Was WWIII close?

New claims are made about Soviet readiness for a third big war


Michael Urban/AFP/Getty Images

In the late ’70s, in the throes of the Cold War, a series of secret underground bunkers were built in the former East Germany, the front line of what, at the time, seemed like an impending nuclear showdown. Many of the estimated 1,200 bunkers scattered across the former German Democratic Republic were built from scratch by East German or Soviet crews; others were former Nazi shelters, repurposed for a possible Third World War. But the recent debate about the significance of one such bunker, buried deep in the expansive wooded heather of Kossa, shows that, nearly 20 years after the Iron Curtain fell, the question of how close to the brink we really were remains.

Until recently, the Kossa bunker, which consists of 75 subterranean hectares, was widely accepted as an intended refuge for part of the East German army. But according to Olaf Strahlendorff, director of the Kossa Military Museum, which has been operational since 2002, it was much more significant. As he tells visitors, “This is where the Russians planned to conduct World War III.” Potsdam Military History Research Institute historian Torsten Diedrich, too, attributes a greater purpose, telling Der Spiegel, “Kossa was a command bunker of the Warsaw Pact.”

But to others, the suggestion that Kossa was anything more than a field bunker is unfounded. According to Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard Project for Cold War Studies, the location of the main Warsaw Pact bunkers “are well known, and they aren’t this one.” Despite the sophistication of Kossa’s communications equipment, Kramer says this site was “certainly not some strategic command centre that’s overseeing the entire war.” Likewise, Holger Herwig, Canada Research Chair in Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says that unlike the Soviet bunkers in the GDR, which were destroyed in the early ’90s, those built by the East Germans remained intact, and their purpose well-documented. “There’s no secret about what Kossa was for,” he says.

The same can’t be said about more salient Cold War mysteries. Though the GDR archives, opened in the early ’90s, provided the broad strokes of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact strategy for a Third World War, old Soviet archives remain closed and Soviet war plans have never been released. According to Ben Fischer, former chief historian for the CIA, the West, which relied primarily on technical intelligence collection methods such as satellites, was forced to draw conclusions accordingly. The result, he says, “is a sort of Swiss cheese. You have solid pieces and big holes.”

But more information is trickling out. As Kramer observed in a paper published earlier this year, Warsaw Pact training exercises that are now available in Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance confirm that, by the late ’80s, the Soviet military was under significant political pressure and was pursuing a defensive strategy. And recently declassified CIA documents reveal that, during the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the U.S. believed that the Soviets “had no desire to provoke conflict with NATO,” says Kramer. All of which suggests that, despite the temptation “to make things out to have been more dangerous than they were,” says Kramer, the Soviets never came close to launching a Third World War—whether from a bunker in Moscow, or one in Kossa.

Filed under:

Was WWIII close?

  1. The Soviets surely had plans for another war, as did the Americans. Curtis LeMay in particular was eager to use nuclear weapons in the early 1950s to knock out the Soviet Union.

    • Curtis LeMay was George Wallace's vice-presidential running mate in 1968. He made Himmler look like a nice guy. The U.S. never had a nuclear strategic advantage over the Soviet Union. The Soviet trump card was the postwar ability to take western Europe by political insurrection. The Soviet army would have provided the follow through. In say, 1948 Soviet ground forces would have over-run anything the allies could put up. Each were still primarily equipped with WWII equipment but the Soviets just had a lot more men and material. They had never stood down from the war but the allied armies had demobilized. The allies did not then have a jet air advantage.

      Even if the U.S. nuked some Soviet cities, the Soviet armies and domestic communist cadres would have re-doubled their efforts to secure local control at every point across Europe and anywhere else, for that matter. They would go on angry auto-pilot. Even a Curtis LeMay U.S. could not undo the fact that the U.S.'s allies were exhausted and the U.S. was in post-war recovery. The Soviets and communists were still armed and in the field and in full fighting mode. You can't nuke the very cities of people you do business with – like : London, Hamburg, Paris or Rome though they be taken over by communists.

      The official alternative to the LeMay vision was the Marshall Plan.

  2. The Soviet communists were not interested in WWIII; the nomenklatura had too good a life on the backs of 400 million slaves. They were going to wait until the Idiot World collapsed under socialist "Third Way" mismanagement. They missed the goal by mere couple of decades. They sit in their dachas today muttering "damn".

    • Weirdly, that is kinda right. The nationalist impulses of Stalinism stayed the hand of Soviet expansionism. The bureaucratic leadership cadre was primarily concerned with maintaining their control and privileges in the existing state. They were loathe to risk this unless forced as in Poland '53, Hungary '56 or Checko '68. Look what the Afganistan adventure cost them.

      All that 'internationalist' babble was just fairy dust.

      That's a Troskyist analysis.

  3. Great article!

    Soviet strategy was always defensive. According to the then dominant strain of Soviet ideology, the capitalist states were the aggressors and communist states only ever acted in defence.

    It's a Soviet version of Freidman's ‘democracy's never fight each other' thesis. More therapy about how great our side is than actually strategic thinking.

    Soviet plans for their defence of Europe from the aggressor capitalist states, planned for the Red Army to have over-run Germany and France and to arrive at the Pyrenees, all in less than two weeks. To defend themselves the Soviets planned to take over Europe, and remained true to their ideology by labelling this forward strategy as defensive. Reminds me of Bush's freedom agenda.

Sign in to comment.