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.