Stop me if you’ve heard this one in high school history.
In the Second World War, Hitler and Stalin signed a deal that split Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, freeing up the Nazis to send everything west to crush France and Britain and avoid the two-front war that lost them the First World War. A couple of years later, the Germans invaded Russia, utterly catching the Soviets by surprise. The Red Army reeled backwards for hundreds of miles, and the Wehrmacht reached the very outskirts of Moscow itself when the earliest winter in a century descended almost overnight. Not equipped for the savage Russian winter, the German advance was finished, and so in the long run was their empire.
The problem is that the narrative relies on two preposterous assumptions. First, it assumes that Stalin was a fucking moron. Hitler spent twenty years publicizing that the linchpin of the Third Reich’s ideology was the annihilation of Russia and replacement of its population with the Aryan master race. This theory relies on Stalin, one of the great political geniuses of history, thinking Adolf Hitler was just kidding all those times he swore that his life’s goal was the eradication of the Slavic peoples.
Second, it assumes that the Wehrmacht had never realized that Russia had winter. Even without Wikipedia, most people had a low-level awareness of the fact that Russia tended to get cold. Those fancy fur hats weren’t just for show. And let’s not forget that the guys commanding the German army? They were the ones who invaded Russia just twenty years previously as young and eager lieutenants and such. So they literally had already been in Russia during the winter. And even if they hadn’t and had never heard of this strange eastern land of Rus that they were invading, I am relatively confident that they knew that winter existed, given that the months of November through February also do exist between the Rhine and the Danube.
So assuming that Stalin wasn’t an idiot and the Germans had heard of winter, what actually happened?
Yes, millions and millions of puffy white sheep are what happened.
See, in the summer of 1941, Stalin knew that the Germans were coming. Hitler had been promising to do so for twenty years. Every other player on the continent had been wiped out. All the random little countries had been gobbled up. Except for Britain, huddled over there behind the best moat in history, the Germans and Russians were all that were left, circling each other and waiting to see who would punch first.
That’s the key to the whole thing. Knowing when the punch is coming. And Stalin knew that the Germans were going to circle one more time and not throw that punch until the summer of 1942. He knew it like Seahawks fans knew that Lynch was going to run straight down the middle.
He knew because you can’t invade Russia in the spring. A hundred feet of snow melts all at once and the entire country is mud six feet deep. So you have to wait until the mud dries, baked in the early summer sun of late May and early June. But something else happens in late spring during that same rise in the mercury. Sheep are shorn of their glorious winter wool.
In order to prepare for Russian winter for four million men, you need a lot of wool. And you have to get it in late spring, because that’s the only point at which there’s enough of it on the market. That level of demand for wool would essentially corner the entirety of Europe’s supply of wool. Econ 101 ringing any bells? If the Germans prepared for Russian winter, the price of wool on the open market would go through the roof.
So in the summer of 1941, Stalin could know with absolute certainty that the Germans weren’t coming by asking for a single number: the price of wool.
But, wheels within wheels, the Germans were of course completely aware of this. And so they gambled absolutely everything - their lives, their armies, their empire, and without exaggerating in retrospect, the very direction of civilization itself - on a single role of the die.
They intentionally did not prepare for Russian winter in order to land the knockout punch of the twentieth century. And as Russia sagged backwards onto the ropes, as the vanguard of the Wehrmacht came within sight of the red walls of the Kremlin itself, winter arrived like Gandalf on the third dawn and turned them back.
There are few moments in history when luck makes itself so apparent. Politics and war are so often games of five dimensional chess that we lose sight of the fact that the game isn’t deterministic, that there are still dice clattering across the board. And while god might not play dice with the universe, irony surely does.
Because sometimes the iron laws of supply and demand save communism.
And sometimes sheep save civilization.
For more details and references, take a look at Radzinsky’s gorgeously written biography of Stalin.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.