Posts Tagged ‘Stalin’

WW2 Anniversary

|   11 October 2011

One of the most important days in history

Moscow in the snow

First, I want to ask forgiveness from the few of you who are already aware of my views on this – but, I’m sorry, I can’t let this anniversary go by without mentioning the immense importance of a decision that was taken seventy years ago, on 16 October 1941.

In October 1941 the German Army was closing on Moscow. It seemed as if the Soviet capital might fall to the Nazis. There was panic, as many Muscovites sought to escape the city. And amongst those who favoured running from the enemy was Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD – the Soviet secret police. Stalin’s own armoured train was prepared and waited at Moscow’s central station, ready to carry the Soviet leader east to safety.

But Stalin decided not to run. On 16 October 1941 he resolved to stay and lead the resistance against the Nazis from his office in the Kremlin in the centre of Moscow.

I believe Stalin’s decision to stay was a momentous one. I think that if Stalin had run from Moscow then the capital would have fallen. And Moscow, as the centre of the Soviet road and rail network, would have been an immense prize for the Germans. It’s not too hard to imagine, if this had happened, that Stalin’s authority as leader would have been fatally compromised. Perhaps then – probably then, I think – the Soviet governement would have sought some kind of peace with Hitler, most likely along the lines of the Brest-Litovsk treaty in early 1918 which gave huge amounds of territory, including the Baltic states and Ukraine, to Germany. (Territory which the Germans subsequently lost in the peace settlement after their defeat in WWI).

So think of that, this Sunday, the 16th October. Exactly seventy years ago one man made a decision which could well have decided the outcome of the Second World War and which, unknown to most people in this country, also had a huge effect on all our lives. And, appalling as Joseph Stalin was, we must recognise that it was a decision that took great personal courage and benefited every one of us.

WW2 Anniversary

|   29 June 2011

The advantage of arbitrary terror

Soldiers of the Red Army were surrendering in droves.

Today is the 70th anniversary of one of the most dramatic meetings of the Twentieth Century.

Joseph Stalin arrived at Soviet Military headquarters on Frunze street in Moscow and confronted his generals about the desperate military situation – just one week after the Germans had launched their invasion. At Frunze street Stalin learnt that the Germans were about to capture Minsk, capital of Belarus, and that the whole front was in disaray. He lost his temper with General Zhukov and then stormed out of the meeting, pausing only to say ‘Lenin founded our state and now we’ve fxxked it up’.

Stalin then disappeared to his Dacha outside Moscow and wasn’t seen for 36 hours. Did he have some kind of breakdown? Historians still argue about Stalin’s mental state at this most crucial time. My own view, having studied the evidence, is that Stalin wasn’t faking it – he genuinely was close to losing his confidence as the leader of his country.

But what I think we should think about today – and something which is seldom mentioned in the context of what happened 70 years ago – is how even though Stalin was in a such a bad place mentally there was no plot to overthrow him. Molotov and the other Politburo members were too frightened, too traumatized by years of Stalin’s oppression and persecution that they dared not move against him.

It’s important in this context, I always think,to remember that whilst there were a number of attempts on Hitler’s life, there was not one on Stalin’s. And, significantly, Hitler – though a monster himself – did not persecute his colleagues as arbitraily as Stalin did.

The truth is that mindless terror directed against people who are working closely with you can help keep you in power in the tough times – at least it did in Stalin’s case.

WW2 People

|   21 May 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

Is it legitimate to express ‘sympathy’ for Adolf Hitler?

This week the Danish film director Lars von Trier was banned from the Cannes film festival for confessing – tongue in cheek, one suspects – that he was a ‘Nazi’ and that he had ‘sympathy’ for Adolf Hitler.

Von Trier craves attention and loves to shock – that much is obvious not just from his previous history at Cannes, but also from earlier remarks at the same press conference at which he announced he was a Nazi, when he said that various attractive actresses had asked him to make a ‘Hot sex’ film as his next project. He is clearly a silly man.

But it is the reaction to his remarks about Hitler that is really intriguing. Suppose he had said that he was a ‘Communist’ and had ‘sympathy’ for Stalin  – would he have been chucked out of the Cannes film festival? I suspect not.


WW2 Relevance

|   26 April 2011

Where does courage come from?

The steppes near Stalingrad where Vladimir Kantovski fought.

I recently learnt that a close friend of mine has cancer.  And instead of falling to pieces – like I fear I perhaps might at such news – he is brave and stoical. Why? Where does such courage come from?

I could never have predicted that he would be so brave – he never seemed a particularly courageous sort. But now that he is being tested he is reacting heroically. But then, thinking about it, I shouldn’t be surprised, because the bravest man I ever met was similarly mild mannered. He was called Vladimir Kantovski, and I met him a dozen years ago in his run down flat in the suburbs of Moscow. As a student he had protested at the arrest of his teacher in 1940 – an act which, unsurprisingly, meant that he was sent straight to a Gulag. When the Germans invaded the following year, fiercely patriotic as he was, Kantovski volunteered to serve in a ‘Penal Battalion’ on the front line.


WW2 Anniversary

|   12 October 2010

Invading Russia – the “sensible” option.

The Untersberg – mountain of myth

70 years ago, Adolf Hitler stood on the terrace of his house, the Berghof, above Berchtesgaden in southern Germany, and contemplated this view. The massive Untersberg, directly in front of him, was the mountain in which legend said that the Emperor Charlemagne slept, ready one day to rise again.

And in 1940, Hitler believed that a decision he had just reached would make him greater than Charlemagne, the man who created the German monarchy, greater indeed than any German who had ever lived. Because Hitler – and Hitler alone – had decided that Germany should invade the Soviet Union. With hindsight it seems to have been a catastrophic decision – one that led directly to Germany’s defeat. But that was not how most people saw it at the time. In fact, most German Generals thought that the decision to invade France in May 1940 had been much more risky – and that had brought victory in six weeks.

How much resistance could the Red Army – weakened by Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and broken by failures during the Winter war against Finland a few months before – actually put up? Well, most informed opinion agreed with General Jodl of the German High Command who said the Soviet Union would be ‘proved to be a pig’s bladder; prick it and it will burst.’

(more…) News

|   12 July 2010

The Timeline

The interactive Timeline

I just got back from a meeting with the brilliant Phil Draper of Sunday Publishing who has been working with me on making for 18 months now (though it seems like most of our lives!) We were going through all of the analytics showing how many people access what on the site – in essence learning what’s popular and what isn’t.

One thing was really surprising to me. Which was that whilst a number of the videos (like D Day and the Holocaust ones) were popular, as were quite a few of the expert interviews, what hasn’t been used as much as I thought it would is the interactive Timeline which is accessible from the homepage (click on the middle box on the non-subscriber homepage, or on the toolbar above marked ‘Interactive Timeline’)

I thought this surprising since I think it is a really interesting device. (Though I know from my time commissioning TV history programmes that just because I find something interesting it doesn’t necessarily mean other people will as well….) So I put in a plea here for the Timeline, and I also want to explain why I think it reveals things about this history in a useful way.

In essence, what I like about this device is that it shows two things that I think we often forget about this history. The first is that there were brief, intense periods of the war that were much more important, historically speaking, than all the rest. And second, that during these intense moments there was a great deal of interconnectivity across the various geographical fronts in the war – much more, I believe, than many people think.

Take the example above, of December 1941. I think what the Timeline clearly shows is how enormously significant this one month was:  on the Eastern front because of the battle of Moscow, in the Far East – obviously – because of Pearl Harbour – and in the context of the development of the Holocaust because Hitler announced that month to Nazi leaders that the Jews were to be annihilated.

In a way, all of these things are interconnected. Stalin would never have launched an offensive in December 1941 if he hadn’t have known that the Japanese were not going to invade Siberia but attack the Western powers instead, and Hitler wouldn’t have made the exact speech he did about the Holocaust if he had not thought that the entry of the USA had brought about the ‘world war’ which he had ‘prophesied’ would lead to the ‘extermination of the Jews.’ Now, I don’t want to make too much of this. I think the Nazis, for instance, were on the path to the ‘Final Solution’ without Pearl Harbour. But events occurred in the exact way they did because of this interconnectedness and you see that clearly on the Timeline.

Anyway, forgive the special pleading. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong and people don’t find the timeline as interesting as I do, but maybe you haven’t tried it out yet, which is why I’m writing this….

WW2 People

|   9 July 2010

Stalin – the watchful monster.

Joseph Stalin – the quiet tyrant.

I’ve just finished a long essay – more than 5,000 words – on Joseph Stalin for the Key Leaders section of the site. And writing it made me think once again of the people I’ve met who directly encountered Stalin, and of how their recollections were never quite what I expected.

I suppose, given that Stalin was responsible for the death of millions and had triumphed in the brutal stab-in-the-back (and stab-in-the-front) world of Soviet politics,  I had imagined he would be an obviously terrifying figure to meet. But, though he undoubtably did often strike terror into the hearts of people called into his presence, he didn’t use obvious methods to dominate people. Unlike Hitler or Mussolini, Stalin was not bombastic. Stalin rarely launched into lengthy monologues and he seldom screamed at people. Instead, he looked at them.

‘Stalin watched people’s eyes when he was speaking,’ says Stepan Mikoyan, who met Stalin a number of times. ‘And if you didn’t look him straight in the eye, he might well suspect that you were deceiving him. And he’d be capable of taking the most unpleasant steps… He was very suspicious. That was his main character trait… He was a very unprincipled man… He could betray and deceive if he thought it was necessary. And that’s why he expected the same behaviour from others… anyone could turn out to be a traitor.’


WW2 Anniversary

|   23 June 2010

The curse of hindsight

The Kremlin – where Stalin trembled in 1940.

Seventy years ago this month, in his office in the Kremlin in Moscow, Joseph Stalin listened to a radio report of the German occupation of Paris. As he learnt of the Wehrmacht’s triumph, he turned almost in despair to his comrades and complained about the performance of the French army, saying: ‘Couldn’t they have have put up any resistance at all?’

The German success in France was a disaster for Stalin. The core foundation of his foreign policy – the belief that the Germans would become embroiled in a war of attrition in the fields of Flanders,  just as they had in the First World War – was now shattered. Stalin had thought, back in August 1939, that he was being extremely clever in negotiating the Nazi/Soviet pact which kept the Soviets out of the fighting, and yet now he had to rethink his policy completely – and from a position of weakness.

In the wake of the German conquest of France, Stalin practiced his own version of obsequious appeasement. Deliveries of raw materials to the Nazis increased, and Stalin went out of his way over the following months to try and assure Hitler that he was a loyal chum of the Fascists. It was the behaviour of a terrified man – and reached a low point on 13 April 1941 when Stalin hugged Colonel Hans Krebs of the German embassy at Moscow railway station. ‘We will be your friends!’ said Stalin emotionally. ‘Whatever will come!’ Krebs was clearly not impressed by this display of weakness from the Soviet leader. ‘It can’t be ruled out,’ Krebs subsequently wrote to a friend, his letter dripping with contempt, ‘that Stalin was under the influence of alcohol.’


WW2 Relevance

|   7 May 2010

The Poles, Katyn and the recent plane crash.

The Polish flag flies at half mast at the Polish Centre, West London

Someone once asked me a really unexpected question: of all the sites of death and destruction that I had ever visited, which did I think still felt the saddest today?

It wasn’t a question I’d ever considered before – despite having traveled to many places in the world which have an extremely depressing history. Most obviously Auschwitz, of course, but also some terrible battlefields like Vyazma, west of Moscow, where I remember seeing rusting military equipment still lying amidst the trees, or the fields around Stalingrad where each spring human bones still push their way up through the thawing earth.

So I had to think a bit before I gave my answer. And in the end I could only narrow it down to two locations – each of which seemed as desperate as the other. The first was the site of Treblinka death camp. What was so dreadful about this place was the immensity of the crime committed here – around 900,000 people were killed on this one spot – combined with the scale of the camp. Treblinka was tiny. Only a few hundred meters square. And the reason it was so small was because it only had one function – murder. Almost everyone who came here was dead within a few hours of arriving.

And the other site that had the most profound impact on me was a forest near Smolensk in Western Russia. A forest called Katyn. It was here in April 1940 that the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – shot around 4,000 Polish citizens, the vast majority of them officers in the Polish Army. (Over 20,000 members of the Polish elite were murdered that April in total, since there were two other related murder sites elsewhere in Russia). (more…)