By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Russia, Germany, and Poland 1917-1945 Part Fifteen

On December 18, 1940, Hitler issued OKW Directive No. 21. It began: “The German Armed Forces must be prepared to crush Soviet Russia in a quick campaign (Operation Barbarossa) even before the conclusion of the war against England.”1  He ordered preparations to start immediately, with the campaign to commence by May 15, 1941. The previous summer, he had asked the OKH to consider the question of attacking the USSR, but their efforts were “desultory and halfhearted.”2 

By December, growing tensions in the Balkans, frustrations over trade, and the continued resistance of Great Britain brought about a change of course.3 Molotov’s visit further convinced Hitler of the unwillingness of the USSR to join a crusade against the British Empire on German terms, as a German vassal. Now Hitler was in earnest. He had decided upon war with the Soviet Union. 

In mid-January, the Wehrmacht began arranging logistics to prepare for the invasion of the Soviet Union.4 Chief of the OKH Franz Halder crafted the initial plan for Barbarossa, which centered on a limited program of conquest with decisive battles to be fought close to the borders. The accompanying political program, where it appeared, would entail forming independent states in Ukraine and the Baltics to be dominated by Germany. But Hitler rejected this “soft war” approach. He would lecture that while the region would be “dissolved into separate states with their own governments,” the real reason for war was eliminating “the Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia, the previous ‘oppressor’ of the people.” “The former bourgeois-aristocratic intelligentsia, which continues to exist,” he added, “particularly among emigrants, must also be discarded.”5 Germany would acquire its Lebensraum in the east. 

In Moscow, it was not immediately apparent German intentions had changed. Schnurre spent much of December and early January with Mikoyan and Molotov, now familiar with each other as negotiators. The results were positive for the Soviets. The Germans agreed to sell Benz 601 aviation engines, Messerschmitt fighters (108, 109, 110s), and Heinkel and Junkers bombers to the Soviet Air Force. This was not quite Germany’s most modern equipment but represented better aircraft than most Soviet designs in mass-production. The Reichsmarine agreed to dispatch engineers and officers to help Soviet shipbuilders finish the cruiser Lützow, sold to the USSR as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.6 Machine tools and other weapons, like anti-aircraft cannons, also joined the list of German exports headed east. In exchange, the USSR agreed to increase grain shipments and other key raw materials. In general, Schnurre recorded, the trade talks were “considerably exceeding our expectations.”7 A final series of economic agreements, signed on January 10, solved ongoing issues in the Baltics and Bessarabia while laying out a pattern that would normalize long-term trade.8 But even as these developments signaled a normalization in Soviet-German relations, there were warning signs of the course change in Berlin. 

On January 17, Ambassador Dekanozov stopped by the German Foreign Ministry to state Soviet concern about the movement of large numbers of German troops in the Balkans, only to be brushed off by his German counterpart.9 But six weeks later, the German Foreign Ministry informed the Soviet government that Bulgaria would be joining the Tripartite Pact and that German troops would be entering that country in large numbers, as British actions had forced German preparations against neighboring Greece. Molotov received this news from Schulenberg with “obvious concern.”10 Two weeks later, the Wehrmacht began hustling a Soviet commission “repatriating” political refugees from Lithuania out of German territory. Officially, the Germans claimed the Soviets had stayed beyond an appointed deadline. Still, in actuality, German intelligence feared the Soviets would observe the growing concentration of German troops along the border.11

Stalin was concerned by these warning signs but also convinced that Hitler would not betray the terms of the treaty, not with his ongoing war against the British Empire. His response was to increase deliveries of raw materials to Germany somewhat.12 If the Germans were satiated until June or July, it would be too late in the season to launch an invasion of the USSR, he concluded, thus buying another year for defensive preparations to be made.13

At the same time, Stalin moved to block the Germans elsewhere. Following Yugoslav acceptance of membership in the tripartite pact, there was a coup in Belgrade. It brought to power a pro-British, anti-German government that promptly resumed negotiations on a military pact with Moscow. To deter potential German intervention, the Soviets immediately finalized a nonaggression pact with the new regime on April 5. Molotov informed Schulenberg that “the Soviet government had been actuated solely by the desire to preserve peace” and pointedly urged that Germany needed to do its part to preserve peace in the Balkans.14 The Germans, who had already massed troops on the border, responded by launching an invasion of Yugoslavia the next day. Stalin’s signal of Soviet interests in the Balkans had been ignored.15 

Stalin also attempted to block a possible Japanese-German alignment against him. In March, Japanese foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka began a trip to Europe that included a visit to Berlin and another to Moscow. In Berlin, Ribbentrop did not tell Matsuoka of the ongoing preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union, but encouraged him to avoid any commitments with Stalin, saying that “Russia had made conditions that were unacceptable” for joining the Tripartite Pact, and that relations were “not very friendly.”16 

During his return through Moscow on April 9, Matsuoka met with Stalin and Molotov to discuss a possible non-aggression pact.17 Given ongoing Japanese preparations for an expansion of the war in East Asia, Matsuoka sought Soviet neutrality, at the very least. Ignoring the German request, he concluded the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact on April 13, 1941.18

After the conclusion of this pact, there was a great deal of drinking. Stalin took the unusual measure of escorting a barely vertical Matsuoka to his train that evening. On the platform, they encountered Ambassador Schulenberg and acting Military Attaché Hans Krebs. Stalin approached, tapped Krebs on the chest, and said, “German?”19 Krebs replied yes. Stalin slapped his back, shook his hands, then said, “We have been friends with you, and we shall remain friends with you.” Krebs replied, taken aback, “I am sure of that.” He had already been recalled to Berlin at that juncture to discuss invasion plans for the Soviet Union. A tipsy Molotov kept yelling the Soviet pioneers’ motto (“I am a pioneer, I am ready!”) in the background.20

The warning signs continued to multiply. That same month, the British ambassador in Moscow and Prime Minister Churchill relayed intelligence about a potential German invasion. Stalin interpreted these messages to mean that the British Empire hoped to entangle Germany and the Soviet Union in war to save itself.21 On May 5, Ambassador Schulenberg, desperate to avoid war, took the unusual step of privately hinting to Soviet diplomats his own government’s intentions for war.22 Stalin may have believed this message was part of a German bluff to drive a better economic deal. Two weeks later, Rudolf Hess, the second-ranking member of the Nazi Party, flew to Scotland on his own initiative to negotiate a peace deal. Stalin again interpreted the information conspiratorially as an indication of a possible British-German peace arrangement directed against the Soviet Union.23 Messages from Richard Sorge in Tokyo, relaying precise information on German military plans, were also read as part of a plan to force the USSR into accepting economic concessions.24 In sum, Stalin interpreted the growing mountain of intelligence as either a provocation or a trap. Stalin had prioritized the expansion of the Red Army above all else over the preceding two years. Between 1939 and June 1941, the Red Army more than tripled in size, but this expansion was “rapid and incoherent.”25 Oversight was so poor that Voroshilov had to report to Stalin in 1940 that the reorganized Soviet Ministry of Defense could not even say definitively how many soldiers were in the Red Army.26 To fill out the huge numbers of empty positions created by expansion and the simultaneous purges, officers were created post-haste through direct commissioning of enlisted personnel and rushed reservist training programs.27 The consequences were predictable: in 1941, one in six officer positions were unfilled (one in three in the Soviet Air Force), 85 percent of Red Army officers were under the age of thirty-five, and only half had completed any formal military education program.28

In the words of historian Roger Reese, when the war began, the Soviet officer corps were “mostly amateurs in skill and civilians in attitude.”29 

The Soviet rearmament program and trade with Germany had done much to remedy the country’s military-industrial weaknesses. Still, weapons production had not kept up with the gigantic increase in the army's size, meaning that many units were poorly armed or had not received much of their equipment by the start of the summer. For instance, front-line tank units on average had received only 35 percent of their armored equipment.30 Nevertheless, on paper, the Red Army was the largest military in the world by mid-June, mustering some 5.37 million men, 25,000 tanks, and 18,000 aircraft, roughly half of which stood directly along the Soviet Union’s western border.31

As these dispositions suggested, Stalin was not blind to the mounting evidence of Hitler’s intentions. But he remained confident Hitler would not fight a war on two fronts, telling his inner circle that “as long as Germany does not settle her account with Britain . . . Germany would not fight on two fronts and would keep to the letter of the obligations undertaken in the non-aggression pact.”32 And he was certain that an ultimatum would immediately precede an attack, a demand for the territory or the raw materials Hitler coveted. Stalin angrily rejected calls for national mobilization, telling Commissar of Defense Timoshenko that mobilization along the frontier would provoke Hitler into war.33

Nevertheless, Stalin began to feel that “danger was imminent,” in the words of Khrushchev.34 He grudgingly permitted Marshal Timoshenko to begin additional preparations as the growth of German military forces along the border became apparent. On June 1, Stalin issued partial secret mobilization orders.35 

On June 2, an order to increase preparedness was dispatched to frontline forces.36 On June 14, the Soviet press publicly signaled its awareness of a German military build-up in Eastern Europe, hoping to change German behavior.37 On June 18 and 19, the Red Army was put on alert. Additional forces began moving toward the border. On the night of June 21, 1941, Stalin paced endlessly, working into the late hours. At 10:20 p.m., following reports of broad border violations and interrogation reports of a German defector suggesting an imminent attack, Stalin allowed his General Staff to issue orders for a national mobilization, just in case. He then went to bed, still unconvinced that Hitler would violate their agreement so soon.38

As Stalin slept, the storm broke. By the early hours of June 22, Germany had concentrated along with the border 3 million soldiers and 690,000 soldiers from the allied armies of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Italy, 600,000 trucks, 3,350 tanks, 7,146 artillery pieces, and 2,770 aircraft.39 Operation Barbarossa began at 3 a.m. local time as 1,280 German aircraft crossed the frontier on their way to bomb cities and airfields throughout Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states.40 Parked in neat rows, more than 1,200 Soviet aircraft would be destroyed on the first day of the war.41

On the ground, three massive Heeresgruppen (Army Groups) of around a million men each began their offensives with orders to drive on Leningrad, Moscow, and Ukraine, respectively. 

Heinz Guderian, promoted to command of Panzer Group 2, was once again tasked with taking Brest-Litovsk, now on the Soviet side of the frontier. He recalled that “on the fateful day of June 22nd, 1941, I went at 02.10 hours to my group command post . . . it was still dark when I arrived there.” He watched as German artillery began pounding Soviet positions at 3:15 a.m. Half an hour later, the sound of airplane engines became clear, followed by the shriek and explosion of Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers launching their attacks. Half an hour after that, German tanks began to rumble across the Bug River, encircling the massive fortress of Brest-Litovsk. When Guderian followed his men across the river and into Soviet territory a few hours later, he “found nobody except some Russian pickets.” The shocked Russian guards took off running at the sight of German armored vehicles. Leonid Rosenberg, a Red Army lieutenant in an artillery battalion, recalled the Soviet experience years later. He woke up to the sound of hundreds of planes flying overhead. “Everyone at first thought it was some huge thunderstorm and then realized it was war. It was sheer horror when the Germans started shelling us. Huge artillery explosions next to us, horses screaming, people screaming for help.”42 Among the officers responding to the attack was the recently pardoned General Gorbatov, still recovering from his time in the Gulag at Kolyma. Upon news of the German attack, he immediately headed for the front. As his forces drew closer to the sounds of battle, he saw huge masses of Red Army soldiers on the roads heading east, away from the German onslaught.43 Inexperienced, poorly led, and often, in the case of reservists, not even familiar with their weapons, they were running away. Gorbatov hardly knew where to start. He went to stop the rout of one regiment, screaming “Halt! Halt! Halt!” than ordering them to “about-face” and lay down with their weapons toward the enemy. As he shouted orders, one confused soldier told the general, “We saw everyone else retreating, and so we began to retreat as well.”44 When he had a moment to pause, Gorbatov later recalled, “My earlier fears still made my hair stand on end: how were we going to be able to fight when we had lost so many experienced commanders even before the war? had started?”45 The result was chaos and carnage: during the first eighteen days of the invasion, the Soviets averaged 44,000 casualties a day.46 

Rarely in the annals of history have two opponents spent so much time preparing each other for war. Invading German forces marched on rubber boots made with materiel shipped over the Trans-Siberian railroad. 47 Their rations included Soviet grain, which had continued to arrive until the very day of the invasion. Their ammunition contained chrome, nickel, steel, and manganese from the USSR. German vehicles and aircraft drew heavily from the legacy of engineering work conducted in Russia and were fueled by oil pumped in the Caucasus. 

Many senior German commanders had trained in the USSR, quite a few even spoke good Russian from their time there. And when they issued orders, they drew at least in part from lessons learned alongside the Red Army between 1922 and 1933.

Across the lines, the story was much the same. Although few living Soviet officers had trained alongside the Germans, most had been trained in facilities reorganized along German lines, and in some instances, staffed by German officers. Their operations were managed by a Soviet General Staff modeled on its German counterpart and reporting to Marshal Timoshenko, who had studied in Germany in 1931. The tanks, aircraft, and artillery the Red Army used to resist the German invasion drew heavily from German designs, in some instances, copies of German designs produced under license or equipment acquired as part of the various Soviet-German economic agreements. Many of their vehicles were powered by German-designed engines. And much of their equipment had been built in factories constructed with German help, equipped with German machine tools, and powered by coal mining in the Ruhr and Saar.48

As the news of German attacks began to filter in from the west, Stalin reacted with disbelief; surely Hitler would not just attack “like some brigand.”49 He told Foreign Minister Molotov to find German ambassador Schulenberg. As dawn broke over Moscow, Schulenberg arrived at Molotov’s office, accompanied by the long-serving German diplomat Gustav Hilger.50 As Molotov sat quietly, Schulenberg began reading a memorandum accusing the Soviet Union of breaking the German-Soviet Pact.51 Schulenberg concluded his remarks, and a pregnant silence hung in the air. Molotov asked, “Is this supposed to be a declaration of war?” Schulenberg merely shrugged. Molotov replied heatedly that it could be nothing else, as “German troops have already crossed the Soviet border, and Soviet cities, like Odesa, Kyiv, and Minsk, have been bombed by German aircraft for an hour and a half.”52 Schulenberg said nothing. At the end of the interview, “all Molotov could stutter was, ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ ”53


Part One:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part One

Part Two:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Two

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 Fourteen:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fourteen


Apart from the archival documents listed in the footnotes following is a list of published sources that have been used:

1. Adolf Hitler, “Directive No. 21,” 18 December 1940, NSR, 260–264.

2. Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance, 211, citing Warlimont Diary. OKH head General Franz Halder’s War Diary also contains no mention of serious planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union until January 1941. Clearly, no final decision had yet been made. See Halder, Halder War Diary, IV.

3. See Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion for the Balkan case; Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle and Rolf-Dieter Müller, Enemy in the East, 233–238 for the economic case; and Andreas Hillgruber’s Hitlers Strategie. Politik und Kriegführung, 1940–1941 (Munich: Bernard und Graefe, 1965/1982) for first articulating the primacy of ideology in Hitler’s war plans.

4. Halder, War Diary, V, 90–94.

5. Rolf-Dieter Müller, Enemy in the East, 240.

6. Philbin, The Lure of Neptune, 127.

7. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 149.

8. Ibid., 152.

9. “The State Secretary in the German Foreign Office (Weizsacker) to the Reich Foreign Minister,” 17 January 1941, NSR, 268.

10. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 1 March 1941, NSR, 278.

11. “Foreign Office Memorandum (Ritter),” 13 March 1941, NSR, 279.

12. “Memorandum on the Present Status of Soviet Deliveries of Raw Materials to Germany,” 5 April 1941, NSR, 318.

13. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 164, 169–171.

14. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 4 April 1941, NSR, 316–318.

15. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 6 April 1941, NSR, 320.

16. “Memorandum of the Conversation between the Reich Foreign Minister and Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka in the Presence of Ambassadors Ott and Oshima at Berlin on March 27, 1941,” 27 March 1941, NSR, 284.

17. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office), 10 April 1941, NSR, 321–322.

18. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 13 April 1941, NSR, 322–323.

19. Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion, 198.

20. Ibid., 198; Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 852.

21. Gorodetsky, “Stalin and Hitler’s Attack on the Soviet Union,” 348.

22. Ingeborg Fleischhauer, Diplomatischer Widerstand gegen “Unternehmen Barbarossa”: Die Friedensbemühungen der Deutschen Botschaft Moskau 1939–1941 [Diplomatic Resistance against “Operation Barbarossa: The Peace Efforts of the German Embassy in Moscow, 1939–1941] (Berlin: Ullstein, 1991), 318–320.

23. Gorodetsky, “Stalin and Hitler’s Attack on the Soviet Union,” 351.

24. Ibid., 350–351.

25. Roger Reese, Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers, 202.

26. David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 54.

27. Reese, Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers, 130–131.

28. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 893; Yuri Y. Kirshin, “The Soviet Armed Forces on the Eve of the Great Patriotic War,” in From Peace to War, ed. Bernd Wegner, 382.

29. Reese, Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers.

30. Kirshin, “The Soviet Armed Forces on the Eve of the Great Patriotic War,” 385. For similar figures on the lack of preparation in Soviet air units, see Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 202.

31. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 892; Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 204.

32. Gorodetsky, “Stalin and Hitler’s Attack on the Soviet Union,” 347.

33. Ibid., 356.

34. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 892–894.

35. Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 104.

36. David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015), 50; Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, 10, 206.

37. Gorodetsky, “Stalin and Hitler’s Attack on the Soviet Union,” 352.

38. Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 898–899.

39. Glantz and House, When Titans Clashed, 34. Italian forces did not actually reach the front until July.

40. Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 635–636; Glantz and House, When Titans Clashed, 57.

41. Glantz and House, When Titans Clashed, 57.

42. “Interview with Leonid Rosenberg, Witness: Operation Barbarossa,” Witness History Podcast Series, BBC News, 2011, accessed 2015,

43. Gorbatov, Years Off My Life, 157.

44. Ibid., 160.

45. Ibid., 157.

46. Craig W. H. Luther, The First Day on the Eastern Front (Guilford, CT: Stackpole Books, 2019), 339.

47. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 179.

48. Ibid.

49. Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 637.

50. Some twenty years earlier, the latter had been responsible for the early POW exchanges as the unofficial representative of Weimar Germany in Russia.

51. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenburg) to the German Foreign Office,” 22 June 1941, NSR, 355.

52. Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 640.

53. Richard Overy, Russia’s War (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 74. 


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