Less than a month before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 andstarted World War II, he signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin. Less than twoyears later, he broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in the early morninghours of June 22, 1941. There were plenty of evidence for German aggressionbefore the war broke out, yet Stalin nevertheless signed the pact whichcontained the secret protocol that divided Poland between Germany and the SovietUnion.
The reason for signing the pact were complex, yet one of the mostimportant ones were the domestic factors. Among them, the terrible effect of thepurges during the 1930s on the population, economy and especially the army. Thepurges were set off on December 1, 1934 with the murder of Sergei Kirov. He wasa member of the Politburo, leader of the Leningrad party apparatus and hadconsiderable influence in the ruling elite.
His concern for the workers inLeningrad and his skill as an orator earned him considerable popularity. Stalinused his murder as a pretext for launching a broad purge that would claimhundreds of thousands of victims and have lasting repercussion felt to this day. Stalin never visited Leningrad again and directed one of his most viciouspost-War purges against the city — Russia’s historic window to the West. Nosegment of the society was left untouched by the purges.
Anyone who caused theslightest suspicion was removed and numerous legislature was enacted to helpenforce them. In 1935 a law was passed which lowered the age of criminalresponsibility. That meant the death penalty could be applied to twelve-year-oldchildren (McCauley, p. 93). There was also a panic response in the primary partyorganizations to expel and “expose” people in order to protect oneselfand to show “vigilance” (Getty, p.
213) The slaughter of armed forcesbegan on 12 June 1937 when Tukhachevsky and some top army men were executed,then spread to lower ranks and then to political comissars. The nave wascompletely decapitated, all eight admirals perishing. Here’s a grave list of thetop dead: ” 3 out of 5 marshals, 14 out of 16 Army commanders Class I andII, 8 out of 8 Admirals, 60 out of 67 Corps Commanders, 136 out of 199Divisional Commanders, 221 out of 397 Brigade Commanders” (McCauley, p. 95)In November 1939, Stalin ordered an attack on Finland to move the frontierfurther away from Leningrad after the Finns did not agree to the concessionsSoviets offered.
This expedition was a complete fiasco. It cost the alreadydecimated Red Army around 200,000 dead and more were wounded, while only 23,000Finns died (McCauley, p. 101). A peace treaty was signed on 12 March, 1940, butthe incompetence and weakness of the Red Army was revealed to the rest of theworld. This is something Hitler filed it away for future use.
After that, andfaced with increasing German aggression, Stalin could not risk being embroiledin a war. Hitler was in a great hurry. An attack on Poland was scheduled forlate August. By the end of July the Nazis realized that they must reachagreement with the Soviets very soon if these plans were to be safelyimplemented.
Hitler agreed to pay the Soviet price for a pact. The public textof the Nazi-Soviet Pact was simply an agreement of nonaggression and neutrality,referring as a precedent to the German-Soviet neutrality pact of 1926 (BerlinTreaty). The real agreement was in a secret protocol which in effect partitionednot only Poland (along the line of the Vistula), but much of Eastern Europe. Tothe Soviets were allotted Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Bessarabia; to theNazis, everything to the West of these regions, including Lithuania. Each of thetwo signatories was to ask the other no questions about the disposition of itsown ”sphere of interest. ” This nonaggression pact, coupled with the tradetreaty and arrangements for large-scale exchange of raw materials and armaments,amounted to an alliance.
Appeasement in Eastern Europe would deflect Germanaggression to the west. Taking into account the disastrous condition of Russianforces brought about from within and the severe problems of the economy, thiswas necessary for Stalin. In a way, by signing the Nazi-Soviet Non-AggressionPact, he was buying as much time as possible to try prepare for the inevitable. The inevitable happened on June 22, 1941. Molotov broke to the Russian peoplethe grim news about the German attack.
Stalin, as if embarrassed by thedisastrous collapse of his hopes, shunned the limelight. He did not utter asingle word in public for almost two weeks. He apparently waited to see what theresults of the first battles would be, what the attitude of Great Britain andthe United States would be, and what the feeling in his own country would be. Locked up with his military leaders, he discussed measures of mobilization andstrategic plans. In the first years of the war, Soviet losses were much higherthan necessary. The true cost of the purges had now to be paid.
Morale was notvery high in the army. About two million prisoners were taken in the first yearof the war. The total reached five million in November 943, and there waswidespread defeatism among the public (McCauley, p. 113). However, not all Sovietcasualties were due to the Germans.
Many senior officers were court-martialedduring this period. “Colonel-General D. G. Pavlov, commander of the WesternFront, his chief of staff and some other officers were called to Moscow,court-martialed and shot on 30 June, 1941 for incompetence. They were unfairlytreated, as was later admitted.
Stalin loosed the NKVD on the military,reminiscent of 1937, and the political police exacted savage retribution onanyone who did not fulfil orders or who had carried out his ordersunsuccessfully”(McCauley, p. 129). Only at Stalingrad, in 1943, did the tideof war turn in favor of the Soviet Union. There are all indication that Hitlercould have easily taken Moscow and Leningrad had he continued north and notturned his attention south towards Ukraine.
Although there is no dispute as tothe horror and losses brought on by Stalin’s paranoid decisions in the 1930s,the actual number of casualties remains uncertain. Only recently have some ofthe most significant archives been declassified and allowed a new wave ofresearch to start up. In addition, many of the records were destroyed at thetime, presumably those with the most sensitive information. Some researchersclaim that “in its worst year approximately only 7.
7% of the Red army’sleadership was discharged” (Getty, p. 213). Another factor complicatingascertaining the actual casualties is political. Subject of Stalin isinextricably linked to ideology, communism, and socialism, topics that hardlyleave anyone without strong emotions on one or the other side. Thus, many workseven with the best intentions of unbiased research can be subconsciously marredby political bias.
There’s hope that with the continued declassification moredocuments will appear from the archives that will be able to shed more light onthis very dark subject. The dispute as to the exact toll of the purges willprobably never be settled. The final count may never be known. However, it willalways remain undisputed that the purges during the 1930s initiated by JosephStalin brought massive repercussion in all sectors of the society and greatlyendangered Soviet Union’s sovereignty and viability.
BibliographyStalinist Terror: New Perspectives, edited by J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, Cambridge University Press, 1993 William R. Keylor, The TwentiethCentury World: An International History, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996Martin McCauley, The Soviet Union Since 1917, Longman Group Limited, New York,1981 Revelations from the Russian Archives, Library of Congress, 1996 http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/intro.html