Stalin purged his officer corps in the mid thirties. Too many people with access to the hard power of war machines were chafing under the thumb of the dictator, and he didn’t wait around until they took action. Three out of five Field Marshals, 90% percent of the generals, 80% of the colonels, and fully one half of the command ranks were put to death. By the time Barbarossa started the Russian officer corps barely existed. Which makes Stalin’s hesitation in the face of the German offensive will go down in history as one of the single most hair-brained thing a commander has ever done. What amazes me about it is that it’s not like the German build up was hidden, or even small. It was the largest offensive build up in the history of the world, to date. What did Stalin think Hitler was going to do with that army?
Stalin’s paranoia was legendary. Every leader in the world made him nervous, and the land grabs happening before the war agitated him. Just six months after the Munich Accords, Germany grabbed Czechoslovakia. It had already annexed Austria. Even the Poles took Czech territory, about 100 square miles of it. If that wasn’t enough soon Italian troops were marching into Albania. Then the Germans invaded France, and took control of Denmark and The Netherlands. It was nerve wracking.
Once Germany struck, it scored quick and decisive victories that few hand seen since Napoleon marched through Europe. Once the Germans made short work of the French, Stalin began staging troops up to the Polish border. In fact once the Allies were evacuated from Dunkirk, the Russian High Command was ecstatic. Soon thereafter Russia grabbed some territory for itself. Stalin essentially too Estonia Latvia, Lithuania and Bessarabia, a province stretched across the northern border of Romania.
Keep in mind that France and Britain had signed a pact to aid Poland in case anyone attacked. You can imagine that when Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, and no one from the west showed up to help, Stalin lost all his respect for the Allies. Russian and German troops paraded together right after the non-aggression pact. Russia even sent raw goods to Germany right up to the moment Barbarossa erupted.
Stalin was worried because already Hitler had Italy, Austria, land-locked Hungary and now it was wooing Romania with blandishments. Sure enough Romania succumbed and swore fealty to the Nazis.
Soon enough Stalin fired his foreign minister Maxim Litvinov and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov. Molotov spared no blunt oratory for the sake of officialdom or politeness. He helped negotiate the Non Aggression Pact with Hitler’s Foreign Minister Ribbentrop. Stalin had more confidence in the stoic, tough talking Molotov, and when he secured the treaty Stalin let his guard down.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact Germany signed with Russian was of course, just a trifle, a ruse, a temporary legerdemain that Hitler used to set up an attack on the Soviet Union. Stalin ignored everyone around him. Even when 100 airstrips suddenly appeared in Poland and in Romania all within 120 kilometers from the Russian border, Stalin paid no attention. Even after officers reported over 500 reconnaissance incursions on Russian territory. But even hours after Barbarossa launched, Stalin forbade Russians from counter attacking. Oh, the Russians were in fact counterattacking anyway.
Within the first two weeks of Barbarossa one million Russians were dead, one million Russians were POWs. Five Russian infantry divisions were smashed and in retreat, three infantry divisions were completely wiped out, 2000 Russian combat aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and a staging line 1800 kilometers long stretched to almost 2500 kilometers in days.
The devastation wrought upon Russia was also Stalin’s fault. His inexperienced officer corps, his inattentiveness to the signs of invasion and his delayed decisions gave the Russians little leeway with an army like the Wehrmacht.