Dimbleby chooses to tell the Barbarossa story without dwelling on its horror. He virtually ignores, for instance, the siege of Leningrad, which revealed humanity at its best and its ugliest. He instead favours high politics, in particular British and American tribulations in having to support an ally they widely despised. While his narrative is vivid and informative, the story he tells is not horrific enough; it does not do justice to how hideous Barbarossa was. More focus on the soldiers themselves would have been appropriate, perhaps in the style of Antony Beevor.
Stalin dismissed warnings from Churchill (who had the benefit of Ultra) that the Germans were massing for an offensive. Warnings from Stalin’s own agents were also dismissed as fantasies or provocations. Six days before the invasion, an officer in the German air ministry whom the NKVD had recruited in 1940, codename ‘Starshina’ (which Dimbleby translates infelicitously as ‘Corporal’), warned that attack was imminent. Stalin scribbled on the report: ‘Tell the source... to go fuck his mother! This is no source but a disinformer.’ Dimbleby quotes Solzhenitsyn: Stalin didn’t trust his own mother, God, fellow party members, peasants, workers, intellectuals, soldiers, relatives, wives, mistresses or even his own children. ‘In all his long suspicion-ridden life he had only trusted one man... This man whom Stalin trusted was Adolf Hitler.’
With his impressive team of researchers, advisers and editors, Dimbleby tells the story of strategic miscalculation and (self-) deception on all sides, and then Hitler’s ‘war of extermination’, magnificently.
From the start, this was a conflict of unparalleled savagery, and Dimbleby, as he skilfully tracks the shifts and turns of the campaign, spares no detail. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Dimbleby’s Barbarossa is published to coincide with the invasion’s 80th anniversary. What is its lesson today? Chiefly, for us, a little humility: a recognition that the Western democracies’ reflex loathing of communism for too long left Hitler’s Germany looking like the lesser evil, and an admission that we owe the Soviet Union the credit for breaking “the German Army as no other nation would have done”, in Churchill’s words. That pre-war mistrust between Britain (and the US) and Russia has regrown in the last 30 years. If, when Soviet communism collapsed, the West had moved to recognise Russia as an ally, we might have contributed to a collaborative rebuilding of that country, instead of creating the isolating conditions for a new 21st-century tyranny.