Defense of Moscow

Operation Barbarossa: When the Nazis Invaded the Soviet Union

This article is dedicated to the tens of millions of Soviet citizens, Red Army soldiers, partisans, and communist resistance fighters who sacrificed so much to defeat Nazism.

80 years ago, on Sunday, June 22, 1941, the Nazis unleashed the largest invasion yet visited on the people of the Soviet Union. By November of that year, Hitler’s armies had driven to the threshold of Moscow, occupied virtually all of Ukraine and Byelorussia, and laid siege to Leningrad, the heart of the October Revolution. Up to 4.5 million Soviet soldiers—out of a prewar army of more than 5.3 million—became casualties by the end of 1941. Approximately 40% of the Soviet population fell under Nazi occupation, along with many of the country’s most productive industrial and agricultural regions. 1

Writing for the British Trotskyists in July 1941, Ted Grant explained:

The greatest clash in the history of the world on a 1,800 mile front has thrown the whole international situation into a state of flux. The assault of world imperialism on the first workers’ state is no longer a Marxist perspective, but a grim reality. 2

These catastrophic losses set the stage for a long and brutal “war within a war” that shaped the course of the twentieth century. The 1941–45 struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was the decisive theater of World War II, which was itself a bloody continuation and sharpening of the first inter-imperialist World War of 1914–1919. Of the 13 million Nazi military casualties, 10.7 million were incurred fighting the Soviets. 3

From the earliest days of the war, the Soviet people in occupied territories waged a vast and heroic partisan struggle against the invaders. The Red Army dealt crippling blows to the fascist forces at Stalingrad, Kursk, and during Operation Bagration, which proved to be the greatest military advance in history. These efforts culminated in the capture of Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest by the Soviets, laying the foundation for Stalinist power in Eastern Europe until 1989. The Red Army was also responsible for the liberation of tens of thousands of Nazi death camp prisoners, including those at Auschwitz.

Propaganda Poster to fight Hitler
The Soviet people were responsible for the victory over Hitler. / Image: Drbexl via Flickr

The Soviet people were responsible for the victory over Hitler, who, prior to turning his sights on them, had conquered the major capitalist powers of Western Europe and brought the British Empire to its knees. The nationalized planned economy of the Soviet Union was the backbone of the struggle against Nazism, outstripping German war production by 1943 and furnishing the Red Army with huge quantities of arms and materiel.

However, the same credit does not extend to Stalin. At every step in the process of the Thermidorian bureaucracy’s consolidation of power in the USSR, up to and including the Nazi invasion and occupation, Stalinism facilitated Hitler’s successes—including his rise to power, his domination of Europe, and his march into the Soviet heartland. The devastating blows that fell on the USSR in 1941 were the result of more than two decades of bankrupt political, diplomatic, and military policies pursued by Stalin, his state regime, and the leading circles of the Communist International. Four years of brutal war and more than twenty million dead was the cost paid by the Soviet people for the failures of Stalinism and the errors committed by Stalin himself in his role as leader.

Defending the revolution: world revolution or “socialism in one country”?

When the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky led the Russian working class to power in November 1917, they well understood the challenges of defending Soviet power against world imperialism. Though the Soviet Union built a powerful Red Army during the Civil War, under Trotsky’s guidance, the revolution’s primary means of defending itself was its revolutionary-internationalist attitude towards the working class of the imperialist powers. The Bolsheviks’ entire perspective for holding power hinged on the prospect of victorious proletarian revolutions in the imperialist countries, above all Germany.

Addressing the soviets in July 1918, Lenin said:

We never harbored the illusion that the forces of the proletariat and the revolutionary people of any one country, however heroic and however organized and disciplined they might be, could overthrow international imperialism. That can be done only by the joint efforts of the workers of the world … We never deceived ourselves into thinking this could be done by the efforts of one country alone. We knew that our efforts were inevitably leading to a worldwide revolution, and that the war begun by the imperialist governments could not be stopped by the efforts of those governments themselves. It can be stopped only by the efforts of all workers; and when we came to power, our task as the proletarian Communist Party, at a time when capitalist bourgeois rule still remained in the other countries—our immediate task, I repeat, was to retain that power, that torch of socialism, so that it might scatter as many sparks as possible to add to the growing flames of socialist revolution.

The young Soviet state geared its diplomacy towards this goal. Trotsky addressed his speeches at the Brest-Litovsk treaty negotiations more to the workers in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and around the world than to the generals sitting at the conference table across from him. Red propaganda influenced a wave of mutinies that crippled the armies and navies sent by imperialist powers to crush the revolution. Strikes by sympathetic workers around the world halted arms shipments bound for the White armies and gave imperialist governments second thoughts about intervening, fearing revolution at home.

During the Civil War, revolutions broke out in Finland, Hungary, Germany, Italy, and Mongolia. The working class of the world was radicalized and organized, taking inspiration from the victory of their comrades in Russia. The Bolsheviks founded the Communist International in 1919 to aid this process by helping the workers of the world develop their own revolutionary Communist Parties and to coordinate the struggle against imperialism and capitalism on a global scale.

The imperialist powers of the world, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Japan, Germany, and others sent armies to crush the revolution and support the reactionary White armies. In response, the Soviets created the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army to defend themselves. The Red Army was a thoroughly proletarian, peasant, and internationalist force, based at first on guerilla bands and the Red Guards workers’ militias built during 1917.

The Red Army was a thoroughly proletarian, peasant, and internationalist force, based at first on guerilla bands and the Red Guards workers’ militias built during 1917. / Image: public domain

Trotsky was given the task of building the Red Army into a modern, professional fighting force. It included volunteers and conscripts from the Soviet working class and peasantry, as well as internationalist fighters from around the world. Crucially, the Red Army made skillful use of professional “military experts”—former officers from the tsarist military which the revolution pressed into service under the political supervision of Soviet-appointed commissars. Out of the Civil War emerged many key figures of the interwar and World War II era, including Tukhachevsky, Zhukov, Budyonny, Voroshilov, and others.

In 1919, addressing the First World Congress of the Communist International in his capacity as People’s Commissar of War, Trotsky stated:

If you draw a straight line on the map radiating from Moscow in any direction, you will find everywhere at the front—a Russian peasant, a Russian worker standing in this cold night, gun in hand, at the frontiers of the Socialist Republic and defending it. And I can assure you that the worker-Communists who comprise the hard core of this army feel that they are not only the Guards Regiment of the Russian Socialist Republic, but also the Red Army of the Third International. 4

The Soviets succeeded in defeating the White armies and the imperialist interventions, but only at great cost. What was now the Soviet Union had been at war continuously from 1914 to 1922, and the destruction caused by World War I and the Civil War led to a severe breakdown of the economy, society, and the working class itself. The anticipated revolutionary breakthroughs in the imperialist countries failed due to the class-collaborationist leadership of the workers’ parties, and hope for external aid faded. In these conditions, the vibrant workers’ democracy that characterized the early period of the Russian Revolution degenerated. The exhausted working class was no longer able to assert itself in the Soviet government after years of sacrifice and hardship.

After the death of Lenin in 1924, Soviet power gave way to the rule of the state bureaucracy, much of which was directly inherited from tsarism. Cautiously at first, but with increasing confidence, Joseph Stalin came to represent the interests of this bureaucracy at the head of the government. The conservative bureaucracy wanted no part of the Bolsheviks’ plans for world revolution. Instead of seeking a revolutionary path out of the impasse facing the country, the bureaucracy was content to manage the nationalized planned economy on the backs of the Soviet workers and peasants, skimming from the top to bolster their privileged position in society.

The proletarian-internationalist elements of the Communist Party faced harsh repression as Stalin consolidated his grip. Ultimately, tens of thousands were expelled from the party, fired from their jobs, arrested, exiled, or murdered. Trotsky, the leader of the Left Opposition and Stalin’s most formidable opponent in the Communist Party, was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and assassinated by Stalinist agents in August 1940.

World imperialism spent the 1920s recovering from the devastation and exertion of the First World War, and this gave the Soviet Union some breathing room. Despite the degeneration of the party in the USSR, the workers organized in the Communist International were still prepared to fight to change society. Revolutionary opportunities arose in country after country during the 1920s and 30s, but the Stalinist leadership proved unequal to the task. The defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1926–27, in which Stalin’s ally Chang Kai-Shek betrayed and massacred the Chinese Communists, was a severe blow to the morale of the Soviet working class, reinforcing its sense of isolation. But nothing prepared the way for renewed imperialist aggression against the Soviet Union like the repeated defeats of the German Revolution.

Trotsky was given the task of building the Red Army into a modern, professional fighting force. / Image: public domain

Stalinism’s defeats in Germany

Marxists have extensively analyzed the German Revolution elsewhere. Between 1918 and 1933, numerous opportunities arose for the German workers to topple capitalism, crush the incipient Nazi movement, and reignite the European revolution. However, the Stalinist leadership of the Communist International adopted disastrous policies at every turn.

In the German Revolution of 1923, the French occupation of the Ruhr Valley induced a crisis that gave the Communist Party an opportunity to organize an insurrection. Amidst spiraling inflation, the German working class was outraged over French imperialism’s attempts to forcibly requisition payment obligations imposed at Versailles, which the government was unable to pay. Workers’ militias emerged, and a strike wave gripped the country. Trotsky called for the German Communists to seize the opportunity and set a date for an insurrection.

The German Communist leaders began preparing street demonstrations and sought the advice of the Communist International. However, with Lenin’s health deteriorating, and Trotsky and other key Bolshevik leaders indisposed, only a few of the International’s leaders were available to decide a course forward on this vital matter. In a letter to Zinoviev, Stalin expressed his conservative mistrust of the revolutionary forces in Germany: “In my opinion the Germans must be curbed and not spurred on.” 5

This attitude ultimately carried the debate in the Communist International’s leadership, even as the conditions for a revolutionary offensive were rapidly maturing. The German Communist leaders were advised to cancel the planned general strike and insurrection at the last minute, and the episode devolved into a demoralizing fiasco.

The economic and political crisis in Weimar Germany destroyed the basis for stable bourgeois democracy. German workers again and again took the road of struggle, waging many strikes and giving massive support to the Social Democrats and Communists during this period. The traditional German bourgeois parties failed to contain the militant energy of the working class. Fearing revolution in the heart of Europe, the ruling class looked to alternatives. The Nazis, once a persecuted grouplet on the fringes of German society, emerged as the capitalists’ best hope for destroying the revolutionary potential of the German proletariat. Bolstered by money and patronage from capitalists around Europe and the world, Hitler’s party gained in support dramatically in the late 1920s and early 1930s, mobilizing the ruined and frenzied petty bourgeoisie behind it.

Between 1918 and 1933, numerous opportunities arose for the German workers to topple capitalism, crush the incipient Nazi movement, and reignite the European revolution. / Image: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Tragically, the forces of the working class were divided in the face of this threat. The reformist Social Democrats would not lead the working class to power and therefore stop the Nazis, so it was up to the Communists. But by this time, the fully Stalinized Comintern had adopted the “Third Period” thesis, which anticipated an impending “final crisis of capitalism.” This false idea justified the erroneous conclusion that reformist workers’ organizations, such as the German Social Democratic Party, were “social fascists.” The German Communists, under direction from Moscow, adopted the position that the Social Democrats were the main enemy of the Communist Party.

Though it was true that the reformist leaders had always played a rotten, counterrevolutionary role and served as one of the main pillars of capitalist stability, the Stalinist policy only served to drive a deeper wedge between the Communist and Socialist workers themselves. The only way out of the impending disaster was a proletarian revolution. However, this is only possible if the communists win the confidence of a decisive portion of the masses in struggle.

A united front between the Communists and Socialists was needed to defeat Hitler. Together, both parties boasted not only strong support from the working class, but also their own militias, which were prepared to resist the Nazis by any means necessary. As the menace of Hitler grew, Trotsky and the International Left Opposition called for the Communists to reverse course and fight shoulder to shoulder with the Socialist workers against fascism. The struggle against Nazism could have been an opportunity for the Communists to win the Social Democratic workers to a revolutionary policy.

The Stalinists pursued the opposite course. After painting the Social Democrats as the “main enemy,” the Communist Party formed a de facto bloc with the Nazis. In 1931, the Communists supported a Nazi-initiated referendum against the Social Democratic government in the state of Prussia, scandalizing the Social Democratic workers. Using slogans such as “drive the social fascists from their jobs in the factories and the trade unions!” and “chase them away from the factories, labor exchanges and professional schools,” Communist militants actively collaborated with Nazi hooligans to physically attack and break up Social Democratic party and union meetings.

This self-defeating policy doomed the German working class as Hitler methodically climbed to power. With the workers’ parties fighting amongst themselves, the ruined middle class and peasants had only Hitler and his promise of national “salvation” to look towards. When Hitler became Chancellor, he first attacked the Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists, decapitating and atomizing the once-powerful German proletariat. The Nazis used the Reichstag Fire as a pretext to ban the Communist Party outright, and by March 1933, Hitler was the undisputed dictator of Germany. Due to the workers’ parties’ paralysis, Hitler was able to brag that he had come to power without smashing a single window pane.

Berlin Hyperinflation
The economic and political crisis in Weimar Germany destroyed the basis for stable bourgeois democracy.  / Image: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Stalin’s foreign policy

The ascendance of Hitler made war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany inevitable. Anti-communism was central to the Nazis’ purpose, and it was no secret that Hitler sought to carve wide swaths out of Eastern Europe as colonial territory for Germans—Lebensraum or “living space.”

Stalinism’s policy of “socialism in one country” led to defeat after defeat for the Communist movement worldwide. The abject failure of the “Third Period” gave way to the policy of popular-frontism, the subordination of the working class to bourgeois liberals. The Communist International played a completely reactionary role when the Spanish workers rose against Francisco Franco’s military coup in 1936.

Rather than mobilizing the working class to overthrow capitalism in Spain as a means of undermining fascism’s base of support, the Stalinists did everything they could to prevent the struggle from overflowing the bounds of bourgeois republicanism. Stalin saw an alliance with the capitalist democracies of France and Britain—and not international socialist revolution—as the best way to limit fascism’s expansion. Therefore, the Communists needed to be on their best behavior so as not to frighten off the Soviets’ would-be allies. However, while Hitler and Mussolini poured troops and equipment into Spain, the French and British imperialists remained “neutral.”

The Stalinists were reduced to policing the working class, as seen in their role in smashing the anarcho-syndicalists and POUM on behalf of the capitalist Republic during the 1937 May Days. With the working class subdued, the revolutionary initiative required to defeat Franco dissipated, and yet another fascist dictatorship established itself in Europe.

Despite numerous opportunities, the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union deprived the country of friendly workers’ governments anywhere else in the world. While Hitler gathered his strength, Stalin placed his hopes in bourgeois pacifism, the League of Nations, and the “friends of peace” he saw in British, French, and American imperialism. When Nazi Germany threatened to absorb Czechoslovakia in 1938, Stalin tried again to form an alliance with Anglo-French imperialism, going so far as to partially mobilize the Red Army in a show of strength. The folly of this approach soon revealed itself, as the imperialist “democrats” listened politely to Stalin, then simply accepted Hitler’s demands.

Marina Ginesta overlooking Barcelona
The Communist International played a completely reactionary role when the Spanish workers rose against Francisco Franco’s military coup in 1936. / Image: Jared Enos, Flickr

By 1939, Europe’s course towards war was apparent to all. Stalin committed another grave crime with the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler in late August 1939. Bereft of support from any quarter on the international stage, Stalin decided it would be better to secure temporary peace—and Hitler’s eastern flank—by partitioning Eastern Europe. But this maneuver simply eliminated the Soviet Union as a potential threat to Hitler’s plans, paving the way for the Nazi conquest of their European rivals, above all France, between 1939 and 1941.

Marx understood in 1871 that a Prussian conquest of France would open the door for a “war of races” between Germans and Slavs. 6 This elementary idea was lost on the empiricist Stalin, who had not an ounce of genuine Marxism in his body. Commenting on the pact to the press, an exasperated Trotsky said:

Stalin above all is afraid of war … Stalin cannot make a war with discontented workers and peasants and with a decapitated Red Army … The German-Soviet Pact is a capitulation of Stalin before fascist imperialism with the end of preserving the Soviet oligarchy.

The Pact created a wave of dissension and doubt in the ranks of the Communists worldwide, who overnight had to make a 180-degree turn from anti-Hitlerism to regarding Nazi Germany as an “ally” of the Soviet Union.

In the years prior to Barbarossa, Stalin concluded a number of trade agreements with Hitler in another naive attempt to buy “peace.” He succeeded only in arming and supplying the fascist butchers as they subjugated the working class from Poland to Brittany. By 1941, Soviet timber, rubber, phosphates, asbestos, chrome, manganese, nickel, and oil were important components of the German war industry. 7 The last shipments of these resources arrived in German territory only hours before Nazi bombs and shells began raining down on Soviet cities and troops on June 22. 8

Stalin concluded a number of trade agreements with Hitler in another naive attempt to buy “peace,” capitulating before fascist imperialism. / Image: Public Domain

The development of the Red Army

By the late 1930s, the Red Army had become one of the most powerful militaries on Earth. The Soviet five-year plans emphasized heavy industry and defense production. The aim was to defend the country from imperialist encroachment—and the privileged bureaucracy from the Soviet masses themselves. On the basis of the planned economy, Soviet aviation became the envy of the world. Tanks, planes, and artillery rolled out of the new industrial complexes in massive quantities. By 1941, more than 14 million Soviet citizens had received basic training and stood ready for mobilization in the event of war. 9

Years of hard warfare in the period around the revolution produced a Red Army officer corps that included some of the leading military theorists of their time. Chief among them was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the most successful Red general of the Civil War. Through the late 1920s and early 30s, Tukhachevsky and his co-thinkers developed and codified the concept of Deep Battle, which later evolved into the grander scheme of Deep Operations. Deep Operations emphasized force concentration, mobility, combined arms combat, and an echelon system to overwhelm the enemy at key points, break into their rear areas, disrupt logistics and reinforcements, and encircle their forces. This method based itself on the experience of the late period of the world war and Russian Civil War, and was a thoroughly modern adaptation to the new era of industrialized, mechanized military operations. The new doctrine proved its effectiveness following the first period of the Nazi-Soviet war and was the basis for every major Red Army offensive of the conflict.

Undoubtedly, this officer corps played its own part in the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution. During the Civil War itself, a so-called “military opposition” developed which was critical—at times, even disruptive—to the policies of Lenin and Trotsky. While it included a variety of figures and views, the Military Opposition generally counterposed guerilla methods and an extreme reliance on “offensive” and “maneuverist” tactics against the centralized military command based on the ex-tsarist military professionals. 10 This was a mainly intellectual trend in the upper ranks of the army; however, it also included a layer of commissars and commanders around Stalin who were active in the area near Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad) during the Russian Civil War.

After the war, this officer corps more and more assumed a privileged position within the army and the Soviet state itself, in line with the rest of the bureaucracy. Most had become “military experts” themselves. In 1935, the Red Army introduced a stratified hierarchy in the officer corps, elevating leading figures like Tukhachevsky, Voroshilov, Budyonny, and others to the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union.

Red Army in Stalingrad
By the late 1930s, the Red Army had become one of the most powerful militaries on Earth. / Image: RakaAditya via Wikimedia Commons

Stalin decapitates the Red Army

Though now fully in the saddle, Stalin remained suspicious of the military experts. Following his bloody defeat of the opposition currents in the Communist Party, Stalin identified the Red Army officer corps, which maintained a certain independence from the civilian government and had direct access to the armed forces, as the most immediate threat to his rule. Contrary to the spirit of free debate and criticism that existed in the Red Army during the Revolution, Stalin sought to bring the military apparatus firmly under his control.

In early 1937, the NKVD began arresting junior Red Army officers, alleging “counterrevolutionary Trotskyite views.” By June, the purges reached the heights of the Red Army, claiming Tukhachevsky, who was seen as closely associated with Trotsky due to his role during the Civil War, along with many other senior officers. Voroshilov, a Soviet Marshal who had been close to Stalin since their days together at Tsaritsyn, alleged that a “traitorous counterrevolutionary military fascistic organization” existed in the Red Army which operated in a “strictly conspiratorial” fashion, committing “subversive wrecking and espionage work.” 11

Between 1937 and 1941, the purges wreaked havoc throughout the Red Army. In fact, the decimation continued into the first months of the Nazi invasion. While a relative minority of the purged officers were actually executed, tens of thousands went to prison or faced hard labor, while others were censored or forced to retire. Some committed suicide. The Soviet Air Force, intelligence services, industrial planning bureaus, and the NKVD itself also suffered extensive purges during this time. The USSR’s Supreme Court later arrived at the figure of 54,714 total victims of the Red Army purges, but the final toll remains unknown. 12

Stalin purges Red Army leader Mikhail Tukhachevsky
Stalin’s purges reached the heights of the Red Army, claiming Tukhachevsky along with many other senior officers. / Image: Public Domain

Sycophants who had been close to Stalin since their days together at Tsaritsyn, like Budyonny and Voroshilov, avoided the purge and assumed senior roles. This was a one-sided civil war against the Soviet armed forces, waged for purely cynical political reasons. During the desperate months following the Nazi invasion, the Red Army rapidly pressed many purged officers back into its ranks, among them KK Rokossovsky, who went on to play an important role in the war. This illustrates how the charges of disloyalty and treason had no basis in fact, and that Stalin’s attacks on the Red Army’s commanders were of a frenzied and arbitrary character.

Ultimately, three out of five Marshals of the Soviet Union, 80% of divisional and corps commanders, all 16 military district commanders, and many other key personnel fell victim to the purges on the eve of the invasion. 13 Officers faced arrest on the grounds of any kind of association with another purged officer. Many units experienced a continual revolving door of new commanding officers in the years leading up to the war, each replacing the last “disloyal” commander. This led to a predictable breakdown of discipline and coordination. In the ensuing chaos, the Red Army’s ranks suffered enormously. Morale and combat readiness plummeted, with rates of suicide, drunkenness, and accidents jumping dramatically. 14

All of this happened in full view of the imperialist powers. The German Chief of Staff, von Beck, wrote in 1938 that the Soviet army “could not be considered an armed force” because the purges “sapped morale and turned it into an inert military machine.” 15 During the planning for Operation Barbarossa, Hitler assuaged his generals’ concerns about the size of the Red Army by simply stating “the army is leaderless.” The purges made the Soviet Union an inviting target for Nazi aggression. 16

Soviet military practice also bent to the purges. While remaining the official doctrine of the military, Deep Operations was closely associated with Tukhachevsky and the layer of officers around him who helped develop it. Following his fall from grace, Tukhachevsky had been interrogated, tortured, sentenced by a kangaroo court, and unceremoniously shot in the back of the head. The purges largely destroyed the officer corps responsible for training the army in the method of Deep Operations. In this environment, Soviet war planners began dismantling the dedicated mechanized formations which Deep Operations required for success, choosing to distribute Soviet armored forces more evenly among foot infantry units. This, combined with a lack of officers trained in the method, hindered the effective application of Deep Operations in 1941. 17

As David Glantz, a leading historian of the Nazi-Soviet war, explains, “Nothing had a more debilitating effect on the prewar Red Army than the military purges that commenced in 1937 and continued unabated through 1941.” 18

The Red Army attempted to fill the void left behind by rapidly promoting unqualified junior officers and graduating military cadets early. The average age of commanding officers dropped considerably in the years before the Nazi invasion. 19 In contrast to the hardened Civil War-era officer corps which had built the army from the ground up, relatively few commanders who faced the Nazi onslaught had any combat experience. In June and July 1941, they went into battle against Nazi generals who spent the previous two years vanquishing the best armies in Western Europe.

Trotskyism and the defense of the Soviet Union

To this day, some on the Stalinist left continue to repeat the lie that Trotsky was engaged in a conspiracy with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan against the Soviet Union. This was also the substance of the charges against many of the Red Army officers lost to Stalin’s purges. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that zero evidence has ever been recovered in Japanese or German archives is a mute testimony against this absurd claim. After the war, the British Revolutionary Communist Party organized an energetic international campaign to use the Nuremberg trials as an opportunity to publicly cross-examine senior Nazi figures on the question of Trotsky’s supposed “conspiracy” with them. 20 However, the imperialist powers did not oblige.

In fact, Trotsky spent much of the final period of his life working diligently to convince some of his own supporters of the need to defend the Soviet Union in the event of war with the imperialist powers.

Writing in September 1939, Trotsky said:

Let us suppose that Hitler turns his weapons against the east and invades territories occupied by the Red Army. Under these conditions, partisans of the Fourth International, without changing in any way their attitude towards the Kremlin oligarchy, will advance to the forefront, as the most urgent task of the hour, the military resistance against Hitler. The workers will say “We cannot cede to Hitler the overthrowing of Stalin; that is our own task.”

Trotsky’s analysis, which the historical process bore out, was that the subjective role of Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy made the Soviet Union less, not more, secure in the face of Nazi aggression. The Trotskyists posed the revolutionary overthrow of the Bonapartist bureaucracy by the Soviet working class and the regeneration of the international communist movement as a necessary condition for the successful defense of the Soviet Union. But in the event of an attack, the Trotskyists stood unconditionally for the defense of the USSR and its nationalized planned economy against Nazi barbarism.

During the war, Trotskyists fought in the resistance against Nazi occupation. Those who found themselves drafted into the ranks of the imperialist armies conducted revolutionary propaganda and agitation against their governments, fighting to transform the conflict into a revolutionary workers’ war against fascism and capitalism. Trotskyists argued that a workers’ government was needed to defeat the Nazis, and for working-class parties and unions to break their “alliances” with “their” ruling class in order to fight for such a government. An internationalist approach could have won over some parts of the German military and fomented revolution in Germany itself.

When the Nazis struck East in June 1941, the beheaded Red Army fought bravely against enormous odds, often to the last soldier. But millions of Red Army soldiers were placed in truly unwinnable positions by the incompetence and inexperience of their commanding officers.

According to David Glantz:

Many of the initial Soviet defeats were the direct results of the inexperience of the [purge-] surviving Soviet officer corps. Field commanders lacked the practical experience and confidence to adjust to the tactical situation and tended to apply stereotyped solutions, such as distributing their subordinate units to textbook diagrams without regard to the actual terrain. The result was forces that were not focused and concentrated on the most likely avenues of German advance and attacked and defended in such a stylized, predictable manner that the experienced Germans found it easy to counter and avoid Soviet blows [our emphasis]. 21

Later in 1941, the Soviet General Staff felt the need to issue orders to subordinate commanders not to simply distribute their artillery pieces evenly throughout the sectors for which they were responsible. Zhukov even had to explicitly forbid frontal assaults into the teeth of enemy defenses. 22 The dearth of command competence left in the wake of the purges made such basic instructions from the very top necessary. In addition to the physical absence of qualified commanders, the purges also gave rise to an atmosphere of fear and resignation among surviving officers. With the purges continuing during the Nazi invasion, Soviet officers were understandably reluctant to deviate from inflexible standing orders or textbook schemas for fear of being reported to the NKVD, whose agents was looking for any excuse to satisfy their bosses in Moscow. Millions of Red Army fighters gave their lives serving under these tragic circumstances.

In the name of weeding out a non-existent “counterrevolutionary Trotskyite conspiracy,” Stalin’s own hand delivered the first devastating blows to the Red Army beginning in 1937. No conspiracy ever conceived could have damaged the Soviet war effort against Nazism more than Stalin’s purges did in fact.

Diego Rivera Mural of Trotsky
Trotsky spent much of the final period of his life working diligently to convince some of his own supporters of the need to defend the Soviet Union in the event of war with the imperialist powers./ Image: Joe, Flickr

The road to war

Though the Soviet leadership was well aware that the purges had crippled the armed forces, Stalin pressed the Red Army into action against countries like Finland, Poland, and Romania in the period before the war. Under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union also occupied, and later annexed, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Stalin saw these moves as necessary to provide a buffer between the Soviet heartland and the growing Nazi empire. In reality, these actions simply created a common border with the Nazi state for the first time, and in the war this “buffer” evaporated in short order.

The 1939–40 Winter War against Finland was an embarrassing episode that revealed the Red Army’s many deficiencies. Despite the Finnish military’s comparatively tiny size, it easily repulsed the first Soviet advance, inflicting heavy casualties. Units from temperate Ukraine deployed in subarctic Finland with no winter provisions, resulting in their annihilation at the hands of sparse Finnish forces. Soviet reconnaissance failed to identify the main Finnish defensive positions north of Leningrad, and a slaughter ensued. Writing in January 1940, Trotsky scornfully recognized the debacle as an example that showed “… the extent to which stupidity and demoralization reign in the Kremlin and in the tops of the army beheaded by the Kremlin.” A renewed Soviet attack fared better, forcing the Finns to agree to Soviet terms for peace, but the damage to Soviet morale and prestige was severe.

Soviet military planners reacted to the disasters in Finland while warily taking note of the breathtaking German victories in the Low Countries and France only a few months later. Between the Winter War and the Nazi invasion, the Red Army underwent several top-down reorganizations and re-deployments, frantically attempting to right the ship ahead of a German assault. When the attack finally came, it struck the Red Army in the midst of another iteration of these chaotic reforms. In June 1941, more than 75% of Red Army commanders had been with their units for less than one year. 23

Despite clear indications of a German military buildup in Eastern Europe, and even intelligence reports pinpointing the day of the attack, Soviet forces in the border regions assumed a completely supine position in June 1941. Stalin, fearful of conflict, was concerned above all with avoiding a possible provocation with Hitler’s forces along the frontier. This preoccupation led him to ignore the fact that the Germans had evacuated their embassy and that all German-flagged ships had left Soviet ports. More than 300 Nazi reconnaissance flights entered Soviet airspace in the weeks prior to the attack but were totally unopposed. 24

Communist railway workers in Sweden also sent warnings to the Soviet government of a military buildup, to no avail. A handful of Soviet commanders took note of the increasing military activity in the Nazi-occupied territory opposite them, placing their forces at a higher state of readiness. However the vast majority of Soviet units along the border were completely flatfooted on June 22, and this led to their swift defeat.

Nazi war plans aimed to destroy the Red Army in a rapid series of enveloping maneuvers near the border. Hitler expected that a quick, stunning defeat would provoke a political crisis in the Soviet Union that would lead to the disintegration of the Stalinist regime, analogous to the process that led to the fall of the tsarism and the exit of Russia from World War I. 25 However, Nazi intelligence completely underestimated the sheer size of the Red Army, the tenacity of the Soviet people, and the USSR’s vast capacity for mobilization. This rendered Nazi plans for a quick victory unrealizable, compelling them to drive deeper into the Soviet heartland.

Nazi war plans aimed to destroy the Red Army in a rapid series of enveloping maneuvers near the border.  / Image: Josef Gierse, Wikimedia Commons

Catastrophe

At 3:00 am on June 22, 1941, squadrons of German long-range bombers crossed the Soviet frontier to bomb cities as distant as Leningrad and Sevastopol. The artillery barrage began at 3:15. At dawn, swarms of German planes appeared above Soviet airfields on the frontier, destroying more than 1,200 Red Air Force craft, mostly while they were still on the ground. The Nazis controlled the skies over the battlefield for the first decisive weeks of their offensive, allowing them to pummel Soviet reinforcements, logistics, and Red Army positions with impunity. 26

More than three million German combat troops, supported by a half-million soldiers from the Nazis’ Finnish and Romanian allies, marched into Soviet-held territory. Nazi forces advanced rapidly and persistently. Spearheaded by their armored forces, the German generals applied their Blitzkrieg strategy to maximum effect. Their bold encircling maneuvers shattered the unprepared Red Army forces. Entire armies simply melted away in the withering fire of the Nazi onslaught.

In the first days of the war, Soviet communications broke down, and accurate information about conditions at the front was impossible to discern from Moscow. Stalin issued unworkable orders for a general counteroffensive on the night of the invasion, in line with Soviet prewar plans. The army’s lack of readiness, combined with the ferocity of the Nazi advance, doomed to failure the units that did attempt to fulfill this order.

After a few days, Stalin, despondent, withdrew from activity for two weeks. Retreating to his personal dacha at the end of June, Stalin told his subordinates “Everything is lost. I give up. Lenin founded our state and we’ve fucked it up.” 27 The Soviet people first learned of the war through a brief radio broadcast from Molotov on the evening of June 22, but would not hear from Stalin himself until July 3.

Soviet generals spent the first weeks of the war hurriedly trying to patch together a defense and organize the planned counterstrokes against German spearheads, but were outmaneuvered and overwhelmed at nearly every turn. The Nazi offensive was most successful in the northern and central sectors of the attack. Minsk, the Byelorussian capital, fell on June 26 after German bombers reduced much of the city to rubble. Within three weeks, Nazi forces swept through the Baltic republics, positioning themselves for an advance on Leningrad. Soviet forces held up somewhat better in the southern sector, partly because their first lines of defense corresponded to the Bug River, and partly because Soviet planners had stationed more forces there prior to the war.

The Nazi generals were jubilant. One of them, Halder, wrote on July 3 that the destruction of the Red Army along the frontier meant that the entire war had been won in the span of two weeks. 28 The Nazi armies had advanced more than 600 kilometers into Soviet territory, and inflicted more than 750,000 casualties on the Red Army, destroying more than 10,000 tanks and nearly 4,000 aircraft in the process. 29 German losses were comparatively light.

However, by mid-July, Hitler’s armies, which expected to encounter little resistance in the Soviet heartland, began running into huge Soviet formations that German intelligence was unaware existed. These units were led no more effectively than Soviet forces near the border, but at least they were mobilized for battle. Also of growing concern for the Germans was the question of logistics and supply.

The concept of the “Russian kilometer” emerged among Nazi commanders, owing to the large disparity in infrastructure between the western European theater and the Soviet Union, which had few paved roads. German vehicles broke down more frequently in these conditions, hampering the advance. Soviet rail lines also used a different gauge than the rest of Europe, making it impossible for the Nazis to use their own freight cars in Soviet territory without major retrofits. Trotsky had written in 1936 that the main advantages of the USSR in war would be its vast territory and enormous population, and these two factors were beginning to make themselves felt.

Trotsky had written in 1936 that the main advantages of the USSR in war would be its vast territory and enormous population, and these two factors were beginning to make themselves felt. / Image: Za Rodinu, Flickr

Occupation

The Nazi occupation was cruel and brutal. Trotsky had posited that, in the event of invasion, the main threat to the Soviet system would not be the imperialist armies themselves, but the volume of cheap commodities they brought along with them. These would serve to undermine the fragile basis of the planned economy, which was dysfunctional due to its woeful mismanagement by the bureaucracy. However, the Nazis were not interested in converting the Soviet Union into a new market, but in depopulating and colonizing it. Heinrich Himmler set a goal of reducing the Slavic population to 30 million people, and Herman Göring boasted to Mussolini’s Foreign Minister that 20–30 million people in Russia would starve in 1941. Modern estimates of the actual toll of this policy indicate that 4.4 million Soviet citizens died from starvation-related causes during the war. 30

Barbarossa itself was to be the first phase of this plan. The Nazi armies expected to partially sustain themselves by systematically looting Soviet food supplies, livestock, lumber, and other material. 31 By the end of the war, nearly three million Soviet citizens were forced into slave labor in German industry. 32 Nazi forces, upon occupying a town, routinely executed several people to terrify the population into submission. Standing Nazi orders made it optional for commanders to punish German soldiers found abusing the occupied populace. 33

Orders issued on May 19, 1941 called for “ruthless and energetic action against Bolshevik agitators, irregulars, saboteurs, Jews, and total elimination of all active and passive resistance.” 34 This order granted Nazi troops authorization to murder Jewish people wherever they found them. The inclusion of Jews in this order also shows the extent to which anti-Semitism and anticommunism were intertwined in those days, as remains the case today.

After the war, some revisionist apologists attempted to “restore the honor” of the German Wehrmacht as professional soldiers, detached from Nazi ideology. However, some analyses have shown that up to 29% of German officers in the invading army were personally members of the Nazi Party, and further, that it was these officers who set the tone for the entire force. 35

Anticommunism was a cornerstone of Nazi policy in occupied territories. Hitler demanded an “annihilatory judgment against Bolshevism.” The infamous “Commissar Order” stipulated that captured Red Army commissars would not be given the normal rights of prisoners of war, and were to be executed immediately. However, Nazi forces regularly interpreted this order to include any and all Communist Party members. The specialized SS forces sent into the Soviet Union were handpicked based on their personal anticommunist credentials. These were volunteers, drawn from social strata including ex-Freikorps troopers, former police who were responsible for breaking strikes and attacking leftists during the Weimar period, and Nazi brownshirts. 36

All of this shows the folly of the Nazis’ expectation that a political crisis would topple the Stalinist government. Their policies seem purposely intended to drive the population into the arms of Stalin. While there certainly were right-wing and nationalist collaborators who welcomed the invasion, particularly in the Baltic republics and Ukraine, these were a minority. Faced with the choice between extermination at the hands of the Nazis or the undoubtable progress achieved by the revolution since 1917—despite the crimes of the bureaucracy—the overwhelming majority of workers and peasants rallied to the Soviet cause in short order.

The massive Nazi encirclement maneuvers of the early phase of the war produced huge numbers of Soviet prisoners. These men suffered unspeakable fates. The Nazis had no plan whatsoever for accommodating this volume of captured soldiers. Soviet prisoners were denied food and faced forced death marches to the west. Nazi soldiers had orders to shoot Soviet prisoners who collapsed. Many Soviet POWs were herded onto open railroad cars and delivered to concentration camps. Official Nazi reports from 1941 estimated that 25% to 70% of Soviet prisoners died en route to the west. 37 The Nazis also used prisoners for tasks like marching through minefields to clear the way for their own units. 38

By the end of 1941, more than 300,000 Soviet prisoners had died. By the end of the war, this toll climbed to 3.3 million, or an estimated 56% of the total number of Soviet POWs. For comparison, 18% of Nazi prisoners held by the Soviets died in captivity. More than 1.5 million Soviet prisoners returned to the USSR at the end of the war. However, due to Stalin’s orders from the opening phases of the war, all Soviet personnel who surrendered were considered traitors. These Red Army soldiers faced widespread discrimination in the USSR, and many found themselves in the gulags following their release from Nazi internment. Soviet POWs were not legally rehabilitated until 1994. 39

The specialized SS forces sent into the Soviet Union were handpicked based on their personal anticommunist credentials. / Image: Think Defence, Flickr

Stalin’s disastrous role

In late July, fierce battles around Smolensk, along the Minsk-Moscow axis, caused a temporary halt in the Nazi advance. While the Germans still achieved tactical successes, new quantities of Soviet forces put up a stiffer resistance, and the German supply lines were becoming overextended.

Hitler’s generals pressed for a renewed advance on Moscow in order to destroy this hitherto unrecognized Red Army force. However, in August, Hitler chose to halt the advance to redeploy his armored forces for attacks to the north towards Leningrad, and to the south to destroy the Soviet forces in Ukraine and to seize the republic’s agricultural wealth.

As noted, Red Army forces had held up better in the southern sector compared to the rest of the front, and presented a threat to the German southern flank if the Nazis attempted to move on Moscow. But this threat applied equally to the Red Army troops in Ukraine, who were liable to be trapped against Axis forces invading from Romania in the event of a German thrust to the south from the central sector. Red Army commanders were aware of the danger that existed for their troops in Ukraine; however, Stalin expected the Nazis to maintain their attack towards Moscow.

On July 29, Zhukov proposed withdrawing Soviet forces from the Kiev region to reinforce the central sector and shorten the Red Army’s defensive front, allowing them to better concentrate their depleted forces. For this sensible suggestion, Stalin removed Zhukov, his most capable commander, as Chief of Staff. Stalin feared that the abandonment of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, would send a poor signal to his British “allies.” 40 Thus Stalin was more concerned with his standing in the eyes of “democratic” imperialism, which would do nothing to stop Hitler at this stage, than the safety of Moscow and the vast number of Red Army soldiers who were about to fall victim to Hitler’s plan.

The Nazi advance on Kiev, spearheaded by elite panzer units, began in early August. Other Red officers began to clamor for a withdrawal, but Stalin insisted that Kiev be held at any cost. The battle for Ukraine dragged into September, and the situation grew more dire. Even dedicated Stalinist officers like Budyonny, who was in command in Ukraine, began to demand a tactical retreat. On September 13, local commanders issued telegraphs to the Soviet command warning of a catastrophe. Stalin brushed them off as “panicky reports,” and ordered forces in Ukraine to cease their limited retreats. 41

On September 16, Nazi forces completed their encirclement of Red Army troops near Kiev. Orders from the Soviet command to withdraw finally came, but far too late. The encircled forces attempted to fight their way out of the trap. Of the more than 750,000 Red Army troops fighting near Kiev on September 1, only 15,000—including Budyonny and future Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev, then a commissar—escaped. 42

The destruction of the Red Army in Ukraine was an unmitigated calamity, opening a southern axis for the coming advance on Moscow and depriving the beleaguered Red Army defenders in the central sector of much-needed reinforcements. Losses incurred exceeded those in the June battles on the border. The entire Red Army command staff had foreseen this disaster. Only one man—Joseph Stalin—prevented them from doing anything about it.

Stalin brushed off the Nazi advance on Kiev as “panicky reports,” and ordered forces in Ukraine to cease their limited retreats. / Image: Public Domain

Industry, the proletariat, and the war

The USSR’s nationalized planned economy was an inestimable advantage in the struggle against Nazism. However, with the Red Army decapitated and flatfooted, and Soviet leaders bungling the military situation, the impressive industrial achievements of the five-year plans were at risk. Here though, the planned economy offered a solution.

In late June, the State Committee for Defense established the Council for Evacuation to move industrial plants from the western Soviet Union, where most Soviet industry was based, to the Urals and Siberia. This was an enormous and complicated effort, and the state planning agency GOSPLAN coordinated it. As war production increased, the electricity needed to remain on until the last minute before the plants were packed up and shipped off. The evacuation required 1.5 million railcars. 43

In the end, more than 1,500 factories were transferred East by November 1941. They began producing almost immediately, often in improvised log cabins, or even outdoors by the light of enormous bonfires. This is more impressive given the subzero temperatures in which much of this transpired. 44

Those resources that were not movable, like hydroelectric dams and the mines of the Donbas region, were destroyed to deprive the Nazis of their use. Soviet authorities undertook a wholesale destruction of crops in the countryside. German economic agencies were unpleasantly surprised by the lack of resources left behind for them to plunder as their armies advanced deeper into the USSR. This was a severe blow to the Nazi’s plans. The experience of capitalist France, which allowed its entire armaments industry to fall into Nazi hands intact, showed that such measures were impossible in a privately owned, market economy. 45

In its capacity as a Bonapartist ruling clique, the Soviet bureaucracy was able to lean on the Soviet working class in a number of ways. As in other countries faced with fascist domination, workers voluntarily undertook longer shifts in the factories to churn out war materials. The industrial evacuations transferred hundreds of thousands of Soviet workers from the cities to far-flung regions of the USSR. Remote towns and villages in the Soviet hinterlands experienced a doubling or tripling of their populations almost overnight. Soviet authorities also enlisted the urban population to build trenches, bunkers, minefields, and other defenses to aid the Red Army’s defensive battles.

Millions of workers were Red Army reservists, and the rapid mobilization took them directly out of the factories and into uniform. As the situation grew more desperate, dozens of People’s Militia divisions were raised, mainly from militant industrial workers. They received only a few weeks’ training, were afforded scant armaments, and frequently lacked the physical stamina needed in combat. 46 The People’s Militias saw action primarily in the defense of industrial cities like Moscow and Leningrad, and suffered grievous losses.

The People’s Militias saw action primarily in the defense of industrial cities like Moscow and Leningrad, and suffered grievous losses. / Image: Library of Congress, Flickr

The battle for Moscow

Nazi armies completed the encirclement of Leningrad in late September, sealing off the birthplace of the Russian Revolution. Desperate Soviet forces under Zhukov’s command halted the final German push into the city’s outskirts by manning heavy tanks that had just rolled off of the city’s assembly lines. 47 In the face of this resistance, and eager to resume the advance on Moscow, Hitler ordered his armies to settle in for a blockade and continuous bombardment of the city, while withdrawing armored units engaged there back to the central sector. 48 The Siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and killed nearly two million Soviet civilians and military personnel.

Having neutralized Soviet forces in Ukraine and laid siege to Leningrad, Hitler returned his focus to the Moscow front. The Nazis assembled a force of nearly two million men, 1,000 tanks, 14,000 artillery pieces, and 1,390 warplanes. These smashed into the exhausted and depleted Red Army forces near Smolensk, Via’zma, and Briansk—a force of 1.2 million which could muster only 990 mostly obsolete tanks and 667 aircraft. As the Nazi forces surged forward, Stalin again gave inflexible orders for the army to stand its ground, and another massive encirclement ensued. More than a million Red Army troops were lost in this operation, called Typhoon, with 688,000 captured as prisoners. 49

Following this disaster, the Red Army had little available to defend the direct approaches to Moscow. Soviet authorities declared martial law in the city, and the government prepared to evacuate to the East. However, in mid-October, torrential rains turned the Russian roads into rivers of mud, making them nearly impassable for the German mechanized forces. This slowed the fascist advance considerably and gave the Red Army more time to assemble reinforcements before the city. These reinforcements came from all over the Soviet Union—including Mongolian cavalry and experienced forces from the Far East, which were only called to the front at this late hour. Zhukov assumed command of Moscow’s defense.

Nazi forces had to wait until the ground froze in mid-November to resume their attack. They attempted a two-pronged encirclement of Moscow but faced major resistance from the reinforced Soviet armies. Nazi supply lines had grown exceedingly long and were also hampered by the mud and increasing partisan attacks. Luftwaffe squadrons were flying out of improvised forward airfields, which lacked the hangars needed to keep their aircraft operable in poor weather. In contrast, the Soviets were fighting outside of a major industrial and transportation hub, and Soviet aircraft were flying out of permanent military airports.

By the end of November, the snow began. Nazi soldiers routinely had to dig out of more than a meter of snow simply to move in any direction, rendering armored operations extremely difficult. In early December, temperatures plunged to -34 degrees Celsius. This was one of the coldest Russian winters in recorded history. Tank engines needed to be left on at all times lest they freeze, and Nazi fuel supplies depleted rapidly. German soldiers, who expected to spend the winter in occupied Moscow, found themselves camped out in the open. Frostbite and infections swept through the invading armies, which were unprepared for the elements. 50

1941 marked one of the coldest Russian winters in recorded history. / Image: Za Rodinu, Flickr

Nazi troops managed to cross the Volga-Moscow canal, and some reconnaissance units advanced to within eyesight of the Kremlin’s spires. This was the furthest extent of the Nazi attempt to seize Moscow.

On December 1, sensing their adversaries’ exhaustion, the Red Army began a massive counteroffensive against the Nazi forces outside of Moscow. By now, the attrition of the last gasps of Hitler’s offensive had depleted the opposing forces to 388,000 Soviets against 240,000 Nazis.

The Red Army now had the advantage. In these unique conditions, the archaic Soviet preponderance of horse cavalry became an advantage over the now immobile Germans, as horses had an easier time navigating the snowdrifts than Nazi tanks did. Some Red Army troops also had skis, allowing them to maneuver with greater ease than their opponents. Soviet paratroopers, considered the elite of the Red Army and often recruited from the Komsomol Communist youth organizations, dropped into the Nazi rear areas as part of this attack. 51 Zhukov’s forces cut off and destroyed the Nazi spearheads north and south of Moscow, and a Soviet offensive along the entire Moscow front had begun by mid-December. 52

The Soviet counteroffensive provoked a crisis in the Nazi command staff. Hitler, who long distrusted his senior officer corps, copied Stalin’s mistakes in rapid succession: steadfastly forbidding withdrawals, sacking competent commanders like Heinz Guderian, and finally assuming direct command of his armies himself. Between November 1941 and January 1942, four senior German commanders—Reichenau, Rundstedt, von Brauchitsch, and Bock—suffered heart attacks, ailing under the compound stress of the Soviet offensive and Hitler’s unrealizable demands. 53 After several weeks of fighting without supplies in the snow and freezing temperatures, morale among the Nazi forces collapsed. Red Army units reported that even SS forces were fleeing the Soviet advance in disorder. 54

Some Red Army troops also had skis, allowing them to maneuver with greater ease than their opponents. / Image: Still from Moscow Strikes Back, Wikimedia Commons

After Moscow

Enthused by the initial success of the counteroffensive near Moscow, Stalin ordered a general offensive along the entire front in early January 1942. Unfortunately, rather than allowing the Red Army to concentrate its forces against the bulk of the Axis army stranded in the snow outside of Moscow, this approach forced the Soviets to spread their depleted manpower along the entire expansive front. This mistake granted the Nazis precious time to transition from their failed offensive against Moscow into a defensive stance, ultimately permitting most of the invading army to survive the Soviet counterstroke. 55

As the war progressed, the surviving Red Army officer corps painfully absorbed the lessons of their early defeats. Commanders who had proven themselves under fire rose through the ranks, and the Red Army yet again reorganized itself in the heat of the struggle, yielding better results as the war continued. Stalin continued to micromanage the Army through the decisive Battle of Stalingrad, after which the competence and success of Zhukov and other Soviet commanders finally convinced him to allow actual soldiers to run the war. 56 Zhukov went on to lead Red Army troops into Berlin in 1945—and also to smash the Hungarian workers’ political revolution against Stalinism in 1956.

The relocated Soviet factories in the Urals and Siberia churned out more than 4,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft, and 14,000 artillery pieces by the spring of 1942. By contrast, Hitler only recognized the need to subordinate the entire German economy to military production in March 1942. 57 But by then, the situation had stabilized; the USSR was mobilized for war and the tide was turning. The Soviet people and economy went on to overwhelm the Nazis over three more years of industrialized total war.

Stalinism’s failure to topple capitalism in country after country during the revolutionary periods of the 1920s and 30s condemned the Soviet Union—and the world—to the horrible suffering later unleashed by Hitler. Stalin crippled the Red Army on the eve of this titanic conflict, then led it in blundering fashion to disaster after disaster in the war’s first months. Only those gains of the Russian Revolution that had survived the Stalinist degeneration of the USSR—the militant proletariat, the Red Army, and above all, the nationalized, planned economy—were able to stop fascism’s inexorable advance.

80 years since Barbarossa, Marxists are still fighting to end the system that gave rise to this horror. The best way to honor those who fell in the struggle against Hitler is to complete the Bolsheviks’ fight of international socialist revolution so we can put an end to fascism, imperialism, genocide, exploitation, and oppression in all its forms forever.

 


[1] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 200.
[2] Ted Grant. “Defend the Soviet Union—Fascism Can Only be Defeated by International Socialism.” July 1941.
[3] David M. Glantz. and House, Jonathan M. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 284.
[4] Leon Trotsky. “Report on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Red Army.” The First Five Years of the Communist International. Page 59.
[5] Rob Sewell. “The German Revolution of 1923.” Published in Socialist Appeal. https://www.socialist.net/the-german-revolution-of-1923.htm
[6] Karl Marx. The Civil War in France. Wellred, 2021. Page 13.
[7] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Page 165.
[8] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 26.
[9] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 68.
[10] Leon Trotsky. The Revolution Betrayed. Chapter 8.
[11] David M. Glantz. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Pages 28–29.
[12] David M. Glantz. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Page 31.
[13] David M. Glantz. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Page 30.
[14] David M. Glantz. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Pages 31–32.
[15] David M. Glantz. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Page 32.
[16] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Page 161.
[17] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 13.
[18] David M. Glantz. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Page 26.
[19] David M. Glantz. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Page 29.
[20] Ted Grant. History of British Trotskyism. Pages 159-161.
[21] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 64.
[22] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Pages 66–67.
[23] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 24.
[24] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 41.
[25] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 13.
[26] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 30.
[27] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Page 187.
[28] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 68.
[29] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 48.
[30] Timothy Snyder: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Page 411.
[31] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Pages 172–73.
[32] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 57.
[33] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 56.
[34] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Page 174.
[35] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 56.
[36] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Page 177.
[37] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Pages 182–83.
[38] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 57.
[39] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Pages 185–86.
[40] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 119.
[41] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Pages 121–27.
[42] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 129.
[43] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Pages 71–72.
[44] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 72.
[45] William Shirer. The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940. Page 776.
[46] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 68.
[47] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 108.
[48] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 110.
[49] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Pages 136–46.
[50] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Pages 206–207.
[51] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 95.
[52] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 179–81.
[53] Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich at War. Page 210.
[54] David M. Glantz. Operation Barbarossa. Page 182.
[55] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 91.
[56] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Page 129.
[57] Glantz & House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. Pages 101–104.


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