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International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

50 Years Since the Nazi Invasion of the USSR

Bill Van Auken

This article originally appeared in the June 21, 1991 issue of the “Bulletin.”

June 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Code-named Operation Barbarossa by Hitler’s command, this invasion inaugurated the bloodiest period of warfare in human history, a “total war” which would claim the lives of 20 million Soviet citizens before the German war machine was finally crushed.

The defeat of the German invasion was the product both of the unparalleled heroism and sacrifice of the Soviet working class and the strength of the nationalized property relations, established in the 1917 October Revolution, which they defended arms in hand.

Following its initial victories in Poland, Denmark, Norway, France and the Low Countries, Nazi Germany was confronted with a choice between continuing its offensive on the western front by launching an amphibious assault on Great Britain, or turning its armies eastward against the USSR.

Hitler regarded the annihilation of the Soviet Union and the heritage of the October Revolution as his great mission, while the Nazis repeatedly sought a compromise agreement with British imperialism, signaled in such actions as Hitler’s halting the advancing Wehrmacht outside Dunkirk and permitting the British evacuation in 1940, and Rudolf Hess’s sudden plane trip to Scotland in May 1941, a month before the invasion of the USSR.

The decision to invade the Soviet Union arose out of a combination of fanatical anticommunism and a cold-blooded assessment of how to advance the interests of German imperialism against its major capitalist rivals. Marshal Von Leeb recalled that in a meeting with his commanders on August 14, 1940, Hitler explained why the Soviet Union, not Britain, would be the target: “Germany is not striving to smash Britain because the beneficiary will not be Germany but Japan in the East, Russia in India, Italy in the Mediterranean and America in world trade. That is why peace is possible with Britain.”

Six months before the invasion, Plan Barbarossa was drafted. It called for a three-pronged invasion of the USSR with armies marching on Leningrad to the north, Moscow in the center and the Ukraine and Caucasus in the south. The aim was to quickly occupy all of European Russia up to a line running between Archangel and Astrakhan.

To carry out this task, the German command massed 4 million troops, 3,350 tanks, 7,200 guns and 2,000 warplanes near the border of the Soviet Union.

When the Nazi armies struck at dawn on June 22, 1941 they found the Soviet Union totally unprepared. The Red Army and the Soviet people had been systematically disarmed by Stalin and the bureaucracy. The result was an unmitigated disaster. The Soviet air force was virtually wiped out on the ground. Thousands of tanks were lost. And up to a million Soviet soldiers were taken prisoner in the first weeks of fighting. Without any air cover, retreating columns of Soviet troops and civilians alike were subjected to slaughter by Nazi warplanes. Three weeks of the invasion brought the Nazi blitzkrieg to the outskirts of Kiev and just a short distance from Leningrad.

The first response to the Nazi invasion came in a speech broadcast by Molotov, Stalin’s right-hand man in the bureaucracy. Stalin himself was in a state of demoralization and panic following the invasion and, for a period, ceased all activity within the leadership. “This unheard of attack on our country is an unparalleled act of perfidy in the history of civilized nations,” Molotov declared. “This attack has been made despite the fact that there was a nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany, a pact the terms of which were scrupulously observed by the Soviet Union.”

The conception that Nazi Germany was a “civilized nation” summed up the criminal policy of the Moscow bureaucracy. Indeed, Moscow had meticulously fulfilled the economic pledges made in its pact with Hitler, shipping oil, wheat and metals into Germany right up to the day of the invasion. Molotov concluded his speech by stressing that the Nazi regime had “made no demands,” a clear and humiliating signal that the Soviet bureaucracy was prepared to offer concessions if only Hitler would ask for them.

But German imperialism had its own plans, summed up in Hitler’s longstanding demand for lebensraum, or living room, in the east. His regime intended to conquer the Soviet Union by means of total war and turn it into a German colony. Addressing his generals in March 1941, Hitler summed up the policy which would guide the bloody German war: “The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion; the struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness.” He ordered the execution of all captured members of the Communist Party, declaring them “bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism.”

In practice this meant the mass extermination of Soviet prisoners of war, a crime second in scale only to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Of the 5,700,000 Soviets taken prisoner in the war, more than 3,300,000 died in captivity, most of them in the first year.

For more than two decades, the anticommunist propaganda of all the imperialists had portrayed the October Revolution as a coup and the Soviet state as a historical aberration which would collapse at the first serious shock. These lies were conclusively disproved by the Soviet people in battle. Despite their hatred of Stalin’s despotism and the parasitism and repression of the Kremlin bureaucracy, the Soviet workers fought ferociously against the fascist invaders and defended the gains which had been won in the proletarian revolution of 1917.

Nowhere was the courage and determination of the Soviet people more evident than in their endurance of the horrific siege of Leningrad which began in August 1941.

In the face of a coordinated Finnish and German offensive, the entire population was mobilized to build defensive lines around the city. Workers, both men and women, erected 620 miles of earthworks, 370 miles of barbed wire entanglements and 5,000 pillboxes and dug 400 miles of antitank ditches. Cut off from the rest of the country except for a precarious route across Lake Ladoga, the people of Leningrad faced critical food shortages which soon led to mass starvation. While German bombings claimed the lives of 4,000 people a day, hunger killed even more. Before the siege was finally broken by the Soviet army in the spring of 1944, one million people—one out of three Leningraders—had died.

As the Nazi armies approached the capital of Moscow, a similar mobilization took place. A massive army of workers, most of them women, dug antitank ditches around the city. By November, the German offensive had come within 18 miles of Moscow. There are reports that some units actually penetrated the outlying suburbs. But that was as far as they were to get.

By December, the Soviet army launched a counteroffensive against German forces, which had been worn down by the cold and hampered by long supply lines. The German command had refused to supply the troops with winter clothing, fearing it would cast doubt on its assurances that the Soviet resistance would collapse before the snow fell. Moreover, fuel froze in the tanks and other vehicles, making them immobile, while much of the artillery simply would not fire. With superior equipment and forces, the Soviet army drove the Nazi armies back from the gates of Moscow, ending the uninterrupted German offensive and opening the way to the eventual defeat of German imperialism.

Only six months after the launching of Operation Barbarossa, the highest levels of the German general staff had concluded that the war was already lost. Hitler’s generals were dismayed that the Soviet system had not disintegrated, as they had anticipated. No society in history had survived the kind of blow which was struck in Barbarossa. In the face of an offensive of more than three million troops, attacking on a front 1,000 miles long and destroying hundreds of towns, thousands of villages and millions of human beings in a matter of months, the Soviet people continued to resist.

While German imperialism was to occupy the Ukraine and large parts of European Russia for two more years, it was unable in any area to establish a stable rule or extinguish the mass resistance of the Soviet people. In every area seized by the Nazis, partisan bands emerged, waging a grim battle against the invaders despite the most savage reprisals.

The Kremlin bureaucracy’s official propaganda, largely parroted by the USSR’s imperialist allies in the war, attributed every success to the “genius” and leadership of Stalin. In his 1956 secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev partially exposed the devastating impact of Stalin’s purges of the military, his refusal to credit the reports of German war preparations and his complete paralysis following the invasion. He further stated that during the war Stalin’s continuous bureaucratic interference in military operations, without any knowledge of the situation at the front, was itself responsible for large losses by the Soviet army.

What the imperialists most appreciated in Stalin was his repeated attempts to base his regime on the most reactionary social foundations in the course of the war. Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church, the old ideological prop of tsarism, was resurrected; tsarist heroes were extolled and distinctions of military rank were further exaggerated, with even the old “shoulder boards” which had been tom off the shoulders of officers in 1917 placed back on.

The Soviet victory in the Second World War was won not because of, but in spite of the bureaucracy headed by Stalin. Indeed, the ultimate responsibility for the slaughter of the Second World War lies with Stalinism and its strangling of the revolutionary movement of the working class.

The bureaucracy’s usurpation of the political power of the working class within the USSR beginning in the mid-1920s was soon translated into defeats for the international working class. Internationally, the Stalinist regime, fearing that a successful socialist revolution in the West would undermine its own position and spark a resurgence of the Soviet proletariat, deliberately sabotaged the struggles of the working class. It sought to base the defense of the USSR not on the program of world socialist revolution but on diplomatic alliances with one or another section of world imperialism.

The bureaucracy defended the property relations established by the 1917 October Revolution only as the base of its own material privileges. Its methods of defense, however, combined both totalitarian dictatorship and the plundering of the nationalized property at home and the organization of catastrophic defeats for the working class abroad, culminating in the crushing of the German proletariat by the Nazis in 1933.

In the USSR itself, the bureaucracy ruthlessly defended and sought to extend its own considerable privileges as a parasitic caste which subordinated the economic and social development of Soviet society to its own interests.

To consolidate its political power, the Stalinist bureaucracy pursued a policy of bloody terror against all opponents and potential opponents. It systematically set out to exterminate all those who had led the October Revolution and who could serve as a potential rallying point of working class opposition to the bureaucracy. In the Moscow Trials of 1936-38 virtually the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party, with Leon Trotsky, already in exile, as the chief defendant, was framed up on monstrous charges of collaboration with the Nazis, espionage and sabotage.

Beginning in 1937, the blood purges extended into the top ranks of the Soviet military, which was literally beheaded. Stalin feared the Red Army especially because of Trotsky’s role in founding and leading it throughout the civil war.

Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, an outstanding military commander in the civil war who became head of the Red Army in 1933, was charged with treason and shot together with seven other generals. Before the purge of the military was over, 25,000 officers were executed, including virtually the entire general staff. By the autumn of 1938, three out of five Soviet Red Army marshals had been shot, 13 out of 15 army commanders, 110 out of 195 division commanders and 186 out of 406 brigade commanders. The bloodbath was even greater in the ranks of the administrative staff. All 11 deputy commissars for defense were executed, 77 out of 80 members of the military soviet and all military district commanders and political commissars.

Capable commanders were replaced, for the most part, by reactionary sycophants distinguished only by their loyalty to Stalin. The decapitation of the Red Army was noted by the German general staff and became a significant factor in its war calculations.

In the aftermath of the Nazis coming to power in Germany, the Kremlin bureaucracy sought an alliance with the so-called democratic imperialist powers and ordered the Communist parties in the West to carry out popular front coalitions with the social democratic and bourgeois parties.

The imperialists, of course, had no intention of defending the USSR against fascism. On the contrary, with the Munich agreement of September 1938, the governments of Britain and France quickly accepted the annexation of part of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany with the clear aim of directing German imperialism eastward. The “democratic” imperialist ruling classes clearly hoped that by encouraging Hitler to wage his long-promised crusade against Bolshevism in the east, they could turn Germany away from a confrontation over control of their own colonial empires.

The response of the Stalinist bureaucracy to this shift in world politics was to turn from the supposed “antifascist” alliance to an alliance with the fascists themselves. On August 23, 1939, Moscow signed a “nonaggression” pact with Nazi Germany which gave Hitler a free hand in settling accounts in Poland, while agreeing to supply the Nazi war machine with oil, grain and strategic metals. One of the most odious aspects of this agreement was the shipping back by the Kremlin bureaucracy of German Communists who had sought refuge in the USSR to Hitler’s concentration camps.

The Stalin-Hitler pact was introduced with absolutely no warning to the Communist parties of the world. The impact of this cynical diplomatic turn was to further demoralize and paralyze the international proletariat in the face of the growing threat of a new world imperialist war. Thus, the policy of the Kremlin bureaucracy—both through the Stalin-Hitler pact and the popular front alliances with the “democratic imperialists” which preceded it—served to deprive the Soviet Union of its most important bulwark of defense: the revolutionary mobilization of the international proletariat against imperialism.

Writing on the capitulation of France to the Nazis which took place barely one year before the Nazi invasion of the USSR and only two months before his own assassination by Stalin’s agent, Leon Trotsky, founder of the Fourth International, explained this process:

“During a period of five years the Kremlin and its Comintern propagandized for an ‘alliance of democracies’ and ‘People’s Fronts’ with the aim of a preventive war against ‘fascist aggressors.’ This propaganda, as witnessed most strikingly in the example of France, had a tremendous influence upon the popular masses. But when war really approached, the Kremlin and its agency, the Comintern, jumped unexpectedly into the camp of the ‘fascist aggressors.’ Stalin with his horsetrader mentality sought in this way to cheat Chamberlain, Daladier, Roosevelt, and to gain strategic positions in Poland and the Baltic countries.

“But the Kremlin’s jump had immeasurably greater consequences: not only did it cheat the governments, but it disoriented and demoralized the popular masses in the first place in the so-called democracies. With its propaganda of ‘People’s Fronts’ the Kremlin hindered the masses from conducting the fight against the imperialist war. With his shift to Hitler’s side Stalin abruptly mixed up all the cards and paralyzed the military power of the ‘democracies.’ In spite of all the machines of destruction, the moral factor retains decisive importance in the war. By demoralizing the popular masses in Europe, and not solely in Europe, Stalin played the role of an agent provocateur in the service of Hitler.” Trotsky concluded by warning that Nazi Germany’s “victories in the West are only the preparation for a gigantic move toward the East.”

But Stalin steadfastly refused to recognize the clear indications of German plans for the invasion of the USSR. More than a year before the Nazi armies marched, intense preparations were under way, with the construction of new railway lines, highways and airfields near the Soviet border.

From 1939 until the invasion there were more than 500 violations of Soviet airspace by German warplanes. Soviet border troops, however, were given explicit orders not to fire on encroaching German reconnaissance planes for fear of upsetting relations with Hitler.

Warnings of the planned invasion continued to flow into Moscow. The Comintern’s agent in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, had worked his way into the confidence of the German ambassador to Japan and was supplying government memos confirming the war plans to Stalin’s office. German deserters crossed into Soviet territory and supplied the date of the attack. Western governments provided their own warnings. Before the invasion began, the Soviet bureaucracy had been supplied with the German army’s order of battle and a list of its objectives. Stalin rejected them all as “provocations” aimed at upsetting his alliance with Hitler.

On June 14, barely a week before the German invasion, the official news agency Tass published a government statement which declared: “Rumors of the intention of Germany to break the pact are completely without foundation, while recent movements of German troops which have completed their operations in the Balkans to the eastern and northern parts of Germany are connected, it must be supposed, with other motives which have nothing to do with Soviet-German relations.” Barely one week later the Nazi invasion began.

How was it possible that the Soviet Union achieved such a stunning victory over German imperialism given the outright treachery of the ruling bureaucracy? The answer can only be found in the progressive social foundations of the Soviet state, the nationalized property relations and planned economy established by the October Revolution. Though eroded and distorted by the bureaucracy’s parasitic abuse, these foundations still provided the USSR with enormous strength in war.

One only has to compare the defeat of German imperialism by the Soviet Union in the 1940s to the rout of the armies of the Russian tsar by Germany in the First World War. What had changed in a quarter century? The Soviet Union was transformed by an industrialization unprecedented in history, made possible only by the overthrow of capitalism and the introduction of nationalized property and economic planning.

Contrast this, for example, to France, historically one of the major imperialist powers, where the revolutionary strivings of the working class were sabotaged by social democracy and Stalinism, and French capitalism stagnated and decayed. The result was, in 1940, an ignominious political and military collapse in the face of the Nazi invasion. Wracked by economic and social crisis, the French bourgeoisie was incapable of resisting the German invasion and decisive sections actually preferred Nazi occupation to the mobilization of the masses which it feared would open the doors to a revolutionary uprising by the French working class.

The historically progressive character of the socialization of the means of production in the USSR proved itself in war against German fascism. First of all, the Soviet Union had developed a massive industry and, in particular, a powerful war industry over the preceding decades. Second, under the hammer blows of the German invasion, it was able to preserve and expand these industries.

In an achievement truly unique in human history, fully 80 percent of the war industry was dismantled and moved to the east—out of the range of German bombers—between the months of August and October 1941. The greater part of the engineering industry was evacuated from Leningrad, Kiev and regions west of Moscow to be reassembled in the Urals, Siberia, the Volga, Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

The dismantling and loading of heavy equipment went on 24 hours a day under heavy Nazi bombing. Fully half a million rail car loads of machinery was shipped east aboard the same trains which carried millions of soldiers west to the front.

Vast industrial combines were carved out of the wilderness, producing tanks, planes and other war supplies. Millions of workers moved with the industries, working 12- to 15-hour days, seven days a week with little food and inadequate shelter to restore production. Many sacrificed their lives in this effort.

The nationalized property relations were decisive in the struggle against crisis-ridden German imperialism. The German military’s blitzkrieg, or lightning warfare, was not simply a tactical innovation, but an economic necessity because German capitalism was unable to carry out the kind of production needed for a protracted world war. By attacking the Soviet Union, German imperialism was attempting to surmount its historic crisis by appropriating the vast oil, coal and other metal reserves of the USSR. It failed, not because of the cold or vastness of Russia, and certainly not as a result of Stalin’s “military genius,” but because of the granite foundations laid by the October Revolution.

For decades, the Stalinist authorities in the Soviet Union referred to the war against German fascism as the “Great Patriotic War,” portraying it as a national triumph for the USSR. However, the military defeat of Germany, the most powerful imperialist nation in Europe, was a victory not only for the Soviet working class, but for the international working class and the world socialist revolution.

The conquest of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany would have destroyed the conquests of the October Revolution, the greatest event in human history, led to the slaughter of tens of millions of Soviet workers and peasants, and plunged mankind into a epoch of barbarism of unprecedented dimensions.

Today the legacy of the October Revolution is in the greatest danger since the Nazi invasion 50 years ago. The protracted historical decay of the Stalinist bureaucracy has produced, in the regime headed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, an enemy as dedicated to the destruction of the planned economy and the gains of the Soviet working class as Hitler’s generals.

During the Second World War, the Soviet bureaucracy felt compelled to defend—albeit by its own counterrevolutionary methods—the nationalized property relations against imperialism. A significant section of the bureaucracy, represented by the Ukrainian Butenko, welcomed Nazism and offered its services as imperialist stooges to administer the restoration of capitalism, but this faction was only a minority.

Today the bureaucracy as a whole, with all its academic hangers-on, has gone over to the program of Butenko. All sections of the Stalinist regime have adopted the policy of restoring capitalist property relations. Their internal conflicts reflect not differences over the restorationist road, but the different interests of rival imperialist powers, above all Germany and the United States, which are seeking to dominate and colonize the territories of the USSR.

The economic policies pursued by Gorbachev, Yeltsin and their advisers are aimed at systematically destroying the real achievements of the Soviet economy on the basis of nationalized industry and re-imposing capitalist property relations and a capitalist market. Their regime is openly offering up the Soviet Union for sale to the highest imperialist bidder in return for Western credits. To further this counterrevolutionary domestic policy, the Gorbachev regime follows a foreign policy aimed at intensifying rather than deterring imperialist pressure on the USSR.

It is no accident that Gorbachev’s perestroika has led to the resurgence of openly fascist and anti-Semitic tendencies, such as Pamyat in the USSR and their equivalent throughout Eastern Europe. Among the middle class and academic circles in Moscow there are not a few “liberals” who openly bewail the defeat of Germany in World War II, and look upon the Soviet victory over fascism with regret.

But just as the Nazi attempt to conquer the Soviet Union for German imperialism 50 years ago met with the unparalleled heroism and struggle on the part of the Soviet working class, so today the drive by the Soviet bureaucracy to restore capitalism in the USSR will arouse massive opposition from this working class.

The attempts of the present regime to complete the counterrevolutionary transformation which Hitler’s armies failed to achieve half a century ago can be defeated only by the independent mobilization of the Soviet workers in a political revolution to overthrow the entire Kremlin bureaucracy. Only in this way can the conditions be created for the regeneration of the nationalized property forms and planned economy as part of the world socialist revolution. This is the program fought for by the International Committee of the Fourth International.