THE war that began when Hitler hurled his land and air forces against the Soviet Union is one of the greatest in history, whether measured by the number of men involved, by the length and depth of the front, by the enormous use of modern weapons, or by the size of the political and economic stakes involved. Nothing short of the mastery of Eurasia is involved.
The centre of gravity of the Second World War has dramatically shifted, for the time being at least, from the waves of the Atlantic to the vast Russian steppe lands. And beyond European Russia, itself as large as the rest of the European continent, lies the still vaster expanse of Siberia, with its suggestions of contact with China and Japan and its northeastern tip projecting so close to the coast of Alaska. When one considers that the Soviet Union is about forty times the size of France, the magnitude of Hitler’s latest adventure becomes more evident.
During the first ten days of the fighting, the German advance at many points had reached a depth of two hundred miles. Such an advance in France would have involved the loss of Paris and of the whole valuable industrial and mining region of the East and the Northeast. But the Germans after six weeks of hard fighting had not taken any of the larger Soviet cities. And the Red Army, if it retained cohesion and fighting spirit, could continue retreating for distances which would leave a French army in the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean and still have the newly developed industrial areas of the Urals and Central Siberia in its rear.
The two toughest and most formidable of the post-war dictatorships, after two years of outer peace and secret hostile intrigue against each other, are at last subjecting themselves to the supreme ordeal of war. Now the answers to many questions which have both fascinated and perplexed thoughtful observers of the Soviet Union and of Germany will certainly be made clear within a fairly near future.
Will the German morale, hitherto sustained by lightning victories accompanied by small losses, stand the strain of a war of much greater duration, waged at a much heavier cost in killed and wounded? How will Soviet morale, long nourished on phrases about the supreme genius of Stalin, the invincibility of the Red Army, and the overwhelming might of the great Soviet Union, pass the test, if it should come, of the loss of important cities and the penetration of hostile forces far within the country?
The totalitarian dictatorship, with its technique of government by a combination of unlimited propaganda and unlimited terrorism, can deceive both its own people and credulous foreign tourists almost beyond imagination. But there is one trial where it cannot cheat, the trial of large-scale war. There is the strongest likelihood that the war which is being fought behind such an amazing smoke screen of concealment and propaganda, with no neutral correspondent allowed within hundreds of miles of the fighting line, portends the political if not the personal end of either Hitler or Stalin. Perhaps both dictators may perish under its shock.
Those two mastodon dictatorships, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, had practically divided Eurasia between them before they began to fight for sole mastery. Apart from Russia, the countries of the European continent, with the possible exception of Portugal, fall into three categories in relation to Germany. They are conquered territories, like Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Or they are vassal allies, like Italy, Hungary, and Rumania. Or they are helpless, encircled, and necessarily compliant neutrals, like Sweden and Switzerland.
The Soviet Union took advantage of Germany’s preoccupation in the West to take possession of Latvia, Esthonia, Lithuania, Eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and Bukovina, along with parts of Finland. Most of these conquests were lost during the first weeks of the war with Germany. But there still remains that vast land mass of the Soviet Union proper, the largest in the world under a single sovereignty, almost three times the size of the continental United States, with a population of about one hundred and seventy million.
Now that Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany are at war, one may be certain that a bitter competitive struggle of ‘fifth columnists’ behind the lines is under way. Besides its regular spies, the Soviet Union possesses a skeleton staff of leaders in agitation and sabotage in the Communist parties that function illegally in all European countries. These secret Soviet agents are trying to play on every anti-Nazi passion, from the Pan-Slav sympathies of the Balkan teacher and peasant to the Marxism of the Paris factory worker.
Germany has studied the Soviet Union with the greatest thoroughness during the last two decades. There are far more Germans than people of any other foreign nationality in Russia. During my stay in Moscow as a correspondent I found that the German Embassy was much more completely and concretely informed about what was going on in Russia than any other agency. No doubt many sources of information were closed during the years before 1939, when Stalin adopted the policy of almost hermetically sealing the Soviet Union against foreign contacts and it became a very grave risk for any Soviet citizen to visit the German or any other Embassy without official approval.
But it may be taken for granted that every possible source of internal disintegration in Russia — religious persecution, economic exploitation of the peasants, nationalist discontent in such regions as Ukraina and the Caucasus, where Russians are in the minority — has been carefully studied in Berlin. One may expect to see systematic attempts to capitalize these sources of disintegration if and when large areas of Russia fall under German occupation.
Even during the period of ostensible friendship with the Soviet régime, Hitler never lost contact with certain groups of Russian émigré monarchists and Ukrainian separatist exiles. With the German overrunning of Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, and the Balkans, almost all the Russian émigrés on the continent of Europe, except for a few who escaped to the United States, have come under Nazi control. If the military situation makes it feasible, one may expect to see native Gauleiter for Ukraina, Georgia, Armenia, and every other part of the Soviet Union which may be occupied, appear along with the German forces of occupation.
Why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union, the power which he had immobilized at the beginning of the war, and which was only too willing to remain immobilized ? His move has been variously interpreted, as a desperate drive for food and oil and as a confession that England could not be conquered, at least in any near future. The Führer himself and his Foreign Minister, Von Ribbentrop, cited as an excuse for the invasion a series of pinpricks in SovietGerman relations, cases where Stalin had seized more than his covenanted share in the loot, subterranean intrigues in the Balkans.
There is a measure of truth in all these explanations. But the principal reason why Hitler struck at Russia was perhaps too simple and obvious to be readily recognized. The Soviet Union, and more particularly the most productive regions of European Russia, Ukraina and the Caucasus, represented far and away the richest economic prize within Hitler’s reach. Here, and here alone, he could hope to find the rich colonial empire, capable of being held by land and air power, which would fill out the requirements of highly industrialized Germany.
Ukraina contains iron and coal and nickel, and under efficient management, which Germany doubtless hopes to furnish, it could produce a substantial surplus of almost all the staple foodstuffs: wheat, livestock, sugar beets, vegetables. The adjacent North Caucasus, which includes the fertile valleys of the Don and the Kuban, traditional home of the largest communities of the Russian Cossacks, is or could be rich in herds and flocks and wheat, fruits, oil seeds, and other farm products.1 Farther to the south, in the mountainous Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas, are two of Russia’s main sources of oil, Baku and Grozny, together with the rich manganese deposits of Chiatouri, in Georgia. The Caucasus also produces timber and molybdenum and a variety of miscellaneous products — fresh and dried fruits and nuts, for instance.
Nowhere else in Europe is there a storehouse of natural wealth comparable with southern and southeastern Russia. I am convinced that this storehouse has always been Hitler’s basic objective, that his whole war against the West, precipitated by the British guaranty to Poland, was an interlude, an unwelcome interruption in the process of attempted empire building in the East. This viewpoint can be supported by one of the most emphatic references to empire building in Mein Kampf: ‘We terminate the endless German drive to the South and West of Europe and direct our gaze towards the lands of the East. We finally terminate the colonial and trade policy of the pre-war period and proceed to the territorial policy of the future. But if we talk about new soil and territory in Europe today, we can think primarily only of Russia and its vassal border states.’
Some individuals who insist that not a word of Hitler’s can be believed are simultaneously convinced, for some reason, that every word he wrote in Mein Kampf possesses all the authority of authentic prophecy. But my own belief that Hitler’s basic orientation is eastward, not westward, is based not so much on the testimony of Mein Kampf as on the immutable facts of geography, economics, and the requirements of Germany’s neoimperialism.
Of what permanent benefit to Germany is the physical possession of small highly industrialized countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, so dependent on sea trade and contact with colonial empires which are cut off so long as Great Britain commands the seas? These empires would indeed be welcome acquisitions. But Hitler, in view of his weakness in sea power, could not hope to anticipate Japan (or the United States) in the Dutch East Indies. And it is a long way to the Belgian Congo. France was useful, for a time, as a source of foodstuffs and such raw materials as oil and copper which the French had stocked up for their own use and which the conquering Germans appropriated. But, apart from the Lorraine iron, France possesses no very valuable natural resources for permanent exploitation.
Until Germany becomes a commanding naval power (and this may well be a matter of many years) its interests are certain to lie primarily in the direction of land expansion. And the only theatre of land expansion large enough and rich enough to be worth a major war is Russia.
There is another consideration that points in the same direction. Hitler, who has himself done so much to destroy conventional methods of trade and exchange, has the strongest reasons for doubting whether the old system of far-flung international trade and investment, based on the gold standard or at least on some common denominator of commercial confidence, will ever be restored. Even in the event of peace, Germany’s supply of overseas foodstuffs and raw materials would always be precarious. Consequently Hitler may well have felt that it was a matter of vital national self-interest to possess, under the direct control of the German Army and Air Force, a reservoir of supply which did not depend on mastery of the seas.
Another significant element in Hitler’s decision to strike at Russia was probably his desire to put some ideological cement into a union of Europe which has hitherto been entirely a product of German military force and threat of force. Three countries — Finland, Hungary, and Rumania — were induced to take part in the war, and a movement to recruit volunteers for the crusade against Communism was launched in France, in Spain, and in other lands. The military value of such volunteer contingents would be negligible.
But Hitler reckons with the possibility that anti-Communism may prove an attractive slogan to conservatives throughout Europe and may take some of the edge off the antagonism aroused by German methods of rule. It remains to be seen whether this reckoning will be justified.
One of the paradoxes of this struggle for Eurasia is that Hitler, the militant and exclusive nationalist, has mustered at least a semblance of international support, while the Soviet Union, always inclined to boast of the assumed sympathy of the working classes of other countries, has been left to its own resources, except for the indirect benefit which it derives from the continuation of the British air war against Germany. Indeed, Soviet appeals have been significantly phrased largely in terms of Russian nationalism. There have been notably few references to world revolution or even to the achievements of the Russian Revolution. According to people who have listened closely to the Moscow broadcasts on short-wave receiving sets, straight Communism is advocated only in emissions in the German language.
The first weeks of the war indicated that the Red Army is the most formidable opponent, on land, which Hitler’s war machine has been called on to face. A front that is about two thousand miles long, from the vicinity of the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea, and is of vastly greater depth than would be possible in the smaller countries of Western Europe, does not lend itself to a lightning decision. The size of the Soviet Union places many of its important industrial centres and railway junctions out of range of air bombardment.
Moreover, the Soviet Union went on a complete war economy, with absolute state control of labor power, food distribution, and industrial production from the time when the first Five-Year Plan went into effect, in 1928. This was several years before Hitler came into power, and the Soviet Union, unlike Germany, had never been subjected to compulsory disarmament.
Yet Stalin’s desperate desire to avoid a clash with the Third Reich is the best proof that he felt little confidence as to its issue. On the German side, in weighing the long-term prospects of the conflict, is inherited national superiority in military and industrial technique, accentuated by the fact that National Socialism is a less wasteful form of revolution than is Communism. Hitler never shot all his best generals, as Stalin felt obliged to do in the great military purge of 1937. The middle class, with its inherited abilities and acquired skills, has not been ‘liquidated’ in Germany as it has been in Russia, with the result that the level of technical competence under the Nazi dictatorship is definitely higher than under its Communist counterpart.
In Russia, as in every dictatorship, it is impossible to know, except in the case of a few intimate friends (and it is highly unsafe for a Russian to be known as the friend or associate of a foreigner), how many people go through the prescribed motions of loyalty to the system with enthusiasm, how many with bored indifference, and how many purely out of fear and with hatred and bitterness in their hearts.
But masks fall off under the stress of unsuccessful war. In the confusion and breakup of a retreat there is little possibility of compelling the population to resist actively, to carry on guerrilla war. What, for instance, would be the result of a plebiscite held in Ukraina or any other large region which may fall under German military occupation? If there is passionate resistance by the people, motivated by desire to restore the fallen Soviets, this will be more impressive than any of the 99 per cent majorities registered in Soviet ‘elections,’ where there is only one list of candidates to vote for. If there is apathetic acceptance of the change, even some willing coöperation with the invaders, this will be a negative verdict on the Communist dictatorship.
I doubt whether Stalin will be vindicated personally by the great assize of history which he must now face. When I read his appeal to ‘comrades, citizens, brothers and sisters,’ I thought of the millions (the figure is sober truth, not rhetorical exaggeration) of ghosts of his victims who might rise and respond in mocking derision. I thought of the villages of Ukraina and the North Caucasus, decimated by the state-organized famine of 1932-1933. I thought of the freight cars I had seen, packed with wretched kulaks and their wives and children and old men, driven from their homes and dispatched, many of them, to cruel, lingering deaths in the serf labor concentration camps of North Russia and Siberia. I thought of some of the finest of Russia’s intellectuals — engineers, physicians, professors, scientists — broken on the wheel of fraudulent sabotage trials. If Stalin’s victims could rise from the dead and march in close order through Moscow’s spacious Red Square, it would be several days before the procession would come to an end.
It has been one of Stalin’s whims to pose as a student of Shakespeare. Macbeth might be suitable reading for him in the present crisis. How many Banquos, old comrades whom he had murdered, would rise up accusingly before his eyes: Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Bukharin, Tomsky, Karakhan, Yenukidze — but here again the list is almost endless.
It seems doubtful whether a rægime that has committed so many acts of ruthless cruelty against its own people could survive a severe military defeat. Disaffection on the Right and on the Left was an important cause of the fall of France. And no Frenchman had a fraction of the reason to hate the Third Republic that large numbers of Russians, Ukrainians, and people of other national minorities have to hate the Soviet régime. The French Republic never ‘liquidated’ whole classes, never created famine conditions, never rounded up enormous numbers of people for forced labor in concentration camps.
Yet I am conscious of the need for a certain diffidence in predicting Russian psychological reactions. There is always, for the foreign observer, the danger of seeing Russia and the Russians too much ‘under Western eyes,’ to borrow the title of Joseph Conrad’s interesting novel about Russian revolutionaries. It may be that there is something Asiatic, atavistic, masochistic, about the Russian character that instinctively rebels against mild, humane liberalism, that is not only subdued but captivated by extreme forms of brutality. It may be that Russians will not react to cruel forms of tyranny as one would expect a Western people to react, if it were given the opportunity.
Under the shock of a great defeat, almost anything might happen in Russia. There might be an upsurge of nationalist feeling. There might be a terrific explosion of long-suppressed thirst for revenge, of hatred of class against class and race against race that would tear the vast country to pieces.
Stalin’s régime is not identical with Russia. And it is possible that war, always the generator of political and social change in Russia, may prove fatal to Stalin’s personal dictatorship and to certain aspects of Communism without destroying Russia’s national existence.
There are three broad perspectives for the outcome of the new great war that has begun in Russia. By far the least likely of these, except perhaps to Bernard Shaw and to that one cleric beloved of Communists, the Dean of Canterbury, is a Soviet military victory. Such a victory would be little short of a miracle. It would run counter to every ascertainable fact about the comparative military and industrial strength of the combatants. It would also transform immediately and sensationally the whole atmosphere of international politics. It would let loose the fiercest kind of civil war in Europe. It would signify the end of Hitler. The Communist menace would replace the Nazi menace in the consciousness of democratic countries. England, incredible as the prospect may seem at the moment, might find itself in the position of trying to aid whatever conservative forces might emerge from the Nazi wreckage in Germany to stem the tide of triumphant bolshevism.
More probable, although far from certain, is the perspective of a complete victory for Hitler. Suppose that every doubt about the course of this GermanSoviet war resolves itself in Germany’s favor. Suppose that the better-trained and better-equipped units of the Red Army, after a few weeks or a few months of hard fighting, are smashed to pieces. Suppose that the Russians, Ukrainians, and other peoples of the Soviet Union are too apathetic, too depressed by Stalin’s own tyranny, to offer much effective resistance in the form of guerrilla warfare and sabotage.
Hitler would then have made a very profitable political and military investment. He would possess, along with the man power and industrial plant of Western and Central Europe, new and rich reserves of many of the most essential foodstuffs and raw materials, so situated as to be almost inaccessible to bombing attack. With the German legions established in the Caucasus, Hitler would possess a new base from which to launch military and propaganda offensives against the British position in the Near and Middle East. Should his conquest extend to Soviet Central Asia, he could threaten India.
The German dictator would be in an advantageous position either to offer peace, perhaps on the basis of an evacuation of Western Europe in return for a free hand in the East, or to prosecute the war against Great Britain in the Isles, in Africa, and in Asia more relentlessly than ever. Should his sway extend, through the medium of puppet governments, all the way across Siberia, he would be in a position to intervene in the affairs of Japan and China. Most definitely he would have escaped from the prison of his European conquests, in which the British blockade has sought to contain him.
It would be a tremendous task for Great Britain and the United States together to build up enough land and air power to break this huge Eurasian empire, this ‘Union Now’ of the totalitarian mastodons under the hegemony of the stronger. At the same time, sea power would preserve the American continent and the outlying parts of the British Empire from any serious danger of attack.
There is a third possible outcome of the war, less improbable than the first, less spectacularly decisive than the second. This would be a protracted struggle, following the general outline of the Sino-Japanese War. Germany, like Japan in the Far East, would win the big battles, occupy many large towns and considerable stretches of territory. But some kind of front would continue to exist, perhaps in the Ural Mountains or even farther to the East. A Soviet Government, or a new national Russian government, would remain in being. The countryside would be laid waste before the armies of occupation. Oil wells and industrial plants would be damaged or destroyed. Guerrilla war would be waged in the occupied regions.
Should such a situation arise and be maintained indefinitely, Hitler’s victory would not be worth its price. His empire would begin to bleed to death, like Napoleon’s in Russia and in Spain. It is questionable whether England possesses the trained man power and equipment to initiate a two-front war by invading the continent in 1941. By 1942, however, if a Russian army should still be in the field, this nightmare of German strategists might become a reality.
Whatever may be the outcome, the German-Soviet war certainly marks an important turn of the wheel of history. It opens up probabilities of vast new changes, in Asia as in Europe. For Japan will not remain aloof and disinterested in the event of a Soviet collapse. Indeed the Japanese move into Southern Indo-China, followed by American economic reprisals, was certainly not unaffected by the Soviet preoccupation in Europe. And new Japanese aggressive moves, inspiring further tension in Soviet-American relations, are not improbable in the near future.
Hitler’s blow at Russia has extended the scope of the war in actuality and in prospect. It has opened up perspectives that are new and unpredictable. But it has already probably achieved at least one negative result. It seems to have ruled out the possibility of the ending of the war for which Stalin was hoping. This would have been an all-round collapse of social order and cohesion in an atmosphere of universal hunger, misery, and despair, as the climax of a prolonged military deadlock and a futile competition in destruction from the air. Then the Soviet dictator, had he been able to remain aloof from the conflict and to keep his forces intact, could have stepped into the vacuum as the arbiter of Europe’s destiny. He would have won the war by staying out of it.
We still cannot know with certainty what outbursts of revolutionary despair may occur in a Europe that has not yet drunk its cup of bitter torment to the dregs. But as from June 22, 1941, Stalinite Communism has been pretty definitely eliminated as Europe’s ‘wave of the future.’ For the disintegrating effect of large-scale war, on which Stalin counted to bring about the downfall of other states, will now be felt in the Soviet régime itself.
- The North Caucasus, when I last visited the region in 1933, had suffered terrible desolation because of the forced collectivization of agriculture. Whether and how far it has recovered is difficult to say with certainty, in view of the extreme paucity of firsthand foreign reporting on the Russian countryside in recent years. — AUTHOR↩