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In the whole of history there has never been a war like it. In its scale of destruction the war on the Eastern Front was unique; from Leningrad to the Crimea, from Kiev to Stalingrad, the Soviet Union was devastated — at least 25 million Soviet citizens died. And in the end what did the German aggressors have to show for it? A broken, divided country which had lost much of its territory; and a people burdened with the knowledge that they had launched a racist war of annihilation and, in the process, spawned the cancer of the Holocaust.
But at the time there were many people — and not just Germans — who thought that the decision to invade the Soviet Union was a rational act in pursuit of German self-interest and, moreover, that this was a war the Germans would win.
In the summer of 1940 Adolf Hitler, despite his swift and dramatic victory over France, faced a major military and political problem. The British would not do what seemed logical and what the Führer expected — they would not make peace. Yet Hitler was frustrated by geography — in the shape of the English Channel — from following his immediate instincts and swiftly crushing the British just as he had the French. Hitler did order preparations to be made for an invasion of England, but he was always half-hearted in his desire to mount a large seaborne landing. Germany, unlike Britain, was not a sea power and the Channel was a formidable obstacle. Even if air superiority could be gained, there remained the powerful British Navy. Andthere was another, ideological, reason why Hitler was not fully committed to invading Britain. For him, it would have been a distraction. Britain contained neither the space, nor the raw materials, that he believed the new German Empire needed. And he admired the British — Hitler often remarked how much he envied their achievement in subjugating India. Worse, if the Germans let themselves be drawn into a risky amphibious operation against a country Hitler had never wanted as an enemy; every day the potential threat from his greatest ideological opponent would be growing stronger. (It was just ironic that he was not yet at war with this perceived enemy, since in August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a Non-Aggression Pact.)
All this meant that, from Hitler's point of view, there was an alternative to invading Britain: he could invade the Soviet Union. Both Hitler and his military planners knew that Germany's best chance of victory was for the war in Europe to be finished swiftly. Hubert Menzel was a major in the General Operations Department of the OKH (the Oberkommando des Heers, the German Army headquarters), and for him the idea of invading the Soviet Union in 1941 had the smack of cold, clear logic to it: `We knew that in two years' time, that is by the end of 1942, beginning of 1943, the English would be ready, the Americans would be ready, the Russians would be ready too, and then we would have to deal with all three of them at the same time.... We had to try to remove the greatest threat from the East.... At the time it seemed possible.'
Germany's need for new `living space' (Lebensraum) had been a recurring theme in Hitler's early political testimony. And he had always been clear about where Germany should find its new empire. Famously, he had written in Mein Kampf in 1924: `We are taking up where we left off six hundred years ago. We are putting an end to the perpetual German march towards the south and west of Europe and turning our eyes towards the east.... However, when we speak of new land in Europe today, we must principally bear in mind Russia and the border states subject to her. Destiny itself seems to wish to point the way for us here.'
And then there was the political motive. Hitler, in one of the typically stark (and false) choices he posed the German people, had maintained that if Nazism did not prevail, the evil of Bolshevism would engulf Germany. And ever since the days of the left-wing takeover of Munich in 1919 — the Räterepublik (the councils' republic) — the fanatical German fight wing had believed that Bolshevism and Judaism went hand in hand. Nazi propaganda trumpeted that not only had many of the leading figures in the Räterepublik been Jewish, but so had many of those behind the Russian Revolution. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933 the words `Jewish' and `Communist' were almost synonymous to his followers.
Hitler was deeply prejudiced about the Soviet Union — this one country became the particular focus for his anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-Slav beliefs. He would describe Moscow as the headquarters of the `Judaeo-Bolshevist world conspiracy'. He believed profoundly that the Soviet Union was the greatest threat to Germany. In a private memorandum written in 1936 he stated: `Germany will, as always, have to be regarded as the focus of the Western world against the attacks of Bolshevism.' In public, in a speech at the Nuremberg rally in 1937, he referred to the leaders of the Soviet Union as `an uncivilized Jewish-Bolshevik international guild of criminals' and called the Soviet Union `the greatest danger for the culture and civilization of mankind which has ever threatened it since the collapse of the states of the ancient world'.
Associated with this overwhelming ideological hatred of the Soviet Union was a more concrete fear: Hitler was concerned about the higher birth-rate of the Slavs. He remarked that they were `an inferior race that breed like vermin'. Hitler foresaw grave danger if eventually the Soviet Union became a `modern' nation with a vastly larger population than Germany's. To eliminate the need for future conflict — on less advantageous terms — Germany had to act swiftly.
None of that, however, meant that Hitler was driven to war with the Soviet Union by a kind of myopic fanaticism. He had already shown that he was perfectly prepared to put aside his deeply held beliefs when it was politically expedient. That was the reason Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, had flown to Moscow in August 1939 to conclude the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union. Out of simple political necessity Germany needed to secure its Eastern border in the light of Hitler's desire to invade Poland in the very near future. `What has happened to the principles of Mein Kampf?' a British newsreel of the time balefully commented. Pragmatism had happened: that was the answer.
On 31 July 1940 it was once again pragmatic — not ideological — considerations that were voiced by Hitler at the Berghof, his mountain retreat in southern Bavaria, when he met with his military commanders. Yes, he believed that an invasion of Britain should be considered — air attacks would begin as soon as possible — but the whole enterprise remained fraught with risk. Now, logically; he was driven to another possible way of finishing the war. Hitler asserted that, since Britain's hopes were kept alive by the thought that the Soviet Union was still out of the war and might one day come to its aid, the destruction of the Soviet Union would shatter Britain's last reason to continue the war.
It's hard to accept now, given today's relative balance of armed forces between Britain and Russia, but at the time the Germans gave every impression of being more frightened of the British — with their mighty fleet and empire — than the Soviet Union. So when, at that meeting on 31 July, Hitler voiced his intention to crush the Soviet Union, there was no evidence that his military commanders were appalled by the news. Just like Hitler, they seem to have thought at the time that a land war against the Soviet Union was preferable to a seaborne invasion of Britain.
The context of that meeting is important. As Hitler gathered with his military leaders, they were flushed with a remarkable victory over France. In numbers there had not been much to choose between the two sides, and yet under Hitler the German Army had crushed the French in six weeks. This would have been a major achievement on its own, but set against the background of the disastrous way in which the German advance had bogged down far short of Paris in the trenches of World War I, the spring 1940 victory must have seemed phenomenal. Any war against the Red Army would be conducted using the same apparently unstoppable Blitzkrieg tactics of swift motorized attack that had just proved so successful in France; as Hitler put it, this was a new type of war which would be `unbelievably bloody and grim', but it would always be `kindest because it will be the shortest'.
As the Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov later put it: `The German forces invaded the Soviet Union intoxicated by their easy victories over the armies of Western Europe ... and firmly convinced both of the possibility of an easy victory over the Red Army and of their own superiority over all other nations.'
Hindsight allows us to condemn the military judgement of these men who so fatally underestimated the warlike capacity and will to fight of the Soviet Union. The war on the Eastern Front has come to seem uniquely insane; the act of a single power-crazed individual who held his generals in thrall. What act could be more guaranteed to fuel the unquenchable fire of the dictator's ambition and more certain to destroy his nation in the end? That is certainly the easy explanation that Franz Halder, one of the military commanders closest to Hitler, gave after the war. Halder, who was Chief of the Army General Staff between 1938 and 1942, spoke during his de-Nazification (and in an interview in the 1960s) of a meeting he had had with the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, Walter von Brauchitsch, at the end of July 1940. Halder described how Brauchitsch asked him, `Have you ever thought about [attacking] the East?' Halder said he replied, `That fool [Hitler]. I honestly believe he will even get Russia on to us. I won't even think of preparing anything for it.' What could be more understandable than this response? By telling this story, Halder positions himself as just another of the mad Führer's victims.
But there's a problem with Halder's convenient version of history — it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. On 3 July, weeks before the meeting with Brauchitsch, Halder revealed in his private war diary that he had already floated with his planners the idea of a campaign against the Soviet Union, a `military intervention' which would `compel Russia to recognize Germany's dominant position in Europe'. Halder had decided on this action himself, without any direct order from Hitler. Like all of those who wished to survive and prosper in the high reaches of the Nazi state, Halder had learnt that it wasn't sufficient simply to follow orders — they had to be anticipated.
Nor are Halder's actions in the early days of the German campaign in the East those of a sceptic. On 3 July 1941, just 12 days into the war, Halder wrote in his diary: `It is thus probably no overstatement to say that the Russian campaign has been won in the space of two weeks.' That same day he wrote to one of his colleagues, Luise von Benda (who later married General Alfred von Jodl, see page 28), also voicing the view that the Soviet Union had all but lost the war; he added that Hitler had come round to his quarters to chat and congratulate him on his birthday, and had stayed for an hour at teatime. `I will keep this day as precious in my memory,' writes the clearly euphoric Halder.
The temptation to alter the past must have been overwhelming for Halder — after all, no general wishes to go down in history as playing a significant part in the greatest defeat his country has ever suffered. It is this all too human desire to rewrite history that has fuelled over the years the popular myth that the only proponent of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was one power-crazed lunatic. It was simply not so.
Part of the reason for the Germans' over-confidence was contemptible then and is still so now. The Nazis believed that the inhabitants of the Soviet Union were racially inferior — from its planning stage this was to be no ordinary war, but a racial war of annihilation against a `sub-human' people. They also thought that the whole Jewish/Bolshevik system they saw in place in the Soviet Union was rotten and would crumble in the face of the expected early military losses of the Red Army. But there were other, more rational, reasons why they (and many of the Allies) thought that the Soviet Union was scarcely capable of putting up a fight.
Along with the rest of the world, Hitler and his military commanders had watched the effect of Communist rule on the Soviet Union's military capacity. And the Germans were encouraged by what they saw, for they believed that the Soviet leader Josef Stalin had, during the 1930s, substantially weakened the Red Army. Stalin's character, which would help shape and define the course of the forthcoming war in the East, was, in the eyes of the Nazis, devastatingly flawed.
Unlike Hitler, who had essentially created the Nazi Party, Stalin had not been the vital driving force behind Soviet Communism — that role had fallen to Lenin. Hitler's charismatic authority was irreplaceable in the Nazi Party — he never had a serious rival. Stalin was a black hole of charisma, a fixer, a praktik, a `man who got things done', the silent figure at the back of the room who waited, listened and was underestimated until the moment came. Amongst the leading Communists he had seemed least likely to succeed Lenin in 1924; Zinoviev and Trotsky were more gifted speakers, Bukharin more engaging. Even after he became leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin remained a man of the shadows. He made but a small fraction of the number of personal appearances that Hitler did during the 1930s. Paradoxically, this worked in Stalin's favour — the image was created that he was always working for the Soviet Union, hidden but watchful. Yet at the annual parade in Red Square Stalin looked out not just on his own portrait but on Lenin's as well. Stalin was constantly reminded that he was the follower — and followers can be replaced. As Bukharin once said: Stalin `is unhappy because he cannot convince everyone, even himself, that he is greater than everyone, and this is his unhappiness.... '
Stepan Mikoyan grew up in the Kremlin compound in the 1930s. His father Anastas was a leading member of the Politburo and he himself met Stalin on many occasions. `Stalin was by nature very attentive,' says Mikoyan, `and he watched people's eyes when he was speaking — and if you didn't look him straight in the eye, he might well suspect that you were deceiving him. And then he'd be capable of taking the most unpleasant steps.... He was very suspicious. That was his main character trait.... He was a very unprincipled man.... He could betray and deceive if he thought it was necessary. And that's why he expected the same behaviour from others ... anyone could turn out to be a traitor.'
The later Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev put it this way: `All of us around Stalin were temporary people. As long as he trusted us to a certain degree, we were allowed to go on living and working. But the moment he stopped trusting you, the cup of his distrust overflowed.' Trotsky, who always felt himself Stalin's superior, gave this judgement on the new Soviet leader: `Being enormously envious and ambitious, he could not but feel his intellectual and moral inferiority every step of the way.... Only much later did I realize that he had been trying to establish some sort of familiar relations. But I was repelled by the very qualities that would strengthen him ... the narrowness of his interests, his pragmatism, his psychological coarseness and the special cynicism of the provincial who has been liberated from his prejudices by Marxism but who has not replaced them with a philosophical outlook that has been thoroughly thought out and mentally absorbed.'
This, of course, was an underestimation of Stalin. He might not have possessed Trotsky's charisma, but Stalin was the more politically astute; his combination of natural intelligence, pragmatism, suspicious nature and ruthlessness enabled him to develop an extremely effective way of retaining power: terror. The Nazis took careful note of how, during the 1930s, Stalin eliminated anyone whom he, or his secret police, the NKVD, thought presented the remotest threat.
As a consequence, Stalin specialized in using fear as a factor of motivation. One historian describes it as `negative inspiration' — the idea that his followers had constantly to prove themselves to him. It was foolhardy in the extreme to criticize the system in front of him. One young Air Force general boldly stated, at a meeting at which Stalin was present, that the number of accidents in military planes was so high because `we are forced to fly in coffins'. Stalin replied: `You should not have said that, General,' and had him killed the following day.
|Ch. 1||High Hopes||13|
|Ch. 2||A Different Kind of War||77|
|Ch. 3||Learning How to Win||123|
|Notes on Eye-witnesses||242|