June 22: debates over the WWII history


On June 22 Russia commemorates 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany attack against the Soviet Union in 1941. For every American killed in the World War 2 there were 70 Soviets dead.

The current Russian President Vladimir Putin has hijacked this war for the purposes of his nationalistic campaign, and shamelessly uses the fallen as an argument that Russia always was a victim of the West’s devious plans. Putin wants Russians to unite themselves again, like at the time of the WW2, behind their leader, against their historic enemy, the West.

However, for the last quarter of a century, a bitter debate rages in Russia and other former Soviet republics regarding who actually initiated this war.  The new school of historians unequivocally point out at Joseph Stalin as the chief culprit.

The debate was launched by a former Soviet military intelligence officer Vladimir Rezun, who defected to the West in 1978 and became a celebrity after writing his book “The Icebreaker” (expanded U.S. version of this book is “The Chief Culprit”). The book was published in Russia in 1991 under the pen name of Viktor Suvorov.  His argument radically contradicted the widely accepted narrative of complete unpreparedness of the Soviet military for war at the moment when Nazi Germany treacherously attacked the USSR on June 22, 1941.  According to Suvorov, by that day the Soviets had concentrated on the borders with Germany and its allies more than twice the number of combat planes than were available to the Nazis in that theatre of war, almost two and a half times more soldiers than the Germans had, and more than three times the number of tanks than the Nazis had.  And that was not all: by June 22, 1941, the Soviet troops and military equipment, military airfields, headquarters, ammunition depots, and military hospitals were moved very close to the border.  It could only have happened, Suvorov claims, on the eve of a large-scale offensive operation.  This offensive deployment could also explain why the Nazis achieved such a miraculous success in the first months of war: due to their tactical exposure the Soviet troops were extremely vulnerable to the crushing first-strike attack, and after loosing command and control capabilities, the Red Army was blinded and almost annihilated: it lost more than seven million soldiers, dozens of thousands of planes, tanks, and artillery pieces, while the German Army seized in two months more territory, than in two previous years of war, and by the fall approached the outskirts of Moscow.

About a dozen Russian historians rushed to explore the new horizons opened by Suvorov.  The most profound contribution has been made by Mark Solonin, who confirmed Suvorov’s theory using a completely different angle. He focused on the moral state of the Soviet soldiers who had no desire to die for Stalin: After the first shots were fired, they dropped their weapons either surrendering to the enemy or defecting from their units.  Solonin discovered in the Soviet archives undeniable evidences of Stalin’s plans to attack Germany in the summer of 1941, including maps for a military offensive signed by senior Soviet commanders.

The general conclusion was astonishing: it was Stalin who wanted to launch the new World War in order to bring communism to Europe and, eventually, to the rest of the world.  To achieve this goal he was looking for an agent of destabilization in Europe, and he found his man in Adolf Hitler.  Stalin helped Hitler at the most crucial moment of his political career: in 1932, when the German National-Socialist Party was running out steam, Stalin forbade German Communists to form an alliance with the Social Democrats in the Reichstag.  Together these two Marxist Party factions had more combined votes than the Nazis, and could have easily prevented Hitler from coming to power.

In the second half of 1930‘s, after Hitler implemented his plan of gathering all Germans under one roof, taking over Austria and Czechoslovakia without a shot being fired, Stalin offered Hitler a Mephistophelian deal:  to divvy up Poland in a 50/50 fashion.  Hitler took the bite by signing Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and on September 1, 1939, invaded Poland.  This action automatically provoked response of the Poland’s Western allies: France and Great Britain declared war to Germany and the new World War began.  Meanwhile, Hitler’s new ally Stalin was not in a hurry: he didn’t want to look as an aggressor, and only 17 days later, when Polish capital Warsaw fell, the Red Army occupied Eastern Poland under the pretext of protecting ethnic Ukrainian and Belorussian population of the region.

Most likely, Stalin expected a repeat of the WW1 scenario, namely that after several years of fighting Germany versus France and Great Britain would bleed each other white.  He would than strike Germany from the East, marching all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.  However, the Western allies were defeated in the Continent in less than a month.  Stalin hastened up his preparation for the attack, concentrating millions of soldiers, and thousands of tanks and planes near the USSR’s Western borders.  Hitler noticed these activities and struck first.

In post-Communist Russia Suvorov’s work produced a storm.  The first edition of his first book, The Icebreaker, totaled 320,000 copies; the second – 1,000,000. Hundreds of thousands of copies of his other books on the same topic sold out.  Two television documentaries based on his books were produced in Russia in the 1990‘s.  Countless Internet forums, articles, and talk shows were devoted to the on-going debates on the issue.

During the 1990s when Boris Yeltsin was the President of Russia, these revisionist ideas were tolerated, but not embraced.  However, when Putin came to power, the situation changed.  In spite of numerous attempts, official Russian academicians and agitprop proved themselves incapable to provide a valid counterargument.  Instead, the Russian Duma adopted in May 2014, the new law against distortion of history clearly directed against Suvorov, Solonin, Irina Pavlova, Valery Danilov, Boris Sokolov, and other historians working in this field.  The media and people close to Kremlin openly call them traitors, the “fifth column”, and enemies of the Motherland.

Whose version of history is closer to the truth is not a purely academic argument that only a professional historian might find interesting. Rather, it sheds a different light on Putin’s current strategy and policies, which roots go back to the Stalin’s logic.  In the climate of growing nationalistic hysteria in Russia the struggle against the so called falsificators of history is an important development to be watched.

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