June 1941: Hitler and Stalin.
June 1941: Hitler and Stalin is the latest work by the prolific historian, John Lukacs. One writer has argued that great historians are not, in Lukacs's opinion, "those who uncovered new information but who viewed familiar events from different and revelatory angles." (Lee Congdon, "The Reactionary Loyalties of John Lukacs," Modern Age, Summer 2003, p. 235.) This well-written work is consistent with that ascribed opinion, and Lukacs's invitation to re-examine the events leading to the outbreak of the Soviet-German war should be accepted. This re-examination of the oft-told run-up to the German-Soviet war nonetheless requires a reader to engage the author's arguments more than is usual.
This study focuses on the two principals--that is, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin--for they were decisive in determining that 22 June 1941 would be the turning point of the Second World War. And if this work is lopsided in its treatment of the two leaders, with Hitler absorbing more attention, it is because he is, in the author's opinion, the more compelling: "a great exception, rising from near-nothing, the sole maker of the Second World War, a planetary genius who had no precedent in German history" (p. 44). Indeed, the profile of the German Fuehrer borrows heavily from Lukacs's earlier and (at the time) very controversial book, The Hitler of History (1997). The image of a largely irrational leader is rejected, and in its place Lukacs offers a multi-dimensional historical personality. Described as the chief revolutionary of the twentieth century, Hitler is presented as a successful statesman of European power polities, with many gifts that were used for what Lukacs emphasizes were extraordinarily evil ends.
The thesis of this work is that the outbreak of the German-Soviet conflict was the consequence of the two leaders' own evolving attitudes. After the fall of France and the refusal of Great Britain to surrender, Hitler came to see the attack on the Soviet Union as a logical, if extremely risky, response to a strategic threat. In summer 1940, when planning for what would become Operation Barbarossa began, Hitler's preoccupation was clearly Britain, and he believed that Churchill saw Stalin's Russia as a last hope. It is an assessment that we are told many contemporaries shared and that Lukacs endorses. Over time, that view changed. Stalin's actions in the months that followed, most notably his annexation of the Baltic states and the attempt to carve out a sphere of influence in the Balkans were viewed with both anger and alarm at the Reichskanzlei. By the time of Soviet foreign minister Molotov's visit to Berlin in November 1940, the USSR had become for Hitler a strategic adversary in its own right.
Hitler wanted war in June 1941, and Stalin did not. For Lukacs, however, the key argument is that Barbarossa was not the inevitable consequence of a longheld worldview. In this, there is an echo of the work of others, such as the much longer Stalin-centric study by Gabriel Gorodetsky, Grand Delusion." Stalin and the Invasion of Russia (1999). For Lukacs, as for Gorodetsky, Hitler's motives were complex. That he possessed an ideology is never questioned by Lukacs, for it was revealed in the brutal campaign that followed the German invasion: that the ideology dominated his thinking in the lead-up to Barbarossa is denied. Hitler's virulent "anti-Communism" is presented as a political tactic that made him respectable in a way that his anti-Semitism could not. It aided the consolidation of power at home and, until summer 1939, relations with the Western democracies. (It also constrained US policy toward the Axis.) In Hitler's strategic outlook, considerations of power predominated, Interestingly, Stalin-described as being more a Caucasian chieftain than a dogmatic Marxist--fully reciprocated this approach. There are, nonetheless, differences between the two leaders. Whereas Stalin lurched from one failure to the next in his relations with Hitler, the German leader displayed considerable dexterity. Ultimately, Lukacs argues that Stalin failed because his thinking was subordinated to an irrational faith in Hitler, an exaggerated distrust of Great Britain, and an adamantine refusal to see the growing threat Germany posed. In other words, Hitler outplayed Stalin--at least in the run-up to this titanic conflict.
In his concluding chapter, Lukacs looks at the consequences of the invasion of the USSR, from the unintended to the unexpected. The former includes Japan's decision not to go to war with the Soviet Union: Stalin could concentrate his resources on one front. Among the latter is the Holocaust: Jews across Europe welcomed the outbreak of the Russo-German war, but did not realize that it would let loose the most homicidal impulses of National Socialism. Equally unexpected on 22 June was the speed with which Germany's chances for a rapid victory would vanish. He had not yet lost the war he had initiated, Lukacs notes, but victory was now dependent on the collapse of the opposing coalition that Hitler believed could hOt endure. Surely the greatest unexpected consequence was the rise to superpower status of the Soviet Union from its relatively weak condition in 1939 and its battered state in summer 1941. Lukacs is right to draw our attention to 22 June 1941: on that day, history pivoted.
Department of National Defence, Ottawa
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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