Mikhail Myagkov, Scientific Director of the Russian Military-Historical Society
Konstantin Pakhalyuk, Senior Specialist of the Research Division of the Russian Military-Historical Society
Each state has many memorable dates that serve as landmarks of the historical memory and provide retrospect with a cyclical character. In Russia the pride of place, no doubt, goes to May 9 – to the Victory day. It preserves its significance, first of all, due to the fact that at the social level almost every family keeps memory of the war. This particular fact determines political relevance of the memory of the Victory in contemporary Russia. In this context, state’s efforts to cherish the memory of the Great Patriotic War as the core of the national identity are winning a widespread support.
June 22, the day when the Great Patriotic War began, holds a specific place. June 22, 1941, Sunday, at 4 a.m. Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. During the very first hours of the war there were problems with troops handling and hard air strikes resulted in a loss of a big amount of pieces of equipment. Official data shows that 1136 aircrafts were shoot down on the first day of the war. The Soviet command hurried to give battle, it counterthrusted, but that was an uneven confrontation. By July 8 11 Soviet divisions were besieged and neutralized near Minsk. However, the counteroffensive of the Soviet Southwestern Front near Dubno, Rovno and Lutsk forced the enemy to retreat, preventing the Soviet troops from being besieged, and shipwrecked its plan to take control of Kiev.
In contrast to the Victory Day, June 22 is the day of the great tragedy. In 1996 this day officially became (by the decision of B.Yeltsin) a commemorative date – the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow. Such a gesture ultimately confirmed the symbolism of this date, familiar to all citizens of the Former Soviet Union. This particular day divides the whole history both of the Soviet Union and Russia of the 20th century into “before” and “after” – into “before the war” and “after the war began”. It should be mentioned that sorrow for the losses and tragedies in our country has always been inextricably intertwined with the talks about the efforts of the Red Army and the victory that was eventually gained. This alliance of “heroism and tragedy” (“holiday with tears in eyes” – the main characteristic of May 9 since the Soviet era) concerning this date can be found in the history of the Brest Fortress. Its 9000 defenders on the very first day of the war managed to absorb the offensive of the outnumbering adversary forces. And then the siege began. Soviet soldiers who did not have enough food and equipment reserves, left in the rear of the advancing German troops, made resistance till June 30. Some centers of defense organized by individual soldiers or small groups were preserved till August. The commander of one of the fortifications Major Pyotr Gavrilov was captured only July 23. He left the inscription on the ruins of the fortress: “I’m dying but I won’t surrender. Farewell, Motherland! 20/VII-41”.
June 22 is not only a day of remembrance and grief, it also stimulates the discussion of the complicated aspects of the World War II and the Great Patriotic War. As we do not want to reach back into history, we touch upon only key questions talking to Mikhail Myagkov, Scientific Director of the Russian Military-Historical Society.
Nowadays, a populist opinion exists that the war against the Soviet Union was kind of improvisation for Germany rather than a well-staged operation.
– For sure that was not an improvisation. Germany started to get ready for this aggression against the Soviet Union long before it was expressed – in mid-1930s. The war against Poland and campaigns in Northern and Western Europe for some time shifted its attention to other problems. Nevertheless, preparations for war with the USSR were still in Hitlerites’ sight. It is enough to mention that special military coalition was created to wage war against the Soviet Union. It was based on the Tripartite Pact, signed in September 1940 by Germany, Italy and Japan. Rumania, Finland and Hungary were involved in the aggression. Spain, Vichy France, Portugal and Turkey cooperated with Nazi Germany. The Wehrmacht was at the height of its evil military victories. French, Czech and Belgian factories provided German army with arms, food supplies and equipment. Even “neutrals” contributed to Germany’s economy: Sweden provided Nazis with iron stone and other materials. The German leaders were so sure of the success of the operation in the East that in spring of 1941 proceeded with elaboration of further military actions plan. Intentions of the High Command of Wehrmacht can be understood due to the Directive 32 issued on June 11, 1941 and called “Preparation for the Time after Barbarossa”. It was expected to start conquering Iran, Iraq, Egypt, the area of the Suez Canal and finally India (where they were going to tie-in with Japanese troops) in autumn of 1941. Directive 32 and other documents show that after defeating the Soviet Union and solving the “British problem” Hitlerites were going to start establishing their world domination together with Japan.
Why did Hitler decide to enter in a war with the USSR without putting an end to the war with Great Britain? What did he reckon on?
– December 18, 1940 Hitler signed Directive 21 under the code name “Operation Barbarossa”, that described the general concept of the war against the Soviet Union. The strategy was based on the theory of blitzkrieg – lightning war. It was expected to defeat the USSR within 5 months – even before the war against Great Britain would end. As for the UK, Hitler thought that it would not resist Germany after the defeat of the Soviet Union.
How much did Stalin’s repressions aggravated the force performance of the Soviet army? Can they be called a major reason for fact that our troops were not ready to repulse the act of aggression and for problems with the command?
– In 1936-1938 about 40000 people were discharged from the army and navy. But not all of them were repressed: soldiers could be discharged for incompetency, alcohol abuse or other expressions of abominable behavior. About one third of them was sentenced to supreme penalty. A quarter of them resumed service in 1939-1941.
One of those who resumed their service was Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky. We should admit that many competent and experienced captains, including top echelon, were driven from the army as a result of the repressions. Of course this influenced army’s efficiency. These repressions also had a moral and psychological aspect. Understanding that an independent decision, not approved by the command may lead to unpredictable consequences, many captains were afraid of making important decisions. But the main problem of the efficiency of our army in 1941 was not connected with consequences of the repressions, but with the fact that it was going through the processes of reorganization and modernization and because of this was lacking qualified personnel. And if one remembers that in 1939 the Red Army numbered 1,9 million soldiers and in 1941 – already more than 5 million, it becomes obvious what the reason for this lack of personnel was. The time was needed to train them.
Why did German invasion come as a surprise for the USSR?
– Stalin thought that before going to war Hitler would advance some claims against the Soviet Union and that would be a clear sign that Germany was ready for war. But things developed in a different way. Moreover, the intelligence data was quite controversial: according to one report, the invasion would inevitable take place immediately, according to another – Hitler would not dare to invade till the resolution of the “British problem”. We did not have a coordinating center that could analyze all the data (coming from different institutions). Of course the final word rested with Stalin.
But the failures of 1941 were caused not only by the unexpectedness of the invasion, but also by the fact that the USSR was not institutionally ready for the war, was (as it has already been mentioned) going through the process of reorganization of its army. In all circumstances, even if the invasion had been predicted, the military actions of 1941 would have developed in a negative way.
Was the Operation Barbarossa’s strategy realistic? Today some scientists say that Hitler’s plan was doomed to failure as the Soviet Union outnumbered all other states in terms of territory and population.
– From the military strategic point of view, the Operation Barbarossa’s strategy was realistic. But Hitler and his generals underestimated moral stamina of our people and firmness of our leaders when it comes to a war. Operation Barbarossa’s strategy was based on the previous experience when Wehrmacht defeated European armies in campaigns of 1939-1941. It was expected that the same thing will happen to the USSR that happened to France in summer of 1940. Hitler counted on the political demise as a result of the defeat of the Red Army. He was sure that the country would collapse, its population would start to oppose the authorities. Underestimation of the Soviet might and resiliency was Hitler’s main blunder.
He also underestimated Stalin who was going to fight even if Moscow and Leningrad would fell. Hitler did not understand that for the overwhelming majority of Soviet citizens their “self” was inseparably associated with their state, with their Motherland. Millions of people, fallen and alive, associated these terms with the best things connected with the life of the country, with the present and the future of their own families and children, with a new just society which, they believed, would be built. Soviet people knew that they were fighting for a rightful cause and on the whole did not doubt the victory. “Our cause is just. The enemy will be defeated. The victory will be ours” – these words of the authorities were clear. They mirrored the main trend in the public sentiments, helped all and sundry understand the goals of the war, fueled confidence that the hateful enemy would inevitably be defeated.