Viktor Suvorov’s The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II (published by the Naval Institute Press in 2008) is a fascinating work of revisionist history and an exhilarating exercise in myth-busting. Having been a Soviet intelligence analyst prior to his defection to the West in 1978 gives Suvorov the ability to examine the ins and outs of Soviet policy from the points of view of both an insider and an outsider.
Suvorov approaches his subject from the point of view of an intelligence officer rather than a professional historian. He believes that that is the only way to approach the subject. While historians have to view their source materials with a certain degree of healthy scepticism Soviet history is a special case. This was a regime based from the outset on lies and deception to such an extent that even the most sceptical historian might be led astray. Intelligence analysts are trained to assume that nothing is what it seems to be. A military exercise might be simply a military exercise, or it might be a preparation for an invasion. A diplomatic initiative apparently aimed at peace might in fact be intended to bring about war. Suvorov believes that this training is essential in order to penetrate the web of lies that was Stalin’s foreign policy. He may well be right.
Suvorov’s starting point is the mystery of the events of June 1941. In the opening weeks of the German invasion the Red Army suffered disasters on a scale that beggar the imagination. This is common knowledge. There were however a number of things that puzzled Suvorov. The accepted version of events, accepted not just in the Soviet Union but also in the West, was (and is) that these disasters occurred as a result of two major factors. The first was monumental incompetence by the Soviet political and military leadership. The second factor was that the Red Army, although enormous and possessing incredibly quantities of military hardware, was mostly equipped with obsolete and second-rate tanks and aircraft that were no match for the superbly equipped Germans. Suvorov came to have serious doubts on both scores.
One thing he discovered that puzzled him a good deal was that the supposedly incompetent Soviet generals who were responsible for the deployment of the Red Army in June 1941 were not shot by Stalin as the result of the catastrophes that overwhelmed the army. They were not sent to the GULAGs. They were not even demoted. They were in fact promoted and most ended their careers as Marshals of the Soviet Union. How could this be? Stalin was not noted for being forgiving of failure.
Suvorov’s conclusion is that these men were not punished for their failures because they did not actually fail. Their deployments were militarily sound. The problem was that the Red Army was not deployed to defend the Soviet Union, with most of its strength held back from the frontiers in deep defensive formations and with airfields well back from the borders where they were safe from being overrun by an invading army. The bulk of the Red Army was right on the frontiers and the airfields were within a few kilometres of the border. The Red Army’s deployment was not a defensive one - it was deployed to launch an invasion. An army deployed in such a manner is incredibly vulnerable if the enemy does not wait to be attacked but strikes the first blow. Which is exactly what Hitler did. The Soviet generals were not incompetents - they were simply beaten to the punch.
But how did all this come about? Suvorov’s thesis is that the Soviet leadership never abandoned, even for a moment, their intention to spread their revolution throughout Europe and then throughout the world. The doctrine of Socialism in One Country was a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. Stalin intended to achieve world revolution. More importantly, he intended to achieve it through war. The Russian Revolution had taught the Bolsheviks one very important lesson - revolutions are almost impossible to achieve except in the chaos created by defeat in war. Every attempt to foment revolution in other European countries failed. Communism would have to be imposed on Europe by war. Stalin needed a general European war, and he set out to start one.
The main obstacle was Germany. Another vital lesson the Russian communists had absorbed was that Germany was militarily formidable but Germany could not win a war on two fronts. A war on two fronts meant certain defeat for Germany. A German defeat was the only way to impose communism on Germany. If Germany fell to the communists the conquest of the rest of western Europe would be child’s play. Therefore Germany had to be manoeuvred into fighting a war on two fronts. The trick was to persuade the Germans to become involved in a war in the west, which meant a war with Britain and France. Once Germany was committed to such a war, and once both sides had exhausted themselves, the Soviet Union would invade Germany from the east.
All of this proved to be surprisingly easy to do. Germany’s ambitions in Poland provided the opportunity. Hitler could not risk an invasion of Poland without an insurance policy. Stalin provide the insurance policy in the form of the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939. The alliance with the Soviet Union persuaded Hitler that the risks were now acceptable, and he struck. In fact he had fallen into a brilliant trap prepared for him by Stalin. Stalin was confident that, contrary to Hitler’s expectations, Britain and France would go to war over Poland. This was exactly what Stalin wanted. Once Britain and France declared war Hitler was doomed. All Stalin had to do was await his chance to deliver the stab in the back.
Hitler fervently hoped to avoid war with Britain and France. Stalin wanted to ensure that such a war would take place. Without the Nazi-Soviet pact there would have been no war. It was (if we accept Suvorov’s argument) Stalin’s war far more than it was Hitler’s war.
There was one minor problem with Stalin’s otherwise brilliant plan. By June 1940 Hitler had realised that he had fallen into a trap. He had realised Stalin was going to attack Germany. Hitler intended to get in the first blow. And he did. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was an insane gamble but it was Hitler’s only option. Operation Barbarossa was a preemptive strike. Despite spectacular initial successes it failed, but had he not struck first Stalin would have done so and Hitler would have lost anyway. As it turned out Stalin lost as well. He won the war but her only got half of Europe as a result. Had he been able to attack first he would have taken the whole of Europe.
It’s a fascinating thesis and Suvorov’s arguments are persuasive. They certainly make sense of things that otherwise make no sense at all.
The book also explodes a great many myths in relation to the Second World War but that might be a matter for a future post.