An improbable encounter
Molotov was practically the only one in Stalin’s entourage who could contradict him without ending up in a Lubyanka cave; this man, who, because of his communist faith, thought he was a superman, was not the type to let himself be impressed, even if Hitler himself!
Pistol in his belt, Molotov left by train from Belarusian station in Moscow on the evening of November 10. He was accompanied by sixteen secret police officers, three servants, a doctor, and two proteges from Beria.
At 11:05 am the next morning, the train arrived at Berlin Anhalter station. Searchlights swept across the platform in a sinister light, and Molotov was greeted by Ribbentrop, while an orchestra played The International!
A Mercedes coupe flanked by bikers led the delegation to the Bellevue Hotel in the Tiergarten, then Ribbentrop and Molotov met in Bismarck’s former office. The atmosphere was freezing.
After lunch, Molotov took his Mercedes coupe back to the Chancellery. He walked through the bronze doors guarded by two giant blonde SS men, then crossed the room to Hitler’s office. After a moment’s hesitation, the Führer rose to greet his guest, who he squeezed with a “cold and wet hand“, then stared at Molotov “with his eyes burning and piercing like a tendril.” But Molotov was not so impressed. “His appearance was nothing out of the ordinary », he will note in his memoir.
Hitler launched into a monologue about his forthcoming victory over England, adding that the Balkans “did not interest him“, to which Molotov answered with specific questions on Finland, Romania and Bulgaria, the ground of confrontation between Germany and Russia. “I wanted to push him to his limits,” Molotov said in his memoirs.
The next day, Hitler received Molotov and his delegation for lunch. Austere menu, beef, pheasant and fruit salad consomme. « Since we are at war and my people do not drink coffee, I refrain from drinking it », Hitler said. « I was careful not to do the same and I did not abstain from anything during the meal », said Molotov.
Then there followed a stormy three-hour interview, with Molotov questioning the German presence in Finland and Romania. Hitler got angry. «You don’t have to get on your high horse », Molotov told him calmly. The latter noted the growing agitation of Hitler who found the Russians “too greedy”, «but, said Molotov, I held on and saw that he was exhausting himself».
Back in Moscow, Molotov received Stalin’s congratulations: « How could he take everything you said to him » asked an admiring Stalin.
But, Montefiore notes, the problem was that Hitler had taken nothing at all: Molotov’s stubbornness in hammering out Soviet ambitions in the Balkans had only served to convince Hitler to brush aside his last hesitations and to attack the Russians as soon as possible ”.
Stalin believes no one
Stalin was well aware of the disastrous state of his army, into which he himself had plunged it. Trials and purges had got the better of its most talented officers. This is why Stalin did not want a war before 1942, this is why he sent Molotov to Berlin, this is why he signed the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact. As much as Stalin wanted to save time, Hitler wanted to go fast. Their interests were totally contradictory. But Stalin found himself mistaking his wishes for realities, convincing himself, against all evidence, that the Germans were not going to attack him.
Stalin ordered his General Staff to think about the future. The whole staff was paralyzed with fear. General Zhukov, future Marshal and the most competent of all, criticized the glaring weaknesses of Soviet strategy. Stalin was insomniac and went to bed around four in the morning. The day the General Staff presented him with his report, he told them he had not slept all night. There was enough, the plans of the General Staff revealed the enormous weaknesses of the Red Army.
Zhukov, 45, was the son of a ruined shoemaker; Short on legs, heavy features, Zhukov was as implacable as Stalin. Capable of fierce reprisals, imposing iron discipline, courageous, he could, like Molotov, oppose Stalin; the latter, impressed by the general’s victories against the Japanese, let him do it because he appreciated his gifts.
The day after the presentation of the State-Major, Stalin, after appointing Zhukov as Chief of Staff (he initially refused, but finally accepted), Stalin for the first time confided his fad to his generals: « The Germans are afraid of us. I am going to tell you a secret: our ambassador had a very serious private conversation with Hitler, and the Führer told him: “Do not worry, if our forces have regrouped in Poland, it is to carry out military maneuvers. ‘training… ».
Then Stalin invited everyone to a hearty supper, borscht, buckwheat porridge, meat stew, fresh fruit and compote, all washed down with cognac, kvanshkara, and Georgian wine. Definitely, we drank dry in the Kremlin!
Stalin was negotiating with the Yugoslav government, hoping to thwart Hitler’s strategy. A treaty with Yugoslavia was signed just as Hitler was bombing Belgrade … who surrendered after ten days.
Stalin understood that he could not fight on two fronts. He therefore concludes a treaty with the Japanese Ambassador, Yōsuke Matsuoka. This treaty made Stalin enthusiastic. Stalin, Molotov and Matsuoka celebrated the event by emptying many bottles; all three were completely drunk when the time came around six in the morning for Matsuoka’s departure. “You almost had to carry the Japanese diplomat to the station. We couldn’t stand up any more, ”says Molotov. They sang old Russian songs, and at the station in Yaroslavl the foreign diplomats were amazed to see Stalin arrive completely tipsy. Molotov yelled: “I am a Pioneer, always ready“. Stalin took Matsuoka by the arm, but since they did not speak the other’s language, their expressions of affection amounted to “ah … ah …“.
Seeing the German military attaché, Colonel Krebs, Stalin said to him: “German?” Krebs bowed as Stalin crushed his hand. “We have always been friends and we will remain so“, said Stalin
“I’m sure,” Krebs replied, not very convinced according to the Swedish ambassador attending the scene.
Then Stalin turned to Matsuoka:
“We will rule Europe and Asia.”
And arm in arm, Stalin and Matsuoka walked towards the Japanese diplomat’s wagon. Stalin was sure of it, he had secured his eastern borders and Hitler would not attack him until 1942.
However, the German preparations at the border were taking shape.
On June 9, Stalin grew angry again as Zhukov and generals tried to convince him that in all probability Hitler was going to attack. Spy Richard Sorge even knew the date of the attack he had recovered from the German embassy in Tokyo. “Well I have other documents in my possession,” Stalin said. He laughed at Sorge, who had just given him crucial information. “That bastard Sorge who has set up factories and brothels in Japan claims the Germans will attack on June 22. And I should believe him, too? ”
Stalin had become blind and deaf to the warnings of his entourage, as well as those of his own spies …
Zhukov asked Stalin on June 13, 1941, to mobilize. Stalin refused: “But after all, it means war. Do you understand that, yes or no? “.
Another agent, undercover in the Luftwaffe, told Stalin that the Germans were about to attack. Stalin scrawled, “Tell that source to fuck off. He is not a source, but a disinformer. “
Zhukov insisted again on Stalin, who yelled in his face: « Do you want to scare us? Or do you want war because you don’t have enough decorations and you want to rise in rank? »
Stalin was still blind; and he added to the attention of his generals, exiting the room and slamming the door: « If you dare to provoke the Germans by moving our troops without my permission, you will be dealing with me.” Heads will fall, know that ! » .
Yet Stalin, according to Khrushchev “was confused, he had lost morale and was slipping into inertia”.
Still convinced that he was right, Stalin told Zhdanov that « if the Germans were to attack, they would have done it already. They missed the boat. They will attack in 1942 ». Yet the British government and even Mao Tse Tung were sending him warnings !!
On June 21, a German deserter warned that the attack would take place at dawn the next day. A second deserter confirmed the claims of the first. « Perhaps they sent deserters to provoke us », Stalin tried to reassure himself. A third deserter confirmed the information of the first two. But he was shot for “disinformation”.
Stalin gathered all his comrades on the evening of June 21. At 11:00 p.m. they all went up to Stalin’s apartment and moved to the dining room. Everyone was in distress, but Stalin persisted: « Hitler will not open hostility »,” he said, according to Mikoyan. Then Stalin added: « I think Hitler is trying to provoke us. Surely he didn’t decide to go to war, did he? »
Yet along the border, German bombers were already flying towards their targets, and three million German troops were preparing to enter the Soviet Union.
Stalin slept in his room, not in the Kremlin, but in his Datcha residence in Kutsevo.
Zhukov called him around four in the morning:
« Who is it? » asked an NKVB general.
« The Chief of Staff. Give me Comrade Stalin. It’s urgent » .
« Now ? But Comrade Stalin is sleeping » ” ”.
« Wake him up immediately. The Germans are bombing our cities » ” ”.
At the same time, Admiral Kuznetsov called the Kremlin.
« Comrade Stalin is not here, and I don’t know where he is» ,” replied a narrow-minded bureaucrat. The fact that Stalin was sleeping in Kutsevo and not in the Kremlin was a state secret that should not be revealed.
« I have a message of the utmost importance which I must immediately personally convey to Comrade Stalin. »
« Sorry, I can’t help you,” the bureaucrat said, hanging up » “.
« I demand that you inform Comrade Stalin that the Germans are bombing Sevastopol. It’s the war ! ».
We ended up waking Stalin anyway, while Zhukov was still waiting in line. A few minutes later, Stalin took the receiver. Zhukov told him that the Germans had crossed the border and that Sevastopol and Kiev were being bombed.
« Have I been clear, Comrade Stalin? »
But Zhukov only heard the dictator’s heavy breathing on the other end of the phone.
Sources and bibliography
(*) «Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar», Simon Sebag Montefiore. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2003.
En version française : «La Cour du Tsar rouge», Simon Sebag Montefiore. Editions des Syrtes, 2005.
(**) Simon Sebag Montefiore est un historien britannique éduqué à Cambridge et spécialiste de le Russie. Son livre, traduit ,en 25 langues, a obtenu le British Book Award en 2004.
The XXth century, a century of iron and blood
by Jacques Trauman
1/1 Une sympathique petite équipe
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 6 novembre 2020
1/2 Un dîner qui finit mal
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 13 novembre
1/3 Le tribunal des flagrants délires
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 20 novembre
1/4 Une improbable rencontre
mise en ligne à partir du vendredi 27 novembre
1/5 A passionate music lover. NEXT
WEEK in WUKALI
On line : Friday December 4th
SEASON 2 to come:
2/1 In the Devil’s den
on line Friday December 11th
2/2 The syle is the man
on line Friday December 18th
2/3 Hitler war leader
on line Friday December 25th
2/4 The beginning of the end
on line Friday January 1st 2021
2/5Twenty four hours before apocalypse
on line Friday January 8th
SEASON 3 to come :
3/1 Zhongnanhai mummy
on line Friday January 15th 2021
3/2 Mao and Stalin
on line Friday January 22th
3/3 In the den of the she-wolf
on line Friday January 29th
3/4 War and Peace
on line Friday February 5th
3/5 We know everything, we ignore all
on line Friday February 12th
Header illustration: Stalin with Ribbentrop (photomontage including a map)