Friday, February 02, 2007

Desperate Baloon Punctured


From “Stalin”:


… [During Molotov’s visit to Berlin of November 1940,] when Ribbentrop encouraged Russia to seek an outlet for her energies in warm oceans, Molotov asked: ‘Which sea are you talking about?’

… [Hitler] treated [the Russian delegation] to a long soliloquy about his defeat of Britain, generosity to Stalin, and disinterest in the Balkans, none of which was true. Molotov retorted with a series of polite, but awkward questions on the relationship between the two powers, pinpointing precisely Finland, Romania, Bulgaria. ‘I kept pushing him for greater details. “You’ve got to have a warm-water port. Iran, India – that’s your future.” And I said, “Why that’s an interesting idea, how do you see it”’ Hitler ended the meeting without providing the answer. (pp. 299-300)

Their second meeting… lasted for a ‘bad-tempered’ three hours. Molotov pressed Hitler for answers. Hitler accused Russia of greed…. Molotov obeyed Stalin’s telegraphed instructions to explain that ‘all events from the Crimean War… to the landing of foreign troops during the Intervention [Civil War] mean Soviet security cannot be settled without… the Straits.’

Hitler almost lost his temper about his troops in Finland and Romania: ‘That’s a trifle!’ (p. 301)


Stalin congratulated Molotov on his defiance of Hitler: ‘How,’ he asked, ‘did he put up with you telling him all this?’ The answer was that Hitler did not: Molotov’s obstinate Balkan ambitions convinced Hitler that Stalin would soon challenge his European hegemony. Having wavered over attacking Russia, he now accelerated his plans. On 4 December, Operation Barbarossa was set for May 1941.

On 29 December 1940, eleven days after Hitler signed Directive No. 21 on Operation Barbarossa, Stalin’s spies alerted him to its existence. Stalin knew the USSR would not be ready for war until 1943 and hoped to delay it by frantic rearming and aggressive brinkmanship in the Balkans – but without provoking Hitler. The Führer, on the other hand, realized the urgency of his enterprise and that he had to secure the Balkans before he could attack Russia.


… on 13 January 1941 [Stalin] summoned the generals without giving time to prepare. The Chief of Staff, [K.A.] Meretskov, stumbled as he tried to report until Stalin interrupted:

‘Well, who finally won?’ Meretskov was afraid to speak, which only enraged Stalin even more. ‘Here among ourselves… we have to talk in terms of our real capabilities.’ Finally Stalin exploded: ‘The trouble is we don’t have a proper Chief of Staff.’ He there and then dismissed Meretskov. The meeting deteriorated further when Kulik declared that tanks were overrated; horse-drawn guns were the future. It was staggering that after two Panzer Blitzkrieg and only six months before the Nazi invasion, the Soviets were even debating such a thing…. (pp. 302-303)

A few days later, at Kuntsevo, Timoshenko and (new Chief of Staff) Zhukov tried to persuade Stalin to mobilize, convinced that Hitler would invade…. Stalin was dining with Molotov, Zhdanov and Voroshilov, along with Mekhlis and Kulik. Zhukov spoke up: should we not bolster defences along the Western frontiers?

‘Are you eager to fight the Germans?’ Molotov asked harshly.

‘Wait a minute,’ Stalin clamed the stuttering Premier. He lectured Zhukov on the Germans: ‘They fear us. In secret, I will tell you that our ambassador had a serious conversation with Hitler personally and Hitler said to him, ‘Please don’t worry about the concentration of our forces in Poland. Our forces are retraining…’ (p. 304)

Kulik’s imbecilic advice unleashed another paroxysm of terror that would bring death to a Politburo family. On hearing that the Germans were increasing the thickness of their armour, he demanded stopping all production of conventional guns and switching to 107mm howitzers from World War I. The Armament Commissar, Boris Vannikov, a formidable Jewish super-manager…, sensibly opposed Kulik but lacked his access to Stalin. Kulik won Zhdanov’s backing. On 1 March, Stalin summoned Vannikov: ‘What objections do you have? Comrade Kulik said you don’t agree with him.’ Vannikov explained that it was unlikely the Germans had updated their armour as swiftly as Kulik suggested: the 76mm remained the best. Then Zhdanov entered the office.

… ‘You’re the main artillery expert we have,’ Stalin commissioned Zhdanov to settle the question, ‘and the 107mm is a good gun.’…

… Stalin accepted Kulik’s solution, which had to be reversed when the war began. Vannikov was arrested. Only in Stalin’s realm could the country’s greatest armament expert be imprisoned just weeks before a war…. (pp. 304-305)


Vannikov was cruelly tortured about his recent post as deputy to Mikhail Kaganovich, Lazar’s eldest brother and Commissar for Aircraft Production. The air-force was always the most accident-prone service…. In one year four Heroes of the Soviet Union were lost in crashes…. The crashes had to be the fault of ‘bastards’. Vannikov was forced to implicate Mikhail Kaganovich as the ‘bastard’ in this case.

Meanwhile, Vasily Stalin, now a pilot avid to win paternal love, usually by denouncing his superiors to his father, played some part in this tragedy….

… [Vasily] wrote on 4 March 1941, ‘… Recently I was in Moscow on the orders of Rychagov [the Chief of the Main Directorate of the Air Force]…. They won’t let me fly… Rychagov called me and abused me very much saying that instead of studying theory, I was starting to visit commanders proving to them I had to fly. He ordered me to inform you of this conversation.’…

This subtle denunciation cannot have helped Pavel Rychagov, thirty-nine, a dashing pilot just promoted to the high command. He arrived drunk at a meeting to discuss the planes. When Stalin criticized the air force, Rychagov shouted that the death rate was so high ‘because you’re making us fly in coffins!’….

‘You shouldn’t have said that.’ [Stalin] walked round the deathly quiet table one more time and repeated: ‘You shouldn’t have said that.’ Rychagov was arrested within the week with several air-force top brass, and General Shtern, Far Eastern commander, all later shot. They, like Vannikov, implicated Mikhail Kaganovich.

Stalin ordered Mikoyan and that sinister duo Beria and Malenkov to arrange a confrontation between Mikhail Kaganovich and his accuser, Vannikov, but ‘Iron Lazar’ was not invited to attend. (pp. 305-306)

Beria and Malenkov told Mikhail to wait in the corridor while they interrogated Vannikov some more. Mikhail went into Mikoyan’s lavatory…. There was a shot. The three of them found Kaganovich’s brother dead. By killing himself before his arrest, he saved his family. Lazar passed the test. A scapegoat for the aircraft had been found. (p. 307)


… by March, Hitler had managed to lure Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia into his camp. Then on 26 March, the pro-German Government was overthrown, probably with the help of the NKGB and the British secret service. Hitler could not afford such a sore on his flank so the Germans prepared to invade Yugoslavia, which delayed Operation Barbarossa by a month.

On 4 April, Stalin threw himself into negotiations with the new Yugoslav Government, hoping this glitch in Hitler’s plan would either drive Hitler back to the negotiating table or, at the very least, delay the invasion until 1942. When he signed a treaty with the Yugoslavs just as the Wehrmacht began to bombard Belgrade, Stalin cheerfully dismissed the most successful Blitzkrieg of all: ten days later, Belgrade surrendered….


That same day, Yosuke Matsuoka, the Japanese Foreign Minister, arrived in Moscow on his way back from Berlin…. [Stalin] was… aware of the priceless benefit of a quiet Far Eastern front if Hitler invaded. Zhukov’s victory in the Far East had persuaded Tokyo that their destiny lay southward in the juicier tidbits of the British Empire. On 14 April 1941, when Matsuoka signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, Stalin and Molotov reacted with almost febrile excitement…. (p. 307)


… Torn between the wishful thinking of his powerful will – and the mounting evidence – Stalin persisted in believing that a diplomatic breakthrough with Hitler was just round the corner, even though he now knew the date of Operation Barbarossa from his spymasters. When Stafford Cripps, the British Ambassador delivered a letter from Winston Churchill warning of the invasion, it backfired, convincing Stalin that Britain was trying to entrap Russia….

… ‘Only by 1943 could we meet the Germans on an equal footing,’ [Stalin] told Molotov…. He and Zhdanov repeatedly quoted Bismarck’s sensible dictum that Germany should never face war on two fronts: Britain remained undefeated hence Hitler would not attack. ‘Hitler’s not such a fool,’ Stalin said, ‘that he’s unable to understand the difference between the USSR and Poland or France, or even England, indeed all of them put together.’ Yet his entire career was a triumph of will over reality.

On 4 May, [Stalin] sent another signal to Hitler that he was ready to talk: Stalin replaced Molotov as Premier….

On 7 May, Schulenburg, secretly opposed to Hitler’s invasion, breakfasted with the Soviet Ambassador to Berlin, Dekanozov, whom he ambiguously tried to warn. They met trice but ‘he did not warn’, said Molotov later, ‘he hinted and pushed for diplomatic negotiations.’ Dekanozov informed Stalin who was becoming even more bad-tempered and nervous. ‘So, disinformation has now reached ambassadorial level,’ he growled. Dekanozov disagreed.

On 10 May, Stalin learned of Deputy Führer Hess’s quixotic peace flight to Scotland. His magnates, remembered Khrushchev who was in the office that day, were all understandably convinced that Hess’s mission was aimed at Moscow. But Stalin was finally willing to prepare for war, admittedly in a manner so timid that it was barely effective. On 12 May, Stalin allowed the generals to strengthen the borders, calling up 500,000 reserves, but was terrified of offending the Germans…. On the 24th, he refused to take any further measures.

The intelligence was now flooding in. … now it was surely clear that something ominous was darkening the Western border. [NKGB (State Security) chief, Vsevolod] Merkulov daily reported to Stalin who was now defying an avalanche of information from all manner of sources…. He mocked Richard Sorge, the masterspy in Tokyo who used his amorous an sybaritic appetites to conceal his peerless intelligence-gathering: ‘There’s this bastard who’s set up factories and brothels in Japan and even deigned to report the date of the German attack as 22 June. Are you suggesting I should believe him too?’ (pp. 309-312)

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