Saturday, September 24, 2011

June 1941: Hitler & Stalin by John Lukacs

Published in 2006 and weighing in at only 164 pages, this is another John Lukacs gem. While in a recent post I pondered the incredible evil of these two totalitarian dictators and how difficult it would be to weigh the relative evils of themselves and their systems, this book provides a different perspective. Lukacs notes that both men were "statesmen," not in a laudatory sense, but in the sense that each of them ran great states that had goals of securing and aggrandizing their positions. They each had goals, and they cooperated in dividing Poland between them in 1939. Then, in June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union. Stalin, who had received numerous warnings from varied sources, refused to believe the warnings. He nearly suffered a nervous breakdown when the invasion began and German forces cut through the Soviet defenses like a hot knife through warm butter.

Lukacs recounts the events with his usual skill, and he draws upon recently released Soviet archives. The relationship between the two leaders and their regimes is a complex one. Of course, Hitler's National Socialism was vehemently anti-Communist (and garnered some support from abroad for this), and Stalin's regime was anti-fascist (a term they used loosely). But in 1939, rather hastily, the two regimes entered into a "friendship" pact that promoted trade, mostly raw materials flowing into Germany to help meet its economic needs. Another pact, secret, was also agreed to at that time that divided Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe between the two regimes. The Second World War broke out a few days after the pact was signed. The pact shocked partisans of each regime as well as embassies around the globe. Stalin was delighted. He believed that the Red Army, which he'd recently decimated with purges, wouldn't be ready to fight the Germans until 1943, so peace, for now, was welcome, in addition to gaining the cash from trade and some territory. Hitler, on his part, slapped his thigh in delight upon learning that the pact had been approved. Hitler had his eye on the territories of the Soviet Union, but his immediate aim was Poland, and this gave him a virtual cart blanche. (Great Britain and France protested and went to war against the Nazi regime's conquest of Poland, but to no effect on the invasion and division of Poland or the Nazi-Soviet relationship.)

As the war proceeded, very much in favor of Hitler's regime, events came to the point, after the relatively easy conquest of France, that only Churchill-led Britain stood against Nazi domination of Europe. Hitler knew that the Soviet Union was a British hope, along with America, for finding an ally to counter the Germans. This, along with Hitler's obsession with lebensraum (living room) allowed Hitler to turn his attention to attacking the Soviet Union after it became clear that he could not successfully conquer Britain by an invasion. In  mid-1940 Hitler informed his generals of his intention to invade the Soviet Union, and plans were shaped near the end of that year. Originally planned for May 1941, the invasion began on 22 June of that year. 

But one can't plan and stage a major invasion without others noticing, and many did. Warnings were sent to Stalin by his own spies and by foreign nations, including G.B. and the U.S. But Stalin refused to heed these warnings, always finding an excuse to discount them. Even as German reconnaissance flights into Soviet territory increased in frequency and intrusiveness, Stalin told his commanders to do nothing to provoke the Germans.

Lukacs does not directly answer the question of why Stalin refused all of the warnings. Perhaps no one can. It seems a matter of wishful thinking more than rational calculation. Stalin didn't believe that Hitler would begin a two-front war, which has some reason behind it, but it pales in comparison to all of the growing evidence to the contrary that was provided to him.  But the failure to find a definitive explanation is one that is likely to elude historians forever. Who can truly fathom the workings of another's mind, especially one as dark and secretive as that of Stalin?

This is a compelling account of the two leaders who cooperated and then crossed one another as told by a master historian. Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union led to his eventual downfall. What if he had succeeded? He came close to winning the Second World War. On the other hand, Stalin succeeded eventually (with the aid of G.B. and the U.S.) and ended up controlling virtually all of Eastern Europe for nearly 36 years. Great forces may set the stage for history, but individual human decisions still create the action.

NB: This review was originally posted on 24 September 2011 after I first (?) read the book. I have edited and expanded it a bit after reading it again in April 2017. While discussing local history, C asked why Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. This sent me back to this book and Ian Kershaw's excellent Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940-1941 and its chapter on the formulation of Hitler's plan to invade the Soviet Union and another about Stalin's response to reports of an upcoming attack. 

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