"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.   


That begs another counterfactual, would a non soviet Russia would have destroyed Nazi Germany in her cribb(1933-1936) or would a non soviet Russia would have aligned with France and England in the Sudeteland Criss of 1938?

An authoritarian non communist russia would have aligned with France and England against Nazi Germany like Tsarist Russia did with the France third Republic. Hitler could have been in power but there would not have been a truly world war two involving Asia, Europe, Africa and the worlds oceans. Likely the Beck&gGeordeler coup of 1938 would have succeded.

In the real world Italy abstained in 1938, Poland was a willing partner against Chekoslovakia(they occupied the Teschen in 1939). A non communist Russia in 1938 would not have had the Stalinist purge and would have been way more stronger against a barely equiped Whermacht(without the Chekoslovakian tanks) and a Luftwaffe that medium tactical bombers could not even reach England from Germany proper.

my humble opinion, there could have been an Hitler, but no Hitler world war and no Holocaust.
Unknown said…
This is a question that seems to be gaining traction, perhaps because of the centennial of the Russian Revolution and the demise of the Imperial family. Interestingly, it's one that I explore in my new novel, "Triumph of a Tsar." This is a novel of alternate historical fiction, where the Russian Revolution is averted, and Nicholas II's son Alexei becomes tsar. I agree that Hitler would still have come to power, even without Lenin- Germany was a mess after World War I, the terms of peace were humiliating, and the German monarchy had fallen, causing a void in leadership. I think conditions were ripe for a strong leader of Hitler's personality. In "Triumph of a Tsar," Hitler still comes to power, and Alexei stands in his way. The two meet in early 1939 to discuss peace rather than war, but the meeting ends poorly when Alexei refuses to acquiesce to Hitler- paving the way for a World War II in which Russia was much more prepared than in real life.
Jim Buie said…
Thanks for this. I added a link to this piece from my blog post, What If the Russian Revolution Failed Or Never Happened.