Suvorov's Icebreaker

Ralph Zuljan

In the last decade, a number of writers have produced radical interpretations of World War II events. Few have managed to write anything as controversial -- and questionable -- as Viktor Rezun (under the pen name Viktor Suvorov). According to him, Stalin masterminded the outbreak of World War II and intended to attack Nazi Germany, probably on July 6, 1941. These are the central themes provocatively articulated in the book, Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War?. Based mostly on publicly available materials, the case Suvorov makes is not convincing but it has achieved sufficient popular attention that respected historians have felt compelled to respond.

A prominent feature of the story is the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. Suvorov claims that Stalin knew the British and French were prepared to go to war over Poland and agreed to the pact with Hitler because this would draw the Third Reich into war with France and the UK. Now, even if Stalin was not privy to the deliberations of these governments, their joint guarantee to Poland was indicative of British and French intentions. Stalin had every reason to believe the Nazi-Soviet division of Poland would lead to a war between the Franco-British alliance and Nazi Germany.

Suvorov notes that Stalin took great satisfaction from the results of the pact -- as well he should. Germany invaded Poland, occupying two-thirds of it and ended up at war with Britain and France. In the meantime, the USSR occupied the eastern third of prewar Poland as well as Estonia, Latvia and most of Lithuania without incurring any retribution. Then, war with Finland during the winter of 1939-40 garnered further territory for the Soviet Union yet no international intervention. Ultimately, Rumania ceded Bessarabia to the Soviet Union while the Battle of France was being fought. Stalin, indeed, had good reason to be satisfied with the results of the Nazi-Soviet Pact but this does not mean, as Suvorov suggests, that Stalin had any control over how these events turned out.

Stalin expected to gain all of Europe for Communism as a consequence of the Anglo-French war with Germany. At the time, everyone -- including Hitler and Stalin -- expected a repetition of the Great War on the western front. Even the quick victory of German arms in Poland did not alter this perception -- it was Poland after all. France was the greatest military power on the continent in 1939-40. No one thought it could be easily defeated, not even the German General Staff. Widely held expectations were of a long and bloody war of attrition. From Stalin's perspective, it would lead to the same revolutionary sentiments among the masses in Britain, France and Germany that had nearly brought about Communist revolutions in 1918-1920. This time, however, the might of an unbloodied Soviet Union would be ready to militarily support the revolutionaries, unlike at the end of the Great War. That is how Stalin intended to realize his long-term ideological objectives.

Suvorov would have us believe something subtly different about Stalin's intentions, however. Rather than waiting for the war to exhaust the British, French and German forces, Suvorov's interpretation of the events leading up to the Nazi German attack on the Soviet Union suggests that Stalin actually intended to militarily intervene in the war being fought in western Europe while it was still underway. Suvorov's case for this is primarily based on the long-term ideological goals of world revolution that Stalin nominally supported, and a radical interpretation of the military-strategic preparations the USSR carried out during this period.

Throughout the book, Suvorov emphasizes the offensive imperative inherent in Soviet strategic thought of the period and dating back to the mid-thirties. There is an element of truth here. Prior to their direct involvement in the Second World War, the Soviet armed forces envisioned a war on their western frontier in terms of holding any enemy offensive at the border through a series of counterattacks and following-up with an offensive into enemy territory. Essentially, the Soviet Union pursued an initial strategy comparable to the postwar NATO strategy of forward defense. The intention was to deploy as far forward as possible and prevent the enemy from penetrating the frontier, thereby avoiding a war fought on Soviet territory.

Rather than accepting this well documented interpretation, Suvorov rejects it but uncritically accepts Stalin's cynical propaganda about supporting the Communist revolution. The Soviet military's strategy, according to Suvorov, reflected this ideological stand and thus Suvorov concludes that Stalin intended to attack the Third Reich. He even provides a provisional date for the attack, based on an obscure quote that he repeats at least three times in the course of his text. This constitutes the book's most contentious elements.

As evidence, Suvorov emphasizes the Soviet military buildup along the western frontier prior to June 22, 1941. There is no doubt about the fact that the Red Army was engaged in a partial mobilization several months before the German-led invasion of the Soviet Union began but this does not support Suvorov's claim that Stalin intended to strike first against the Third Reich. It is well known that Soviet force dispositions were weighted towards the southwestern frontier (with Rumania) while they bordered Nazi Germany in the northwest. Even Suvorov hedges here by suggesting an attack on Rumania (particularly the Polesti oil fields which provided about 40% of the oil consumed by the Germans) constituted a knockout blow against the Nazi military machine.

Suvorov's radical interpretation has achieved some popular appeal, especially among Russians and Germans. For Russians, the appeal seems to lie in excusing the Red Army's poor performance in the initial period of the war and the elevation of Stalin's short-sighted prewar policy to that of a genius, while at the same time exposing a Communist plot to conquer Europe. For Germans, the appeal lies in the implicitly preventative nature of the murderous Eastern Front that Hitler created -- something numerous German generals tried argue after the war.

Originally published in "World War II" at on October 1, 1999.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

Former links associated with this file include: