‘Hitler created the most powerful invasion army in history and managed to misinform the USSR’
Historian Yury Nikiforov on why he anyway lost
Adolf Hitler approved Operation Barbarossa that envisaged a military seizure of the European part of the Soviet Union and its key cities — Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv and others — in three months 80 years ago, in the middle of December 1940. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, military historian Yury Nikiforov explained why Hitler managed to suddenly attack the USSR, how he decided to make this step without conquering Great Britain and the reasons for the final failure of the Barbarossa.
“The programme of Germany’s exit from the crisis already included a war”
Mr Nikiforov, when did Hitler in general have the first serious plans to seize the territory of the Soviet Union? We can unlikely say that he did precisely in 1940.
According to the logic the Nuremberg Tribunal examined this issue followed, the materials of the process and sentence of the tribunal suggest that he didn’t consider it necessary to prove the guilt of the Nazi clique only given the circumstances of 1939 or 1941 and attacks on Poland or the USSR.
The Tribunal proved that Germany’s all pre-war history from the arrival of the Nazi to power (even the history of the Nazi party to seizure of power) contains confirmation of the presence of Hitler’s criminal ideas regarding the USSR.
Of course, the Nuremberg trials themselves heard attempts of Hitler’s leaders to justify thanks to such ideas, and something similar was said by some revisionists in Germany after the Tribunal’s work, like some circumstances forced Hitler to make a military attack on the USSR, while the Tribunal had already firmly ruled that the programme the Nazi came to power with was a programme of Germany’s exit from the crisis and making it into the reigning power in the world — already included a war as a tool to accomplish these plans.
This is why the Nazi had always had an idea of seizing the Soviet Union and they considered they wouldn’t be able to provide their dominance on the continent without war and they knew they would have to war. Hitler replied to his supporters: “The world is so that it constantly has a fight, and nobody can escape this fight if one doesn’t want to die!” And they agreed with him in this Social Darwinism. The only disagreement that existed in Hitler’s administration when it came to the war was purely tactical, that’s to say, where to start the attack, whom to attack and when to attack.
After the beginning of World War II, Hitler said in a speech that he didn’t create the Wehrmacht to not attack. While the Wehrmacht was created immediately after Hitler came to power, and he had to carry out his attacks one day.
And the Nazi talked about the Soviet Union as soon as they came to power that it was like Poland, it was a space for colonisation, for the “development” of the German nation. So in 1940, after the wallop of France, the enemy on the West disappeared for the Germans, and in summer the military administration was instructed by Hitler that the next task was to turn to the East and wreak havoc on the USSR.
The Nazi talked about the Soviet Union as soon as they came to power that it was like Poland, it was a space for colonisation, for the “development” of the German nation
“Hitler did know that the Brits wouldn’t send any division to the continent”
Germany still had an enemy in Europe, it is Great Britain. Why did Hitler decide to seize the USSR not destroying the Brits?
England wasn’t Germany’s rival, in fact. Without a land army, in fact, it had to be limited to navy and air defence of its island and fear a possible invasion of the Nazi to the British Islands. By the way, Hitler took advantage of that during those years for misinformation and some big game while preparing an attack on the USSR. And to say he had the second front in the person of England...
Hitler didn’t consider such a front existed, you know. He did know that the Brits wouldn’t send any division to the continent, while if they did, he would immediately expel them without spending serious forces on it. Another thing is that Hitler didn’t make Great Britain sign an accommodating peace deal after it was expelled from Dunkirk in summer 1940. He wanted it very much, but it didn’t happen.
However, the British’s refusal to make peace didn’t mean for Hitler he could sit and wait for something.
The logic itself suggested Germany it was crunch time: if they waited for the rivals to accumulate energy, the balance of powers will change in favour of Great Britain, the USSR and the USA, which was indecisive and obviously ready to be on the English’s side. Moreover, the sides’ general economic potential was so that Hitler could bet only on a blitzkrieg, while it might work and might not work.
If they waited, it was clear Stalin would get stronger and Britain would reinforce its aviation. This is why Hitler considered that it was easier to be against the USSR now than wait for who knows how much time for another 5-10 years. Moreover, Germany’s economy carried huge costs on the army, which had to be replenished somehow. So the room to attack the Soviet Union wasn’t very big.
Can we say that there weren’t people against the attack on the USSR among German generals?
Of course, after the war, some Hitler generals recalled in their memoirs that they were afraid to attack the Soviet Union, and in this respect, they were opponents. But we can’t say they were against walloping the USSR. The generals might fear going against both Austria and Czechoslovakia in the late 30s, but the number of such indecisive generals decreased, since the Germans won victories in Europe, though the scale of the campaign on the USSR was different. Of course, the general might say and write whatever with hindsight, like they warned and so on. But studying the process of planning the attack, you see how all German services — both military and those services that dealt with plans to seize economic facilities of the USSR — obediently and willingly joined the careful elaboration of the plan.
Nobody in the Wehrmacht sabotaged Operation Barbarossa and nobody tried to talk Hitler out of it. On the contrary, everybody joined the work and everybody considered it would be possible to crush the Soviet Union.
What’s more, everybody thought that the seizure of the USSR meant solution to Germany’s economic hardships (particularly food problems) by seizing industrial and agricultural resources. And they thought that time made them attack right now because it gave them a chance of fighting in the future and won the bet for global dominance against the USA too.
Everybody thought that the seizure of the USSR meant solution to Germany’s economic hardships (particularly food problems) by seizing industrial and agricultural resources
“The Germans themselves didn’t expect the Wehrmacht to be so effective as a war tool”
What does Hitler and his supporters’ confidence about the fast and easy seizure of the USSR rest on?
In the Nazi’s ideological doctrine that said that the Germans were the main creature of the West European culture. Due to this, Germans considered all nations as underdeveloped, uncivilised, they regarded Russia’s ethnicities as such too.
On the other hand, the mind also inspired confidence in the Nazi, not only the mythology about their own national supremacy.
The Wehrmacht created by Hitler demonstrated by December 1940 its effectiveness: the ratio of losses and speed of operations in Poland and then in France was so that neither did the Germans themselves expect it. They didn’t expect the Wehrmacht to be so effective as a war tool.
First of all, it was said about tanks and armed forces of the German army. Because despite the equality of power with France and even the French’s quantitative supremacy, the latter lost the war in a month. And you can’t say they didn’t want to fight. They did want it, German generals simply acted in France more effectively than the opposite side. So when Hitler’s general saw the ratio of losses (the Germans lost 30,000, the French did over 90), when they say a huge power was destroyed, they believed they had created a kind of magic sword that would allow them to defeat any opponent on land, including the Red Army they underestimated.
Why did they underestimate it? The Finnish campaign in 1939-1940 was one of the factors of the underestimation. The Germans thought that the USSR’s army was ineffective as it fought with small Finland for three months and couldn’t go through the Mannerheim Line. This conclusion was wrong: natural and climatic conditions and theatre of military actions in the north was absolutely incomparable with the war conditions on the rest of the Soviet Union. It was a mistake of Hitler’s generals.
Moreover, the Germans were too confident about their economic estimates that proved the correctness of the bet on a blitzkrieg.
German planners thought that the main production capacities of the USSR, including both the weapons industry and the fuel and energy industry could easily be seized. Like they were not in the Urals and Siberia, they were here, close. They would take over Donbass, and the USSR would lose coal, they would conquer Kharkiv or Leningrad, and Russians would have no site to produce tanks, they would bomb Baku, and the rival would have no oil. But the practice of creation of Soviet twin plants in the Urals and a possible transition of many plants there weren’t discovered by the German administration.
So they thought that with a blitzkrieg, they would seize Moscow and Leningrad, Stalin would mobilise men from Kazakhstan and Siberia but they would have to fight with sticks and pickets. The bet might seem reasonable, but the Germans’ brain didn’t understand that the USSR might evacuate both qualified workforce and equipment from a lot of areas that were under the German threat. We ourselves still wonder because nobody had done anything similar in our history.
The Germans’ economic and political intelligence fared bad, of course. But who fared well at that moment? The English also thought that the USSR would withstand three months
“Nobody managed to notice what had happened to the country during the 10 years before the war”
Can we say that German intelligence failed them in underestimating the USSR’s potential?
The Germans’ economic and political intelligence fared badly, of course. But who fared well at that moment? The English also thought that the USSR would withstand three months.
I agree, the same military intelligence assumed that the USSR might have only 40 divisions able to fight, while their number turned out to be five times bigger, as we know.
Not even the quantity of people the USSR could field is the case. The question was how many modern tanks, planes, artillery this army had and if these divisions had ammunition for armament. Again, here everything boils down to the Germans’ underestimation of the economic potential of the Soviet Union I have already mentioned, precisely this backfired on them.
Not crowds of guerrilla warriors but trained divisions with new tanks, weaponry and so on replaced destroyed divisions. It turns out nobody managed to notice what had happened to the country in the last 10 years before the war since the beginning of total collectivisation and total industrialisation.
But it wasn’t classified information what the USSR built in the 30s, the same Magnitogorsk Metallurgy Plant...
But real economic indicators were classified information, that’s to say, the growth of steel and other production and the amount of weapons that can be made from all this. Yes, industrialisation was carried out under the tsar too, but the First World War showed that Russia anyway gave way its rivals in weaponry production and had to order and buy it abroad.
Back to Operation Barbarossa. Do you happen to know something about any argument and disagreement between German generals about how the USSR needed to be seized till the line Arkhangelsk — the Volga — Astrakhan they needed? Wasn’t this plan venturesome?
To tell the truth, I don’t really imagine these arguments. The Germans’ main problem was the theatre of military actions, that’s to say, they discussed if they should gradually attack the three sides or make the main attack somewhere. But it wasn’t disagreements but a working moment when variants of military actions are created, the optimal is chosen and then this variant is elaborated at special military games.
But the Germans’ problem was that they understood nothing about the opposite side’s actions, that’s to say, the USSR army. They didn’t understand if Stalin would withdraw its troops inland wishing to avoid a trap and defeat or if the Russians would anyway try to battle in borderline areas.
However, neither did our commanders know what the Germans would do sitting in the staff if a war broke out, what they would attack and so on. This is why when we try to say that Operation Barbarossa was venturesome because something was planned in it, it is wrong, in this sense, we are wrong. The Germans anyway had the foundation to assume that they did their best — created the most powerful invasion army in history and hid their intentions from the USSR by running a misinformation campaign. And they ran it so that Stalin was unaware of their plans till the end.
Not even the quantity of people the USSR could field is the case. The question was how many modern tanks, planes, artillery this army had and if these divisions had ammunition for armament
“The Soviet administration realised the war only in early June, at the same time they realised it was already late”
Shortly before adopting Operation Barbarossa, Molotov went to Berlin at Hitler’s invitation. What for? Did Hitler really suddenly want to offer the Soviet Union some new division of the world with the probable acquisition of English colonies in Central Asia and in the East or was it a game?
A good question. When Germany is full steam planning the attack on the USSR and following the Führer's directives who says that Russia must be destroyed as fast as possible, as former Chief of Staff Halder writes in his diary, here Hitler turns out to decide to “extend a friendly hand to Stalin” and starts to discuss the division of English colonies in the East with Molotov. But there is no foundation to distrust Halder’s diary as a crucial source, it was anyway a thing linked with his service that was written for work and for himself. Yes, Hitler already had to present an elaborated plan of attack on the USSR for approval, and Molotov all of a sudden appears in Berlin. Clearly, it is a diplomatic manoeuvre staged by Hitler and Ribbentrop to persuade Stalin that Germany wasn’t going to attack the USSR but was going to attack Great Britain, and only the weather didn’t allow doing it, and probably he would go to the Near East.
Apart from the distracting manoeuvre, Germany’s another goal was diplomatic isolation of the USSR. If Britain doesn’t give up and keeps being at war with Germany, the English-Soviet union was inevitable after Hitler’s attack on the USSR to drive a wedge and sow distrust between England and the USSR, it is necessary to show English with the help of Molotov’s visit that Germany was a “friend” of the USSR, that the sides agreed on many things again. This will mean that Stalin won’t have any dialogue with Britain before the attack. It was very important for Hitler.
It was just a part of Hitler’s strategic idea. The blow on Russia had to be prepared in all senses, and the goal of Molotov’s visit for Hitler was doing the best so that the USSR would have no time to get ready for a sudden attack, which Hitler managed to do.
We understand that if Stalin, Molotov and Beria had realised the war was inevitable a month or two months earlier, our army would have got clear orders on mobilisation in a hidden way, it would have moved to the borders, concentrated in certain areas. But the Soviet administration realised the war only in early June, at the same time they realised it was already late.
So can we say that Stalin wasn’t aware of Operation Barbarossa through intelligence? How much did it help the Germans with the attack?
Yes, we can say that Stalin was unaware of the plan. What was Operation Barbarossa? It was a map with the concentration of forces and attacks for upcoming military operations, and our intelligence didn’t find anything similar. Reports of Soviet intelligence only read that some work was done near the borderline, but what kind of work was meant? Intelligence talked about the deployment of new land divisions of Germans, but Hitler deployed the main formations, tanks and aviation near the border only after 22 May, though at an accelerated pace.
This is why in spring when head of the Red Army’s Intelligence Office Filipp Golikov reported on the state of affairs to Stalin, he showed that the situation with the Germans’ distribution of forces was unclear: Hitler had as many divisions in the West as in the East, the same amount was in reserve — and where is the centre of gravity? What was a group in the East created and reinforced for? To really attack the USSR or to close the front before the attack on Britain? This is the interpretation Stalin was provided with by intelligence. On the one hand, Golikov talks about the concentration of Germans near the USSR borders, on the other hand, he reports on a possible attack on the USSR — it is still English misinformation.
Intelligence officers of the Soviet Union, and it is important to note it, unfortunately, didn’t manage to cope with the misinformation curtain that was elaborated by German special services in stages. They deliberately spread some versions through diplomats, and the versions were told to different diplomats.
For instance, information spread to Turks, from Turks it went to Bulgarians, while Soviet intelligence talked with Bulgarians and reported what it heard in the Kremlin. The Germans told the same Turks they would indeed recognise the concentration of troops because they feared Stalin would stab them in the back.
The most important thing the Germans managed to do in spreading misinformation is to make many believe that Hitler decided to destroy the USSR but only after defeating England. And intelligence honestly pronounced it all in its reports as a pattern. Stalin had already known Hitler was preparing for a war, but he was lulled that Hitler would attack the USSR only after England, which means there is time for preparation. While there was no time left for this anymore.
In every clash, in every achievement (though insignificant or unable to defend like the Brest Fortress), Soviet soldiers managed to defend the area so that the Germans’ losses of tanks, aviation, artillery, people were so big that they would simply run out of energy to accomplish Operation Barbarossa
Despite the sudden attack, quick advance of German tanks on their main road through Belarus to Moscow, Operation Barbarossa already failed by autumn 1941 when the Germans didn’t seize Leningrad and didn’t manage to seize Ukraine. You have already talked about some factors of the plan’s failure, but which of them was key?
First of all, Hitler and his generals didn’t expect that any advance of Germany’s troops on the territory of the Soviet Union would be accompanied by other losses except those the Wehrmacht had in Poland or in France. In every clash, in every achievement (though insignificant or unable to defend like Brest Fortress), Soviet soldiers managed to defend the area so that the Germans’ losses of tanks, aviation, artillery, people were so big that they would simply run out of energy to accomplish Operation Barbarossa.
Let’s remember that when the Germans neared Moscow and Leningrad, Hitler needed half a million people to recover the combat efficiency of formation. And, of course, the understanding of this fact makes us talk, first of all, about the courage of soldiers and commanders of the Red Army. It wasn’t simply self-sacrifice but training, a desire to fight in order to wreak the greatest havoc on the rival, not simply die for the Homeland.
It was plain to see that the Soviet warriors fought better than all other opponents of the German army in Europe. And, by the way, thanks to them, the enterprises were almost completely evacuated, which I talked about above.
Soldiers of the Red Army knew how to stop the Wehrmacht everywhere they could: even though we can see crowds of our captives in films shot by Germans in 1941, it doesn’t mean all captives were “active bayonets”, so to speak. Both divisions and rear fronts might be trapped, while rear fronts were huge units. But a lot of captives wandered in forests till the end trying to come across their compatriots and were attacked by Germans only at the most hopeless moment.
It is also important to note that Hitler waited for the USSR population’s mental breakdown, like they would go a hundred kilometres forward, surround another two Russian armies and domestic crises would break out in the Soviet Union. But there was no inner breakdown — the country’s people couldn’t imagine everything could end otherwise.