Socialist economics: the secret to Soviet success in World War II?

What was the deep source of Soviet success during the Second World War? A number of obvious factors played a role, such as Stalin’s leadership, excellent generals, German mistakes, tough discipline, good morale, and deal of luck. But underlying it all, as Geoffrey Roberts points out, was ‘a tremendous economic and organisational achievement’ (Stalin’s Wars, p. 163).

To set the scene: by the time of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, the Germans occupied more than half of European Russia, about two million square kilometres. It was an area containing 40 per cent of the USSR’s population, about 80 million people. The occupied area covered 50 per cent of the USSR’s cultivated land, the production of 70 per cent of its pig iron, 60 per cent of its coal and steel and 40 per cent of its electricity. Still, by the end of 1942, the production of rifles had increased fourfold (to 6 million) compared to the previous year. Tank and artillery production increased fivefold to 24,500 and 287,000 per annum. The number of aeroplanes produced more than doubled from 8,200 to 21,700.

How was this possible? Roberts writes that it was due to the mass relocation of Soviet industry to the eastern USSR and out of harm’s way in 1941-2. One of Stalin’s first instructions after Hitler invaded was the establishment of an evacuation committee that arranged the move of more than 1,500 large industries to the east. With them went hundreds of thousands of workers and thereby the single most significant wave of resettlement in Siberia. It is not for nothing that you find cities in Siberia of more than a million people. On top of this, 3,500 new industries were established, most of them related to wartime production. It is no wonder that by the time of the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets were able to field 90 fresh divisions, fully equipped with new weapons. Or indeed that after losing almost 5 million soldiers in the first months of Hitler’s invasion, they were able to field 11 million the following year. One million of those were women.

Initially, Roberts is in two minds on this achievement. He tends to sit on the fence, relating debates about wartime ‘free enterprise’ versus the planned economy. He mentions western aid (much emphasised in European and American accounts), but points out that it amounted to no more than 10 per cent of the total economy and that it came largely after the dire threat of 1941-2 and after victory at Stalingrad. In the end he comes down on the side of the planned economy. Stalin emphasised the need to keep the armies properly supplied, but otherwise he left the job to his economic managers. And they could do so only by means of ‘the mobilisation power of the Soviet economy’ (p. 163).

But what was that economy? Given the energetic collectivisation of farming in the late 1920s and 1930s and the Five Year Plans of industrialisation and economic transformation, the result was as full a communist economic system as one is likely to find. Does this mean that only a planned, communist economic system could have pulled it off? At the time, it seems so.

Hitler’s racist motive in attacking the Soviet Union

The first of a few snippets from Stalin’s Wars (Roberts; Yale, 2006). What was Hitler’s agenda in attacking the Soviet Union? To protect Germany’s eastern border? To knock out a potential threat? Possibly, but crucial to the attack was the idea that Slavic peoples were Untermenschen, sub-humans only fit for exploitation and slavery. Even more, the USSR was seen as a Judaeo-Bolshevik state, a communist state under Jewish control. Hitler told his generals in March, 1941, as Operation Barbarossa was in its final stages of preparation: ‘the war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion; the struggle is one of ideological and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unrelenting and unmerciful harshness’. In that light, special Einzatsgruppen were formed, special action teams that followed the German army and eliminated communist officials, activists and intellectuals. And in May of that year Hitler issued a decree that exempted German soldiers from punishment should they commit any atrocities. Once the USSR was occupied, the city populations were to be starved to death and the cities repopulated from the German upper class.

At the same time the Wehrmacht issued its ‘Guidelines for the behaviour of the fighting forces in Russia’:

1. Bolshevism is the mortal enemy of the National Socialist German people. Germany’s struggle is aimed at that disruptive ideology and its exponents (that pretty much sums up Churchill’s and Truman’s approach to the USSR after the war – in which ‘free world’ replaces ‘National Socialist German people’).

2. That struggle demands ruthless and energetic action against Bolshevik agitators, guerrillas, saboteurs, Jews and the complete liquidation of any active or passive resistance.

3. Extreme reserve and the most alert vigilance are called for towards all members of the Red Army – even prisoners – as treacherous methods of fighting are to be expected. The Asiatic soldiers of the Red Army in particular are inscrutable, unpredictable, insidious and unfeeling.

The key slogan used was: ‘A Jew is a Bolshevik is a partisan’.

The result: 8-9 million soldiers killed; 15-16 million civilians; tens of millions more with physical injury and psychological trauma. The total destruction of life was 14% of the USSR’s prewar population. Further: totally destroyed were 1710 towns and cities, 70,000 villages, 6 million buildings, 31850 industries, 98,000 collective farms. 25 million people were made homeless. In sum, about 25% of the USSR’s material structures were destroyed in the populous western region. Makes one wonder how the USSR recovered at all to beat the Wehrmacht.