Stalin was an evil fellow without any doubt, and there is also no doubt that he had plans for expansion of the Soviet empire in mind. The question is whether he was the man to risk an all-out military offensive against an enemy known to be well prepared and experienced, and, if so, whether he considered 1941 to be the right moment for that.
Most historians tell us that there is no evidence to there having been such an attack plan in 1941, that on the contrary all evidence points to Stalin having done everything to avoid or at least postpone the outbreak of war and to having even, stubbornly and against all reason, failed to heed warnings that a German attack was imminent. These historians include Alan Bullock, David M. Glantz, Richard Overy, Harrison E. Salisbury, Alexander Werth, Gerd Überschär and, according to the latter, even Russian historians Dimitrij Volkogonov, Vladimir Karpov and Valerij Danilov. The late Volkogonov, son of a man who perished in Stalin's purges, was the most unlikely apologist of Stalin that I can think of.
On the other hand, there is a guy who calls himself Viktor Suvorov and what seems to be an imitator of his, by the name of Meltiukov, both of whom have theories in the direction that Stalin was actually planning an all-out attack on Germany in 1941, not as a reaction to the imminence of German aggression but in pursuit of his own plans of conquest. Neither of both apparently produces any evidence that Stalin was on the verge of staging such an all-out attack, or documentation revealing why Stalin planned such an attack, when the decision was taken, what Stalin’s goals were, what he is supposed to have had in mind with the enemy he allegedly intended to conquer, what his plans for German-occupied Europe were in the event of a victorious outcome of the supposed attack, or anything showing when Stalin gave the order to work out the military planning for so vast an undertaking, when and how he introduced his commanders to his intentions. All such details are known with regard to Hitler’s plan to attack the Soviet Union. Why do we know so much about the origins and organization of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa
but so little about Stalin’s allegedly intended thunderstorm, whatever it’s code name would have been?
It doesn’t seem as if Suvorov et al have anything palpable to show in the direction of an intended aggression by Stalin. From what I've learned about them in exchanges with their fans, they speculate on Stalin having intended an all-out attack in 1941 on the basis of the following considerations:
a) Stalin’s disbelief in the imminence of a German attack;
b) Deployment of Red Army forces near the frontier in a manner more suited for attack than for defense.
Rather meager indications to support a conclusion that Stalin was intending an all-out war of conquest, if you ask me.
As to a), it would be interesting to know what exactly these authors are referring to: Stalin’s apparent failure to heed warnings about the imminence of a German attack - even such that were not classified as unreliable by his intelligence services, which apparently did consider some as worth noticing -, or a lack of awareness that the Germans were preparing for war against the Soviet Union? Are they telling us that Stalin failed to notice the buildup of German forces on the German-Soviet frontier? That he believed German troops were being concentrated in Poland, Hungary and Romania to attack the British? That the numerous violations of Soviet airspace by German aircraft meant nothing to him at all? If so, one of the assumptions on which these authors base their conclusions seems to stand on shaky ground.
As to b), I think there’s nothing wrong in principle with speculations in the absence of conclusive evidence, but if a historian concludes on a certain intention from a certain behavior, as these authors obviously do, he must convincingly rule out other possible explanations for that behavior - something Suvorov et al obviously failed to do.
Have they convincingly ruled out the possibility that the concentration of Soviet troops at the borders with Germany and her allies was just a measure of preparation for the eventuality of war breaking out, pursuant to a strategy of forward defense followed by counter-attacks or to a military doctrine professing that in the event of war breaking out Soviet forces would immediately carry the fight onto enemy territory? The fact that military planning in the event of war breaking out was centered around attack rather than defense is no evidence that an all-out aggression was planned. It just shows that the Soviet military command believed its own propaganda BS that the Red Army was an offensive army and would rout the enemy on its own territory in the event of war breaking out instead of being constrained to defend itself against an enemy onslaught on Soviet territory.
Have they convincingly ruled out the possibility that Stalin may have feigned to ignore intelligence pointing to the imminence of a German attack that he actually took very seriously and to which he reacted by stepping up preparations for defense or attack, however late it was to do this?
Have they convincingly ruled out the possibility that Stalin’s concentration of troops at the border was but a show of force in order to deter Hitler from attacking or, as Stalin may have believed the intention of Hitler’s buildup to have been, persuade the other side to recommence negotiations?
Have they convincingly explained why an army supposedly on the verge of lounging at the enemy’s throat was not in a state of alert and thus caught with its pants down? Why Soviet troops didn’t know and asked for instructions about what to do when they realized they were being attacked?
There are other questions beside the above that Suvorov et al hopefully answered satisfactorily if their theories are to have any credibility. One is what advantage Stalin could have drawn from being the one to break a non-aggression pact that had been highly beneficial to him in the past, allowing him to swallow up Eastern Poland, the Baltic countries and a part of Romania, and continued to be so on account of the trade agreement that allowed him to acquire technology his army and his country badly needed and of the hope that the issues regarding German withdrawal from Finland, a free hand for the Soviet Union in Iran and the Persian Gulf and Soviet bases in Bulgaria and Turkey (the list of demands filed by Molotov with the German ambassador in Moscow on November 25, 1940) would be eventually resolved, despite the failure of Molotov’s visit to Berlin.
One of the sources Overy refers to is a 1995 publication by B. Pietrow-Ennker, Die Sowjetunion und der Beginn des Zweiten Weltkriegs 1939-1941. Ergebnisse einer internationalen Konferenz in Moskau
. According to Overy:
This is an extensive report on a conference of historians in Moscow to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. The Russian historians present confirmed that Stalin and Molotov were genuinely seeking a second pact.
Another is why Stalin, whose behavior so far didn’t exactly show him to be a military adventurer but rather a guy who liked to play it safe (he only attacked Finland because he incorrectly assumed it would be a walkover), would all of a sudden have turned into a gambler like Hitler, willing to take the risk of an all-out offensive against a force no one had stood up to so far. What would have brought about such a radical turnabout in Stalin’s attitudes and policies, causing him to abandon the principle of prodding with the bayonets but withdrawing them immediately as soon as they met steel? Did he have reasons to believe his own propaganda BS that “The Red Army is a modern army, and a modern army is an offensive army”
, as he said in a speech on May 5, 1941?
This, too, has been taken as evidence of malign intent. Yet it is entirely consistent with the Soviet view of fighting dating from the 1920s. Defense was regarded neither as an acceptable option for a revolutionary state, nor as militarily desirable. Stalin said nothing that had not been said a hundred times before.
Did he have reasons to believe that the Red Army was an army ready for large-scale offensive operations not only on propaganda posters, but in actual fact? Evidence points to exactly the contrary. There was the disastrous experience of the Winter War against Finland, in which entire Soviet divisions were annihilated by much smaller Finnish detachments and it took the deployment of an enormous numerical superiority in manpower and armament to eventually break the Mannerheim line, Soviet casualties being five times higher than those of the Finns. There was the rather unconvincing performance of his general staff at the war games held in January 1941, which is reported by Marshal Yeremenko to have driven Stalin into a fit of rage. What was there, beside numerical superiority, to make Stalin assume that his forces were capable of staging an all-out offensive against the Wehrmacht with a good chance of success? What numerical superiority did he reckon to be necessary in view of previous experiences, especially the Winter War, to overcome the German armed forces? Did he consider the Soviet Union able to achieve such numerical superiority? And if the answer to these three questions were “yes, because ...”, would the assumed advantage be enough to turn Stalin, the cautious and cunning manipulator, into Stalin, the Hitler-like military adventurer? Events showed that strong doubts as to the offensive capacities of the Soviet forces were all too justified. Effective as the Red Army eventually turned out to be in defensive fighting, it botched up almost all of its offensive operations prior to Stalingrad and wasn’t able to conduct successful offensives in summertime until after Kursk.
Yet another question is related to the fact that, if I’m not mistaken, the Red Army was undergoing a process of armament modernization that was not expected to be complete before 1942: Substitution of obsolete types of tanks by the new T34 medium and KV heavy tanks, introduction of new fighter and ground-attack planes and of other new artillery weapons like the “Katyusha” multiple rocket launcher. I’m no expert in military affairs, but wouldn’t it have been total nonsense from a military point of view to launch a large-scale offensive before this modernization was completed, while most tanks and planes were still of obsolete types?
I wonder what answers Suvorov et al have to all these questions.