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This brilliant new work by the author of the best-selling Five Days in London, May 1940 is an unparalleled drama of two great leaders confronting each other in June 1941. It describes Hitler and Stalin’s strange, calculating, and miscalculating relationship before the German invasion of Soviet Russia, with its gigantic (and unintended) consequences. John Lukacs questions many long-held beliefs; he suggests, for example, that among other things Hitler’s first purpose involved England: if Stalin’s Communist Russia were to be defeated, Hitler’s Third Reich would be well-nigh invincible, and the British and American peoples would be forced to rethink the war against Hitler.
The book offers penetrating insights and a new portrait of Hitler and Stalin, moved by their long-lasting inclinations. Yet among other things, Lukacs presents evidence that Hitler (rather than his generals) had moments of dark foreboding before the invasion. Stalin could not, because he wished not, believe that Hitler would choose the risk of a two-front war by attacking him; he was stunned and shocked and came close to a breakdown. But he recovered, grew into a statesman, and eventually became a prime victor of the Second World War. Such are the ironies of history; John Lukacs paints them with a shining narrative skill.
— Benjamin Healy and Benjamin Schwarz
— Tim Rutten
"A good introduction. . . . Lukacs captures the drama leading up to the German invasion."—Charters Wynn, The Historian
— Charters Wynn
In 1941 the twenty-second of June fell on a Sunday. Before dawn-it was already half-light on this, the longest day of the year-Hitler's German armies invaded the Russian empire, Stalin's Soviet Union. On the evening of the twenty-third of June in 1812, one hundred and twenty-nine years before, French patrols had crossed the Niemen River into Russia, advance guards of Napoleon's Grande Armée that began moving across the next day. Eventually Russia and the Russians defeated both Napoleon and Hitler. But the consequences of their comeuppance were not the same. The Russian triumph over Napoleon confirmed and extended Russia's status as a great European power-a condition that had existed before 1812 and that then prevailed for another century, until 1917. Stalin's triumph over Hitler made Russia one of the two superpowers of the world, and the ruler of eastern Europe-but that condition, the main cause of the so-called "cold war," lasted for less than a half-century, until 1989.
There was a fateful condition of the Second World War that not enough people comprehend even now. This is that the Anglo-American alliance, for all its tremendous material andfinancial and industrial and manpower superiority, could not have really conquered Hitler's Germany without Russia. That is why 22 June 1941 was the most important turning point of the Second World War. It was more important than Pearl Harbor-because even before Pearl Harbor the United States was already engaged in a virtual naval war with Germany in the Atlantic. It was more important than Stalingrad-because even if the German Sixth Army had conquered Stalingrad, Britain and the United States and Russia would have fought on.
Hitler's war was the last attempt by a European power, and the second attempt by Germany, to rule most of Europe. Napoleon's wars were the last attempts by France to rule most of Europe. Their invasions of Russia led to their downfalls. Consequently the Allies had to share the results of their victories with Russia, both in 1815 and in 1945. But there the parallel ends. In 1945 the division of Europe, and Stalin's occupation of eastern Europe, led to a cold war between Russia and the West. After 1815 this did not happen. In 1914, ninety-nine years later, Russia again entered a European war against the prospect of a single power dominating most of the continent. But in 1917 something happened that was different both from 1815 and 1945. Because of its revolutions in 1917, Russia dropped out of the war. Because of America's entry into the First World War, the Western Allies in 1918 could win the war against Germany even without Russia. This should have given them an enormous advantage, which they misread and mishandled. The results were the largely botched peace treaties in 1919 and 1920, from which Hitler would profit and Germany would rise again. Meanwhile the two Russian revolutions in 1917, especially the Bolshevik one, meant that Russia was weakened, not strengthened. Few people understood that at the time; few people understand it even now.
But now enough of these perspectives (even though they are perspectives and not speculations). In 1941 and exactly on 22 June 1941, everything depended on two men, Hitler and Stalin. This in itself refutes the social-scientific and current opinion according to which history, especially as we advance into the mass age, is ruled by vast economic and material forces and not by individual persons. The Second World War was not only marked but decided by personalities, by the inclinations and decisions of men such as Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt. To regard Hitler and Stalin as dictators is an insufficient explanation of this. Not all dictators are statesmen, and not all dictators are successful war leaders. But there is something stunning and startling about the relationships of these two men, which is why not only the very events leading up to that twenty-second of June in 1941 but the history of that very day itself is extraordinary. It is that it takes two to start a war. And on 22 June 1941 Hitler wanted a war with Russia, no matter what. He did not present demands to Russia, because he suspected that Stalin might agree to them. At the same time Stalin did not want a war with Germany, he did not want to fight Hitler, all of the rising evidence of the coming German invasion notwithstanding; nor did he believe that Hitler would attack him, because he not only could not but wished not to believe that. This had no precedent in the history of Russia, and few others in the history of the world. But it is this that makes the events-not only before but during that fateful day of 22 June 1941-so extraordinarily dramatic.
"I am relieved of my mental agonies ..."
Hitler's decision to invade Russia developed through stages. The decisive stages were his orders on 31 July 1940 and on 18 December 1940 and on 21 June 1941. On 31 July 1940 he ordered a few of his generals to prepare an-eventual-campaign against Russia; on 18 December he ordered the plans for the invasion, Operation Barbarossa; on 21 June 1941 came the definite and irrevocable instant order "Dortmund," the war to begin early next day. We shall follow these stages, which were not inevitable and not entirely foreseeable. Hitler himself arrived at them after considerable speculation.
Most people, including historians who have written about Hitler, take it for granted that his decision to attack and conquer Russia was inevitable, anchored in his mind from the very beginning of his political life. There are of course multiple evidences of this. They belong in three major categories, overlapping though they are. They involve strategy, German national purposes, and ideology. In his earliest speeches, Hitler stated that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his government were wrong in regarding Britain as Germany's main enemy; that Germany's future lay in the east and not in the west; that the main German effort in the First World War should have been directed at Russia. Then, in Mein Kampf (which he dictated in 1924-1925), as well as in his later speeches and dictated writings, Hitler expounded on his national and geopolitical idea or purpose of Lebensraum: that the German people needed, and were entitled, to expand eastward, to conquer at least a portion of European Russia to establish German settlements there, befitting a ruling people. And finally-I write "finally" because the foregoing two elements may have been in his mind even before 1919-the decisive turning point in his mind and of his career, which occurred not as he said (and as many historians still believe) in Vienna but around his thirtieth year, in Munich, there was his hatred and contempt of Communism. That crystallized during what he saw during the brief Communistic rule in Munich in the spring of 1919. The condition that Russia was no longer a Tsarist state but a Communist one, and the self-asserted center of international revolution, made it the object of his expressed hatreds.
Thus: Russophobia, German expansion, and anti-Communism-these, together with his Judaeophobia seem to have been the mainsprings of Hitler's political, social, ideological, and strategic thinking, driving him ahead. All of this is true, but perhaps not true enough. There was the proverbial Irish biddy, who, answering her neighbors' questions whether the gossip about the young widow at the end of the village was true, said: "It is not true but true enough." The historian, I think, ought to consider something like the opposite: that some things may be true but they are not true enough. That Hitler hated Communists and Communism is undeniable. But consider two caveats. In more than a few instances Hitler said that his contempt for Liberals and Social Democrats was greater than for (in his words, misled) Communists of the working class. More important: he found in 1919 and often thereafter how well he could use the fear and hatred of Communism for his own political purposes: anti-Communism was immensely popular in Bavaria, and elsewhere in the world. He knew how to draw good profit from that. We will see some telling instances of it. My argument is that it is not possible to separate his convictions from his comprehension of the popularity of anti-Communism. He recognized the immensely greater attractions of anti-Communism over those of Communism.
This requires some explanation. Many people, both Communists and their opponents, believed (and many still believe) that the struggles of classes are more decisive and profound than the conflicts of nations; that consequently the international and world-revolutionary propagation of Communism came to represent the greatest and the most dangerous challenge to nations and to civilization-especially after 1917, when Communism and Communists achieved power in Russia, and when Moscow became the center and the focus of the propagation of revolutions. Yet this was not what happened. In the 1790s the ideas and the influences of the French Revolution spread across western Europe, in places even without the presence of the French revolutionary armies. After 1917 every one of the neighbor peoples of Russia in eastern Europe rejected Communism and, when invaded, defeated the Red Army attempting to impose it. Elsewhere between 1917 and 1941 (indeed until 1945 except for Outer Mongolia) the Soviet Union remained the only Communist-ruled state in the world. Meanwhile anti-Communism was a popular ingredient in the civic and political beliefs of almost every nation in Europe-indeed, in most places of the world.
Anti-Communism was not restricted to capitalists or the bourgeois. In Italy it helped Mussolini get into power. In Germany it helped Hitler. And Hitler was clever enough to appear as the principal champion of anti-Communism, not only during his ascent to power but after it. In November 1932 he said to President Hindenburg (who would appoint him to be Germany's chancellor a few weeks later): "The Bolshevization of the masses proceeds rapidly." He knew that this was not so; but he also knew that this kind of argument would impress Hindenburg and his conservatives. Eight months later, in a speech justifying Germany's abandoning the League of Nations, he said: "The Red revolt could have spread across Germany like wildfire.... For eight months now we have been waging a heroic struggle against the Communist threat to our people." (This at a time when Communists in Germany had been liquidated, their leaders in prison or fleeing into exile.) In June 1934 he declared to three German Catholic bishops: "The defense of Europe against Bolshevism is our task for the next two or three hundred years."
Not only Germans or conservatives believed this. The idea that National Socialist Germany was a bulwark against barbarian and Russian-supported Communism was held by many kinds of people. (It is believed by some people, not only Germans, even now.) For one thing, this was an important element in "Appeasement," in the political inclinations of many of the British Conservatives, of the majority of their members in Parliament who had been elected in 1935. Hitler knew very well how to draw advantages of that. Hence his establishment of an "Anti-Comintern" pact in 1936, including Italy and Japan, three or four years before his actual military alliance with them; hence his active military support of the Franco side in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-1939, more effective than Stalin's support of the anti-Franco side. (The idea that Hitler's Third Reich represented the defense of "the West," of European civilization against Asiatic or Jewish-Bolshevik Communism, of course, revived at the moment of his invasion of Russia in 1941, attempting to appeal to all kinds of people, eventually attracting more than one hundred thousand non-German volunteers to his armies: but by then that was not enough to prevent his defeat.)
In sum: anti-Communism was an important instrument of Hitler's statesmanship. The still almost universally accepted view of Hitler is that of a fanatic ideologue, with demagogic talents, but one who ultimately courted disaster because he allowed his ideology to drive him, beyond and beneath reason, at the expense of normal political and diplomatic and military savvy. This is a simplistic generalization. So far as his military command went, there were many instances when his generals-and they were among the best, if not the best, generals in the world at the time-were right and Hitler was wrong; but there were plenty of other instances, too, when he was right and his generals were wrong. And we must, albeit reluctantly, recognize that Hitler had, and demonstrated, not a few statesmanlike abilities. The purpose of such a statement is not to praise him; rather the contrary: he was a man endowed with talents that he often employed for evil purposes. But the subject of this small book is not that of Hitler's virtues and vices. It is his relationship to Russia and to Stalin. And throughout the history of that there are multiple and telling evidences that his considerations of statesmenship-more precisely: his assessment of his and Germany's situation and prospects-were more important than his ideology.
There was a duality in the German relationship to Russia before Hitler. The German Republic from 1918 to 1933 was determinedly anti-Communist (as were the German people, except for the minority of Communists among them). At the same time some of the most conservative elements of the German regime, foremost among them the German General Sta, chose to maintain confidential and potentially profitable relations with Russia, whether it was Communist or not. Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression treaty in 1926. More significant, since 1922 there existed a secret agreement between Berlin and Moscow: providing for German staff officers to go clandestinely to Russia to be involved in some of the training of the Red Army; in exchange, experimental stations and factories were set up where these officers and their Russian counterparts worked at manufacturing prototypes of armored vehicles and airplanes that the Versailles Treaty had forbidden to Germany. These were things that were significant rather than important: but we must recognize their existence-together with the political geography of Europe at that time, including a Poland, situated between Germany and Russia, regarded as a large unpleasant object by both of them.
Hitler knew of these secret arrangements as a matter of course. He also knew the constraints of his power when he became the chancellor. He could not make a sudden and radical break either with the chiefs of the German army or with the traditional (and conservative) personnel of the German foreign ministry. But within two years of his assumption of the chancellorship he thought that he was strong enough to make changes. He also thought that his public image and posture as a champion of anti-Communism called for them. In 1934 he offered and made a German nonaggression pact with Poland. He put an end to the secret arrangements of cooperation between the German and Russian general staffs, he ordered the removal of the last few German army officers from Russia. The German ambassador to Moscow, Rudolf Nadolny, opposed to this new course of German foreign policy, resigned. His successor was another conservative diplomatist from a very old and historic German family, Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg. We shall meet this impressive person in the course of our story again and again.
Excerpted from June 1941 by John Lukacs Copyright © 2006 by John Lukacs. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||A historical perspective||1|
|Pt. I||Hitler and Stalin|
|Pt. II||The twenty-second of June|
|7||Washington - and across the world||109|
|Pt. III||Unintended consequences|
|8||The immediate crisis||117|
|App||The mystery of Hitler's "letter" and the courier plane||147|
Posted September 5, 2013