The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)


The Wheat Road

The British magazine Homes & Gardens has long prided itself on being at the cutting edge of interior design. ‘Mixing beautiful features with gorgeous real-life homes and gardens, expert advice and practical information’, the magazine declares in its recent marketing strapline, is ‘the ultimate source of decorating inspiration’. Its November 1938 issue gushed with praise about a mountain bolt-hole rich in Alpine chic. ‘The colour scheme throughout this bright, airy chalet is light jade green,’ wrote the correspondent, enlivened by the passion for cut flowers displayed by the owner – who as it happened was also the property’s ‘decorator, designer and furnisher, as well as architect’. His watercolour sketches hung in the guest bedrooms, alongside old engravings. A ‘droll raconteur’, the owner loved being surrounded by a range of ‘brilliant foreigners, especially painters, musicians and singers’, and would often bring in ‘local talent’ to play pieces by Mozart or Brahms for after-dinner entertainment. The article’s author was very impressed by Adolf Hitler.1

Nine months later, on 21 August 1939, an eagerly awaited call came through to the telephone exchange which Homes & Gardens reported was next to his modern office and which allowed ‘the Führer’ to be in contact with ‘his friends or Ministers’. During supper, a message was passed to Hitler. According to one who was present, ‘he scanned it, stared into space for a moment, flushed deeply, then banged on the table so hard that the glasses rattled’. He turned to his guests and said excitedly, ‘I have them! I have them!’2 He sat down to eat, no doubt faced with the usual ‘imposing array of vegetarian dishes, savoury and rich, pleasing to the eye as well as to the palate’, admired by the Homes & Garden journalist a year earlier, and prepared by Hitler’s personal chef, Arthur Kannenberg – who often came out of the kitchen in the evenings to play his accordion.3

After the meal, Hitler called his dinner guests together, and told them that the paper he was holding contained the text of a reply that he had been waiting for from Moscow. Stalin, the undisputed master of the Soviet Union, had agreed to sign a treaty of non-aggression with Germany. ‘I hope’, the teletype read, ‘that [this] will bring about a decided turn for the better in relations between our two countries.’4 Two nights later, after the news had been announced, Hitler and his entourage stood on the terrace, looking into the valley below. ‘The final act of Götterdämmerung could not have been more effectively staged,’ noted the leading Nazi, Albert Speer.5

Ironically, the extraordinary agreement was prompted by British and French foreign policy. Both countries had been trying desperately to find ways to contain the German Chancellor after becoming alarmed by his high-stakes political poker in the 1930s – with little success. So little, in fact, that Mussolini confided in his Foreign Minister Count Ciano that Britain’s politicians and diplomats were not made of the same stuff as ‘the Francis Drakes’ and the other ‘magnificent adventurers who created the empire’; in fact, they are ‘the tired sons of a long line of rich men, and they will lose their empire’.6

Following Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, a tougher line was taken. In the afternoon of 31 March 1939, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rose in the House of Commons. ‘In the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence,’ he said solemnly, ‘His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect. I may add that the French Government have authorised me to make it plain that they stand in the same position in this matter as do His Majesty’s Government.’7

Rather than guaranteeing Poland’s security, this sealed its fate. Although the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the Foreign Secretary had met with the Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maiskii, the same morning in an attempt to smooth things over, the assurances offered to Poland set in motion a chain of events that led straight to the wheatfields of Ukraine and southern Russia. The struggle was to spell death for millions.8

The aim had been to lock Germany into stalemate, using the threat of war to deter any move against its neighbour to the east. In fact, as Hitler quickly understood, he had been dealt an ace – albeit one that required astonishing gall to play: here was a chance to make a deal with the Communist Soviet Union. Although the USSR was a bitter rival to Nazi Germany in many respects, suddenly there was common ground where the interference of Britain and others had provided an opening. Stalin too realised how the cards fell. He had also been given an opportunity – one that he likewise required astonishing gall to take advantage of: reaching terms with Hitler.

The idea of an alliance between the two states seemed beyond the realms of plausibility or reality. Since Hitler had been voted to power in 1933, relations between Germany and the USSR had deteriorated sharply, with vitriolic media campaigns in both countries portraying the other as demonic, ruthless and dangerous. Trade had all but collapsed: while nearly 50 per cent of all imports to the Soviet Union had come from Germany in 1932, six years later the figure had fallen to below 5 per cent.9 But with the guarantees extended to Poland, the two countries finally had something in common: a wish to destroy the state that was sandwiched between them.10

In the spring of 1939, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity. The Soviet chargé d’affaires in Berlin and the leading German expert on eastern Europe met to set out grounds for improving relations, and to look for areas of possible co-operation, including the resumption of trade. These talks accelerated quickly, taken forward in Moscow by discussions between the German ambassador and Vyacheslav Molotov, the new Commissar of Foreign Affairs, whose predecessor, Maxim Litvinov, had been dismissed because of his Jewish background – an obstacle when dealing with the anti-Semitic German regime. Litvinov, ‘the eminent Jew’, wrote Winston Churchill, ‘the target of German antagonism, was flung aside like a broken tool . . . bundled off the world stage to obscurity, a pittance and police supervision’.11

By the summer, things had moved forward to the point that Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, was able to send messages to Moscow that explained that just because National Socialism and Communism were very different, there was ‘no reason for enmity between our two countries’. If there was an appetite to discuss matters, he suggested, then further rapprochement was possible. At the heart of the matter was Poland: could a deal be done in which Poland would be dismembered and divided up between them?12

The question was taken up by Stalin personally. Poland had been a bête noire since the Revolution. For one thing, the peace agreements at Versailles had awarded the Poles a swathe of territory that had been Russian before 1914; for another, Poland had taken military action that had threatened the very success of the Bolshevik seizure of power in the years after 1917. Fear of Polish spies was a regular and common feature in the Soviet purges of the 1930s that saw millions arrested and many hundreds of thousands executed. Barely two years before negotiating with Germany, Stalin had personally signed orders demanding the ‘liquidation of the network of spies of the Polish Military Organisation’, which led to tens of thousands more being arrested, of whom more than four-fifths were then shot.13 His response to the German question about co-operation, not least over Poland, was positive and encouraging.

It was followed up immediately. Two days after Stalin’s reply, two Focke-Wulf Condor planes touched down in Moscow to be met by a Soviet guard of honour and two sets of flags fluttering in the wind. Half bore the image of the hammer and sickle, the tools of the urban proletariat and the peasantry, unmistakable symbol of Communism; the others were flags of the Third Reich, designed by Hitler himself – as he explained in Mein Kampf: ‘In red, we can see the social idea of the [National Socialist] movement, in white the nationalist idea, and in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the triumph of the Aryan man.’14 In one of the most extraordinary and unexpected sights of the twentieth century, the flags representing Communism and Fascism flew side by side as the Germans disembarked from the planes. The delegation was headed by Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, described by one former teacher as ‘the most stupid in the class, full of vanity and very pushy’ and now trusted to broker an agreement between bitter rivals.15

After being driven to the Kremlin to meet with Stalin and Molotov, Ribbentrop expressed his hope for good relations. ‘Germany asks for nothing from Russia – only peace and trade,’ he said. Stalin gave a typically direct reply. ‘For many years now, we have been pouring buckets of shit over each other’s heads, and our propaganda boys could not do enough in that direction. Now all of a sudden, are we to make our peoples believe all is forgotten and forgiven? Things do not work so fast.’16

In fact, they did. Within a few hours, the outline of a deal had been put together, with an agreed text to be made public together with a secret annexe delineating spheres of influence in the Baltics and in Poland, and effectively providing each side with carte blanche to move in and do as they pleased up to the defined line. Satisfied, Stalin called for vodka in the small hours of the morning to celebrate a toast. ‘I know how much the German Volk love their Führer,’ he said using the German word. ‘I would like to drink his health.’ Further rounds of toasts followed, with Molotov scarcely able to contain his joy. ‘It was our great comrade Stalin who began this coup of political relations,’ he beamed. ‘I drink to his health.’17

Stalin’s euphoria continued at his dacha just outside Moscow the next day where he joined senior members of the Politburo in a duck shoot. Of course it is all a game of bluff, he said, ‘a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler’s up to. He thinks he’s outsmarted me, but actually it’s I who’s tricked him.’18 Hitler, of course, thought precisely the same thing. When a note was passed to him at around midnight in his Alpine idyll, reporting that the final agreement had been signed, his reaction – like Stalin’s – was that of a gambler convinced that he is on a hot streak: ‘we’ve won’, he declared triumphantly.19

The Soviet leader came to terms with Germany to buy time. Stalin had no illusions about Hitler or about the long-term threat he posed. Indeed, at the 17th Party Congress of the Communist Party in 1934, sections from Mein Kampf were recited to illustrate the dangers posed by Germany and its Chancellor. Stalin himself had read Hitler’s infamous work, underlining passages that set out the need for Germany to expand its territories into the east.20 The Soviet Union, however, needed to recover after a period of chronic turmoil. Catastrophic famine, the result of short-sighted and bloody-minded policy, had led to the deaths of millions from starvation and illness in the early 1930s. The suffering was horrific, and on a colossal scale. One boy who was eight years old at the time later recalled looking at a girl in his classroom in Khar’kov, who had put her head on her desk and closed her eyes during a lesson, seemingly fast asleep; in fact, she had died of starvation. They would bury her, he knew, ‘just as they buried people yesterday and the day before yesterday and every day’.21

In the years that followed, Soviet society devoured itself. Seniority within the Communist party offered no protection, as Stalin moved in on his closest rivals and former colleagues. In a spectacular series of show trials, held in Moscow, men who had become household names, not just in the Soviet Union but internationally, were sensationally accused of being counter-revolutionaries, tried and sentenced to death. Men like Grigorii Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek, heroes of the 1917 Revolution, were among many sent to their deaths, denounced in venomous language as Fascist dogs, terrorists, degenerates and vermin by the chief prosecutor Andrei Vyshinskii. In a travesty of intellectual and cultural history, Vyshinskii was then honoured for his poisonous attacks when the Institute of Government and Law of the Soviet Academy of Sciences was rechristened to bear his name.22

Attention then turned to the army. The High Command was not so much decimated as annihilated, ravaged by a perverted and ruthless logic: it stood to reason that if junior officers were guilty of sedition, then their seniors were guilty either of complicity or of negligence. So one confession, beaten from a broken man, served to unleash cascades of arrests. The aim, one secret police officer later testified, was to prove the existence of a ‘military conspiracy within the Red Army that implicated as many participants as possible’.23

Of the 101 members of the supreme military leadership, all but ten were arrested; of the ninety-one detained, all but nine were shot. These included three of the five marshals of the Soviet Union and two of its admirals, as well as the entire senior air force personnel, every head of every military district, and almost every divisional commander. The Red Army was brought to its knees.24 In the circumstances Stalin needed breathing space to rebuild. The German approach was a godsend.

Hitler, on the other hand, was playing for higher stakes. He was desperate to gain access to resources that were essential if Germany was to build a position of strength and power in the long term. The problem was that Germany was poorly located geographically to gain access to the Atlantic and to trade with the Americas, Africa and Asia; Hitler therefore set his sights on the east. Behind his decision to reconcile with the Soviet Union was the idea that this would give him access to his very own Silk Road.

After the pact had been signed, therefore, Hitler summoned his generals to his Alpine chalet so that he could address them on what had been agreed and what he planned. Leaning on the grand piano, he talked at length about himself. The German people were lucky to have him, he declared, a man in whom they had total confidence. But now, he went on, it was time to seize the moment. ‘We have nothing to lose,’ he said to his senior officers; Germany can survive for only a few years in its current economic condition; ‘we have no other choice’, he told the generals.25

An alliance with the Soviet Union would not only allow the recovery of lands taken away by the Treaty of Versailles; it would guarantee Germany’s future. Everything hinged on Germany’s success – and it was vital to remember this at all times. ‘Close your hearts to pity,’ he said. ‘Act brutally. Eighty million people must obtain what is their right. Their existence must be made secure.’26 He was talking about the invasion of Poland, but also about the new dawn that would result from the rapprochement with the Soviet Union. For Hitler, coming to terms with Stalin did more than offer the chance to raise the stakes further in his game of political brinkmanship; it offered the prospect of resources. Although he had talked often about Lebensraum, or living space, for the German people since he first rose to prominence, what was at stake, he told his generals, were concrete prizes: grain, cattle, coal, lead and zinc. Germany, at last, could be free.27

Not all those listening were convinced. Hitler said that the war would take six weeks; it would take more like six years, muttered General von Reichenau.28 Nor was General Liebmann impressed. The speech, he said, was boastful, brash and ‘downright repulsive’. Hitler was a man who had lost all sense of responsibility. Yet – as the leading modern authority on Nazi Germany notes – no one spoke out against him.29

Hitler was convinced that he had found a way to protect Germany’s future. One particular area of weakness was the inadequacy of domestic agriculture. As recent research suggests, this was a sector that had suffered during the 1930s as the German war machine began to be assembled, consuming resources, time and money. In fact, new legislation actually served to reduce the amount of investment in agriculture in this period.30 Germany remained heavily dependent on imports because home production did not provide enough for self-sufficiency.31 Talking to a senior diplomat in Danzig in August 1939, Hitler brought up the topic of the impossible strain that had been placed on Germany during the First World War – one of his long-term recurring themes. Now, however, he claimed to have the answer. We need Ukraine, ‘so that no one is able to starve us again as they did in the last war’.32

Ukraine, or rather the fruits of its rich fertile soil, was delivered to him with the signing of the non-aggression pact in 1939. The months that followed Ribbentrop’s visit to the Russian capital saw Nazi and Soviet officials shuttling back and forth between Moscow and Berlin. The Germans were confident that the opening could be translated into an agreement, especially with regard to ‘all territorial problems from the Black to the Baltic Seas’, as Ribbentrop told Molotov in August 1939.33 More delicate discussions centred on trade terms and above all on volumes and prices for Soviet wheat, oil and other materials needed to sustain Germany’s invasion of Poland and its aftermath. Stalin was fuelling Hitler’s war.34

The alliance gave Hitler the confidence and the promise of resources that enabled him to attack Poland, safe in the knowledge that his position in the east would be secure following his agreement with Stalin (‘I can guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its partner,’ said the Russian leader when the agreement was signed).35 As one of the more astute senior officers realised, though, agreeing to dismantle Poland made Germany more vulnerable – not less – by dragging the Soviet frontier dramatically westwards; it would be better, noted Franz Halder, to remain on good terms with Russia and focus on the British positions in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.36

On 1 September 1939, barely a week after the historic agreement, German troops poured over the frontier, scything their way through Polish defences. Alongside the seizure of territory as the advance closed on Warsaw was the aim of decapitating the Polish elite. As Hitler saw it, ‘only a nation whose upper levels are destroyed can be pushed into the ranks of slavery’. As such, officers and leading figures were targeted – by those who knew what they were looking for: fifteen of the twenty-five commanders of the squads instructed to seek out and annihilate ‘the upper levels of society’ had doctorates, mostly in law or philosophy.37

The realignment of Germany and the Soviet Union and the attack on Poland caught Britain and France cold. Although war was declared, neither country provided much meaningful military or logistical support to the Poles. The Royal Air Force did undertake some limited bombing operations, but by far the most common payloads carried by aircraft that flew over German territory were not incendiary devices but leaflets whose aims were rather hopeful, if not downright naive. ‘There is good reason to believe that the German authorities feared the effect of our propaganda,’ read the minutes of the very first item on the Cabinet meeting agenda in early September 1939. The fact that ‘our aircraft were able to fly with impunity all over the North-West of Germany’ was bound to have ‘a depressing effect on the morale of the German people’. Dropping more leaflets in the future might be very effective, it was agreed.38

In the meantime, panicked appraisals flooded back to London from India and Central Asia – for the agreement signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop did not just provide a channel of essential supplies for Germany and pave the way for war in Europe. The minister in Kabul, Sir Kerr Fraser-Tytler, warned that there was much speculation locally about whether Britain would provide military support in the event of a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.39 These concerns were shared by the India Office, where the Secretary of State released an alarmist document for the War Cabinet in London that painted a near hopeless picture of Indian defences, especially its anti-aircraft resources, which apparently amounted to nothing more than a single battery consisting of eight three-inch guns.40

Although London was sceptical about the danger in Central Asia in the immediate short term, it was recognised that Germany’s alliance with the Soviet Union did pose a threat to British interests in the east. By the spring of 1940, careful consideration was being given to what seemed to be an inevitable showdown. As a report to the War Cabinet by the Chiefs of Staff entitled ‘The Military Implications of Hostilities with Russia in 1940’ explained, it was ‘unlikely that the Soviet Government would lose any time in taking action against India and Afghanistan’, a development that would create ‘the maximum diversion of Allied strength’.41 As another report set out with chilling lucidity, there were a great many ways in which German co-operation with Moscow could be deeply detrimental to the Allies: Britain’s oil interests in Iran and Iraq were potentially vulnerable and might be lost, and worse, could pass to the enemy.42

There was substance to these concerns. The Germans had been highly active across the Middle East and Central Asia in the 1930s, with Lufthansa establishing an extensive network of commercial flights across the region, and companies like Siemens and the Todt organisation making serious inroads into the industrial sectors in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Innumerable roads and bridges had been designed by German engineers, and built or their construction supervised by German technicians. Telecommunication infrastructure had been installed by companies like Telefunken, who found their expertise in great demand.43 These ties led to Germany being seen positively across the whole region – something that was enhanced by perceptions of Hitler in the Islamic world as a leader who was decisive and stood up for what he believed in. This message was reinforced by the nest of agents controlled by the Abwehr, German military intelligence, who had been actively building contacts and gathering support across the region between the eastern Mediterranean and the Himalayas.44

Indeed, by January 1940, there were active discussions within the German High Command about how the Soviets should be encouraged to intervene in Central Asia and India. Plans were circulated by General Jodl, one of the Wehrmacht’s most respected senior officers, regarding a joint Germano-Soviet push into the Middle East. This would ‘require relatively little’ effort, but would at the same time ‘create a trouble-spot threatening to England’.45 A separate, audacious plan to restore to the Afghan throne King Amanullah, who had taken up residence in Berlin after being deposed, was likewise carefully developed.46 Then there were efforts to foment trouble in strategically sensitive regions. The Faqīr of Ipi, a 1930s version of Osama bin Laden – an ascetic preacher, mystical but bloodthirsty, religiously conservative yet socially revolutionary – was identified as a perfect partner to destabilise the North-West Frontier and divert British attention and resources. One problem was finding him: he was highly elusive and had given the British the slip countless times. Another was to find him unobtrusively: one mission ended in disaster when two German agents whom the Abwehr thought would be less conspicuous if disguised as leprosy experts were killed and wounded in an ambush set by the Afghan army. When contact was finally made with him, the Faqīr’s demands in return for help against the British bordered on the absurd.47

German bridge-building elsewhere across the region had been no less energetic. Many in Iran and Iraq were taken with Hitler’s dynamism and his rhetoric. There was a natural overlap, for example, between the deep anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime and that of some leading Islamic scholars. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muimageammad al-imageusaynī, had welcomed the rise of a man he later referred to as ‘al-imageajj Muimageammad Hitler’. The German leader’s anti-Semitic views were grist to the mill of a man happy to call for the death of Jews, whom he referred to as ‘scum and germs’.48

Admiration for Germany across the region went much further. Some scholars have pointed out the similarities between the ideology that Hitler imposed on Germany in the 1930s and a similar programme adopted in Persia of ‘purification’ of the Persian language and customs, and a conscious effort to hark back – as the Nazis did – to a semi-mythical golden age. Indeed, the decision to change the name of Persia formally to Iran was supposedly the result of Teheran’s diplomats in Berlin impressing on the Shah the importance of the idea of ‘Aryanism’ – and the shared etymological and pseudo-historical heritage that Iran’s new identity could easily reference.49

The foundation of the Ba’ath (‘renaissance’) party in Iraq likewise owed much to Nazi propaganda and to the idea of rebirth.50 And then there was the telling exchange between Hitler and the envoy of the Saudi king. ‘We view the Arabs with the warmest sympathy for three reasons,’ Hitler told the envoy in 1939. ‘First, we do not pursue any territorial aspirations in Arab lands. Second, we have the same enemies. And third, we both fight against the Jews. I will not rest until the very last of them has left Germany.’51

Not surprisingly, therefore, one plan after another was developed in London and Paris to try to contain the Germans and the Soviets. The Chief of the French General Staff, Claude Gamelin, asked for plans to be drawn up to build up a stronghold, ideally in the Balkans, that could put pressure on Germany from the rear if need be.52 The idea was taken seriously, endorsed by the French Prime Minister, the porcine Edouard Daladier, before falling out of favour. It was replaced by an audacious plan to launch an attack on Scandinavia that was designed to cut German supplies of Swedish iron ore – which received enthusiastic backing from Winston Churchill, now First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘Nothing would be more deadly . . . than to stop for three or even six months this import’, wrote Churchill. Britain ‘should violate Norwegian neutrality’ and mine Norway’s coastal waters. Taking these steps would threaten Germany’s ‘war-making capacity and . . . the life of the country’.53

Crippling Germany’s supply chain was at the centre of all the discussions. Eventually, in the spring of 1940, attention turned to Baku. The head of the French Air Force, General Vuillemin, championed a plan by which Allied forces could use bases in the Middle East to strike at facilities, primarily in Soviet Azerbaijan. Squadrons operating from British bases in Iraq and from French bases in Syria could, it was claimed, reduce oil production in the Caucasus by half over the course of two to three months. According to the first draft of the plan, this would have ‘decisive repercussions on Russia and Germany’. Subsequent versions promised even rosier projections: fewer attack groups would deliver similar gains but over a quicker time frame.54

The results of a bombardment of the Caucasus would be dramatic, British strategists agreed: there would be an immediate disruption of ‘the industrial and agricultural economies of Russia which would be incrementally paralysed and prevented from working. It will eliminate all the hopes that Germany had of rationally organising Russian production for its benefit and will, from this viewpoint, have a decisive influence on the outcome of the war.’ French and British planners became convinced that destroying Russian oil facilities was the best way to remove the threat posed by Germany.55

Such plans for joint action were scuppered when Hitler launched a lightning attack on France. To many, the German assault looked like a work of tactical genius, catching the defenders by surprise through a series of dazzling operations, meticulously planned in advance and expertly executed by an army that was battle-hardened and had extensive experience of occupying foreign lands. In fact, as recent research shows, the success in France owed a great deal to chance. More than once, Hitler lost his nerve, instructing troops to hold position, only to find that orders did not reach group commanders until after they had moved miles ahead of where they should have stopped. Heinz Guderian, a dashing Prussian-born tank commander, was even relieved of his position for insubordination after he kept on advancing – even though the order to hold his position had probably never reached him. During this period, Hitler himself became so fearful that his forces were being caught in a non-existent trap that he came close to a nervous breakdown.56 The rapid advance was the ill-deserved prize for a gambler who had beaten the odds.

The age of empire for western Europe had come to an end with the First World War. Now, rather than slowly fading away, Germany was about to deliver a body blow. As the Royal Air Force prepared to take to the skies for the Battle of Britain, loud voices trumpeted the end of an era. The German minister in Kabul was busy predicting that by the end of the summer Hitler would be in London. In preparation for the British Empire’s final collapse, concrete proposals were put to leading figures in the Afghan government: if the country abandoned the neutral stance it had adopted at the start of the war, Germany promised to cede a large chunk of north-western India as well as the port of Karachi when these fell into its lap. It was a tempting offer. Even the British envoy in Kabul recognised that the British ship ‘looked like sinking’, and taking the chance that it ‘might stay afloat’ needed courage and faith. Taking steps like cutting freight costs for Afghan cotton crops to make sure the local economy did not collapse was the smallest of token gestures – and a sign of how limited Britain’s options were. At this crucial moment, the Afghans held firm – or at least they wavered, not throwing their lot in with Germany straight away.57

By the summer of 1940, Britain and its empire were hanging on for dear life. The stroke of a pen in the small hours in Moscow the previous summer sealing an agreement between Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union had made the world look very different, very quickly. The future lay with a new series of connections that would link Berlin through the Soviet Union deep into Asia and the Indian subcontinent, one that would re-route trade and resources away from western Europe to its centre.


This reorientation, however, depended on continued and consistent support from the Soviet Union. Although goods and materials flowed through to Germany in the months that followed the invasion of Poland, they did not always do so smoothly. Negotiations were tense, particularly when it came to wheat and oil – two resources that were in particular demand. Stalin oversaw matters personally, deciding whether the Germans should be allowed to take delivery of a requested consignment of 800,000 tons of oil or only a much smaller amount, and on what terms. Discussing individual shipments was fraught and time consuming, and a source of near-constant anxiety for German planners.58

Not surprisingly, the German Foreign Office recognised how fragile the state of affairs was and produced reports underlining the dangers of over-dependence on Moscow. If for whatever reason something went wrong – change of leadership, obstinacy or simple commercial disagreement – Germany would be exposed. This was the single biggest threat to Hitler’s astonishing run of military success in Europe.59

It was this sense of unease and uncertainty that led to the decision that was to cost the lives of millions of German soldiers, millions of Russians – and millions of Jews: the invasion of the Soviet Union. In typical fashion, when Hitler announced his latest venture at the end of July 1940, he dressed it up in terms of an ideological battle. It was time to seize the chance, he told General Jodl, to eliminate Bolshevism.60 In fact, what was at stake were raw materials, and above all, food.

Over the course of the second half of 1940 and early 1941, it was not just the military who were set to work on the logistics of an invasion, but economic planners too. They were led by Herbert Backe, an agricultural specialist who had joined the Nazi party in the early 1920s and rose steadily through the ranks, becoming a protégé of Richard Darré, Reichsminister of Food and Agriculture. Backe’s slavish devotion to the Nazi cause, coupled with his expertise in farming, led to his becoming increasingly influential in the reforms of the 1930s that regulated prices and set limits on both import and export markets.61

Backe was obsessed with the idea that Russia might be the solution to Germany’s problems. As the Russian Empire had expanded, the steppes had been slowly transformed from a home to nomadic pastoralists to a perfect breadbasket, field upon field of cereals stretching out across flat plains as far as the eye could see. The soil was extraordinarily fertile, especially in the areas where the earth was dark from the richness of its minerals. Scientific expeditions sent to explore the region by the Russian Academy of Sciences waxed lyrical about the belt that stretched from the Black Sea deep into Central Asia, reporting excitedly that conditions were ideally suited to highly productive large-scale arable farming.62

Agriculture in southern Russia and Ukraine had grown at ferocious speed before the 1917 Revolution, boosted by growing domestic demand, rising exports and scientific research into the best-quality wheat and how to maximise yields from lands that had been grazed for millennia by nomads and their livestock.63 No one knew the potential of the steppes, which had expanded production so quickly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, better than Herbert Backe: his area of expertise, and the topic of his doctoral dissertation, was Russian grain.64 A small, wiry man who wore glasses and dressed smartly, Backe led teams that produced successive drafts of what the aims and objectives of an invasion should be. As he stressed to Hitler, Ukraine was the key: control of the rich agricultural plains that ran across the north of the Black Sea and on past the Caspian would ‘liberate us from every economic pressure’.65 Germany would be ‘invincible’ if it could take the parts of the Soviet Union that held ‘immense riches’.66 Gone would be the dependence on the USSR’s goodwill and its whimsical leadership; the effects of the British blockade of the Mediterranean and the North Sea would be massively reduced. This was the chance to provide Germany with access to all the resources it needed.

This is exactly how Hitler came to talk about what was at stake after the attack eventually got under way in the summer of 1941. As German troops moved east with astonishing speed in the first days of the invasion, the Führer could barely contain his excitement. Germany would never leave these newly conquered lands, he asserted gleefully; they would become ‘our India’, ‘our very own Garden of Eden’.67

Joseph Goebbels, Reichsminister of Propaganda, also had little doubt that the attack was all about resources, especially wheat and grain. In an article written in 1942, he declared in his characteristic deadpan and callous manner that the war had been started for ‘grain and bread, for a well-stocked breakfast, lunch and dinner table’. This, and nothing more, was Germany’s war aim, he went on: the capture of ‘the vast fields of the east [which] sway with golden wheat, enough – more than enough – to nourish our people and all of Europe’.68

There was an urgent reality behind comments like these, for Germany found itself running increasingly short of food and supplies – with shipments of Soviet grain failing to reduce chronic problems of supply. In February 1941, for example, German radio was broadcasting that there were food shortages across Europe as a result of trade blockades by the British that had previously been described as nothing less than ‘mental derangement’ – or ‘dementia Britannica’, as announcers referred to it.69 By the summer of 1941, Goebbels was recording in his diary that shops in Berlin had bare shelves; finding vegetables for sale was a rarity. This caused unstable prices and fuelled a thriving black market, which increased the anxieties of a population that, while not yet restless, was starting to ask precisely what the benefits of German expansion had been – a development which made Hitler’s propaganda chief decidedly nervous.70 As one local official put it, the ‘overworked and exhausted men and women’ in his part of Germany ‘do not see why the war must be carried on still further into Asia and Africa’. Happier days were now a distant memory.71

The solution had been provided by Backe and his cohort of analysts. Backe himself had been at pains to note the deteriorating food situation within Germany in his annual report on supplies at the end of 1940. Indeed, in a meeting held by state secretaries in January 1941 with Hermann Göring in his capacity as co-ordinator of a Four Year Plan, he had gone so far as to warn that it would not be long before meat would have to be rationed, a step that had been repeatedly vetoed for fear of losing support not just for the war but for the Nazis.72

Backe’s proposal was radical. While the Soviet Union was vast and varied in terms of geography and climate, it could be divided by a crude line. To the south, covering Ukraine, southern Russia and the Caucasus, were fields and resources that formed a ‘surplus’ zone. To the north, that is central and northern Russia, Belarus and the Baltics, there was a ‘deficit’ zone. As Backe saw it, those on one side of the line produced food; those on the other side just consumed it. The answer to Germany’s problems was to concentrate on taking the former – and to ignore the latter. The ‘surplus’ zone should be captured, and its produce diverted to Germany. The ‘deficit’ zone was to be cut off; if and how it survived was of little concern. Its loss was to be Germany’s gain.

The reality of what this meant was spelt out at a meeting that took place in Berlin just weeks before the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the codename given to the invasion of the Soviet Union. On 2 May, planners discussed the priorities and expected results of the attack: the German armies should strip what they could from the land to feed themselves as the advance progressed; the promised land was expected to start producing from the outset. The Wehrmacht was to be supplied from Russia from the moment German soldiers crossed the frontier.

The effect on those living in the ‘deficit’ zone was also noted at the meeting. They were to be cut off at a stroke. In one of the most chilling documents in history, the minutes simply state: ‘as a result, x million people will doubtlessly starve, if that which is necessary for us is extracted from the land’.73 These deaths were the price to pay for Germany being able to feed itself. These millions were collateral damage, necessary victims for German success and survival.

The meeting went on to consider other logistical matters to ensure things went smoothly. The main arteries that linked the agricultural plains to the transport infrastructure were to be secured to enable materials to be shipped back to Germany. Careful consideration was given to what the agricultural leaders who would supervise collection of the harvest and future planting should wear: greyish silver arm stripes on their civilian clothing. As one leading scholar puts it, the meeting was a case of the mundane being mixed with the murderous.74

In the three weeks that followed, a concerted effort was made to quantify the numbers of likely casualties, to put a value to the ‘x million’ whose deaths were forecast in the ‘deficit’ zone. On 23 May, a twenty-page report was issued that was essentially an updated form of the conclusions that had already been reached. The ‘surplus’ region of the Soviet Union was to be detached, its grain and other agricultural produce gathered and diverted to Germany. As discussed at the previous meeting in Berlin, the local population would suffer the consequences. These were now spelt out, with the previous, open estimate of likely deaths given definition. ‘Many tens of millions of people in this territory will become superfluous and will die or must emigrate to Siberia,’ read this report. ‘Attempts to rescue the population there from death through starvation . . . can only be at the expense of the provisioning of Europe. They prevent the possibility of Germany holding out till the end of the war.’75 The attack did not just concern victory in the war. It was literally a matter of life and death.

Although a list of attendees at the 2 May meeting does not survive, Backe’s fingerprints are all over the agenda and the conclusions. He was highly regarded by Hitler, more so than those senior to him, and as Backe’s wife wrote in her diary, the German leader sought his advice above all others during briefings to plan the invasion. Then there was the revised introduction to his dissertation that was finally published in the summer of 1941. Russia had failed to use its resources properly, he wrote; if Germany seized them, it would surely use them more efficiently.76

But most telling of all was a short note he wrote on 1 June 1941, three weeks before the invasion. The Russians, he wrote, needed no sympathy for what they were about to experience. ‘The Russian has already endured poverty, hunger and frugality for centuries . . . Do not attempt to apply the German standard of living as [your yardstick] and to alter the Russian way of life.’ The Russian stomach, he went on, ‘is stretchable’. Pity for those who are to starve, therefore, would be misplaced.77 The clarity of his thought impressed others, as Goebbels observed in his diary while preparations for the attack on the USSR gathered pace. Backe, he wrote, ‘dominates his department in a masterly manner. With him, everything that is possible to get done, gets done.’78

The momentousness of what lay ahead was not lost on those involved. There will be food shortages in the winter of 1941, Goebbels predicted in his diary, so severe that other famines will look insignificant by comparison. That is not our problem, he added, with the obvious inference that it would be Russians and not Germans who would suffer.79 Assuming that the Germans were listening as carefully to Soviet radio broadcasts as the British were, Goebbels would have taken heart from the news less than three days before the invasion began that ‘in central Russia, the fields look like green carpets; in the south-east, the wheat is ripening’. The harvest was just starting, and it looked like a bumper crop.80

As preparations for the attack reached their final stages, the rank and file of the army, as well as the senior officers, had what was at stake seared into their minds. According to Franz Halder, a Bavarian career soldier who had risen inexorably through the ranks of the Wehrmacht, Hitler was typically forthright and categorical. This is a fight to the finish, he told his generals in March 1941. Force must be used in Russia ‘in its most brutal form’. This was to be a ‘war of extermination’. ‘Troop commanders must know the issues at stake.’ As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, Hitler said, ‘severity today means lenience in the future’.81

This was all set out more fully in May 1941, by which time official Guidelines for the Behaviour of Troops in Russia had been prepared and were being circulated to those taking part in the invasion. These listed the threats that were to be expected from ‘agitators’, ‘partisans’, ‘saboteurs’ and Jews, making clear to German soldiers that they were to trust no one and show no mercy.82 Orders were also issued describing how the conquered territories were to be controlled. Collective punishment was to be used in the event of insurrection or resistance. Those suspected of working against German interests were to be tried on the spot and shot if found guilty, regardless of whether they were soldiers or civilians.83

Finally, a series of directives was issued, among them the so-called ‘Commissar Order’ that gave graphic warnings of what to expect: the enemy would be likely to behave in a manner that contravened the principles of international law and of humanity. Commissars – shorthand for the Soviet political elite – fought in ways that could only be described as ‘barbaric and Asiatic’. They were to be shown no mercy.84