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German invasion of the Soviet Union

LAURENCE REES: Was it a crazy decision that Hitler took, to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: At the time, in 1941, it wasn’t a crazy decision. There were a lot of German Generals who were aghast at the prospect and there was a lot of industrial, economic, military and technocratic opinion inside Germany arguing against the invasion of the Soviet Union. Many people said, look, it’s not really a threat, let them fester in their damp Bolshevism, ultimately they’re never going to really impinge on German interests and we’ll just leave them off there in the East. And Hitler was very forthright, he intended to occupy the Western rim of the Soviet Union at a minimum and evacuate the populations, which was a nice way of saying exterminating them through starvation. And they were saying that to take all this on, to administer that territory and repopulate that territory is a big job: we’re fighting a war here, we’re not trying to remake Eurasia.

But Hitler was confident. He looked at Stalin’s progress which was pretty abominable, he’d gone through the great purges, murdered millions of his own citizens and was wildly unpopular in just about every part of the Soviet Union. He’d even purged the best generals and marshals of the Red Army. Thousands of senior officers, colonels, generals and marshals had been just exterminated, so he saw the Red Army as a shell. That’s the basis of Hitler’s statement that if he kicked in the door the whole rotten edifice would come down. He really believed it, and there was reason to believe that. And remember his generals had gainsaid him before, in Poland, in Norway, in France, they’d said this can’t be done, they’d come up with unsuitable plans, Hitler really felt that if he listened to the generals - old think - nothing would get done. So he said, I’ll exploit the domestic, political and social weaknesses of the Soviet Union, I’ll exploit the unpopularity of Stalin, I’ll exploit the weakness of the Red Army which has been ravaged by the purges, and we’ll go in and we’ll tear off at least the Western part and we’ll get the Ukraine, which will be the bread basket, we’ll be able to feed ourselves, we’ll get access to the oilfields around Baku, we’ll hunt the populations out of these areas, we’ll starve them to death, we’ll send in Germans to be employed, to work, to grow food, we’ll enslave the Russians, the Ukrainians, to grow food for us,  so net, Hitler saw this as a very good idea.  And remember he came close to success.

LAURENCE REES: Could he have won it do you think?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: He pressed awfully close but the Germans weren’t outfitted for a Winter war. They hadn’t bothered to bring along antifreeze for their vehicles or Winter uniforms because they expected it to be a short, sharp campaign and that they would kick in the door and the whole thing would fall down. They come close to succeeding.  How do you define success? Would they have sheered off the Western regions: Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltics, and contented themselves with that? Maybe the Baku Oilfields - done something along the lines of Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918 when the German empire took the best part of the Soviet Union: the mines, the oilfields and the coal reserves. They took the best arable land in the Soviet Union and left the Bolsheviks with a relatively unproductive rump off to the East. So they could have done something along these lines that might have been a sort of success, but as it chanced the Russians were able to regroup and counterattack and then push the Germans back and then trap them in this long attritional struggle.