Rank: General Secretary of the Communist Party and Soviet Generalissimo
Fate: Died Russia 1953, aged 74
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Stalin held complete power in the Soviet Union. This meant he was also supreme commander of Soviet armed forces. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the crisis that unfolded was largely of Stalin’s own making, for two reasons.
The first was his ruthless liquidation of senior military commanders in the ‘Great Purge’ of 1937. This led to many of the best and most experienced Red Army commanders (most notably Marshal Tukachevsky, an early Soviet advocate of mobile, armoured warfare) being executed on fabricated charges of conspiracy, to satisfy Stalin’s own paranoia about internal enemies. Many more were imprisoned or removed from command. The totals included 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, and 154 of 186 division commanders. This effectively decapitated the Red Army, leaving it bereft of experienced military leadership when Germany attacked in 1941.
Stalin’s second great contribution to the crisis of 1941 was his failure to prepare the Soviet Union for invasion, despite clear intelligence from agents such as Richard Sorge that a Nazi attack was imminent. In 1941 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union remained uneasy allies. Everyone knew that a conflict was inevitable at some point, but Stalin was convinced that Hitler would not attack before 1942, and then only after Britain had been defeated. The nature of the Soviet regime, which meant that subordinates were unwilling to present Stalin with information that he wouldn’t like, and Stalin’s own arrogance, meant that little was done to prepare the Soviet Union to resist an attack in June 1941.
When Operation Barbarossa began, Stalin entered a state of shock. He immediately recognised the scale of his misjudgement and the disaster that loomed, but did not know how to deal with it. Only six weeks after the invasion did Stalin speak to the nation by radio, demanding defence of ‘every inch of Soviet soil to the last drop of blood’, and that those in occupied zones must rise up and fight as partisans.
In the first months of the war, Stalin repeatedly interfered in military planning. First he demanded counter-attacks that the Red Army was not ready to make, and which ended in disaster and huge losses. Then he looked for scapegoats, ordering the arrest and execution of commanders such as General Pavlov and his Chief of Staff on charges of deliberate sabotage of the war effort. Stalin also refused requests for permission to retreat by his field commanders, contributing directly to a series of disastrous Red Army encirclements including at Kiev in September 1941.
That autumn, however, Stalin did hold his nerve, and decided not to leave Moscow when it was threatened with German capture. This decision helped to convince a Soviet leadership and population on the brink of panic that the war was not lost. As the war went on (in contrast to Hitler) Stalin also began to allow his generals greater freedom to plan and execute the war as they saw fit, and promoted talented professionals such as Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Rokossovsky to senior command. Nevertheless Stalin still kept a close eye on his generals, and remained the central figure at Stavka planning meetings.
Perhaps Stalin’s greatest contribution to victory was as a figurehead for the Soviet war effort. In Soviet propaganda, the image of Stalin was ever-present. The Soviet people had been indoctrinated in the belief that he was a father-figure, all-knowing and all-powerful, and a tireless and devoted servant to the cause of victory. When Germany attacked, Stalin allowed a revival of traditional expressions of Russian patriotism, declaring the war with Nazi Germany to be the ‘Great Patriotic War’. When the Red Army attacked with cries of ‘For Stalin! For Mother Russia!’ many were calling upon sincere and deeply-held sources of inspiration.
Stalin’s many and terrible crimes against his own people, and the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere, remain his most important legacy. But his wartime leadership was similarly influential on world history. In politics and diplomacy many of his wartime decisions remain deeply suspect and controversial – for example, his 1939 pact with Hitler and his treatment of Poland. As a military leader, Stalin’s record was one of initial reckless incompetence, giving way to an appreciation that strategy was best left to the professionals. And as a figurehead and role model, seen through the prism of Soviet propaganda, Stalin remained an extremely potent force.