Greatest Battle

Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II
By Andrew Nagorski

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2008 Andrew Nagorski
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743281119


In the fall of 1941, two gargantuan armies fiercely fought each other on the northern, southern, and western approaches to Moscow. On both sides it wasn't so much the generals who were calling the shots as the tyrants Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Those two leaders issued everyone their orders, never hesitating to send millions to their death whether in combat or in prisons and the camps. Both demonstrated ruthless resolve and, at times, brilliant tactics, but they were also prone to strategic shortsightedness on a colossal scale.

Hitler dispatched his armies deep into Russia without winter clothing, since he was convinced they would triumph long before the first frosts arrived. Stalin sent many of his troops into battle without guns, since he hadn't prepared the nation for the German onslaught. This doomed countless thousands of Germans to death by freezing in the first winter of the Russian campaign and countless thousands of Red Army soldiers to instant death because they did not survive long enough to pick up whatever weapon they could find among the dead and the dying.

The battle for Moscow, which officially lasted from September 30, 1941, to April 20, 1942, but in reality spanned more than those 203 days of unremitting mass murder, marked the first time that Hitler's armies failed to triumph with their Blitzkrieg tactics. When those armies had crushed Poland, France and much of the rest of Europe with breathtaking speed, they had looked unstoppable. "This defeat, however, was more than just another lost battle," Fabian von Schlabrendorff, one of the German officers who later joined the conspiracy against Hitler, recalled in his memoirs. "With it went the myth of the invincibility of the German soldier. It was the beginning of the end. The German army never completely recovered from that defeat." True enough, but the German forces would continue to fight with astonishing tenacity, and their ultimate defeat was still a long way off, which is why such judgments have been rendered only with the benefit of hindsight.

The battle for Moscow was arguably the most important battle of World War II and inarguably the largest battle between two armies of all time. Combining the totals for both sides, approximately seven million troops were involved in some portion of this battle. Of those seven million, 2.5 million were killed, taken prisoner, missing or wounded badly enough to require hospitalization -- with the losses far heavier on the Soviet than on the German side. According to Russian military records, 958,000 Soviet soldiers "perished," which included those killed, missing or taken prisoner. Given the treatment they received at the hands of their captors, most Soviet POWs were, in effect, condemned to death. Another 938,500 soldiers were hospitalized for their wounds, which brought overall Soviet losses to 1,896,500. The corresponding number for the German forces was 615,000.

By comparison, the losses for other epic battles, while horrific, never reached those kinds of figures. In the popular imagination, the battle for Stalingrad, from July 1942 to early February 1943, is generally considered the bloodiest of those struggles. It was huge but never approached the size of the battle for Moscow. About half the number of troops -- 3.6 million -- were involved, and the combined losses of the two sides were 912,000 troops, as compared to the 2.5 million in the Moscow battle.

None of the other major battles of the two world wars come much closer to Moscow's tallies. In the battle of Gallipoli in 1915, for example, the combined losses of the Turkish and Allied troops were roughly 500,000; for the battle of the Somme, from July to October 1916, German, British and French losses totaled about 1.1 million. And just in terms of the numbers of troops involved in the fighting, many other legendary battles of World War II weren't even in the same league as the battle for Moscow. At the pivotal battle of El Alamein during the North African campaign, for example, the opposing armies totaled 310,000.

This was also a battle that was played out in front of a global audience, with the United States, Britain, Japan and others making key decisions based on their assessments of its likely outcome. There's no doubt that if the Germans hadn't been stopped at the outskirts of Moscow, the repercussions would have been felt around the world.

And yet the battle for Moscow is now largely forgotten. Historians have paid far more attention both to the battles of Stalingrad and the Kursk salient, which represented clear-cut victories over Hitler's forces, and to the searing human drama of the siege of Leningrad. By contrast, the battle for Moscow was marred by too many errors and miscalculations by Stalin and raised too many unsettling questions to be subject to the same level of attention. As a result, it was often hastily dealt with in the history books and has never attained the mythological status of the later victories. But it's precisely because of its crucial role in the early period of World War II and what it reveals about the nature of the totalitarian giants who faced off against each other that the real story of the battle for Moscow has to be told, elevating this battle to its proper place in the history of the war.

History always looks inevitable in retrospect, but the plain fact is that there's usually nothing inevitable about the cataclysmic events that shape our world. To the Soviet leadership in 1941, there was nothing inevitable about the outcome of the German assault on their country, despite the official rhetoric. In the confrontation between the two monstrous leaders of all time, Hitler and Stalin, it was the German who initially caught his Soviet counterpart off guard. Stalin had ignored a rising flood of intelligence warning him that the Germans were about to attack and expressly forbidden his generals to take the measures that would have given their armies a better chance of withstanding the invaders.

The result was that the Soviet forces were thrown into total disarray during the early months of the war, and the Germans pushed deeper and deeper into the Soviet heartland, with Moscow clearly in their sights. On August 12, 1941, Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler's Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces, outlined the main target of the German offensive. "The object of operations must then be to deprive the enemy, before the coming of winter, of his government, armament, and traffic center around Moscow, and thus prevent the rebuilding of his defeated forces and the orderly working of government control," he wrote in Directive 34a. In other words, Hitler's goal of a swift victory in the east, so he could then turn his attention back to the war against Britain, depended on his ability to surround and then seize the Soviet capital.

Soon enough, that looked like a very real possibility. While some Soviet troops fought heroically against overwhelming odds, others -- and they numbered in the hundreds of thousands -- surrendered as quickly as they could. Stalin, for his part, suffered a near psychological collapse as his country looked as though it might implode. Buoyed by their early swift progress, German soldiers put up signposts proclaiming "To Moscow." As Hitler prepared for Operation Typhoon in September 1941, which was supposed to culminate in the collapse of the Soviet capital, he told his subordinates, "In a few weeks we shall be in Moscow." Then, he added, "I will raze that damned city and in its place construct an artificial lake with central lighting. The name of Moscow will disappear for ever." Whether or not he meant the last part literally or was carried away by the emotion of the moment, his boasts accurately reflected the growing sense that the Soviet capital wouldn't be able to mount an effective defense against the forces preparing to launch a massive assault.

And what would the seizure of Moscow signify for the entire war effort? When foreign invaders had seized the city twice before -- the Poles in the early seventeenth century and Napoleon in 1812 -- those victories had proven to be short-lived. In Napoleon's case, the breakthrough to Moscow only set the stage for the catastrophic defeat and retreat of his Grande Armée. But Moscow in those earlier times wasn't nearly the prize it was in 1941. By then, it was not only the political but also the strategic and industrial center of the country and its transportation hub. Its seizure would have been a devastating blow for the Soviet Union -- and for all those seeking to thwart Hitler's war aims.

Boris Nevzorov, a Russian military historian who has spent his life studying the battle for Moscow, argues that the Germans' failure there was the key event that determined the outcome of the war. "If they had taken Moscow, the war would have ended with a German victory," he maintains. Other historians and some of the surviving participants dispute that claim, insisting that the Soviet Union would have eventually rebounded even from the loss of its capital. Neither side can prove its case, of course; history doesn't provide definitive answers to "what if" questions. But Nevzorov is on indisputably firm ground when he characterizes the battle for Moscow as "our first great victory and the first great loss for Nazi Germany."

Soviet accounts of the battle solemnly mention the danger the country faced as German troops closed in on the capital in the fall of 1941. "It was the lowest point reached throughout the war," notes the five-volume official History of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, which was published in the early 1960s. But those accounts don't dwell on the significance of the German failure to complete the push to take the city. This is no accident, nye sluchaino, as the Russians say. The early Soviet histories of the period had plenty of reasons to dispose of the battle for Moscow quickly.

First of all, the disastrous series of events associated with the battle raised all sorts of questions about Stalin and his incessant use of terror as a weapon against his own people -- a practice he continued throughout the war. It was his mistakes that allowed the Germans to get as close as they did, and the subsequent scenes of panic in the city as people rushed to escape belied the myth that everyone had an unshakable faith in victory from the beginning.

Then there was the sheer scale of the Soviet losses. Boris Vidensky was a cadet at the Podolsk Artillery Academy when the war started and was among the lucky few of his class who survived when they were thrown -- thoroughly unprepared -- against the advancing Germans. He went on to become a senior researcher at the Military History Institute in Moscow. In retirement, he recounted that after the war, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the legendary Red Army architect of the Soviet victory, decided to try to estimate the losses of his troops near Moscow. In the postwar period, Zhukov served as defense minister, and he ordered his deputy to make some rough calculations. When the deputy showed him the figure he had come up with, Zhukov quickly barked out an order. "Hide it and don't show it to anybody!"

Even when the German drive to take the capital was repulsed, the battle for Moscow proved to be an incomplete victory. Just as it was preceded by Stalin's huge miscalculations, it was followed by more of them. Stalin's insistence, over the opposition of his generals, that they now hurl their exhausted forces into an all-out offensive against the Germans produced a series of costly defeats and sent casualty counts skyrocketing. The Germans stubbornly hung on to pockets of territory, notably around the town of Rzhev, northwest of Moscow, for nearly a year after the battle for the capital was officially declared over. The initial relief that Moscow was saved was quickly replaced by bitter disappointment.

In other words, despite the genuine courage and heroism of Moscow's defenders, this huge battle was marked by humiliations and defeats from its earliest days all the way through to its lengthy aftermath. Both sides came to realize that they were in for a long war, the bloodiest fighting in human history. And it was even bloodier than necessary because of Stalin's and Hitler's miscalculations and unremitting ruthlessness. For Stalin, the human toll was the least of his concerns. As he would tell Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during the Korean War, the North Koreans could keep fighting because they "lose nothing, except for their men." He maintained the same attitude toward his own country's losses as they mounted at a dizzying pace.

To be fair, Stalin also inspired many of his countrymen, and it was his decision to stay in Moscow when he had already ordered the evacuation of other top officials and both military and civilian installations that proved, in retrospect, to be a key turning point in the battle for Moscow. If Stalin was living proof of Machiavelli's dictum that for a ruler it is much safer to be feared than loved, he also at times came close to the Florentine's ideal "that one ought to be both feared and loved." The war was one of those times. Many of his countrymen were genuinely willing to sacrifice their lives for their country and for Stalin, convinced that they were one and the same.

This book draws upon a broad range of sources, some tapped for the first time. Among them: large numbers of newly declassified documents from the archives of the NKVD, as the KGB was then called; first-hand accounts from survivors, some of whom only now feel free to talk about the full range of their experiences, often contradicting the sanitized version of events presented by Soviet and even some Western writers; interviews with the children of such key figures as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan, and top NKVD leaders responsible for planning for resistance and sabotage in a German-controlled Moscow; published and unpublished diaries, letters and memoirs from a variety of Russians and foreigners.

All of this evidence makes clear that the battle for Moscow wasn't just the largest single battle of the war but also its earliest turning point. To be sure, the battle of Britain had already demonstrated that the German military machine wasn't unstoppable, but that was an air battle. Wherever Hitler's armies could march, they had continued to win victories -- that is, until the battle for Moscow.

At a rally in Berlin's Sportpalast on October 3, 1941, Hitler told his cheering supporters that the drive to Moscow, which appeared to be in its final stages, was "the greatest battle in the history of the world." Once the Soviet dragon was slain, it "would never rise again," he predicted. While keenly aware of the precedent set by Napoleon, Hitler was convinced -- and managed to convince his armies -- that they didn't have to fear defeat in the snows of Russia. But he was soon to be proven wrong in all his predictions. He was right only in his claim that the battle for Moscow was the greatest battle ever -- but from his perspective, for all the wrong reasons.

How Stalin eventually turned what looked like a rout into a victory, the human price of that victory, and how it set the stage for so much that followed -- both in terms of the fighting and the early diplomatic wrangling between Stalin and the West about the future of a postwar Europe -- is the subject of this book. For even as Moscow's fate hung in the balance, Stalin was already laying the groundwork for the expansion of his empire, and the United States and Britain were struggling to find an effective counterstrategy. If Moscow had fallen, none of this would have mattered. Yet Moscow survived, even if just barely, and that was enough to make all the difference.

Finally, a personal note. As someone who was stationed in Moscow twice as a foreign correspondent, I thought I had a general idea about the significance and scale of the fighting there. Now that I've spent the past few years digging out what I can about that subject, I realize I couldn't have been more wrong. Like everyone who flies in and out of Sheremetyevo Airport in the Russian capital, I have passed the battle monument on the airport road -- three oversized hedgehogs representing the anti-tank barriers that were strewn about the city in anticipation of a German assault -- on each of those occasions. But my knowledge of what really happened was extremely limited. I knew the Germans had come close, perhaps right up to where the monument now stands in the Khimki district on the outskirts of the city, a mere half-hour drive from the Kremlin when the road isn't jammed with traffic. Nonetheless, like most Westerners and even most Russians, I was oblivious to so much of Moscow's story. This book is my attempt to fill in this gaping hole in the history books and the popular imagination.

Copyright © 2007 by Andrew Nagorski


"Hitler will not attack us in 1941"

For a time, it seemed, they were natural allies, two dictators who mirrored each other in so many ways that they seemed like a perfectly matched couple in their cynicism, cunning and staggering brutality. When Hitler and Stalin concluded their infamous nonaggression pact, signed by their foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, on August 23, 1939, they both knew this was the signal for World War II to begin, allowing the Germans to invade Poland from the west on September 1 and the Red Army to attack from the east on September 17 to divide the spoils. But it may have been precisely because Hitler and Stalin were so much alike that they had to become enemies, that even at a time when they were acting in concert, the next act would be a life and death struggle pitting one against the other. Maybe it was true that the world wasn't big enough for two such monsters.

Just how alike were they? Valeria Prokhorova, a Muscovite who was a student during the uneasy Nazi-Soviet alliance and then witnessed the battle for Moscow, calls Hitler and Stalin "spiritual brothers." Like many of her generation, she has plenty of reasons to feel that way: the memory of family members and friends who perished in Stalin's successive waves of terror in the 1930s and, after the war, her arrest on trumped-up charges that led to six years in the hell of the Gulag. The main difference between the two men, she maintains, was one of style. "Stalin reminds me of a murderer who comes with flowers and candy, while Hitler stands there with a knife and a pistol."

There is a long list of uncanny similarities in their life stories, some trivial and coincidental, others more significant and telling. Prokhorova notwithstanding, there are also major differences, not just of style, which would ultimately play a decisive role in the outcome of their showdown. But these were and are less immediately evident.

The parallels begin with their childhood. Both men were born far from the political center of the countries they would come to rule: Hitler in Upper Austria, then part of the Hapsburg empire, and Stalin in Georgia, an impoverished southern region of the Russian empire. It's hardly surprising that both of them had a father who believed in harsh discipline, which, particularly in Stalin's case, translated into frequent beatings. Stalin's parents were serfs, who were freed in 1864, only fourteen or fifteen years before Joseph was born (his official year of birth is listed as 1879, but his birth certificate is dated a year earlier). His father was a cobbler, probably illiterate. He undoubtedly shaped his son's character. "Undeserved and severe beatings made the boy as hard and heartless as the father was," recalled a friend of the young Stalin, or Joseph Dzhugashvili as he was originally called. "Since all people in authority over others seemed to him to be like his father, there soon arose in him a vengeful feeling against all people standing above him."

Hitler, who was born a decade later, in 1889, had a father who had risen higher in society than his peasant ancestors, enjoying a relatively comfortable life as a customs official. But he, too, was a stern, authoritarian figure. To be sure, in those days in both cultures this was more the rule than the exception, and plenty of boys with similar fathers grew up to lead reasonably normal lives. And in Hitler's case, his failure to gain admission to the Vienna Academy of Arts after his father's death and his years of drift and frustration in the Hapsburg capital probably played a more significant role in stoking his sense of grievance than the beatings he received as a child. But without overindulging in armchair diagnosis, it's fair to say that in both men's lives the stern father was an essential component of their early development.

General Dmitri Volkogonov, the former propaganda chief of the Red Army, who in the glasnost era wrote one of the most thorough and devastating biographies of Stalin, offered this description of his subject. "His contempt for normal human values had long been evident. He despised pity, sympathy, mercy. He valued only strong features. His spiritual miserliness, which grew into exceptional harshness and later into pitilessness, cost his wife her life and ruined his children's lives." Except for the part about his wife and children, this could have described Hitler as well as Stalin. So, too, could the credo of the nineteenth-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, which Stalin underlined in his book: "Don't waste time on doubting yourself, because this is the biggest waste of time invented by man."

Both men built their career by appealing to a collective sense of grievance, which they magnified and exploited. Hitler was famous for his virulent denunciations of Jews, communists, the Weimar government and everyone else whom he blamed for Germany's defeat in World War I, the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty and the economic misery and political unrest that followed -- all of which were elements in his stab in the back theory, which he elevated to the status of popular gospel. Although no match as an orator, Stalin, too, launched his political career by claiming to represent the little people, all those who were oppressed by the tsarist system for any reason, even in direct contradiction to Marxist ideology.

In a 1901 essay, Stalin ponderously evoked the oppression of national and religious minorities. "Groaning are the oppressed nationalities and the religions in Russia, among them the Poles and the Finns driven from their native lands and injured in their most sacred feelings," he wrote. "Groaning are the many millions of members of Russian religious sects who want to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience rather than to those of the Orthodox priests." In hindsight, this reads like the theater of the absurd, but it highlights the yawning chasm between Stalin's words and his deeds that would exist throughout his entire gruesome passage through the world. As with Hitler, that chasm never gave him the slightest pause; in fact, it felt perfectly natural.

Both men suffered early setbacks, resulting in imprisonment and, in Stalin's case, exile to Siberia. Those episodes provided grist for the "struggle" sections of the biographies-hagiographies that would be churned out once they emerged victorious. Of course, none of those accounts noted the obvious: the penal conditions they experienced as inmates were laughable compared to the concentration camp systems under their leadership. Isaac Deutscher, one of the early Stalin biographers, pointed out that the future Soviet leader "spent nearly seven years in prisons, on the way to Siberia, in Siberian banishment, and in escapes from the places of his deportation." Offering nothing like the cozy conditions Hitler experienced during his less than a year in Landsberg prison after the aborted Beer Hall putsch of 1923, tsarist prisons and banishment were Spartan, even harsh. But as measured against the horrors that would soon replace them, they were hardly draconian. And the fact that Stalin, like many early revolutionaries, easily escaped on numerous occasions is the clearest proof of that.

When it came to women, Stalin appeared to be the more "normal" of the dictators. He enjoyed the company of women and -- unlike Hitler, whose sexual abilities and proclivities are still the subject of endless speculation -- he was married twice and had three children. As a young man, he married Yekatarina Svanidze, the sister of a fellow student at the Georgian seminary where he would switch his allegiance from religion to revolution. Yekatarina bore him a son, Yakov, but she died in 1907 of tuberculosis. Although Stalin had been largely an absent husband, he told a friend at her funeral, "This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for people."

Hitler, by contrast, only married Eva Braun shortly before they committed suicide together in his bunker in Berlin as Soviet troops were taking the city. In his early days as a rising political leader, he demonstrated an ability to charm older women and solicit their financial backing for the Nazi movement. But he was visibly ill at ease with women his age, and he was drawn to teenage girls -- although the nature of any physical relationship is far from clear. This is particularly true when it comes to his long affair, if that's what it was, with his vivacious niece Geli Raubal, who came to live in Munich as a teenager and soon moved into his spacious new apartment, which was funded by his supporters. There were rumors of angry, jealous fights, and in 1931, at the age of 23, Geli was found shot dead in his apartment, with an unfinished letter on the table that gave no indication of what had transpired. The death was ruled a suicide, but even the strong-arm methods of the Brownshirts couldn't quell the rumors that Hitler had subjected her to humiliating sexual practices.

The story of Stalin's second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva, which took place in 1918, looks more prosaic at first. Twenty-two years younger than her husband, she bore him a boy, Vasily, and a girl, Svetlana; they also took in Yakov, Stalin's son by his first marriage. As Stalin consolidated his grip on power, the Ukraine suffered a massive man-made famine, the result of forced collectivization, and Nadezhda almost certainly heard about the ghoulish sightings of starving peasants from relatives who traveled or lived there. This, combined with the rising tensions within Stalin's court as the first cycle of terror started and Stalin's frequent crude bullying of his young wife, took a cumulative psychological toll. Nadezhda began suffering from chronic migraine headaches and depression. One night, after attending dinner with her husband, she committed suicide. The date was November 8, 1932, just a little over a year after Geli had been found dead in Hitler's apartment in Munich. The eerie similarity doesn't end there. In both cases, a Walther pistol was the death weapon.

Death stalked Stalin's and Hitler's early rivals as well. In each man's case, there were those within their party who questioned their rapid rise. Most famously, a dying Lenin warned in the political testament that he dictated on December 24, 1922: "Comrade Stalin, having become general secretary, has boundless power concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that power with sufficient caution." In an addendum dictated on January 4, 1923, he spoke more bluntly. "Stalin is too crude, and this defect, although quite tolerable in our own midst and in dealings with us Communists, becomes intolerable in a general secretary. That is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post." To take his place, Lenin urged, they should find someone who is "more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc."

By the time Lenin's widow delivered this letter after his death a year later, it was too late. Stalin's rivals and anyone perceived as a potential rival -- a long list beginning with Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin -- would pay with their lives. After fleeing Russia, Trotsky ended up as an exile in Mexico, where he was finally murdered in 1940. Bukharin was one of the stars of the show trials of 1938, which inevitably ended with guilty verdicts and prompt executions.

Hitler's only serious potential rival was Gregor Strasser, who represented the socialist wing of the Nazi party. He was also one of the first of a long line of people who made the mistake of thinking they could harness Hitler's "magnetic quality" for their own purposes. Strasser's younger brother Otto, a propagandist for the Nazis who later broke with Hitler and fled into exile, tried to persuade Gregor to follow his lead. Earlier than most, he understood the danger of Hitler's appeal. "Hitler responds to the vibration of the human heart with the delicacy of a seismograph, or perhaps of a wireless receiving set, enabling him, with a certainty with which no conscious gift could endow him, to act as a loudspeaker proclaiming the most secret desires, the least admissible instincts, the sufferings and personal revolts of a whole nation," he wrote. "But his very principle is negative. He only knows what he wants to destroy."

Instead, Gregor dissociated himself from Otto, only to lose out completely in a power struggle in 1932, the year before Hitler became chancellor. On June 30, 1934, he was among the scores of victims murdered in the Night of the Long Knives, which would give a foretaste of Hitler's reign of terror. Neither Strasser nor Bukharin possessed enough cunning and ruthlessness to have a chance against Hitler or Stalin. But the fact that they were perceived as rivals was enough to seal their fate.

While both dictators used highly suspicious but convenient pretexts -- the Reichstag fire in Hitler's case, the assassination of the Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov in Stalin's case -- to sweep away any restraints on their power, they also carefully nurtured their image as brilliant statesman, benevolent father figure, and heroic savior. It's no accident that many of the propaganda trappings -- the giant portraits, lavishly orchestrated public gatherings, fawning tributes -- looked so similar in Germany and the Soviet Union. Or that each dictator produced a turgid book that became the bible of his country, which all his subjects were supposed to study as the fount of all wisdom: Mein Kampf and History of the All-Union Communist Party: A Short Course. While Hitler dictated all of Mein Kampf, Stalin only wrote one chapter of Short Course, but he edited the full text five times.

Valentin Berezhkov, who served as Stalin's interpreter for his meetings with German and then Allied leaders during the war, vividly recalled his emotions when he witnessed Hitler arriving at the opera in Berlin in June 1940 -- the frenzied crowd, the shouts of "Sieg Heil!" "Heil Hitler!" and "Heil Führer!" "As I am watching all that, I am thinking to myself -- and the thought scares me -- how much there is in common between this and our congresses and conferences when Stalin makes his entry into the hall," he wrote. "The same thunderous, never-ending standing ovation. Almost the same hysterical shouts of 'Glory to Stalin!' 'Glory to our leader!'"

Less known, or more quickly forgotten, is the way both leaders could turn on the charm and convey the sense that they were focused on the welfare of others and embarrassed by the adulation they routinely demanded. Even in the midst of the war, Hitler could put a nervous young woman, Traudl Junge, at ease when she tried out for the job of his personal secretary. Her story, which she told in the revealing 2002 documentary Blind Spot -- Hitler's Secretary, paints a picture of a man who could keep those around him totally blind to his true nature.

Stalin would go to great lengths to make sure a colleague received a comfortable dacha or was sent on a well-deserved vacation, and he loved carefully orchestrated references to his modesty. At a Party meeting in February 1937, when his terror was reaching new heights, Lev Mekhlis, one of his most loyal henchmen, rose to read a note Stalin had written in 1930 opposing the use of such terms as "leader of the party" in describing his role. "I think such laudatory embellishments can only do harm," Mekhlis quoted his boss as writing. Of course, such passages were written precisely so that they could leak out in this manner.

Hans von Herwarth, a German diplomat who served in Moscow in the early 1930s, offered this comparison of the two leaders. "Stalin struck me then as exuberant, not without charm, and with a pronounced capacity for enjoying himself. What a contrast he seemed to make with Hitler, who had so little zest for pleasure! As a distant observer, I was also left with the strong impression that Stalin, again in contrast to Hitler, had a sense of humor. Stated simply, Stalin was quite appealing in his way, while Hitler was thoroughly unattractive." But the diplomat, whose dislike of his own leader may have led him to heighten the contrast, also was struck "by the feline quality in which he [Stalin] moved." He added, "It was easy to think of him as a lynx or a tiger" -- in other words, as a dangerous yet appealing animal.

Most telling of all was the mutual if grudging admiration the two leaders occasionally voiced for each other, their subordinates sometimes echoing them. Stalin took immediate notice of his counterpart's Night of the Long Knives. "Hitler, what a great man!" he declared. "This is the way to deal with your political opponents." Hitler was just as impressed by Stalin's reign of terror, and during the war, once declared, "After the victory over Russia it would be a good idea to get Stalin to run the country, with German oversight, of course. He knows better than anyone else how to handle the Russians." Even if this was less a recommendation than an ironical aside, the sentiment behind that remark was genuine. Later in the war, Hitler would complain that he should have followed Stalin's example and purged his military brass. And Ronald Freisler, the president of the notorious Nazi People's Court, saw his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Vyshinsky, as his role model. Vyshinsky presided over the worst of the purge trials of the late 1920s and 1930s, dispatching his victims with the command "Shoot the mad dogs!"

That admiration hardly made up for the wariness the two leaders felt as they monitored each other's rhetoric and actions. Hitler's notions about what the Bolshevik Revolution represented were clearly spelled out in Mein Kampf. "Never forget that the rulers of present-day Russia are common blood-stained criminals; that they are the scum of humanity....Furthermore, do not forget that these rulers belong to a race which combines, in a rare mixture, bestial cruelty and an inconceivable gift for lying, and which today more than ever is conscious of a mission to impose its bloody oppression on the whole world." And Stalin had carefully read the passages of Mein Kampf where Hitler spelled out his intention to conquer and enslave Russia, treating it as Lebensraum for the German people. He also had read Conrad Heyden's The History of German Fascism, which left no doubt about Hitler's tactics: "His promises cannot be regarded as those of a reliable partner. He breaks them when it is in his interest to do so."

Both sides professed their good intentions as they prepared their nonaggression pact. During his visit to Moscow that culminated in the signing of the agreement, Ribbentrop insisted that his country was directing its efforts against the West, not the Soviet Union. Stalin raised a glass of champagne and declared: "I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink to his health." But Stalin clearly hadn't forgotten Hitler's track record. When Ribbentrop proposed a flowery preamble to the pact, Stalin would have none of it. "The Soviet Union could not possibly present to the Soviet people in good faith assurances of friendship with Germany when, for six years, the Nazi government has showered the Soviet government with buckets of shit," he retorted. During the actual signing of the pact, Stalin added, "Of course, we are not forgetting that your ultimate aim is to attack us."

Nonetheless, both leaders were elated by the agreement. Hitler had obtained the guarantee of Soviet nonintervention he needed to be able simultaneously to conquer Poland and prepare for a war with Great Britain and France, the European powers that had pledged themselves to defend that doomed country. And Stalin was convinced he had outsmarted both the Western powers and his German counterpart, while setting up his grab not only of eastern Poland but the Baltic states as well. "Hitler wants to trick us, but I think we've got the better of him," he told Nikita Khrushchev.

In the long run, Stalin did get the better of Hitler. He proved to be more coldly calculating, less blinded by fanatical messianic goals than his German counterpart. But in the immediate period that followed -- right up until Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union less than two years later, and right through the battle for Moscow -- Stalin's boast that he had outsmarted Hitler would ring hollow. The events unleashed by the nonaggression pact would demonstrate that both leaders, wrapped in their respective cocoons of absolute power, had delusional tendencies that clouded their judgment, contributing to their misjudgment of each other. Their countrymen would soon begin paying the price for their enormous mistakes.

After Germany and the Soviet Union crushed Poland's forces, which were unable to stop the onslaught first from the west and then from the east, the victors hailed the dawn of a new era by signing the German-Soviet Agreement of Friendship and on the Frontier between the U.S.S.R. and Germany on September 29, 1939. The collapse and partition of the Polish state, the agreement claimed, had "laid the solid foundations for a lasting peace in Eastern Europe," and it was time for Britain and France to reconcile themselves to the new order rather than remain in a state of war with Germany.

A month later, Molotov left no doubt that the Soviet leadership had been engaged in far more than a tactical maneuver when it had decided to come to terms with Germany. In a speech to the Supreme Soviet on October 31, he expressed his delight that Poland had been wiped off the map and branded Britain and France aggressor nations. "A short blow at Poland from the German Army, followed by one from the Red Army, was enough to reduce to nothing this monster child of the Treaty of Versailles," he declared. "Now Germany stands for peace, while Britain and France are in favor of continuing the war. As you see, the roles have been reversed."

Then he added a rhetorical flourish that demonstrated just how far the Kremlin had gone in its embrace of its new ally. "One may like or dislike Hitlerism, but every sane person will understand that ideology cannot be destroyed by force," he said. "It is therefore not only nonsensical but also criminal to pursue a war 'for the destruction of Hitlerism' under the bogus banner of a struggle for 'democracy.'"

But in purely military terms, the Soviet Union wasn't nearly as ready as Germany to capitalize on the new conditions for "a lasting peace." It was one thing to "liberate" the western Ukraine and Belorussia from the Poles, who were reeling from the German invasion, and to begin applying the pressure on the tiny Baltic states that would soon lead to their occupation. It was quite another, Stalin quickly discovered, to project Soviet power against even a small country that had the resources and will to put up surprisingly stiff resistance. That country, of course, was Finland, which would exact a high price from the Soviet forces who attacked it, thus diminishing Stalin's standing in the eyes of the world, and especially in Hitler's.

When the Soviet Union demanded that Finland allow it to establish military bases on its territory and cede the Karelian Isthmus north of Leningrad, the Finns refused. Stalin then prepared for what Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan would later call the "shamefully conducted war with Finland." Working with Defense Commissar Kliment Voroshilov and other top officials, he mapped out the plans for a military strike that, he was convinced, would produce a quick victory and allow him to install an already prepared puppet government and turn Finland into the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Republic. "He was confident that everything would be done in two weeks," Mikoyan recalled.

Instead of accepting their fate, the Finns fought back with a ferocity that stunned the ill-prepared Soviet forces. "Most of our troops were ground up by the Finns," Khrushchev wrote later. That was hardly an overstatement. More than 125,000 Soviet troops perished in the Winter War, while Finnish losses totaled about 48,000. The Finns had also dealt the Kremlin a huge psychological blow. "The Germans could see that the U.S.S.R. was a giant with feet of clay," Khrushchev continued. "Hitler must have concluded that if the Finns could put up such resistance, then the mighty Germans would need only one powerful blow to topple the giant." With the benefit of hindsight, he added, "Stalin lost his nerve after the defeat of our troops in the war with Finland. He probably lost whatever confidence he had that our army could cope with Hitler." Although the Finns were finally forced to accept the Soviet terms that they had rejected earlier, this was a far cry from the outcome that Stalin had expected.

Stalin would later complain to Churchill and Roosevelt that "the Red Army was good for nothing" in the Finnish campaign, and he would sack Voroshilov. In what would prove to be a foretaste of his behavior after every setback, he was eager to shift responsibility for everything that went wrong: the failure of Soviet intelligence to detect how heavily the Finns had fortified the Mannerheim line, the shortage of automatic weapons and winter clothing, the breakdown of supply lines, and all the other indicators that the campaign was a product of incompetent planning.

In stark contrast, Hitler soon proved that his Polish campaign was only the first in a string of victories. From April to June 1940, German forces took Norway and Denmark, swept through the Netherlands and Luxembourg to strike at Belgium, and bypassed the Maginot Line to storm into France, whose swift collapse left Stalin sputtering in frustration. Khrushchev was with Stalin when he heard about France's surrender. "He was racing around cursing like a cab driver," he recalled. "He cursed the French. He cursed the English. How could they allow Hitler to defeat them, to crush them?" Stalin also spelled out what this could mean for Russia, that it would allow Hitler "to beat our brains in."

As far as the German leader was concerned, the Soviet debacle in Finland and his own victories only proved that his original strategy could and would work. On August 11, 1939, shortly before Ribbentrop's trip to Moscow that would produce the nonaggression pact, he told Carl Burckhardt, the League of Nations Commissioner in Danzig, "Everything I undertake is directed against the Russians. If the West is too stupid and blind to grasp this, then I shall be compelled to come to an agreement with the Russians, beat the West and then after their defeat turn against the Soviet Union with all my forces. I need the Ukraine so that they can't starve us out, as happened in the last war."

There was just one problem: England stood in the way of Hitler completing the "beat the West" part of this plan. During the summer of 1940, Hitler was still hoping to lay the groundwork for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain. But when the Luftwaffe failed to best the Royal Air Force in the battle of Britain, he recognized that his forces weren't capable of mounting such an invasion anytime soon. On September 17, he postponed Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.

Hitler then talked himself into believing that the fastest road to defeating England was by turning on his Soviet ally. In his early writings, he had always posited the destruction of his eastern neighbor, and now he was convinced more than ever that this was the solution that would solve his other problems as well. "Britain's hope lies in Russia and the United States," he told his generals on July 31, 1940. "If Russia drops out of the picture, America, too, is lost for Britain, because elimination of Russia would tremendously increase Japan's power in the Far East. Russia is the Far Eastern sword of Britain and the United States pointed at Japan." With Russia defeated, he reasoned, the Japanese would tie down the U.S. in the Far East, restricting its ability to help Britain.

As for the European theater, Russia's defeat would be equally devastating for Britain, he continued. "With Russia smashed, Britain's last hope would be shattered. Germany then will be master of Europe and the Balkans." As General Franz Halder, the German Army Chief of Staff, noted, Hitler's conclusion was unambiguous. "Decision: Russia's destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle. Spring 1941. The sooner Russia is crushed the better."

After his victory in France, Hitler had paid a visit to Paris, stopping at Les Invalides to visit Napoleon's tomb. But if he had any thoughts about the possible parallel between his own ambition to defeat Russia and the disastrous experience of the French emperor, he kept them to himself. Later, he would tell his generals, "I will not make the same mistake as Napoleon." It was far from clear, however, what particular mistake he thought he was avoiding. It certainly wasn't the mistake of taking on Russia in the first place. He was too deeply wedded to the idea that victory in the east would strengthen, not weaken, his drive for domination over the Western world.

According to General Henning von Tresckow, Hitler believed that Britain was able to keep resisting because of its alliance with the United States, which was a "hinterland" full of resources that would eventually wear down German might. To counteract this, Hitler needed to gain control of Russia's vast industrial and agricultural resources, along with its manpower. Some German officials were skeptical of this line of reasoning. The number two man in the Foreign Ministry, State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker, wrote to Ribbentrop that "to beat England in Russia -- this is no program." But Ribbentrop wasn't the type of official who would stand up to his boss. As Hitler's interpreter Paul Schmidt, who also held the rank of ambassador in the foreign ministry, told U.S. Army psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn during his imprisonment in Nuremberg, "Ribbentrop was a complete imitator of Hitler -- even to the design of his cap."

At the end of 1940, Hitler issued Directive 21, his secret order for Operation Barbarossa, as the planned attack on Russia was called. (The origin of the name hardly seems auspicious: Barbarossa was the nickname of Frederick I, the German emperor who drowned while trying to lead his troops to the Holy Land in 1190.) According to the order, "The German Armed Forces must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war against England, to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign." It outlined a strategy of "daring operations led by deeply penetrating armored spearheads" that would wipe out Soviet forces in western Russia. The object was to surround and destroy the major fighting units before they could retreat. "The final objective of the operation is to erect a barrier against Asiatic Russia on the general line Volga-Archangel," it stated. "The last surviving industrial area of Russia in the Urals can then, if necessary, be eliminated by the Air Force." In other words, Germany would be the master of the European part of the Soviet Union, with all its resources.

To achieve that result, the German assault would first need to destroy Soviet forces in the Baltic region and Leningrad. Afterward the order envisaged an attack "with the intention of occupying Moscow, an important center of communications and of the armaments industry." The capture of the Soviet capital, it added, "would represent a decisive political and economic success and would also bring about the capture of the most important railway junctions."

Hitler had clearly shoved aside not just historical misgivings based on Napoleon's Russian campaign but also those based on Germany's more recent experiences in World War I. As he had noted in Mein Kampf, "For three years these Germans had stormed the Russian front, at first it seemed without the slightest success. The Allies almost laughed over this aimless undertaking; for in the end the Russian giant with his overwhelming number of men was sure to remain the victor while Germany would inevitably collapse from loss of blood." This time, however, his string of victories from Poland to France, coupled with the Red Army's humiliation in Finland, convinced him that his forces would triumph easily.

How easily? In December 1940, Hitler insisted that by the following spring his forces would be "visibly at their zenith" while Soviet forces would be at "an unmistakable nadir." "Since Russia has to be beaten in any case, it is better to do it now, when the Russian armed forces have no leaders and are poorly equipped," he added in early January. On another occasion, he told General Alfred Jodl, "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down." Propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels chimed in with a similar prediction. "Russia will collapse like a house of cards," he wrote in his diary.

Taking their cue from their Führer, some German generals grew increasingly euphoric in their predictions. General Günther Blumentritt suggested to his colleagues in April 1941 that "fourteen days of heavy fighting" might prove enough to achieve victory; other military estimates ranged from six to ten weeks. This only reinforced Hitler's own optimism, which looked almost cautious by comparison. He predicted a campaign that would last no more than four months, maybe three. With that in mind, he at first set May 15, 1941, as the date for the invasion. If he wanted to avoid Napoleon's mistake of getting caught in the Russian winter, then that date afforded him the time he needed to achieve victory before the first snows -- even if victory would take the full four months.

If Hitler had stuck to this timetable, he would have launched the invasion of the Soviet Union about a month earlier than Napoleon did when he led his Grande Armée into Russia in late June 1812. It would have given him extra time to reach his key strategic objectives, especially Moscow, before summer weather gave way to fall rains that turned the country's roads into tracks of mud and then the fast approach of winter. It would have given him that extra margin of time that could have played a crucial role.

But with Hitler's confidence soaring while Stalin's was plummeting, the German leader felt free to address other problems in the broader war. And, thanks to his putative ally Benito Mussolini, he felt compelled to do so just when his focus should have been on final preparations for Operation Barbarossa, making sure that the military brass was able to stick to the original timetable.

Mussolini had chafed at the fact that Hitler's procession of surprise attacks and victories, which were often as much a surprise to Il Duce as to the victims, had left him looking like a marginal figure. In the fall of 1940, he decided to spring his own surprise and prove that he, too, could swiftly conquer. When Hitler came to meet him in Florence on October 28, Mussolini proudly announced, "Führer, we are on the march! Victorious Italian troops crossed the Greco-Albanian frontier at dawn today!"

Within a few days, the Italian troops were in retreat, and, as Hitler put it to his generals, Mussolini's action was proven to be a "regrettable blunder." It jeopardized German control of the Balkans. Even as he was preparing the plans for Operation Barbarossa, Hitler began drawing up plans for Marita, a German offensive in Albania and Greece to salvage the situation. Then he was enraged by another unexpected development. In March 1941, a coup in Belgrade overthrew the pliant Yugoslav government and produced a new challenge to German control over the region. The army and the Luftwaffe would exact revenge by attacking Yugoslavia and Greece in early April, taking special care to devastate Belgrade on his instructions. But in order to do so, Hitler issued a fateful order to his generals. "The beginning of the Barbarossa operation will have to be postponed up to four weeks," he told them.

"This postponement of the attack on Russia in order that the Nazi warlord might vent his personal spite against a small Balkan country which had dared to defy him was probably the most catastrophic single decision in Hitler's career," William Shirer wrote in The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich.

At the time, though, Hitler had no inkling of that. He wanted the Balkans tidied up before he dealt with Russia, and, looking eastward, he continued to believe that he still had enough time to triumph there, even if the margin for error in his calculations was narrowing. Instead of launching Operation Barbarossa more than a month earlier than Napoleon had done 129 years before, he would end up sending his armies eastward at exactly the same time in June as the French emperor.

So what was Stalin thinking? What did he know and when did he know it?

Hitler was blinded by his burning conviction that Germany had to defeat and subjugate the Soviet Union, a country that he contemptuously dismissed as "a Slavic-Tartar body" with "a Jewish head." But Stalin was suffering from a different kind of blindness, willful disbelief of the staggering amount of evidence that Hitler was about to unleash his forces against him. The fact that German troops would then get as close as they did to seizing Moscow was a direct consequence of the Soviet leader's refusal to see what he didn't want to see during the nearly two-year period of the Nazi-Soviet alliance.

There are no easy answers to the question of why Stalin behaved the way he did, ignoring warnings from his own intelligence agents and from the West, though there are some plausible, hotly contested theories. The record of those years shows that, without a doubt, Stalin had all the information he needed to reach the correct conclusion and prepare his country for the attack that was coming rather than assume that he still had time for a lengthy period of preparation or that the attack might not come at all. But again and again, Stalin would insist on his version of events, allowing his wishes to overcome his reason and, in his mind, to represent reality.

Curiously, it initially appeared that the Kremlin brass were more the realists than their German counterparts. At the time of the Munich Pact in 1938, Stalin had expressed his frustration with Britain's Neville Chamberlain for his refusal to recognize the folly of his policy of appeasement. "One day that madman Hitler will grab his umbrella and hit him with it. And Chamberlain will take it without complaining," he said. It wasn't just Stalin's contempt for Chamberlain that is revealing here; it's also his casual use of the term "madman." Along with occasional flashes of grudging admiration, that sort of disdain for Hitler and his entourage was commonplace in the Kremlin.

Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's fearsome secret police chief, mocked Ribbentrop by saying, "He struts around like a turkey puffed up with pride." While imprisoned in Nuremberg at the end of the war, Ribbentrop, for his part, declared, "I rather liked Stalin and Molotov, got along fine with them." In fact, several members of Hitler's inner circle expressed respect for Stone Bottom, as Molotov was known among his comrades because of his ability to sit working as long as the boss required. During his interrogation at Nuremberg, Hitler's translator Paul Schmidt offered this assessment of Molotov: "He reminded me of my old teacher of mathematics. He's the type of man who makes sure to cross his t's and dot his i's. He likes meticulousness. He is a legal expert, a hard worker, and rather stubborn. But I don't know if he has much imagination. Like all Russians he will obey Stalin's orders unwaveringly." In other words, Molotov and Ribbentrop were alike in their slavish devotion to their respective tyrants.

In assessing the British, Soviet officials certainly sounded more prescient than the Germans. When Ribbentrop visited Moscow to conclude the nonaggression pact, he held conversations with Stalin, who warned him, "England, despite its weakness, will wage war craftily and stubbornly." To be sure, Stalin would be proved wrong on another prediction: that the French would put up a stiff fight as well. But at least as far as the British were concerned, the Soviets exhibited a far more healthy respect for their determination and fighting abilities than the Germans did. In November 1940, Molotov was attending a banquet in his honor in Berlin when the RAF attacked the city, forcing his hosts to retreat with him to Ribbentrop's bunker. When the German foreign minister insisted that Britain was finished, the normally dour Molotov delivered his best riposte ever. "If that's so, then why are we in this shelter and whose bombs are those falling?" he asked.

But if Stalin and other top Soviet officials sometimes came out on top in their rhetorical sparring with the Germans, they acted as if they could really rely on their nonaggression pact and other agreements to keep the peace between the two countries -- at least for a good long while. Stalin was determined to honor his trade commitments to Germany throughout the period of the pact, and his country provided huge amounts of oil, wood, copper, manganese ore, rubber, grain, and other supplies to keep the German military machine well stocked. The more warnings Stalin received that he was only strengthening a military power that was about to turn against him, the more he insisted on keeping those commitments, ensuring prompt deliveries so that Hitler wouldn't have any suspicion that Stalin might be suspicious of him. As Khrushchev put it, "So while those sparrows kept chirping, 'Look out for Hitler! Look out for Hitler!' Stalin was punctually sending the Germans trainload after trainload of grain and petroleum. He wanted to butter up Hitler by living up to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact!"

Among the best "sparrows" were many of the Soviet Union's spies abroad. As early as June 1940, when Germany was moving swiftly through France, Colonel Ivan Dergachev, the Soviet military attaché in Bulgaria, sent a report from a source who predicted the conclusion of an armistice with France and then "within a month's time" a sudden attack on the Soviet Union. "The purpose would be to destroy communism in the Soviet Union and to create a fascist regime there," he wrote. On June 22, France was forced to conclude an armistice with Germany, and, while the actual invasion was still a year off, a month later Hitler was telling his generals to begin preparing for an attack on Russia.

The Soviet military intelligence service delivered a steady stream of reports from its sources that warned of war preparations. From Berlin, a source code-named Ariets reported on September 29, 1940, that Hitler intended to "resolve problems in the east in the spring of next year." On December 29, the same source predicted an attack in March 1941. In February 1941, he reported confirmation "that war has definitely been decided on for this year." Major General Vasily Tupikov, who as military attaché was in charge of this intelligence gathering, agreed with that assessment and noted that Germany was decreasing its troop deployments in the west and shifting them to the border with the Soviet Union. "The U.S.S.R. figures as the next enemy," he concluded. On May 9, he added details of a German war plan. As he summarized it, "Defeat of the Red Army will be complete in one or one and a half months with arrival of the German Army on the meridian of Moscow."

Other Soviet military missions delivered similar bad news. On March 13, 1941, Bucharest quoted a German major as saying, "We have completely changed our plan. We will move to the east against the U.S.S.R. We will obtain grain, coal, and oil from the U.S.S.R. and that will enable us to continue the war against England and America." According to one Bucharest source, "The German military are drunk with their successes and claim that war with the U.S.S.R. will begin in May." On March 26, Bucharest added that "the Romanian general staff has precise information that in two or three months Germany will attack the Ukraine." The report added that the attack also would be aimed at the Baltic states, and that Romania would participate in the war and be rewarded with Bessarabia, the border territory that Stalin had seized from it. The mission went on to report the four-week delay of German plans because of the action against Yugoslavia and Greece and the growing confidence of the German military that it would defeat the Soviet Union in a matter of weeks.

But Stalin's reaction -- and increasingly that of the men he put in charge of sifting through this growing body of intelligence -- was to dismiss it. First of all, Stalin rid himself of Ivan Proskurov, the head of Soviet military intelligence, who had consistently refused to buckle under the pressure to deliver better news. He replaced him with Filipp Golikov, who began relying on the reports of those of his officers who were clearly picking up German disinformation. In March 1941, for instance, the Soviet military attaché in Budapest, who had no credible sources, dismissed all talk of a German invasion as English propaganda. "Everyone considers that at the present time a German offensive against the U.S.S.R. is unthinkable before the defeat of England," he reported.

Golikov endorsed those conclusions. "Rumors and documents that speak of the inevitability of war against the U.S.S.R. this spring must be assessed as disinformation emanating from English and even perhaps from German intelligence," he maintained. There's little doubt why he was responding in this way. On April 17, when his Prague station sent a report predicting that "Hitler will attack the U.S.S.R. in the second half of June," Golikov dutifully sent it on to Stalin. Within three days, it landed back on Golikov's desk with Stalin's note in red ink: "English provocation! Investigate!"

But no one angered Stalin more than Richard Sorge, the Soviet master spy in Tokyo, who delivered report after report to his superiors in military intelligence that was right on target. Born in Baku of a Russian mother and a German father, Sorge was raised in Germany, recruited by the Comintern, and moved to Tokyo as the German correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung. To all appearances a dedicated Nazi, he ingratiated himself with the German ambassador and his staff and with senior Japanese officials. Taking advantage of this unrivaled access to inside information, he was among the first to report in late 1940 that an attack on the U.S.S.R. was likely, and he offered chapter and verse on German troop movements eastward. He warned that "the Germans could occupy territory on a line Kharkov, Moscow, Leningrad." But as he continued to provide more evidence for his claims, Golikov's main response was to cut back on his expenses, which Sorge correctly characterized as "a kind of punishment." When Sorge reported in May that an attack was imminent, Stalin dismissed him as "a little shit who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in Japan."

The NKVD's foreign intelligence operatives encountered similar reactions when they produced reports that paralleled those of their military counterparts. One of their best sources was Harro Schulze-Boysen, code-named Starshina, who worked in the German Air Ministry. He consistently kept them up to date, in considerable detail, about preparations for the invasion. On June 17, he warned that everything was ready and that "the blow can be expected at any time." Stalin's response: Starshina should be sent back to "his fucking mother."

Stepan Mikoyan, a fighter pilot during the war and the son of Anastas, offers a straightforward explanation of Stalin's refusal to believe his agents. "Stalin's attitude to intelligence data reflected his extreme distrust of people. In his opinion everyone was capable of deceit or treason." In his memoirs, the younger Mikoyan mentions that Stalin ordered a recall of his resident agents from abroad so that, in Stalin's words, he could "grind them into dust in the camps."

Given Stalin's suspicions, it's hardly surprising that he also dismissed Western warnings that Hitler was about to turn against him. In April 1941, both Laurence Steinhardt, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, and Winston Churchill attempted to point this out -- to no avail. Other attempts, particularly by the British, to alert the Kremlin to the significance of German troop movements in preparation for the invasion proved equally ineffective. As Stalin saw it, those warnings were all meant to sow discord between Moscow and Berlin, with the ultimate objective of turning one against the other. "They're playing us off against each other," he complained.

If Stalin's pathological distrust of his own agents and the West was hardly surprising, it's harder to explain his blindness to so many other signals of Hitler's intentions. As far back as August 14, 1940, Hitler dropped a clear hint by requesting a schedule of Soviet deliveries for the period "until the spring of 1941." And in the run-up to the invasion, the Germans were steadily recalling diplomats and their families from the embassy in Moscow. By the time of the attack, the German presence had been reduced to just over a hundred people. As Valentin Berezhkov, who was serving in the Soviet embassy in Berlin, pointed out, the equivalent number for the Soviet side was about a thousand people. "Stalin, concerned about making Hitler suspicious, had forbade us from reducing the numbers of our employees in Germany," he wrote.

Then there were all the signs of military preparations, easily observable, especially in the border regions. With increasing frequency, German planes flew into Soviet air space, clearly on reconnaissance missions. After several instances of Soviet border troops opening fire or Soviet planes attempting to scramble to intercept them, and even one incident in which five German planes landed in Soviet territory and claimed they had lost their way before running out of fuel, Stalin's impulse was to restrict the actions of his own troops. "In case of violations of the German-Soviet border by German aircraft or balloons, do not open fire," NKVD Directive 102 on March 29, 1940, ruled: "Limit yourselves to preparing a report on the violation of the state frontier." On April 5, another order from Beria informed the border troops that, in the case of any confrontations, they should "strictly see to it that bullets do not fall on German territory."

The Germans offered the lame explanation that the frequent overflights were a result of the fact that several military flight schools were located near the border. As the number of such incidents kept growing (between April 19 and June 19, 1941, there were 180 of them), the Soviet response became increasingly groveling. An official note assured the German government that border troops had been instructed not to fire on its planes "so long as such flights did not occur frequently." After he received one of the many reports about German overflights, Stalin declared: "I'm not sure Hitler knows about those flights."

Stalin's efforts to assure the Germans that, no matter what actions they took, he wanted to maintain good relations reached almost comical proportions -- if not for the fact that the stakes were so high. On April 18, 1941, the Soviet leader was seeing off Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka at a Moscow railway station, in itself an unusual event, when he practically begged the German diplomats on the platform to believe his protestations of eternal friendship. Spotting German ambassador Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg, he threw his arms around him and proclaimed, "We must remain friends and you must now do everything to that end!" A little later when he saw Colonel Hans Krebs, the German military attaché, he first checked that he indeed was German and repeated his message: "We will remain friends with you in any event."

Stalin's efforts impressed Schulenburg, an aristocrat who was singularly unperceptive in his observations of both the Soviet Union and the new leader of his own country. When he reassured the wife of the American ambassador at a party in early 1941 that Russia and Germany wouldn't go to war with each other, he almost certainly believed it. Later he began to recognize that he had been misreading the signals, but he kept trying to convince his superiors in Berlin that they should take Stalin's appeals for continued cooperation seriously. "I honestly believe that in realizing how serious the international situation is, Stalin has made himself personally responsible for preserving the U.S.S.R. from a conflict with Germany," he argued.

But as Goebbels noted in his diary, the Nazi leaders intentionally kept Schulenburg in the dark about the war preparations and were happy to have him still act as though there was a serious chance of avoiding a military confrontation. Goebbels asserted that the ambassador "hadn't the faintest idea that the Reich was determined to attack" while he kept pressing the campaign to keep Stalin an ally. "There is no doubt that one does best if one keeps the diplomats uninformed about the background of politics," the propaganda chief wrote. "They must sometimes play a role for which they don't have the necessary theatrical abilities, and even if they did possess them, they would undoubtedly act an appeasement role more convincingly and play the finer nuances more genuinely, if they themselves were believers in appeasement."

As for Stalin, he played his appeasement role so convincingly that the Turkish ambassador in Moscow sent a dispatch to his home office, which was intercepted by the Germans, portraying Stalin as willing to do almost anything to convince Hitler he genuinely wanted peace. "Stalin is about to become a blind tool of Germany," he reported. The question is whether Stalin was just playing a role or acting out of genuine conviction.

The standard defense of Stalin is that he did what he had to do, playing for time because of the weakness of the West and the need to prepare his own forces. According to that line of reasoning, the Soviet leader was under no illusions about Hitler's ultimate intentions. "To argue that we did not expect a German attack is just plain stupid, particularly coming from military people who were close to the general staff," Khrushchev maintained, certainly with more of an eye to protecting his own reputation as part of Stalin's inner circle than to protecting the boss himself. "No one with an ounce of political sense should buy the idea that we were fooled, that we were caught flat-footed by a treacherous surprise assault."

But the Kremlin leadership -- and, as a result, many of its troops -- were in fact caught flat-footed when the invasion started. Take the question of the country's defensive lines. In the 1930s, heavily fortified lines were built along the Soviet Union's western borders. But when those borders were moved further west as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin decided that the old fortifications should be largely abandoned and new ones should be constructed along the new dividing line between Germany and the Soviet Union.

This turned out to be a disastrous decision. Petro Grigorenko, who as a young soldier had helped build the original fortifications, recalled that in the spring of 1941 Stalin ordered the destruction of many of the old fortifications and "tens of thousands" of them were blown up. "I do not know how future historians will explain this crime against our people," the future general -- who would become a dissident -- wrote later. "No better gift could have been given to Hitler's Barbarossa plan. How could this have taken place? Stalin's justification must be that he was insane."

The worst thing about Stalin's orders was that building and equipping new fortifications lagged way behind the abandonment or destruction of the old ones. When the Germans attacked, most of the newly constructed concrete emplacements were short of artillery and otherwise inadequately prepared for the German onslaught. The result was that they were easily overrun or bypassed. If Stalin had had another couple of years to prepare them, perhaps this wouldn't have been the case, but time was a luxury he didn't have.

There's no question that Stalin was playing for time. Isaac Deutscher, one of his early biographers, claimed that Stalin was hoping to be as successful as Tsar Alexander I, who made peace with Napoleon, which provided him with four years to prepare for war. The problem is that the Soviet leader clearly convinced himself that his wishes represented reality, and his refusal to accept the evidence to the contrary amounted to a monumental failure of leadership. This meant that he not only failed to make the best use of the time he had to prepare his forces for the attack that was coming but also impeded many of the efforts to make such preparations. Instead of putting his troops on full alert, he ordered them to do nothing that the Germans might construe as hostile behavior. Instead of signaling the need for utmost vigilance, he encouraged a false sense of security.

As late as June 14, 1941, the Soviet news agency Tass dismissed rumors that the German troop build-up on the border meant that an invasion was imminent. "Germany is observing the terms of the nonaggression pact as scrupulously as the U.S.S.R., and therefore rumors of Germany's intention to violate the Pact and attack the U.S.S.R. are groundless, while the recent transfer of German forces from the Balkans to the eastern and northeastern areas of Germany must be assumed to be linked to other motives unconnected with Soviet-German relations," it asserted. The impact of such statements was, as one Soviet officer put it, "to dull the forces' vigilance."

True, Stalin did take some actions that indicated he realized he might be wrong in his calculations. He appeared to issue an indirect warning to Hitler when he spoke to the graduates of the military academy on May 5. "Is the German Army invincible?" he asked. "No. It is not invincible." He argued that the German leaders "are beginning to suffer from dizziness" from their string of successes. "It seems to them that there is nothing that they could not do," he added. Then, repeating his point that the Germans weren't invincible, he concluded, "Napoleon, too, had great military success as long as he was fighting for liberation from serfdom, but as soon as he began a war for conquest, for the subjugation of other peoples, his army began suffering defeats."

Leaving aside the irony of Stalin preaching about liberation versus subjugation and the implied message that the German conquests were justified up to that point but wouldn't be if Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the speech did signal some awareness of the looming danger. A week later, the Soviet leader agreed to the calling up of five hundred thousand reservists to strengthen border defenses, but this was a classic case of too little too late. Many of the fresh troops wouldn't be deployed in time. Besides, production of new weapons had barely begun, and many existing military units were woefully underequipped. In March 1941, Stalin received the news that only 30 percent of tank and armored units could be adequately supplied with the parts they needed to operate. "Fulfillment of the plan for the supply of the military technology the Red Army needs so acutely is extremely unsatisfactory," his top generals reported a month before the Germans attacked.

Some historians have argued that at one point Stalin was even contemplating a preemptive attack against Germany, but a far stronger case can be made that he deluded himself to the very end that, at the very least, he could stall the Germans for another year. And, given his preoccupation with imposing Soviet rule on eastern Poland and the Baltic states -- which meant full-scale terror in the form of mass deportations and executions -- there's even the possibility that he still believed that the ideal scenario would be one in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany never went to war. In that situation, the Germans and the Allies would wear each other out in a long struggle, giving the Soviet Union all the breathing room it needed and possibly the chance of more territorial gains later.

Late in 1939, the French news agency Havas reported on a speech Stalin allegedly delivered on August 19 of that year, right before formalizing his agreement with Hitler. In it he argued that if the West defeated Germany in a long war, that country would be ripe for sovietization; but if Germany won in a long war, it would be too exhausted to threaten the Soviet Union and a communist takeover would be possible in France. Hence a win-win situation for the Soviet Union and his conclusion that "one must do everything to ensure that the war lasts as long as possible in order to exhaust both sides."

Stalin reacted to the Havas report by promptly branding it a total fabrication. But in his denial he insisted, "It was not Germany that attacked France and Britain but France and Britain that attacked Germany, thereby taking on themselves responsibility for the present war." Even if Stalin didn't make that speech, his protests were almost as revealing as the contested transcript. Besides, Stalin let slip similar comments on September 7, 1939, in the presence of several of his top aides. Discussing the war "between two groups of capitalist countries," as he characterized the Western powers and Germany, he concluded, "We see nothing wrong in their having a good fight and weakening each other."

Whatever Stalin had come to believe about German intentions by the spring of 1941, he continued to react with fury whenever he was confronted with more evidence that he had grossly miscalculated. His underlings knew that they had to couch all bad news in slavish praise of their boss. Just a day before the German invasion when Beria sent Stalin a report with the prediction of Vladimir Dekanozov, the Soviet ambassador in Berlin, that the attack was imminent, the secret police chief prefaced it with the declaration: "My people and I, Joseph Vissarionovich, firmly remember your wise prediction: Hitler will not attack us in 1941!"

By that time, the Germans were ready to strike. On the night of June 21, Soviet military commanders had reports from three separate German deserters from the front lines, who had crossed to the Soviet side to warn that the attack was coming at dawn. In each case, the news was relayed up the chain of command until it reached Stalin. But the Soviet leader kept insisting that the deserters had been sent over to provoke his troops. While he continued to maintain that Hitler wouldn't attack, he did belatedly agree to place border units on alert. At the same time, he issued an order to shoot the third German deserter -- Alfred Liskov, a young communist from Berlin who had brought the "disinformation" that would prove Stalin wrong.

In Stalin's world, "shoot the messenger" wasn't a metaphor.

Copyright © 2007 by Andrew Nagorski


Excerpted from Greatest Battle by Andrew Nagorski Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Nagorski. Excerpted by permission.
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