Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Poker Game of the Second World War

In March 1939, Josef Stalin said that Europe was a poker game with three players—each of the three players hoped that the other two would get into a war and destroy each other leaving it as the sole master of Europe. The three poker players were: Chamberlain’s Britain (supported by Daladier’s France), Hitler’s Germany, and the Soviet Union. 

As the Second World War hurtled towards its climax, the world’s warlords fared badly. Roosevelt was sickly and dying, Hitler was almost senile and would soon commit suicide, and Churchill was ill and often depressed. Stalin was exhausted but he retained his sharpness and he was deadly. When the Second World War ended, he was the winner of the poker game—he became the master of half of Germany and all of Eastern Europe. 

The poker game could have thrown a different sort of outcome had the Japanese adhered to their original plan of invading the Soviet Union from the far eastern border. Stalin had deployed his Far Eastern Army, 700,000 strong, to defend Soviet territory against any Japanese attack. 

In June 1941, Hitler began his invasion of the Soviet Union with the bombing of cities in Soviet-occupied Poland. Within days the German war machine had penetrated deep inside the Soviet territory and by October they were in a position to begin their attack on Moscow. To maintain order, Stalin was forced to put Moscow under martial law. In September 1941, he was assured by Soviet intelligence that the Japanese were no longer planning to invade the Soviet Union. 

On 12 October, Stalin gave the order to bring the Far Eastern Army to defend Moscow from Hitler’s army. Lazar Kaganovich (nicknamed Iron Lazar), a key player in Stalin’s great purge, was responsible for arranging nonstop trains, which rushed 400,000 troops, 1000 tanks, and 1000 planes to secret locations behind Moscow. The logistical feat of transporting troops and equipment across the icy Eurasian landscape within days is what saved Moscow. 

On 2nd December, the Germans were within 24 kilometers of Moscow. By then the blizzards had begun. The Soviet Far Eastern Army was better adapted to fight in such conditions. Surprised by the fresh Soviet troops, the Germans started retreating. On December 5, the Soviet army began its counteroffensive which, in a month, pushed the Germans back 100 to 250 km from Moscow.  By attacking Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese had doomed Hitler’s army. 

If the Japanese had attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, then Stalin could not have brought his Far Eastern Army to defend Moscow, and the city would have fallen to Hitler. Such an outcome might have precipitated a coup in the Soviet Union, resulting in the overthrow of Stalin’s government.

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