New Evidence on the 1941 'Barbarossa' Attack:
Why Hitler Attacked Soviet Russia When He Did
- Stalins Falle: Er wollte den Krieg ("Stalin's Trap: He Wanted War"), by Adolf von Thadden. Rosenheim: Kultur und Zeitgeschichte/Archiv der Zeit, 1996. Hardcover. 170 pages. Photos. Bibliography.
Reviewed by Daniel W. Michaels
Until his death in July 1996, Adolf von Thadden was a prominent and respected figure in German "right wing" or "nationalist" (conservative) circles. note 1 In this, his final book, this prolific writer concisely and cogently explains why Hitler was compelled, for both political and military reasons, to launch his preemptive strike against the Soviet Union when and how he did. "Stalin's Trap" is also his final legacy to future generations, a sort of testament to young Germans.
Adolf von Thadden
For decades the prevailing and more or less official view in the United States and Europe has been that a race-crazed Adolf Hitler, without warning or provocation, betrayed a trusting Josef Stalin by launching a treacherous surprise attack against the totally unprepared Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Von Thadden's book -- which is based in large part on recently uncovered evidence from Russian archives, Stalin's own statements, and new revelations of Russian military specialists -- persuasively debunks this view.
Many Soviet documents captured by the Germans during the course of the war, as well as German intelligence reports on the Soviet buildup in 1941, amply justify Hitler's decision to strike. Presented before an impartial tribunal, this evidence surely would have exonerated the German military and political leadership. Unfortunately, all of these documents were confiscated and kept by the victorious Allies.
In his lengthy December 11, 1941, speech declaring war against the United States, Hitler described in detail the Soviet menace, which was being aided and abetted by Britain and the (still officially neutral) USA. In this historic Reichstag address, the German leader said: note 2
Adolf Hitler before the Reichstag on December 11, 1941. On this historic occasion, the German leader explained his reasons for declaring war against the United States. He also spoke about the background to the June 1941 German attack against Soviet Russia. "Already in 1940," he said, "it became increasingly clear from month to month that the plans of the men in the Kremlin were aimed at the domination, and thus the destruction, of all of Europe... We realized very clearly that under no circumstances could we allow the enemy the opportunity to strike first into our rear... A truly impressive amount of authentic material is now available that confirms that a Soviet Russian attack was intended."
"Already in 1940 it became increasingly clear from month to month that the plans of the men in the Kremlin were aimed at the domination, and thus the destruction, of all of Europe. I have already told the nation of the build-up of Soviet Russian military power in the East during a period when Germany had only a few divisions in the provinces bordering Soviet Russia. Only a blind person could fail to see that a military build-up of unique world-historical dimensions was being carried out. And this was not in order to protect something that was being threatened, but rather only to attack that which seemed incapable of defense ...
"When I became aware of the possibility of a threat to the east of the Reich in 1940 through [secret] reports from the British House of Commons and by observations of Soviet Russian troop movements on our frontiers, I immediately ordered the formation of many new armored, motorized and infantry divisions ...
"We realized very clearly that under no circumstances could we allow the enemy the opportunity to strike first into our rear. Nevertheless, the decision in this case was a very difficult one ...
"A truly impressive amount of authentic material is now available that confirms that a Soviet Russian attack was intended. We are also sure about when this attack was to take place. In view of this danger, the extent of which we are perhaps only now truly aware, I can only thank the Lord God that He enlightened me in time, and has given me the strength to do what must be done. Millions of German soldiers may thank Him for their lives, and all of Europe for its existence.
"I may say this today: If the wave of more than 20,000 tanks, hundreds of divisions, tens of thousands of artillery pieces, along with more than 10,000 airplanes, had not been kept from being set into motion against the Reich, Europe would have been lost ..."
During the great Nuremberg trial of 1945-1946, former high-level Third Reich officials testified about the background to the Barbarossa attack, describing the Soviet threat in 1941, and the staggering amounts of war materiel they encountered after their forces penetrated Soviet territory. But this evidence was brusquely dismissed by the Tribunal's Allied-appointed judges.
Von Thadden cites, for example, the Nuremberg testimony of Hermann Göring: note 3
"We learned very quickly, through our close relations with Yugoslavia, the background of General Simovic's coup [in Belgrade on March 27, 1941]. Shortly afterwards it was confirmed that the information from Yugoslavia was correct, namely, that a strong Russian political influence existed, as well as extensive financial assistance for the undertaking on the part of England, of which we later found proof. It was clear that this venture was directed against the friendly policy of the previous Yugoslav government toward Germany ...
"The new Yugoslav government, quite obviously and beyond doubt, clearly stood in closest relationship with the enemies we had at that time, that is to say, England and, in this connection, with the enemy to be, Russia.
"The Simovic affair was definitely the final and decisive factor that dispelled the Führer's very last scruples about Russia's attitude, and prompted him to take preventive measures in that direction under all circumstances."
As von Thadden also relates, General Alfred Jodl, one of Hitler's closest military advisors, similarly testified before the Nuremberg Tribunal about Germany's "Barbarossa" attack: note 4
"It was undeniably a purely preventive war. What we found out later on was the certainty of enormous Russian military preparations opposite our frontier. I will dispense with details, but I can only say that although we succeeded in a tactical surprise as to the day and the hour, it was no strategic surprise. Russia was fully prepared for war."
Allied authorities at Nuremberg denied to the German defendants access to the documents that would have exonerated them. note 5 Germany's military and political leaders were hanged, committed suicide, or were deported to the Soviet Union for slave labor or execution. As a result, the task of setting straight the historical record has been left to others, including scholars in Russia and the United States, as well as such honorable Germans as von Thadden.
Further evidence cited by von Thadden about the German-Russian clash was provided by Andrei Vlassov, a prominent Soviet Russian general who had been captured by the Germans. During a conversation in 1942 with SS general Richard Hildebrandt, he was asked if Stalin had intended to attack Germany, and if so, when. As Hildebrandt later related:
"Vlassov responded by saying that the attack was planned for August-September 1941. The Russians had been preparing the attack since the beginning of the year, which took quite a while because of the poor Russian railroad network. Hitler had sized up the situation entirely correctly, and had struck directly into the Russian buildup. This, said Vlassov, is the reason for the tremendous initial German successes."
General Alfred Jodl, Operations Staff Chief of the German Armed Forces High Command. Testifying before the Nuremberg Tribunal, Jodl emphasized that Germany's June 1941 attack against Soviet Russia "was undeniably a purely preventive war."
No one has done more than Viktor Suvorov (Vladimir Rezun), a one-time Soviet military intelligence officer, to show that Stalin was preparing to attack Germany and the West as part of a long-range project for global Sovietization, and that Hitler had no rational alternative but to counter this by launching his own attack. (note 6) In "Stalin's Trap," von Thadden discusses and confirms Suvorov's analysis, while also citing the findings of other Russian military historians who, working in archives accessible only since 1990, support and elaborate on Suvorov's work. These include retired Soviet Colonel Aleksei Filipov, who wrote "The Red Army's State of War Preparedness in June 1941," an article published in 1992 in the Russian military journal, Voyenni Vestnik, and Valeri Danilov, another retired Soviet Colonel, who wrote "Did the General Staff of the Red Army Plan a Preventive Strike Against Germany?," which appeared first in a Russian newspaper, and later, in translation, in the respected Austrian military journal, Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift.
On the 46th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, the influential Moscow daily Pravda (May 8, 1991) told readers:
"Unrealistic [Soviet] plans of an offensive nature were drawn up before the war as a result of an overestimation of our own capabilities and an underestimation of the enemy's. In accordance with these plans we began deploying our forces on the western frontier. But the enemy beat us to it."
More recently, two prominent European historians, one German and one Austrian, have presented further evidence of Soviet preparations for an attack against Germany. The first of these is Joachim Hoffmann, who for many years was a historian with the renowned Military History Research Center in Freiburg. He lays out his evidence in Stalins Vernichtungskrieg, 1941-1945 ("Stalin's War of Annihilation"), a work of some 300 pages that has appeared in at least three editions. The second is Heinz Magenheimer, a member of the Academy of National Defense in Vienna, and an editor of the Österreichische Militärische Zeitschrift. His detailed book has recently appeared in English under the title Hitler's War: German Military Strategy, 1940-1945 (London: 1998).
Von Thadden also reviews a series of articles in the German weekly Der Spiegel about Soviet plans, worked out by General Georgi Zhukov, to attack northern Germany and Romania in early 1941. Commenting on this, Colonel Vladimir Karpov has stated:
"Just imagine if Zhukov's plan had been accepted and implemented. At dawn one morning in May or June thousands of our aircraft and tens of thousands of our artillery pieces would have struck against densely concentrated enemy forces, whose positions were known down to the battalion level -- a surprise even more inconceivable than the German attack on us."
Von Thadden cites and quotes at length from several speeches by Stalin, as well as from an order he issued in 1943. According to the author, these show that Stalin -- like his predecessor, Lenin -- always considered war to be the ultimate vehicle by which to promote world Communist revolution and usher in the global dictatorship of the proletariat.
Perhaps the most revealing of these speeches is Stalin's address to a Politburo meeting on August 19, 1939. Delivered to an intimate circle of associates, it shows his astute but utterly cynical evaluation of political forces, and reveals his cunning foresight. (To this writer's knowledge, no American historian has yet taken public notice of this speech.)
In a secret address to his "inner circle" on August 19, 1939, Stalin said: "It is in the interest of the USSR – the workers' homeland – that war breaks out between the Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French block. Everything should be done so that this drags out as long as possible with the goal of weakening both sides." The Soviet leader's plan to overwhelm Europe in a great military assault was dashed by Hitler's preemptive "Barbarossa" strike.
Stalin delivered this speech just as Soviet officials were negotiating with British and French representatives about a possible military alliance with Britain and France, and as German and Soviet officials were discussing a possible non-aggression pact between their countries. Four days after this speech, German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop met with Stalin in the Kremlin to sign the German-Soviet non-aggression pact.
It is important to point out here that Stalin could have prevented war in 1939 by agreeing to support Britain and France in their "guarantee" of support to Poland, or simply by announcing that the Soviet Union would firmly oppose any violation by Germany of Polish territory. He decided instead to give Hitler a "green light" to attack Poland, fully anticipating that Britain and France would then declare war on Germany, making the localized conflict into a full-scale, Europe-wide war.
In this speech, Stalin laid out his shrewd and calculating view of the European situation:
"The question of war or peace has entered a critical phase for us. If we conclude a mutual assistance pact with France and Great Britain, Germany will back off from Poland and seek a modus vivendi with the Western powers. War would be avoided, but down the road events could become dangerous for the USSR. If we accept Germany's proposal and conclude a non-aggression pact with her, she will of course invade Poland, and the intervention of France and England in that would be unavoidable. Western Europe would be subjected to serious upheavals and disorder. Under those conditions, we would have a great opportunity to stay out of the conflict, and we could plan the opportune time for us to enter the war.
"The experience of the last 20 years has shown that in peacetime the Communist movement is never strong enough to seize power. The dictatorship of such a party will only become possible as the result of a major war.
"Our choice is clear. We must accept the German proposal and politely send the Anglo-French mission home. Our immediate advantage will be to take Poland to the gates of Warsaw, as well as Ukrainian Galicia ...
"For the realization of these plans it is essential that the war continue for a long as possible, and all forces, with which we are actively involved, should be directed toward this goal ...
"Let us consider a second possibility, that is, a victory by Germany... It is obvious that Germany will be too occupied elsewhere to turn against us. In a conquered France, the French Communist Party will be very strong. The Communist revolution will break out unavoidably, and we will be able to fully exploit this situation to come to the aid of France and make it our ally. In addition, all the nations that fall under the "protection" of a victorious Germany will also become our allies. This presents for us a broad field of action in which to develop the world revolution.
"Comrades! It is in the interest of the USSR -- the workers' homeland -- that war breaks out between the Reich and the capitalist Anglo-French block. Everything should be done so that this drags out as long as possible with the goal of weakening both sides. For this reason, it is imperative that we agree to conclude the pact proposed by Germany, and then work that this war, which will one day be declared, is carried out after the greatest possible passage of time..."
The Soviet leader's daring calculation to use Germany as an "icebreaker" for war was, von Thadden says, "Stalin's trap."
A version of this speech has been known since 1939, but for decades it has been widely dismissed as a fraud. However, in 1994 Russian historians found an authoritative text of it in a special secret Soviet archive, and quickly published it in a prominent Russian scholarly journal, as well as in an academic publication of Novosibirsk University. note 7 Shortly after this August 1939 speech, von Thadden points out, Stalin ordered a two-year military mobilization plan, a massive project that culminated in the summer of 1941 with powerful Soviet forces poised to strike westwards against Germany and the rest of Europe.
On May 5, 1941, just seven weeks before the German attack, Stalin delivered another important speech, this one at a ceremonial banquet in the Kremlin to graduates of the Frunze Military Academy. Also attending were the members of Stalin's "inner circle," including Molotov and Beria. During the war, von Thadden relates, the Germans reconstructed the text of this speech based on recollections of captured Soviet officers who had attended the banquet.
As von Thadden notes, a number of historians have predictably denied its authenticity, rejecting it as a product of German propaganda disinformation. However, several years ago Russian historian Lev Bezymensky found the text of a portion of the speech, which had been edited for anticipated publication, in Kremlin archives. He published this text in a 1992 issue of the scholarly journal Osteuropa.
In this speech, Stalin stressed that the recent peaceful policy of the Soviet state had played out its role. (With this policy, the Soviet Union had greatly extended its borders westward in 1939 and 1940, absorbing some 30 million people.) Now, Stalin bluntly announced, it was time to prepare for war against Germany, a conflict that would begin soon. He cited the tremendous buildup of Soviet military power, both in quantity and quality, during the last few years. The recent German "occupation" of Bulgaria, and the transfer of German troops to Finland, he went on, are "grounds for war against Germany."
"Our war plan is ready ... We can begin the war with Germany within the next two months ... There is a peace treaty with Germany, but this is only a deception, or rather a curtain, behind which we can openly work ...
"The peaceful policy secured peace for our country ... Now, however, with our reorganized army, which is technologically well prepared for modern warfare, now that we are strong, we must now go from defense to attack.
"In fully defending our country, we are obliged to act offensively. We most move from defense to a military policy of offensive action. We must reorganize our propaganda, agitation, and our press in an offensive spirit. The Red Army is a modern army, and a modern army is an offensive army.
"The motto of a peaceful policy of the Soviet government is now out of date, and has been overtaken by events ... A new era in the development of the Soviet state has begun, the era of the expansion of its borders, not, as before, through a peaceful policy, but rather by force of arms. Our country has available all the necessary conditions for this.
"The successes of the German army are due to the fact that it has not encountered an equally strong opponent. Some Soviet commanders have falsely overestimated the successes of the German army ...
"Therefore, I propose a toast to the new era that has dawned in the development of our socialist fatherland. Long live the active offensive policy of the Soviet state!"
In the face of all the new evidence that has become available in recent years, von Thadden contends here, obviously it will be necessary to reexamine the long-standing official interpretation of the war.
To shore up the beleaguered "establishment" view of the Hitler-Stalin clash, a group of concerned scholars met at an international conference in Moscow in 1995. Historians from Europe, Israel, the United States and Canada met with their Russian counterparts to coordinate the "official" line, in both Russia and the West, on the German-Russian clash and its origins. These historians simply ignored most of the abundant and growing body of evidence for the revisionist view of this chapter of history, including the Stalin speeches and other evidence cited by von Thadden, or the recent substantiating findings of Russian historians.
To show that even "establishment" scholars can change their view about this chapter of history, von Thadden cites French historian Stéphane Courtois. note8
"I work for a reevaluation of Stalin. He was the greatest criminal of this century. But at the same time he was the century's greatest politician: its most competent and most professional. He understood best of all how to utilize all means in the service of his goals. From 1917 onwards, he had a global vision, and sticking to his project, he achieved it ... Of course, one can easily say that Hitler unleashed the war. But the evidence of Stalin's responsibility is shattering. Stalin wanted to eradicate anyone who opposed the Marxist-Leninist social order."
"Because of the resistance of German soldiers," concludes von Thadden, "the Russians and the Anglo-American 'liberators' met each other not in western Europe, but rather on the Elbe in central Germany."
1. Von Thadden wrote numerous articles and essays, and was a co-publisher of the Coburg monthly Nation und Europe. Other books by him include Zwei Angreifer: Hitler and Stalin, 1993; Adolf Hitler, 1991; Die verfemte Rechte, 1984; Guernica: Greuelpropaganda oder Kriegsverbrechen?
3. This portion of Göring's testimony, given on March 15, 1946, is in the IMT "blue series" (Nuremberg), vol. 9, pp. 333-334. On March 27, 1941, Serbian officers in Belgrade, with backing from Britain, and possibly also the United States, overthrew the pro-German Yugoslav government of prime minister Cvetkovic. The new government, headed by General Simovic, quickly concluded a pact with Moscow. The subsequent German invasion of Yugoslavia, launched on April 6, delayed the Barbarossa attack against the USSR by several weeks. See: Germany and the Second World War (Oxford Univ. Press: 1995), vol. 3, pp. 480, 498, 499.
5. See David Irving's study, Nuremberg: The Last Battle, reviewed in the July-August 1998 Journal of Historical Review. See also, M. Weber, "The Nuremberg Trials and the Holocaust," Summer 1992 Journal, pp. 167-213.
6. Suvorov's first three books on World War II have been reviewed in The Journal of Historical Review. The first two, Icebreaker and "M Day," were reviewed in Nov.-Dec. 1997 Journal (Vol. 16, No. 6), pp. 22-34. His third book, "The Last Republic," was reviewed in the July-August 1998 Journal (Vol. 17, No. 4), pp. 30-37.
8. Works by Courtois include Histoire du parti communiste français (1995), L'etat du monde en 1945 (1994), Rigueur et passion (1994), 50 ans d'une passion française, 1991), Qui savait quoi? (1987), and, perhaps best known, Le livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, repression (1997).
From The Journal of Historical Review, May-June 1999 (Vol. 18, No. 3), pp. 40 ff.
About the Author
Daniel W. Michaels retired from the US Department of Defense after 40 years of service. He is a Columbia University graduate (Phi Beta Kappa, 1954), and a Fulbright exchange student to Germany (1957). He writes from his home in Washington, DC.