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Invading the Soviet Union

LAURENCE REES: Let’s move on to the attempted conquest of the Soviet Union. When did Hitler decide to invade the Soviet Union?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, I think we have to distinguish between an ideological aim and a political decision or a military decision. The aim was there from the 1920s, the mid-1920s at the latest, that Germany would have to tackle the Soviet Union to gain territory. That was an idea which seems to have been planted in Hitler’s head no later than about the end of 1922, the first time that it occurs, this idea. By 1926 when he finished the second volume of Mein Kampf that idea is plainly there, and the next three years, two or three years, he speaks repeatedly about this idea, like acquiring space, living space, and so that is an idea that’s there ideologically. And it fits, of course, into the race idea as well, the idea of destroying the Jews who are, in his warped vision, the power behind Bolshevism – so you destroy Bolshevism, you destroy the Jews and you acquire living space all in the same activity. So that’s the ideological aim.

But the political, military decision came much later and that decision comes more or less immediately following the great victory over France in 1940. So already by the end of June and beginning of July 1940, Hitler’s talking in private to his leading Generals about the feasibility of this. On the 31st of July 1940 he gets his Generals together at his alpine retreat, the Berghof near Berchtesgaden, and he announces to them that they must prepare for an invasion of the Soviet Union the next year. Even that isn’t the actual decision, because it is an indication of serious intent for which then various planning moves were made subsequently. But that was converted then into a military directive only in December 1940.

So basically from December 1940 you could say that the points had been switched to an attack on the Soviet Union the following spring, and from then on it was very difficult to diverge from that. And even then the actual decision, the initial decision for May, was then postponed to June, so you’ve got a whole series of steps. But, essentially, I’d say it was in the summer of 1940, and there the crucial thing was, if we’re not going to get Britain to the conference table how are we going to get them out of this war?

And Hitler had this notion, which sounds really odd today, but the idea that he put forward: we defeat London via Moscow, knock out the Soviet Union in a quick blitzkrieg war, take about four or five months, by the end of the year we’ll destroy the Soviet Union, Britain will then be bereft of its only potential ally in Europe and the Americans will now keep back to their own hemisphere. So by another route we will have won the war.

LAURENCE REES: And I think a lot of people hearing that analysis will think – hold on a minute, where’s the decisive Battle of Britain in all this? Because, of course, the Battle of Britain wasn’t resolved until the autumn of 1940, and yet here is Hitler in July 1940 essentially saying, ‘Look, we’re not going to mount an invasion of Britain, we’re going to invade the Soviet Union instead.’  So Hitler was never that serious about invading Britain?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: The invasion of Britain was always something which Hitler and the Navy leadership - who are crucial to this - had extreme cold feet about. They didn’t think it could easily be achieved, it was a very precarious and risky operation and, of course, Hitler didn’t want to have innumerable troops tied down in running Britain when he needed them for a war in the East. So we’re talking about the invasion plan, Operation Sealion as it became called. When it was first put forward it was put forward hesitantly and with all sorts of caveats, and it could only take place really that autumn, or else would have to be postponed to the next year. Across the summer the Battle of Britain was actually important to this, because one issue in it was that without full mastery of the skies it could never be undertaken.

But the real worry was that the British Navy was going to come down and the landing would be disrupted and would become very precarious as a consequence of the Navy coming down from Scapa Flow interrupting the landing. So by the September already this was being shelved and put off to the next spring, and of course by the next spring the invasion of the Soviet Union will have had absolute priority. So it was a dead duck. So in a way, therefore, the invasion was always a second or third choice, but what is the case is that in the summer of 1940 it wasn’t just a matter of saying, right, now we’re planning for Barbarossa and therefore everything else is shelved, it’s only that. A number of things were kept going at the same time. One of them was the invasion plans, another was then trying to do some sort of deal in the Mediterranean with Franco in Spain and with the Vichy regime in France to see if they couldn’t come to some type of fringe arrangement in the Mediterranean, which might at least assist then in a coming invasion of the Soviet Union by negating the West in Western Europe and by, in another way, coming to some type of settlement in the West which would assist the war in the East.

The war in the East was always going to happen and it had to happen sooner rather than later because of the pressure of time that Hitler felt very acutely, so did others in the regime, that you couldn’t just let this Soviet problem fester for much longer, you couldn’t wait until Stalin was ready with his defences, and you couldn’t wait until the Americans were ready to intervene, potentially, in the West. So, it had to happen rapidly and everything therefore was pressurised from that point of view.  So, there were a number of things going on which were potentially different moves in the summer and autumn of 1940, but not one of them really was a full alternative to the invasion of the Soviet Union. And when Molotov came to Berlin in November 1940, that meeting between Molotov and Hitler went very badly from the beginning, and that convinced Hitler that there was no time to lose now and that the invasion had to take place now. And it’s not surprising that the directive for the attack then came within a few weeks after that.

LAURENCE REES: And there are still some people – who, it must be said, don’t know the history in detail – who believe today that all this proves that Hitler was an insane person, because only an insane person would invade the Soviet Union.

SIR IAN KERSHAW: But at the time Hitler thought five months would do it, Goebbels thought four months, some of the Generals thought less than that. This was a collective German lunacy, if you want to see it in that sense. But the American intelligence forces thought that this would be between three and six weeks, they reckoned that the Red Army was in no position to withstand the Wehrmacht. And British intelligence also thought this was a foregone conclusion and the Germans would win in the Soviet Union.

So nobody really at that time, inside or outside Germany, thought that the Soviet Union would withstand this assault from so powerful a force as the Wehrmacht, and so the prognostications were that Russia would be defeated by the autumn and the winter. So the project was madness in a sense, to have this huge war in the East with the war in the West unfinished. But from the contemporary point of view the Red Army had fought a war in Finland in the winter of 1939-40 and suffered grievous losses in this war against a puny military force like the Finnish Army. And then on top of that came the racial sentiments that these were somehow Untermenschen and they were inferiors and they were not capable of putting up very stiff resistance for long. And beyond that then there were notions that Stalin himself had wrecked his own army through the purges of the late 1930s and that many of these people were not really willing to fight for this regime for very long.

So, all these things led to a grave underestimation of the Red Army, as is obvious, but at the time people thought this could really be rolled over within a matter of a few months before the winter set in. And the real fear was actually, curious though it may seem in retrospect, the power of the British Empire through its connections with America as well, that this was a graver threat than the Soviet Union which would easily be defeated.