The Unwelcome Alliance

In 1989, in the bleak remoteness of the southern Ural mountain range, Russian archeologists excavated an abandoned gold mine near Chelyabrinsk. Unlike members of related crafts in other countries, they were not digging for prehistoric fossils or for evidence of ancient settlements. Some 300,000 corpses ultimately exhumed from the mine were victims of Soviet purges. Discovery of another mass burial site near Minsk yielded the remains of 102,000 more, including a large number of women.111 Archeologists uncovered nearly 50,000 bodies at an isolated grave site between Chabarovsk and Vladivostok, plus 46,000 buried around Gorno-Altaisk, Bykovnya, and St. Petersburg.

Stalin and the Politburo employed mass executions to crush public opposition to their program to transform Russia’s agrarian economy into one based on heavy industry. Industrialization was a prerequisite for remolding the Red Army into a modern, mechanized strike force capable of supporting Communist revolutions abroad through direct intervention. Moscow financed the purchase of the required military technology and machinery from the United States and Weimar Germany by exporting timber and grain. It brought huge quantities of grain to market annually: Soviet functionaries, aided by the state police, the NKVD, simply confiscated harvests from the rural population. Contemporary researchers estimate that the resulting famine claimed approximately a million lives in southern Russia and in the northern Caucasus region, another million in Kasachstan, and four million in the Ukraine.

In 1932, at the peak of this state-sponsored mass starvation, Stanislav Kosior, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukraine, implored the Politburo to provide foodstuffs for the distressed populace. That June, Stalin personally wrote in response, “In my opinion, the Ukraine has received more than it is entitled to."112

The NKVD combated local resistance to Soviet “collectivism” through terror and mass arrests. Between May and September 1931, for example, it shipped 1,243,860 farmers and their family members to forced labor camps called gulags, sited in remote and inhospitable regions such as northern Siberia. Over 40 percent of those deported were children. In May 1935, Soviet records listed 1,222,675 people confined to gulags, almost all of whom had been farmers.113 A large percentage of them subsequently perished from disease, hunger and the cold. Those who had fought back, labeled “saboteurs” or “counter-revolutionaries” in Communist jargon, the NKVD dealt with less mercifully. It arrested an estimated 20 million people from 1935 to 1941, seven million of whom suffered summary execution. In October/November 1937, during a five-night period, the Leningrad NKVD deputy Matveev, assisted part-time by another official, personally shot 1,100 inmates.114

Like democracy, Communism was an ideology for export: The Soviet economist Joseph Davidov stated in 1919, “Not peace, but the sword will carry the dictatorship of the proletariat to the world.” Marshal Tukhachevsky wrote in 1920, “The war can only end with the establishment of a worldwide proletarian dictatorship.” The USSR’s secret police chief, Felix Dzerzhinski, announced, “We're starting to take over the entire world without concern for the sacrifices we must make.” The senior Soviet official Karl Radek remarked, “We were always in favor of revolutionary wars. . . . A bayonet is a very important thing and indispensable for introducing Communism.” Stalin himself said this to a graduating class of Red Army officer cadets: “The Soviet Union can be compared to a savage, predatory beast, concealed in ambush in order to lure his prey in and then pounce on him with a single leap."115

Hitler had no illusions about the Soviet threat. His party membership included German army veterans who had served on the eastern front during World War I and had witnessed the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Testimony of refugees and reports from diplomatic missions inside Russia provided ample evidence of Soviet intentions and methods. Lenin had publicly stated that the key to Europe’s domination was controlling Germany. The Comintern, Moscow’s international organization for subversion and revolution, assigned priority to the German Reich and to China. At the Communist party congress in January 1934, Stalin told delegates, “The war will not just take place on the front lines, but in the enemy’s hinterland as well."116 Hitler made protecting Germany from Soviet aggression the cornerstone of his foreign policy. In so doing, he encountered resistance from the German aristocracy; a stratum ironically near the top of Marxism’s hit list.

Less wealthy than its social counterpart in England, Germany’s titled class dominated the army’s leadership cadre and the foreign office. Both contributed to an era of Soviet-German cooperation that began with ratification of the Rapallo Treaty in 1922. War Minister Otto Gessler negotiated an agreement with Moscow enabling the Germans to build factories inside the USSR to design, manufacture, and test weapons forbidden the Reich by the Versailles system. The Junkers aeronautic firm developed new combat aircraft there without the knowledge of the Western democracies, thus avoiding retaliatory sanctions. A secret military compact in 1923 arranged for German pilots to participate in six-month flight instruction courses in Soviet air academies. Russian engineers learned how to construct aircraft assembly plants from Junkers.117 German general staff officers sent to the Soviet Union helped modernize the Red Army, by schooling its commanders in strategic operations and logistics.

During the 1920s, the prominent German industrialist Arnold Rechberg strengthened ties with French and Belgian heavy industry in order to develop an anti-Soviet economic bloc. The German army thwarted his endeavors. In 1926, the Soviet and German governments expanded the Rapallo Treaty through the Berlin Agreement. This was primarily a safeguard against Poland, and corresponded to the anti-Polish tendency in the Reich’s Foreign Office and in the Soviet hierarchy. Many German career diplomats advocated Bismarck’s previous policy of maintaining good relations with Russia.

In 1933, the German ambassador in Moscow, Rudolf Nadolny, presented the newly appointed Chancellor Hitler with a memorandum arguing the merits of an Eastern orientation over a pro-Western policy. He pleaded his case to the Führer in a personal interview. Throughout the Weimar period of superficial cooperation, however, the Comintern had worked hand-in-hand with the Communist Party of Germany to provoke a revolution. Hitler rejected Nadolny’s proposal explaining, “I want nothing to do with these people."118 The chancellor favored formation of a central European bloc to check Soviet expansion, with England and France covering its back. During Hitler’s first year in office, covert military cooperation with the Red Army came to an end. Germany continued to trade with the USSR, extending a credit of RM 200 million in March 1935 to purchase German industrial machinery, but the Führer forbade the export of military hardware to Stalin’s empire.

Neither France nor England displayed interest in Hitler’s concept of an alliance system to check Soviet expansion. Paris concluded a pact with the USSR in May 1935. After their Pyrrhic victory in World War I, the English realized that they were too weak to prevent German hegemony in Europe. A two-front war, requiring the support of the Soviet Union, offered a better prospect for destroying their commercial rival in central Europe. In 1935 Vansittart, then permanent undersecretary in the British Foreign Office, emphasized the “great importance” of amalgamating British and Soviet objectives. He later cautioned his colleagues, “For us Englishmen Russia is in all respects a much less dangerous member of the international community than Germany."119 London’s courtship of the Kremlin led Stalin to relax the Comintern’s subversive propaganda in British colonies. The Foreign Office concluded that Britain’s imperial interests were best secured by cooperation with Stalin.120 The German diplomat Ribbentrop conceded, “No one in England wants to see the Communist danger."121

Meanwhile, Hitler saw an emerging Soviet threat in southwestern Europe. Since overthrowing the monarchy in 1931, the Spanish republic had been fighting for survival against internal extremists. In November 1934, Hitler received a report from Germany’s ambassador in Madrid, Count Johannes von Welczeck, which stated, “The systematic Bolshevisation of Spain carried on since the fall of the monarchy by the Communist-anarchist side represents a European danger. With the conquest of this flanking position, an important stage on the way to Communist world revolution will be reached, and central Europe will be threatened on two sides."122 Conspiring with fascist radicals known as the Falange, the Spanish army attempted a coup to overthrow the republic in July 1936; the rebels considered the present government too weak to prevent a Communist take-over. They gained only partial control of the country, which plunged Spain into civil war.

The Reich’s Government at first limited itself to the evacuation by sea and air of some 10,000 Germans residing in Spain. The rebellion’s leader, General Francisco Franco, solicited Berlin’s aid to airlift Spain’s African army – comprising nearly 18,000 Spanish foreign legionnaires and 15,570 Moroccans – to the mainland.123 The Spanish navy remained loyal to the republic and would not ferry these well-disciplined professional soldiers from Morocco to reinforce the rebels.

Although the republican government had been friendly to Germany, Hitler decided to help Franco. He told Ribbentrop that were the Communists to gain control of Spain, it would only be a “question of time” before France suffered the same fate. England, the Führer reasoned, was indifferent to these developments, and prominent French politicians advocated militarily assisting the republican forces which were saturated with Marxists. Germany would become “trapped between the powerful Soviet bloc in the east and a strong Communist, French-Spanish bloc in the west."124 In a memorandum composed in August 1936 for top government officials, Hitler wrote, “Marxism, through its victory in Russia, has taken over one of the biggest empires in the world as a jumping-off point for further operations. This has become an ominous issue. A concentrated will to conquer, consolidated in an authoritative ideology, is assailing an inwardly divided democratic world."125

The Soviet Union contributed weapons and troops to reinforce the republican forces. Stalin opined that “in peacetime, it’s impossible to have a Communist movement in Europe that’s strong enough for a Bolshevik party to seize power. A dictatorship of this party will only be possible through a major war."126 The Soviet defense minister, Kliment Voroshilov, stated that the purpose of the USSR’s commitment in Spain is to tie Hitler down in the West and weaken Germany militarily.127 Over the next three years, 18,000 German soldiers, primarily air force personnel, fought in the Spanish Civil War. German Foreign Minister Neurath defined the deployment as defensive in nature, to prevent Spain “from falling under Bolshevik domination and infecting the rest of Western Europe.” Erhard Milch later remarked that exploiting the Spanish war as an opportunity to test new weapons “was neither discussed nor even thought of."128 In April 1938, Hitler wanted to withdraw his troops to train new Luftwaffe units in Austria, but reluctantly had to keep them in action against the Soviet-backed republicans.

Despite the indirect confrontation in Spain, the USSR began shifting its orientation from the Western democracies toward improving relations with Germany in 1937. The Soviet commerce representative, D. Kandelaki, conducted economic negotiations with the Germans. Eventually Schacht and Göring represented the Reich in these talks. Soviet Trade Commissioner Anastas Mikoyan participated as well. The Kremlin instructed Walter Krivizki, chief of the Soviet secret service for Western Europe, to suspend espionage within Germany in order to cultivate an atmosphere of confidence for the discussions.129

The Red Army remained a potent force in Germany’s flank. Soviet arms expenditures in 1936 climbed from 6.5 billion rubles the previous year to 14.8 billion.130 Stalin gradually discouraged London and Paris from pursuing an alliance with the USSR, extricating himself from his Western commitments by casting doubts on the Red Army’s potential. In February 1937, he began receiving lists identifying leading military personnel and civil servants suspected of disloyalty. Of the 44,477 names appearing on the lists, Stalin ordered the execution without trial of 38,955.131 In one day he condemned 3,167 people and that evening watched a movie. The victims had not been plotting against the regime, but served as scapegoats for the lack of progress in Stalin’s program to modernize the Red Army. The purge of officers cost the Soviet army three of its five field marshals, twelve of an original 14 army commanders, 60 of its 67 corps commanders, and 136 of 199 divisional commanders. All eight admirals lost their lives. Just ten members of the 108-man Military Council survived. Of the officers promoted to fill the leadership vacuum, 85 percent were younger than 35 years of age.132

Prior to this purge, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, had registered a healthy respect for the Red Army in Western circles. With the decimation of the officer corps sank the esteem of Russia’s fighting forces among Allied statesmen. “Collective security,” the cornerstone of Litvinov’s policy to check Germany, collapsed.133 Hitler benefited from the West’s wavering confidence in the USSR’s military value during its most vulnerable period, annexing Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938. He remained unwilling to mollify his position on the USSR. In a Reichstag speech on February 20, 1938, he said, “With one state we have not sought a relationship, nor do we wish to establish a closer association; Soviet Russia."134

Later that year, the Führer began to revise his policy. For five years, England and France had turned a cold shoulder to his appeal for friendship. The United States endorsed their strategy to isolate the Reich. Douglas Miller, attached to the U.S. embassy in Berlin, announced that trade negotiations with Germany “in the near future” were unlikely. The State Department declared “no commerce” with the Germans to be its official policy.135

The Reich imported 80 percent of its rubber, 60 percent of its oil, 65 percent of its iron ore, and 100 percent of its chrome. The last mineral was indispensable to make steel for armored vehicles and was purchased primarily from Turkey and South Africa. In the event of war, a British nautical blockade would disrupt deliveries. The situation was similar for most other strategic materials required by the Reich. Toward the end of 1938, German economists urged Hitler to resume commerce with the Soviets. The OKW maintained that only close economic cooperation with the USSR could offset the catastrophic effect of a blockade.136

Ribbentrop told his staff, “Unless we want to become completely encircled, we must talk now with the Russians."137 Developments within the USSR influenced Hitler’s deliberations. Stalin’s purge targeted not just the military, but the old Bolsheviks as well. Soviet propaganda simultaneously idealized traditional Russian national heroes such as Czar Peter the Great, Alexander Nevsky, and Aleksandr Suvorov, who had defeated the Turks in the late 18th Century. These circumstances the Germans interpreted as a shift in Soviet policy, from Communist internationalism to domestic patriotism. A nationalist Russia was a palatable ally for Hitler. In their endeavors to isolate Germany, the democracies drove him into Stalin’s arms.

On March 10, 1939, Stalin delivered a foreign policy speech at the Communist party congress. He denounced Britain, France, and the United States for their press campaigns to incite Germany into a war against the Soviet Union. He defined his objective as “to observe events cautiously, without giving the war provocateurs, who are accustomed to letting others pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them, the opportunity to drag our country into a conflict."138 Ribbentrop noted, “This declaration by Stalin showed that he was thinking about a path to a German-Soviet understanding."139 When the Germans marched into Prague a few days later, the Russians cooperated with Hitler’s diplomatic restructuring of Bohemia/Moravia. In April, the German press discontinued criticism of the Soviet Union.

Hitler considered Stalin’s dismissal of Litvinov on May 3, 1939, the decisive step toward rapprochement. As foreign affairs commissar, Litvinov had established diplomatic relations with the USA, brought the USSR into the League of Nations, concluded mutual assistance pacts with Czechoslovakia and France, and promoted an alliance system against Germany. Though Stalin himself ran foreign policy, the removal of the representative publicly associated with “collective security” was a gesture that impressed Hitler. On May 10, the Führer discussed the Soviet question with foreign policy advisors Gustav Hilger and Julius Schnurre. Hilger gave Hitler a detailed report on Moscow’s endeavors for the last three years to improve relations. Less than a month before, for example, Soviet Ambassador Alexei Merekalov had told Weizsäcker that there was no reason not to normalize and consistently strengthen Soviet-German ties.140 On May 9, the Russian diplomat Georgi Astachov had told Schnurre that Stalin was prepared to conclude a non-aggression pact with Germany. He also thanked the Reich’s Foreign Office for recent “correct” press coverage of the Soviet Union.

On June 6, Berlin hosted a parade of German military personnel who had served in the Spanish Civil War. In his welcoming speech, Hitler avoided criticism of the “Bolshevik menace” which had threatened Spain. He denounced instead the Western democracies for mendacious news reporting: “For years, British and French newspapers lied to their readers, claiming Germany and Italy intended to conquer Spain, divide her up and especially steal her colonies. This way of thinking seems more natural to the representatives of these countries than to us, since robbing colonies is already among acceptable and practiced methods of the democracies."141

Around this time, Stalin conducted trade negotiations with Anglo-French delegates, not very sincerely but to indirectly pressure Germany to ally with the USSR. Hitler realized that cooperation with the Russians offered the best chance to tip the scales in his country’s favor. Were Moscow to join forces with the Western powers, the Reich would become economically and militarily encircled.

The Kremlin hosted an Anglo-French military delegation in August. At the conference, Voroshilov offered to commit 120 infantry divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 10,000 tanks to invade Germany in the event of war. France’s General Joseph Doumenc and England’s Admiral Reginald Drax, second-rate negotiators with limited authority, proposed a more or less defensive strategy, a token commitment compared to what the Russians were pledging.142 Voroshilov insisted that the alliance would be contingent on the Red Army’s right to cross Poland and Rumania to reach the German frontier. Since both these buffer states controlled territory taken from Russia in 1919, their governments justifiably feared that once allowed in, the Soviets would permanently occupy the borderline regions. Bucharest and Warsaw rejected the proposal and the talks failed. Moscow made no attempt to negotiate directly with the Poles to win their cooperation, an indication of Stalin’s blasé attitude toward a compact with the Allies.

That month, the USSR concluded an expansive trade agreement with the German Reich. On August 19, the new foreign affairs commissar, Vyacheslav Molotov, told the German ambassador, Count Friedrich von Schulenburg, “to insure the success of economic negotiations, a corresponding political basis must be created."143 He proposed a non-aggression pact, something the Russians had first suggested to the Germans in July 1936. Hitler avoided the example of his Western adversaries, who had offended the Soviets by sending second-class representatives to the military talks in Moscow. He telegraphed to Stalin an offer to dispatch Ribbentrop himself. He stated, “The Reich’s foreign minister has full authority for the wording and signing of the non-aggression pact as well as the protocol."144 Stalin replied on August 21, inviting Ribbentrop to fly to Moscow for a meeting on the 23rd.

Stalin personally participated in the conference. He demanded that Germany recognize the Baltic States, Finland and Bessarabia as Soviet spheres of interest. He promised his guest that the USSR did not wish to disturb the inner structure of these lands. Regarding Poland, Stalin recommended that the signatories fix a demarcation line in the event of war, to prevent German-Soviet friction when dividing the country. Ribbentrop reassured his host that the Reich’s new Soviet orientation represents a fundamental shift in foreign policy, and is not a tactical maneuver to enable Germany to isolate and crush Poland. He assured Stalin, “From the German side, everything will be attempted to resolve the matter in a diplomatic and peaceful way."145 On August 24, the German delegation flew back to Berlin with the signed pact. Hitler did not regard the treaty as a green light to attack Poland, but continued fruitless attempts at negotiation for another week.146 With war under way in September, Ribbentrop cabled the German mission in Moscow to press the Soviets to occupy the eastern half of Poland according to the secret protocol. He hoped to draw the USSR into the war against England and France. Molotov stalled for two weeks. Stalin finally ordered the Red Army to advance on September 17. The Germans had already driven the Poles back 120 miles beyond the demarcation line. Stalin feared that Hitler’s troops would keep the additional territory instead of relinquishing it to Soviet forces. Upon Poland’s defeat, the German and Soviet armies staged a joint military parade in Brest-Litovsk.

Having eliminated Poland as a military threat, Hitler hoped to reach a compromise with England and France. He planned to offer to restore sovereignty to the Czech state and to Western Poland. Ribbentrop had advised the Soviet government of this intention in a note on September 15. At a conference with the OKW on October 17, Hitler stated, “Poland shall be made independent. It will not become part of the German realm nor be under the administration of the Reich."147

Two weeks later, Molotov expressed Moscow’s position on Poland: “Nothing is left of this miscarriage of the Versailles treaty, which owed its existence to the suppression of non-Polish nationalities.” Stalin sent a telegram to Ribbentrop on December 27, reminding him that “the friendship of the peoples of Germany and Soviet Union” has been “forged in blood” on the battlefields of Poland.148 Any endeavor to resurrect the Polish state, Stalin pleaded, was therefore contrary to this spirit. Aware of his country’s dependency on Soviet trade, Hitler abandoned the plan to reestablish Polish statehood. Stalin sought to stifle any action that might bring Germany and the Allies to the conference table.

On November 30, 1939, the Red Army invaded Finland. The Finns did nothing to prompt the attack, beyond refusing Moscow’s demands to cede portions of their frontier territory and some islands in the Gulf of Finland to the USSR. The Russians described their “counterattack” as a response to the “provocations of Finnish militarists."149 The three-and-a-half month winter war that followed cost the Finnish army 27,000 dead and 55,000 wounded. The Red Army lost 126,875 killed in action and 264,908 wounded. Though German public opinion overwhelmingly favored Finland, Hitler blocked attempts by the Allies to deliver war materiel to the Finns via Norway.

The Führer personally penned an unattributed editorial defining the government’s position on Scandinavia, which the German press published early in December: “Since the establishment of the League of Nations, the northern states were the most loyal supporters of this system, whose only purpose was to perpetually tie down Germany. . . . When National Socialism took power in Germany, scarcely a day passed that many newspapers of the northern states did not vent their arrogant and insulting criticism of German policies. . . . It is naïve and sentimental to expect that the German people, fighting for their future, should presently side with these little countries that previously couldn't do enough to revile and discredit Germany."150

Fearing Anglo-French intervention, Stalin suspended operations in Finland in March 1940, just as his army had gained the upper hand. He demanded little more than the territories the USSR had sought to annex during negotiations with Helsinki the previous October. The Soviets soon dispelled any good will such mild terms evoked. Less than a week after concluding the peace treaty in Moscow, the Russians realized that the newly defined frontier left the town of Enso just inside the Finnish border. It was home to one of the world’s largest complexes for manufacture of paper and cellulose. The latter is a polymer necessary for producing high-grade explosives. The Red Army simply crossed into Finland and occupied Enso.151

On June 2, 1940, the Soviets demanded “restitution” for wares the Finns had allegedly evacuated during the fighting from areas now under Russian control. No provision for this compensation existed in the original Moscow treaty. Finland had to surrender 75 locomotives and 2,000 freight cars to the USSR. On June 14, Soviet fighters shot down a Finnish passenger plane flying French and American diplomats to Helsinki. The Soviets deported the entire population, 420,000 persons, from the part of Finland now under their control.152

Soviet pressure on Finland became a German problem. In April 1940, Schnurre negotiated a trade agreement with Helsinki. It allowed the Reich to purchase 60 percent of Finnish nickel ore, necessary for steel production. Germany mined just five percent of her own nickel requirements. In June, the USSR insisted on the option to purchase a large amount of the Finnish output. Since the Soviet Union already enjoyed sufficient domestic production, the Germans viewed Moscow’s initiative as a ploy to make the Reich more dependent on Russia for raw materials. Admiral Nikolai Nesvizki of the Soviet Baltic Sea fleet submitted a confidential report on how “to solve the problem of the independent existence of Sweden and Finland."153 The Soviets prepared plans for a renewed invasion of Finland in September.

The German-Finnish trade agreement, signed on June 24, made Finland an important source of natural resources for the Reich’s war industry. In August 1940, the OKW received intelligence about Soviet troop concentrations near the Finnish frontier. Upon Hitler’s orders, the Germans reinforced their army and Luftwaffe contingents in northern Norway. They gave the Finns the Allied ordnance originally intended for the winter war against Russia, which the German army had confiscated in Norwegian ports. Finland arranged to begin discreetly purchasing German weapons as well. During the winter of 1940/41, the Soviets broke a trade agreement with Helsinki and suspended grain deliveries to Finland. The Finns turned to Germany to fill the void, strengthening the bond between the two countries.

The USSR moved against the other countries which the 1939 German-Soviet pact defined as Soviet spheres of interest. Late that year, Moscow had pressured Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia to sign treaties permitting the Red Banner Fleet to establish naval bases in their Baltic ports. In June 1940, Molotov complained of insufficient protection for Russian military personnel stationed there. An ultimatum followed, forcing the governments of the three Baltic nations to allow the Soviets to reinforce the garrisons. The Red Army sent 18-20 divisions.154 This overwhelming martial presence enabled Communists there to declare the Baltic countries Soviet republics on July 21, following sham elections and a “popular uprising.”

Stalin sent two representatives, Zdanov and Vysinskiy, to rid the territory of political undesirables. The Soviets deported over 140,000 Estonians, 155,000 Latvians, and 300,000 Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps. Scarcely any ever returned.155 Referring to the USSR’s occupation of the Baltic States and simultaneous seizure of Bessarabia from Rumania, Stalin told the Communist Party Central Committee in September 1940, “This is a blessing for humanity. The Lithuanians, White Russians, and Bessarabians whom we have liberated from oppression by landowners, capitalists, policemen, and similar scum consider themselves lucky. This is the people’s attitude."156

During these Soviet land grabs, world attention focused on Western Europe. In April 1940, the German armed forces occupied Norway and Denmark. The following month, the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium, and France, all three of which surrendered within six weeks. The British Expeditionary Force withdrew to England. Germany so smoothly vanquished her continental adversaries that Britain went over to the defensive. The protracted war of attrition Stalin had predicted would wear out the “capitalist” states did not materialize. The Reich’s augmenting influence over the European economy partially relieved its dependency on Soviet trade. The rapid German victory unsettled Stalin, who expressed the opinion that war with Germany was inevitable.157

Soviet expansion disquieted Hitler, and Russian efforts to improve relations with England, still at war with Germany, compounded his suspicions. On April 23, 1940, Weizsäcker telegraphed Karl von Ritter, a secretary in the Germany embassy in Moscow, that “yesterday almost every London newspaper wrote about Soviet-English economic talks, supposedly started on Soviet initiative.” Weizsäcker directed the German mission to inform Molotov, “with respect to the course so far of Soviet deliveries of raw materials, the Reich’s Government is not satisfied that they correspond to its perception of mutual assistance. It implores the Soviet government to increase and continue deliveries during the months favorable for transportation, and immediately get larger shipments of oil and grain in motion."158 Moscow negotiated a trade agreement with London while simultaneously slackening on obligations to Germany.

The British ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, conferred with Stalin in July. To win Russia for an anti-German alliance, Cripps promised that England would accept Soviet control over the Dardanelles, the Balkans, eastern Poland, and practically any arrangement for post-war Europe Stalin wanted.159 Considering traditional British foreign policy, these were lavish concessions. The Soviet dictator confided that he considered Germany the only threat. He more or less opened the door to an alliance with London.

Aware that the conference with Cripps would arouse mistrust in Berlin, Stalin ordered Molotov to provide the German ambassador with a written summary of the talks. The Molotov version, which Schulungberg forwarded to his government, gave the impression that Stalin had remained loyal to the German alliance and rejected the Cripps proposals. However, Hitler received more reliable information from Rome; Italian agents were secretly monitoring the dispatches of the Yugoslavian ambassador in Moscow, Milan Gavrilovic, to Belgrade. This intelligence they relayed to Berlin. Gavrilovic wrote about Moscow’s interest in signing with England. In this way, Hitler learned of Stalin’s duplicity.160

Also during July, Hitler and Ribbentrop began mediating a border dispute between Bulgaria, Hungary and Rumania. The Red Army massed along the common frontier with Rumania. It prepared to invade and “restore order” if war broke out among the Balkan States.161 Reports of Soviet troop concentrations in Bessarabia induced Hitler to order two German armored divisions stationed in southwestern Poland, plus ten infantry divisions, to rapidly occupy the Rumanian oil fields at Ploesti in case the region became unstable.

On August 24, the Hungarian-Rumanian talks broke down. Hitler forced their diplomats back to the conference table. Germany’s powerful economic influence in the region, together with justifiable fear of Soviet intervention, led them to accept the Führer’s arbitration. At a session conducted by Ribbentrop and Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano in Vienna on August 30, Rumania agreed to cede the northern part of Siebenbürgen to Hungary. In exchange, Germany and Italy guaranteed Rumania against foreign aggression. Upon Bucharest’s request, the Germans dispatched a military mission including mechanized troops and air force units to train and upgrade the Rumanian army in October.162

Moscow had contributed to the crisis by attempting to provoke Hungary and Bulgaria against Rumania. The Kremlin now protested that the Vienna Arbitration violated Article II of the German-Soviet pact. The 1939 treaty required consultation in questions of mutual interest, but the Russians had not been invited to the negotiations in Vienna. Ribbentrop replied that Soviet interests in the Balkans had already been satisfied with the occupation of Bessarabia in June. He reminded Molotov that the USSR seized all of Lithuania, including a portion defined as a German sphere of influence, without notifying Berlin. Ribbentrop argued that German diplomatic intervention in the Balkan controversy had restored stability to a region bordering the Soviet Union, which could only be in Moscow’s interests.

Molotov responded in a memorandum on September 21, 1940. He disputed Ribbentrop’s position, complaining that the German-Italian guarantee for Rumania is directed against the USSR (its actual purpose was to protect Rumania from Hungary, whose regent was unsatisfied with the final arrangement). Although the Germans addressed Molotov in a manner the Rumanian foreign minister described as “well-meaning and conciliatory,” relations between Moscow and Berlin cooled that summer.163 Regarding the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States in June, the German ambassador in Riga wrote this to his superiors: “Pro-Russian circles are for the moment claiming with great vehemence, that the entire action is directed against Germany, and in a short time an offensive into German territory will begin."164

Soviet authorities in Bessarabia advised ethnic Germans settled there not to exercise the option to migrate to Germany. They explained that the Red Army would invade the Reich soon, so there was no point in moving.165 In October, the Germans came into possession of an original Soviet military document containing a plan to attack Rumania and capture Ploesti.166 The Soviet chief of staff, Georgi Zhukov, transferred the 5th, 9th and 12th Armies to Bessarabia, deploying them 110 miles from the Rumanian oil fields. The 9th Army alone possessed more tanks than the entire German armed forces.167

On October 13, Ribbentrop wrote Stalin, suggesting that Molotov visit Berlin. Stalin accepted, sending his foreign affairs commissar on November 12. During the conferences, the Führer reminded his guest of Germany’s support during the Finnish war and regarding the military occupation of the Baltic States and of Bessarabia. He argued that Germany and Russia always profited when working together; when they turned against one another, only foreign powers benefited. Hitler told Molotov that Germany had no political interest in Finland, but urgently needed her trade to acquire nickel and lumber. The only German troops there were en route to northern Norway, a transfer soon to be completed. He emphasized that Germany requires peace in the Baltic Sea region to continue the war against Britain.

Hitler and Ribbentrop, who remained cordial and patient throughout the conferences, urged Soviet expansion southward toward Persia and India. Molotov showed no interest in the suggestion. He repeatedly returned to his demands for increased Soviet influence over Finland and the Balkans, especially Bulgaria. The meeting, which ended with Molotov’s departure on November 14, failed to reach a viable compromise. This compelled Hitler to gradually transfer more troops to the Reich’s eastern frontier to hold possible Soviet expansion in check. As a result, he lacked adequate military resources to subdue England. By weakening Germany and indirectly encouraging the British to continue their resistance, Stalin prevented a conclusion of the fighting in the West.168

An event beyond Hitler’s control further disrupted Soviet-German relations. On October 28 Italy, having entered the war on Germany’s side in June, launched an unprovoked invasion of Greece. Mussolini’s troops suffered heavy losses and made no progress. The tenacity of the Greek defenders, mountainous terrain, bad weather, and the poor leadership and ordnance of the Italian army hampered the offensive. Italian defeats in Greece and in Libya against the British substantially lowered Axis prestige among European neutrals.169 The Italian press simultaneously publicized Mussolini’s claims to certain Yugoslavian territory as well. In August, Yugoslavia’s regent, Prince Paul, told the German representative in Belgrade, Viktor von Heeren, “Regarding the attitude toward Germany, Germany’s position on this aggressive policy of Italy’s is of the greatest significance. The people respect Germany, but have contempt for Italy."170 A Yugoslavian diplomat whom the Germans bribed revealed to Berlin details of Moscow’s endeavors to win the Balkans for a pan-Slavic, anti-German coalition.

In December, Hitler directed the OKW to plan a military expedition against Greece. Athens began accepting British aid; were the Royal Air Force to transfer bomber squadrons to Greek air fields, they would be within range of Ploesti. The Germans needed to prevent England from forming a second front in southeastern Europe against Germany, protect the Rumanian oil wells and help the Italian army bogged down in Greece. Hitler hoped that a strong German military presence would persuade Athens to compromise and conclude peace with Italy. The prospect vanished when British troop contingents landed on March 10, 1941, to reinforce the Greeks.

The Soviet Union objected when the Germans concentrated troops in southern Rumania in January. The German 12th Army planned to cross from there into Bulgaria at the beginning of March, and deploy along the country’s border with Greece. On January 13, the Soviet news agency Tassannounced that the transfer of German troops to Bulgaria was taking place “with neither the knowledge nor the approval of the USSR."171 Berlin responded that the operation was necessary to keep British forces off the continent. Ribbentrop publicly fixed the strength of the 12th Army on February 12 at the exaggerated figure of 680,000 men. This included “an especially high percentage of technological troops with the most modern ordnance, especially armored personnel.” The purpose of the boast was to discourage the Russians from risking a military confrontation. They protested in a memorandum to the German Foreign Office, “The Soviet government...regards the presence of any armed force on Bulgarian a threat to the security of the USSR."172

Yugoslavia joined Germany’s alliance system, the Three Power Pact, on March 25. Even though the Reich purchased grain from the country, there was a strong pan-Slavic movement in Yugoslavia and the armed forces leadership was hostile toward Germany. Two days later, a military coup toppled the government. The army arrested prominent members of the former administration. The new head of state, General Dusan Simovic, confided to the British that he needed time to upgrade his armed forces but would then join with the USA, England and Russia to attack the Germans.173

Hitler disbelieved Simovic’s public pledge to respect Yugoslavia’s obligation to the Three Power Pact. The very day of the coup, the Führer told the OKW, “Yugoslavia must also . . . be considered an enemy and therefore be beaten as quickly as possible."174Moscow congratulated the new regime in Belgrade by telegram, declaring that the “Yugoslavian people have again proven worthy of their glorious past.” Hungary’s regent, Nicolaus von Horthy, warned Hitler, “Yugoslavia could scarcely have let herself be led down this path without a certain Soviet influence."175

The German army invaded Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6. Although American newspapers estimated the British expeditionary force in Greece at 240,000 men, the Germans more accurately fixed its strength at around 60,000.176 Handicapped by ethnic dissonance within its ranks, unpreparedness and a poor command structure, the Yugoslavian army failed to offer cohesive resistance against the Germans. The Greek army fared no better. The British troops, who according to a German combat correspondent “got drunk during the day and chased girls at night,” soon prepared to evacuate the mainland.177 The German armed forces occupied both countries with minimal losses.

The Balkan debacle strained German-Soviet rapprochement. Moscow had concluded a non-aggression pact with the Simovic regime on April 5. Hitler correctly judged this as an unfriendly gesture. German soldiers discovered documents in Belgrade supporting this opinion. One found in the Soviet embassy read, “The USSR will only react at a given moment. The Axis powers have largely scattered their fighting forces, and for this reason the USSR will suddenly move against Germany."178 German diplomatic analyst Ernst Woermann prepared a summary of the former Yugoslavian foreign minister’s correspondence. Woermann concluded that the Soviets “encouraged Yugoslavia toward eventual opposition against Germany. . . . The Soviets are making hasty preparations.” Prince Wied, the German ambassador in Stockholm, cabled Berlin on May 16, “The Soviet Russian representative here, Mrs. (Alexandra) Kollontai, said today as I found out, that in no time in Russian history have stronger troop contingents been concentrated on the western frontier of Russia than at present."179

Hitler received ominous signs of potential Soviet belligerency from other sources as well. From Helsinki came an encrypted telegram relating how the Soviet naval attaché there, Smirnov, disclosed to his American colleague Huthsteiner that “Russia will in all probability have to enter the war on the side of the other great democracies."180 The German counterintelligence chief, Walter Schellenberg, reported a dramatic increase in Soviet espionage, subversion and sabotage. Harbor police in various European ports captured dock workers placing explosives aboard German, Italian or Japanese merchant ships. In most cases the perpetrators were Communist agents. The Danish criminal police broke up a particularly destructive ring of Communist saboteurs run by Ernst Wollweber. Since 1938, its members had smuggled explosives aboard and sunk nearly 70 vessels bound from Scandinavian ports for Germany.181 The OKW registered daily Soviet reconnaissance flights over German air space. It continuously supplied Hitler with assessments of steadily augmenting Russian forces deploying along the mutual frontier. This activity assumed “in increasing proportion a threatening character."182

Five weeks after the abortive talks with Molotov in November 1940, Hitler ordered the OKW to plan for an offensive against the USSR. He deliberated for the next several months on whether to exercise the option. After the fall of France, the Führer decided that a direct invasion of the British Isles was too risky. The alternate strategy of challenging English power in the Mediterranean depended largely on the capture of Gibraltar for success. The Germans could not launch an operation against this salient British position unless Spain entered the war, but Franco chose neutrality. With American aid for England mounting, Hitler saw no way of ending the war. The shift in Soviet orientation toward the West evoked the specter of an Anglo-American-Soviet alliance. The Russians could strike at Germany’s flanks, Finland and Rumania, without warning. This could curtail vital deliveries of nickel and petroleum.

The Führer sensed the strategic initiative passing to the hands of his enemies. Only a dramatic thrust could rescue the situation, delivering a knock-out blow to Russia before she could join forces with the USA and confront Germany with an overwhelming military coalition. Eliminating the Soviet threat in a rapid campaign would enable the Reich to consolidate its position in Europe and concentrate on the war against England. A victory over the USSR would also strengthen Japan’s influence in the Far East. Hitler believed that taking Russia out of the game would influence London to conclude a peace with Germany and discourage American intervention.

In April 1941, the Soviet government permitted a delegation of engineers from German armaments manufacturers, including Mauser, Henschel, and Daimler-Benz, to tour aeronautic research and production facilities inside the USSR. The organization, size and quality of the installations made a telling impression on the visitors. In a detailed evaluation prepared for the Reich’s Air Ministry, the German delegates described among other things a single Soviet airplane engine factory that was larger than six German plants combined. Göring and the Luftwaffe staff considered the report exaggerated. He denounced the armaments engineers as defeatists who had fallen victim to a Soviet ruse. Hitler however, took the analysis seriously. He remarked, “You see how far these people have come. We'd better get started."183 Since 1939 in fact, mass production of modern combat aircraft in the Soviet Union had increased by 70 percent. Though Hitler did not necessarily consider the Russians an immediate military threat, the danger their expanding armaments program posed down the road was of great concern.

Though German army commanders harbored reservations about starting a two-front war, most were optimistic about the prospects of a swift victory over the USSR.184 The German general staff predicted a campaign of two to four months. Chief of staff Franz Haider underestimated the strength of the Red Army by half185, and Foreign Armies East, a branch of German army intelligence, also understated the size of the Red Army. Analysts fixed the number of armored divisions at ten. In reality, the Soviets possessed 100 mechanized divisions, all with armor.186

The Germans received another disparaging assessment of Russian capabilities from Japan. The Soviet secret police chief in Manchuria, General Lyushkov, defected to the Japanese in 1938. They forwarded the transcripts of his interrogation to the German embassy in Tokyo. Lyushkov described the disorganization and incompetence of Red Army leadership. He offered examples demonstrating that the political structure inside the USSR was unstable and in the event of a major war, the entire system would collapse.187

Pursuant to the tradition of the foreign office, Ribbentrop tenaciously argued for a compromise with Moscow. On January 10, 1941, economist Schnurre signed an expansive trade agreement with the Soviet Union, surpassing in scope all previous compacts and clearing away potential bottlenecks in Germany’s supply of raw materials.188 In addition to providing the Reich with Russian oil, cotton, fodder, phosphates, iron ore, scrap metal, chrome, and platinum, the Soviets purchased rubber in the Far East for the Germans and delivered it by rail. The Reich furnished industrial machinery and armaments in return. Schnurre and Ribbentrop presented the trade agreement to Hitler at the Berghof on January 26. In his lecture, Schnurre pointed out that it would nullify the effect of the English continental blockade. As this was virtually London’s only hope for victory, Schnurre concluded that the Russian treaty “is a firm basis for an honorable and great peace for Germany."189

Hitler replied that he cannot give priority to the deliveries necessary for Germany to uphold the new trade agreement. The military situation in the Mediterranean, including North Africa, compelled him to give precedence to the requirements of the German and Italian armed forces. Schnurre wrote later that Ribbentrop’s bearing “clearly demonstrated that at this time he opposed the Russian war."190 After some wrangling, the two diplomats persuaded Hitler to approve the treaty.

Despite the war against Britain, the Germans were in a solid bargaining position with respect to the Soviet Union in January 1941. They largely dominated the European economy, and the success of their armed forces against Poland and France had impressed Soviet leaders. The Red Army General Boris Shaposhnikov overestimated the number of tanks and aircraft available to the German armed forces by more than double.191 The German military was far superior to Finland’s, whose soldiers had previously inflicted heavy losses on the Red Army despite being outnumbered. Further, Stalin mistrusted the British: During the 1940 French campaign, the Germans had captured and published Allied plans to use air bases in Turkey to bomb the Russian oil fields in Baku, even though the USSR was a non-belligerent.192 The purpose was to indirectly disrupt Germany’s fuel supply.

In some respects, Stalin regarded Germany as a buffer between the USSR and the capitalist powers. He told Ribbentrop in 1939, “I will never tolerate Germany becoming weak."193 The Russian historian Irina Pavlova summarized, “For Stalin the growing power of National Socialism was a positive factor in the evolution of international relations, because in his view it aggravated the dissonance between the principle capitalist powers."194 Were Germany and Russia to come to blows, Stalin would indeed “pull the chestnuts out of the fire” for the democracies; something he himself had warned against in 1939.

The Reich’s Foreign Office persistently opposed the plan to invade the USSR. Exasperated, Hitler called the unyielding Ribbentrop “my most difficult subordinate."195 Schnurre even appealed to Generals Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl of the OKW to promote an understanding with the Kremlin: “I described the consequences of the Moscow negotiations and their great advantages for Germany; securing the supply of raw materials and a reserve of foodstuffs, plus far-reaching opportunities to trade with the East.” Schnurre borrowed arguments about the expansiveness of Russia, her inexhaustible manpower pool and climate once employed by the Marquis Augustin de Caulaincourt, who had advised Napoleon against invading the Czar’s empire in 1812. “My explanation sadly fell on deaf ears,” Schnurre recalled. “Jodl answered that all this has been taken into account; from every indication it will be a short war."196 German diplomats never abandoned the view that the Soviet-German pact could be salvaged, considering the Reich strong enough to hold Stalin to his obligations.

The Soviet military leadership prepared two operational plans for an invasion of central Europe, dated March 11 and May 15, 1941. The latter study stated that the Red Army must “deploy before the enemy does, and attack the German armed forces at the moment it is in the deployment stage, and is as yet unable to organize the coordination of the individual branches of service.” A Soviet propaganda directive instructed journalists, “The fighting in this war has demonstrated so far, that a defensive strategy against superior motorized troop units brought no success and ended in defeat. An offensive strategy against Germany is therefore advisable, one which relies a great deal on technology."197

Whether Stalin ultimately decided to attack Germany, or had a fixed date in mind, is still a subject of debate. Thanks to German traitors, he received the text of Hitler’s OKW directive to prepare an invasion plan of the USSR. Germany’s support of Finland and military penetration into Rumania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Yugoslavia also worried the Soviet dictator. The Germans lagged on deliveries of machinery and weapons obligated by treaty. By June 1941, the Red Army had massed 81.5 percent of its forces opposite German-controlled territory.198 Hitler opened hostilities on June 22, 1941, repeatedly warned by Keitel of the concentration of Soviet divisions on the frontier.

In justifying his resolve to launch a campaign against Russia, Hitler told Ribbentrop, “sooner or later, the so-called east-west pincers will be engaged against Germany."199 Ribbentrop recalled after the war, “Confronted with the danger of an attack from both sides, the Führer saw the foregoing elimination of the Soviet Union as the only way out."200 The decision came neither swiftly nor easily. His aid Walter Hewel recalled that anxiety over whether or not to invade the USSR so tormented Hitler that he required medication to sleep.201

Democratic court historians, especially in post-war Germany, attribute the Russian campaign to Hitler’s ambition to gain Lebensraum, or living space, in the East. The theory rests on a tenuous assumption: Namely, that deadlocked in the fight against Britain and practically at war with the United States, Hitler launched a colonial expedition against one of the world’s most powerful empires, the principle supplier of natural resources vital to Germany’s wartime economy, in order to secure surplus land for future German settlers. In truth, the Reich was short a million laborers in 1939, and the government offered incentives to foreign workers, especially Czechs, to migrate to Germany to fill vacancies in industry. After conquering Poland, Hitler told Mussolini that newly recovered German provinces like Posen would require 40-50 years to resettle and fully integrate into the economy.202 Where would Hitler find colonists to export to Russia?

Further, the German Race and Resettlement Office promoted a program entitled “Come Home to the Reich.” It encouraged ethnic Germans living in Poland, the Baltic States and the Balkans to migrate into Germany. In this way, the state hoped to partially cover the manpower shortfall in the economy. Were Hitler planning to colonize Russia, he would not have authorized an agency to draw Germans living in the East home to the Reich. At no time did the question of Lebensraum enter Hitler’s deliberations on whether or not to invade the Soviet Union.

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