1941: year of the truth


MOSCOW. (Valentin Falin, Professor of History, for RIA Novosti) - June 22, 1941 came down in modern Russian history as its most tragic day.

It also became as a watershed of global history: that much is clear if we turn a deaf ear to biased propaganda and sheer calumny, and subject the facts to an in-depth analysis.

The human race has been suffering from wars since times immemorial. The German invasion of the Soviet Union came as not merely another war; in fact, it was not a war in its usual sense. As the aggressor country prepared for that war, it waved aside all conventions, in every meaning of the word - human customs and international instruments alike. As Hitler bid farewell to his predatory troops departing for the Eastern Front, he urged them to forget conscience and mercy; not to spare the old or the young as they would clear the Lebensraum from Untermenschen for Aryans. The Fuehrer's "supermen" were determined to perpetrate crimes more heinous than what this world had ever known. Truly, humans had never plotted crimes with such blood-curdling precision and on such a grand scale as when the Nazis plotted eradicating the nations of Slavic origin.

The death conveyor was to grind into dust a hundred million human beings. That conveyor would never have stopped for an instant if valiant Soviet soldiers had not met the horde in arms. Heroic war effort workers in the rear stood behind Soviet troops, inspired by Russia's martial glory.

It is amazing how rarely it occurred to German generals, lower rank military officers, policemen and soldiers to wonder what doom would await the native land of those cold-blooded killers, rapists and marauders if the war they had unleashed on catch-as-catch-can rules crossed the German border to invade their home. After all, fortune is whimsical, and one cannot rob another of his rights without the risk of losing those rights oneself. The murderous frenzy would pass - and what next?

The war against the U.S.S.R. was unprecedented in terms of forces assigned to crush the enemy in one fell swoop. The aggressor committed more than five million officers and men. Germany did not attack the Soviet Union on its own: it was supported by the entire enslaved Central and Western Europe. Fighting side-by-side with the Wehrmacht were units from Italy, Hungary, Romania, Finland, Spain, Slovakia and Croatia. Meanwhile, no one but Yugoslav guerrillas and Mongolia were helping Soviet troops in their desperate defense of the summer and fall of 1941.

In the first days and months of the war, when defeat appeared a close prospect, Russians wondered in anguish how it could be that the aggressor had caught their country unawares, utterly unprepared politically, economically and psychologically. What was it that made Stalin shrug off intelligence reports, with their precise and detailed information about Germany's aggressive plans and invasion forces deployed all along the Soviet borders from the Barents Sea to the Black? Was the Soviet Army's inadequate battle-readiness alone to blame? Or was the dictator, with his opportunity to see the hidden workings of world history, out to deceive the Fates by playing on the enemy's weak points - an old trick of his?

In his six-volume The Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill devoted a special section headed "The Soviets and the Nemesis" to developments related to Hitler's Drang nach Osten - a characteristic title, with a gloating touch to it, implying that Russia was punished for its trespasses. It would be apt for Sir Winston here to look back at his own past, at how he spared no effort in 1918-22 to have Civil War-ridden Russia sliced into spheres of action, and how he called countries that fiercely hated the Bolsheviks to encircle Russia once their military intervention failed. A mad hater eventually appeared-but, whatever would be done to appease and flatter him, his blow was delivered not only east but west.

The immeasurable Russian losses and crushing defeats of the summer and fall 1941 have every reason to be put down, as they were and are now, to blatant miscalculations by the nation's rulers, mainly by Joseph Stalin, and to the narrow-minded survivors of the bloodbath through which Stalinist reprisals took the Soviet military elite in 1937-40. There is no way to deny it all unless we give no thought to the future and are out to desecrate martyrs' memory.

The Soviet Union nearly lost the war. Decades later, it collapsed, to the detriment of vital national interests, to squander and pilfer the people's wealth stored by many generations' labor. All that came as proof of how pernicious it is to replace democracy with autocracy, even when it is believed to have God's blessing, or with the will and volition of a ruling political party.

But then, we cannot see the whole truth if we limit our historical appraisals to looking for scapegoats. Such limitations make us play into the hands of the West as it cunningly encourages our masochistic trends in reviewing the causes and effects of 20th century upheavals. In our flagellation, we whitewash all those who, at that time, were writing political scripts and appointing the cast.

The truth will out - a saying that is always true, though with certain reservations. Some day, researchers will be admitted to the heart of British and American archives, which are meanwhile guarded heavier than Fort Knox with its U.S. gold reserves. However, even the scraps of information we currently have allow the correct representation of 20th century developments - and never mind that hard facts may force us to revise many household truths and throw many historical idols down from their pedestal.

As they divide history into chapters, politicians and their academic epigones tear the link of times to make studies more convenient. They ignore the fact that any beginning is a continuation or a rejection of the past. What, for instance, was World War I to Britain? A continuation of the Crimean War, as Churchill himself admitted in a conversation with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's grandson. Or what made the United States join World War I? These were ambitions for the Pax Americana.

Even though things took a different turn from the expected, London, Washington, Tokyo and other powers did not radically change their doctrines and related plans. What, now, was the basis of their policies - a basis on which democracies lived under one roof with regimes that had no use for whatever democratic disguise? After all, they eventually clashed not over ideals but with a collision of their great power interests. They found common language as long as they reckoned with each other's spheres of influence, and coexisted without use of force on each other, though third countries occasionally were victim to their violence. Providing that common language was none other than Russophobia, which changed its name to anti-Sovietism following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

Would the West have embraced Russia had it stopped at its previous, democratic revolution of February 1917? Possibly, headlong intervention in Russia's domestic affairs would have been mollified if the successors to the Russian monarchy had never failed to supply their allies with cannon fodder. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson even pondered whether to recognize the Soviet government if it disavowed the Russo-German Brest peace treaty. Historians are not sure to this day whether the president was more anxious to retain partnership with Russia or drive in a wedge between the Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries.

Things were far clearer with Japan and Britain, who discerned a chance to rob Russia of its grandeur with the fall of the monarchy and the dire unrest that followed. They played first fiddle in provoking a civil war in Russia, and were principal organizers of military intervention. In that, they meant far more than backing the White Guard.

Having failed to subdue Soviet Russia at once, its enemies started a long, patient siege. They were sure a country walled off from the world would never cope with its economic dislocation after World War I and the Civil War, the working age population shrinking by several hundred thousand with war casualties and post-revolutionary emigration. They expected Russia never to recover sufficient might to stand up for its honor and interests. But man proposes while God disposes. Things took a turn different from what politicians had expected.

Japan attacked China to occupy Manchuria in 1931. That spelt the start of World War II, on the correct estimation by Henry L. Stimson, U.S. Secretary of State in the Hoover Administration and Secretary of War under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Why, then, did the United States prefer to stay an observer in the ominous developments, and Britain oppose sanctions against Japan even after the League of Nations qualified its attack as aggression? What was making them so lenient toward the aggressor country? Was it that they knew the secret Tanaka Plan, on which the seizure of Manchuria and China's north was to provide Japan a bridgehead eventually to gain control of the Soviet Far East and Siberia? There are many more questions to ask, too.

The answer can be found, in particular, in the Arita-Craige agreement of 1939, in which Britain recognized Japanese interests in China and so accepted Japanese expansion - at a time when Khalkhin-Gol fighting was at its peak and involved several tens of thousands as the Soviet Army clashed with Japan's Kwantung Army. The agreement was signed just when Tokyo was persuading Berlin to adopt a formula that would automatically draw Germany into warfare on Japan's side in case of a Soviet-Japanese armed clash. Germany, on its part, was actively preparing to attack Poland, as was known in London. All that gives ample food for thought.

Even more information appears when we come back to Europe. I have no intention to delve here into who, and how, brought Hitler to power in January 1933. The heart of the matter lies in the word "reaction," a short word yet so rich in content. A mere six weeks later, London, with Mussolini's mediation, offered the Nazi leader a draft pact, on which Britain, France, Germany and Italy would form a quartet to manage European affairs at their own disposal, without the slightest attention to anyone else's interests. Soviet interests would be ignored worse than anybody's. Pointed parliamentary opposition in France buried the idea, and it did not have any notable influence on the developments.

Piece after piece was bitten off the Versailles arrangement as Germany ostentatiously ignored its military restrictions. The Versailles guarantors never gave it a deserved rebuff. On the contrary, they rewarded Germany as they put up with the stabbing of the Spanish Republic, the annexation of Austria and the division of Czechoslovakia. Why such tolerance? Why were the democracies so generous at that time? An outspoken reply came from Lord Halifax, then Britain's foreign secretary, as he told Hitler that the West approved of the way Nazis were making short work of the Communists, and Hitler could count on their benevolent understanding if he behaved similarly on the undesirable forces in other countries, especially in Eastern Europe.

Soviet initiatives for collective security and joint rebuff to Nazi attacks were doomed in Europe, the way it was those days. We can say so today with absolute certainty. The European democracies were pursuing different ends: to channel German energy into an armed conflict with the U.S.S.R. Poland's plight put an end to those expectations. London and Paris went so far as to declare war on Germany, the one that came down in history as Phony War.

The democracies made pretence of fighting while actually sitting on the fence. What were they waiting for? What was Washington trying to dissuade Berlin from? Into what was it persuading Britain and France in February and March 1940? Casting aside fine words, the U.S. was telling those obstinate Europeans: "Enough of your home squabbles! Get down to business - attack Russia all together!"

That was how history repeated itself. Not that it made a beeline - it moved in zigzags, by fits and starts. The Soviet Union made a contribution, too, yet the West continued to cling to its general stance, which ruled out Soviet coexistence with the democracies.

But then, one can say, warnings about German aggressive preparations reached Moscow from London and Washington in spring 1941. That is true - but the Soviet dictator knew full well what was behind the British advice. Britain could not be sure until June's first ten days that Germany was really determined to make war on the U.S.S.R., so London was insistently calling Moscow not to wait for Nazi hordes to flow over the Soviet frontier but make a preventive blow on the Wehrmacht, for instance, to help Yugoslavia, then invaded by German panzer forces. Stalin clearly saw it would be a suicidal move in spring 1941. If the first shots came from Soviet guns, it would have been even more difficult for the U.S.S.R. to establish an alliance with the United States.

According to certain sources, the German government did not rule out sangfroid failing Moscow to enable Berlin to pass Operation Barbarossa as a defensive move to prevent aggression from the East. I wonder what messages were coming to Berlin from Washington those days.

To pile calumny on Great Britain and the U.S. is the last thing I want. More than that, I admit that their fate was also at stake, so every plausible alternative had to be pondered in London and Washington. But as we analyze facts and British and American documents, we cannot accept the Western concept of recent history without reservation. That concept is overly off-handed as it divides the involved parties into the "clean," i.e., those known as democracies, and the "unclean," that is, all the rest. The concept passes the "clean" for aloof registrars of developments that came out of a clash between elements out of their reach. Those historians are too modest. Carried too far, such modesty is by no means to their credit, considering the tragedy that started on June 22, 1941.

The sword of Damocles hung over the entire nation. Germany and Japan were, at that time, so close to global lordship that America had not properly realized even by the end of WWII on what a thin thread the fate of the United Nations was hanging, and justice demanded to acknowledge that what the U.S. was doing those days to prevent the disaster did not do it credit. That was what General George C. Marshall, top military adviser to President Roosevelt, wrote about the years 1941 and 1942 in December 1945, a time when it was not yet customary to turn things upside down.

Soviet Russia was doomed. Only few in Washington and London doubted it. Lawrence A. Steinhard, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, expected Russia's death throes to last a mere week. The secretary of war was more optimistic. The U.S.S.R. would hold out for a month or even three, he told President Roosevelt. British prophecies were equally gloomy. They complimented Roosevelt on his politics of backing the U.K. to make Hitler turn east. Western political experts advanced another argument: the deeper Germans got into the Russian quagmire (as Americans put it), the further they got into the Russian heartland (the British wording), the better things would turn.

In a nutshell, German aggression against the Soviet Union was a godsend, and all its fruit was to be reaped to build up defenses in the western hemisphere.

Britain was weighing up how to reinforce its far reaches on the Middle East while Germany trampled the Soviet Union underfoot. No one was planning any tangible assistance to the U.S.S.R. London was thinking how to "encourage Russia" with political demonstrations and the psychological effect of handshakes. The White House was tarrying.

Only one thing could save the Soviet Union - to thwart Hitler's plan, which envisaged routing it with the very first blow, leaving it with no army and no way to manufacture weapons and replenish casualties. The U.S. and Britain did not care much whether Russia would remain on the political map. U.S. documents of that time presented the survival of the British Empire as top priority. As for Russia, they prescribed aid to the army in the field, at best.

On August 12, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter. As Britain's prime minister described it at the time, the instrument determined certain general principles on which the signatory countries based their hopes for a better future for the world. A present-day reader who has an interest in history may wonder how it could be that the charter never made even a brief reference to German aggression against the Soviet Union and Japanese against China. It failed to express, even indirectly, solidarity with the Soviet and Chinese nations fighting for their motherland. So Moscow was free to engage in guesswork on the role of the pivotal democracies: were they partners (as the contacts of that time were still far from a full-fledged alliance) or would-be executors of its last will and testament.

An explanation can be derived from what Harry Lloyd Hopkins, President Roosevelt's closest adviser and confidant, said to Stalin on July 31, 1941. Neither the U.S. Administration nor the British government intended to offer Russia heavy weaponry, such as tanks, aircraft and AA guns, before the three countries made an all-embracing and far-reaching alliance, and coordinated among themselves the goals of the war and the postwar world arrangement. As Hopkins added in his report to the president, it would be pointless to convene a strategy-coordinating conference earlier than October 15, 1941, that is, before it would be clear just where the Eastern Front would stretch and whether there would be such a front at all.

As the document shows, the Soviet Union fought single-handed in the bitterest period of the war, while the U.S. and Great Britain played rather a symbolical part to prevent the disaster to which General Marshall was referring.

Who was it, then, to save the world from the disaster? Let my country not crown itself with laurels. Better to refer to Cordell Hull, then U.S. Secretary of State. Though no great sympathizer of the Soviet Union, he acknowledged while summing up World War II that it was the Soviet people's valor that prevented the United States and Great Britain from making a shameful separate peace with Germany, a peace that would have ushered in another Thirty Years' War.

The year 1941 brought the U.S.S.R. the first of its victories in an epoch-making battle against a man-hating power. The Blitzkrieg doctrine, with which Germany aspired to gain global domination, met a fiasco. Nazis had no other strategy blueprinted to wage the war, and possessed no manpower, material resources and stamina sufficient for lasting position warfare.

If only the U.S. and Great Britain were fully true to their allied duty, the European and world war could have ended in 1942 or the following year, at the latest. The Western great powers' policies were alone to blame for World War II being so long. The British tried to advance the political purport of the war into the foreground after the Battle of Moscow. The United States offered no resistance to that strategy.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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