Saturday, June 03, 2006

Stalin and Hitler

There are events that change history - and there are books that do a wonderful job of describing them.

John Lukacs is among the very best of historians of modern Europe. His "Five Days in London - May 1940" is only one of the classics from his pen.

Now he's back with a masterful small book on the relationship between Hitler and Stalin and the former's decision to go to war with the later on June 22nd 1941.

This was, in his opinion, the most important turning point of the Second World War, since "the Anglo-American alliance, for all its tremendeous material and financial and industrial and manpower superiority could not have really conquered Hitler's Germany without Russia."

How the two courted each other up to their infamous pact on August 23rd 1939 is a story documented elsewhere but worth repeating. And they both derived immense immediate benefit from it.

Hitler got the possibility to attack Poland, thus starting the Second World War. And Stalin got the possibility to get back territories that had been lost in the collapse of the Russian Empire at the end of World War II. He took back parts of Poland, the three independent Baltic states and tried to do the same with Finland.

Up until June 1941 Hitler's armies had done whatever they wanted across the continent of Europe. The German military machine was without parallel. And the expectation was obviously that it would succeed to crush the Red Army as well.

History turned out differently. And whether Lukacs gives a completely convincing answer to the question why Hitler attacked Stalin can be debated. He was obviously less certain of success than most of his generals. But perhaps breaking the back of Russia was the only way he saw of breaking the resistance of Britain and of Winston Churchill.

For Lukacs, June 1941 is also proof that individuals do matter in history.

In June 1941 Hitler wanted war with Russia, but Stalin certainly did not want war with Germany. Others around both of them were more apprehensive towards the policies pursued.

Hitler decided for war. And that decision eventually sealed his fate and set the course of European history for the following half century.

It's a book worth reading