Eighty years ago the conflict of German fascism versus Soviet communism began when Adolf Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to violently attack the USSR from the early hours of 22 June 1941.
The speed of the German advance in its opening weeks was such that it “averaged 45 km a day”, as noted by the Irish geographer and climatologist John Sweeney. He wrote of the Soviet Union’s predicament, “The vulnerability of the major centers of population and industry to attack from the west was demonstrated with devastating effect.
“A large part of the urban fabric of western Russia was destroyed together with its industrial base, or rather, that part of its industrial base which had not been relocated further east.”
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Was this a clash between good (Soviet Union) and evil (Nazi Germany), which considerable numbers on the left had thought; or was the Nazi-Soviet war simply a struggle between two autocratic and repressive regimes, as many Western historians and scholars have claimed?
Hitler’s crimes against the Jews
The crimes perpetrated by Hitler’s henchmen, most infamously the Holocaust, have been discussed and dissected at length. There is no doubt of course that the Holocaust took place. The evidence for this pre-planned and organized genocide is abundant, and we also have proof coming from Hitler personally about his intentions.
On 23 January 1942, months before the Holocaust had peaked in its bloodshed, Hitler said of Europe’s Jewish populations, “if they refuse to go voluntarily, I see no other solution but extermination. Why should I look at a Jew through other eyes than if he were a Russian prisoner of war?”
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Hitler was aware that his remarks were being recorded by stenographers for posterity purposes – he had given prior agreement that his views on various subjects be printed, and can be read at length in the book, ‘Hitler’s Table Talk’.
The Nazi leader’s above comments were uttered just three days after the Wannsee Conference had taken place in Berlin, on 20 January 1942. At Wannsee senior Nazi and SS officials, such as Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, agreed on a plan to wipe out every last individual of Jewish birth in Europe.
It is perhaps not surprising that the same year was the most bloody of the Holocaust. Over three months, from August to October 1942, an estimated 1.32 million Jews were reportedly killed either in Nazi death camps, or shot in nearby vicinities.
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Hitler had made previous public remarks regarding the fate of Jewish populaces; on 30 January 1939 for example, he informed the Reichstag that should war take place “the result will be not the Bolshevisation of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
The Bolshevik leadership in power
The misdeeds of the Joseph Stalin regime have not been documented to the same degree, which we will come to. Across the political spectrum, there has been a high level of confusion and distortion about the nature of the Soviet state from its origins, as the First World War was reaching its end.
The Bolshevik leadership capitalized on the popular unrest in Russia from 1917 to seize power by force of arms, and they moved quickly to dismantle the factory committees and transform the Soviets into organs which they controlled.
The American philosopher and historian Noam Chomsky wrote, “The Leninist antagonism to the most essential features of socialism was evident from the very start. In revolutionary Russia, Soviets and factory committees developed as instruments of struggle and liberation, with many flaws, but with rich potential.
“Lenin and Trotsky, upon assuming power, immediately devoted themselves to destroying the liberatory potential of these instruments, establishing the rule of the Party, in practice its Central Committee and its Maximal Leaders – exactly as Trotsky had predicted years earlier, as Rosa Luxemburg and other left Marxists warned at the time, and as the anarchists had always understood. Not only the masses, but even the Party must be subject to ‘vigilant control from above,’ so Trotsky held, as he made the transition from revolutionary intellectual to State priest.”
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Vladimir Lenin believed that the Soviet leadership must enforce “dictatorial powers” over the workers, who should accept “unquestioning submission to a single will” and “in the interests of socialism” must “unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labor process.”
One Menshevik trade unionist pointed out correctly, “The very idea of socialism is embodied in the concept of workers’ control”. Rather, Lenin insisted that worker subservience to “individual authority” is “the system which more than any other assures the best utilization of human resources”.
Chomsky outlined, “The seeds of Stalinism were present in the early Bolshevik years, partly attributable to the exigencies of the civil war and foreign invasion, partly to Leninist ideology. Under Stalin it became a monstrosity.” Chomsky noted that the Soviet system contained “wage labor and other features of capitalism”.
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Lenin’s reservations about Stalin
Despite Lenin’s flaws, he was a clever and astute observer, nor was he blind to the dangers posed should Stalin go on to take supreme power. Lenin wrote in January 1923, “Stalin is excessively brutal and this fault… becomes an intolerable defect in the person who occupies the position of secretary-general. For this reason, I propose that the comrades study the possibility of dismissing Stalin from the post.”
Lenin preferred that the powerful Soviet secretary-general possess qualities such as being “more patient, more loyal, more courteous, and more attentive to comrades, less capricious, etc.” These were attributes which Lenin felt that Stalin was lacking.
Chomsky explained it was highly unlikely that either Lenin or Trotsky “would have carried out crimes” remotely approaching that of Stalin. Because of the suffering that later occurred under Stalin’s rule, Chomsky placed him among history’s most notorious figures by writing that, “The worst monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein, and many others – have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose”.
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As Lenin had feared, over elapsing years Stalin would draw virtually all influence into his hands. Stalin’s pursuit of collectivization of agriculture, from the late 1920s, had a central role in unintentionally exacerbating a large-scale famine, which lasted from about 1932 to 1933.
According to the Stalin biographer Robert Service, a British historian of Soviet history, the famine-affected “Ukraine, South Russia, the North Caucasus, and Kazakhstan.” It undoubtedly resulted in a high death toll, Service believes it to have been in the “millions”, but the loss of life is scarcely possible to estimate accurately, due to a shortage of dependable records.
The Soviet famine of 1932-1933
The severity of the crime here does not match that of a deliberate, systematic genocide like the Holocaust; because the human plight in part due to the Soviet collectivization was not pre-planned. Moreover, it was exacerbated by natural calamities like droughts and wildfires, which in turn contributed to poor harvests and greater starvation.
One man, a Ukrainian named Grigoriy Koinash, experienced the famine personally. He remembered that in central Ukraine, where his family lived, not a drop of rain fell throughout the baking summer of 1932, and consequently “the earth was covered with cracks”.
Read more: ‘A famine unlike any we have ever seen’
That summer, the majority of harvests were then destroyed by wildfires, which the rain would normally have prevented. Starvation began to take hold in some of the nearby villages. Stalin can’t be blamed for the absence of rainfall, but Koinash subsequently pins the fault for the famine mostly on Stalin, forgetting his earlier recollections on the devastating weather phenomena.
The Soviet famine of 1932-1933 occurred due to ideological blunders, repressive actions, and natural disasters; such policies still inflicted a degree of suffering which should have been avoided and cannot be glossed over.
Yet it is interesting to note, famines have occurred throughout the history of drought-prone Russia and some neighboring countries; 11 different famine events afflicted Russia alone between the early 12th and early 14th centuries; notable later famines struck at the beginning of the 17th century, and in the late 19th century, both resulting in large death rates.
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Right-wing politicians, such as those in America and the Ukraine have recently claimed, without providing evidence, that the 1932-1933 famine was as serious a crime or even worse than the Holocaust, which is a misrepresentation of history.
The struggle for power
With Lenin’s death at the start of 1924, a fight for supremacy had begun with Stalin versus his rival Trotsky. Its outcome decided the Soviet Union’s direction over the next three decades.
Canadian historian Donald J. Goodspeed wrote, “When Lenin died in January 1924, a struggle for power ensued between Stalin and Trotsky. Stalin’s position as party secretary, as well as his complete lack of scruples, gave him the victory. Once Stalin was in undisputed control of the state, he embarked upon the first of his Five-Year Plans to collectivize farms, increase industrial production, stamp out religion, and suppress national minorities”.
Regarding other areas, Stalin can be commended for his vast armament initiatives. As part of Bolshevik ideology, this belief in the virtue of motorized machines and warfare were critical factors in defeating the Third Reich.
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Although Stalin was taken by surprise with the German invasion – of which there was no excuse, considering the wealth of detailed intelligence reports he received in person – the Soviet Army had enough tanks, armor, and other hardware, along with fighting spirit, to absorb the first shattering German blows, recover, and gradually turn the tide. Stalin’s contribution to the victory over Nazism was therefore considerable.
Nineteen months before Germany had attacked, Stalin said on 21 November 1939, “Modern warfare will be a war of engines. Engines on land, engines in the air, engines on water, and underwater. Under these conditions, the winning side will be the one with the greater number and the more powerful engines”.
Appreciable quantities of Soviet military equipment were of superb quality and came as a nasty shock to German soldiers when they first encountered it, as the British historian and Russian expert Evan Mawdsley stated; such as the Soviet T-34 medium tank and particularly the KV heavy tank, which weighed 45 tons.
Stalin merits credit in another field for, under his leadership, a remarkable relocation of Soviet industry further east was achieved following the German attack. Sweeney of Maynooth University wrote, “Over 1,500 industrial enterprises were transplanted between July and November 1941 alone, to what was considered relatively safe refuges in the interior” as regions like the Urals and Central Asia “benefited permanently from this massive injection of industrial investment.” The shifting of Soviet industry was another step in overcoming the Nazi onslaught.
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The rise of the Nazi Party
After Stalin’s ascendancy to power, within two decades the Germany of the Kaiser had indeed become the Germany of Hitler. The Nazi leader’s rise to office was also part of the bill for the First World War. A steep price was being paid for the dangerous diplomatic moves, and errors, which resulted in the first global conflict erupting, and the cost was snowballing. Hitler’s grabbing of power was aided by the effects of the Great Depression. From late 1929 it struck Germany especially hard, leaving millions of its people in a destitute state.
More and more Germans turned to the Nazi Party, but it should be recognized, before 1933 the Nazi support base never consisted of a majority of the German public, and did not reach 40% of the entire voting share in the 1932 federal elections. Even in the March 1933 voting, five weeks after Hitler had gained the chancellorship, the Nazi Party attracted 43.9% of votes, not enough for an overall majority.
Without the Great Depression, it is improbable that Hitler would ever have assumed control of Germany. In that case, there could have been no Second World War and certainly no Holocaust. What was a driving force behind much of this?
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Goodspeed realized that, “The Wall Street Crash, however, was no more than the detonator that set off the Great Depression. The explosive mass itself had long been accumulating. And once again the First World War was the major cause. War debt payments had concentrated much of the world’s gold supply in the United States.
“Overproduction, caused by the war, depressed world prices. Many formerly prosperous nations were impoverished, and reparations damaged the economy of the recipient more than that of the donor… But there was worse to come. Just as the war had led to the depression, so now the depression was to lead to a new and even more terrible war”.
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Leopold Trepper: A Soviet spy in western Europe
The anti-Nazi revolutionary Leopold Trepper, who emigrated to Moscow in the early 1930s, was the founder and leader from 1939 of the Red Orchestra spy network, whose espionage operations had a contributing role in defeating Hitler’s Germany. Trepper was born in February 1904 in the Polish part of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was a self-professed “ardent communist”, resistance fighter and journalist.
Trepper had, however, become disillusioned with the workings of Stalin’s Russia, and he saw how, “Our comrades were disappearing. The best of us were dying in the cellars of the NKVD [Soviet secret police]”. Regardless, Trepper decided to operate as a Soviet spy in western Europe.
He wanted to be in the front line, so as to join the battle against Hitler’s Germany. Trepper reasoned that “by fighting far from Moscow, in the forefront of the anti-Nazi struggle, I could continue to be what I had always been: a militant revolutionary”. By something approaching a miracle, Trepper would survive the war, in spite of being captured by the Gestapo in Paris.
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Stalin’s purge of the Red Army is commonly purported to be an overwhelming cause, behind the dreadful opening defeats that Soviet Russia endured against Nazi Germany. This is far from the complete truth, as the extent of the Red Army purge has been blown out of proportion.
The Red Army purge
In Mawdsley’s exhaustive analysis of the Nazi-Soviet war he wrote, “It is sometimes suggested that half the leadership of the Red Army was wiped out, which was certainly not the case… The Red Army commanders who were executed were not proven military commanders, at least not in a mechanized war.”
Mawdsley went on, “Many able middle-level commanders survived the purges” while “the Red Army commanders and commissars who were shot made up a minority – relative to the size of the whole leadership corps”.
Despite this Mawdsley accepted at the same time, “the Red Army toll was particularly devastating at the uppermost levels. Among those murdered were three of five marshals. The generals also suffered heavily: 20 men with the rank of ‘army commander’ were shot between 1937 and 1941.”
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Along with others “the execution of even a few hundred officers would be a traumatic event in any army,” while another consequence of the purge, according to Mawdsley, was that “the initiative of Red Army leaders was paralyzed, and a mental state was imposed which was the very opposite of the German mission-oriented command system.”
Nevertheless, the Red Army purge played a lesser part, rather than a central role, in its poor early performance against the Wehrmacht. Its harmful effects were eventually overcome by the Soviet forces in the field.
Service, who completed other biographies of Lenin and Trotsky, wrote of the purges in a broader sense, “One thing is sure: it was Stalin who instigated the carnage of 1937-8, although there was a current of popular opinion in the USSR that it was essentially not his fault… But this was self-delusion. Stalin started and maintained the movement towards the Great Terror. He did not need to be pushed by others”.
Read more: Stalin’s Great Grandson on the Significance of the Communist Revolution Centenary.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.