June 1941 is an important and valuable book.  Rather than provide the lives of Hitler and Stalin in parallel, historian John Lukacs seeks carefully to probe the dynamic of the relationship between the two men in order to illuminate a pivotal moment in world history.  At this, he is brilliantly successful.  Lukacs’s spare account, devoid of superfluous material, is a most useful contribution to the literature of World War II, owing, in part, to its historiographical and intellectual perspective.  For Lukacs keeps the focus resolutely on individuals, on their motives and purposes, between which he carefully distinguishes, and on the intended and unintended consequences of their actions.  This theme, implicit throughout the book, is occasionally made explicit:

In 1941 and exactly on 22 June 1941, everything depended on two men, Hitler and Stalin.  This in itself refutes the social-scientific and current opinion according to which history, especially as we advance into the mass age, is ruled by vast economic and material forces and not by individual persons.  The Second World War was not only marked but decided by personalities, by the inclinations and decisions of men such as Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt.

Returning historical attention to individuals entails the difficult work of focusing on their purposes and carefully weighing evidence.  Thus, Lukacs includes an important Appendix on “The Mystery of Hitler’s ‘Letter’ and the Courier Plane,” offering a valuable corrective and supplement to David Murphy’s What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa, published in 2005.

Lukacs argues that opposition to Britain was key to the policies of both Hitler and Stalin, not the mutual hostility of the two men or Hitler’s anticommunism.  It is scarcely original to note that Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was in part designed to put pressure on Britain (Ian Kershaw has recently made this point, while suggesting that Hitler was concerned about his narrowing options at the time), yet Lukacs skillfully links this goal to the developing crisis in German-Soviet relations.

Indeed, as he points out, the British worried that the Germans would succeed in their attack on the Soviet Union.  There were fears that the Germans would advance through the Caucasus, threatening the British position in the Middle East and sharpening concern regarding the prospect of a German advance via Turkey or Cyprus, or perhaps both.  The prospect of either encouraged British planning for a forward defense of the Middle East, in Syria and Iraq, and for the occupation of Iran to add strategic depth to the British positions in India and the Persian Gulf.  This occupation, which was carried out in concert with the Soviet Union, in some respects looked back to the 1907 agreement between the two powers over spheres of influence in Iran.  Concern about German options also helps explain the British shipment of materiel to the Soviet Union once the Germans attacked.  (In a forthcoming work, Alexander Hill will demonstrate that Soviet-converted British heavy tanks made a major contribution to the Battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941.)

If Hitler struck at the Soviet Union to get at Britain, recalling Napoleon’s attempt in 1812 to cut Britain away from the Continental trading system, Stalin’s response to Hitler (Lukacs insists) powerfully reflected his own animosity to Britain.  In each case, hostility to Britain’s political position was a significant factor, but so also was a rejection of liberal capitalism both as a domestic agenda for liberty and freedom and as an international agenda focused on opposition to dictatorial expansionism combined with support for the independence of small states.  For Lukacs, Hitler and Stalin represented German and Russian reactions to the Age of Reason and “against the world of a bourgeois civilization that reached its peaks around the time when they were born.”  Thus, he cogently dismisses the left-wing tendency to condemn bourgeois civilization as a progenitor of Hitler.

Today, much of the anticapitalist and antiliberal animosity that Hitler and Stalin expressed is recast as criticism of the United States, which makes the latter’s craven response to tyranny in the late 1930’s and in 1940 ironic as well as deplorable.  The United States did little both in response to fascist expansionism in the 1930’s and when an array of neutral powers were overrun in 1940 by Hitler and Stalin.  (Indeed, throughout World War II, Canada made a bigger financial contribution per capita to the cause of freedom than did the United States.)  Moreover, throughout the 20th century, some Americans provided key support to an Irish terrorist movement that was similarly anticapitalist, antiliberal, and antidemocratic and that, during two world wars, also benefited from German backing.

Lukacs notes that Hitler and Stalin shared, along with an antipathy to Britain, many values as well, resulting in mutual respect between the two men, including during the war.  Stalin admired Hitler’s brutal suppression of opposition in 1934, while the Soviets prefigured the Germans in using specially converted gassing lorries.  Stalin was more than willing to subordinate the cause of international communism, about which he was dubious, to that of state expansion in concert with Germany.  And in August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was celebrated in Moscow with Stalin toasting “the health of this great man,” Hitler.  (This is not an episode that is much discussed by the left.)  Both dictators were also antisemitic, and both wished to see Poland removed from the face of the earth.

Lukacs’s account of the dinner in Moscow is typical of his successful anchoring of major themes in a fine grasp of the particular.  His discussion of the interaction of personalities is acute, and he presents admirable sketches of second-rank players in his drama.  At times, the dismissals are brutal (Trotsky, for example, is described as a fool), yet they are always pertinent.  Lukacs introduces ideas ably and presents them clearly, as in his account of how Stalin became a nationalist focused on the state: “By 1939 the word state had become sacrosanct in official [Soviet] terminology . . . more revered even than the interests of the party.”

Lukacs highlights Stalin’s monumental failure of judgment in the face of Germany’s move to war.  Stalin had not grasped Hitler’s intentions, had dismissed intelligence information as British plants, and had ignored advice from his military.  In 1940, Neville Chamberlain had fallen when British failure in the early stages of the war had compounded doubts about his pre-war policy of appeasement.  Chamberlain, in the spring of 1939, had switched to an anti-German policy; Stalin, in contrast, made no such move.  The nearest equivalent to the British guarantees to Poland and Rumania would have been Soviet guarantees in 1941 to Yugoslavia and Greece, followed by a declaration of war when they were invaded; but Soviet policy was very different—Stalin’s appeasement was far more craven.

Stalin also, characteristically, refused to address the people upon the German invasion.  Instead, he had Moscow flooded with agents.  Lukacs takes the story forward to consider Stalin’s nervous collapse of will on June 28-30, when the Germans reached Minsk.  He also notes the possibility of his consideration of the idea of a settlement with Germany, similar to that reached by Lenin in 1918, which might have been used to vindicate such an agreement.

Stalin’s was not the only will to collapse.  Rodric Braithwaite, in Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War (London, 2006), discusses the panic that occurred in that city in mid-October—a panic that owed much to official actions, including the movement of industrial plants.  Managers and other fleeing officials were attacked by the workers they were abandoning in scenes described by the head of the NKVD as “anarchy.”  Stalin, however, decided not to flee and used the NKVD to restore order by meting out punishment and terror.

In his conclusion to the book, Lukacs once again ponders the nature of history, identifying the still-prevalent misconception of history as the certainty of the historian’s ability to produce a definitive account of his subject.  He asserts it as the duty of the historian to struggle against the prevalence of untruths, because, as he points out, “sentiments and twisted statements of ‘facts’” are all too common in the profession.  In this respect, Lukacs dismisses the notion that the German invasion was a case of preventive war, preempting Soviet attack—a view popular among German apologists.  He criticizes also the related argument that Hitler’s war with Stalin was a necessary one, and that Churchill and Roosevelt were foolish not to realize this.  Instead, his careful discussion of Hitler and National Socialism in terms other than as a reaction to the evils of communism helps highlight the danger that they posed to the West, thus making the failure of British, French, and American appeasement very apparent.


[June 1941: Hitler and Stalin, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 192 pp., $25.00]