The Roots of Hell

Russia and Germany, a Century of Conflict

by Walter Laqueur
Little, Brown, 367 pp., $6.75

There can be no doubt that the map of Europe and the constellation of world powers would be utterly different today but for Hitler’s decision to attack Russia. Without it, Russian troops would not now stand on the Elbe; large parts of Europe would not have fallen under Soviet domination; Germany would not be divided. It is not even certain that Hitler would have been defeated at all; conceivably, he might have succeeded in invading Britain before the United States entered the war, and might have retained control of the main part of the continent. Yet no strategic necessity, no insoluble diplomatic conflict forced the victorious Fuehrer to follow Napoleon’s road to Russia and catastrophe. Apart from his sneaking respect for Britain and his reluctance to face the dangers of a cross-channel invasion, his crucial motives were his belief in the inherent weakness as well as the ultimately irreconcilable hostility of the Bolshevik regime, and his vision of a leaderless Russia as the natural field for German colonial rule, the natural long-term basis for German world power.

If Hitler was driven to his own destruction by ideological blindness, Stalin, his successful antagonist, had shown hardly more perspicacity. His stubborn refusal to recognize Nazism as an independent force and a great potential danger to the Soviet Union before 1934—to see Hitler’s movement as more than an exchangeable tool of the German monopoly capitalists, and to take seriously its widely publicized anti-Russian program—had been one of the contributory causes of Hitler’s rise to power. Stalin’s inability to imagine that Hitler would gratuitously attack the Soviet Union when he could have forced it to yield important concessions without war led the infallible Vozhd in 1941 to dismiss the mounting evidence of Hitler’s military preparations in the East as a mere prelude to diplomatic blackmail, and to refuse to be “provoked” into putting Soviet defenses in a state of readiness. He won in the end, thanks in part to allies he had persistently distrusted, after helping to bring untold devastation and suffering to his country—first by underestimating Russia’s most dangerous enemy, and then by mistaking him for a realistic and calculable (and in that sense reliable) partner in the diplomatic game.

THE attack of 1941, and its consequences that are still with us, thus cannot be understood without looking for the roots of the mistaken and indeed absurd ideas that Nazis and Bolsheviks, and more particularly Hitler and Stalin, entertained about each other in the teeth of all evidence. It is around this central theme that Walter Laqueur, Director of the London Institute for Advanced Studies in Contemporary History (into which he has transformed the Wiener Library) has written a fascinating and highly useful, if somewhat uneven, book. According to the Preface, the book had been intended to deal with the even wider subject of “what Russians and Germans have thought about each other in this century,” and the opening chapters do indeed offer many illuminating glimpses into the earlier history of mutual…

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