- The state of the USSR in 1924: the power struggle after Lenin’s death, and Stalin’s victory
- Economic policies: collectivisation and the Five Year Plans
- State control: the purges and the cult of personality
- Daily life in Stalin’s USSR
- The Soviet experience of WW2, and how it shaped the USSR after the war
The Soviet Experience of WW2, and its Effects
In this unit
- The course of the war
- Why was the German invasion initially so successful?
- Why did the Soviets eventually win the war?
- Was WW2 a turning point in Soviet history?
Questions to ask yourself
- Why was the USSR able to survive the initial German assault?
- How well had Stalin’s policies prepared the USSR for the German invasion?
- How was the Battle of Stalingrad a turning point in the Soviet-German war?
- Was WW2 a turning point for Stalin’s policies?
- How did the Soviet experience of WW2 lay the groundwork for the coming Cold War?
British cartoon, 1939. The two men represent Stalin and Hitler
German troops, 6th Army, Stalingrad 1942
Red Army soldiers, Stalingrad 1942
|“Two men showed themselves… a Nazi officer and an interpreter. Through the interpreter the officer tried to persuade us to surrender to the ‘glorious’ German army, as defence was useless and there was no point in our sitting it out any longer. ‘Get out of the elevator now,’ insisted the German officer. ‘If not we will show you no mercy. In one hour’s time we will bomb you all flat.’‘What a cheek,’ we thought, and gave the Nazi lieutenant a curt reply: ‘Tell all your fascists they can go to hell in an open boat!’… Soon after that enemy tanks and infantry about ten times our strength attacked from south and west. After the first attack was beaten back a second began, then a third…Ten attacks were beaten off just on September 18th… This was how we defended our position, day and night. Heat, thirst, smoke – everybody’s lips were cracked.”|
— Andrei Khozyainov, naval officer, Stalingrad 1942
|“They found that around 150 wounded German military personnel had been murdered. Wounded soldiers had been thrown out of the windows of the hospital to make room for Russian wounded, then water was poured on the heavily wounded soldiers who were then left to freeze. On the beach in front of the field hospital, piles of bodies were found where they were thrown from a wall several metres high, after being beaten and mutilated, their bodies left in the surf so that the sea water froze and covered them with a sheet of ice. Some of the dead bodies showed severe signs of mutilation.”|
— anonymous German account of retaking a hospital in Feodosia from the Soviets
Frozen corpses of Soviet soldiers, Eastern Front
Einsatzgruppen massacre of Jews at Ivanhorod, 1942
‘The Last Jew in Vinnitsa’, (probably) 1941
|“We saw a long line of men, women, and children, their wrists bound with wire. SS men were herding them toward a long ditch, around 150 yards. To our horror we realised they were all Jews. The victims were thrown into the ditch and made to lie in rows, alternating head to foot. Once one layer of people was in place, two soldiers walked down either side of the pit with machine pistols, firing automatic bursts into the backs of people’s heads. Once that was done, they’d go along the pit again, finishing off the wounded. Then more people were again driven forward, and they’d have to get in and lie on top of the dead. At one point a young girl — she must’ve been about twelve — cried out in a clear, piteous, shrill voice, ‘Let me live, I’m just a child!’ They grabbed her, threw her into the ditch, and shot her.”|
— anonymous German veteran on the Eastern Front
|“On June 23rd, 1941 mobilisation production plans went into force. On June 24th the Evacuation Council was set up and on the 30th the State Defense Committee was organised with Stalin as its head. In July 1941 300,000 railway wagons were in operation, in August 185,000, in September 140,000, in October 175,000, in November 123,000. In the July-November period 1503 industrial enterprises were evacuated to the east. It took two and a half years to erect a blast furnace before the war but furnaces No. 5 and 8 were erected in eight months at Magnitogorsk. |
In October tank building plant No.183 was working in November, it was evacuated and in December it resumed production. Tank production went from 4,177 in the second half of 1941 to 11,021 in the first half of 1942. Military production increased 180% in the Urals in 1942 compared to 1941, 200% in the Volga area and 140% in Western Siberia.In 1942, 4.4 million industrial workers were trained or re-educated. The number of women operating forging and press machines rose from 11% in 1941 to 50% by end of 1942.”
— Colonel GS Kravchenko, 1967
Lyudmila Pavlichenko and Vasily Zaitsev, two prolific Soviet snipers who between them killed more than 550 enemy troops
The ‘Night Witches’, early 1940s
The Battle of Kursk, 1943, German troops and Soviet troops
Zhenya died on December 28th at 12 noon, 1941
Grandma died on the 25th of January at 3 o’clock, 1942
Leka died March 17th, 1942, at 5 o’clock in the morning, 1942
Uncle Vasya died on April 13th at 2 o’clock in the morning, 1942
Uncle Lesha May 10th, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, 1942
Mama on May 13th at 7:30 in the morning, 1942
The Savichevs are dead
Everyone is dead
Only Tanya is left
— Diary entries of Tanya Savicheva, Leningrad. She died of tuberculosis in 1944, aged 14
Ruins of Leningrad
|“When in October, 1944, Russian units temporarily entered Nemmersdorf, they tortured the civilians, specifically they nailed them to barn doors, and then shot them. A large number of women were raped and then shot. During this massacre, the Russian soldiers also shot some fifty French POWs. Within forty-eight hours the Germans re-occupied the area.”|
“In the farmyard stood a cart, to which more naked women were nailed through their hands in a cruciform position… Near a large inn, the ‘Roter Krug’, stood a barn and to each of its two doors a naked woman was nailed through the hands, in a crucified posture… In the dwellings we found a total of 72 women, including children, and one old man, 74, all dead… Some babies had their heads bashed in.”
— Two German accounts of a massacre at Nemmersdorf, a German village taken by the Red Army, 1944
|“Calls to avenge the Motherland, violated by the Wehrmacht’s invasion, had given the idea that almost any cruelty would be allowed. Even many young women soldiers and medical staff in the Red Army did not appear to disapprove. ‘Our soldiers’ behaviour towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!’ said a 21-year-old from Agranenko’s reconnaissance detachment. A number seemed to find it amusing. Several German women recorded how Soviet servicewomen watched and laughed when they were raped. But some women were deeply shaken by what they witnessed in Germany. Natalya Gesse… had observed the Red Army in action in 1945 as a Soviet war correspondent. ‘The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to eighty,’ she recounted later. ‘It was an army of rapists.’”|
— Historian A Beevor on the mass rape carried out by Red Army soldiers in Germany (nb possibly up to 10 million incidents of rape were committed by German troops in the USSR)
WW2 casualty figures (nb overlap between Holocaust victims and Soviet civilians)
|“There was silence. I heard one old woman mutter “Just like our poor boys, driven into the war.” But amid the silence I heard a little girl perched on her mother’s shoulder say, “Mummy, are those the men who killed daddy?” Her mother hugged her and wept.”|
— journalist Alexander Werth, recounting the parading of German POWs through Moscow, 1944
Two photos of Evgeny Kobytev, a painter who enlisted in the Red Army during WW2. The photo on the left is dated to 1941, on the right to 1945.
The course of the war
Though Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 blatantly violated their 1939 nonaggression treaty (the Nazi- Soviet Pact), it was not based on mere whim. Hitler’s war aims were consistent with his long-held goals of destroying communism and seizing agricultural land from the ‘subhuman’ Slavs to feed the growing German population. This would be a genocidal war: the Slavs would be crushed and enslaved, and the Jews (whom Hitler associated with communism) exterminated. To the people of the Soviet Union, this would be nothing short of a war for their very survival.
This ensuing Soviet-German war (aka the Eastern Front, known to the Germans as the Ostfront and the Soviets as the Great Patriotic War) was only one of many theatres of WW2, but became one of the deadliest: more than a third of WW2’s 70-85 million deaths were suffered on the Eastern Front. Below is a brief rundown of the war’s events:
|Phase 1 – German assault||Phase 2 – Soviet counterattack||Phase 3 – Soviet advance into Axis territory|
|June 1941 Operation Barbarossa launched by German Army; Germans later push toward Moscow and besiege Leningrad|
June-July 1942 Germans head south to take oilfields of the Caucasus, try to seize Stalingrad
|Jan 1943 German forces at Stalingrad surrender, Red Army begins its counterattack|
July 1943 Battle of Kursk, Soviets continue their counterattack
June 1944 Soviets launch Operation Bagration, shattering German lines and advancing into E. Europe
|Jan-Feb 1945 Red Army liberates Warsaw from the Germans, then pushes into Germany proper|
April 1945 Battle of Berlin as Soviet forces advance into Berlin
May 1945 Hitler commits suicide, Germany surrenders unconditionally
Why was the German invasion initially so successful?
The initial success of the German assault stunned the world: in three months the Germans had advanced as far east as Moscow, capturing nearly half of the Soviet population, some three million Soviet POWs, and the USSR’s prime agricultural and industrial zones. Officials in Britain and the US fretfully predicted that the USSR would fall within weeks. How was the German Army able to achieve such astounding initial success?
|The strength of the Axis forces||The Axis forces (consisting of German, Hungarian, Romanian, Italian, and Spanish troops) had numerical superiority at first (nearly four million men compared to the USSR’s three million). More importantly the German Army was well-trained and -equipped, and enjoyed high morale after victories in western and northern Europe. |
The Germans also had air superiority at first (having knocked out the Soviet air force as it lay grounded), which allowed German tank formations to use their Blitzkrieg tactics — overwhelming many Soviet armies in 1941-42, and carrying German forces deep into Soviet territory
|The cost of Stalin’s totalitarianism||We must remember that the German assault was a surprise attack, which naturally caught the USSR off guard, and explains her initial weak position. Stalin’s policies however greatly exacerbated this: |
– He had not authorised any military preparation for the German attack (even though he had been warned about this several times) — this meant that the Germans achieved maximum surprise in June 1941
– His purges of the military had terrorised the generals into passivity (those he spared were mostly either yes-men or inexperienced), so that the initial war effort rested on Stalin alone — unfortunately he spent the first week of the war fighting off a nervous breakdown, effectively paralysing the entire country
– His repressive political and economic policies during the 1930s had alienated many people, who now collaborated with the invading Axis forces. Many of these decided that Hitler was probably the lesser of two evils compared to Stalin.
Many Ukrainians welcomed the invaders, having suffered through the Holodomor, and hoping that the Germans might eventually offer them independence where Stalin had brutally crushed it
– His issuing of Order 227 (‘not one step back!’) in 1942 may have stiffened the Soviet defence, but it also made it much easier for Soviet formations to be surrounded and destroyed, since they could not retreat. Many Soviet soldiers were captured as a result (almost two-thirds of Soviet POWs died in German captivity, and many of the survivors were thrown into the Gulag upon returning to the USSR)
Why did the Soviets eventually win the war?
It would be helpful to approach this through the lens of short term and long term factors:
|Short term factors|
|The Soviets were able to withstand the initial German onslaught through a combination of their own strengths, German weaknesses, and the infamous Russian winter: |
|Long term factors|
|Having survived the initial German onslaught, the Soviets dug in their heels and slowly drove the Germans back, even advancing into German territory by early 1945. Their eventual victory could be credited to the fact that:|
Was WW2 a turning point in Soviet history?
The Great Patriotic War may have been won, and Hitler, the great enemy of the Soviet people, dead and gone, but hard times still lay ahead for the USSR. At this point we should assess the impact of the Soviet experience of WW2: did WW2 change how the USSR functioned, her position in the world? Did it change the way Stalin led his nation? Or was WW2 merely a blip on the radar?
|Heavy industry||During the 1930s, factories and power stations were built, as well as infrastructure projects such as railways and subways. This was all part of the Five Year Plans. Lots of Gulag labour was used, as Stalin pushed the USSR to industrialise quickly to protect herself in a hostile world||Extensive reconstruction and rebuilding after the end of WW2. The Fourth Five Year Plan helped make the USSR the fastest growing postwar economy. Production of heavy industry goods increased, thanks in part to machinery and technology taken from occupied Germany. A lot of Gulag labour used, as Stalin pushed the USSR to match the capabilities of the Western Allies (especially the USA)|
|Light industry||Light industry was neglected compared to heavy industry: consumer goods were generally in short supply (and therefore more expensive) because the state-directed economy was focused on heavy industry.|
After the First Five Year Plan, the government supposedly invested more in light industry, but this often yielded little result, and consumer goods continued to be scarce.
|Light industry also neglected after the end of WW2, and production levels immediately after the war failed to meet prewar levels. The Fourth and Fifth Five Year Plans focused on heavy industry, and light industry was once again neglected.|
|Agriculture||From 1932-33 there was a famine across the USSR, and the Ukraine and Kazakhstan were hit particularly hard. Though many peasants blamed this on government requisition of grain, Stalin blamed it on poor weather conditions.|
Under collectivisation, peasants had to surrender their farms to the state and join collective farms (kolkhoz) or state-run farms. This was supposed to boost food production and raise rural living conditions, but this was overall not achieved.
|The USSR recovered slowly after WW2; labour shortages because of urban migration and casualties from the war hindered recovery, as did low motivation from continuing low wages. Extensive property damage (especially of machinery) made farming very hard work. The USSR was hit by another famine from 1946-47, killing possibly up to two million people.|
|Stalin and the military||From 1937 Stalin began a purge of the military, killing or purging several top officers as well as tens of thousands of junior officers. The purges secured the military’s loyalty to Stalin (though weakening its operational capabilities); it also grew steadily in size through the 1930s.||After the end of WW2 Stalin carried more purges of the military, aimed particularly at individual officers as well as returning Soviet POWs. Of the former, the war hero Marshal Zhukov was a prominent example (any popular officer showing any signs of initiative could also be a target); of the latter, many were regarded as traitors for surrendering to the Germans. Many of these were exiled to labour camps in Siberia.|
|Stalin and ethnic minorities||Stalin viewed ethnic minorities with suspicion, particularly those from the USSR’s neighbouring countries. Thousands upon thousands were deported, such as many ethnic Koreans deported to Central Asia. Much of this was in the context of WW2, when Stalin feared that these ethnic minorities might help the USSR’s hostile neighbouring countries.||Many minorities were deported after WW2. By 1950, some 400,000 Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, as well as some and 300,000 Ukrainians had been deported. This was in the context of post-WW2 independence struggles.|
One of Stalin’s final actions was dealing with the bizarre ‘Doctors’ Plot’, an alleged plot by Jewish doctors to assassinate him (there was never much evidence that this was true, and the Soviet government eventually admitted that it was a hoax). Some 30 Jewish doctors had been targeted for arrest, but Stalin’s sudden death put a halt to the order.
This was in the context however of widespread antisemitism in the USSR, both before and after WW2: Jews were viewed with suspicion as potential traitors to the USSR, and those in high positions could expect to lose their jobs (sometimes even their lives), while Jewish schools, Synagogues, newspapers and libraries were closed down.
|Stalin and popular political figures||Stalin’s paranoia had become quite clear by the mid 1930s, and he used the 1934 assassination of Kirov (which he himself might have orchestrated) as an excuse to crack down on his opponents. By 1938 he had purged, imprisoned, exiled, or shot most of them.||Stalin’s paranoia seems to have continued after WW2. In 1949 during the Leningrad Affair, top chiefs of the Leningrad Communist Party were found guilty of a dizzying array of crimes, most of them fabricated. Some 200 officials were arrested, while 2000 more were demoted and exiled. This was done in the context of consolidating his political position after the catastrophe of WW2.|
Though WW2 became a turning point in how the USSR acted on the world stage (as we shall see below), in many ways, domestically, it changed very little.
The Soviet experience of WW2 however definitely helped lay the foundations for the coming Cold War:
- Stalin did not withdraw the Red Army units which had liberated the eastern European nations from the Nazis; under Soviet influence, communist dictatorships came to power throughout eastern Europe between 1945-46. These became closely aligned with the USSR — so closely that the Western Allies regarded them as satellite states of the USSR.
- Stalin justified creating this Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe because he wanted to safeguard the USSR from any possible future German invasion; he would need a buffer zone between Germany and the USSR.
- The Western Allies interpreted this however as the first step in a Soviet conquest of Europe. Tensions simmered in this climate of suspicion
- The ‘German Question’ spoiled relations between the USSR and the Western Allies:
- Stalin wanted to cripple Germany, both as revenge for the 1941 invasion but also as a way to safeguard the USSR. The fact that the Western Allies pushed for a more lenient treatment (they wanted a healthy Germany to help economic recovery in Europe, and to avoid embittering Germany as had happened in 1919) became a source of suspicion and bitterness for Stalin
- The Western Allies insisted on partitioning Berlin in the same way that Germany had been partitioned (into separate sectors for each Allied power), even though Berlin lay in the Soviet sector of Germany. Having to accept a capitalist enclave in Soviet-held territory also became a source of suspicion for Stalin
- Despite the close cooperation of the Allies, the Soviet experience of WW2 only seemed to confirm many long-running suspicions that Stalin had held about the west: he had not forgotten that the Allied nations had sent troops to crush the Reds during the Russian Civil War, and that they had distanced themselves from the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s. Thus to Stalin, the late opening of the second front in 1944 was only one more example of Western Allied hostility, proving that they did in fact want to see the USSR come to ruin.
This coloured the way Stalin saw the actions of the Western Allies after WW2, and ruined the chance to come to genuine agreement and cooperation
- In late 1945 the USA was the only country in the world to have nuclear capability; the fact that she would not share this technology with the USSR only exacerbated Stalin’s deep suspicion of the Western Allies. He feared that the USA would use the threat of the nuclear bomb to strong-arm her way on the international stage
- The Western Allies, for their part, also feared the USSR: the massive Soviet economy was already recovering by 1946, and the Red Army — still very much intact after the war, and by far the largest and most battle-hardened force in Europe — was now stationed alarmingly close to western Europe. This mutual suspicion also ruined attempts at cooperation between the USSR and the Western Allies after WW2.
Epilogue: The Coming of the Cold War
The Cold War arguably took concrete shape in 1946, when Churchill delivered his (in)famous Iron Curtain speech, condemning Soviet domination of eastern Europe. Stalin responded by cutting off all communication and trade between the satellite states and western Europe. In 1948 he attempted to cut off western Berlin from the rest of western Germany, sparking the Berlin Blockade and nearly plunging Europe into war. Cooperation and goodwill between the former Allies was now in tatters: a gulf of suspicion and distrust had opened between the USSR and the Western Allies, which would not be bridged for decades.
When in 1949 the USSR obtained nuclear capability, the Cold War hardened into its most recognisable form: that of two nuclear-armed superpowers (the US and the USSR), backed up by their various allied states, locked into a prolonged hostility — though never daring to wage direct war against each other because of nuclear deterrence (the fear of nuclear war). Instead the superpowers would compete against each other in the nuclear arms race, while supporting opposing sides in local conflicts in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (proxy wars).
This hostility would shape the entire world for the next half-century, though Stalin would not live to see the end of it. He died in 1953, possibly of a stroke, and deprived of medical aid — fitting, given his plans for a mass purge of doctors — leaving behind a strong but deeply traumatised nation. Under Stalin’s rule, the USSR had transformed from an underdeveloped, disorganised state to a sprawling, nuclear-capable superpower, but at what cost?