Hitler and Stalin: the Realities Remembered
My mother, who was from Aberdeen, used to say to me when she thought I was being too clever by half: ‘You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself.’ In all the controversy surrounding the 65th anniversary of the end of the European part of the Second World War it is well to remember that this phrase applies with particular force to the person who many Russians think was the architect of that victory, Joseph Stalin.
Saluting the bravery of the Soviet armed forces should not obscure the fact that none of the catastrophic sacrifices of blood and treasure would have been necessary if the war had not started in the first place. Stalin’s role in bringing conflict to Europe has been much less closely examined than his conduct once it started. But war was not inevitable. It happened partly due to Stalin’s attempts to be clever.
Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January 1933 after a general election, held in November 1932, at which the Nazi Party secured 33% of the vote. The second largest party was the Social Democrats, who got 20%, and third were the Communists with 17%. Together, the Social Democrats and the Communists could have outvoted the Nazis. The fact that they did not combine but fought each other and thereby let Hitler into power, was directly due to Stalin.
In 1928 Stalin laid down the policy for Comintern, the body tasked with fomenting world revolution. As far as Germany was concerned the basis was hatred of Social Democrats. They were socialists, but they believed in democracy. Stalin believed only in force, violence and the power of fear. The German Communist Party under Ernst Thälmann, whose statue stands today outside the coffee shop by Aeroport Metro station, attacked the Social Democrats continually and mercilessly. Often Communist thugs joined Nazi thugs in beating up the democrats.
One of the best-informed historians of Soviet foreign policy, who later worked in Moscow but who was in Berlin in 1933, was the American diplomat, George Kennan. He has written: ‘Throughout this period, as the shadow of Nazi brutality and intimidation fell deeper and deeper over German political life, the attitude of the Communists toward moderate opponents of Hitler remained undeviatingly hostile and destructive. It was clear that this aided the Nazis; but to this situation, Stalin remained, to all appearances, frigidly indifferent.’
Not only did Stalin’s approach deprive Germany of a credible alternative when the Nazis were close to power, he had also helped bring about the change in German public opinion which brought Hitler out of the political wilderness five years earlier.
In the German general election of 1928, the Nazi party received just 3% of the vote, while the Communists received 11% and the Social Democrats 30%. In 1930, the Social Democrats were down to 25% and the Nazis up to 19%, having overtaken the Communists. Two years later, the Nazis had overtaken the Social Democrats as well.
The Great Depression was the major reason for this revolution in public attitudes, but it was not of itself decisive. What tipped the balance was the shift in middle-class opinion which began to think that, without Hitler, Germany might end up being governed as the USSR was. And that was starting to seem to many law-abiding bourgeois voters a living nightmare.
In 1928 Stalin had assumed complete control of Soviet economic policy with the introduction of the first Five Year Plan. Associated with this was the principle of the show trial. When the Plan did not work as expected, Stalin arrested and tried engineers and scientists who were accused of ‘wrecking’— deliberate disruption of the Plan. The accused were forced to make humiliating public confessions about crimes which they had not committed in courts which seemed to mock the idea of the rule of law.
The first of these bizarre events took place in 1928 and was known as the Shakhty trial, after the town in the Donbass where the accused had been working. The affair was widely publicised internationally, not least in Germany as German engineers working for a famous German firm, AEG, were amongst the accused. Even the pro-Stalin journalist, Walter Duranty, said in the New York Times that the trial was ultimately unconvincing.
The UPI correspondent in Moscow, Eugene Lyon, himself a former Communist, went further and wrote in his book, Assignment in Utopia, ‘This was no spick-and-span trial on the democratic model, with its hypocritical blindfolded Justices dangling a silly pair of scales. This was Revolutionary Justice, its flaming eyes wide open, its flaming sword poised to strike. Its voice was not the whining of “fairness” but the thunder of vengeance.’
Show trials were not the only evidence of communist inhumanity. These were also the years of mass starvation in rural Russia, especially the Ukraine, of the liquidation of the kulaks, of shootings, torture and imprisonment on a huge scale, of the almost complete militarisation of Soviet society, and the introduction of slave labour on projects like the Baltic-White Sea Canal, whose construction between 1931 and 1933 cost 100,000 lives, for negligible economic benefit.
What Stalin failed to take into account, in his cynicism and general contempt for humanity, was that people read about these events in countries like Germany—perhaps especially in Germany, given its proximity to the USSR and its large Communist Party—and drew conclusions. The consensus about both Communism and the Nazis’ role as defenders against it began to change after 1928. Hitler was the beneficiary of Stalin’s brutality.
Stalin did not mind. He preferred that Germany be ruled by Hitler than by a more respectable politician. His calculation was that this would prevent the western European powers ganging up against the Soviet Union. Stalin’s best-case scenario was that they all go to war with each other.
Hitler was the only statesman—arguably the only human being— that Stalin appears to have trusted. That was one of the reasons why, in early 1941, he ignored all the warnings about Operation Barbarossa from people like Richard Sorge, the heroic German spy in Tokyo whose statue now stands forlornly in a scruffy park near Polizhaevskaya Metro station. Stalin believed that in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which carved up Poland, Hitler had given his word. The tragic results are well-known.
The Soviet spy-diplomat, Walter Krivitsky, wrote in 1939, in his book I Was Stalin’s Agent, ‘The idea prevailing up to the recent Russia-German pact that Hitler and Stalin were mortal enemies was pure myth. The true picture of their relations was that of a persistent suitor who would not be discouraged by rebuffs. Stalin was the suitor. There was enmity on Hitler’s side. On Stalin’s there was fear. If one can speak of a pro-German in the Kremlin, Stalin has been that figure all along. Stalin’s whole international policy during the last six years has been a series of manoeuvres designed to place him in a favourable position for a deal with Hitler.’
Stalin got that deal in August 1939. A month later he got the war he wanted between Hitler and the Western powers. It was a clever strategy, and it worked—until Hitler did what he said he would do right from the start, and attacked the Soviet Union. In the end, Stalin had been so sharp that he had cut not only himself but the whole Soviet people. The tragedy is that it was not he but they who did the bleeding.