The attack of Adolf Hitler on the USSR, which took place on June 22, 1941, can be considered one of the crucial dates of World War II. At that time, the Soviets became reluctant allies of Great Britain and the United States, and at the same time, the American Lend-Lease helped the Soviet troops stop the offensive on the Eastern Front and win the war. So what happened before June 22, and why is Russia still, considering itself the winner in World War II, diligently throwing out two years of war from history?
"The Bolsheviks will attack"
Before massive repressions and the artificial Holodomor of 1932-33, the West still hoped that the USSR could take part in European politics, because the new state carried out industrialization and had a powerful army. However, after the atrocities committed by the Soviet leadership in their own territories, confidence in the Soviets receded.
At the same time, the Soviet Union also did not particularly trust either the conventionally civilized West or the growing influence of Hitler. In addition, Stalin had his own ambitions to expand the new, already Soviet empire. That is why intensive preparations for a major war unfolded in the USSR almost from the beginning of the 1930s — a powerful heavy industry was busy with the rapid production of weapons.
Although until the mid-1930s, Stalin made no secret of his fears over Hitler's policy, later he went for a rapprochement between the two totalitarian entities.
In 1937—1938, Stalin carried out new purges, removing from the party and the army everyone who could oppose his policy of collusion with Germany, and already on October 1, 1938, he confirmed the new offensive war doctrine:
"There will be cases when the Bolsheviks themselves will attack, if the war is just and the circumstances are conducive. They have no objections about an offensive, about any kind of war. What we shout about defense is a veil, a veil. All states are disguising themselves."
Beneficial war and Ukraine for Hitler
On March 10, 1939, Stalin, in a speech at the 18th Congress of the CPSU (b), explained that the USSR did not want to take the side of Great Britain and France and would act in its own interests. On June 14, Moscow itself offered Berlin a non-aggression pact in exchange for a promise not to make alliances with London.
In August 1939, Stalin explained the benefits of peace with Germany as follows:
"If we accept Germany’s offer, she will certainly attack Poland, and the intervention of France and England will become inevitable. Western Europe is suffering serious losses and unrest, and we will have many chances for a beneficial entry into the war."
For his part, Hitler, who promised Stalin to settle accounts with him in terms of territories, did not hide from his generals that everything he was doing was directed against Russia:
"If the West is too stupid and blind to understand this, I am forced to find a common language with the Russians, defeat the West, and then turn against the Soviet Union. I need Ukraine so that no one again, like during the last war, would starve in our country."
Trade agreement: Flour in exchange for guns
On August 19, 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a trade agreement that helped Hitler withstand the British blockade.
In the first year alone, the Soviets sent to the Fuhrer:
- 1 million tons of millet;
- 0.5 million tons of flour;
- 0.9 million tons of oil;
- 100,000 tons of cotton,
- 0.5 million tons of phosphates;
- ensured the transit of 1 million tons of soybeans from Manchuria.
The USSR, for its part, was to get from Hitler:
- a cruiser;
- "Bismarck" schemes;
- large-caliber ship guns;
- 30 new German aircraft (including Me-109 and Me-110 fighters and a Ju-88 bomber);
- other naval equipment;
- electrical and oil refining equipment;
- locomotives, turbines, generators, and diesel engines;
- specimens of German guns, tanks, and explosives;
- chemical weapon.
Another trade agreement was signed on January 10, 1941. Interestingly, it was due to economic cooperation with the USSR that Germany was able to accumulate a sufficient amount of raw materials and resources to implement Operation Barbarossa — an attack on the Soviets themselves.
Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact: "Fascism is a matter of taste"
On August 24, 1939, a non-aggression pact was signed between the USSR and Germany, dated August 23.
The parties assumed the obligation to coordinate common actions, to maintain neutrality and not to join alliances directed against one of them.
On the same day, the newspapers Pravda and Izvestia published news stories about the unclassified parts of the treaty, along with a photo of Vyacheslav Molotov signing the treaty, with Stalin smiling behind him.
The news shocked leaders around the world, including Japan, Germany's ally. Soviet propaganda inside the country at this time did everything to divert attention from the previous years of public resistance to Nazism.
After signing the pact, Molotov said in a commentary to journalists:
"Fascism is a matter of taste."
Invading Poland from both sides
On September 1, 1939, the German invasion of Poland began. The Nazis immediately began massacres of the Polish and Jewish population, and the USSR provided technical assistance to the German air force.
In particular, the Soviets allowed Hitler to use radio signals for "urgent aviation experiments".
In response, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September. For its part, on September 15, 1939, Germany called on the USSR to begin intervention in the eastern part of Poland in order to avoid establishing new states there — it was about the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) Western Ukraine.
On September 17, 1939, violating the 1932 Non-Aggression Treaty between Warsaw and Moscow, Stalin occupied the eastern part of Poland, as provided for by the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
The German and Soviet governments, in a joint communiqué, explained that the attack was aimed at "restoring the order and peace disrupted by the disintegration of the Polish state and helping the population of Poland to establish the conditions for their state existence."
Fake elections and mass executions
The USSR immediately launched a Sovietization campaign in the new territories, organizing fake elections and carrying out mass arrests of the Polish population.
On March 5, 1940, mass executions began in Poland, which would later be called the Katyn Massacre. In camps on the territory of occupied Ukraine and Belarus, 25,000 Polish prisoners of war were killed, stigmatized as "nationalists and counter-revolutionaries."
Over the next two years, the Soviet authorities arrested about 100,000 and deported between 350,000 and 1.5 million predominantly civilian Poles, of whom between 250,000 and 1 million died. Resettlers were sent to the Gulag and forced settlements in the USSR. Almost half of them died by July 1940.
Baltic countries, Romania, and Finland
Of course, Stalin did not stop in Poland: in October 1939, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were forced under military pressure to sign a pact that allowed the deployment of Soviet armed units on their territories.
Thereafter, Stalin tried to annex Finland by launching an attack in November 1939. The USSR captured the eastern parts of Karelia (about 10% of the country's territory).
Already in June 1940, while the attention of the international community was focused on Hitler's invasion of France, NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) units attacked border posts in Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.
At that time more than 34.000 Latvians, 75,000 Lithuanians, and almost 60,000 Estonians were deported or killed. The USSR annexed all of Lithuania, along with the regions around Šešupe. The USSR planned to give it to Germany.
On June 26, 1940, the USSR delivered an ultimatum to Romania, later occupying or annexing Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, and the Hertsa region. About 1 million Romanians died because of starvation or deportation.
Polish Musketeers and British provocation
So, for the first time the USSR took part in the hostilities of World War II on September 17, 1939 during the invasion of Poland, and itself was attacked by Germany on June 22, 1941.
Great Britain knew about this attack in advance: at the end of February 1941, British agents gave Winston Churchill a microfilm about the preparations for the German invasion.
The filmed footage, obtained from the well-known British spy of Polish origin Krystyna Skarbek, contained data on the location of German troops along the Soviet borders.
Skarbek got this information from the intelligence officer Kazimierz Leski (Bradl), while collaborating with the Polish underground organization Musketeers. The latter considered the USSR an even greater threat than Germany, and it was because of working with them that the agent would later be mistakenly accused of colluding with the Nazis.
Argentine intelligence found out about Operation Barbarossa even earlier — not knowing what to do with it, they passed the information on to the Americans.
In early March 1941, US Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles gave the plan to Konstantin Umansky, Soviet ambassador in Washington. But the latter received only a reprimand from the leadership for trusting "the provocations of American imperialism."
Britain began passing information on to Moscow in May, making sure the troop buildup was not a hoax from Hitler and that he was indeed planning an attack.
Nevertheless, when on June 13, 1941 British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden gave Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador in London, a map with the deployment of Wehrmacht forces near the borders of the USSR and offered help, Stalin called it a "British provocation."
The imminent war between Germany and the Soviets was covered by well-known American newspapers such as the Chicago Daily News and The New York Times, as well as by British media giants The Daily Express and The Times.
Stalin ignored these reports, and considered the muscle flexing at the border to be more of a bluff and psychological pressure from Hitler than serious intentions to attack. Molotov commented on the threat of attack on 21 June in the following way:
"A big game is being played now."
As we understand it, the game ended at 4 am on June 22, 1941.
New allies and demands with ultimatums
Of course, after Hitler's invasion, Stalin needed new allies.
Winston Churchill later stressed in his memoirs that before Hitler's attack, the Soviet government had cared only about itself, providing significant economic assistance to Nazi Germany. But later the USSR was forced to ask for help:
"The first impulse of the Soviets was — and then became their constant policy — to ask for all possible help from Great Britain and its empire, the likely division of which between Stalin and Hitler has clouded the Soviet heads for the last eight months, not letting them see the concentration of German troops in the east."
According to him, the USSR began to insist upon all possible military assistance from Britain, encouraged the United States to reroute the maximum amount of supplies and insisted on opening a second front in Europe, although in the summer of 1941 there were no resources for this.
Stalin had been building relations with Churchill on the principles of ultimatums and accusations, as the former British Prime Minister wrote in his memoirs:
"I tried to build, through frequent personal telegrams, the same successful relationship that I had formed with the President of the United States. During a long exchange of telegrams with Moscow, I received many dismissive answers and very rarely any kind words... Almost invariably, I was forced to endure insults and reproaches, patiently shrugging my shoulders: after all, patience is the fate of everyone who has to deal with the Kremlin..."
The United States and Britain helped: in early September 1941, the equivalent of two squadrons of Hurricane aircraft was sent to Murmansk on the Argus Ship to help defend the naval base. The British collected millions of pounds for humanitarian aid, which volunteers, risking their lives, delivered to the eastern front in the winter.
Also, a Lend-Lease agreement was signed, under which the USSR got approximately $11 billion in aid and was able to win the war. And then tried, just like Russia still does, to cross out the first two years of aggressive actions in World War II from its history.