There has been, alas, much talk of late about this Hitler personage. What he embodied, what his party stood for, what his policies unleashed, how he is the easy symbol of evil personified, how anything and everything which seem dangerous in world affairs ought to be compared to him, etc, etc.
Which all in its way might be applicable enough, though for my own purposes of understanding history, the primary lessons of Hitler must be tempered by grasping the time of his rise to power, and how he was a man of his times.
Neither you nor I, at the ages we are, has a full understanding of just what an absolute disruption of the course of world affairs the ascent of communist revolutionary movements to the status of leadership of the nation-state had been seen as, even prior to Lenin and his train ride.
There had been revolution of an anti-aristocratic and anti-religious nature long before, first in north America (!) where a new constitution had outlawed both state religion and the granting of titled peerage, in France where the ancestral ownership of land by lords either human or heavenly had led to the chopping of heads and the rise of a whole new form of imperialism never before seen and a global war lasting decades to thwart it. In China six years before the October revolution, mobs of liberal students waving volumes of Marx around, and accusing Christian missionaries of being among their most evil oppressors, had begun the overthrowing of the world’s oldest succession of royal dynasties.
People outside the western hemisphere (and today most in it) still fail to measure the full significance of the ouster of the old Spanish vice-royalty in Mexico, then the region’s unchallenged superpower, and what it meant that a coalition of anti-European intellectuals and outlaws and civil servants of mixed race, living proof that a hybrid of the American and French models of secular republicanism might well spread around the entire world of formerly secure European colonial vassal-states, now severed the trade routes between Europe and Asia that Columbus has set out to discover in the first place.
And just as today religionists of every brand name like to wail and gnash their teeth over how whatever is in the headlines marks the Last Days and the End Times, we probably have no real clue as twenty-first century people, how the news of the gunning-down of Nicolai Romanov along with his entire family, as John Reed had put it, shook the world.
In the David Lean version of “Doctor Zhivago” (far inferior to the Russian one, I came to find out after admiring Lean’s smarmy masterpiece for a lifetime), when Yuri and his family in hiding receive the news of the Tsar’s death, his father-in-law is beside himself, and wails, “Oh, that’s a savage deed…what’s it for?” Yuri the physician, ever the pragmatist despite his inescapably romantic failings, calmly states: “it’s to show there’s no going back.”
To the Americans, new arrivals in a war in which imperial Russia had gone overnight from ally against to treatied collaborator with Germany, and whose green troops now faced reinforced positions and a freshly re-armed foe across the trenches of France and Belgium due to the end of the war in the east, it meant that a revolutionary movement which would assassinate a room full of children for their royal blood, would stop at nothing to consolidate its power and achieve its aims, which also probably meant that its debts to Wall Street financiers might now go unpaid…
And to both the British, and to a Japan which had emerged from medievalism into the modern world under an ancient and unbroken succession of “sons of heaven” as its rulers, it meant that no crowned head was safe, and that no sanctimonious faith in any god’s protection could stop civil servants with loaded revolvers in a basement full of royals.
And after the Russian civil war and the emergence of a new union of socialist “republics” (remember that in the eighteenth century the term “republican” had been seen as the apocalyptic embodiment of evil, in the imperialist mind, that “communist” came to mean in the twentieth), the long and bloodied memory of every regime on earth under even the token rule of any crown, saw this new and unpredictable form of “republicanism” as the singular threat to their very mortal futures as well as their extensive earthly holdings, that must be stopped.
Simply put, the world of the 1920s and 1930s outside the USSR, was an anti-communist world to rival and even surpass the sentiments of the later years of the “cold war”.
As the old Great War alliance (which Russia had deserted) stood by and allowed Franco and his royalists to put down the “republicans” in Spain, Japanese secret police were going around arresting communist cells in the home islands, while German and Italian secret police were doing the same. And these latter three were also building mighty fleets and talking loudly of vast territorial conquests to be undertaken as if by divine right, as Franco now commanded the most battle-hardened fighting force in all Europe, during the mid-to-late 30s.
And the western realms of conqueror-Christendom, whether royalist or not, from the seat of power in an abbey in London to the western shore of the USA whose principal cities there were named after Francis of Assissi or called a city of angels, looked on at the anti-communist fervor in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan,
The genius of Hitler, a semi-educated failed art student and son of an obscure bureaucrat, was in reading the signs of his times during the Great Depression: so long as one made the right anti-Bolshevik noises, a national regime could quite literally get away with murder.
And so if any one head of state at that moment in history had the best of reasons to see the new rise of Germany as the gravest of threats, it was a seminary-educated shoemaker’s son from one of the oldest nations of Christendom named after a Saint George, one Djugashvili, aka Comrade Stalin.
But Stalin was obsessed with Japan, not for ideological but for strategic and territorial and historic reasons. His advisers and diplomats tried to warn him that war with the new Third Reich was inevitable, and many of them found themselves up against a wall for their trouble. He assumed that Hitler was his first line of defense against the same allies Lenin had sold out and who had tried to surround and strangle Lenin’s revolution during the civil war. And Germany had played no part in that blockade, while the US, Britain, France, and Japan, had.
And meanwhile, the gravest threat Stalin perceived within the USSR itself, was not imperialism nor capitalism nor Christianity, but Social Democracy. The idea of any re-emergence of a royalist Russia had long been dealt with, by civil servants with revolvers in a basement. There really was no going back, to that ancient form of rule. Where he saw enemies around every corner, was in the old pre-October coalitions of his fellow revolutionists, the Mensheviks and liberal intellectuals and trade-unionists and social-democratic factions, which today might be considered as much “leftists” as the Bolsheviks were, but who in Stalin’s eyes only meant that his personal rule wielding the power of the Party, was not yet absolute.
I’ll close with an extended quote from Rybakov’s “Fear” the second volume of the “Arbat” trilogy, in which a fictionalized Stalin himself is one of the principal characters. This passage is from inside the thought processes of a liberal professor, who knows he is, in 1935, falling out of favor with Stalin:
The rise of fascism in Germany in the 1920s called for a decisive turn in all policies. They should have created a united front of the working class and come closer to the Social Democratic parties. In the face of the Fascist danger, they had taken a hard anti-fascist position.
But starting in 1929, when Stalin had asserted his leadership in the Comintern, the intransigence toward the Social Democrats grew.
The Comintern’s Executive Committee in 1929 announced that the main enemy of the revolutionary proletariat was Social Democracy, and that the Communist parties needed a “determined increase in the struggle against Social Democracy, especially in its left wing as the most dangerous enemy.” And they had to break off all ties with it, and expose its “Social Fascist” essence.
This irrational extremism made Hitler’s rise to power easier.
A Rybakov, “Fear”, c. 1992
My translation: that social-democratic movements outside the USSR, such as in the US, UK and western Europe, among their campus intelligentsia and their labor movements and their self-liberalizing clerical sectors, were what Stalin saw as the threat to his planned world revolution. In his mind, Hitler could only aid him in that aim. Even with all the obvious and growing signs, written down in detail in Mein Kampf a decade prior, of Hitler’s plans of his own in the east, Stalin still could see no further than the vision of a “communist international”, as the song says, to “unite the human race”.
Better to deal first with the threat from Tokyo. The western powers didn’t care what happened to some yellow emperor styling himself a son of heaven and therefore in their eyes a heathen, and after all, they had sunk all those ships at Port Arthur back in ‘04.
The quote from Rybakov goes on to show how Stalin simply assumed that Hitler and the Nazis were just a glitch, that in the birthplace of Karl Marx the Nazis (who were after all, national socialists) could first be trusted to dispense with the intelligentsia and the unions and the liberal priests, and then that some German version of his own preferred Bolshevik ideology would just sort of naturally ascend, to dispense with Hitler.