molotov obtained information regarding Anglo-German negotiations and a pessimistic report from the Soviet ambassador in France.[14]

Soviet cavalry on parade in Lviv (then Lwów), after the city's surrender during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland

After disagreement regarding Stalin's demand to move Red Army troops through Poland and Romania (which Poland and Romania opposed),[8][13] on 21 August, the Soviets proposed adjournment of military talks using the excuse that the absence of the senior Soviet personnel at the talks interfered with the autumn manoeuvres of the Soviet forces, though the primary reason was the progress being made in the Soviet-German negotiations.[13] That same day, Stalin received assurance that Germany would approve secret protocols to the proposed non-aggression pact that would grant the Soviets land in Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and Romania,[21] after which Stalin telegrammed Hitler that night that the Soviets were willing to sign the pact and that he would receive Ribbentrop on 23 August.[22] Regarding the larger issue of collective security, some historians state that one reason that Stalin decided to abandon the doctrine was the shaping of his views of France and Britain by their entry into the Munich Agreement and the subsequent failure to prevent German occupation of Czechoslovakia.[23][24][25] Stalin may also have viewed the pact as gaining time in an eventual war with Hitler in order to reinforce the Soviet military and shifting Soviet borders westwards, which would be militarily beneficial in such a war.[26][27]

Stalin and Ribbentrop spent most of the night of the pact's signing trading friendly stories about world affairs and cracking jokes (a rarity for Ribbentrop) about Britain's weakness, and the pair even joked about how the Anti-Comintern Pact principally scared "British shopkeepers."[28] They further traded toasts, with Stalin proposing a toast to Hitler's health and Ribbentrop proposing a toast to Stalin.[28]

The division of Eastern Europe and other invasions

German and Soviet soldiers in victory parade in Brest in front of a picture of Stalin

On 1 September 1939, the German invasion of its agreed upon portion of Poland started the Second World War.[4] On 17 September the Red Army invaded eastern Poland and occupied the Polish territory assigned to it by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed by co-ordination with German forces in Poland.[29][30] Eleven days later, the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was modified, allotting Germany a larger part of Poland, while ceding most of Lithuania to the Soviet Union.[31] The Soviet portions lay east of the so-called Curzon Line, an ethnographic frontier between Russia and Poland drawn up by a commission of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.[32] In early 1940, the Soviets executed over 25,000 Polish PoWs and political prisoners in the Katyn Forrest.[33]

Planned and actual territorial changes in Eastern and Central Europe 1939–1940 (click to enlarge)

In August 1939, Stalin declared that he was going to "solve the Baltic problem, and thereafter, forced Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to sign treaties for "mutual assistance."[31]

After unsuccessfully attempting to install a communist puppet government in Finland, in November 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Finland.[34] The Finnish defence defied Soviet expectations, and after stiff losses, Stalin settled for an interim peace granting the Soviet Union less than total domination by annexing only the eastern region of Karelia (10% of Finnish territory).[34] Soviet official casualty counts in the war exceeded 200,000,[35] while Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev later claimed the casualties may have been one million.[36] After this campaign, Stalin took actions to bolster the Soviet military, modify training and improve propaganda efforts in the Soviet military.[37]

In mid-June 1940, when international attention was focused on the German invasion of France, Soviet NKVD troops raided border posts in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.[31][38] Stalin claimed that the mutual assistance treaties had been violated, and gave six-hour ultimatums for new governments to be formed in each country, including lists of persons for cabinet posts provided by the Kremlin.[31] Thereafter, state administrations were liquidated and replaced by Soviet cadres, followed by mass repression[31] in which 34,250 Latvians, 75,000 Lithuanians and almost 60,000 Estonians were deported or killed.[39] Elections for parliament and other offices were held with single candidates listed, the official results of which showed pro-Soviet candidates approval by 92.8 percent of the voters of Estonia, 97.6 percent of the voters in Latvia and 99.2 percent of the voters in Lithuania.[40] The resulting peoples assemblies immediately requested admission into the USSR, which was granted by the Soviet Union.[40]

In late June 1940, Stalin directed the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, proclaiming this formerly Romanian territory part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.[41] But in annexing northern Bukovina, Stalin had gone beyond the agreed limits of the secret protocol.[41]

Stalin and Molotov on the signing of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact with the Empire of Japan, 1941

After the Tripartite Pact was signed by Axis Powers Germany, Japan and Italy, in October 1940, Stalin personally wrote to Ribbentrop about entering an agreement regarding a "permanent basis" for their "mutual interests."[42] Stalin sent Molotov to Berlin to negotiate the terms for the Soviet Union to join the Axis and potentially enjoy the spoils of the pact.[41] At Stalin's direction,[43] Molotov insisted on Soviet interest in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece,[43] though Stalin had earlier unsuccessfully personally lobbied Turkish leaders to not sign a mutual assistance pact with Britain and France.[33] Ribbentrop asked Molotov to sign another secret protocol with the statement: "The focal point of the territorial aspirations of the Soviet Union would presumably be centred south of the territory of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Indian Ocean."[43] Molotov took the position that he could not take a "definite stand" on this without Stalin's agreement.[43] Stalin did not agree with the suggested protocol, and negotiations broke down.[42] In response to a later German proposal, Stalin's stated that the Soviets would join the Axis if Germany foreclosed acting in the Soviet's sphere of influence.[44] Shortly thereafter, Hitler issued a secret internal directive related to his plan to invade the Soviet Union.[44]

In an effort to demonstrate peaceful intentions toward Germany, on 13 April 1941, Stalin oversaw the signing of a neutrality pact with the Axis power Japan.[45] Since Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia was at war with Japan on the Far East, where there was no International Law to be exercised in the area, due to the collapse of Imperial China. Although similar to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with the Third Reich, that Soviet Union signed Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact with the Empire of Japan, to maintain the national interest of Soviet's sphere of influence in the European continent as well as the Far East conquest, whilst among the few countries in the world diplomatically recognising Manchukuo, and allowed the rise of German invasion in Europe and Japanese aggression in Asia, but the Japanese defeat of Battles of Khalkhin Gol was the forceful factor to the temporary settlement before Soviet invasion of Manchuria in 1945 as the result of Yalta Conference. While Stalin had little faith in Japan's commitment to neutrality, he felt that the pact was important for its political symbolism, to reinforce a public affection for Germany, before military confrontation when Hitler controlled Western Europe and for Soviet Union to take control Eastern Europe.[46] Stalin felt that there was a growing split in German circles about whether Germany should initiate a war with the Soviet Union, though Stalin was not aware of Hitler's further military ambition.[46]

Hitler breaks the pact

Further information: Operation Barbarossa

During the early morning of 22 June 1941, Hitler broke the pact by starting Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Soviet-held territories and the Soviet Union that began the war on the Eastern Front.[47] Before the invasion, Stalin thought that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union until Germany had defeated Britain.[48] At the same time, Soviet generals warned Stalin that Germany had concentrated forces on its borders.[48] Two highly placed Soviet spies in Germany, "Starshina" and "Korsikanets", had sent dozens of reports to Moscow containing evidence of preparation for a German attack.[48][49] Further warnings came from Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy in Tokyo working undercover as a German journalist.[50]

German soldiers march by a burning home in Soviet Ukraine, October 1941.

Seven days before the invasion, a Soviet spy in Berlin warned Stalin that the movement of German divisions to the borders was to wage war on the Soviet Union.[50] Five days before the attack, Stalin received a report from a spy in the German Air Ministry that "all preparations by Germany for an armed attack on the Soviet Union have been completed, and the blow can be expected at any time."[51] In the margin, Stalin wrote to the people's commissar for state security, "you can send your 'source' from the headquarters of German aviation to his mother. This is not a 'source' but a dezinformator."[51] Although Stalin increased Soviet western border forces to 2.7 million men and ordered them to expect a possible German invasion, he did not order a full-scale mobilisation of forces to prepare for an attack.[52] Stalin felt that a mobilisation might provoke Hitler to prematurely begin to wage war against the Soviet Union, which Stalin wanted to delay until 1942 in order to strengthen Soviet forces.[53]

Viktor Suvorov suggested that Stalin had made aggressive preparations beginning in the late 1930s and was preparing to invade Germany in the summer 1941. He believes that Hitler forestalled Stalin and the German invasion was in essence a pre-emptive strike, precisely as Hitler claimed. This theory was supported by Igor Bunich, Joachim Hoffmann, Mikhail Meltyukhov (see Stalin's Missed Chance) and Edvard Radzinsky (see Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives). Other historians, especially Gabriel Gorodetsky and David Glantz, reject this thesis.[54] General Fedor von Boch's diary says that the Abwehr fully expected a Soviet attack against German forces in Poland no later than 1942.

In the initial hours after the German attack began, Stalin hesitated, wanting to ensure that the German attack was sanctioned by Hitler, rather than the unauthorised action of a rogue general.[55] Accounts by Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan claim that, after the invasion, Stalin retreated to his dacha in despair for several days and did not participate in leadership decisions.[56] But, some documentary evidence of orders given by Stalin contradicts these accounts, leading historians such as Roberts to speculate that Khrushchev's account is inaccurate.[57]

Stalin soon quickly made himself a Marshal of the Soviet Union, then country's highest military rank and Supreme Commander in Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces aside from being Premier and General-Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union that made him the leader of the nation, as well as the People's Commissar for Defence, which is equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of War at that time and the U.K. Minister of Defence and formed the State Defense Committee to coordinate military operations with himself also as Chairman. He chaired the Stavka, the highest defense organisation of the country. Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov was named to be the Deputy Supreme Commander in Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces.

Soviet PoWs starving in a Nazi camp.

In the first three weeks of the invasion, as the Soviet Union tried to defend itself against large German advances, it suffered 750,000 casualties, and lost 10,000 tanks and 4,000 aircraft.[58] In July 1940, Stalin completely reorganised the Soviet military, placing himself directly in charge of several military organisations. This gave him complete control of his country's entire war effort; more control than any other leader in World War II.[59]

A pattern soon emerged where Stalin embraced the Red Army's strategy of conducting multiple offensives, while the Germans overran each of the resulting small, newly gained grounds, dealing the Soviets severe casualties.[60] The most notable example of this was the Battle of Kiev, where over 600,000 Soviet troops were quickly killed, captured or missing.[60]

By the end of 1941, the Soviet military had suffered 4.3 million casualties[61] and the Germans had captured 3.0 million Soviet prisoners, 2.0 million of whom died in German captivity by February 1942.[58] German forces had advanced c. 1,700 kilometres, and maintained a linearly-measured front of 3,000 kilometres.[62] The Red Army put up fierce resistance during the war's early stages. Even so, according to Glantz, they were plagued by an ineffective defence doctrine against well-trained and experienced German forces, despite possessing some modern Soviet equipment, such as the KV-1 and T-34 tanks.

Soviets stop the Germans

While the Germans made huge advances in 1941, killing millions of Soviet soldiers, at Stalin's direction, the Red Army directed sizable resources to prevent the Germans from achieving one of their key strategic goals, the attempted capture of Leningrad. They held the city at the cost of more than a million Soviet soldiers in the region and more than a million civilians, many of whom died from starvation.[63]

While the Germans pressed forward, Stalin was confident of an eventual Allied victory over Germany. In September 1941, Stalin told British diplomats that he wanted two agreements: (1) a mutual assistance/aid pact and (2) a recognition that, after the war, the Soviet Union would gain the territories in countries that it had taken pursuant to its division of Eastern Europe with Hitler in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.[64] The British agreed to assistance but refused to agree to the territorial gains, which Stalin accepted months later as the military situation had deteriorated somewhat by mid-1942.[64] In November 1941, Stalin rallied his generals in a speech given underground in Moscow, telling them that the German blitzkrieg would fail because of weaknesses in the German rear in Nazi-occupied Europe and the underestimation of the strength of the Red Army, and that the German war effort would crumble against the Anglo-American-Soviet "war engine".[65] On 6 November 1941, Stalin addressed the Soviet Union for the second time (the first was on 2 July 1941).

Correctly calculating that Hitler would direct efforts to capture Moscow, Stalin concentrated his forces to defend the city, including numerous divisions transferred from Soviet eastern sectors after he determined that Japan would not attempt an attack in those areas.[66] By December, Hitler's troops had advanced to within 25 kilometres (16 mi) of the Kremlin in Moscow.[67] On 5 December, the Soviets launched a counteroffensive, pushing German troops back c. 80 kilometres (50 mi) from Moscow in what was the first major defeat of the Wehrmacht in the war.[67]

Iconic photo of a Soviet officer (thought to be Ukrainian Alexei Yeryomenko) leading his soldiers into battle against the invading German army, 12 July 1942, in Soviet Ukraine

In early 1942, the Soviets began a series of offensives labelled "Stalin's First Strategic Offensives". The counteroffensive bogged down, in part due to mud from rain in the spring of 1942.[61] Stalin's attempt to retake Kharkov in the Ukraine ended in the disastrous encirclement of Soviet forces, with over 200,000 Soviet casualties suffered.[68] Stalin attacked the competence of the generals involved.[69] General Georgy Zhukov and others subsequently revealed that some of those generals had wished to remain in a defensive posture in the region, but Stalin and others had pushed for the offensive. Some historians have doubted Zhukov's account.[69]

At the same time, Hitler was worried about American popular support after the U.S. entry into the war following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, and a potential Anglo-American invasion on the Western Front in 1942 (which did not occur until the summer of 1944). He changed his primary goal from an immediate victory in the East, to the more long-term goal of securing the southern Soviet Union to protect oil fields vital to the long-term German war effort.[70] While Red Army generals correctly judged the evidence that Hitler would shift his efforts south, Stalin thought it a flanking move in the German attempt to take Moscow.[69]

The German southern campaign began with a push to capture the Crimea, which ended in disaster for the Red Army. Stalin publicly criticised his generals' leadership.[68] In their southern campaigns, the Germans took 625,000 Red Army prisoners in July and August 1942 alone.[71] At the same time, in a meeting in Moscow, Churchill privately told Stalin that the British and Americans were not yet prepared to make an amphibious landing against a fortified Nazi-held French coast in 1942, and would direct their efforts to invading German-held North Africa. He pledged a campaign of massive strategic bombing, to include German civilian targets.[72]

Estimating that the Russians were "finished," the Germans began another southern operation in the autumn of 1942, the Battle of Stalingrad.[71] Hitler insisted upon splitting German southern forces in a simultaneous siege of Stalingrad and an offensive against Baku on the Caspian Sea.[73] Stalin directed his generals to spare no effort to defend Stalingrad.[74] Although the Soviets suffered in excess of 1.1 million casualties at Stalingrad,[75] their victory over German forces, including the encirclement of 290,000 Axis troops, marked a turning point in the war.[76]

Within a year after Barbarossa, Stalin reopened the churches in the Soviet Union. He may have wanted to motivate the majority of the population who had Christian beliefs. By changing the official policy of the party and the state towards religion, he could engage the Church and its clergy in mobilising the war effort. On 4 September 1943, Stalin invited the metropolitans Sergius, Alexy and Nikolay to the Kremlin. He proposed to reestablish the Moscow Patriarchate, which had been suspended since 1925, and elect the Patriarch. On 8 September 1943, Metropolitan Sergius was elected Patriarch. One account said that Stalin's reversal followed a sign that he supposedly received from heaven.[77]

Soviet push to Germany

The Soviets repulsed the important German strategic southern campaign and, although 2.5 million Soviet casualties were suffered in that effort, it permitted the Soviets to take the offensive for most of the rest of the war on the Eastern Front.[78]

In 1943, Stalin ceded to his generals' call for the Soviet Union to take a defensive stance because of disappointing losses after Stalingrad, a lack of reserves for offensive measures and a prediction that the Germans would likely next attack a bulge in the Soviet front at Kursk such that defensive preparations there would more efficiently use resources.[79] The Germans did attempt an encirclement attack at Kursk, which was successfully repulsed by the Soviets[79] after Hitler cancelled the offensive, in part, because of the Allied invasion of Sicily,[80] though the Soviets suffered over 800,000 casualties.[81] Kursk also marked the beginning of a period where Stalin became more willing to listen to the advice of his generals.[82]

By the end of 1943, the Soviets occupied half of the territory taken by the Germans from 1941–42.[82] Soviet military industrial output also had increased substantially from late 1941 to early 1943 after Stalin had moved factories well to the East of the front, safe from German invasion and air attack.[83] The strategy paid off, as such industrial increases were able to occur even while the Germans in late 1942 occupied more than half of European Russia, including 40 percent (80 million) of its population, and approximately 2,500,000 square kilometres (970,000 sq mi) of Soviet territory.[83] The Soviets had also prepared for war for more than a decade, including preparing 14 million civilians with some military training.[83] Accordingly, while almost all of the original 5 million men of the Soviet army had been wiped out by the end of 1941, the Soviet military had swelled to 8 million members by the end of that year.[83] Despite substantial losses in 1942 far in excess of German losses, Red Army size grew even further, to 11 million.[83] While there is substantial debate whether Stalin helped or hindered these industrial and manpower efforts, Stalin left most economic wartime management decisions in the hands of his economic experts.[84] While some scholars claim that evidence suggests that Stalin considered, and even attempted, negotiating peace with Germany in 1941 and 1942, others find this evidence unconvincing and even fabricated.[85]

File:Eastern Front 1943-08 to 1944-12.png
Soviet advances from 1 August 1943 to 31 December 1944:
  to 1 December 1943
  to 30 April 1944
  to 19 August 1944
  to 31 December 1944

In November 1943, Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran.[86] Roosevelt told Stalin that he hoped that Britain and America opening a second front against Germany could initially draw 30–40 German division from the Eastern Front.[87] Stalin and Roosevelt, in effect, ganged up on Churchill by emphasising the importance of a cross-channel invasion of German-held northern France, while Churchill had always felt that Germany was more vulnerable in the "soft underbelly" of Italy (which the Allies had already invaded) and the Balkans.[87] The parties later agreed that Britain and America would launch a cross-channel invasion of France in May 1944, along with a separate invasion of Southern France.[88] Stalin insisted that, after the war, the Soviet Union should incorporate the portions of Poland it occupied pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany, which Churchill tabled.[89]

In 1944, the Soviet Union made significant advances across Eastern Europe toward Germany,[90] including Operation Bagration, a massive offensive in Belarus against the German Army Group Centre.[91] Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill closely coordinated, such that Bagration occurred at roughly the same time as American and British forces initiation of the invasion of German held Western Europe on France's northern coast.[91] The operation resulted in the Soviets retaking Belarus and western Ukraine, along with the successful effective destruction of the Army Group Centre and 300,000 German casualties, though at the cost of more than 750,000 Soviet casualties.[91]

File:Red Army greeted in Bucharest.jpg
Romanians greet the Soviet army entering the city of Bucharest on 31 August 1944.

Successes at Operation Bagration and in the year that followed were, in large part, due to an operational improve of battlehardened Red Army, which has learned painful lessons from previous years battling powerful Wehrmacht: better planning of offensives, efficient use of artillery, better handling of time and space during attacks in contradiction to Stalin's order "not a step back". To a lesser degree, the success of Bagration was due to a weakened Wehrmacht that lacked the fuel and armament they needed to operate effectively,[92] growing Soviet advantages in manpower and materials, and the attacks of Allies on the Western Front.[91] In his 1944 May Day speech, Stalin praised the Western allies for diverting German resources in the Italian Campaign, Tass published detailed lists of the large numbers of supplies coming from Western allies, and Stalin made a speech in November 1944 stating that Allied efforts in the West had already quickly drawn 75 German divisions to defend that region, without which, the Red Army could not yet have driven the Wehrmacht from Soviet territories.[93] The weakened Wehrmacht also helped Soviet offensives because no effective German counter-offensive could be launched,[91]

Beginning in the summer of 1944, a reinforced German Army Centre Group did prevent the Soviets from advancing in around Warsaw for nearly half a year.[94] Some historians claim that the Soviets' failure to advance was a purposeful Soviet stall to allow the Wehrmacht to slaughter members of a Warsaw Uprising by the Polish home army in August 1944 that occurred as the Red Army approached, though others dispute the claim and cite sizable unsuccessful Red Army efforts to attempt to defeat the Wehrmacht in that region.[94] Earlier in 1944, Stalin had insisted that the Soviets would annex the portions of Poland it divided with Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, while the Polish government in exile, which the British insisted must be involved in postwar Poland, demanded that the Polish border be restored to prewar locations.[95] The rift further highlighted Stalin's blatant hostility toward the anti-communist Polish government in exile and their Polish home army, which Stalin felt threatened his plans to create a post-war Poland friendly to the Soviet Union.[94] Further exacerbating the rift was Stalin's refusal to resupply the Polish home army, and his refusal to allow American supply planes to use the necessary Soviet air bases to ferry supplies to the Polish home army, which Stalin referred to in a letter to Roosevelt and Churchill as "power-seeking criminals."[96] Worried about the possible repercussions of those actions, Stalin later began a Soviet supply airdrop to Polish rebels, though most of the supplies ended up in the hands of the Germans.[97] The uprising ended in disaster with 20,000 Polish rebels and up to 200,000 civilians killed by Wehrmacht forces, with Soviet forces entering the city in January 1945.[97]

Soviet soldiers of the 1st Baltic Front during an attack in the Latvian city of Jelgava, 16 August 1944

Other important advances occurred in late 1944, such as the invasion of Romania in August and Bulgaria.[97] The Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria in September 1944 and invaded the country, installing a communist government.[98] Following the invasion of these Balkan countries, Stalin and Churchill met in the autumn of 1944, where they agreed upon various percentages for "spheres of influence" in several Balkan states, though the diplomats for neither leader knew what the term actually meant.[99] The Red Army also expelled German forces from Lithuania and Estonia in late 1944 at the cost of 260,000 Soviet casualties.

In late 1944, Soviet forces battled fiercely to capture Hungary in the Budapest Offensive, but could not take it, which became a topic so sensitive to Stalin that he refused to allow his commanders to speak of it.[100] The Germans held out in the subsequent Battle of Budapest until February 1945, when the remaining Hungarians signed an armistice with the Soviet Union.[100] Victory at Budapest permitted the Red Army to launch the Vienna Offensive in April 1945. To the northeast, the taking of Belarus and western Ukraine permitted the Soviets to launch the massive Vistula–Oder Offensive, where German intelligence had incorrectly guessed the Soviets would have a 3-to-1 numerical superiority advantage that was actually 5-to-1 (over 2 million Red Army personnel attacking 450,000 German defenders), the successful culmination of which resulted in the Red Army advancing from the Vistula River in Poland to the German Oder River in Eastern Germany.[101]

Stalin's shortcomings as strategist are frequently noted regarding massive Soviet loss of life and early Soviet defeats. An example of it is the summer offensive of 1942, which led to even more losses by the Red Army and recapture of initiative by the Germans. Stalin eventually recognised his lack of know-how and relied on his professional generals to conduct the war.

Additionally, Stalin was well aware that other European armies had utterly disintegrated when faced with Nazi military efficacy and responded effectively by subjecting his army to galvanising terror and nationalist appeals to patriotism. He also appealed to the Russian Orthodox church.

Final victory

American and Soviet troops meet east of the Elbe River, April 1945

By April 1945, Germany faced its last days with 1.9 million German soldiers in the East fighting 6.4 million Red Army soldiers while 1 million German soldiers in the West battled 4 million Western Allied soldiers.[102] While initial talk existed of a race to Berlin by the Allies, after Stalin successfully lobbied for Eastern Germany to fall within the Soviet "sphere of influence" at Yalta, no plans were made by the Western Allies to seize the city by a ground operation.[103][104] Stalin still remained suspicious that western Allied forces holding at the Elbe River might move on the capital and, even in the last days, that the Americans might employ their two airborne divisions to capture the city.[105]

Stalin directed the Red Army to move rapidly in a broad front into Germany because he did not believe the Western Allies would hand over territory they occupied, while he made the overriding objective capturing Berlin.[106] After successfully capturing Eastern Prussia, three Red Army fronts converged on the heart of Eastern Germany, with one of the last pitched battles of the war putting the Soviets at the virtual gates of Berlin.[107] By April 24, Berlin was encircled by elements of two Soviet fronts,[108] one of which had begun a massive shelling of the city on April 20 that would not end until the city's surrender.[109] On 30 April, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide, after which Soviet forces found their remains, which had been burned at Hitler's directive.[110] German forces surrendered a few days later. Some historians argue that Stalin delayed the last final push for Berlin by two months in order to capture other areas for political reasons, which they argue gave the Wehrmacht time to prepare and increased Soviet casualties (which exceeded 400,000), though this is contested by other historians.[111]

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-043-52, Russland, bei Minsk, tote Zivilisten.jpg
Mass murder of Soviet civilians near Minsk. The Nazis murdered civilians in 5,295 different localities in occupied Soviet Belarus.

Despite the Soviets' possession of Hitler's remains, Stalin did not believe that his old nemesis was actually dead, a belief that remained for years after the war.[112][113] Stalin also later directed aides to spend years researching and writing a secret book about Hitler's life for his own private reading.[114]

Fending off the German invasion and pressing to victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War required a tremendous sacrifice by the Soviet Union (more than any other country in human history). Soviet military casualties totaled approximately 35 million (official figures 28.2 million) with approximately 14.7 million killed, missing or captured (official figures 11.285 million).[115] Although figures vary, the Soviet civilian death toll probably reached 22 million.[115] Millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians disappeared into German detention camps and slave labour factories, while millions more suffered permanent physical and mental damage.[115] Economic losses, including losses in resources and manufacturing capacity in western Russia and Ukraine, were also catastrophic.[115] The war resulted in the destruction of approximately 70,000 Soviet cities, towns and villages.[116] Destroyed in that process were 6 million houses, 98,000 farms, 32,000 factories, 82,000 schools, 43,000 libraries, 6,000 hospitals and thousands of kilometres of roads and railway track.[116]

Stalin was soon conferred with the rank of the Generalissimus of the Soviet Union, which becomes the country's highest military rank followed by Marshal for his role in the Soviet victory of the war.

Questionable tactics

Further information: Soviet war crimes
Part of the 5 March 1940 memo from Lavrentiy Beria to Stalin proposing execution of Polish officers

After taking around 300,000 Polish prisoners in 1939 and early 1940,[117][118][119][120] NKVD officers conducted lengthy interrogations of the prisoners in camps that were, in effect, a selection process to determine who would be killed.[121] On March 5, 1940, pursuant to a note to Stalin from Lavrenty Beria, the members of the Soviet Politburo (including Stalin) signed an order to execute 25,700 Polish PoWs, labelled "nationalists and counterrevolutionaries", kept at camps and prisons in occupied western Ukraine and Belarus.[122] This became known as the Katyn massacre.[121][123][124] Major-General Vasili M. Blokhin, chief executioner for the NKVD, personally shot 6,000 of the captured Polish officers in 28 consecutive nights, which remains one of the most organized and protracted mass murders by a single individual on record[125][126] During his 29-year career Blokhin shot an estimated 50,000 people,[127] making him ostensibly the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history.[125]

Stalin personally told a Polish general requesting information about missing officers that all of the Poles were freed, and that not all could be accounted because the Soviets "lost track" of them in Manchuria.[128][129][130] After Polish railroad workers found the mass grave,[131] the Nazis used the massacre to attempt to drive a wedge between Stalin and the other Allies,[132] including bringing in a European commission of investigators from twelve countries to examine the graves.[133] In 1943, as the Soviets prepared to retake Poland, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels correctly guessed that Stalin would attempt to falsely claim that the Germans massacred the victims.[134] As Goebbels predicted, the Soviets had a "commission" investigate the matter, falsely concluding that the Germans had killed the PoWs.[121] The Soviets did not admit responsibility until 1990.[135]

On 16 August 1941, in attempts to revive a disorganised Soviet defense system, Stalin issued Order No. 270, demanding any commanders or commissars "tearing away their insignia and deserting or surrendering" to be considered malicious deserters. The order required superiors to shoot these deserters on the spot.[136] Their family members were subjected to arrest.[137] The second provision of the order directed all units fighting in encirclements to use every possibility to fight.[137] The order also required division commanders to demote and, if necessary, even to shoot on the spot those commanders who failed to command the battle directly in the battlefield.[137] Thereafter, Stalin also conducted a purge of several military commanders that were shot for "cowardice" without a trial.[137]

Photo from 1943 exhumation of mass grave of Polish officers killed by NKVD in the Katyn Forest in 1940

In June 1941, weeks after the German invasion began, Stalin directed that the retreating Red Army also sought to deny resources to the enemy through a scorched earth policy of destroying the infrastructure and food supplies of areas before the Germans could seize them, and that partisans were to be set up in evacuated areas.[57] This, along with abuse by German troops, caused starvation and suffering among the civilian population that were left behind. Stalin feared that Hitler would use disgruntled Soviet citizens to fight his regime, particularly people imprisoned in the Gulags. He thus ordered the NKVD to take care of the situation. They responded by murdering around one hundred thousand political prisoners throughout the western parts of the Soviet Union, with methods that included bayoneting people to death and tossing grenades into crowded cells.[138] Many others were simply deported east.[139][140]

In July 1942, Stalin issued Order No. 227, directing that any commander or commissar of a regiment, battalion or army, who allowed retreat without permission from his superiors was subject to military tribunal.[141] The order called for soldiers found guilty of disciplinary measures to be forced into "penal battalions", which were sent to the most dangerous sections of the front lines.[141] From 1942 to 1945, 427,910 soldiers were assigned to penal battalions.[142] The order also directed "blocking detachments" to shoot fleeing panicked troops at the rear.[141] In the first two months following the order, over 1,000 troops were shot by blocking units and blocking units sent over 130,000 troops to penal battalions.[141] Despite having some effect initially, this measure proved to have a deteriorating effect on the troops' morale, so by October 1942 the idea of regular blocking units was quietly dropped[143] By 20 November 1944 the blocking units were disbanded officially.[142]

Beria's proposal of 29 January 1942, to execute 46 Soviet generals. Stalin's resolution: "Shoot all named in the list. – J. St."

After the capture of Berlin, Soviet troops reportedly raped German women and girls, with total victim estimates ranging from tens of thousands to two million.[144] During and after the occupation of Budapest, (Hungary), an estimated 50,000 women and girls were raped.[145][146] Regarding rapes that occurred in Yugoslavia, Stalin responded to a Yugoslav partisan leader's complaints saying, "Can't he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?"[146]

In former Axis countries, such as Germany, Romania and Hungary, Red Army officers generally viewed cities, villages and farms as being open to pillaging and looting.[147] For example, Red Army soldiers and NKVD members frequently looted transport trains in 1944 and 1945 in Poland[148] and Soviet soldiers set fire to the city centre of Demmin while preventing the inhabitants from extinguishing the blaze,[149] which, along with multiple rapes, played a part in causing over 900 citizens of the city to commit suicide.[150] In the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, when members of the SED reported to Stalin that looting and rapes by Soviet soldiers could result in negative consequences for the future of socialism in post-war East Germany, Stalin reacted angrily: "I shall not tolerate anybody dragging the honour of the Red Army through the mud."[151][152] Accordingly, all evidence of looting, rapes and destruction by the Red Army was deleted from archives in the Soviet occupation zone.[153]

Stalin's personal military leadership was emphasized as part of the "cult of personality" after the publication of Stalin's ten victories extracted from 6 November 1944 speech "27th anniversary of the Great October socialist revolution" (Russian: «27-я годовщина Великой Октябрьской социалистической революции») during the 1944 meeting of the Moscow's Soviet deputies.

According to recent figures, of an estimated 4 million POWs taken by the Russians, including Germans, Japanese, Hungarians, Romanians and others, some 580,000 never returned, presumably victims of privation or the Gulags, compared with 3.5 million Soviet POW that died in German camps out of the 5.6 million taken.[154]

Soviet POWs and forced labourers who survived German captivity were sent to special "transit" or "filtration" camps meant to determine which were potential traitors.[93] Of the approximately 4 million to be repatriated 2,660,013 were civilians and 1,539,475 were former POWs.[93] Of the total, 2,427,906 were sent home, 801,152 were reconscripted into the armed forces,[93] 608,095 were enrolled in the work battalions of the defence ministry,[93] 272,867 were transferred to the authority of the NKVD for punishment, which meant a transfer to the Gulag system[93][155][156] and 89,468 remained in the transit camps as reception personnel until the repatriation process was finally wound up in the early 1950s.[93]


Soviet soldiers on the front in Leningrad

During the rapid German advances in the early months of the war, nearly reaching the cities of Moscow and Leningrad, the bulk of Soviet industry which could not be evacuated was either destroyed or lost due to German occupation. Agricultural production was interrupted, with grain harvests left standing in the fields that would later cause hunger reminiscent of the early 1930s. In one of the greatest feats of war logistics, factories were evacuated on an enormous scale, with 1523 factories dismantled and shipped eastwards along four principal routes to the Caucasus, Central Asian, Ural, and Siberian regions. In general, the tools, dies and production technology were moved, along with the blueprints and their management, engineering staffs and skilled labour.[157]

The whole of the Soviet Union became dedicated to the war effort. The population of the Soviet Union was probably better prepared than any other nation involved in the fighting of World War II to endure the material hardships of the war. This is primarily because the Soviets were so used to shortages and coping with economic crisis in the past, especially during wartime—World War I brought similar restrictions on food. Still, conditions were severe. World War II was especially devastating to Soviet citizens because it was fought on their territory and caused massive destruction. In Leningrad, under German siege, over a million people died of starvation and disease. Many factory workers were teenagers, women and old people. The government implemented rationing in 1941 and first applied it to bread, flour, cereal, pasta, butter, margarine, vegetable oil, meat, fish, sugar, and confectionery all across the country. The rations remained largely stable in other places during the war. Additional rations were often so expensive that they could not add substantially to a citizen’s food supply unless that person was especially well-paid. Peasants received no rations and had to make do with local resources they farmed themselves. Most rural peasants struggled and lived in unbearable poverty but others sold any surplus they had at a high price and a few became rouble millionaires until a currency reform two years after the end of the war wiped out their wealth.[158]

Despite harsh conditions, the war led to a spike in Soviet nationalism and unity. Soviet propaganda toned down extreme Communist rhetoric of the past as the people now rallied by a belief of protecting their Motherland against the evils of German invaders. Ethnic minorities thought to be collaborators were forced into exile. Religion, which was previously shunned, became a part of Communist Party propaganda campaign in the Soviet society in order to mobilize the religious elements. The social composition of Soviet society changed drastically during the war. There was a burst of marriages in June and July 1941 between people about to be separated by the war and in the next few years the marriage rate dropped off steeply, with the birth rate following shortly thereafter to only about half of what it would have been in peacetime. For this reason mothers with several children during the war received substantial honors and money benefits if they had a great enough number of children—mothers could earn around 1,300 rubles for having their fourth child and earn up to 5,000 rubles for their 10th.[159]

Survival in Leningrad

Further information: Siege of Leningrad

The city of Leningrad endured more suffering and hardships than any other city in the Soviet Union during the war, as it was under siege for 900 days, from September 1941 – January 1944.[160] Hunger, malnutrition, disease, starvation, and even cannibalism became common during the siege of Leningrad; civilians lost weight, grew weaker, and became more vulnerable to diseases.[161] Citizens of Leningrad managed to survive through a number of methods with varying degrees of success. Since only 400,000 people were evacuated before the siege began, this left 2.5 million in Leningrad, including 400,000 children. More managed to escape the city; this was most successful when Lake Ladoga froze over and people could walk over the ice road—or “Road of Life”—to safety.[162]

Soviet anti-aircraft defending Leningrad, 1941

Most survival strategies during the siege, though, involved staying within the city and facing the problems through resourcefulness or luck. One way to do this was by securing factory employment because many factories became autonomous and possessed more of the tools of survival during the winter, such as food and heat. Workers got larger rations than regular civilians and factories were likely to have electricity if they produced crucial goods. Factories also served as mutual-support centers and had clinics and other services like cleaning crews and teams of women who would sew and repair clothes. Factory employees were still driven to desperation on occasion and people resorted to eating glue or horses in factories where food was scarce, but factory employment was the most consistently successful method of survival, and at some food production plants not a single person died.[163]

Survival opportunities open to the larger Soviet community included bartering and farming on private land. Black markets thrived as private barter and trade became more common, especially between soldiers and civilians. Soldiers, who had more food to spare, were eager to trade with Soviet citizens that had extra warm clothes to trade. Planting vegetable gardens in the spring became popular, primarily because citizens got to keep everything grown on their own plots. The campaign also had a potent psychological effect and boosted morale, a survival component almost as crucial as bread.[164]

Some of the most desperate Soviet citizens turned to crime as a way to support themselves in trying times. Most common was the theft of food and of ration cards, which could prove fatal for a malnourished person if their card was stolen more than a day or two before a new card was issued. For these reasons, the stealing of food was severely punished and a person could be shot for as little as stealing a loaf of bread. More serious crimes such as murder and cannibalism also occurred, and special police squads were set up to combat these crimes, though by the end of the siege, roughly 1,500 had been arrested for cannibalism.[165]


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  150. Buske, Norbert (Hg.): Das Kriegsende in Demmin 1945. Berichte Erinnerungen Dokumente (Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Landeskundliche Hefte), Schwerin 1995
  151. Wolfgang Leonhard, Child of the Revolution ,Pathfinder Press, 1979, ISBN 0-906133-26-2
  152. Norman M. Naimark. The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949. Harvard University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-674-78405-7
  153. Wolfgang Leonhard, Child of the Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1979, ISBN 0-906133-26-2.
  154. Richard Overy, The Dictators Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia p.568–569
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  162. Richard Bidlack; Nikita Lomagin (26 June 2012). The Leningrad Blockade, 1941–1944: A New Documentary History from the Soviet Archives. Yale U.P. p. 406. 
  163. Bidlack, “Survival Strategies in Leningrad pp 90–94.
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