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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 admiration and contempt, mutual influence, misunderstanding, and hostility between these two nations. But the upshot of these earlier developments is necessarily inconclusive. For even if the element of hostility may be said to have gradually increased before the First World War, owing chiefly to the growth of a modern upper class in Russia and the corresponding loss of influence by the German Balts and other “Russian Germans,” nevertheless in the Twenties the open and secret cooperation between the Soviet government and the Weimar Republic was widely approved in Germany and followed with great hopes in Russia.

IT is, then, not Russian and German ideas about each other in general, but Nazi and Bolshevik ideas that are relevant to the turning point of 1941. It is in this field that Mr. Laqueur’s pains-taking and imaginative study of often recondite sources—from the publications of the Russian extreme Right both under the Tsar and later in exile to the early writings of Hitler’s Baltic “mentors,” and from Soviet doctrinaire discussions about the nature of “Fascism” to captured German police reports about the German Communists’ attitude to the rising Nazi movement—has produced some striking discoveries. Mr. Laqueur shows in detail that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” first forged and propagated in Tsarist Russia, gained a wide European audience only when used after 1917 to “explain” the Russian revolution as the result of a Jewish conspiracy, and that Rosenberg and other Baltic friends of Hitler literally copied their interpretation of Bolshevism as the triumph of the Jews and other lower races over Russia’s Germanic elite from the Russian extremist émigrés. But in passing through the minds of the German Balts, this “theory” acquired the new conclusion that a state deprived of its natural elite must necessarily be weak and that the Russian Slavs, lacking a native master race, would have to submit to German conquerors once their Jewish Bolshevik oppressors had been overthrown. Hitler’s view of Russia, Mr. Laqueur suggests, was formed from these sources at an early stage and was never substantially revised; even the evidence of Russia’s growing industrial and military strength, though freely used by Hitler in the Thirties in order to present himself to German and foreign conservatives as their protector against the “Red Peril,” did not shake his own conviction of the “fundamental” weakness of the hated regime.

Recognition that Hitler’s view of Russia and Bolshevism was so closely integrated with the core of his world view does indeed offer a clue to the method underlying the madness of 1941; one recalls that in October of that year, even though stopped at the outskirts of Moscow, the Fuehrer was so convinced that the campaign was all but over that he ordered a drastic cut in important branches of German arms production. But this view was not in the mainstream of German nationalist thought about Russia; as Mr. Laqueur reminds us, on his return from Landsberg fortress in 1925 Hitler had to fight a strong “National Bolshevik” faction in his own party, which saw the cooperation between the German and Russian armies as reflecting a natural kinship between the Prussian and Russian forms of “national socialism.” That he defeated this faction quickly and decisively, and later easily triumphed over all rival groups holding similar ideas, can only partly be explained by the impact of his personality. The outcome suggests that those officers and intellectuals who reacted to the upheaval of the times by adopting a “national-revolutionary” outlook were less important for the victory of a totalitarian mass movement of the Right than the far more numerous uprooted middle-class elements still seeking to cling for their self-esteem to conservative values. The myth of the revolutionary conspiracy appealed most effectively to them: It was their outlook that Hitler expressed, their self-destruction that he ultimately accomplished.

The early Soviet hopes for a swift advance of Communist revolution in industrial Europe had largely centered on Germany; they changed even during Lenin’s lifetime into a more realistic determination to exploit the conflict between defeated Germany and the Western powers in order to prevent an effective capitalist encirclement of Russia. Henceforth, the policy makers of Weimar Germany were judged in Moscow not according to their position on the “left” or on the “right,” but according to the value they placed on secret military cooperation with Russia or to their inclination to sacrifice it to an understanding with France, then seen as the most actively anti-Soviet power in Europe. By that token, the Reichswehr appeared as the most reliable, the Social Democrats as the most dangerous force in Germany.

Stalin, with his characteristic mixture of doctrinaire rigidity and practical cynicism, formed his attitude toward the rising Nazi movement in this context. Doctrine convinced him that “Fascism” and “Bourgeois Democracy” were “only” different political forms of the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” that Nazis and Social democrats were “twins,” related as the right and left arms of the same ruling class, and that if the Nazis ever came to power, they could not possibly carry out a policy independent of the wishes of their “masters.” Preoccupation with French “interventionism” and with the danger of a Franco-German rapprochement explains who Soviet leaders and the Comintern saw the Social Democrats as the chief enemy in Germany right up to Hitler’s victory, and why they imposed on the German Communists a view which prevented any concerted working-class action against the Nazi threat while there was time. Mr. Laqueur, having patiently traced the stages of this policy as well as its doctrinaire justifications, presents evidence that refutes conclusively the Communists’ later claim of having been the most consistent fighters against the Nazi danger from the start; but he finds no evidence for the opposite thesis according to which Stalin or the Comintern is alleged to have deliberately favored Hitler’s rise to power—whether from fear of a German revolution or in the hope that it would prove the prelude to it. Everything points to the conclusion that Stalin contributed to Hitler’s victory not knowingly, but precisely by his failure to understand that a Nazi regime was a serious possibility, and that it would differ substantially from all that had gone before.

It was only in 1934 that Hitler’s pact with Poland, his purge of the storm-troopers, and his murder of General Schleicher convinced Stalin both of the strength of the new regime and of the seriousness of its anti-Bolshevism. From playing Germany against the West, Soviet policy now turned to playing the West against Germany; but Mr. Laqueur reminds us that Soviet feelers for improved relations with the Third Reich were repeatedly undertaken long before Hitler took them up in 1939, and that the tactical turn towards a united front with the democracies against “Fascism” was accomplished without serious reexamination of the esoteric doctrine about their “fundamental” equivalence. As a historian, he thus sees no grounds for surprise at the Stalin-Hitler pact, and even presents a fair case in favor of Stalin’s decision to divert the war from his threshold at the last moment. What strikes him as odd is that while Hitler’s basic hostility remained quite unshaken by this act of expediency, Stalin still failed to perceive it and hoped to the end he could avoid the fatal clash.

Mr. Laqueur unfolds this record of hubris and folly without once raising his voice; his astringent understatements are calculated to let the ironies of history speak for themselves. Not the least of his merits is the demonstration that the Soviet interpretation of Nazism has not been corrected even now: Stalin’s successors, who delight in smearing their various opponents as “new Hitlers” on every occasion, have not published a single serious study of the Nazi regime. Their general textbooks of contemporary politics continue even to ignore the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Instead, they repeat the old dogmatic twaddle—including long disproved forgeries about the alleged financing of Hitler by American Jewish capitalists.

This continued Soviet failure to re-examine the nature of Nazism is due in part, as Mr. Laqueur suggests, to the difficulty of doing so within the framework of dogmatic Marxism, but in part also to the embarrassingly close parallels between the power structures of the Bolshevik and Nazi regimes. One of the questions he has left unexplored is indeed to what extent the two movements learned from as well as misunderstood each other.

Did not Hitler’s description of Bolshevik tyranny in some ways foreshadow the blueprint of his own dictatorship? There seems to be no clear evidence that the Fuehrer made an early study of the techniques of Communist one-party rule; but Mussolini certainly did so, and Hitler consciously copied his example after his return from the fortress. Stalin, in turn, may have been inspired to his purges, as Krivitski has suggested, by the example of Hitler’s device of killing various actual and potential opponents in June, 1934, under the pretext that they had joined in a common conspiracy against him. Even more significant, the possibility of a legal road to Communist power, as first tested in the “popular front” strategy of the mid-Thirties and again in the early post-war years, may have occurred to Stalin under the impression of Hitler’s “legal” revolution. Again, it is instructive to recall the endless Nazi ravings about the role of the political commissars in the Red Army in connection with the creation of a similar institution in the last year of the Nazi regime, after the “generals’ plot” had been foiled. Below the surface, a sense of kinship seems to have coexisted in both regimes with their mutual hatred.

After the crucial date of 1941, Mr. Laqueur does not quite sustain the high standard he has set in the main part of his work. The single chapter entitled “Days of Wrath 1939-63” is a tour de force; it displays on the whole the imaginative understanding to which the reader has by then become accustomed, but there are strange omissions and occasional unfounded judgments. One misses, for example, any mention of the peace feelers Stalin addressed to Hitler in 1943, during a grave crisis in the Grand Alliance, or a discussion of the indications that the “National Committee” of captured German officers was at first intended as a serious signal to the German High Command and only later downgraded to a mere propaganda device. Russia’s role in the post-war partition of Germany cannot really be treated without taking note of the Marshall Plan and her refusal to join it.

Laqueur’s statement that the Russian leaders who considered terms for sacrificing the East German regime after Stalin’s death were a minority from the start is contrary to the best evidence now available. The Rapacki plan of 1958 was not a plan for “military disengagement and a neutral zone free from nuclear weapons,” but for a denuclearized zone in Central Europe which would continue to be occupied by the opposing Russian and U. S. forces. The account of West German attitudes toward Eastern Europe, stressing the absence of guilt feelings and indeed of any serious interest, is also superficial and oddly out of date.

Yet these weaknesses are peripheral to the main theme of the book. The real contribution of the final chapters to that theme lies in the account of how, with the German attack, the doctrinaire prejudices of the ruling parties were superseded by a clash involving two entire nations in unprecedented horror and violence. “What Russians and Germans think about each other” has since come to be determined primarily by this experience—the Russian experience of German invasion and crimes, the German experience first of Russian poverty, then of the same crimes and the fear of retaliation, and finally of the Russian counterinvasion and all that followed. Today, the Russian fear of a strong Germany rooted in these events is one of the causes of the persistence of German partition and of the presence of Russian forces in the heart of Europe. This in turn, by maintaining both political conflict between Germany and Russia and a military imbalance in Europe requiring the presence of American forces, is one of the main factors of political rigidity and military tension in the present world. One final irony is that Stalin, by taking the road of German partition, brought about the very alliance of the main part of Germany with the West which he had striven a quarter of a century to prevent. The story of human folly in Russo-Germany relations, which Walter Laqueur has told so well, is not yet at an end.

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