Joseph Stalin: Waiting For Hitler

interview with Stephen Kotkin
Monday, June 25, 2018
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Uncommon Knowledge

Did you miss part one? Listen to part one of the episode here.

Recorded on January 25, 2018.

 “If you're interested in power, [if] you're interested in how power is accumulated and exercised, and what the consequences are, the subject of Stalin is just unbelievably deep, it's bottomless.” – Stephen Kotkin

In part two, Stephen Kotkin, author of Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941, discusses the relationship between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler leading up to and throughout World War II. Kotkin describes what motivated Stalin to make the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler and the consequences of his decision.

Kotkin dives into the history of the USSR and its relationship with Germany during WWII, analyzing the two leaders' decisions, strategies, and thought processes. He explains Stalin's and Hitler’s motivations to enter into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact even without the support of their respective regimes. Stalin’s goal was to defeat the West and he saw the pact as an opportunity to do so by driving a wedge between Germany and the capitalist West. Kotkin analyzes Stalin’s decisions leading up to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the disinformation Germany was feeding soviet spies to prevent Stalin from moving against Hitler first.

Additional Resources:

Peter Robinson: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. With us today, a guest who can talk about the relationship of both with deep knowledge. Stephen Kotkin on Uncommon Knowledge now.

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. The son of a factory worker, Stephen Kotkin attended Rochester University. Then came to the University of California at Berkeley where he learned Russian. Developed a fascination with Soviet history. And earned a doctorate. Dr. Kotkin is now and has been for three decades, a professor of history at Princeton. He is also a fellow here at the Hoover institution at Stanford University. I should add by the way that we are shooting here today in the Hauck auditorium at the Traitel building. A new building of the Hoover Institution here at Stanford. In 2014 Dr. Kotkin published Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878 to 1928. The first volume of his projected three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. Now he has published the second volume Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1929 to 1941. In part one of our conversation we talked about collectivization and the Great Terror. Now we come to Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Hitler becomes Chancellor, Stephen in 1933. And it becomes clear within months that he is rearming and aggressive. You write in Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, "Stalin was defiant towards the Western powers and solicitous towards Hitler's Germany. But fearful of an anti-Soviet coalition incorporating Nazi Germany too. The resulting pas de trois. Chamberlain and Great Britain. Hitler and Nazi Germany. And Joseph Stalin and the USSR, became in effect a Chamberlain versus Stalin contest to win over Adolf Hitler."

Peter Robinson: Hitler comes to power 1933, and much of the rest of the 30's Stalin is competing with Chamberlain for Hitler's good graces.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Explain that thesis.

Stephen Kotkin: Well we have to go back momentarily briefly to the Versailles Treaty of 1919. Which is the main treaty, it's not the only one, it's the main treaty from World War One. And that treaty is a harsh punitive treaty towards Germany which is labeled the aggressor, in the first World War. And has to pay punitive damages and many restrictions are put on Germany. The size of its army is very small. It can't have this it can't have that. The Soviet Union is not a party to the treaty  at all. They don't even invite them to the treaty negotiations. So you have this anomalous moment. The only time post Bismarck, since the unification of Germany, that both Germany and Russia are flat on their back. That's why the British and the French along with Americans are able to impose this Versailles treaty on Germany without any Russian participation. This treaty can't last. Even if the British and the French have the willpower to enforce it, it's going to come at some time, it's going to happen that Germany and or Russia rises up from it's back again. And becomes a power. It is so happened that both of them, Germany and Russia as the Soviet Union, became great Powers again within a single generation.

Peter Robinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephen Kotkin: So here's the problem. What do you do with a treaty that was imposed at this anomalous time and now you have these two great powers, that were either not part of the treaty at all or were the object of the treaty? And they want to revise this treaty. So the British spend the entire interwar period attempting to revise their own Versailles treaty. The French are opposed to the revision, and this complicates the factor the French live next to Germany and suffered most of the damage of World War One, which was fought not on British soil but on French soil. And then Hitler comes into the picture in 1933 and further complicates the story because he begins to violate the Versailles restrictions. And what are the British going to do? They themselves have been trying to get Germany inside a European security agreement. A kind of new deal.

Peter Robinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephen Kotkin: Where Germany is motivated to be part of this. They're incentivized to behave properly and help uphold the international order. Rather than to try to revise it. But then Hitler comes to power, and he begins proactively, defiantly to work against the Versailles order. Stalin on the other hand, has a different motivation from the British. The British want a deal that brings Germany back into Europe, with a tweak, a slight revision of Versailles. Stalin is against the entire international order ipso facto. Because it's imperialist. Capitalist or imperialist as he calls it. But he's fearful that all of the imperialist powers will form a coalition and gang up on him. To invade and overthrow his regime. And so he spends all his time, trying to prevent an imperialist or all capitalist coalition. He wants to drive a wedge, between the British and the French, and Germany. So he spends a lot of time recruiting Germany away from the British and the French. This happens before Hitler comes to power in 1933, but it continues even after Hitler's come to power. Hitler is spouting the most venomous ... In his speeches, the most venomous anti-communist, anti-Soviet, anti-Russian, anti-Bolshevik verbiage imaginable.

Stephen Kotkin: And yet Stalin still, because he's motivated by this geopolitical understanding of preventing an all imperialist coalition. Stalin believes that if he can avoid an attack on himself, and he can somehow get the imperialists, that is the capitalist powers, to go to war against each other he can get a socialist revolution in Germany or in France. So his motivation, and Chamberlains motivation coincide in the sense that both are attempting to recruit Hitler away from the other and to their side but obviously for different motivations.

Peter Robinson: And on August 23rd, 1929-

Stephen Kotkin: 1939.

Peter Robinson: I beg your ... I beg you pardon yes of course. August 23rd 1939-

Stephen Kotkin: Right.

Peter Robinson: Thank you. It's amazing. I can put my pen down on any page in this book and you can make sure I've got the date right.

Stephen Kotkin: The fact that you can lift that book alone is already impressive.

Peter Robinson: August 23rd, 1939. Joachim Ribbentrop-

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Is in Moscow.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And he signs and  Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister cosigns, a pact. A non-aggression pact.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Stalin is standing in the background the pictures show. Looking quite contented.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes he was.

Peter Robinson: This is the highpoint of his diplomacy. He's got Hitler promising not only that it won't invade, but that the Soviet Union may have bits of Poland.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: September 1st 1939, the Nazis invade Poland. 17 days later the Soviets invade. They also within a period of months, they pick up the Baltic states. South of Poland they move into Bessarabia. So they move Westward across a whole front.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes they do.

Peter Robinson: As a result of this non-aggression pact. So I guess what I'm ... The puzzle here is, to what extent ... Stalin knows that Hitler hates him. That Hitler has been talking about Slavic subhumans. He writes a phrase similar to that in Mein Kampf.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Stalin wants to defeat the entire West. And yet he's willing to make this agreement with Nazi Germany on behalf of what? The old czarist impulse to retake old czarist territory? What is going on here? And how does it fit with ... In part one you stressed again and again ... In part one of this conversation, you stressed again and again, Stalin is a communist true believer. How does that pact fit with his communist true belief?

Stephen Kotkin: You're right. The Communists were shocked at the pact. And in fact many of them, repudiated their communist beliefs. Because they thought that communism was anti-fascist to the core. And the idea of doing a pact with Hitler, the Nazi whom they called the fascist, was beyond belief. It was very disillusioning for many true believers.

Peter Robinson: Especially, or particularly or at least in part in this country. The communist party in this country.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: It was a terrible moment for them.

Stephen Kotkin: It was a blow. It was an emotional psychological blow. I have to say the pact among the Nazis was also a blow. Because Nazis were committed against what they call Judaeo-bolshevism or the Communist regime. And the idea of doing even a temporary marriage of convenience with the Communists, was anathema to the Nazi rank-and-file also. But Hitler and Stalin didn't have to stand before the voters. Ad so they could impose these pacts, which seemed to vitiate the ideological precepts. But here's the thinking once again. In the competition with Chamberlain for Hitler's favor, Stalin won. And what does that mean? That meant that Stalin had been able to turn Hitler westward. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st 1939, a few days after, following some hesitation, Britain and France declare war on Nazi Germany. So Stalin had his intra imperialist war. It couldn't have been more brilliant from his point of view. He would gain just as you rightfully said, new territories which the czarist empire had controlled, but he had lost. The Soviet Union had lost during the revolution and Civil War. They became independent. The three Baltic countries, part of Poland, that part of what became Romania known as Bessarabia. He recovered all those territories.

Stephen Kotkin: Moreover, there was an economic dimension to the pact, whereby Stalin would trade raw materials like grain and oil and manganese and other minerals, metals, to Nazi Germany in exchange for the latest prototypes of the best weapons Germany was producing. So Stalin was getting a cornucopia of machine tools and armaments, which he could then reproduce in his own factories, reverse engineer. Sometimes he even got the blueprints, and he didn't have to reverse engineer. So the pact was extremely beneficial to Stalin. Hitler had given up his leverage in the negotiation. He wanted to invade Poland and Britain and France had said that they would defend Poland's sovereignty. So Hitler was facing the possibility of a coalition against himself of Britain and France on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other. Which would have been a two-front war. So Hitler desperately needed to eliminate that possibility and he gave Stalin a wonderful deal. Stalin essentially dictated the terms. The big gain of all the gains was that France and Britain became the object of Nazi invasion. Of Nazi warfare. And so Stalin looked like he won in the pact a great geopolitical victory. And so from a communist point of view Peter, it does make sense.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: Preventing the all capitalist coalition. Turning the capitalist war against themselves and then standing on the sidelines and waiting to benefit because the destruction will enable a socialist revolution in the west.

Peter Robinson: All right. Hitler moves West. He goes through Belgium. He takes France, he drives the British expeditionary ... And the movie Dunkirk presents that retreat across the English Channel as a Great British victory. In fact it was a retreat.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: They'd been driven from the continent of Europe. But then the game shifts. Or at least Hitler's thinking shifts. And he decides he's going to open a second front after all. And of course as we know, this book ends on June 21st 1944. Deep into the night hours. Just a few hours before the Nazis invade. Which of course will open volume three. We want that volume quickly please.

Stephen Kotkin: So do I.

Peter Robinson: So we know as we read this book, we know what's going to happen. That the Nazis are going to put three million troops against the Soviet Union. They're going ...They're going to go drive to the South, they'll drive straight at Moscow. They'll drive up towards Leningrad. And Stalin will reel and reel and reel. And 20 million Soviets are going to die in this conflict. We know all that. What this book shows is that Stalin misses all the signals. We know what's going to happen. He misses the signals. You close ... Again it's an absolutely fascinating and thrilling, although tremendously annoying that you can't turn the page and get onto the invasion. We have to wait for volume three. But you close with the night before the invasion. And you make the the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and you make the point, Stalin is almost grudgingly ... His commanders see all kinds of German activity, and he grudgingly permits the commander's to raise the combat readiness of his troops but under strict instructions to avoid anything that might serve as a provocation for the Nazis. And a few hours after, the Germans give the signal to deploy and begin the invasion. There's this Soviet train that crosses the border carrying supplies for the Germans. How did Stalin miss it?

Stephen Kotkin: We have to remember ... That's a great question and it's very difficult. We have to remember though, that Stalin built a military power. He spent a lot of time in his office. Known as the little corner. Inside the Kremlin. Meeting with officials about military factories, about new armaments. About the latest and the greatest tanks and planes and artillery and even small arms. And so he had prepared. This was the greatest military in size of any. The Soviet military in 1941.

Peter Robinson: In history? In world history?

Stephen Kotkin: It had the most troops. It had the most tanks and planes. Not all of them however were up to date. Part of Soviet militarization, because it had started so early, in the early 1930's, was that they had an obsolete tank park, and obsolete planes. Meaning they had been built years earlier, the technology had improved but they still had those older ones in their tank park or on their airfields. Nonetheless he had prepared to fight a war. However he was afraid. He was afraid of the German army. He had watched them overrun Poland. Overrun like you said, the low countries and then smash France. Six weeks, France fell. Here Stalin's thinking, the Germans are going to become embroiled in a war in the West. After all, World War One lasted four years and a couple of months. The idea that this would happen in six weeks, that a great power like France, and France was a great power with a gigantic military. And great technology. The idea that France would fall so quickly was really unthinkable to Stalin.

Stephen Kotkin: So things had shifted on him and the pact was no longer as brilliant after the fall of France. The entire thing was predicated on, all the capitalists remaining at war for a long period of time destroying each other. But instead the Germans destroy their French enemy, and were still fully intact and began to move their troops to the Eastern border with the Soviet Union/ Let's remember when Stalin's borders moved West, and all that land he acquired, the result was now a border with Nazi Germany.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: And the German buildup was right, it was impossible to conceal. And Soviet intelligence reported on the buildup. The storing of gasoline near the border. The movement of tanks towards the border. The number of troops up and down the border. This was  information Stalin was receiving.

Peter Robinson: You have a document, you have a photocopy of a document in here, where Stalin receives an intelligence report that there's trouble coming. That the Germans are moving in. And he writes across it in the top, "Tell your officer to send it to his," and then there's a expletive, mother. This is not information this is disinformation.

Stephen Kotkin: One of the things about intelligence is that it's always contaminated with information, which is not true. Known as disinformation.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: So we sweep up electronically, everything imaginable in Russia today. And we think that that electronic surveillance of their cell phones, and their internet, and their land lines. We think that that's first-hand knowledge. But the Russians are deliberately putting false information into that stream in order to confuse us. And a little bit of disinformation can distract from accurate information that you've acquired.

Peter Robinson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephen Kotkin: So this is what the Nazis did to Stalin as well. They inserted obviously false information into the intelligence. So he was getting unbelievably good intelligence, Stalin was. But it was contaminated by falsehoods that he could recognize. And so this led him to disbelieve the veracity of the entire report. He couldn't pick out what was the disinformation and what was the accurate information. This contamination process was extremely successful on the German side. Moreover the Germans planted fake stories that were plausible, knowing Stalin's psychology. How to explain the troop buildup? The first explanation was that it was there on the Soviet Eastern border in South Eastern Europe, in order to attack British positions in the Middle East. Because the British had still not capitulated. They couldn't dislodge Nazi Germany from the continent, from the occupation of France, but the Germans couldn't invade across the channel. So the British were holding out, So the Germans told Stalin, by implanting the information.

Stephen Kotkin: Let's remember the Soviets had the best spy network in the world. Which the German suspected. And so by allowing whispering of information they knew that it would get back to Stalin. So they told Stalin that those troops in Southeastern Europe on his boarder were not to attack him. But they were to attack the British positions in the Middle East and undermine ... Force British capitulation that way. Then they came up with a second story. The second story was that, oh there won't be an invasion. There's going to be blackmail. The troops are there to intimidate, so that Hitler can get what he wants without fighting. So for example, he wants Ukraine. Stalin will have to hand over the breadbasket and industry of Ukraine. And if he doesn't the troops will invade. So the blackmail theory captures Stalin.

Peter Robinson: So the book ends. I have one more question which is dear to me because I really want to hear what you have to say about this. So I want to get to this one last question, in this part two of our conversation. But the book ends, this wonderful, apart from anything else, highly dramatic, but in the collectivization part and then the section on the Great Terror, you can begin to get the feeling that this man is just omnipotent. But as the book closes and he's confused by the German disinformation.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And he's believing what he wants to believe.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: You see a human being. Uncertain. Well trapped so-to-speak by his own patterns of thought.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: He's not omnipotent and he's about to reel as volume three opens.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: But here are my last couple of questions about volume two, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler. This question ... He  pushes the country through famine into collectivization. Then comes the Great Terror when he eliminates over 800,000. Kills over 800,000 .

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: People who are with him.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: How does he do it? At the human level? And I have two specific examples. Vyacheslav Molotov. Molotov's own wife is arrested and she is sent into internal exile and she stays there until Stalin dies. Stalin keeps her in internal exile.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And Vyacheslav Molotov remains loyal to Stalin and to Stalin's memory. Molotov is one of the last of the old Bolsheviks to die. He lives until 1986. And never utters a word of regret or disloyalty to Joseph Stalin.

Stephen Kotkin: You're right.

Peter Robinson: Stalin's personal assistant. The one who sits in the ante-room and controls who's going to go in to see him.

Stephen Kotkin: Poskrebyshev.

Peter Robinson: Thank you for pronouncing it. Alexander Poskrebyshev.

Stephen Kotkin: You got it.

Peter Robinson: Stalin permits his wife, Poskrebyshev's wife-

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: To be imprisoned and executed. And Poskrebyshev remains loyal to Stalin. During the second World War he's working 20 hours a day with Stalin. And again he dies in the sixties as I recall. Not a word of regret. Not a word of disloyalty. This is just incomprehensible. How?

Stephen Kotkin: Yes to us it's very difficult to understand. But let's remember once again. Stalin is a communist. He's midwifing historical necessity. He doesn't have time. Nor should he, devote himself to worries about morality, pangs of conscience, individual victims. Who will forgive him if the revolution is overthrown? Who will forgive him if he fails to build a communist state? He will be guilty before history, for having failed in his historical duty. So everything becomes subsume to this. And mass murder becomes justified. Because it's part of the movement of history, and the supposed greater good of humanity. We don't have any documents that show second thoughts. That show Stalin wondering if he should have killed so many people. Or feeling guilt about the peasants who starved. The documents we have, and they're very voluminous, are about Stalin not wanting to fall short in building a great Communist power. And being angry at those who criticized him for doing so. His minions, they were in awe of him. Stalin had capabilities, that they didn't have. He had a diligence. He worked long hours. He read hundreds of documents a day. He was in charge of culture, the economy, the political regime, international relations.

Stephen Kotkin: Imagine, if you were responsible for Washington DC, New York City, and Hollywood, all at the same time. One person. And he was able to put in the time, to be on top of his brief. Sure blunders, mistakes, limited horizons, but he was able to do it. He was a dictator of immense aptitude. And they saw that first-hand. That he was advancing the cause. He had no harem . Few mistresses. He was utterly devoted to the destruction of capitalism. Sure, a big story is what the costs are. The tremendous costs of eliminating markets and private property. And how , what we think, what some leftists think is the solution is worse. The elimination of markets and property doesn't get you to freedom. Yeah that's part of the story. But for Stalin, it was necessary. Historically necessary. And for those around him, they shared that view with him, and they were in awe of his power. I am also. I don't have very much admiration for Stalin in many ways. He was this murderous mendacious. Murderous and mendacious are too ... They don't even begin to describe what he's like. But if you're interested in power, you're interested in how power is accumulated and exercised, and what the consequences are.

Stephen Kotkin: The subject of Stalin is just unbelievably deep, it's bottomless. I've learned so many lessons about power. Evil power. Power that kills. But power that also was motivated by ideals. And those around him look like opportunists and cynics. But they too believed in this dream, of a better world. It was the false god. A false dream. And the world wasn't better. And we know that now. And some of them figured that out along the way. But in the meantime, this guy Stalin was carrying all of this on his back.

Peter Robinson: Stephen Kotkin, the author of Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1929 to 1941. Thank you for part two of our conversation. By the way, I said that was the last question and it's not. What's the publication date of volume three?

Stephen Kotkin: You were right, the previous question was the last question.

Peter Robinson: Stephen thank you.

Stephen Kotkin: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution, I'm Peter Robinson.

 

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