Sunday, 24 June 2012

Stalin's preparations for war in the west, review

Kampfplatz Deutschland: Stalins Kriegspläne gegen den Westen, by Bogdan Musial

This book´s main contribution lies in the daring attempt to bring together all the developments relevant to the rearmament of Soviet Russia in the 1930s in one coherent frame. Furthermore, Musial contends that after the failure of autonomous revolution in the early 1920s, Bolshevik doctrine leadership under Staline became that the Red Army would be the instrument to spread the revolution by armed force. Finally, Musial gives an interesting view on the chain of events leading up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Despite Stalin´s long term intention to strike west, Hitler´s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 cannot be defended as a preventive strike.

Musial starts out the argument with the attempts of the new Soviet leadership trying to export its revolution to the west. After fighting off the White forces and foreign interventions, Soviet Russia in 1920/1 aimed to burst through the new Polish state towards the heartland of the revolution: Germany. Not only did that attempt falter, but by 1924 it was also clear that the revolution in Germany could not prevail by itself.

This forced Lenin & co to reset their course. After a few years of argument between the factions, those with continued commitment to world revolution lost out to Stalin, who aimed at building up a strong socialist state in Russia that could export the revolution by force of arms.

Although the title and Musial suggest that Germany was the primary goal of Soviet plans throughout this period, the book spends surprisingly little time convincing the reader that Germany is indeed the specific target of revolutionary ambition, rather than that the direction is more generally to the West. It isn’t particularly relevant to most of the arguments made in the book, but surprising all the same. Maybe the publisher felt that a more specific focus on Germany was necessary to sell the book.

Musial’s main line of argument integrates fundamental ideological choices with military build up, industrialisation, collectivisation of agriculture and purges. That is an audacious undertaking, because it assumes a coherent and consistent line of policy over almost 15 years. Even with hardheaded bureaucrats like Stalin, this looks a little too much to believe.

Soviet attempts to modernise the army in the 1920s were largely unsuccessful due to economic underdevelopment and inability of the regime to enforce its policies. Stalin's consolidation of power and focus on military expansion provided a more forceful drive.

According to Musial the military build up for the expansion of the revolution required both creating a war industry and securing the homeland. All important developments in the USSR from that moment on flowed logically from this aim.

Rearmament required heavy industries that Soviet Russia no longer possessed and could not recreate quickly enough by itself. The import of foreign capital goods and knowledge required foreign currency. This in turn required higher exports, for which mostly agricultural products were available. But because of the low level of concentration and low level of productivity it was necessary to collectivise Soviet agriculture. Attempts to increase agricultural production in the 1920s had foundered on the unwillingness of the peasants to sell their surplus to the market. With collectivisation Moscow could enforce deliveries from the kolchoz for exports.

Collectivisation was also the solution to the problem of opposition to the Bolshevik regime. After the civil war against the White forces had ended the struggle against the Green revolutionaries continued without a clear victory for the communists. By collectivisation, the regime finally suppressed the Green opposition. Musial goes into depressing detail to show the level of resistance and the ruthless way in which it was dealt with. The kulaks were destroyed, national minorities suppressed or relocated to Siberia.

Musial then looks in more detail at the rearmament programme. The plans of 1927/8 were staggering in their scope but this proved to be mere megalomania. Although an evaluation of the results in 1930/1 reinvigorated the drive, production continued to fall far short of the targets and quality was low. Tank engines broke down so fast, and airplanes crashed so often that training time was limited.

These mechanical breakdowns were not only caused by the low quality of the materials but also by the low level of training among troops and officers. Considering that housing and supply were also neglected, it is no surprise discipline was weak. In the mid-1930s it became clear the Red Army was nowhere near ready to take the revolution abroad.

The failures of Russian rearmament deeply frustrated the Soviet leadership and caused a quest for scapegoats. Accounts of the Red Army in the 1930s always focus on the purges in the military leadership, but a similar fate was met by many officials in the heavy industry and transport services.

No need to say that the purges removed a large part of the experience of the Red Army, but authors like Overy have already argued that the effects of the purges on combat efficiency were limited because many of those officers were not particularly well trained nor motivated anyway. It is also clear that many of those removed from the Red Army returned to duty before and during the war.

To me it is more intreaguing whether the purges were indeed an integral part of the Soviet rearmament drive, or did they have a dynamic of their own? I have too little knowledge of Soviet history to argue either way, but an indication to the contrary would be that the purges affected many more parts of Soviet society than just those related to the military build up.

In the last part of the book Musial covers a lot of ground in short time and this will probably leave a lot of room for discussion.

First of all, Musial contends that Stalin misjudged the threat that the Nazis posed. Through the German communist party, the KPD, Moscow joined the Nazis in undermining the Weimar democracy. And like the Nazis, the KPD opposed the reparations and annexations of the Versailles treaty. The Soviets even continued the economic relationship with Germany after Hitler had come to power in 1933 and accounted for most of German exports of capital goods.

Only in 1934 did Stalin reverse this course as it became apparent that Hitler was there to stay and suppressing the KPD. Stalin then turned to a Popular Front approach to counter fascist movements throughout Europe. He also sought closer ties to the western democracies as a counterweight to German designs to the East. However, Musial interprets his sources as to indicate that Stalin didn’t take Hitler’s statements on Lebensraum in the east too seriously.

Nevertheless, in the late 1930s Stalin put rearmament in overdrive, with clear intent to export the Revolution westward. On the one hand he feared to be drawn into a conflict the Red Army was not ready for, on the other hand he hoped that the confrontation between Fascism and the western democracies would turn ugly and weaken them both. He interpreted the Munich agreement (where the Soviet Union was conspicuously absent) as an attempt by the western democracies to turn Hitler on him and therefor afterwards sought a defensive alliance with them to counter that threat.

I was curious to see how Musial, a Polish political refugee in the 1980s, would judge the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939. After the German occupation of the remnants of Czechia in March 1939, Hitler recognised that France and Britain would support Poland against him, and that he therefor needed Stalin’s help to deal with Poland before that support could materialise.

In the end, Musial argues, Hitler had more to offer than Chamberlain and Briand. While the latter could only offer a defensive alliance (and they didn’t try very hard at that, although Musial doesn’t note this), Hitler could offer a partition of Eastern Europe in spheres of interest.

This allowed Stalin to expand into Poland, Finland, the Baltic States and Rumania. More importantly, Musial argues, after 20 years it again gave the Soviet Union direct access to Central Europe. It also set Hitler on a direct course of confrontation with the West, as a German attack on Poland was now ensured. From both sides, the deal was a calculated move that only served their own short term needs.

The winter war against Finland advertised the deplorable state of preparation of the Red Army to the whole world, and this sent waves of panic through the Soviet leadership. Full scale military reforms were enacted as a result. And although Stalin now had his hoped for war between the capitalist states, German success against France in May 1940 did little to ease the sense of urgency.

But by spring 1941 Stalin seems to have felt much more secure. Secure enough to talk confidently about a future confrontation and to make plans to recast the propaganda effort to prepare the party and the Russian people for an offensive war.

However, Musial doesn't end up condoning Hitler's attack in 1941 as a preventive war against Soviet aggression. Instead he argues that both Hitler and Stalin saw a confrontation as inevitable, and prepared for the final showdown. In due course, both sides misjudged each other, although in different ways.

German intelligence fatally underestimated the Russian rearmament drive, which led to surprise at the resilience of the Red Army in the summer of 1941. Making the decision to attack at that moment, the Germans aimed to get in the first blow while the Soviets were still weak. However, by 1941 the Soviets had recovered a bit from the 1937/38 repression and learned from the Finnish fiasco, as well as expanded the size of the army and production of modern equipment.

Stalin, on the other hand, assumed that no German leader would make the mistake of fighting a two-front war. This led him to dismiss the overwhelming evidence of the German build up as an attempt by the British to involve him in the war before the Red Army was ready. This meant that apart from being in the middle of a major reform, it was also unfavourably deployed and strategically surprised.

Musial’s account shows that the Red Army was in no state in 1941 to take the offensive, and that only in 1941 did Stalin & co decide that the time had come for the revolution to take the offensive. Although a date is never mentioned, Musial believes that the sources point to 1943 rather than earlier.

All-in all Musial brings together a lot of the new information coming from the Russian archives since 1990, some of which I hadn’t seen before. His view is broader than most military histories that focus on this period and discusses the logic behind many of the decisions made. That’s probably where the book will proves its worth and generate the most heated argument.

This review was posted earlier at Fortress Ameritrash

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