Stalin Made Many Mistakes in the Runup to and During the German Invasion of the USSR
The Soviet Union was caught off guard when it was invaded by Germany in the summer of 1941, and suffered catastrophic losses. The long-term seeds for catastrophe had been planted years earlier, during Stalin’s Military Purge, starting in 1937. That purge threw the Soviet military into turmoil by removing its most experienced commanders: 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.
The Purge also decimated the best middle-rank officers. Until 1937, the Soviet military had a reputation for being innovative. There was an intellectual ferment within the Red Army, such as with the Soviet military’s Theory of Deep Operations, which was as creative as anything the wehrmacht was doing at the time. The Soviets had their equivalents of Guderians and Mannsteins, brimming with ideas and confident that they would revolutionize warfare. Those innovative officers suffered the most, because the Purge fell heaviest on creative and free-thinking. Such officers stood out, and so were prime suspects of harboring the deviationist tendencies Stalin wanted stamped out. Thus, when Hitler attacked, the Soviet military was poorly officered and poorly led.
Stalin also ignored warnings of impending German invasion. Those who raised the alarm were punished, as Stalin insisted such alarms were part of a sinister plot engineered by the British to instigate a war between the USSR and Germany. Soviet commanders were prohibited from taking precautionary measures, lest they provoke the Germans. Indeed, hours after the invasion had actually begun, Stalin disbelieved Soviet commanders reporting that they were being overrun, insisting that they were experiencing border incidents, not war.
Stalin also fancied himself a talented military man, and meddled too much. Among his poor decisions were ordered to counterattack, issued to units that were in no position to do so. Later, he insisted that units stay put in untenable positions and fight to the last man. That led to a series of massive encirclements, in which the Germans would capture up to 700,000 Soviets per encirclement. By the end of 1941, the Germans had captured 3.4 million Soviet POWs, most of whom died in captivity.
The Soviets suffered over 6 million military casualties, plus millions of more civilian casualties, in the first six months of the war – more than any country has ever suffered in a similar period. It took superhuman efforts and sacrifice for them to recover, claw their way back up, and win in the end. Stalin deserves credit for keeping the USSR in the fight long after any other country would have thrown in the towel. But Stalin deserves even more credit for the many mistakes made before the invasion, and in the early stages of the war.