Dinner in Moscow

[This review was first published in the October 2006 issue of Chronicles.]

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 1930s and in 1940 ironic as well as deplorable. The United States did little both in response to fascist expansionism in the 1930s 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]

Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black is author of World War Two: A Military History (New York, 2004) and Altered States: America Since the Sixties (London, 2006).

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