Why It Happened the Way It Did | The Nation


Why It Happened the Way It Did

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Hitler would later complain that this diversion of German resources cost him the war by forcing him to postpone the invasion of Russia, officially known as Operation Barbarossa. If the invasion had taken place earlier, he claimed, the Germans could have defeated the Red Army before the rains bogged down the German advance in the fall. But as Kershaw points out, bad weather in May and early June would have postponed the invasion anyway. What is more, in the first weeks of the Russian campaign, Hitler anticipated victory well before the fall. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were surrounded and killed or captured in vast encircling movements driven forward by fast-moving German armor backed up by complete German domination of the skies. The collapse of the Soviet regime seemed imminent.

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Richard J. Evans
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. His books...

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Responsibility for the Russians' near defeat, Kershaw argues, must lie principally with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose decision to ignore the warnings pouring in from intelligence agents about an impending German invasion in June 1941 forms the subject of another chapter. What alternatives were open to Stalin? One that was put to him by leading generals the previous month was to launch a pre-emptive strike. The documentary traces of this have provided fuel for those who have tried to argue that Hitler invaded in order to stop the Red Army from marching westward. But Kershaw persuasively rejects this "far-fetched interpretation." Operation Barbarossa had been in preparation for many months before the idea of a pre-emptive strike by the Red Army was first mooted. Therefore the strike was to have been a defensive move.

After the war, one of its principal authors, Gen. Georgi Zhukov, admitted it would probably have been a dismal failure anyway. The Red Army and its leadership had been crippled by Stalin's purges in the late 1930s. The frantic arms program launched in 1939 had not gotten very far; Stalin did not think the Soviet military would be in a position to fight the Germans successfully until 1942. He rejected the idea out of hand. "Have you gone mad?" he exploded: "Do you want to provoke the Germans?" Stalin knew how poorly prepared his forces were, and he was playing desperately for time, even continuing deliveries of goods and raw materials under the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in 1939 up to six days before the invasion.

Ideologically blinkered, the Soviet dictator would not tolerate any dissent from his own complacent assessment of the situation. Kershaw does not say what Stalin's ideological preconceptions were, but as a good Marxist-Leninist, Stalin was convinced that Hitler's regime was the tool of German monopoly capitalism, so that if he made available everything German business wanted, there would be no immediate reason to invade. Moreover, he thought it inconceivable that Hitler would launch an invasion while the war with Britain was still in progress. Surely the German dictator was aware of the folly of waging a war on two fronts? But Hitler held the Soviet Union in boundless contempt. One push, he thought, and the whole edifice of Communism would come crashing down.

It did not. By the end of 1941 the German armies had been fought to a standstill before Moscow, and though they made further, major advances in 1942, the factor most feared by Hitler, the growth of US aid for Britain and to a lesser extent also the Soviet Union, now came increasingly into play. Kershaw devotes two chapters to decisions made by Roosevelt. On October 30, 1940, the President promised American mothers and fathers: "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war." By this time, he had already long been convinced that German expansionism posed a fundamental threat to the United States. He was right.

As Kershaw remarks, Hitler had always envisaged in the longer term "a war of the continents" in which a German-dominated Europe would launch a final struggle for world supremacy with the United States. But Roosevelt knew that he would never get Congress to support a declaration of war on Germany. So he proceeded cautiously, step by step, to shore up first the British and then the Soviet war effort. "I do not think we need worry about any possibility of Russian domination," he declared shortly after the launching of Operation Barbarossa. Lend-lease, which made available vast quantities of war materiel to Britain and later Russia, was followed by the Atlantic Charter, implicitly allying the United States with Britain by stating the common democratic principles they sought to uphold, while a clash between a German U-boat and an American destroyer provided the pretext for persuading Congress to approve American warships protecting Allied merchant ships and convoys in the American half of the Atlantic in the interests of the "freedom of the seas."

Roosevelt's decision to wage undeclared war on Germany had an impact on two crucial decisions made by Hitler. The first of these was the German declaration of war on the United States on December 11, 1941. The introduction of lend-lease had already convinced Hitler that the Soviet Union needed to be defeated quickly, before American resources could be thrown into the fray on the Allied side. The more US naval forces intervened to protect British shipping, the more Hitler began to fear that unless he could unleash the full force of his submarine fleet against them, the battle of the Atlantic would be lost, and his attempt to cut off essential supplies of food, arms and raw materials from the British Isles would fail. Yet he continued to hesitate until the Japanese bombed the US Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This was, Hitler said, a "deliverance." "We can't lose the war," was his response. On December 11, the formal declaration of war on the United States was made.

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