HISTORY: by Geoffrey PartingtonNews Weekly
Stalin and Hitler: the dictators at war
, September 28, 2013
During the late 1930s, there were few matters on which enlightened opinion on the Left and Right in Britain, France, the United States, Australia and many other countries agreed; but one was that Marxism/Communism and Fascism/National Socialism were fundamentally opposed to each other and in permanent conflict.
Even those on the Left who were not advocates of a “popular front against Fascism” thought of the polarisation of Berlin and Moscow as one of the few international and ideological certainties. Conservatives from appeasers to Churchill also took that antagonism to be a permanent feature of the diplomatic landscape.
Joseph Stalin was convinced at the time that the Nazi–Soviet Pact of September 1939 was one of the cleverest moves of his career. When Churchill warned him in 1940 of the danger to the Soviet Union of German hegemony in Europe, Stalin replied that Germany’s military successes did not threaten the Soviet Union. Stalin received poor advice from his top military advisers: Most were party comrades and some had helped to purge the top Red Army talents between 1936 and 1938.
Stalin was convinced that he was utterly outmanoeuvring Adolf Hitler. The Germans had made massive gains, but had lost many lives to get them.
Stalin occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania without cost, even though Hitler, whilst agreeing that the Baltic States should be in the Soviet sphere of influence, had demanded they should not be incorporated into the Soviet Union. Stalin had also bullied Romania into surrendering Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union.
Hitler was furious at those Soviet moves, but his inability at that time to respond helped to blind Stalin from recognising that, once Hitler had no more battles in Western Europe, the USSR might be dangerously vulnerable to German attack. Stalin was convinced that his clever diplomacy would ensure continued safety.
In a role reversal, Stalin made no response when Germany invaded first Yugoslavia and then Bulgaria, despite non-aggression pacts endorsed by the Soviet Union. He made no protest when German supplies promised to the USSR fell below the amounts promised, whereas Soviet exports to Germany increased in the spring of 1941. Even in April 1941, at a reception for Japanese and German diplomats, Stalin went out of his way to assure the Germans, “We will stay friends with you whatever happens.”
It was only in May that Stalin began to warn key cadres of imminent danger of war with Germany.
Even as reports flowed in from President F.D. Roosevelt’s Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, British Prime Minister Churchill, and the Permanent Under-Secretary at the British Foreign Office Sir Alexander Cadogan (via Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London) of German preparations for invasion, Stalin ordered the Soviet news agency Tass to denounce “a clumsy propaganda manoeuvre of the forces arrayed against the Soviet Union and Germany which are interested in a spread and an intensification of the war”.
When General Zhukov and Defence Minister Timoshenko pleaded with Stalin to put their troops on alert, he replied that Soviet mobilisation would mean war which he intended to avoid. Molotov, on Stalin’s behalf, assured the generals, “Only a fool would attack us.”
Soon the generals read out to Stalin a warning message that they proposed to send to alert all troops on the frontier. Stalin’s answer was: “It’s much too soon to give a directive. Perhaps the questions may be settled peacefully. The troops must not be incited by any provocation.”
At 4:30 a.m. on June 22, 1941, as reports flooded in of German air attacks and tank movements, Stalin still argued that it must be a misunderstanding. When he finally accepted the truth, he reportedly “sank back in his chair and fell into deep thought”. By the time the German advance was halted, the Wehrmacht had reached the gates of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad. The conceited opinion of a leader had rarely been refuted so decisively and so swiftly.
However, both Stalin and his communist regime eventually survived, partly because Hitler’s arrogance led Germany to commit equally momentous errors.
Immediately after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler occupied a position of immense superiority. He then undermined that dominance and ruined his Third Reich by two unforced decisions. The first was to try to create a Europe that was Judenasrein (i.e., “cleansed of Jews”). The second was his declaration of war on the United States in December 1941, in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Hitler underestimated America as “a society corrupted by Jews and niggers”.
His anti-semitism had already deprived Germany of the services of many scientists, engineers and other creative minds. The Holocaust denied Germany the potential war effort of millions more Jews; even their physical destruction took up time, effort, and manpower. Hitler’s assaults on European Jews generated support for Roosevelt’s peacetime aid to Britain and its allies and then for a massive war effort.
Thus began Hitler’s descent from a triumphal parade through Paris in 1940 to ignominious death in a bunker in Berlin in 1945.
Geoffrey Partington, PhD, was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education. The above article is an extract from his new book, Making Sense of History, which is available from News Weekly Books.