Why Stalin Appeared to Hesitate – The Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union


The armies of Adolf Hitler invaded the vast geographical territory of the Soviet Union in June of 1941.  By 1944 the battle for the USSR was over and the armies of fascism effectively smashed.  German and Axis forces lost millions of men, killed and wounded, whilst the Soviet loses suffered during their entire war against the Nazi regime is thought to be well in excess of 26 million men, women and children, with around 9 million of these being military dead.  The sheer scope of destruction tends to hide the true horror of this conflict in mere statistics.  Despite the potential human and material resources that the USSR had at its disposal, the armies of fascism swept across the western USSR, killing, maiming and taken prison hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers in the process.  Prisoners were treated with such barbarity that very few lived to see the end of the war.  The Soviet armed forces were placed over vast geographical areas and appeared to form blocking formations to any attempt of invasion.  The Soviet Union had a population of over 190 million people in 1941 to draw its male and female soldiers from.  As a centralised, totalitarian system of government, all the many countries that comprised the USSR were united in their education as ‘Soviet’ citizens, rather than psychologically or emotionally belonging to any particular race, ethnicity, or national group.  The disparate citizens of the USSR were culturally linked together through the progressive education system of the Socialist state. 

Since the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917, as a Communist state it had to fight for its survival against the forces of the Capitalist West, instead of being able to put Socialist reforms into practice straightaway.  This led to the early glimmers of hope offered by Lenin being crushed under the social and political pressure of the requirement to immediately re-arm and fight for its very existence.  The militarisation of the early Soviet Union into what became known as ‘War Communism’ effectively set the agenda for the later development known as ‘Stalinism’, and has gone down in history as the very definition of the Bolshevik movement.  The Western powers immediately moved to attack and destroy the Bolshevik state and in so doing managed to distort the communist movement into a self-defensive stance of a centralised and highly oppressive government – as if the entire population of the USSR was an army, with the government behaving as generals.  Although certain aspects of Soviet society were obviously ‘socialist’ in essence, the social glue that ran throughout the regime’s institutions was actually that of hierarchical authority and discipline.  Even in peace time those accused of a crime were either executed in private, or if the regime had a point to make, in public.  The militarisation of the Soviet state prevented the full facilitation of socialist reforms, and as the decades wore on, totalitarian military discipline came to dominate to an ever greater degree, so that eventually even the powerful insights of Marx and Engels were subordinated to military pragmatism. 

When Stalin took power after the death of Lenin, he viewed his position as vulnerable and open to attack.  Just as the Soviet Union had been attacked by external forces during its early days, Stalin was of the opinion that his position as the leader of the USSR was under constant threat from counter-revolutionary forces from inside the Soviet Union itself.  Stalin, through his paranoia, maintained a state of nervous tension throughout the Soviet empire even during years of no military conflict.  However, Stalin still believed in the Communist cause and through his policies of ethnic cleansing and collectivisation, thought that he was guiding the state in a Socialist direction, rather than managing to alienate, starve, execute, and displace large sections of the Soviet peoples.  This all led to the establishment of a regime that demanded of its citizen’s unquestioning obedience to any order.  Instead of creating the conditions for the development of a progressive and new Socialist society of advanced peoples, the USSR became a gigantic military camp with certain Communistic tendencies.  Communism was always theoretically the objective of the Bolshevik state, but an objective that was never achieved.  The early civil war was replaced by the war against Nazism, which in turn was replaced by the Cold War with the USA.  Militarism destabilised the Soviet Union and diverted it from its Socialist and Communist development.  As a consequence the USSR became by default an incredibly powerful military state.

After years of stalemate and eventual defeat during WWI, the German military establishment saw the need to develop a new type of warfare which would become known for its use of advanced technology and speed upon the battlefield.  This success would also be coupled with the brutality of a regime that routinely practiced genocide and murder, turning every conquered country into a potential source for slave labour and new living space for ethnic Germans.  The Nazi ‘attack’ happened not only on the battlefield, but was accompanied by an equally devastating cultural and political annihilation that saw the establishment of concentration and extermination camps in the wake of military victory.  If the newly conquered lands were to be made ready to receive the triumphant ethnic Germans, then they had to be cleansed of the inferior indigenous races that occupied them.  Broadly speaking, German domination occurred in two phases; phase one saw the sudden and shocking military invasion of non-German geographical space, followed immediately by the implementation of Nazi racial hygiene laws, in other words the rounding up of those considered genetically deficient in some way.  Within Germany proper the effect of these laws saw the Disabled, Jews, Romany, homosexuals, and those who opposed Hitler, stripped of their citizenship and legal rights, separated from the general population and quietly disposed of (i.e. ‘murdered’) behind the scenes.  Hitler saw this application of eugenic theory as crucial for strengthening and purifying the German people whom he considered to be a ‘pure race’ that had become genetically sullied over thousands of years of having to coexist amongst inferior peoples.  In reality the development of this kind of thinking allowed for certain and various human groupings to be denied the status of ‘human’ and as a consequence open to an unlimited and vicious attack on all fronts.  Hitler and the Nazi machine believed that there were forms of human life ‘unworthy of life’ and set about putting this thinking into practice.  The systematic brutalisation of so-called ‘sub-humans’ was not considered a moral issue, as the victims were not considered fully human, and were therefore not subject to the norms and conventions of civilised society.

The Soviet system, on the other hand, despite its militaristic nature, always viewed itself as a follower of the thinking of Marx and Engels, and of Lenin.  As a regime it behaved as if it were the prime instigator of Socialism on the planet, and rhetorically advocated the advancement of human society through radical reform.  Men and women were considered equal, and nation states, nationalism, and racism were viewed as being the products of bourgeois. Capitalist thinking premised entirely upon a ruthless exploitation for the production of profit.  The world under Socialism would be one social and cultural entity free of the disruptive and self-limiting thinking of those stuck in the past.  With the scientific analysis of Karl Marx came a pristine intellection and moral Socialist philosophy that was perceived as uniting humanity through progression, freedom, and equality – a world whose creative forces could function at the optimum level when the populace was freed from the slavery of waged labour.  This would eventually create a fully functioning and advanced Socialist society that would, at some future date, transform into a Communist inspired world.  Marx theorised that this would happen, and even advocated various stages of social economic development (from advanced Capitalism to Communism), but other than stating that all the negative and exploitative forms of human existence would be left behind forever, he never actually defined what a Communist society would be like.  One issue of particular interest is that Marx defined the upcoming revolution as being as much a psychological transformation, as it would be a physical one.  It also has to be acknowledged that neither Marx, nor Engels, felt the need to formulate any requirement for warfare or envisaged the need of a permanently armed state.  This is because Marxian thinking prophesised the end of warfare between human groupings through education and the thorough eradication of the ignorance that led to such conflict.  In this respect the attaining to Socialism and Communism was thought of as an evolutionary event that would see humanity advanced to the next stage of its conscious and physical development.          

Following the consolidation of power by the Bolshevik Party, Lenin was faced with elements within Russian society that resisted the victory of the Left.  This counter-revolutionary movement received open military support from the Western Capitalist countries and the Soviet state was plunged into an immediate war situation.  Lenin, faced with the possibility that the revolution might be over-thrown at its inception devised the strategy that became known as War Communism.  This was not meant to be a permanent situation, but only an expedient response to external aggression.  However, as Lenin died in 1924, the Soviet Union had barely had time to consolidate power in the fully Socialist model before Stalin rose to power.  Stalin was not favoured by Lenin, but with Lenin out of the way, Stalin was able to manipulate his way into the highest echelons of Soviet power.  For Stalin, the Soviet Union was a permanently armed camp that espoused Communist rhetoric, but which often behaved in a manner more suited to a fascist regime.  Much of Marxist thinking was deliberately distorted so as to appear to justify oppression on a massive social scale.  This led to the Soviet Union being consolidated into a potentially deadly military establishment that successfully took on and defeated the Nationalist Chinese Army in 1929, and the Japanese imperial army in 1939, although the Soviet invasion of Finland, also in 1939, was eventually a failure.  The point that must be acknowledged is that the Soviet Red Army was forged in warfare, and had seen action both inside the Soviet Union, around its borders, and in different countries.  The Soviet Red Army was not a naïve military formation with little experience or strength when the Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union.  Indeed it had already inflicted a decisive military defeat upon imperial Japanese forces before Japan entered WWII (as an ally of Nazi Germany).  Taking all this into account, why did the Soviet Red Army suffer defeat after defeat in 1941 (and after), following the Nazi invasion of the USSR?

In prevailing historical narratives (created outside of Soviet Russia), Stalin on the one hand is often depicted as a terrible tyrant, able to act decisively and commit all kinds of oppressive acts against his own people, whilst on the other he is presented as an incompetent military commander unable to understand, interpret, and respond to a fluid battlefield situation.  This inherently contradictory viewpoint is further nullified by the fact that the USSR, under Stalin’s leadership, did eventually take on and destroy the Nazi military machine, invading and colonising East Germany in the process.  Not only this, but due to its population and iron-tight control of its populace, the Soviet Union was able to recruit armies of both men and women that amounted to millions of soldiers in the field.  These vast military formations were supported by an extensive logistical network and had ample military technology at their disposal for most of the time.  On paper these Soviet military formations appeared formidable and virtually invulnerable to numerically inferior forces.  However, many of these formations appear to have been designed as stationary blocking forces, and given the task of protecting a particular geographical area of the USSR from invasion.  As each army possessed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, these men and women created an extensive, armed physical barrier, preventing an invader from advancing any further.  The invading forces would literally exhaust themselves upon the pre-existing defences of the Soviet Union, and as the Soviets possessed extensive reserves of soldiers, any casualties incurred in this defence could be easily replaced without compromising defence integrity.  The potential weakness in this static defence strategy is that it is not necessarily designed to participate in tactical battles that involve the rapid deployment of military forces in a prolonged war of manoeuvre.  The Soviet use of vast military formations is premised upon the assumption that no aggressor could muster an equally large attacking force without becoming bogged down in a war of attrition, or use a numerically smaller force to out-manoeuvre or out-flank the Soviet military formations.                    

When the Nazi attack eventually materialised, Stalin did not respond and a paralysis of command spread throughout the Soviet frontline forces.  The Nazis focused the full might of their highly mechanised and advanced military technology (which acted like a concentrated lazar beam of white-hot light), and literally ‘cut-through’ the Soviet forces, tearing them to pieces and destroying their mass produced weaponry.  The Nazi frontline war machine moved forever forward, not stopping to mop-up any surviving resistance in the area.  Nazi reserve units would later move into the area and brutally deal with any resistance still able to operate.  The Nazi battle strategy was to take land as quickly as possible and did not require the enemy to be out-manoeuvred or completely destroyed in the process.  The sudden shock and strength of the violence unleashed, often reduced trained soldiers to a state of ineffectiveness, and the extent of the land lost, often rendered the enemy politically unsteady as more and more of the country (and populace) became subject to attack.  Why did Stalin do nothing?  What was in his mind, and what was motivating his behaviour?  It is unlikely that he did not act because he did not want to antagonise the Nazi regime, after-all, long before invading the USSR the Nazis had demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Nazism was a war-like regime that would stop at nothing in the pursuance of Adolf Hitler’s aims and objectives.  Stalin knew full well what the Nazi regime was like, and had gained extensive knowledge of Nazi plans through his intelligence network.  He had no reason to hesitate, and despite the technological advantage enjoyed by the Nazis, the USSR had ample men and machinery to win a war of attrition.  Why did Stalin hesitate in the face of Nazi aggression?  

The question might be misleading.  It is interesting to consider another explanation other than the ‘hesitation theory’ currently preferred by bourgeois historians.  Communism, as developed by Marx and Engels, and modified by Lenin, has no theory of ‘war’.  Marx and Engels firmly believed that warfare was a policy pursued by the exploiters within a society, and that whichever side prevailed, the poorest in society were always the victims.  Scientific Socialism – as Marx and Engels taught – is the advanced theory of psychological and physical evolution, the highest form of which is the achievement of Communism.  In such a state, warfare would not exist.  Although Scientific Socialism does not rely upon religion to justify its existence, nevertheless, like religion, it contains a sense of absolute moral righteousness and intellectual dominance.  It is, within the confines of its own theory, considered the most advanced and exquisite formulation the human mind can produce, and as it is scientifically based, it is able to produce the most advanced material society.   Although Marx envisioned the end of warfare in a world that had evolved into the state of Communism, he did not theorise about the possibility of militarism within a Communist world.  He did tacitly accept that the poor and oppressed had the right to self-defence when attacked by oppressors, but neither he (nor Engels) ever considered formulating an art of war.  By and large Marxism reflects a peaceful path of evolution of the mind and body that can sometimes experience violence as those stuck in obsolete modes of existence, (the oppressors), unleash military and paramilitary forces against the forces of progression. 

The SovietState was under attack by the Capitalist West from its inception in 1917, until its eventual demise in 1991.  Lenin, and his successors, had to formulate an art of war to protect a single Communist power bloc from forces beyond its borders.  Marx believed that peace would be achieved once the entire world had evolved into the Communist state.  As it transpired, the worldwide Communist revolution was eventually checked by the post-WWII forces of the victorious United States of America, and its allies.  The spread of Socialism, Communism, peace and cultural advancement for the world was replaced by an emphasis upon the production of weapons of mass destruction.  Progressive education was replaced by the continuous threat of imminent war.  The Communist ideologues of the Soviet Union had to plan for war and had no Marxian text to fall back upon.  They resorted to the use of the basic constituent within any society – its populace – both men and women.  Millions of Soviet men and women were trained to bear psychological and physical suffering whilst continuing to pursue the objective of destroying the enemy.  The Soviet system conditioned its citizens to be indifferent to suffering, and in so doing created a very tough and hardened population.  Soviet industry produced military equipment that although not particularly advanced in its early days, did develop into sophisticated weaponry later on.  This led to advanced weaponry that was simple to use, as it was designed to arm the populace during a world revolution.  The poor and the oppressed often lacked formal education and the material means to repair or service weaponry designed for bourgeois armies.  In early WWII this weaponry was not very advanced, but what it lacked in technical sophistication, it made up for in the sheer weight of numbers that could be produced in the factories.  Workers made the weapons, whilst soldiers – another form of worker – protected the factories from attack. 

It is probably more the case that Stalin and his generals had thoroughly prepared the Soviet forces for attack months before the Nazi invasion of the USSR.  Stalin’s apparent ‘hesitation’ is more likely the act of a very confident leader who knows that his forces possess over-whelming numbers, and the weaponry to withstand any conventional attack.  More than this, however, but the entire Soviet system was imbued with a definite sense of moral and physical superiority.  Although not religious in any conventional sense, this moral force is a secular example of spiritual conviction.  Such was this conviction that Stalin believed that even with the numbers of troops and weaponry at his disposal, the fact that the Soviet system adhered to the Communist ideology, and considered itself the most advanced civilisation the earth had ever known, would make it virtually unbeatable by any invading force.  The physical reality that the Soviet ideologues did not foresee was the fact that the Nazi regime did not want to repeat the mistakes of WWI and experience a war of attrition again.  The Nazi regime developed a form of very fast and destructive warfare designed to counter the rigours associated with protracted trench warfare.  Instead of wasting men and machinery confronting an entire enemy army – the Nazis simply concentrated their forces and smashed through one or two specific points in the enemy lines.  When moving with speed ‘behind’ the enemy frontline, the frontline – its manpower and machinery – was rendered more or less ineffective.  This experience often shattered enemy discipline and resolve.  In return for these ‘lightning’ victories, Nazi casualties were relatively small.

Without realising it, the Soviet military planners were making use of massed infantry divisions – very similar to the manner of their use in WWI.  In this regard the physical planning of the Soviet regime played into the hands of the Nazi war strategists.  The deployment of the Red Army suited exactly the fast moving fighting techniques of the Nazi armed forces.  Initially, this caused chaos in the Soviet Union, as it suffered one military defeat after another.  Stalin was probably shocked by the fact that the Soviet forces – motivated as they were by superior Communist ideology – were being swept aside by a German force motivated by the mad rantings of Adolf Hitler.  German soldiers were highly disciplined and highly motivated as they went about their destructive work.  Millions of Soviet citizens were murdered because of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.  Soviet prisoners of war were treated with total inhumanity.  However, once the Soviet system under Stalin had become acclimatised to the Nazi strategy and tactics, it devised a very effective way of dealing with the penetrative attacks of the Blitzkrieg.  The Soviets adopted a strength indepth strategy that planned for the Nazis to breakthrough the outer defensive lines at specific points, but which allowed for a number of other lines of military defence to be placed infront of the advancing German forces.  What the Soviets discovered was that although the Nazi could cut through a single frontline defensive structure, if they had to do it again in a short space of time, and then again in a similar situation, the Germans started to lose irreplaceable men and machinery and eventually became bogged-down in Soviet defensive lines.  When this happened, the relatively small number of Nazi forces fell into disarray and was destroyed piece-meal by the Soviets.  This manner of countering the Nazi threat did eventually destroy the Nazi military machine, and the Nazi political regime, whilst aiding the Allied powers to defeat the Germans in Western Europe.  Nevertheless, this clever strategy cost the Soviet Union 27 million in dead in the end.  Stalin did not hesitate; he waited for the natural moral superiority of the system he represented to take effect.  In the beginning this did not work because of the effectiveness of the Nazi strategy – but the Soviet system did eventually prevail through the sacrifice of its most prolific resource – namely its individual citizens.                  

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