Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, November 12, 2017

"No Lenin, No Hitler?" Reflections on Simon Sebag Montefiore's Bolshevik Revolution Counterfactual

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s provocative New York Times essay, “What If the Russian Revolution Had Never Happened?” (see LINK), offers many speculative assertions about how the events of 1917 in Russia might have turned out differently.  Many are plausible, but some can be viewed skeptically.

Montefiore is persuasive in asserting that “there was nothing inevitable about the Bolshevik revolution. By 1917, the Romanov monarchy was decaying quickly, but its emperors may have saved themselves had they not missed repeated chances to reform. The other absolute monarchies of Europe — the Ottomans, the Habsburgs — fell because they were defeated in World War I. Would the Romanovs have fallen, too, if they had survived just one more year to share in the victory of November 1918?” 

This represents one missed opportunity to avoid the revolution.

Montefiore adds that Lenin was “lucky that Germany inserted him like a bacillus (via the so-called sealed train) to take Russia out of the war. Back in Petrograd, Lenin, aided by fellow-radicals Trotsky and Stalin, had to overpower erring Bolshevik comrades, who proposed cooperation with the provisional government, and force them to agree to his plan for a coup. The government should have found and killed him but it failed to do so.”

This represents a second missed opportunity to avoid the revolution.

Once the revolution erupted, moreover, there were several missed opportunities to defeat it.  Any coordinated attack by White armies, the other side in the Russian civil war, or any intervention by Western forces would have swept the Bolsheviks away. It all depended on Lenin. He was very nearly overthrown in a coup by rebellious coalition partners but he made his own luck, though, by a combination of ideological passion, ruthless pragmatism, unchecked bloodletting and the will to establish a dictatorship. And sometimes, he just got plain lucky: On Aug. 30, 1918, he was shot while addressing a crowd of workers at a factory in Moscow. He survived by inches.

Montefiore concludes: 

Had any of these events foiled Lenin, our own times would be radically different. Without Lenin there would have been no Hitler. Hitler owed much of his rise to the support of conservative elites who feared a Bolshevik revolution on German soil and who believed that he alone could defeat Marxism. And the rest of his radical program was likewise justified by the threat of Leninist revolution. His anti-Semitism, his anti-Slavic plan for Lebensraum and above all the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 were supported by the elites and the people because of the fear of what the Nazis called “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

Without the Russian Revolution of 1917, Hitler would likely have ended up painting postcards in one of the same flophouses where he started. No Lenin, no Hitler — and the 20th century becomes unimaginable.

There is a lot to mull over in Montefiore’s essay.  First, it is worth questioning whether the revolution, in fact, “all depended on Lenin.”  After all, if Lenin had somehow not been on the scene in the fall of 1917 (whether due to a stalled “sealed train” or a successful assassination), might not Trotsky or another leader have been able to push Bolshevik forces forward in the same way that Lenin did?  This deserves further thought.

I am most interested, however, in reflecting on Montefiore’s claim: “No Lenin, No Hitler.”

Montefiore attributes the rise – and later success – of Hitler to his exploitation of German elites’ fears of a Russian-style revolution on German soil.  Without these fears, he suggests, Hitler would have received little support and may have never emerged in the first place.

Both claims assume the centrality of anti-Bolshevism in the origins of Nazism.  There is considerable literature on the connections between the two movements (from Ernst Nolte on the right to Arno Mayer on the left), but recent scholars, such as Thomas Weber and Brendan Simms, have challenged it, arguing that Nazism’s origins should be sought more in hostility of postwar Germans towards Anglo-American “Jewish” capitalism.

Montefiore’s claim, “No Lenin No Hitler,” does not convince with respect to the origins of Hitler’s political activism.  As Weber’s new book, Becoming Hitler, shows, anti-Bolshevism played a minor role in his political awakening.   He was more fixated on the threat posed by the Entente powers (and Jews) to Germany and their role in imposing the Treaty of Versailles upon the defeated nation.  Assuming that all of these events transpired even without a successful Bolshevik Revolution (as they probably would have), there is reason to believe that Hitler would have pursued a similar path of political radicalization.  This is especially true given the fact that he was mostly responding to events in Germany, not Russia.  And as we know, between November of 1918 and May of 1919, Germany was wracked by left-wing political radicalism – much of which probably would have transpired without a successful Bolshevik revolution.

Montefiore’s claim “No Lenin, No Hitler,” overlooks the possibility that, regardless of what happened in Russia, some form of socialist revolution might have erupted in Germany in November, 1918.  While I cannot explore this possibility in detail in this short post, there is reason to believe that left-wing German forces (the SPD, USPD, and Spartacist League/KPD) would have had plenty of reason to pursue their revolutionary political activities as they did in real history, even if the Bolshevik Revolution had never happened. 

To begin with, the revolutionary actions of Socialist forces in Munich and Berlin (led by Kurt Eisner, Friedrich Ebert, and Philip Scheidemann) were not inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and would presumably have taken place even in its absence.  Moreover, the split between the moderate left and hard left (led by Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s KPD) probably would have ensued as well, along with the Spartacist League’s abortive revolt in late December early January 1918/19, and the ensuing right-wing response led by the Freikorps.  All of these events were important for generating anti-Socialist fears in Germany, which would have been fearsome in their own right even without a Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  (These fears would have been further reinforced had other communist revolutions – such as Bela Kun’s in Hungary – happened as they did in real history).

The question is whether these fears would have been sufficient in their own right to sustain a Nazi party in the 1920s.  Montefiore’s assumption is that the existence of Lenin’s Soviet Union after 1922 kept the specter of a future communist revolution in the minds of German elites and led them to support the Nazis.  While this is true, in all likelihood, German elites would have remained frightened of a communist revolution even without a successful Bolshevik Revolution.  After all, German elites had feared a communist revolution since the mid-19th century and presumably would have continued to fear such a revolution even had the Bolsheviks failed.  So “no Lenin” does not automatically suggest the lack of support for an anticommunist Hitler. 

Moreover, Montefiore grants too much significance to German elites for supporting the Nazi party.  While the NSDAP emerged in 1919/1920, elite support for the party only emerged after the Great Depression in 1929.  Elite fears of Bolshevism were unrelated to the NSDAP’s emergence.  Elite support certainly helped the Nazis after 1930, but it would probably have existed even In the absence of a Soviet Union.  Elite fears of socialist revolution were heightened by the rise of socialist/communist activism following the Great Depression.  Had this economic trauma happened anyway (as is likely to have been the case), German elites would have feared the possibility of a renewed left-wing bid for power and looked to anti-revolutionary right-wing forces to halt it.

Montefiore and others might claim that the successful communist revolution in the USSR was crucial for keeping socialist/communist fears alive after 1917 and that if Lenin had failed, the wind would have been taken out of the sails of the political left.  But that seems unlikely.  The socialist movement (and fears of the movement) persisted in Europe after the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune.  These fears persisted in Hungary, moreover, despite the failure of Bela Kun’s communist revolution after World War I.  In other words, fears of the left after 1918 would have existed no matter what happened in Russia.

These speculative claims require further development.  But they suggest that
even without a successful Bolshevik Revolution, there would have been some form of Nazism.  Even without Lenin, there would have been Hitler.   

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Counterfactual Conversation with Thomas Weber About His New Book, "Becoming Hitler"

Over the summer, I exchanged a few emails with Tom Weber about the counterfactual implications of his brilliant new book, Becoming Hitler.  Our correspondence built upon an earlier exchange that appeared on the CHR last year (see LINK).

Now that Becoming Hitler has just been published, readers of this blog may be interested in the slightly edited version of our recent exchange, which is printed below.  Much of it involves a rewind counterfactual exploring what an earlier death of Vladimir Lenin would have meant for Hitler's views of Lebensraum.


I finally wrapped your provocative book last night and have circled back to some of the counterfactual questions we discussed last year.  I'm more persuaded than I was before that Hitler's Lebensraum ideas about seizing land in the east depended on him recognizing that an alliance with a restored Tsarist regime was no longer possible.  As you put it, that took place only after Lenin's death and the failure of the USSR to collapse in 1924-25.  I was actually hoping for more empirical evidence bearing this point out (though I realize it's hard to come by). Am I right that you are mostly correlating the timing of Lenin's death and the new foreign policy goals expressed in Mein Kampf as sufficient evidence?  


You are absolutely right in saying that you had hoped for empirical evidence in support of Hitler’s change of heart on Russia in 1924. So had I …. 

The biggest frustration in writing this book was the scarcity of sources on vital parts of the story. I had hoped that if I only dug deep enough, as I had for ‘Hitler’s First War’, the missing pieces of (empirical) evidence to tell the story would come to the fore (just as had been the case for Hitler’s First War). So, yes, as far as Hitler’s changing attitude towards Russia is concerned, what I did do was map out Hitler’s views on Russia, identify the time when his views suddenly changed rapidly almost overnight, and I then tried to come up with an explanation based on my reading of the documents that is the most probable and plausible.

Do I think that the timing of Lenin’s death and of Hitler’s expression of his new foreign policy goals to be sufficient evidence?  Well, the evidence would be insufficient in court but then again the same would be true for most of our research (and certainly for the work of archeologists or ancient historians). It is the best reading of the scarce surviving evidence with which I could come up with and I would hope that this is the beginning rather than the endpoint of a renewed discussion of the genesis of the Hitler whom we all know.

There are likely to be various pieces of evidence still around that will surface or resurface one day….One would also imagine that  there are still relevant papers in private hands amongst some Russian aristocratic emigre families but then again I am not sure if they’ll ever give access to them.

There is also a private collector in America who has amassed an enormous number of papers relating to Hitler. I know for certain that some of the papers in his hands would shed new light on some of the questions discussed in my book. Yet my attempts to get access to his papers for the time being have been futile. However, I understand that his papers will become available some day.  vI would also imagine that the private papers of Arenberg and others will become available in the foreseeable future. 


This also raises the question of what the earliest possible date would be for Hitler’s decision about the impossibility of a German-Russian alliance.  I wonder what would have happened if Lenin had died 1-2 years earlier and the Soviet Union had failed to fall by 1922-23?  Would Hitler have given up his German-Russian scheme earlier and embraced the idea of Lebensraum?  Moreover, how much of this decision was contingent on Ernst Scheubner-Richter's death at the Feldherrnhalle on November 9, 1923?  (after all, his death removes a key adviser who had been tellinog Hitler to hold out for a German-Russian alliance).  

Is there any evidence at all that someone else influenced Hitler to shift his gaze eastward?  You say that Rudolf Hess and Karl Haushofer gave Hitler the term "Lebensraum," but that it was grafted onto already extant ideas.  You say that Hitler's racism was reconfigured to fit his geopolitical goals (not the other way around).  That seems a fair point.  I wonder what other reviewers will say.   Anyway, I appreciate the book's restoration of contingency to Hitler's evolution.  It is quite convincing in revealing that Nazism did not arrive on the historical stage in any fully formed fashion.


What would have happened if Lenin had died 1-2 years earlier and the Soviet Union had failed to fall by 1922-23? Would Hitler have given up his German-Russian scheme earlier and embraced Lebensraum? Hmm, good question….

My short answer would be: Yes, he would have…embraced a colonization of Russia. My slightly longer answer is to say that a lot would depend on the people with whom Hitler had interactions. Let’s assume Lenin died in 1921 and that the Soviet Union was still around in 1922 and 1923; but equally let’s assume that Hitler would have still been surrounded by Scheubner-Richter, Rosenberg, AND Russian emigrés. The real question now would be if Russian Tsarist emigrés, Sch-R, & Rosenberg would have held on to their pipe dream of a new Tsarist Empire. In that case, Hitler might also still have believed that the Soviet Union was unsustainable and would soon fall.

Yet we also have to take into account that Hitler had a change of heart while being incarcerated and hence had time from contemplation. I would argue that if Hitler had been incarcerated earlier (let’s say he had been imprisoned much longer when he was in Stadelheim), if Lenin had died earlier, and if the Soviet Union had failed to fail much earlier, Hitler might well have pivoted towards Lebensraum much earlier. 

Yes, even though I have no firm evidence in support of your implicit counterfactual on Scheubner-Richter, I think you are absolutely right that his death removed a key adviser telling Hitler to hold out for a German-Russian alliance. This is a point I really should have made in my book.

Is there any evidence at all that someone else influenced Hitler to move eastward? Well, there is no firm evidence that someone else influenced Hitler to move eastward but others might well have played a role.

I wish we knew what happened to Hess’s notes from Landsberg (which by 1941 were still in existence)

I hope that other reviewers will [take note of] my argument that Hitler's racism was reconfigured to fit his geopolitical goals (not the other way around). This is…the…argument which I was surprised…was not commented upon in reviews of the German-language edition of my book. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

What If There Had Been No Balfour Declaration? Another ‘Cleopatra’s Nose’ Counterfactual

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has no shortage of counterfactuals – mostly “missed opportunities” that imagine ways in which the two nations might have avoided the errors that originally brought them into conflict (and have kept them there ever since). 

Nathan Brun’s short ESSAY in Ha’aretz provides a tantalizing scenario how it might have been – at least temporarily – avoided.

Like Blaise Pascal, who famously claimed that if “the nose of Cleopatra’s had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed,” Brun argues that if British Prime Minister Henry Herbert Asquith had not fallen hopelessly in love with a young twenty-eight year old British woman, Venetia Stanley, the Balfour Declaration would never have been proclaimed. 

The reason?  When Asquith, then 63 years of age, learned from Stanley that she could no longer continue their extra-marital affair and was going to marry the Jewish government minister Edwin Samuel Montagu, Asquith was “stunned” and decided to resign.  

The consequences were major.  As Brun puts it: “If Henry Herbert Asquith had remained in power, that seminal document of Zionist history would probably not have come into being.”  That he did not, leads Brun to conclude that “a love triangle” was responsible for “chang[ing] the course of Zionism.”

At first glance, claim certainly seems plausible.  It would not be the first time that a woman’s beauty had political consequences.

Consider the origins of the “Cleopatra’s Nose Counterfactual.”  It derives its meaning from the legend that Cleopatra’s beauty led her lover, Roman General Marc Antony, into a doomed military alliance that ensured Augustus Caesar’s rise to power.  At a theoretical level, the counterfactual obtains its rhetorical force from our fascination with the fact that minor causes can have major effects. 

It certainly seems that if Asquith had stayed in power, his indifference to Zionism – not to mention the hostility to Zionism of his cabinet minister, Montagu – might have forestalled the issuing of the Balfour Declaration.  The fact that Asquith’s resignation also contributed to Montagu’s loss of political status, cleared away two potential roadblocks to the Declaration’s later approval. 

That said, it is far from clear from this particular article that Asquith’s decision to resign was solely due to Venetia Stanley’s ending of their romantic affair.  It may have been a contributing -- or “necessary” -- factor, but it hardly seems sufficient.  To be convincing, Brun would have to show that other considerations were not involved in Asquith’s decision. 

What about the possibility that some equivalent of the Declaration might have been proclaimed by a subsequent British government after 1917?  This prospect seems doubtful given the fact that the Declaration was issued in the panicked conditions of World War I (with Britain hoping to get international Jewish aid to bolster its war effort).  With the arrival of peace in 1918, these conditions would have vanished and, with it, any impulse to grant the promise of a Jewish state in Palestine.  Perhaps another window of opportunity would have opened up later on.  But Brun may be on to something in focusing on Asquith’s resignation paving the way for David Lloyd George and the eventual Declaration.

By the way, Brun’s claim is reminiscent of Jack Beatty’s contention in his book, The Lost History of 1914, that Austria-Hungary went to war that same year, in part, because its War Minister, Conrad von Hötzendorff, wanted to impress his mistress, Gina von Reinigenhaus, and imagined that “if he led the army to victory, a bedazzled Gina,…would sue [her husband] for divorce, while a grateful Emperor would persuade the Vatican to let them marry in the church.”

How many misfortunes might have been prevented had various men not conducted extra-marital affairs?  This counterfactual has yet to be systematically explored.

Dissertation topics, anyone?