Written on: 22. 6. 2021 in the category: Uncategorized

Hitler Versus Stalin: Eighty Years on….

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Eighty years ago this morning, three and a half million soldiers of the Third Reich began the invasion of the Soviet Union; there was little doubt what the outcome would be. The USSR had spent the previous decade almost annihilating itself. The earlier destruction of the class of kulaks – industrious small farmers – had cost about a million lives, but that was just the foretaste of what Stalin was about to inflict upon his empire.

During the great purges of 1937-38, at least a thousand people a day were executed – and this was mostly not of remote and unimportant peasant-farmers, but of the very people who ran the state, members of the Communist party. In the greatest act of psychosis hitherto seen in history, Stalin’s secret police the NKVD not merely conducted a purge of Stalin’s party members, but of itself, and worse still (from Stalin’s point of view) of the Soviet Army. The very machinery that was protecting Stalin was what he now set about destroying. The insanity was boundless. A group of sixteen prominent Bolsheviks, ten of them Jewish, were accused of being agents for the Gestapo, no less, and all of them were shot.

Quotas were set for executions by the NKVD regardless of who their victims were. In Turkmenistan, shoppers in a bazaar were randomly rounded up, denounced as enemy agents and shot. In the remote town of Sverdlovsk, the NKVD could not manage to meet the quota of suspects, but they had a list of “Stakhanovites” – hyper-keen party zealots – so these were arrested and executed instead. Ethnic minorities were especially favoured: 144,000 Poles were arrested, and 110,000 executed. Some 55,000 German were arrested, and 42,000 shot.

The heads of the air force, of military intelligence, of civilian intelligence and the first-ever supreme commander of Soviet forces who had saved the revolution in 1919 were executed. Bela Biro, a brilliant intelligence operative of Hungarian extraction who had managed to steal and photograph secret documents relating to recent German army manoeuvres from the German military attache’s briefcase in Moscow and then return them without his victim’s knowledge was almost simultaneously decorated for gallantry, arrested and executed.  In one night, 300 military intelligence officers in Moscow were rounded up and killed. In Mongolia, 20,000 Buddhist priests known as ‘lamas’ were arrested. Many were beaten with iron rods and told that if they confessed, their lives would be spared. They usually confessed. All twenty thousand were shot NKVD-style, economically, one by one, in dutiful lines; a bullet behind the ear, a bullet behind the ear, a bullet behind the ear….

Many of the death warrants were signed by Stalin – three thousand a day would not be unusual, but in groups, not individually, and some died better than others. Boris Rodos was a specialist in killing men slowly, taking them to death’s door and then leaving them there, hammering them with his fists or with cudgels so that they would remain conscious and fully sensitive to pain.

Stalin even destroyed his own intelligence network abroad: 275 loyal Soviet spies were ordered home and then killed. The entire Soviet army was purged, and thousands of officers murdered by NKVD men who simultaneously were conducting a purge of themselves. One loyal army officer, Vasily Blyukher, was presented with his eyeball, which had popped out during a beating. He died with it clutched in his hand without ever confessing. If victims were lucky, they would end up in the Gulag, which they might possibly survive; though of course, millions were worked to death there. The template for this was the construction of the Moscow-Volga canal built early in Stalin’s regime, which had cost the lives of 20,000 slave-labourers.

Stalin’s ruthlessness was not confined to humans. He greatly disliked the ravens that infested the Kremlin square where he walked, and a specialist NKVD squad was deputed to shoot them. They killed 36,000 of the birds, their bodies then being fed to the animals in Moscow Zoo.

Unlike Hitler but like the ravens, the closer you were to Stalin, the greater the danger you were in. Of the thirty-two members of the politburo, 1919-1940, three died of natural causes, two were assassinated, two committed suicide and fourteen were executed. Yet so perverse was the culture that Stalin had created, people still vied for high positions within the state apparatus. Incredibly, he was worshipped; whenever he appeared in public, people wept with joy, and he would stroke their faces and murmur soothing words in his Georgian-accented Russian. A leading Khazak poet wrote this: “Stalin – deeper than the ocean, higher than the Himalayas, brighter than the sun, teacher of the universe.”

When Yezhov, the head of the NKVD finally met his end, as was inevitable, he said before his death: “I purged (executed) 14,000 Chekists (secret policemen like himself) but my enormous guilt lies in the fact that I purged so few of them. Let Stalin know that I shall die with his name of my lips ….”

In other ways Hitler and Stalin had so much in common: during the great détente between the two totalitarianisms after 1939 when they brutally partitioned Poland, Stalin – as a gift – sent Hitler a thousand German refugees, most of them Jewish, who had fled their homeland and sought the safety of the USSR. Stalin privately remarked: “They are Germans. Let the Germans pay for their bullets.”

In return, after a 24-course dinner hosted by the Soviets, the wife of the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was given a magnificent Mercedes by the German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. It was the prelude to two years of mutually rewarding peace between the two tyrannies, as they continued on their own little wars, both of them learning a lot on the way.

When Germany had invaded Austria in 1938, the Wehrmacht was so ill-prepared that one in six of all tanks broke down on the drive to Vienna. The rest had to buy fuel from petrol stations. The only preparation they had got right was a detailed knowledge of Austria’s Jews. Ten percent of Vienna – 176,000 people – was Jewish. What a handsome harvest!

The very day that Hitler addressed some 250,000 ecstatic Austrians in Heroes Square in Vienna, Stalin’s latest show trial concluded with the execution of another twenty-one former colleagues, almost the cream of the Soviet hierarchy, including Yagoda, the former head of the NKVD who had started the purge. Confessions of some sort were beaten out of the accused: threats to their families would succeed when broken bones and extracted eyes did not. (It was already the law that the wives of all ‘enemies of the state’ would be imprisoned for eight years without trial). The year before, the hand-scrawled confession of the greatest soldier in the Soviet Union, the pioneer of all Soviet strategic thought, Marshall Tukhachevsky, was splattered with his blood. (It still is). His admission of guilt did not save his family; his wife and two brothers were shot and his three sisters and daughter were imprisoned.

This was how Stalin prepared his army for his next war, with little Finland. His invasion was initially a complete disaster, finally costing the USSR 131,476 men dead or missing, and 265,000 incapacitated by frostbite. It took the Soviet armies 105 days to subdue Finland, twice the time that the Nazis had taken to subdue Poland which was ten times the size. After Finland surrendered it handed back 5,486 Soviet POWs, who were either executed or sent to the Gulag.

In order to reassure the Nazis, Stalin had ordered Luftwaffe overflights of Soviet army positions and airfields to be tolerated, while outlawing any Soviet flights within ten kilometres of German front lines. Scrupulously, he ordered the USSR to continue to resupply the Nazis with grain and raw materials for their war with the UK. The British – informed by the codebreakers of Bletchley – repeatedly warned him that the Nazis were about to invade. So too did his incredibly intrepid spies in Berlin. He ignored them all. “You can send your source to his fucking mother,” he said to his foreign-intelligence chief. “He is not a source but a disinformationist.”

In other words, a sentence of death.

On midsummer’s day eighty years ago, while the propaganda chief Goebels was watching Gone with the Wind, Hitler listened to Liszt’s Les Preludes, calm in the knowledge that victory was certain. But it was not by means of “blitzkrieg”, which Hitler felt was a stupid and very non-German word that had been invented by an American journalist. It had no military meaning at all.

Hitler had three goals, all of them methodical. To create living space in the east for Germany at the expense of the native Slavs, just as the “English” (ie, the British) had made living space for themselves in the Americas at the expense of the native Indians. To eradicate what remained of communism, which under Stalin had done much to eradicate itself. And last, but absolutely not least, to get his hands of the vast Jewish population in the east and exterminate it.

As another Soviet train crossed the border bearing oil, manganese and grain for the German war effort, the Soviet officers club at Minsk were watching a comic opera, The Wedding at Malinkova. They probably needed the diversion. After the purges, one in eight of all officers had had no military training whatsoever, and only half had completed military school. Almost the entire upper echelons of the military had been executed; 85% of all officers were now aged under 35, and 620 generals were under forty-five. Most divisional commanders had never even commanded a battalion.

But it was not their inexperience that led to the dense and open deployment of the Red Army at the front lines which enabled the Nazis to note their positions and prepare for their destruction, but Stalin’s insistence. Hitler must be able to see that the Soviet Union meant him no harm.

That final night, as usual, Stalin sat in his private quarters called The Little Corner, smoking cigarette tobacco in his pipe and listening to sentimental ballads from his favourite singer, Ivan Kozlovsky. Sometimes he would join in with his pleasing, light tenor voice; he was often moved to tears during these little musical seances. Outside, his faithful retainer. the twice-widowed Poskryobyshev – his beloved second wife had been executed two years before on the orders of the NKVD chief Beria, who rather thoughtfully then sent some flowers to their two young daughters – manned the phones. It was through these that in the course of the evening Poskryobyshev heard, that four German deserters had, at enormous peril to themselves, separately crossed no man’s land to warn that an invasion was imminent.

His faithful retainer passed on the news, and Stalin ordered them to be shot.

Meanwhile, Wehrmacht soldiers in Red Army uniforms were already infiltrating Soviet positions. Major General Korobkov in the frontlines of the Fourth Soviet Army was listening to the Strauss operetta The Gypsy Baron, unaware that all his communications had been cut and his army isolated.

At 3.30 am, the invasion of the Soviet Union began. Nothing on earth could now prevent Hitler’s armies from defeating the Soviet Union. Communism would collapse and Moscow would be his by autumn. The total conquest of the European landmass was now underway, and with it, Hitler’s greatest project: the Final Solution to the Jewish problem.


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