Ants Laaneots: Two Histories of World War II

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Photo: Peeter Langovits

Retired General Ants Laaneots writes that World War II was the most tragic event of the last century and the investigation of its causes and consequences  has been extensive, but political conjecture has always left its mark on it.

Two visions of World War II have been presented to the world. One is that of the democratic world, which is more or less realistic, supported by documentary evidence, and blames the outbreak of war on two European totalitarian states, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, because both had ambitions to become ruler of the world, or at least of Europe.

Another is the Stalinist interpretation of history, which is still popular today in Russia, where the Soviet Union was the victim and Germany the aggressor. Moscow has consistently blamed Western countries, especially the Baltic states, for falsifying history. In the last few decades, this has become hysterical. Fortunately, in the first half of the 1990’s, a group of Russian historians briefly gained access to open archives where we can learn the truth.

On May 20th, 2009, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the decree «From the Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation in response to attempts to falsify Russian history and damage its interests». The objective of the commission was to «Develop trends to promote the transmission of truth and real historical facts in opposition to the policed interpretation of those facts».

This unleashed a new propaganda campaign to support the Stalinist approach to World War II history. Its main theses were the following:

1.    A peace-loving Soviet Union has never planned the «export» of socialist revolution to Europe through the use of the Red Army, or later the Soviet Army. The use of force against neighboring countries and their occupation stemmed from the need to guarantee security.

2.    Stalin was not one of the architects of the war, but rather he tried to prevent it.

3.    Stalin and Hitler’s campaign was not a war on the Soviet Union’s side, but rather «The liberation campaign of the Red Army to reunite the Western Ukrainian and Western Belarussian inhabitants suffering under the Polish yoke with the large and friendly family of Soviet nations».

4.    The offensive against Finland in November of 1939 was «a localized armed conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland» which was not a part of World War II.

5.    The Soviet Union did not occupy Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, but rather they themselves wanted to become part of the Soviet Union.

6.    The Soviet Union did not participate in World War II but rather fought in the Great Fatherland War against the unexpected attack of Hitler’s Germany.

7.    Stalin and the general staff of the Red Army did not plan a strategic offensive against Germany in 1941, but tried to increase the defensive capability of the Soviet Union.

8.    In 1941, the Red Army was much weaker than the Wehrmacht and was not ready to deter the unexpected attack, which explains the massive losses in the first stage.

9.    The Red Army and  the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) did not commit any human rights violations in the Great Fatherland War, but were instead the noble liberators of Europe.

World War II was the result of World War I, where in Russia power was seized by Bolsheviks who dreamed of worldwide socialist revolution and a global Soviet Union. In 1918, Vladimir Lenin explained his ambitions: «From now on Russia has become the first country with a socialist order. /.../ This is only a stage which we are passing through on the path to world revolution.».

In July of the same year, the Fifth Russia-wide Congress of Soviets approved the country’s constitution, which says: «To take as our main objective /.../ the establishment of a socialist orientation in society and the victory of socialism in all countries.» To create a Global Soviet Union and «export» revolution, a Moscow-led international union of communist parties – the Communist International (Comintern) – was created which organized, for example, a coup attempt in Estonia in 1924.

Stalin was a follower of the ideas of world revolution and a global Soviet Union. In the 30’s, he reached clarity about his strategy for the following period: World War II is a precondition for communist world revolution and the war between Western countries must be as long as possible to drain the participants, at which point the Red Army would enter the war.

The creed of the Nazis was expressed by Adolf Hitler in his book «Mein Kampf»: «If we are speaking today about new lands and territories in Europe, let’s turn our gaze towards Russia and the countries which neighbour and depend upon it.»

Both dictators started to feverishly militarize their countries. The Soviet Union, which was changed into a slave camp, was more successful. In 1939 the Red Army already 1.9 million soldiers, 10,362 planes, and 21,110 tanks. The Wehrmacht’s accomplishments, in preparation for war with Poland, were more modest: 1.3 million soldiers, 4288 planes, and 3419 tanks.

On September 1st, 1939 Germany attacked Poland. Hitler feared a repeat of a fight on both fronts and the sad experience of World War I. Inspired by the passivity of the Western states regarding the conduct of the Sudetenland affair, he was sure that England and France would not start a war for Poland. According to witnesses, Hitler and those closest to him were shocked and depressed when England and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd.

Stalin joined the Polish campaign on September 17th. The Red Army’s 620,000-strong unit, with the support of 4,800 tanks, stabbed the Polish Army, who were desperately fighting the Wehrmacht, in the back. A glaring example of the «brothers-in-arms» attitude was the mutual victory parade in the newly conquered Polish city of Brest. On September 22, 1939, the head of the German 19th motorized corps, General Heinz Guderian, and the head of the Red Army’s 29th tank brigade, Semjon Krivošein, stood together on the platform to greet the victory parade.

The two predatory states shared the prey in brotherly fashion. The Germans captured 420,000 and the Red Army captured 454,700 Polish soldiers. When it became clear that the majority of Polish officers could not be used to benefit Soviet interests, the NKVD summarily executed 15,131 of them in the spring of 1940.

Hitler and Stalin’s joint undertaking is best characterized by the Soviet Union Foreign Minister Molotov’s speech at the October 31st, 1939 meeting of the Supreme Soviet: «The circles governing Poland boasted about the security of their state and the might of their army. But a small strike was enough, first by the German and then the Red Army and nothing was left of the deformed offspring of the Treaty of Versailles /.../ Neither English nor French guarantees helped Poland. To this day it is unknown what those guarantees even contained.»

Molotov’s gloating joy was justified. The inaction of Western states was more than strange; it was traitorous towards Poland. The Polish state disappeared from the world map. Regarding his «brother-in-arms» the Fuhrer, Stalin noted in November 1939 that: «Economically Hitler depends entirely on us and we will direct his economy in such a way that warring countries will reach revolution. /.../ War will make Europe powerless and it will be easy prey for us. Nations will accept whatever regime comes after war.»

The next stage of Stalin’s plan assumed a German offensive against France and Great Britain. War was to lead to a long and draining conflict for all sides, which was to be followed by the Red Army’s «liberation campaign» and the establishment of Soviet authority over the continent. Stalin persistently began to implement his plan.

The Kremlin rushed to capture the prey it had bargained from Hitler. In September 1939, it was the Baltic states’ turn. The Kremlin’s first target was Estonia, because the Red Army required passage from the Gulf of Finland to the Baltic Sea. This could be assured with the help of Estonian and Finnish coastal defence battalions.

At first, the Soviet Union Foreign Minister Molotov categorically requested permission to place its own bases and 25,000-man contingents on Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian territory. «The Soviet Union needs to expand the state’s security system and for that we need access to the Baltic Sea.

If you do not wish to sign a mutual assistance agreement with us, then we will be forced to search for other ways to guarantee our security which may be much more drastic and complicated.

I beg you not to force me to use violence towards Estonia.» The request was supported by the concentration of a strong force on the borders of the Baltic states. Against Estonia, the following forces were prepared to act: In the direction of Narva, the so-called «Kingissepp» rifle corps – 35,488 men, 243 tanks; in the direction of Petseri-Tartu, the 8th army – 100,797 men, 1075 tanks. The 7th army stood on the Latvian border – 169,738 men, 759 tanks; Lithuania was faced with the 3rd army – 193, 859 men, 1078 tanks.

The Red army forces advancing towards Estonia were given the objective to «Strike the Estonian forces with a powerful and decisive blow», including the following: 1. «Kingissepp» rifle corps to quickly attack Rakvere, Tapa, and Tallinn. 2. The 8th army to move on Tartu and together with the «Kingissepp» grouping to advance in the direction of Tallinn and Pärnu. If Latvian forces move to assist the Estonian army, it was to to dispatch one tank brigade and the 25th cavalry division towards Valga to cover its left wing.

The Baltic states capitulated without resistance, agreeing to the presence of bases. Estonia suffered from further humiliation and blame in the eyes of the Finnish when the Soviet Union, in gross violation of the base agreement, bombed Finnish cities from Estonian airfields during the Winter War. In June 1940, the Baltic states were fully occupied under threat from tank and rifle barrel, and they «voluntarily entered» the Soviet Union in August 1940. The primary characteristic of Stalin’s system was terror.

This reached the Baltic states quite soon, when on the morning of June 14th, 1941 the NKVD conducted the mass deportation of «public enemies» in all three states, during which 10,000 innocent people from Estonia, 15,000 from Latvia, and 18,000 from Lithuania were sent to Siberia. Many of them never saw their homeland again.

Spurred by success in Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia, Stalin decided to finish the occupation of Finland which he had bargained from Hitler with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP). For this, four armies were employed, which contained 425,640 men, 24 divisions, 2289 tanks, 2876 artillery and mortars, and 2446 planes. Against this, Finland had 265,000 soldiers, 534 artillery, 26 tanks, and 270 planes.

According to plan, the Red Army operation which began on November 30th, 1939 should have ended with the conquest of Finland three weeks later, at which point the sovietisation of Finland would begin immediately. For this purpose, a pro-Soviet «people’s» puppet government was created in Terijoki and led by the secretary of the executive committee of the Comintern, Otto Kuusinen.

But a nation of 3.7-million calmly and sturdily resisted the forces of the 172-million Soviet empire. The onslaught of the Red Army was stopped and the war began to drag on. Fighting desperately, the Finnish were able to defend their independence during the 105-day Winter War.

The Red Army losses were fantastic. According to the war historian Meltjukhov, they were as follows: dead and missing numbered at 131,476, wounded and sick at 264,908, and prisoners at 6116. The unreturned weapons and technology came to 406 planes, 653 tanks, and 422 artillery.

The memoirs of Mannerheim pin the Finnish losses at 24,923 casualties and missing, and 43,557 wounded. The historians Leskinen and Juutilainen contend that the number of fallen was higher – 26,662 people. Added to this, 876 Finnish fighters were imprisoned by the Red Army. Therefore, Finnish losses came to about one-fifth of the personnel of its army.

The biggest myth that current neostalinists are attempting to convince the world of is that the activity of the Red Army before the outbreak of war in 1941 was defensive in nature. Scholars have ascertained that the general staff of the Soviet armed forces already began to plan the war against Germany in October 1939 and the process lasted until mid-July 1941.

Hitler reputedly gave the order to draft the operating plan «Barbarossa» against the Soviet Union on July 21, 1940. The general staff of the Red Army developed five different versions of a plan for the offensive against Germany. Historians have not managed to obtain the still strictly classified operational documents; just the reports to Stalin and Molotov, which luckily contained specific important positions regarding military planning. The creation of the military plans themselves were extremely classified and was handled by a small group of leading officers in the general staff.

This work achieved especial intensity in the second half of 1940. The first plan involved an offensive with the main direction of Belarus, Warsaw, and East Prussia. Allegedly, the People’s Defence Comissary, USSR Marshal Timoshenko, was not satisfied with the main direction of the forces’ offensive through Bealrus to Warsaw and requested further analysis and changing the main line of attack to Ukraine.

By September 18th, 1940, a new version of the plan was ready. This envisaged the possibility of using the Red Army’s main forces in both northern (Belarus) and southern (Ukraine) directions.

These began to be called the «northern option» and «southern option», respectively. A report of the plan was given to Stalin and Molotov on October 5th. After some discussion, the southern, or Ukrainian, direction was declared to be the main line of attack. On October 14th, an updated plan of the «southern option» was confirmed as primary, but it was decided that a plan for the «northern option» should be properly prepared. A packet of the exact documents for both plans was to be ready by May 1st, 1941.

Both versions of the battle plan were played out by the general staff in January of 1941. In the first war game, the Red Army offensive proceeded to the northwest in the direction of East Prussia. In the second war game, the main direction of the strategic offensive was from Ukraine to Southern Poland and then to Hungary and Romania, to cut Germany off from sources of raw materials and fuel. No defensive activity was foreseen for the war.

During the course of the war games, the Red Army offensive toward East Prussia failed, whereas success was achieved in the northwest direction. As a result, the «southern option» was finally confirmed to be the main line of attack. The specification of operational plans according to the results of the war games began to be led by General of the Army Georgi Žukov, who was named the new head of the general staff in February.

The final plan of the campaign was ready on May 15th, 1941. The plan designated the first «strategic» objective as an offensive 300 kilometres into Polish territory which would shatter the main forces of the Wehrmacht and occupy Poland and East Prussia. The duration of the operation was planned to be 30 days. This was to be followed by the occupation of Germany.

According to historians who have gained access to archival documents, all of the plans that were developed by the general staff in the years 1940-1941 were offensive, and not defensive, operations. There was no defence planning at the strategic or operational level. The question of its creation was not even raised until the beginning of the war.

The inflow and spreading out of Soviet forces to the starting areas of the offensive in Ukraine and Belarus occurred in utmost secrecy. Units moved to state borders at night. Stalin ordered that the railroad, which was the main form of transporting forces, operate according to its regular schedule but this caused a delay in the supply of units. The Red Army had to finish preparations by July 15th, 1941 at the latest so that the war could begin by the end of July or the beginning of August.

The preparation for a strategic offensive and the lack of preparation for defence was demonstrated most convincingly by the location of Soviet forces on July 22nd. The operation was to consist of five fronts which had been designated according to military district during peacetime: the northern front (22 divisions) against Finland; north-western front in the Baltic states (23 divisions) against East Prussia; western front in Belarus (53 divisions) against Poland and the southern part of East-Prussia.

The most powerful front in Ukraine (123 divisions) operated in the main line of attack. The southern front in Romania (27 divisions), in its nearly 700 kilometre area of responsibility, was the only one that was to perform defensive operations against Romanian and German forces.

The main forces of the western and south-western fronts were formed into two powerful fists: the northern one located in Belarus in the so-called «horn of Belostok», the southern one located in the Lvov region of Ukraine. Another strategic troop train consisting of 77 divisions was placed behind the first strategic troop train. But by the first day of the war, only 17-20 were already there. Whole armies of the second strategic troop train were still on their way.

Although Stalinist history speaks of the overwhelming size of German forces in June of 1941, the facts do not verify that. As of June 22, the Red Army’s western front had 190 divisions and a large advantage in terms of heavy weaponry and technology: 15,647 tanks against Germany’s 4171; 59,787 artillery against Germany’s 42,601; 10,743 planes against Germany’s 4846. Only in terms of personnel was the Red Army not leading: 3,289,851 men against the Wehrmacht’s 4,306,800 men.

The Red Army’s large advantage in terms of heavy weaponry and warplanes probably explains Stalin’s shock on June 22nd which figuratively knocked him out for several days. He was sure that Hitler, aware of the great technical superiority of Soviet forces, would not dare to attack first. The Fuhrer, however, knew both instinctively and based on intelligence sources that if he did not attack first then Stalin would soon enough. Hitler simply struck pre-emptively on July 22nd.

In these circumstances, the attempts of the Red Army leadership to implement existing offensive plans and organize their own counterattacks, using their large mechanized units to counter the German onslaught, were inadequate. They failed entirely.

Soviet propaganda has said much about the patriotism and love of fatherland exhibited by the nations that belonged to the empire. It is apparent from the behaviour of those Red Army soldiers that stood against German forces in the summer of 1941 that they lacked the motivation to defend a homeland which had been turned into a concentration camp. Entire Red Army units surrendered or scattered.

According to the Russian historian Gurkin’s information, the both sides’ losses in the period of June 22nd-December 31st, 1941 were as follows. Red Army: killed 802,191; wounded 1,269,978; missing 3,906,965; German forces: killed 273,816; wounded 802,705; missing 57,245.

In the euphoria following initial victories, Hitler gave the order to reorganize the Wehrmacht with the purpose of preparing it to wage war on England and the USA after destroying the Soviet Union. The crazed fuhrer still did not understand his biggest mistake – attacking the Soviet Union. Even if operation «Barbarossa» was to be successful, 150-160 German divisions would never have been capable of occupying the enormous state. The crisis of the Reich’s campaign arrived in the fall of 1941. In December, the German forces suffered defeat at Moscow. The «Eastern Campaign» was over.

In April 1945, the massive Red Army was already at the banks of the Elbe and the Danube. We can only speculate what would have happened if Stalin had managed to go on the offensive first in 1941. Maybe the western border of the Soviet Union would have stretched across the Eastern seaboard of the Atlantic Ocean.

World War II took the lives of nearly 50 million people. Over half of them – 27 million – were inhabitants of the Soviet Union. The chief architects of this catastrophe were dictators with anxious ambitions of ruling the world: Hitler and Stalin. Everything that those two did to unleash war was aided by the Western states’ policy of “non-involvement” and «appeasement».

If the Nazis received a fair assessment in international courts, then the trial of the Stalinists has yet to take place. An honest judgment of Stalin’s crimes by the Russian nation, who were the its biggest victims, is also absent.

But looking at the authoritarian, rapidly arming Russia who is attempting to restore its empire and a Western Europe that is drowning in day-to-day concerns and losing its defence capabilities, the question emerges whether the events of World War II could repeat themselves. Can the future hold another Munich 2, Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 2, or Jalta 2?