What was the relationship between Stalin and his generals during the Second World War? Apocryphal stories have it that when Hitler invaded to devastating initial effect in 1941, Stalin retreated in a depressed funk to his dacha and was eventually persuaded to return to active leadership by a council of generals and commissars. Or some of the generals themselves in their self-serving memoirs argued that when Stalin began listening to their advice, the Red Army began to win battles. The truth is, as Geoffrey Roberts points out (Stalin’s Wars, pp. 159-62), that Stalin always listened to and took the advice of his high command. After the stunning victory at Stalingrad in 1942 (the year the Germans had 1.5 million casualties), the fact is that Stalin listened more, the advice got better and he got better at taking it. They were all on a steep learning curve from day one of the war, but to their credit they learnt and learnt well from early defeats. They became better commanders and he became a better supreme commander. The result was an open and creative relationship, in which the leadership was clearly with Stalin but the generals had free reign to express their opinions.
A number of other factors played a role as well.
Loyalty: A crucial feature of the generals and indeed Stalin’s closest political associates was loyalty to communist project. That this included loyalty to the USSR and to Stalin held them together even more closely. Or rather, the question of disloyalty was never an issue. It was simply assumed that they would stick together through thick and thin.
Charm: The usual picture of Stalin is that he commanded such loyalty through fear and terror. At any moment, a loyal, abject and trembling follower would find himself in prison or before the firing squad. This is far from the truth, for Stalin was an absolute charmer. He charmed Roosevelt and Churchill, thoroughly enjoying a party, full of wit and humour. He charmed women to no end. And he charmed his generals, paying careful attention to their personal needs and those of their families. For example, Rokossovskii praised Stalin’s leadership qualities: ‘the concern displayed by the supreme commander was invaluable. The kind, fatherly intonations were encouraging and raised one’s self-confidence’. And in his memoirs Vasilevskii tells of an incident at a grave time during the battle of Moscow. Stalin wanted to promote him to general, but Vasilevskii declined, suggesting instead that some of his assistants should be promoted. Stalin agreed and promoted the lot of them, along with Vasilevskii. ‘This attention to us touched us deeply’.
Continuity: again this one goes against popular perceptions of Stalin purging anyone whom he vaguely suspected of threatening his power. To be sure, the Red Army was cleaned up during the uninspiring Finnish War of the late 1930s, and in 1941 Pavlov and some of the commanders on the Western Front found themselves out of a job after abysmal failures and questionable loyalty to the communist project. But what is remarkable is how stable the command was – as also Stalin’s inner political circle (Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Beria, Zhdanov, Malenkov, Mikoyan and Krushchev). As David Glantz points out, ‘most of the marshals and generals who led the Red Army to victory in May 1945 were already serving as generals and colonels in responsible command positions when the war began on 22 June 1941’ (Colossus Reborn, pp. 534-5). This continuity was especially noticeable among front commanders, in the infantry, tank and mechanised forces, in the artillery and air force. This means that Stalin generally did not scapegoat commanders for failure, allowing plenty of room for learning from their mistakes – as he did.
Talent: the key was to foster talent rather than yes-men. Even during the great losses of 1941-2, Stalin and inner circle constantly sought to identify those with creative flair and ensured they rose in the ranks. His personal emphasis on learning from experience, on experimentation and adaptation to changing circumstances, was a quality he valued in his high command. The experiences and lessons of combat and command were collated, assessed and used as the basis for review and reform – a constant process. In short, he fostered a culture of innovation and dynamism, so that by the last year of the war the Red Army was known as the most efficient and effective army in the world.
Zhukov and Rokossovkii
Stalin charming Churchill