Barbarossa and the Left after 80 years

This week marks the eightieth anniversary of the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. It was one of the most successful military operations of modern times. German forces advanced deep into Soviet territory and accepted the surrender of literally millions of Soviet troops.

The responsibility for this defeat rests squarely on Stalin’s shoulders.

Not only did Stalin kill off practically the entire leadership of the Red Army in the run-up to the war, but his policies — particularly in Ukraine — guaranteed that many Soviet citizens would welcome the Nazis as liberators.

This anniversary will be marked no doubt in Moscow by the Putin government. Prominent historians everywhere are putting the finishing touches on articles for the popular press. But it is also an event that socialists should use to think about our own history, our movement, and about what defines us politically and morally.

The Second World War in Europe broke out just days after Hitler and Stalin reached agreement on a “non-aggression” pact which was anything but. The two dictators agreed not only to launch an aggressive war against Poland, which was to be divided between the German Reich and the USSR, but also on a whole range of aggressive actions that both countries began within days.

By some counts, Stalin’s troops seized territory from seven different countries, including full scale assaults on Finland, the three Baltic republics and Poland.

The Nazi regime’s decision to invade the Soviet Union — codenamed Operation Barbarossa — should have surprised no one, as Hitler had been shouting loudly about Germany’s need for “living space” to its east, and his desire to crush Bolshevism.

In fact, it seems like the only person who denied that such an invasion was coming was Josef Stalin — this despite having received warnings from the extensive Soviet foreign intelligence networks.

The Communist Parties all over the world were forced to pivot overnight from “opposition to the imperialist war” with its violently anti-British rhetoric, to uncritical support for “anti-fascist forces”. Just as the Communists across occupied Europe took shameful positions and in some cases even collaborated with the Nazis prior to June 1941, they took equally shameful positions after that as well. The American Communist Party, for example, supported the internment of Japanese Americans. They opposed trade union leaders who sometimes called for strike action because all social classes were supposed to come together to support the war against fascism.

Trotsky had been murdered by one of Stalin’s agents exactly ten months before the Germans invaded the USSR. Many of his supporters presumed that had he lived, he would have continued with his call for the defence of the Soviet Union, as he considered it to be a “degenerated workers state”.

That position was a difficult one for some of Trotsky’s supporters to accept, especially at a time when Stalin, in alliance with Hitler, was busy invading countries that had the misfortune of sharing a border with the USSR.

To Putin, Barbarossa and what followed was the defining moment of modern Russian history, leading to the tremendous victory in 1945 at the end of the “Great Patriotic War,” as it came to be called. He and his regime use and misuse tropes from that period to brand all their opponents in the Baltic states, Ukraine and Belarus as “fascists”. To many Russians, regardless of what Stalin did before or after the war, he did lead his people to victory, for which they should be thankful.

Socialists should look at Barbarossa more critically, understanding that while of course a Soviet victory was preferable to a Nazi one, the Stalin regime was as ruthless and murderous as the Hitler one.

That is the real tragedy of what happened eighty years ago this week. Unlike Putin and his nationalist supporters, it is the responsibility of socialists to speak the truth, painful though it is.

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.