By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Russia, Germany, and Poland 1917-1945 Part Fourteen
At dawn on May 10, the Luftwaffe began bombing airfields in the Low Countries and France. The poorly equipped French Air Force could do little to respond. At first, it seemed that the heaviest German concentrations were being launched against the Netherlands and Belgium. But per Erich von Manstein’s operational plan - Fall Gelb IV (Plan Yellow Four) - the main thrust in fact came from the Wehrmacht’s Army Group A, racing through the heavily wooded, hilly Ardennes of Belgium and Luxembourg. General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps spearheaded this force, containing three of Germany’s Panzer divisions. Their aim was to reach the English Channel, resulting in the encirclement of the British and French armies that were already moving into the Low Countries to block the perceived German advance there.1 On May 13, 1940, Colonel Friedrich Kühn, formerly an instructor at Kama, took part in the largest armored battle up to that point in history.2 His Third Panzer Brigade had crossed into southeastern Belgium as part of Army Group B less than seventy-two hours earlier. Lead elements of two of his regiments encountered a French armored detachment of thirty or so machines. Kühn’s Panzers, mostly light Panzer Is and IIs, were less well armored and armed than their slower, heavier French opponents. They possessed one critical advantage, however: radios. The French, who coordinated between their vehicles with signal flags, soon found themselves at a distinct disadvantage. As soon as the two sides opened fire, French commander Le Bel battened down the hatch of his vehicle and immediately lost the ability to coordinate with the rest of his unit. Kühn’s tanks experienced losses, but soon outflanked Le Bel’s squadron. Suffering casualties from the air and from those heavier German tanks that soon joined the fight, Le Bel had no choice but to retreat. The German XVIth Corps diary, of which the Third Panzer Brigade was a part, noted for the day that “the Germany Panzer arm feels itself superior to the enemy.”3
That superiority depended on years of preparatory work involving not just the tanks themselves, but aircraft designs, radios, the training of personnel, and the doctrine to use them in conjunction. Many of those elements depended on the work conducted in the Soviet Union. Although still relatively few in number, about one third of the German armored force in 1940, the German Panzer III and IVs were, in the words of one armor officer, “superior to all French tanks” encountered during the Battle of France.4
This was as much a product of doctrine and training as of technology, but those German tanks were generally faster and more reliable in the field. And most importantly, thanks to the three-man turret devised at Kama, German commanders were freed to concentrate on the battlefield, rather than loading and firing the main gun. 5 Also critical for German success was the frequent use of close air support, provided primarily in 1940 by Hermann Pohlmann’s Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber, a plane developed directly from prototypes tested at Lipetsk. And radios, drawing from experimentation conducted at Kama, allowed the close coordination that enabled German tactical and operational doctrine to succeed. Foreign journalists would call this new German style of warfare “Blitzkrieg”, lightning war. The thrust of Army Group A succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of planners at the OKW. Guderian, whose XIX Panzer Corps began to reach the Channel coast on May 20, felt the plan’s success was “almost a miracle.”6 Over the next two weeks, British and French forces in Belgium beat a hasty retreat in the face of constricting encirclement. Many, particularly British soldiers, were saved by the skillful naval evacuation of Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk. Nonetheless, on June 22, the French government surrendered. Stalin’s hopes of a long, bloody war in the West had ended in six short weeks. His reaction to the news was despondency: “Hitler was sure to beat our brains in,” he told Nikita Khrushchev.7 Hitler had not expected the war to come to so rapid a close, either. Initial planning for the campaign had only aimed to seize enough territory in northeastern France to defend the Ruhr and to mount aerial attacks against Great Britain, not entirely defeat France.8 The triumphant Hitler toured Paris on June 23, returned to a jubilant Berlin, then began discussing next steps for German strategy. Following the defeat of France, Hitler expected the Soviets to make greater concessions to German interests and speed up raw material deliveries, even though German weapons exports to the USSR were well behind schedule. The Soviets did not show the slightest inclination to do so, however, and significant delays continued in raw material deliveries.9 In fact, so tardy were Soviet deliveries that the Nazis began to relabel imports from Slovakia with “Made in the USSR” to convince the German public that something was being gained from partnership with the Communists.10 Other events following the Fall of France further tested the Soviet-German partnership. Soviet leadership decided that the combat in the west provided an opportunity to seize territories that had fallen into the Soviet sphere of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On June 15 and 16, Molotov issued ultimata to all three Baltic states. The Red Army then invaded each the following week. On June 23, Stalin moved troops to the borders to Romanian Bessarabia, which had previously been protected by a guarantee from Britain and France. While the Germans had acknowledged their “disinterestedness” in Bessarabia in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, they found Stalin’s threat to seize the territory alarming, not least as it threatened the delivery of oil supplies from Romania.11 Given the failure of the USSR to supply the hoped-for quantities of oil, Romania was Germany’s most important source; the Soviet move thus proved a strategic threat.12 It raised further German suspicions when Molotov informed them the Soviets planned to claim Bukovina, a Romanian territory that had not been included in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.13 When Schulenberg met with Molotov on June 26 to discuss Soviet plans, Molotov agreed to slightly modify Soviet claims, but stated firmly that “the Soviet Government expected German support of this Soviet demand.”14 Two days later, the Soviets invaded Bessarabia, too. The Soviet occupation of northern Romania triggered a land grab as Romania’s neighbors Hungary and Bulgaria sought territories at Romania’s expense. They both began making demands against the Romanian government, and in Hungary’s case, preparing for an invasion to secure large portions of Transylvania.15 Hitler, eager to avoid the partition of Romania, or even worse, a war that would disrupt Romanian oil exports, organized a summit with Mussolini in Vienna on August 30. The result was the Second Vienna Award, whereby Bulgaria and Hungary received most of their territorial demands, and Germany and Italy guaranteed the remainder of Romania. Hitler did not consult the Soviet Union before this redistribution of much of the Balkans. On August 31, Molotov protested to Schulenberg in Moscow that the Soviet government had only learned of the award via a radio news broadcast. He added that the Soviet government considered the German government to have violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s terms regarding consultation on matters of mutual significance.16
Learning of this in Berlin, Ribbentrop ordered Schulenberg to present Molotov with a harshly worded report in reply indicating the Germans viewed the Soviets as having violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s terms in their invasions of the Baltic states and Bessarabia.17 The Germans also notified the Soviets they were abandoning the naval base offered them at Zapadnaia Litsa, as it was no longer necessary to the German war effort.18 In addition, the Germans announced they were moving troops through Finland to Norway, though in fact they would remain in Finland assisting that government. Finally, Italy, Japan, and Germany signed the Tripartite Pact at the end of September 1940, forming a defensive alliance that Moscow saw as potentially dangerous. As relations frayed, the German war effort faced at a crucial moment. On August 7, 1940, Göring’s Luftwaffe had launched Adlertag (Eagle Day), a thousand-bomber raid targeting Royal Air Force bases across Southern England. It was the beginning of the Battle of Britain, where the British would contest the skies in an effort to stave off a possible German invasion of the United Kingdom. In early September, German tactics changed. Now, the Luftwaffe began targeting the city of London, inaugurating the Blitz, which would kill over 43,000 British citizens and leave more than 1.5 million homeless. During three critical months of aerial combat between August and October, the Soviets threatened to suspend all raw material deliveries, citing German delays in delivering military equipment and machine tools.19 Stalin was tightening the flow of supplies in the face of German victories, as British defeat or withdrawal from the war might turn Hitler eastward, an eventuality to be avoided at all costs. Stalin also kept communications open with the new Churchill government that fall.20
Hitler learned of the Soviet-British communications, adding to a growing list of issues with his Soviet partner on trade, the Balkans, and the status of Lithuania’s border, which remained unresolved.21 In September, a former diplomat now in military service informed Ambassador Schulenberg that Hitler was considering an attack against Russia. Desperate to avoid this outcome, Ostpolitiker Schulenberg persuaded the Foreign Ministry and, eventually, Hitler to a meeting with Molotov to settle outstanding issues with Moscow.22 To that end, Ribbentrop sent a letter directly to Stalin inviting Molotov to discussions in Berlin on October 13.23 It concluded with the bold pronouncement that “I should like to state that, in the opinion of the Führer . . . it seems to be the historical mission of the Four Powers, the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan and Germany, to adopt a long-range policy and to direct the future development of their peoples into the right channels by delimitation of their interests of a worldwide scale.”24 It seemed the Führer wanted to discuss a partition of the globe with Molotov in person. Vyacheslav Molotov did not like to fly, and had never traveled abroad before. He accordingly decided he would make the journey to Berlin via train. Ambassador Schulenberg and Hilger planned to accompany him, along with a contingent of more than sixty Soviet aides and security personnel. Seeing Molotov off at the station were all five marshals of the Soviet Union, tipsy after a reception at the Japanese embassy, their presence gave some hint of the importance of the mission.25 Molotov’s instructions, besides confronting the Germans over Soviet concerns in Finland, Romania, and over the Tripartite Pact, were to “determine the further intentions of Hitler, and as much as possible delay a German aggression.”26 His journey to Berlin did not go without incident, marred by a dispute at the border. Germany and the USSR had different rail gauges, each of which had been extended into conquered Poland; that meant passengers usually had to change trains at the border. To that end, the Germans had a luxurious German train waiting at the Eydtkuhnen border crossing. But the Soviets refused to board it, instead demanding that their own train be converted onto the other gauge. The Soviet reason was simple, as one of the Soviet delegates recorded: “Undoubtedly their carriages were not only equipped with a fine bar, but with a fine lot of bugging apparatus, too.”27 The delegation refused to even eat in the restaurant car on board the train until they received permission from Moscow.28 A compromise was eventually reached, with a German locomotive pulling the Soviet carriages onward from the border. Molotov disembarked at Anhalter station in Berlin on the rainy morning of November 12. Alongside German plenipotentiaries, Ribbentrop, Keitel, Henrich Himmler, Franz von Papen, a military band began to play a rapid version of the socialist Internationale to greet him. Ribbentrop worried that locals might sing along in German should they hear it, and so asked the band to speed through it as quickly as possible.29 Molotov and his entourage were then herded into German Mercedes, and driven down empty streets to their hotel, a sign of disfavor when the Japanese foreign minister would be received by throngs of Berliners organized by the Nazis not long thereafter.30 The Soviet delegation was to spend their visit in the luxurious neoclassical Bellevue Palace, former home of Prussian princes and today the official residence of Germany’s presidents. After a hearty lunch served by liveried staff, Molotov was transported to Ribbentrop’s ostentatious office in the German Foreign Ministry. There, Ribbentrop subjected the Soviet foreign minister to a long, rambling monologue that lasted nearly an hour.31 The central theme was that the British and French empires were doomed. In light of that fact, Ribbentrop inquired “whether Soviet Russia could not derive corresponding advantages from the new order of things” alongside the Germans, Italians, and Japanese.32 Ribbentrop said the Führer believed that the Soviet Union should seek its “Lebensraum” to the south along the sea. A stolid Molotov asked which sea Ribbentrop had in mind, to which Ribbentrop replied with another long rant before indicating that he meant the Persian Gulf. When Ribbentrop had concluded, Molotov indicated briefly that before they divided the world, Germany and the USSR needed to address the existing “spheres of influence between Germany and Russia. The establishment of these spheres of influence in the past year was only a partial solution, which had been rendered obsolete and meaningless by recent circumstances and events.”33 With that cold water tossed on his grandiose schemes, Ribbentrop adjourned the meeting to allow Molotov another meal before his audience with Hitler. Hitler had issued a directive to the OKW that morning, ordering German forces to concentrate on the war against Great Britain, possibly through the seizure of Gibraltar and other attacks in the Mediterranean.34 But near the bottom of his memorandum, a sentence noted that “political discussions aimed at establishing Russian intentions in the near future have been initiated. Regardless of the results of these meetings, all oral orders to continue preparations in the east are to be followed.”35 Those orders included Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights over the Soviet border to photograph Soviet defenses, which Hitler had commanded a few days earlier. And even as Molotov arrived, Wehrmacht officers were running secret war games with the Soviet Union as the adversary. Clearly, Hitler was contemplating an invasion of the USSR. At the same time, he expressed his hope to subordinates that he could convince Stalin, through Molotov, to join his war against Great Britain as an ally.36 Hitler arranged to meet Molotov in his offices at the New Reichskanzlei building. This gargantuan, neoclassical complex had been finished just the year before. Hitler had informed his favorite architect, Albert Speer, “I shall be holding extremely important conferences in the near future. For those, I need grand halls and salons which will make an impression on people, especially on the smaller dignitaries.”37 To reach Hitler’s office in this Nazi monument, Molotov and his entourage were driven through giant gates to a “court of honor.” They passed through a series of anterooms to a grand marble-floored gallery, almost 500 feet long and sporting a giant domed ceiling, twice the length of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, as Hitler liked to tell guests. Then, at last, the Soviet delegation reached Hitler’s reception hall and his office, a cavernous room with fifty-foot ceilings, dark stone walls, and a massive fireplace. Behind an ornate baroque desk sat the Führer, who rose and moved silently to the center of the room to greet the Soviet foreign minister before directing the party to sit in armchairs in front of the fireplace.38 Molotov’s afternoon session in Hitler’s office followed much the same trajectory as had his interview with Ribbentrop. The German leader was as expansive and heavy-handed as the room in which they sat. He began by saying that “in the life of peoples it was indeed difficult to lay down a course for development over a long period in the future.” He went on to note that “in the case of Russia and Germany, moreover, two very great nations were involved which need not by nature have any conflict of interests, if each nation understood that the other required certain vital necessities without the guarantee of which its existence was impossible.”39 Again, his aim was the division of the world, with Germany claiming, in addition to its European territories, colonial possessions in Central Africa. Hitler surveyed German relations with Italy, Japan, and Vichy France before returning to the opportunities presented to the USSR by partnership with Germany. Molotov gave a brief reply to Hitler’s long-winded remarks, noting only that the Führer’s words had been of a “general nature,” and that “in general he could agree with their reasoning.”40 He then stated that he was now to relay the view of Stalin, as “Stalin had given him exact instructions.” What followed was a list of Soviet grievances: Was Germany honoring the pact with regard to Finland? What was the nature of the Tripartite Pact between Italy, Japan, and Germany? How, in the German view, did Japan define its sphere of influence in the Far East? What about the status of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey? Only after some vague replies from Hitler did Molotov mellow his tone, agreeing that “the participation of Russia in the Tripartite Pact appeared to him entirely acceptable in principle, provided that Russia was to cooperate as a partner and not be merely an object.”41 A possible air raid caused the meeting to end abruptly, with talks to resume the following day. The discussions the next day did not break the deadlock, however. The tone remained the same: Hitler theatrical, Molotov impassive, the former seeking to discuss global spheres of influence while the latter demanded the removal of German troops in Finland and Romania, information about the Tripartite Pact, and much more besides.42 Molotov later described Hitler’s offering up fresh conquests as “not a serious conversation.”43 It was clear in his mind that Hitler’s goal was to get the USSR in the war against Great Britain.44 Molotov followed directions from Stalin to “stand up” to Hitler, which he did; the meeting concluded without even an agreement for a reciprocal visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow. Hitler, for his part, seems to have been frustrated by Molotov’s intransigence.45 During Molotov’s final night in Berlin, Soviet ambassador Vladimir Dekanozov hosted a large banquet for German and Soviet guests at the Soviet embassy. Molotov once again met with Ribbentrop amid plentiful caviar and vodka.46 British bombers crashed the party at 9:45 p.m., driving the guests into a bunker under the embassy.47 For over two hours, the two foreign ministers continued their conversations underground. Ribbentrop became more explicit as the night wore on, revealing a draft text of Soviet membership in the Tripartite Pact, a full military alliance. He made clear that the “decisive question” was whether or not the USSR would “cooperate with us in the great liquidation of the British Empire.”48 Molotov retorted that “the Germans were acting as if the war against Great Britain had already been won.” Ribbentrop asserted it had been, but amid the air raid sirens and anti-aircraft fire, Molotov retorted, “why are we in this shelter, and whose are those bombs that fall?”49 The “party” finally concluded around midnight, without result. Molotov returned to Moscow, in the words of one diplomat, “swollen-headed and puffed up,” confident his mission had been a success.50 Eleven days later, Molotov presented Schulenberg with the Soviet government’s reply to the German proposal that they join the Tripartite Pact. Included was a long list of Soviet demands: the withdrawal of German troops from the Soviet periphery in Finland and elsewhere; a Soviet protectorate over Bulgaria; Soviet bases along the Dardanelles in Turkey; recognition of the “area south of Batum and Baku in the Persian Gulf” (much of the Middle East) as a Soviet sphere of influence; and Japanese renunciation of territorial claims over North Sakhalin.51 Molotov noted this would require German assistance in negotiating five different protocols with Soviet neighbors to redress Soviet claims and concerns. This was the price of a formal military alliance with the USSR. It was too much for Hitler. Despite repeated inquiries from Moscow, there was no German reply.52
Part Three: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Three
Part Four: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Four
Part Five: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Five
Part Six: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Six
Part Seven: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Seven
Part Eight: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eight
Part Nine: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Nine
Part Ten: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Ten
Part Eleven: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eleven
Part Twelve: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Twelve
Part Thirteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Thirteen
Part Fifteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fifteen
1. Jackson, The Fall of France, 37.
2. Gunsburg, “The Battle of the Belgian Plain,” 232.
4. Doyle, Chamberlain, and Jentz, Panzertruppen, 123, quoting the commander of Panzer-Regiment 35, Colonel Eberbach.
5. Zaloga, Panzer IV vs. Char B1 bis: France 1940, 24.
6. Guderian, Panzer Leader, 113.
7. Gabriel Gorodetsky, “Stalin and Hitler’s Attack on the Soviet Union,” in From Peace to War, ed. Bernd Wegner, 347.
8. Murray, Strategy for Defeat, 33.
9. Zeidler, “German-Soviet Economic Relations during the Hitler-Stalin Pact,” 108.
10. Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance, 173.
11. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 23 June 1940, NSR, 155.
12. It was likely intended by Stalin to remove a potential invasion route should Germany attack, while also weakening Germany’s hand in the Balkans. The Soviets also attempted to monopolize trade on the Danube through the blocking of the only navigable arm of the river into the Black Sea. Gabriel Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 31–33, 47.
13. “The Reich Foreign Minister (Ribbentrop) to the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg),” 25 June 1940, NSR, 158–159.
14. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 26 June 1940, NSR, 161–162.
15. Ignác Romsics, “Hungarian Revisionism in Thought and Action, 1920–1941: Plans, Expectations, Reality,” in Territorial Revisionism and the Allies of Germany in the Second World War: Goals, Expectations, Practices, eds. Marina Cattaruzza, Stefan Dyroff, and Dieter Langewiesche (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012), 92–101, 98.
16. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 1 September 1940, NSR, 180–181.
17. “The Reich Foreign Minister to the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg),” 3 September 1940, NSR, 181–183.
18. “The German Foreign Office to the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg),” 5 September 1940, NSR, 185.
19. “Foreign Office Memorandum (Schnurre),” 26 September 1940, NSR, 196; “Foreign Office Memorandum (Schnurre),” 28 September 1940, NSR, 199–201.
20. Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion, 90–91.
21. Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 493–497.
22. Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion, 67–69.
23. “Letter from the Reich Foreign Minister (Ribbentrop) to Stalin,” 13 October 1940, NSR, 207–213.
24. Ibid., 213.
25. Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 510–511.
26. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 806.
27. Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 511.
28. Ibid., 512.
29. Ibid., 513.
30. Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance, 197.
31. “Memorandum of the Conversation between the Reich Foreign Minister and the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the U.S.S.R. and People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, V. M. Molotov,” 12 November 1940, NSR, 217–225.
32. Ibid., 222.
33. Ibid., 225.
34. “Weisung Nr. 18 für die Kriegführung,” 12 November 1940, Hitlers Weisungen für die Kriegfuhrung, 1939–1945: Dokumente des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht, ed. Walther Hubatsch (Bonn: Bernard und Graefe Verlag für Wehrwesen, 1962), 68–72.
35. Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance, 196
36. Franz Halder, Halder War Diary, Volume V (Office of Chief of Counsel for War Crimes, 1947), 3, quoted in Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 814. Chief of the OKH Franz Halder recorded in his diary earlier that month that “the Führer hopes he can bring Russia into the anti-British front.”
37. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 102.
38. Ibid., 103–104.
39. “Memorandum of the Conversation between the Führer and the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Molotov, in the Presence of the Reich Foreign Minister, the Deputy People’s Commissar, Dekanosov as Well as the Counselor of Embassy Hilger and Herr Pavlov, Who Acted as Interpreters,” 12 November 1940, NSR, 226
40. Ibid., 232.
41. Ibid., 233.
42. “Memorandum of the Conversation between the Führer and the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Molotov, in the Presence of the Reich Foreign Minister, the Deputy People’s Commissar, Dekanosov as Well as the Counselor of Embassy Hilger and Herr Pavlov, Who Acted as Interpreters,” 13 November 1940, NSR, 234.
43. Molotov Remembers, 15.
45. Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion, 74–75. Gorodetsky argues that Hitler’s aim was to force the USSR to concede the Balkans as an entirely German sphere of influence, and that it was ongoing clashes over Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Danube transit rights, and the Montreux Convention on the Dardanelles that really underlay the inability of the two sides to reach any sort of compromise in November.
46. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 808.
47. “Memorandum of the Final Conversation between Reich Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop and the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the U.S.S.R. and People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Herr Molotov, on 13 November 1940,” NSR, 247.
48. Ibid., 248–249.
49. Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance, 209.
50. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 810.
51. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 26 November 1940, NSR, 258–259.
52. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 17 January 1941, NSR, 270.