Seventy-seven years ago today, on June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. This was arguably the most important single move of World War II. Heady with his victories in the west and burning with an ideological passion to wipe Bolshevism off the map, Adolf Hitler lusted to take out his arch-rival, Stalin. We all know how it turned out; Hitler couldn’t complete his victory in time to avoid bogging down in the Russian winter, and the Soviet Union eventually rebounded to crush Germany. But in the first terrible hours and days of the invasion it looked like the USSR might really be finished. This was an extremely trying time.
There’s a famous legend surrounding Stalin just after the invasion. Supposedly he was so surprised by the move, and devastated by the potential consequences of not having anticipated it, that he suffered sort of a breakdown and could no longer function as supreme leader of the USSR. Most accounts of the story have him retreating to his dacha outside Moscow where he remained for three days, seeing no one, making no decisions and possibly going on a bender. (We do know that Stalin was a heavy drinker, so this is totally plausible). He may even have feared that he was going to be arrested or deposed. Finally some of his lackeys, principally Molotov (foreign minister) and Beria (secret police chief), went to the dacha, bucked him up and convinced him to come back to work. Then with his steely resolve he decided to do whatever it took to annihilate Hitler.
Here is actual color footage of the German invasion of the USSR taken on June 22, 1941. Courtesy of Romano Archive.
But is this really what happened? The story of Stalin’s breakdown is so well-entrenched in World War II lore that it seems dangerous to question it. It’s a part of almost every retelling of the invasion from the Soviet point of view. I’ve heard it mentioned in many documentaries. In the 1992 HBO TV movie Stalin, where the dictator is played by Robert Duvall (who won a Golden Globe for the performance), the episode is depicted with the “bender” angle added; Molotov and Beria reticently creep into the Leader’s bedroom, which is trashed, to find him sitting on the floor surrounded by glasses and empty vodka bottles. Most of these depictions come from the testimonies of Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan. However, in recent years some historians have come to question this “standard” account, pointing to various military orders signed by Stalin in the post-invasion days, suggesting that he was engaged at least to some degree and perhaps the “breakdown” or “bender” story is exaggerated.
Inevitably, judging the severity and timing of Stalin’s breakdown involves a determination of what the Leader was thinking in June 1941–and that’s by no means an easy call. In August 1939, Stalin signed a ten-year nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. The purpose of this treaty was largely military, at least from Hitler’s perspective. He wanted to make sure the USSR didn’t move against him when he took over Poland, which he did beginning on September 1, thus initiating World War II. But neither Hitler nor Stalin, ideological arch-enemies, trusted each other. The Soviet government in fact received a number of intelligence warnings, some from the British, that if properly interpreted should have told Stalin that Hitler was building up for an attack. It’s kind of hard to amass 5 million troops on Europe’s largest border, equip them and get them ready for an invasion in total secret. Surely, the thinking goes, Stalin wasn’t that dense, nor that gullible. Maybe he judged incorrectly that Hitler wouldn’t attack based on political calculations. Stalin was not infallible. If you accept that he was genuinely surprised by the invasion, the “breakdown” story is much easier to believe.
Another train of thought holds that Stalin was planning to attack Germany, and that Hitler’s invasion was, perhaps unwittingly, pre-emptive. I recall Edvard Radzinsky making this argument in his controversial 1996 biography Stalin, which was the first biography written with the benefit of Soviet-era documents released after the fall of the USSR in 1991. If this is true, it’s unclear to what degree Stalin’s plans had progressed by June 22. But if one buys what you might call the “preemption” argument, it’s harder to envision Stalin being laid low by a sudden sneak attack, when he was planning to do the same thing himself. Personally I had some problems believing some of the things Radzinsky wrote in 1996, but he could well be right. Stalin was quite calculating. It does seem kind of far-fetched that the thought Hitler might stab him in the back never once entered his mind. Even the timing of the invasion might not necessarily have been a surprise; Hitler’s previous campaigns, against Poland and France, were over in about 6 weeks. Add some margin for error and count backwards from the likely beginning of the rainy season in Russia and Ukraine, and it’s not hard to predict that, if Hitler was going to attack at all in 1941, late June would have been about his last chance to do so. (Napoleon also attacked Russia in the second half of June, in 1812).
Stalin looks on as Soviet and German representatives sign the (mostly) phony nonaggression pact of August 23, 1939. This treaty figures large in gauging Stalin’s reaction to the invasion.
There could, however, be another explanation for the “breakdown” that doesn’t depend on Stalin’s degree of surprise. He may simply have been exhausted. The breakdown does not seem to have occurred immediately. Stalin was up and about, and receiving reports of the situation, on June 22. (He usually worked very late; evidently he went to bed at 3AM that morning, and the invasion began the next hour). He did not make the initial statement on Moscow radio reporting the invasion–Molotov did it–but Stalin seems to have written it. According to some reports he worked feverishly over the next few days to staunch disaster and make what military and political decisions were possible. Naturally this would have been a trying time, and with so much information coming in there would be little chance to sleep. He may have finally reached a point where he simply couldn’t go on. Stalin was 62 in 1941. I’d like to see any other 62-year-old man work for several days with no sleep under the most stressful conditions imaginable and not collapse. I could also see helping himself to a bottle of vodka, or three. None of this is inconsistent either with being genuinely surprised by the invasion, or not being surprised.
Personally, I believe the “breakdown” did happen. Even if the fact and timing of Hitler’s attack turned out not to be that surprising, Stalin had plenty to agonize over on June 22, such as the fact that he now had to fight a world war with an army whose experienced leadership he’d spent most of the late 1930s massacring to a man. He might also have been chagrined at what the distraction of the war would do to the cause of world Communist revolution. It’s difficult to know what went on in the mind of Joseph Stalin, one of the most hard-to-figure men of the entire 20th century. Even if he’d left an account of his own behind, I doubt we could trust it. Stalin lied to himself as much as to the world.