Wikipedia says in the article on the Winter War:

Perhaps more importantly, the very poor performance of the Red Army encouraged Hitler to think that an attack on the Soviet Union would be successful.

This statement makes ample sense but it is not backed by any citation of documentary evidence. Do you know of such evidence?

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    Apparently Albert Speer says something to that effect when interviewed on "The World at War" episode Barbarossa.
    – Nathan
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 10:51
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    OTOH, you could argue that Hitler and his crowd already believed Slavs were next to worthless in a fight, particularly compared to Germans (no matter how they ended up doing against Finns). I'm interested to see the answers on this one.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 30, 2013 at 16:03
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    @NathanCooper@ Can you find a link to a transcript or something? Commented Apr 1, 2013 at 21:21
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    To be fair the Germans made it within 45 miles of Moscow before sputtering out and this was largely due to poor logistics planning at the beginning of the operation (due in large part to the views of the Hitler on the operation). Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 19:09
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    To attack the Sovietunion was important part of Hitler's original plan. He was actively searching allies against the Sovietunion for years, and this was the main motivation to drop china and choose Japan as the main ally in Asia. Also, it wasn't that unrealistic as it seemed: without the huge help of the Allies, Sovietunion could have been collapsed or willing to take a peace offer.
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 3:53

4 Answers 4


Antony Beevor's Stalingrad contains some supporting material on perceived weaknesses of the Red Army esp. following Stalin's domestic purges:

Such confidence [in the success of Operation Barbarossa] was, in many ways, understandable. Every foreign intelligence service expected the Red Army to collapse. The Wehrmacht had assembled the largest invasion force ever seen [...]

Hitler's conviction that the Soviet Union was a 'rotten structure' that would come 'crashing down' was shared by many foreign observers and intelligence services. Stalin's purge of the Red Army, which had begun in 1937, was fueled by an inimitable mixture of paranoia, sadistic megalomania and a vindictiveness for old slights dating back to the Russian civil war and the Russo-Polish war.

Altogether, 36,671 officers were executed, imprisoned or dismissed, and out of the 706 officers of the rank of brigade commander and above, only 303 remained untouched [...]

The most prominent victim was Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the leading advocate of mobile warfare. His arrest and execution also represented the deliberate destruction of the Red Army's operational thinking, which had encroached dangerously upon Stalin's preserve of strategy [...]

Two and a half years after the purge began, the Red Army presented a disastrous spectacle in the Winter War against Finland. Marshal Voroshilov, Stalin's old crony from the 1st Cavalry Army, displayed an astonishing lack of imagination. The Finns outmaneuvered their opponents time after time. Their machine gunners scythed down the massed Soviet infantry struggling forward through the snowfields. Only after deploying five times as many men as their opponents, and huge concentrations of artillery, did the Red Army begin to prevail. Hitler had observed this lamentable performance with excitement.

Japanese military intelligence took rather a different view. It was about the only foreign service which did not underestimate the Red Army at this time. A series of border skirmishes on the Manchurian frontier, which culminated in the battle at Khalkin-Gol in August 1939, had shown what an aggressive young commander, in this case the forty-three -old General Georgy Zhukov, could achieve.

As for the key sentence ("Hitler had observed ...") Beevor does not point to further sources, so you would have to believe his word as an expert that he certainly is.

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    +1 to you, but not, I'm afraid, to Beevor. Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 15:00
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    Hmm .. so you have an axe to grind with Beevor. That's okay. I guess, but please leave me out of it. I was quoting him because I happen to have this book in my library, not because I have any agenda on the topic, as some obviously have. Downvoting citations of mainstream published books which happen to be not of universal liking is quite bad practice indeed IMHO (i.e. assuming I have not missed any major scandal around Beevor :)
    – Drux
    Commented Apr 1, 2013 at 20:13
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    @Drux Anixx downvotes anything even remotely negative about the USSR or communism in general.
    – jwenting
    Commented Apr 2, 2013 at 6:06
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    Okay, I see now. So from now on I shall apply a somewhat higher level of caution when encountering Beevor's arguments (I noticed and mentioned that he did not provide a IMO relevant source re Hitler's stance) as well as to possible contributions to historic scholarship even from Dr. Putin's diplomatic corps ... :)
    – Drux
    Commented Apr 2, 2013 at 7:37
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    @anixx I'm not inclined to put much weight on this single source, given its obvious biases, but will keep an open mind re the possible issue. BTW, The Economist just had a lauding review of a new book by Robert Gellately: "During their furious conquest of Germany, the Red Army soldiers avenged their homeland’s suffering in an orgy of destruction. An eyewitness describes their taking "axes to armchairs, sofas, tables and stools, even baby carriages" ..."
    – Drux
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 6:21

Albert Speer speaking in the 1973 documentary The World at War: "Barbarossa (June – December 1941)"

"In August 39, when Hitler had signed the pact with Russia, in the evening there was a movie, and this movie showed the parade of the Russian troops before the Kremlin. He was very much impressed and was relived that now with the pact this army is neutralised. But afterwards when the German troops met the Russian ones in occupied Poland, officers reported to Hitler said the equipment of those Russian units were very poor. He first didn't believe it so much but then when the Russians attacked the Finns and they didn't have any progress he was convinced that this was really the truth and he was now considering the Russian army no more as strong as before."

So it would seem the questioner assertion is justified, the Winter War was important to changing Hitler's view of the Russian Army. I believe this source carries a lot of weight due to Speer's familiarity with Hitler. Also, the contention some historians have with Speers seems mostly to be over the extent to which he was aware or involved with the regime's atrocities, which I don't see being relevant here.

This is my own transcript. He's speaking at about 5:30 into the documentary. I'm sure it's available online, but I'm also sure I can't link that sort of thing.

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    But how well was Speer informed about 1939? I gathered he wasn't that close to Hitler back then (at least not as close as he wanted people to think he had been). Commented Apr 2, 2013 at 20:19

However one should never forget that conditions in Finnish-Russo Winter War were hard, fighting was fierce, both Finns and Russians took quite a few POW's and partly the "poor level of Red Army" was a myth.

Think about this one: 30 times more Soviet soldiers died than was captured. 40 times more Finns were killed than captured.

Finnish-Winter War was just like battle in Rhzev meat grinder (1942-43) a battle scene those surviving front line soldiers remembered with special horror.

As a Finn i have several times wondered how successful western allies (or Germans) have been there in cold horror battlefields in Finland. Later Finns noticed how poorly many Germans were fighting in similar conditions. That's the "poor Red Army" during Winter War is partly a myth. They fought better than generally have believed.

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    This would be improved by references.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 13:05
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    Well, these are the real reasons, but that's not what the question is about. The question is if the Winter war and the Soviets not winning contributed to Hitler underestimating them. Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 14:32

Absolutely. What other conclusion could you draw from that war?

Moreover, it was not an underestimation at all. The assessment was absolutely correct. When Germany attacked in June of 1941 the USSR was crushed, losing huge numbers of troops and territory. During that first summer the Soviet forces exhibited all the same obsolete equipment and incompetent strategy that had lost them the Winter War.

What the Germans underestimated was the ability of the Soviets to improve their army, their determination to fight and their ability to find new technological and military resources to resist.

  • Actually, the Soviet equipment was far from obsolete, rather it was often superior to the German in technical specs. E.g. the KV-1 tank. Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 20:06
  • @FelixGoldberg During the summer of 1941 the Red Army fought almost exclusively with T-26s and BTs, which were inferior to the PKIIIs and PKIVs the Germans had. KV1s were only available in very small numbers and had little to no impact on the progress of the war during the first year. Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 20:19
  • I beg to differ. Mark Solonin has very convincingly shown that - on paper - the Soviet side had the superior equipment (for example, they had 500 KV-1s and there are German testimonials to their effectivenes). Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 9:00
  • @FelixGoldberg Sorry, I don't read Russian, but if you think the Soviets had superior equipment you are laboring under delusions. Most of the Russians had nothing but obsolete rifles and in many cases were fighting with little or no ammunition. Artillery and machine guns were rarities and what machine guns and cannon they had were inferior compared to the German equivalents. As for the "500" tanks, that is just a propaganda number. Actual fielded, crewed, operational KV1 tanks during June-August 1941 was less than a dozen. German operational reports are very detailed. Try reading them. Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 12:11
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    @FelixGoldberg If you have read Solonin you surely remember how he quotes along an absurdly high failure ratio of T-34&KV tanks also an absurdly high failure ratio of any equipment including plain rifles and... mortars (65% of the latter if I'm not mistaken). Solonin points out any equipment related statistics are irrelevant when the evidence is clear that Soviet troops and lower/mid hierarchy were rarely attempting and willing to effectively fight in 1942. Midst forged reports and false self-justifications, the statistics are likely also forged.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 11:10

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