Military history



The origins of the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, and of their encounter in the bloodlands, lie in the First World War of 1914-1918. The war broke the old land empires of Europe, while inspiring dreams of new ones. It replaced the dynastic principle of rule by emperors with the fragile idea of popular sovereignty. It showed that millions of men would obey orders to fight and die, for causes abstract and distant, in the name of homelands that were already ceasing to be or only coming into being. New states were created from virtually nothing, and large groups of civilians were moved or eliminated by the application of simple techniques. More than a million Armenians were killed by Ottoman authorities. Germans and Jews were deported by the Russian Empire. Bulgarians, Greeks, and Turks were exchanged among national states after the war. Just as important, the war shattered an integrated global economy. No adult European alive in 1914 would ever see the restoration of comparable free trade; most European adults alive in 1914 would not enjoy comparable levels of prosperity during the rest of their lives.

The essence of the First World War was the armed conflict between, on the one side, the German Empire, the Habsburg monarchy, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria (“the Central Powers”) and, on the other side, France, the Russian Empire, Great Britain, Italy, Serbia, and the United States (“the Entente Powers”). The victory of the Entente Powers in 1918 brought an end to three European land empires: the Habsburg, German, and Ottoman. By the terms of the postwar settlements of Versailles, St. Germain, Sèvres, and Trianon, multinational domains were replaced by national states, and monarchies by democratic republics. The European great powers that were not destroyed by the war, Britain and especially France, were substantially weakened. Among the victors, the illusion after 1918 was that life might somehow return to its course before the war. Among the revolutionaries who hoped to lead the defeated, the dream was that the bloodshed could legitimate further radical transformations, which could impart meaning to the war and undo its damage.


The most important political vision was that of communist utopia. At war’s end, it had been seventy years since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had penned their most famous lines: “Workers of the World Unite!” Marxism had inspired generations of revolutionaries with a summons to political and moral transformation: an end of capitalism and the conflict that private property was thought to bring, and its replacement by a socialism that would liberate the working masses and restore to all of humanity an unspoiled soul. For Marxists, historical progress followed from a struggle between rising and falling classes, groups made and remade by changes in the modes of economic production. Each dominant political order was challenged by new social groups formed by new economic techniques. The modern class struggle was between those who owned factories and those who worked in them. Accordingly, Marx and Engels anticipated that revolutions would begin in the more advanced industrial countries with large working classes, such as Germany and Great Britain.

By disrupting the capitalist order and weakening the great empires, the First World War brought an obvious opportunity to revolutionaries. Most Marxists, however, had by then grown accustomed to working within national political systems, and chose to support their governments in time of war. Not so Vladimir Lenin, a subject of the Russian Empire and the leader of the Bolsheviks. His voluntarist understanding of Marxism, the belief that history could be pushed onto the proper track, led him to see the war as his great chance. For a voluntarist such as Lenin, assenting to the verdict of history gave Marxists a license to issue it themselves. Marx did not see history as fixed in advance but as the work of individuals aware of its principles. Lenin hailed from largely peasant country, which lacked, from a Marxist perspective, the economic conditions for revolution. Once again, he had a revolutionary theory to justify his revolutionary impulse. He believed that colonial empires had granted the capitalist system an extended lease on life, but that a war among empires would bring a general revolution. The Russian Empire crumbled first, and Lenin made his move.

The suffering soldiers and impoverished peasants of the Russian Empire were in revolt in early 1917. After a popular uprising had brought down the Russian monarchy that February, a new liberal regime sought to win the war by one more military offensive against its enemies, the German Empire and the Habsburg monarchy. At this point Lenin became the secret weapon of Germany. The Germans dispatched Lenin from Swiss exile to the Russian capital Petrograd that April, to make a revolution that would take Russia from the war. With the help of his charismatic ally Leon Trotsky and his disciplined Bolsheviks, Lenin achieved a coup d’état with some popular support in November. In early 1918, Lenin’s new government signed a peace treaty with Germany that left Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Poland under German control. Thanks in part to Lenin, Germany won the war on the eastern front, and had a brief taste of eastern empire.

Lenin’s peace came at the price of German colonial rule of what had been the west of the Russian Empire. But surely, reasoned the Bolsheviks, the German Empire would soon collapse along with the rest of the oppressive capitalist system, and Russian and other revolutionaries could spread their new order westward, to these terrains and beyond. The war, Lenin and Trotsky argued, would bring inevitable German defeat on the western front and then a workers’ revolution within Germany itself. Lenin and Trotsky justified their own Russian revolution to themselves and other Marxists by their expectation of imminent proletarian revolt in the more industrial lands of central and western Europe. In late 1918 and in 1919, it seemed as if Lenin just might be right. The Germans were indeed defeated by the French, British, and Americans on the western front in autumn 1918, and so had to withdraw—undefeated—from their new eastern empire. German revolutionaries began scattered attempts to take power. The Bolsheviks picked up the spoils in Ukraine and Belarus.

The collapse of the old Russian Empire and the defeat of the old German Empire created a power vacuum in eastern Europe, which the Bolsheviks, try as they might, could not fill. While Lenin and Trotsky deployed their new Red Army in civil wars in Russia and Ukraine, five lands around the Baltic Sea—Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—became independent republics. After these losses of territory, the Russia of the Bolsheviks was less westerly than the Russia of the tsars. Of these new independent states, Poland was more populous than the rest combined, and strategically by far the most important. More than any of the other new states that came into being at war’s end, Poland changed the balance of power in eastern Europe. It was not large enough to be a great power, but it was large enough to be a problem for any great power with plans of expansion. It separated Russia from Germany, for the first time in more than a century. Poland’s very existence created a buffer to both Russian and German power, and was much resented in Moscow and Berlin.


Poland’s ideology was its independence. There had been no Polish state since the late eighteenth century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been partitioned out of existence by its imperial neighbors. Polish politics had continued under imperial rule throughout the nineteenth century, and the idea of a Polish nation had, if anything, consolidated. The declaration of Polish independence in November 1918 was only possible because all three of the partitioning powers—the German, Habsburg, and Russian Empires—disappeared after war and revolution. This great historical conjuncture was exploited by a Polish revolutionary, Józef Piłsudski. A socialist in his youth, Piłsudski had become a pragmatist capable of cooperating with one empire against the others. When all of the empires collapsed, he and his followers, already organized into military legions during the war, were in the best position to declare and defend a Polish state. Piłsudski’s great political rival, the nationalist Roman Dmowski, made Poland’s case to the victorious powers in Paris. The new Poland was founded as a democratic republic. Endorsed by the victorious Entente Powers, Warsaw could count on a more or less favorable boundary with Germany, to the west. But the question of Poland’s eastern border was open. Because the Entente had won no war on the eastern front, it had no terms to impose in eastern Europe.

In 1919 and 1920, the Poles and the Bolsheviks fought a war for the borderlands between Poland and Russia that was decisive for the European order. The Red Army had moved into Ukraine and Belarus as the Germans had withdrawn, but these gains were not acknowledged by the Polish leadership. Piłsudski saw these lands between as independent political subjects whose history was linked to that of Poland, and whose leaders should wish to restore some version of the old Commonwealth in Belarus and Lithuania. He hoped that Polish armies, supported by Ukrainian allies, could help create an independent Ukrainian state. Once the Bolsheviks had brought Ukraine under control in 1919, and halted a Polish offensive there in spring 1920, Lenin and Trotsky thought that they would bring their own revolution to Poland, using the bayonet to inspire workers to fulfill their historical role. After Poland’s fall, German comrades, assisted by the new Red Army, would bring to bear Germany’s vast resources to save the Russian revolution. But the Soviet forces on their way to Berlin were halted by the Polish Army at Warsaw in August 1920.

Piłsudski led a counterattack that drove the Red Army back into Belarus and Ukraine. Stalin, a political officer with the Red Army in Ukraine, was among the defeated. His own misjudgments there prevented the proper coordination of Bolshevik forces, leaving the Red Army vulnerable to Piłsudski’s maneuver. The Polish military victory did not mean the destruction of Bolshevik power: Polish troops were too exhausted to march on Moscow, and Polish society too divided to support such an adventure. In the end, territories inhabited by Belarusians and Ukrainians were divided between Bolshevik Russia and Poland. Poland was thus established as a multinational state, its population perhaps two-thirds Polish reckoned by language, but including some five million Ukrainians, three million Jews, one million Belarusians, and somewhere between half a million and a million Germans. Poland was constitutionally a state “for the Polish nation,” but it held the largest population of Jews in Europe and the second-largest (after Bolshevik Russia) population of Ukrainians and Belarusians. It shared all three of its large national minorities—the Jews, the Ukrainians, and the Belarusians—with its eastern neighbor.

As east European borders were being decided on the battlefields of Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, the victors in the First World War were dictating terms in central and western Europe. While Poland and the Bolsheviks were fighting on what had been the eastern front of the First World War, defeated Germany sought to present a pacific face to the victors. Germany declared itself a republic, the better to negotiate terms with the French, British, and Americans. Its major Marxist party, the Social Democrats, rejected the Bolshevik example and made no revolution in Germany. Most German social democrats had been loyal to the German Empire during the war, and now saw the declaration of a German republic as progress. But these moderating choices helped Germany little. The postwar settlements were dictated rather than discussed; in violation of long European tradition, the defeated were denied a place at the table at the Paris peace talks. The German government had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Versailles of June 1919, but few German politicians felt bound to defend its terms.

Because the treaty was drafted by moralizing victors, it could easily be attacked as hypocritical. While fighting a war against continental empires, the Entente Powers had declared themselves to be supporters of the liberation of the nations of central Europe. The Americans in particular characterized their participation in the war as a crusade for national self-determination. But the French, who had suffered more than any power, wanted the Germans punished and France’s allies rewarded. The Treaty of Versailles indeed contradicted the very principle for which the Entente Powers had claimed to fight the war: national self-determination. At Versailles, as at Trianon (June 1920) and Sèvres (August 1920), the peoples considered allies by the Entente (Poles, Czechs, Romanians) got more territory and accordingly more numerous ethnic minorities within their frontiers. The nations considered enemies (Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians) got less territory and accordingly larger diasporas of their own people within the borders of other states.

The Polish-Bolshevik War was fought in the period between the opening of discussions at Versailles and the signing of the treaty at Sèvres. Because Europe was still at war in the east while these treaties were being negotiated and signed in the west, the new postwar order was a bit ethereal. It seemed vulnerable to revolution from the left, inspired or even brought by the Bolsheviks. So long as the Polish-Bolshevik war was underway, revolutionaries in Germany could imagine that help was coming from the Red Army. The new German republic also seemed vulnerable to revolution from the right. German soldiers returning from the eastern front, where they had been victorious, saw no reason to accede to what they regarded as the humiliation of their homeland by the new republic and the Treaty of Versailles that it had signed. Many veterans joined right-wing militias, which fought against left-wing revolutionaries. The German social democratic government, in the belief that it had no alternative, used some of the right-wing militias to suppress communist attempts at revolution.

The Polish victory over the Red Army at Warsaw in August 1920 brought an end to hopes for a European socialist revolution. The treaty between Poland and Bolshevik Russia signed in Riga in March 1921 was the true completion of the postwar settlement. It established Poland’s eastern border, ensured that divided Ukrainian and Belarusian lands would be a bone of contention for years to come, and made of Bolshevism a state ideology rather than an armed revolution. The Soviet Union, when established the following year, would be a state with borders—in that respect, at least, a political entity like others. The end of large-scale armed conflict was also the end of hopes on the Right that revolution could lead to counterrevolution. Those who wished to overturn the new German republic, whether from the Far Right or the Far Left, would have to count on their own forces. German social democrats would remain supporters of the republic, while German communists would praise the Soviet model and follow the Soviet line. They would take their instructions from the Communist International, established by Lenin in 1919. The German Far Right would have to reimagine the end of the postwar order as a goal of Germany alone, to be achieved after Germany itself was rebuilt and remade.

The rebuilding of Germany seemed more difficult than it really was. Germany, blamed for the war, lost not only territory and population but the right to normal armed forces. It suffered in the early 1920s from hyperinflation and political chaos. Even so, Germany remained, at least potentially, the most powerful country in Europe. Its population was second only to that of the Soviet Union, its industrial potential second to none, its territory unoccupied during the war, and its possibilities for expansion sketched implicitly in the logic of the peace settlements. Once the fighting in Europe had ceased, the German government quickly found common ground with the Soviet Union. After all, both Berlin and Moscow wanted to change the European order at the expense of Poland. Each wished to be less isolated in international politics. Thus it was a democratic German government that signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union in 1922, restoring diplomatic relations, easing trade, and inaugurating secret military cooperation.

For many Germans, self-determination was both persecution and promise. About ten million speakers of the German language, former subjects of the Habsburg monarchy, remained beyond Germany’s borders. Some three million such people inhabited the northwestern rim of Czechoslovakia, right at the border of Czechoslovakia and Germany. There were more Germans in Czechoslovakia than there were Slovaks. Almost the entire population of Austria, resting between Czechoslovakia and Germany, were German speakers. Austria was nevertheless required by the Treaty of St. Germain to exist as a separate state, although much of its population would have preferred accession to Germany. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party established in 1920, was an Austrian and an advocate of an Anschluss: a unification of Austria and Germany. Such goals of national unity, dramatic as they were, actually concealed the full measure of Hitler’s ambitions.

Later, Hitler would be the German chancellor who signed the treaty with the Soviet Union that divided Poland. In taking this step, he would be taking to an extreme an idea that many Germans held: that Poland’s borders were illegitimate and its people unworthy of statehood. Where Hitler stood apart from other German nationalists was in his view of what must come next, after the unification of Germans within Germany and the mastery of Poland: the elimination of the European Jews, and the destruction of the Soviet Union. Along the way Hitler would offer friendship to both Poland and the Soviet Union, and disguise his more radical intentions from Germans until it was too late. But the catastrophic visions were present in National Socialism from the beginning.

When the cataclysm of war finally ended in eastern Europe in 1921, Lenin and his revolutionaries had to regroup and think. Deprived by the Poles of their European triumph, the Bolsheviks had no choice but to douse the revolutionary conflagration and build some sort of socialist state. Lenin and his followers took for granted that they should hold power; indeed, the failure of the European revolution became their justification for extraordinary aspirations to political control. Power had to be centralized so that the revolution could be completed, and so that it could be defended from its capitalist enemies. They quickly banned other political parties and terrorized political rivals, dismissing them as reactionary. They lost the only competitive elections that they held, and so held no others. The Red Army, though defeated in Poland, was more than sufficient to defeat all armed rivals on the territory of the old empire. The Bolsheviks’ secret service, known as the Cheka, killed thousands of people in the service of the consolidation of the new Soviet state.

It was easier to triumph in violence that it was to make a new order. Marxism was of only limited help as a program for a multicultural country of peasants and nomads. Marx had assumed that revolution would come first to the industrial world, and had devoted only sporadic attention to the peasant question and the national question. Now the peasants of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and the nomads of Central Asia would have to somehow be induced to build socialism for a working class that was concentrated in Russian-speaking cities. The Bolsheviks had to transform the preindustrial society that they had inherited in order to build the industrial society which history had not yet brought; only then could they alter that industrial society so that it favored workers.

The Bolsheviks had first to perform the constructive work of capitalism before they could really begin the transformative work of socialism. As the state created industry, they decided, it would draw members of the Soviet Union’s countless cultures into a larger political loyalty that would transcend any national difference. The mastery of both peasants and nations was a grand ambition indeed, and the Bolsheviks concealed its major implication: that they were the enemies of their own peoples, whether defined by class or by nation. They believed that the society that they governed was historically defunct, a bookmark to be removed before a page was turned.

To consolidate their power when the war was over, and to gain loyal cadres for the economic revolution to come, the Bolsheviks had to make some compromises. Nations under their control would not be allowed independent statehood, of course, but nor were they condemned to oblivion. Though Marxists generally thought that the appeal of nationalism would decline with modernization, the Bolsheviks decided to recruit the nations, or at least their elites, to their own campaign to industrialize the Soviet Union. Lenin endorsed the national identity of the non-Russian peoples. The Soviet Union was an apparent federation of Russia with neighboring nations. Policies of preferential education and hiring were to gain the loyalty and trust of non-Russians. Themselves subjects of one and then rulers of another multinational state, the Bolsheviks were capable of subtle reasoning and tact on the national question. The leading revolutionaries themselves were far from being Russians in any simple way. Lenin, regarded and remembered as Russian, was also of Swedish, German, Jewish, and Kalmyk background; Trotsky was Jewish, and Stalin was Georgian.

The nations were to be created in a new communist image; the peasants were to be consoled until they could be overcome. The Bolsheviks made a compromise with their rural population that they knew, and the peasants feared, was only temporary. The new Soviet regime allowed peasants to keep land that they had seized from their former landlords, and to sell their produce on the market. The disruptions of war and revolution had brought desperate food shortages; the Bolsheviks had requisitioned grain to the benefit of themselves and of those loyal to them. Several million people died of hunger and related diseases in 1921 and 1922. The Bolsheviks learned from this experience that food was a weapon. Yet once the conflict was over, and the Bolsheviks had won, they needed reliable food supplies. They had promised their people peace and bread, and would have to deliver a minimum of both, at least for a time.

Lenin’s state was a political holding action for an economic revolution still to come. His Soviet polity recognized nations, although Marxism promised a world without them; and his Soviet economy permitted a market, although communism promised collective ownership. When Lenin died in January 1924, debates were already underway about when and how these transitional compromises should yield to a second revolution. And it was precisely discussion, in the new Soviet order, that determined the fate of the Soviet population. From Lenin the Bolsheviks had inherited the principle of “democratic centralism,” a translation of Marxist historiosophy into bureaucratic reality. Workers represented the forward flow of history; the disciplined communist party represented the workers; the central committee represented the party; the politburo, a group of a few men, represented the central committee. Society was subordinate to the state which was controlled by party which in practice was ruled by a few people. Disputes among members of this small group were taken to represent not politics but rather history, and their outcomes were presented as its verdict.


Stalin’s interpretation of Lenin’s legacy was to be decisive. When Stalin spoke of “socialism in one country” in 1924, he meant that the Soviet Union would have to build its worker’s paradise without much help from the workers of the world, who had not united. Though communists disagreed about the priorities of agricultural policy, all took for granted that the Soviet countryside would soon have to finance its own destruction. But where to find the initial capital for the traumatic transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy? A way would have to be found to extract a “surplus” from the peasant, which could be sold for the foreign currency needed to import machinery—and used to fill the bellies of a growing working class. In 1927, as state investment shifted decisively in favor of industry, this discussion entered the critical phase.

The debate over modernization was, above all, a duel between Trotsky and Stalin. Trotsky was the most accomplished of Lenin’s comrades; Stalin, however, had been placed in charge of the party bureaucracy as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). Stalin’s control of personnel and his practical genius in committee meetings brought him to the top. He did not dazzle in theoretical discussions, but he knew how to assemble a coalition. Within the politburo, he allied first with those who favored a slower course of economic transformation and eliminated those who seemed more radical; then he radicalized his own position and purged his previous allies. By the end of 1927, his former rivals from the Left—Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev—had been expelled from the party. By the end of 1929, Stalin had associated himself with the policies of those purged rivals, and rid himself of his main ally on the Right, Nikolai Bukharin. Like Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin remained in the Soviet Union, stripped of his previous authority. Stalin found loyal supporters within the politburo, notably Lazar Kaganovich and Viacheslav Molotov. Trotsky left the country.

Dexterous though he was in defining Soviet policy, Stalin now had to ensure that it fulfilled its promise. By 1928, by the terms of his first Five-Year Plan, Stalin proposed to seize farmland, force the peasants to work it in shifts under state control, and treat the crops as state property—a policy of “collectivization.” Land, equipment, and people would all belong to the same collective farm, large entities that would (it was assumed) produce more efficiently. Collective farms would be organized around Machine Tractor Stations, which would distribute modern equipment and house the political agitators. Collectivization would allow the state to control agricultural output, and thus feed its workers and keep their support, and to export to foreign countries and win some hard currency for investment in industry.

To make collectivization seem inevitable, Stalin had to weaken the free market and replace it with state planning. His ally Kaganovich proclaimed in July 1928 that peasants were engaging in a “grain strike,” and that requisitioning their crops was the only solution. Once peasants saw that their produce could be taken, they hid it rather than selling it. Thus the market appeared even more unreliable—although the state was really to blame. Stalin could then argue, as he did, that market spontaneity was the fundamental problem, and that the state had to control food supplies.

The coming of the Great Depression seemed to prove Stalin right about the unreliability of the market. On Black Tuesday, 29 October 1929, the American stock market crashed. On 7 November 1929, the twelfth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin described the socialist alternative to the market that his policies would quickly bring to the Soviet Union. He promised that 1930 would be “the year of the great transformation,” when collectivization would bring security and prosperity. The old countryside would cease to exist. Then the revolution could be completed in the cities, where the proletariat would grow great on food produced by the pacified peasantry. These workers would create the first socialist society in history, and a powerful state that could defend itself from foreign enemies. As Stalin made his case for modernization, he was also staking his claim to power.

While Stalin worked, Hitler inspired. Whereas Stalin was institutionalizing a revolution and thereby assuring himself a place at the top of a one-party state, Hitler made his political career by rejecting the institutions around him. The Bolsheviks inherited a tradition of debate-then-discipline from years of illegal work in the Russian Empire. The National Socialists (Nazis) had no meaningful traditions of discipline or conspiracy. Like the Bolsheviks, the Nazis rejected democracy, but in the name of a Leader who could best express the will of the race, not in the name of a Party that understood the dictates of history. The world order was not made by capitalist imperialists, as the Bolsheviks believed, but rather by conspiratorial Jews. The problem with the modern society was not that the accumulation of property led to the domination of a class; the problem was that Jews controlled both finance capitalism and communism, and thus America, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Communism was just a Jewish fairy tale of impossible equality, designed to bring naive Europeans under Jewish thrall. The answer to heartless Jewish capitalism and communism could only be national socialism, which meant justice for Germans at the expense of others.

Nazis tended to emphasize, in the democratic years of the 1920s, what they had in common with other Germans. Hitler’s National Socialists were like most other German parties of the 1920s in their revulsion at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The Nazis had a certain obsession with their manifest destiny in the East: where German soldiers had been victorious in the field in the First World War, and where Germany had ruled a large occupation zone in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic region in 1918. Unlike European rivals such as France and Great Britain, Germany had no vast world empire; it had surrendered its modest overseas possessions after losing the war. Thus the east European frontier beckoned all the more. The Soviet Union, seen as an illegitimate and oppressive Jewish regime, would have to fall. Poland, which lay between Germany and its eastern destiny, would have to be overcome along the way. It could not be a buffer to German power: it would have to be either a weak ally or a defeated foe in the coming wars for the east.

Hitler tried and failed to begin a German national revolution in Munich in November 1923, which led to a brief spell in prison. Though the substance of his National Socialism was his own creation, his coup d’état was inspired by the success of the Italian fascists he admired. Benito Mussolini had taken power in Italy the previous year after the “March on Rome,” which Hitler imitated without success in Munich. Italian fascists, like Hitler and his Nazis, offered the glorification of the national will over the tedium of political compromise. Mussolini, and Hitler following him, used the existence of the Soviet Union within domestic politics. While admiring the discipline of Lenin and the model of the one-party state, both men used the threat of a communist revolution as an argument for their own rule. Though the two men differed in many respects, they both represented a new kind of European Right, one which took for granted that communism was the great enemy while imitating aspects of communist politics. Like Mussolini, Hitler was an outstanding orator and the one dominant personality in his movement. Hitler had little trouble regaining the leadership of the Nazi party after his release from prison in December 1924.

Stalin rose to power in the second half of the 1920s in large measure because of the cadres whom he appointed and could trust to support him. Hitler drew support by way of personal charisma, and expected his associates and supporters to devise policies and language that corresponded to his rhetoric and imagination. Stalin interpreted Marxist thought as necessary to hasten his rise and defend his policies, but at least until 1933 he was never free to interpret Marxism exactly as he liked. Hitler, on the other hand, inspired others to do his practical thinking for him. In prison Hitler had written the first volume of his biographical manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). This and his other writings (especially his so-called Second Book) expressed his plans clearly, but they were not part of a canon. Stalin was at first constrained by what his comrades might do, and later concerned by what they might say. Hitler never had to maintain even an appearance of dialogue or consistency.

Hitler made a certain compromise with the German republic after his release from prison. He practiced parliamentary politics as the leader of his National Socialist party, if only as a means of spreading propaganda, identifying enemies, and approaching the institutions of power. He tried to stay out of prison, even as Nazi paramilitaries engaged in brawls with left-wing enemies. In 1928, after the German economy had shown several consecutive years of growth, the Nazis took only twelve seats in parliament, with 2.6 percent of the votes cast. Then came the Great Depression, a greater boon to Hitler than even to Stalin. The collapse of the German economy summoned the specter of a communist revolution; both helped Hitler come to power. The international economic crisis seemed to justify radical change. The seeming possibility of a revolution led by the large Communist Party of Germany generated fears that Hitler could channel toward nationalism. In September 1930 the Nazis won 18 percent of the vote and 107 seats—and then won the elections of July 1932, with no less than 37 percent of the vote.

By 1932, German parliamentary elections were a demonstration of popular support rather than a direct route to power, since democracy in Germany existed only in form. For the previous two years, heads of government (chancellors) had induced the president to issue decrees that had the force of law. The parliament (Reichstag) convened only thirteen times in 1932. Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933 with the help of conservatives and nationalists who believed that they could use him to keep the large German Left from power. To their surprise, Hitler called snap elections, and used his new position to assert his party’s hegemony over German society. When the results were announced on 5 March 1933, the Nazis had defeated the social democrats and the communists in dramatic fashion: with 43.9 percent of the vote, and 288 of 647 seats in the Reichstag.

Hitler was remaking the German political system in spring 1933—at the same time that Stalin was asserting his own personal authority in the Soviet Union.


In 1933, the Soviet and Nazi governments shared the appearance of a capacity to respond to the world economic collapse. Both radiated dynamism at a time when liberal democracy seemed unable to rescue people from poverty. Most governments in Europe, including the German government before 1933, had believed that they had few means at their disposal to address the economic collapse. The predominant view was that budgets should be balanced and money supplies tightened. This, as we know today, only made matters worse. The Great Depression seemed to discredit the political response to the end of the First World War: free markets, parliaments, nation-states. The market had brought disaster, no parliament had an answer, and nation-states seemingly lacked the instruments to protect their citizens from immiseration.

The Nazis and Soviets both had a powerful story about who was to blame for the Great Depression (Jewish capitalists or just capitalists) and authentically radical approaches to political economy. The Nazis and Soviets not only rejected the legal and political form of the postwar order but also questioned its economic and social basis. They reached back to the economic and social roots of postwar Europe, and reconsidered the lives and roles of the men and women who worked the land. In the Europe of the 1930s, peasants were still the majority in most countries, and arable soil was a precious natural resource, bringing energy for economies still powered by animals and humans. Calories were counted, but for rather different reasons than they are counted now: economic planners had to make sure that populations could be kept fed, alive, and productive.

Most of the states of Europe had no prospect of social transformation, and thus little ability to rival or counter the Nazis and the Soviets. Poland and other new east European states had tried land reform in the 1920s, but their efforts had proven insufficient. Landlords lobbied to keep their property, and banks and states were miserly with credit to peasants. The end of democracy across the region (except in Czechoslovakia) at first brought little new thinking on economic matters. Authoritarian regimes in Poland, Hungary, and Romania had less hesitation about jailing opponents and better recourse to fine phrases about the nation. But none seemed to have much to offer in the way of a new economic policy during the Great Depression.

In 1933, the Soviet and Nazi alternatives to democracy depended on their rejection of simple land reform, now the discredited pabulum of the failed democracies. Hitler and Stalin, for all of their many differences, presumed that one root of the problem was the agricultural sector, and that the solution was drastic state intervention. If the state could enact a radical economic transformation, that would then undergird a new kind of political system. The Stalinist approach, public since the beginning of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan in 1928, was collectivization. Soviet leaders allowed peasants to prosper in the 1920s, but took the peasants’ land away from them in the early 1930s, in order to create collective farms where peasants would work for the state.

Hitler’s answer to the peasant question was just as imaginative, and just as well camouflaged. Before and even for a few years after he came to power in 1933, it appeared that Hitler was concerned above all with the German working class, and would address Germany’s lack of self-sufficiency in foodstuffs by means of imports. A policy of rapid (and illegal) rearmament removed German men from the unemployment rolls by placing them in barracks or in arms factories. Public works programs began a few months after Hitler came to power. It even appeared that the Nazis would dolessfor German farmers than they had indicated. Though the Nazi party program promised the redistribution of land from richer to poorer farmers, this traditional version of land reform was quietly tabled after Hitler became chancellor. Hitler pursued international agreements rather than redistributive agrarian policy. He sought special trade arrangements with east European neighbors, by which German industrial goods were in effect exchanged for foodstuffs. Hitler’s agricultural policy of the 1930s was a bit like Lenin’s of the 1920s: it was political preparation for a vision of almost unimaginably radical economic change. Both National Socialism and Soviet socialism baited peasants with the illusion of land reform, but involved far more radical plans for their future.

The true Nazi agricultural policy was the creation of an eastern frontier empire. The German agricultural question would be resolved not within Germany but abroad: by taking fertile land from Polish and Soviet peasants—who would be starved, assimilated, deported, or enslaved. Rather than importing grain from the east, Germany would export its farmers to the east. They would colonize the lands of Poland and the western Soviet Union. Although Hitler spoke generally about the need for greater “living space,” he never made quite clear to German farmers that he expected them to migrate in large numbers to the east—any more than the Bolsheviks had made clear to Soviet peasants that they expected them to concede their property to the state. During collectivization in the early 1930s, Stalin treated the campaign against his own peasants as a “war” for their grain; Hitler counted on victory in a future war to feed Germany. The Soviet program was made in the name of universal principles; the Nazi plan was for massive conquest in eastern Europe for the benefit of a master race.

Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow, but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between. Their utopias of control overlapped in Ukraine. Hitler remembered the ephemeral German eastern colony of 1918 as German access to the Ukrainian breadbasket. Stalin, who had served his revolution in Ukraine shortly thereafter, regarded the land in much the same way. Its farmland, and its peasants, were to be exploited in the making of a modern industrial state. Hitler looked upon collectivization as a disastrous failure, and presented it as proof of the failure of Soviet communism as such. But he had no doubt that Germans could make of Ukraine a land of milk and honey.

For both Hitler and Stalin, Ukraine was more than a source of food. It was the place that would enable them to break the rules of traditional economics, rescue their countries from poverty and isolation, and remake the continent in their own image. Their programs and their power all depended upon their control of Ukraine’s fertile soil and its millions of agricultural laborers. In 1933, Ukrainians would died in the millions, in the greatest artificial famine in the history of world. This was the beginning of the special history of Ukraine, but not the end. In 1941 Hitler would seize Ukraine from Stalin, and attempt to realize his own colonial vision beginning with the shooting of Jews and the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. The Stalinists colonized their own country, and the Nazis colonized occupied Soviet Ukraine: and the inhabitants of Ukraine suffered and suffered. During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.

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