Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Thomas Weber's Hitler Counterfactuals: Part II

It’s always a pleasure to engage in counterfactual discussion, and so I’m happy to post Professor Thomas Weber’s emailed response to my blog post from yesterday:

"Your blog post is most interesting and intriguing.  As to your point that one would think that a left-leaning Hitler would have opposed a right-wing Russia that had triumphed over the Bolsheviks in the civil war, my response would be that a) Hitler had never had any sympathy towards the kind of internationalism of the Bolsheviks, but for different kind of leftwing ideas, and b) that by the time Hitler started to take an interest in Russia and in the possibility of a Tsarist restoration, he had already moved to the right.”

“As to your second point, my response would be to say that Hitler, as well as Tsarist émigrés in Germany, argued that Germany and Russia never had been ‘natural’ enemies (but that only circumstances had turned the two countries into enemies during WWI, which according to their logic had been to the detriment of both countries). Furthermore, Hitler would have argued that he was not responsible for the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk, and, more importantly, that in his mind the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk had not been intended as a punitive peace and that it had kept Russia proper intact. In fact, Hitler repeatedly gave talks making that very point.”

“Furthermore, Hitler believed Germany to be weak in the early 1920s and thus believed that Germany on its own would face an uphill struggle to turn into the kind of empire that could survive in a new world of empires. It was in this context that National Socialists and some Russian émigrés started to see common ground and to argue that a sustainable and permanent alliance between the two countries would solve their respective strategic challenges.”

“You also ask “if Hitler and the Nazis become powerful, as in real history, but the Whites had won the Civil War (which never happened), might not Hitler have ended up invading Russia in a different kind of World War II regardless.” My response would be to say that Hitler would have seen an alliance with Russia as a path towards becoming successful and thus would, in all likelihood, have pursued a different strategy to becoming powerful. Of course, one may argue that a successful Hitler or successful Russian royalists may have been considerably less likely to compromise and enter into an alliance than Tsarist émigrés and Hitler intended to be in a situation of desperation.”

“It is difficult to give a brief answer to your question as to whether Hitler “might not also have pursued the Final Solution of the Jewish question” anyway. The answer to that question depends on the extent to which the Final Solution had already been predetermined by, say, 1919, or even 1933. I would argue that he certainly would have pursued a final solution, yet that it is open to debate as to what form that final solution would have taken, if the historical context of the implementation of that final solution had been different from the history that really was."

My response to Weber’s comments is as follows:

Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments.

I suppose the underlying question that I am interested in is the degree to which Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 (along with the intensification of the genocidal assault against Europe’s Jews) was fueled by anti-Bolshevism.  While many historians have argued that it was central (and that Hitler’s antisemitism was a function of his anti-Bolshevism), I remain skeptical and see the latter as subordinated to the former. 

I am intrigued by the possibility of testing this proposition counterfactually by imagining the scenario of Nazi Germany facing a right-wing monarchistic regime in Russia in 1939-41.  If the Whites had won the Civil War and defeated the Bolsheviks, would the Nazis have developed a different foreign policy? 

This begs the question, of course, of whether the Nazis even would have been able to seize power in 1933 without the threat of a Soviet communist regime that could be exploited for domestic political purposes in Germany.  Some scholars, such as Tim Snyder, would probably say no.  I would argue that it partly depends on the timing of the White victory.  If it occurred only after years of fighting and bloodshed, say in the mid-1920s, it would have left lasting scars and fears of a possible Bolshevik comeback that the Nazis could have exploited for their own purposes in the same way that the existence of an actual Bolshevik regime could have been exploited.  Also, even had the Whites won a quick victory in Russia, Germany still would have been rocked by the socialist and communist revolutions of 1918-20 and by continued communist agitation in the Weimar era.  So anticommunist sentiment in Germany would have remained high, thereby benefiting Hitler.  Moreover, the Great Depression arguably would have happened as it did in real history, and so the Nazis’ rise to power does not seem like it would have been affected by a White victory in Russia.

But how would this victory have shaped the Nazi regime’s foreign policy?  Would Hitler still have developed his Lebensraum ambitions in the East?  I am inclined to think so.  First, Hitler’s view of the “food crisis” facing Germany (and the necessity of finding new farmland somewhere) would have directed his attention away from western expansion (ie. towards France and the Benelux nations) and instead towards the east (where Ukraine’s grain was located); so, too, would his awareness of the fact that the east was where Germany’s ethnic German minorities actually lived, who needed to be incorporated for racial/Social Darwinistic reasons into a Greater Germany. 

If these practical questions are viewed as potentially decisive, then the question becomes how the Nazis would have justified an invasion of Russia ideologically.  In real history, of course, Barbarossa was justified as a global crusade against Bolshevism and international Jewry.  Without a Bolshevik regime, what would Hitler have invoked as a rationale for invasion?  Could antisemitic ideas, which still would have been powerful in Nazi Germany, been exploited to justify a crusade against a right-wing, nationalistic, monarchistic Russia?  I suppose some of this depends on what would have happened to Russia’s Jews following a White victory in the civil war.  Given the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred by White forces and other nationalist groups in the years 1917-23, they might have fared terribly in White-ruled Russia.  Many might have fled elsewhere (though most might have stayed if monarchist forces had eventually been able to restore order).  A miserable, oppressed Russian Jewish community, however, does not lend itself so easily to being exploited by the Nazis in the same way that, in real history, they portrayed Soviet Jewry as the string-pullers behind the Bolshevik regime. 

Of course, If Bolshevik forces had remained a threat within Russian society – that is to say, if a Bolshevik insurgency had continued to simmer underground, with periodic attacks, and the like, against the restored Tsarist state – then Hitler could have made the case that the Jewish/communist threat remained severe and needed to be eradicated.  As in the pre-1914 Tsarist world, which produced the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, antisemitic tropes could have been mobilized to justify an invasion of a right-wing nationalist Russia.  

(Left undetermined in this scenario, by the way, is the question of whether a neo-Tsarist regime would have actually been able to retake power in a post-civil war Russia, or whether it would have been some kind of right-wing fascist style regime, ruled by a strong man, without any monarchical connection.  Obviously, nationalist regimes can go to war with one another, though a fascist Russian government may have been ideologically inclined to ally with Nazi Germany).

Needless to say, I still need to give these ideas a good deal more thought – and, indeed, plan on doing so in my very-much-in-the-planning-stages book project on “What If?” scenarios pertaining to the Holocaust.  But I am convinced that part of the analytical problem involves assessing the relative weight of antisemitism and anti-Bolshevism as variables in the Final Solution.  In order to prove the centrality of Nazi antisemitism, one would need to show Hitler to be just as committed to invading a non-communist Soviet Union in alternate history as he was committed to invading a Communist USSR in real history.

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