In the autumn of 1939, after they signed a pact agreeing to carve up Poland, Hitler and Stalin were depicted in a cartoon as a newly wed couple walking down the aisle. Hand in hand, with Stalin the bride and Hitler the groom, the caption underneath read: ‘Wonder how long the honeymoon will last.’
As Laurence Rees demonstrates in his latest book, now out in paperback, it was in many ways a match made in heaven. The pair had so much in common. For instance, as the pact had shown, both men could put aside their ideological differences in order to advance their war aims.
The congruences do not end there. Once at war, the pair were extremely capable of spates of mass killing, forced starvation, and suicidal offensives. Both terrorised their subordinates into obeying their commands and adopted ‘not one step back’ initiatives at different times. And, of course, they were both cowards, strenuously avoiding personal visits to the chaos of the front line.
But the most-significant similarity was a fundamental mistake Rees claims Hitler and Stalin both made. ‘They fooled themselves into believing that they could think into existence what they wanted to happen,’ he says.
The book is a fairly intimate portrait. Large theatres of the war, such as Africa and the Pacific, are barely mentioned. Instead, the focus is almost solely on the two Great Dictators, men who had something of an obsession with one another, in part because they never met in real life.
In some places, it feels like we are treading on familiar ground, and Rees acknowledges his debt to earlier comparative studies like Alan Bullock’s book Parallel Lives. But this is an excellent study in its own right.
Individual testimony is threaded carefully throughout, while minor but significant episodes like the Finnish War are brilliantly rendered.
In that instance, Stalin suffered something of a mini-Barbarossa in reverse: Soviet troops ploughed into a foreign land only to get bogged down in a sub- zero wilderness, leaving them at the mercy of native counter-attack.
The event also fooled Hitler into believing the Russian army could be beaten, although it was not until after he went on and broke the vows in 1941 that the relationship between him and Stalin really changed.
The key period in the war, Rees claims, was in October that year, when Stalin went against his own instincts and decided to stay in Moscow despite the imminent threat of invasion. From then on, he played to his strengths as a consummate committee man, organising the bureaucracy involved in moving Soviet industry east of the Urals. Meanwhile, he took a step back of his own and began to trust General Zhukov to win his battles for him.
At the same time, Hitler’s weaknesses came to the fore. He seized personal control of the German army and declared war on the United States, two disastrous decisions, both taken in the same month.
Inevitably, the second half of the book focuses more on Stalin. His armies had done most of the fighting in the European war, at least until D-Day, giving him a strong negotiating position ahead of the inevitable post-war landgrab.
The man whose agreement with Hitler had facilitated the war to begin with now got to call many of the shots once the fighting was over, particularly with regards to Poland. It cannot be forgotten that it was for this country’s freedom that Britain entered the war in the first place. Now it would be under a new tyranny for decades to come – and Britain could do nothing about it.
Like his one-time partner in crime, Joseph Stalin tried to think a lot into existence. Depressingly, he got a lot of what he wanted, too.
Review by Calum Henderson.
Hitler and Stalin: the tyrants and the Second World War, Laurence Rees, Penguin Viking, pbk (£9.99), ISBN 978-0241979693.