The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home


Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
December 20, 2006

Stalin's appeasement of Hitler was much worse than that of Britain or France, argues Jeremy Black: June 1941: Hitler and Stalin - John Lukacs

Posted by Jeremy Black

June 1941: Hitler and Stalin
by John Lukacs
Pp. 169. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006
Hardback, £16.99

This is an important and valuable book for a number of reasons. Those of content will command attention and praise, but first it is helpful to focus not on the content but on the form. This is a short book. It is not so much that there are only 145 pages before one reaches the appendix, but that these are small pages, with a generous print face and a wide margin.

This is all-too-the good, and Lukacs deserves praise for avoiding the temptation to pad his book out. I read the book in an afternoon and evening, and the ability to do so helped focus my mind on Lukacs' arguments and made the careful structure of the work readily apparent. Lukacs thus differs starkly from the general tendency to produce lengthy works that do not succeed as scholarship, literature, or even books. Like Gilbert and Sullivan's abruptly-punishing Mikado, I leave the task of filling in the names to you, but, as scholarship, such works are all-too-frequently the reheated embers of writings by the author or others, as literature they are indigestible, and as books too long to be read by those who have a busy life.

Lukacs offers a very different fare. He provides not a parallel of lives of Hitler and Stalin, and indeed is very critical of Alan Bullock's work of this type. Richard Overy's book on the two dictators is presumably too recent for comment but follows the Bullock format. Instead, Lukacs seeks carefully to probe the dynamic in their relationship and to do so in order to throw light on a pivotal moment in world history. He is brilliantly successful in so doing, and his account, pared to the bone, and thus shorn of the extraneous material that pads all-too-many books, is both a most useful work for those interested in World War Two and also an important historiographical and intellectual perspective.

For Lukacs puts the focus resolutely on individuals, on their motives and purposes, between which he carefully distinguishes, and on the intended and unintended consequences of their actions. This is not only an implicit theme throughout the book, but also one that is made explicit:

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.
This is an important perspective that is all-too-frequently neglected in the tendency to ascribe developments to great forces, not only in terms of social-economic determinism, the traditional approach on the left, but also with reference to the zeitgeist, which indeed offers a comparable form of determinism, and is much favoured in more recent modish writing.

Returning the attention to individuals means the hard work of focusing on their motives and purposes and, as Lukacs ably displays, this requires the careful weighing of evidence, a skill in which long experience as a scholar used to issues of archival veracity plays a major role, and to which many popular authors are totally unsuited. Thus there is an important appendix on the mystery of Hitler's "Letter" and the Courier Plane, which offers a valuable corrective/supplement to David Murphy's What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa (New Haven, 2005).

In place of the commonplace stress on mutual hostility, and, crucially, Hitler's anti-Communism, Lukacs argues that opposition to Britain was a key to the policies of both Hitler and Stalin. It is scarcely original to note that Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was in part designed to put pressure on Britain - Ian Kershaw has recently made this point and suggested that, in part because of anxiety about the USA, Hitler was concerned about his narrowing options - but Lukacs skilfully links this goal to the developing crisis in German-Soviet relations.

Indeed, as he points out, the British were worried that the Germans would succeed in their attack on the Soviet Union. There were fears that the Germans would advance through the Caucasus, putting pressure on the British position in the Middle East. This sharpened up earlier British anxiety about the prospect of a German advance via Turkey and/or Cyprus.

The prospect of either encouraged British planning for a forward defence of the Middle East, in Syria and Iraq, and for the occupation of Iran to add strategic depth to the British positions in India and the Persian Gulf. This occupation was in the event carried out in concert with the Soviet Union, and, in some respects, looked back to the 1907 agreement over spheres of influence in Iran between the two powers. Concern about German options also helps explain the British shipment of matérial to the Soviet Union once the Germans had attacked. In forthcoming work, Alexander Hill, indeed, is to demonstrate that Soviet-converted British heavy tanks made a major contribution to the Battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941.

If Hitler struck at the Soviet Union to get at Britain, repeating Napoleon's attempt to do so in 1812, in order to strengthen the Continental System (his attempt to shut Britain out of the Continent's trade), Lukacs is at great pains to argue that Stalin's response to Hitler powerfully reflected his own animosity to Britain. In each case, there was hostility to Britain's political position, but also a rejection of its liberalism.

This was a product not only of an opposition to liberal capitalism as a domestic agenda for liberty and freedom, but also hostility to it as an international agenda focused on opposition to dictatorial expansionism and, instead, support for the independence of small states. This was seen when Britain entered both world wars in support of such states, Belgium in 1914 and Poland in 1939. To Lukacs, indeed, Hitler and Stalin represented German and Russian (although he presents Stalin as a Caucasian chieftain) reactions against the "Age of Reason" and

against the world of a bourgeois civilization that reached its peaks around the time when they were born.
The left-wing tendency to condemn bourgeois civilization as a progenitor of Hitler and to exonerate Stalin is thus cogently dismissed.

Much of the anti-capitalist and anti-liberal animosity and hatred that Hitler and Stalin expressed and sustained is today translated to criticism of the USA, which makes the latter's craven response to tyranny in the late 1930s and 1940 ironic as well as deplorable. The USA did little in response to Fascist expansionism in the 1930s, or when a host of neutral powers were overrun in 1940 by Hitler and Stalin. Indeed, throughout World War Two, Canada made a bigger per capita financial contribution to the cause of freedom than the USA, a key aspect of the way in which Canada was a crucial military power from 1916 to the mid-1960s, especially in 1917-18 and 1940-1.

Throughout the century, as another instance of the ambivalence of attitude, some Americans also provided the key support to Irish terrorism that was similarly anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic and also, in World Wars One and Two, benefited from German backing.

As Lukacs ably notes, Hitler and Stalin shared not only antipathy to Britain, but also many values. There was much mutual respect, including during the war. Earlier, Stalin admired Hitler's brutal suppression of opposition in 1934. As Rodric Braithwaite has recently pointed out, however, in Moscow 1941: A City and its People at War (London, 2006), the Soviets prefigured the Germans in using specially-converted gassing-lorries.

Stalin, as Lukacs emphasises, was also more than willing to subordinate the cause of international Communism, about which he was dubious, to that of state-expansion in concert with Germany. In August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was celebrated in Moscow with Stalin toasting "the health of this great man", Hitler. This is not an episode much discussed on the left. As Lukacs points out, it is unhelpful to criticise Britain and France for failing to win Stalin's alliance, a constant theme on the left, because, Stalin then, like indeed Japan and the USA,

had no desire to ally himself with the Western democracies [Britain and France] and consequently bear the brunt of an enormous war against Germany.
Both dictators were also anti-Semitic and wished to see Poland removed from the face of the Earth. There were differences at least there with Napoleon, who recreated Poland as an anti-Russian and anti-Prussian client state, and was also reasonable in his attitude to Jews.

Lukacs's account of the dinner in Moscow is typical of his successful anchoring of major themes in a fine grasp of the particular. He is also acute on the interaction of personalities, and offers fine short sketches of second-rank players. At times, the dismissals are brutal - Trotsky, for example, as a fool; but they are pertinent. Ideas are also ably introduced and clearly presented, as with the account of how Stalin became a nationalist statesman focused on the state:

by 1939 the word state had become sacrosanct in official [Soviet] terminology… more revered even than the interests of the party.
The long-term is then focused on the last stages of the move to war, then on 22 June, and finally on the response around the world, including in London, Washington and Moscow, where Molotov saw the German declaration as "without any reason".

Stalin's monumental failure of judgment is highlighted. He had failed to understand Hitler's intentions, had dismissed intelligence information as British plants, and had ignored advice from his military; in a way that would be impossible in the 2000s when military and intelligence advice is always carefully assessed and handled without preconceptions. In 1940, Neville Chamberlain had fallen when British failure in the early stages of the war had compounded doubts about his pre-war policy of appeasement; and Chamberlain in the spring of 1939 had moved to an anti-German policy.

Stalin, in contrast, made no such move. The nearest equivalent to the British guarantees to Poland and Romania would have been Soviet guarantees in 1941 to Yugoslavia and Greece, followed by a declaration of war when they were invaded, but Soviet policy was very different. Stalin's appeasement was far more craven than that of Britain and France.

Stalin also, characteristically, refused to speak to the people when the Germans invaded, and, instead, relying on coercion, had Moscow flooded with agents. Lukacs takes the story forward to consider Stalin's nervous collapse of will on 28-30 June when the Germans reached Minsk. He also notes possible consideration of a settlement with Germany similar to that reached by Lenin in 1918, which might have been used to vindicate such an agreement.

Stalin's was not the only will to collapse. Braithwaite discusses the panic that occurred in Moscow in mid-October, a panic that owed much to official actions, including the movement of industrial plant. Managers and other officials fleeing were attacked by the workers they were abandoning in scenes described by the head of the NKVD as "anarchy". The underworld profited from the chaos. Stalin, however, decided not to flee, and the NKVD was used to restore order, just as it accompanied the winter Soviet counter-offensive, meting out punishment and terror.

In the conclusion, Lukacs again considers the nature of history. Somewhat surprisingly, in light of post-modernist fallacies, he suggests that the still current misconception of history is that the historian can produce a definitive account. More convincingly, he asserts that the duty of the historian is that of struggle against the prevalence of untruths because, as he points out,

sentiments and twisted statements of "facts"
are all too common. For Lukacs, these include the misleading tendency to emphasise the struggle between capitalism and Communism as the organising principle of twentieth-century history, with anti-Communism, he suggests, becoming a substitute for American patriotism. Indeed, Lukacs criticises William F. Buckley for arguing in October 1989 that
things … could hardly have been worse
had Hitler conquered Moscow. Lukacs also dismisses the notion that the German invasion was a case of preventive war, pre-empting Soviet attack, a view all-too-common among German apologists. He also criticises the related argument that Hitler's war with Stalin was necessary and that Churchill and Roosevelt were foolish not to realise this. Instead, his careful discussion of Hitler and National Socialism in terms other than as a reaction to the evils of Communism helps highlight the danger that they posed to the West, and makes the failure of British, French and American appeasement very apparent.

A gripping read, an important book, a key moment in twentieth-century history. Lukacs deserves much congratulation for his breadth of analysis, his judicious reflections, and his clear prose.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter and is the author of World War Two: A Military History (London, 2004). He is also the author, amongst much else, of Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006), The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming 2007).


Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Comments
Post a comment








Anti-spambot Turing code







Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement