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


The Road to Genocide

In the build-up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the message to the officers and the troops was consistent and remorseless: everything rested on taking the wheatfields of the south. Soldiers were told that they should imagine food eaten by Soviet citizens had been torn from the mouths of German children.1 Senior commanders told their men that the very future of Germany rested on their success. As Colonel-General Erich Hoepner told his Panzer Group in an operational order immediately before Barbarossa began, Russia had to be crushed – and crushed ‘with unprecedented severity. Every military action must in conception and execution be led by the iron will mercilessly and totally to annihilate the enemy.’2 Contempt for the Slavs, hatred of Bolshevism and anti-Semitism ran through the veins of the officer corps. These now blended, as one leading historian puts it, ‘as the ideological yeast whose fermentation now easily converted the generals into accessories to mass murder’.3

Hitler, while urging the implementation of horror, daydreamed about the future: the Crimea would be like the Riviera for Germans, he reflected; how wonderful it would be to link the peninsula in the Black Sea to the motherland with a motorway so that every German could visit in their People’s Car (or Volkswagen). He took to wishing whimsically he was younger so that he could see how it would all turn out; it was a shame, he thought, that he would miss out on a time of intense excitement in decades to come.4 Himmler likewise contemplated a rosy view where ‘pearls of settlements’ (Siedlungsperlen) would exist, peopled by colonisers, and ringed by villages that were home to German farmers, reaping the crops from the rich black earth.5

Hitler and those closest to him had two templates for expanding Germany’s resource base. First was the British Empire. Germany would stamp itself on enormous new territories in the east, just as Britain had done in the Indian subcontinent. A small population of German colonisers would rule Russia, just as a few British ruled in the Raj. European civilisation would triumph over a culture that was simply inferior. The British in India were constantly cited by the Nazi leadership as a model of how large-scale domination could be accomplished by few people.6

But there was another model that Hitler regularly referred to as well, with which he saw parallels and to which he looked for inspiration: the United States. Germany needed to do what the European settlers in the New World had done to the native Americans, Hitler told Alfred Rosenberg, the newly appointed Reichsminister for the Occupied Eastern Territories: the local population had to be driven back – or exterminated. The Volga, he proclaimed, would be Germany’s Mississippi, that is to say, a frontier between the civilised world and the chaos beyond. The peoples who had settled the Great Plains in America in the nineteenth century, he said, would surely flock to settle in the east. Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians and also, he predicted confidently, Americans themselves would find their futures and their rewards in a new land of opportunity.7 A new world order was going to emerge thanks to the fields of Ukraine and southern Russia that stretched far into the east. It was the end of the American dream, Hitler declared: ‘Europe – and no longer America – will be the land of unlimited possibilities.’8

His excitement was not just based on prospects held by the belt of land above the Black and Caspian Seas, for signs everywhere pointed to a dramatic shift in Germany’s favour. One part of the German pincer was travelling towards the heart of the world from the north, while the other was coming from the south through North Africa and the Middle East. A succession of lightning victories in the deserts of North Africa in 1941 had brought Rommel and the Afrika Korps within striking distance of Egypt and thus close to taking control of the critical Suez canal, just as Barbarossa got under way. The collapse of France, meanwhile, had opened up possibilities for the Luftwaffe to use the airbases that the French had established in Syria and the Levant after the First World War settlements, to extend Germany’s reach further still.

The fate of the world hung by the most slender of threads. The key question, it seemed, turned on the timing of the invasion of the Soviet Union and whether Stalin could be taken by surprise. It was crucial to launch the attack after the harvest had been sown but before it was collected, so that German troops could benefit as they advanced into Russia. Negotiations with Moscow in 1940 had already led to shipments from the Soviet Union to Germany of a million tons of grain, nearly the same amount of petroleum and considerable quantities of iron ore and manganese. Once delivery had been taken of a further enormous consignment in May 1941, the moment was nigh.9

Alarmed by German troops massing in the east in the early summer of 1941, Marshal Timoshenko, Commissar of Defence, and General Georgi Zhukov confronted Stalin with a proposal to launch a pre-emptive attack, followed by an advance that would lead to an assault on Warsaw, northern Poland and part of Prussia. According to two closely matching accounts, Stalin dismissed the plan out of hand. ‘Have you gone mad?’ he apparently asked angrily. ‘Do you want to provoke the Germans?’ Then he turned to Timoshenko: ‘Look everyone . . . Timoshenko is healthy and he has a large head; but his brain is evidently tiny.’ Then the threat: ‘If you provoke the Germans on the border, if you move forces without our permission, then bear in mind that heads will roll.’ With that, he turned, walked out and slammed the door behind him.10

It was not that Stalin did not believe Hitler would attack, just that he thought he would not dare to do so yet. In fact, the reason why Stalin had personally overseen trade with the Nazi administration had been to keep a close eye on the Germans while the Soviet army was rapidly rebuilt and modernised. He was so confident he still held all the cards that even when intelligence reports were received from agents in Berlin, Rome and even Tokyo – in addition to warnings and signs from embassies in Moscow – that an attack was imminent, he simply dismissed them.11 His scathing attitude was perfectly summed up by his reaction to a report from a spy within the German air force headquarters just five days before the invasion was launched. ‘You can tell your “source” . . . to go fuck his mother,’ he scrawled. ‘This is not a “source”,’ he wrote, ‘it’s someone spreading disinformation.’12

Not all of those around Stalin were as blasé as the Soviet leader. German troop movements in early June led some to argue that the Red Army should be moved into defensive positions. ‘We have a non-aggression pact with Germany,’ Stalin replied incredulously. ‘Germany is tied up with war in the West and I am sure that Hitler will not dare to create a second front by attacking the Soviet Union. Hitler is not such a fool and realises that the Soviet Union is not Poland or France, and not even England.’13

By 21 June, it was obvious that something serious was afoot. Sweden’s ambassador to Moscow, Vilhelm Assarsson, thought there were two options: either he was about to have a front-row seat at an epic confrontation between the ‘Third Reich and the Soviet Empire’ with extraordinarily wide-ranging consequences, or the Germans were about to issue a set of demands regarding ‘the Ukraine and the Baku oilwells’. If the latter, he mused, he might just be witnessing ‘the greatest case of blackmail in world history’.14

Hours later, it became clear it was not a game of bluff. At 3.45 a.m. on 22 June 1941, Stalin was woken by a phone call from General Zhukov who told him that the frontiers had been breached in all sectors and that the Soviet Union was under attack. At first, Stalin refused to believe what was happening, concluding that it was a gambit by Hitler, aimed at strong-arming a settlement of some kind, probably regarding trade. Only slowly did it dawn on him that this was a fight to the death. Numb from shock, he slumped into a catatonic state, leaving it to Molotov to make public announcements. ‘An act of treachery, unprecedented in the history of civilised nations, has taken place,’ Molotov announced gravely on the television and on the radio. But have no doubts: ‘the enemy will be crushed and victory will be ours’. There was no mention of the fact that the Soviet Union had been dancing with the devil and now the time had come to pay up.15

The German advance was relentless and devastating – even though the invading force was neither as well prepared nor as well equipped as has often been presumed.16 In a matter of days, Minsk had fallen and 400,000 Soviet soldiers were encircled and trapped. Brest-Litovsk was cut off, its defenders quickly deprived of supplies but not always of hope: as one young soldier scratched into a wall on 20 July 1941, ‘I am dying, but do not surrender. Farewell motherland.’17

By this time, Stalin had begun to understand the magnitude of what was happening. On 3 July, he gave a radio speech that talked of the German invasion as a matter of ‘life and death for the peoples of the USSR’. He informed listeners that the invaders wanted to restore ‘tsarism’ and the ‘rule of landlords’. Closer to the mark was his claim that the attackers intended to obtain ‘slaves’ for German princes and barons.18 This was more or less correct – as long as princes and barons meant Nazi party officials and German industrialists: it would not be long before forced labour became commonplace for captured Soviet soldiers and the local population. In due course, more than 13 million people were used to build roads, to farm fields or to work in factories both for the Nazi regime directly and for private German companies – many of which remain in business today. Slavery had returned to Europe.19

Over the summer of 1941, the Germans seemed all but unstoppable. By September, Kiev fell after a siege that saw more than half a million Soviet soldiers captured. A few weeks later, the three battle groups that acted as spears plunging into the heart of Russia had reached Kalinin, Tula and Borodino – where Napoleon’s invasion had faltered in 1812. Still the Germans continued to cut through the defences. By October, Moscow was teetering. Such was the anxiety that plans were made to evacuate the leadership to Kuibyshev, old Samara, more than 600 miles to the east of Moscow on a bend of the Volga as it flows towards the Caspian. Lenin’s body was removed from Red Square and put into storage. Preparations were made for Stalin to leave the city, only for the Russian leader to change his mind at the last minute and decide to stay: according to some reports, his train’s engine was running and his bodyguards were on the platform ready to go.20

By November, Rostov-on-Don had fallen, the final point before the Caucasus. At the end of the month, the 3rd and 4th Panzergruppe were within twenty miles of Moscow. On 1 December, a reconnaissance unit of motorcyclists was just five miles from the capital.21 Hitler was euphoric. The plan to decapitate the Soviet Union by knocking out Leningrad and Moscow in the north had been central to securing the ‘surplus’ zone in the south in the long term, and the plan seemed to be on track. Two months after the attack had started, as the Russian lines were being rolled back, he spoke with excitement about the future. ‘The Ukraine, and then the Volga basin, will one day be the granaries of Europe. We shall reap much more than what actually grows from the soil,’ he said in August 1941. ‘If one day Sweden declines to supply us with any more iron,’ he went on, ‘that’s alright. We’ll get it from Russia.’22

In the meantime, construction and technical teams moved eastwards behind the army. In September 1941, a convoy of the newly created Sonderkommando R (Special Command Russia) set out from Berlin for Ukraine, with the aim of establishing a workable infrastructure in newly conquered territories. Made up of field kitchens, mobile offices, repair shops and police transmitters in more than a hundred vehicles, its job was to enable what one historian has called ‘the most radical colonisation campaign in the history of European conquest and empire building’.23

When they reached Odessa, on the Black Sea, the officers in charge – a motley collection of under-achievers, draft-dodgers and misfits – set about occupying the finest residences for their headquarters and busied themselves with establishing the sorts of institutions that bore the unequivocal statement of long-term plans: libraries, record collections, lecture halls and cinemas to show triumphalist German films.24

The invasion seemed to have been an unmitigated success. Almost the entire area earmarked for sending resources back to Germany had been conquered in less than six months. Leningrad and Moscow had not yet fallen, but it seemed a matter of time before both surrendered. Elsewhere too the signs seemed promising. Although an uprising in Iraq had been put down by a hastily assembled British force that requisitioned buses from the streets of Haifa and drove east to suppress the revolt, there seemed to be grounds for thinking that Germany’s new friends in the oil-rich lands south of the Caspian Sea would soon come good.25

By the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler had already given his formal blessing to the idea of Arab independence, and had written to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to express solidarity, praising the Arabs as an ancient civilisation and as one that had common enemies with Germany in the British and the Jews.26 The cultivation of ties in the Muslim world went so far that one German academic penned a sycophantic eulogy that among other things praised Saudi Arabia as ‘The Third Reich in Wahhabi style’.27

From Britain’s point of view, then, things looked desperate. Disaster had been avoided in Iraq by a hair’s breadth, noted General Wavell, commander-in-chief in India, and it was vital that steps were taken to protect Iran, where it was touch and go whether German influence might be extended. ‘It is essential to the defence of India’, he wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the summer of 1941, ‘that Germans should be cleared out of Iran now. Failure to do so will lead to a repetition of events which in Iraq were only just countered in time.’28

Wavell was right to be concerned about Iran, where German propaganda had been relentless since the start of the war. In the summer of 1941, reported one American correspondent, bookstalls in Teheran were covered with copies of the magazine Signal, one of Goebbels’s mouthpieces, while cinemas showing films like Sieg im Westen (Victory in the West) that celebrated German victories in France and western Europe in epic style were packed.29

Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union was also rapturously received in Iran. According to some reports, crowds gathered in Sepah Square in central Teheran to cheer news of the fall to the Wehrmacht of one Soviet city after another.30 The problem was that ‘Iranians generally are delighted at the German attack on their ancient enemy Russia,’ as Sir Reader Bullard, the British ambassador, informed London in the days following the invasion.31

Pro-German sympathies were widespread in the army and in the bazaar, declared the distinguished Persian scholar Ann Lambton, after being asked for her views on the developing situation. Feelings ran particularly high among ‘younger officials [who] tend to be pro-German and to hope for a German victory’.32 The British military attaché held much the same opinion, contrasting the positive local impression of Germany with the negative views about Britain. ‘There is as yet only a small number [of people] who would be at all likely to support the British cause if the Germans were to reach Persia, whereas it may be anticipated that the Germans would find considerable active support.’33 This view was shared by the German ambassador in Teheran, Erwin Ettel, who reported to Berlin that a British attack would face ‘resolute military resistance’, and would result in the Shah appealing formally for help from Germany.34

The anxiety that Iran might throw its lot in with Hitler was exacerbated by the knowledge that resistance was crumbling as the Germans advanced east. Such was their progress that General Auchinleck, until recently commander-in-chief, India and now appointed to head Middle East Command, was briefed that Hitler’s troops would reach the Caucasus by the middle of August 1941.35 From Britain’s point of view, this was a disaster. The Germans were in desperate need of oil. If they took control of the supplies in Baku and the Caucasus, that would be bad enough. What was worse, noted Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India, was that they would then be ‘pretty close’ to the oilfields in Iran and Iraq and would doubtless make ‘every kind of mischief’.36 In other words, not only did it look as though Germany could find a solution for its Achilles heel of not having reliable access to oil to fuel its ships, planes, tanks and other vehicles, but it might compromise Britain’s ability to sustain the war effort. It was vital, General Auchinleck concluded, to develop a plan – named Operation Countenance – to defend the belt stretching from Palestine to Basra and to the Iranian oilfields.37

Iran’s importance was magnified by its strategic location. Although Stalin had previously cut a deal with Hitler in 1939, the German invasion of the Soviet Union two years later had turned the latter into an unlikely ally for the British and their friends. It was announced in Washington, therefore, that ‘the Government of the United States has decided to give all economic assistance practicable for the purpose of strengthening the Soviet Union in its struggle against armed aggression’.38 This was coupled with private assurances given to Stalin by the American ambassador in Moscow that the US was determined ‘“all out” to beat Hitler’ and was prepared to do whatever it took to make this happen.39

The problem was how to get armaments and matériel to the Soviet Union. Shipping to ports in the Arctic Circle was logistically difficult and, in the middle of winter, treacherous. The lack of suitable harbours, other than Vladivostok in the east, meanwhile, was no less problematic, not least because of Japan’s dominance in this part of the Pacific. The solution was obvious: to take control of Iran. This would prevent local German agents and sympathisers gaining a foothold at a crucial moment, would better enable the protection of natural resources the Allies could ill afford to lose and would provide the best chance of co-ordinating efforts to hinder and halt the relentless drive east of the Wehrmacht.

While this suited the Allies’ war ends, it also promised longer-term rewards for the British and the Soviets respectively; occupying the country would give each what they had long coveted in terms of political influence, economic resources and strategic value. Exciting opportunities had been thrown up by Hitler’s decision to turn on his former ally in Moscow.

In July 1941, Teheran was occupied by British troops, who were soon joined by Soviet soldiers. Differences were put to one side in order to promote mutual interests in a region of profound strategic and economic importance. There was much celebration when British and Soviet troops met at Qazvin, in the north of the country, where they swapped stories and cigarettes. The foreign correspondents who met up with the Soviet army soon found themselves being treated to vodka and toasting the alliance by drinking to the health of Stalin, then Churchill, then Molotov, then Roosevelt, and then the same again in the same order. ‘At the end of thirty toasts in neat vodka,’ wrote one American journalist who was present, ‘half the correspondents were under the table. The Russians continued drinking.’40

When the Shah dithered over issuing an ultimatum to expel German citizens with immediate effect, the British began to broadcast reports over the radio on the new BBC Persian Radio Service that (falsely) accused the Shah of removing the crown jewels from the capital, of using forced labour in his own business interests and of using Teheran’s water supply to irrigate his private gardens – criticisms that already circulated widely according to Reader Bullard in his memoirs.41

The Shah prevaricated in the face of British demands, complaining to President Roosevelt about ‘acts of aggression’ and decrying the threat to ‘international justice and the right of peoples to liberty’. This was all very well, replied the President, but the Shah should bear in mind that ‘it is certain that movements of conquest by Germany will continue and will extend beyond Europe to Asia, Africa and even the Americas’. Persia, in other words, was dicing with disaster by contemplating good relations with Hitler.42 In the end, the British took matters into their own hands and forced the abdication of Reza Khan, who was by now considered a liability, and his replacement by his son, Mohammed Reza, an immaculately turned-out playboy with a love for French crime novels, fast cars and even faster women.43

To many Iranians, such outside interference was intolerable. In November 1941, mobs were gathering to shout ‘Long Live Hitler!’ and ‘Down with the Russians and the British!’, to show their disgust for how the fate of the country was being decided by soldiers who were seen as an occupying force.44 This was not Iran’s war; the disputes and military conflict of the Second World War had nothing to do with inhabitants of towns like Teheran and Isfahan, who looked on agog as their country was caught up in the struggle between European powers. These views counted for nothing.

With the situation in Iran brought forcefully under control, steps were also taken against French installations in Syria following the fall of France due to fears that they could be used against Britain and its allies in the Middle East. A hastily deployed Hurricane squadron was sent from RAF Habbaniyah, one of the airfields the British retained in Iraq after the end of the First World War, to strafe the bases of the Vichy French. Among those flying in the raids in the second half of 1941 was a young fighter pilot who later recalled coming in low to catch a Sunday-morning cocktail party of French airmen and ‘a bunch of girls in brightly coloured dresses’ in full swing. Glasses, bottles and high heels flew everywhere as the British fighters attacked and all took cover. It was ‘wonderfully comical’, wrote the pilot of one of the Hurricanes – a certain Roald Dahl.45

The news coming into Berlin around this time seemed unremittingly good. With the Soviet Union in dire straits, and breakthroughs seemingly imminent in Persia, Iraq and Syria, there was every reason to think that Germany was on the brink of a series of conquests to compare with those of the great armies of Islam in the seventh century or the Mongol forces of Genghis Khan and his heirs. Success was within touching distance.

The reality, however, was rather different. Dramatic as the German advances appeared, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, they were beset by problems. For one thing, battlefield losses during the advance east greatly exceeded the number of reserves being sent out to replace them. Although spectacular victories led to huge numbers of prisoners being taken, these were often achieved at great cost. According to General Halder’s own estimates, the Wehrmacht lost over 10 per cent of its men in the first two months of fighting after the start of the invasion – or more than 400,000 soldiers. By the middle of September, this had risen to more than 500,000 men, dead or wounded.46

The galloping surge forward also put an almost unbearable strain on supply lines. Lack of clean water was an issue almost from the outset, which in turn led to outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. Even before the end of August, it was becoming clear to the more astute that the picture was not as rosy as it seemed: shortages of basic materials like razor blades, toothpaste, toothbrushes, writing paper, needles and thread were notable from the first days of the invasion.47 Endless rain in the late summer soaked men and equipment alike. ‘There is no chance at all to dry the blankets, boots and clothes properly,’ wrote one soldier home.48 News of conditions reached Goebbels, who remarked in his diary that nerves of steel were needed to overcome the difficulties. In due course, he wrote, the current hardships ‘will seem like fond memories’.49

Prospects in the Near East and in Central Asia likewise flattered to deceive. For all the optimism earlier in the year, Germany had little to show for the popular enthusiasm that supposedly promised to link North Africa to Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan. The prospect of establishing a meaningful presence, let alone taking control, seemed to be an illusion rather than something of substance.

And so, in spite of extraordinary territorial gains, the German High Command set about trying to shore up morale just as Moscow was teetering. At the start of October 1941 Field Marshal von Reichenau, commander of the part of Army Group South that had advanced into the ‘surplus’ zone, issued an order to try to inject some grit back into his soldiers. Each man, he stated solemnly, was a ‘standard-bearer of a national ideal, and the avenger of all the bestialities perpetrated on the German peoples’.50 This was all well and good; but as men stuffed newspapers into their boots to fight off the cold, it was hard to see what effect strong words could have on a force whose members froze to death if wounded and whose skin stuck to the icy butts of their rifles.51 As biting winter took hold, such that bread had to be chopped with axes, Hitler told the Danish Foreign Minister with disdain: ‘If the German people are no longer strong enough and ready to sacrifice their own blood . . . they should perish.’52 Chemical stimulants – like Pervitin, a metamphetamine that was distributed in large quantities to troops serving on the bitterly cold eastern front – were more helpful than pep talks in giving succour.53

Serious supply problems also characterised the invasion. It had been estimated that the battle group closing in on Moscow would need twenty-seven deliveries of fuel by train each day; in November, it received three – in the course of the whole month.54 American economists monitoring the war focused on precisely this issue in reports entitled ‘The German Military and Economic Position’ and ‘The German Supply Problem on the Eastern Front’. They calculated that each 200 miles of advance would require an additional 35,000 freight cars, or a reduction of 10,000 tons in daily deliveries to the front line. The speed of the advance was proving to be a major problem.55

Keeping the front line supplied from the rear was bad enough. But there was a more pressing issue. The guiding principle behind the invasion had been the amputation of the rich lands of Ukraine and of southern Russia – the so-called ‘surplus’ zone. Even when grain shipments were being delivered from the Soviet Union before the invasion started, the effects of the war on food supplies and diets were far more marked in Germany than they had been, for example, in Great Britain. Rather than being boosted by gains in the east, daily calorie consumption, already reduced by the end of 1940, began to plummet further.56 In fact, the amounts of grain shipped back to Germany after Operation Barbarossa got under way were much lower than had been imported from the Soviet Union in 1939–41.57

German radio broadcasts attempted to boost morale – and provide assurances. Germany used to have plentiful reserves of grain, one news report stated in November 1941; ‘now in wartime, we have to do without this kind of luxury’. But there was good news, the bulletin went on. There was no need to fear the shortages and problems of the First World War. Unlike the period between 1914 and 1918, ‘the German people can rely on their food control authorities’.58

This was fighting talk, for in fact it was becoming clear that the idea of taking control of an apparently bottomless pool of resources in the east had been an illusion. The army that had been instructed to feed itself from the land was unable to do so, barely surviving and resorting to rustling livestock. Far from boosting the agricultural situation at home, meanwhile, the promised lands on which Hitler and those around him had set their hopes turned out to be a drain. The Soviets’ scorched-earth policies robbed the land of much of its wealth. Meanwhile within the Wehrmacht confused and contradictory military priorities – there was constant tension over whether men, tanks, resources and fuel should be diverted to the centre, to the north or to the south – sowed seeds that would prove deadly. American estimates made in the spring of 1942 about likely crop yields in the conquered territories of the Soviet Union’s south painted a pessimistic picture of the likely harvest in Ukraine and southern Russia. At most, the report suggested, two-thirds of pre-invasion yields were possible. Even that would be doing well.59

For all the territorial gains achieved, therefore, the campaign in the east had failed to deliver not only what had been promised but what was needed. Just two days after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Backe had presented his projections regarding wheat requirements as part of a four-year economic plan. Germany was facing a deficit of 2.5 million tons per year. The Wehrmacht needed to resolve this – and to secure millions of tons of oil-bearing seeds, and millions of head of cattle and pigs – for Germany to eat.60 This was one reason why Hitler instructed his generals to ‘raze Moscow and Leningrad to the ground’: he wanted to ‘prevent people remaining there whom we would then have to feed in the winter’.61

Having predicted that millions would die from food shortages and famine, the Germans now began to identify those who should suffer. First in line were Russian prisoners. There is no need to feed them, wrote Göring dismissively; it is not as though we are bound by any international obligations.62 On 16 September 1941, he gave the order to withdraw food supplies from ‘non-working’ prisoners of war – that is, those who were too weak or too injured to act as slave labour. A month later, after rations for ‘working’ captives had already been reduced, they were lowered once again.63 The effect was devastating: by February 1942, some 2 million (of a total of 3.3 million) Soviet prisoners were dead, mostly as a result of starvation.64

To quicken the process further still, new techniques were devised to eliminate the number of mouths that needed feeding. Prisoners of war were gathered by the hundred so that the effects of pesticides that had been used to fumigate Polish army barracks could be tested on them. Experiments were also carried out on the impact of carbon monoxide poisoning, using vans that had pipes connected to their own exhausts. These tests – which took place in the autumn of 1941 – were conducted in locations that were soon to gain notoriety for using the same techniques on a massive scale: Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen.65

The mass murders that began just weeks after the start of the invasion were a sickening response to the failure of the German attack and the abject inadequacies of the economic and strategic plans. The great granaries of Ukraine and southern Russia had not generated what had been expected of them. And there was an immediate price to pay: not the deportation or emigration of the local population, as Hitler had mentioned in conversation. With too many people and not enough food, there were two obvious targets who had been demonised in all walks of German life, in the media and in popular consciousness: Russians and Jews.

The portrayal of the Slavs as racially inferior, erratic, with a capacity for suffering and violence had been consistently developed before the war. Although the vitriol had been toned down after the Molotov–Ribbentrop agreement was signed in 1939, it started up again after the invasion. As has been forcefully argued, this played directly into the genocide of Russians that started in the late summer of 1941.66

Anti-Semitism was even more heavily ingrained in Germany before the war. According to the deposed Kaiser, the Weimar Republic had been ‘prepared by the Jews, made by the Jews and maintained by Jewish pay’. Jews were like mosquitoes, he wrote in 1925, ‘a nuisance that humankind must get rid of some way or other . . . I believe the best thing would be gas!’67 Such attitudes were not unusual. Events like the Kristallnacht, which saw co-ordinated violence against Jews on the night of 9–10 November 1938, were culminations of poisonous rhetoric that routinely dismissed the Jewish population as ‘a parasite [that] feeds on the flesh and productivity and work of other nations’.68

Rising fears of what such talk – and action – would bring had already prompted some to consider making new alliances. In the mid-1930s, David Ben-Gurion, later the first Prime Minister of Israel, tried to reach an agreement with leading Arabs in Palestine to enable greater levels of Jewish emigration. This came to nothing, with a mission led by a supposed Arab moderate being sent to Berlin to agree terms on how the Nazi regime would instead support Arab plans to undermine British interests in the Middle East.69

Before the end of the first month of the war, in September 1939, a plan had been agreed to resettle all Jews in Poland. To start with, at least, the plan seems to have been to gather the population en masse to facilitate their removal from German territory by forcible emigration. Indeed, elaborate plans were developed in the late 1930s to deport German Jews to Madagascar, a hare-brained scheme seemingly based on the popular (but misguided) conviction of many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century geographers and anthropologists that the native Malagasy population of this island in the south-west Indian Ocean traced their origins to the Jews.70

There had been discussions in Nazi Germany about deporting Jews elsewhere too. In fact, and perversely, Hitler had been championing the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine for the best part of two decades. In the spring of 1938, he spoke in support of a policy of emigration of German Jews to the Middle East and the formation of a new state to be their home.71 Indeed, in the late 1930s, a high-level mission, led by Adolf Eichmann, had even been sent to meet with Zionist agents in Palestine to discuss how an accommodation could be reached that would solve what was often called ‘the Jewish question’ once and for all. With considerable irony, Eichmann – who was later executed in Israel for crimes against humanity – found himself discussing how to boost emigration of Jews from Germany to Palestine, something which seemed in the interests both of the anti-Semitic Nazi leadership and of the leadership of the Jewish community in and around Jerusalem.72

Although the discussions did not result in agreement, the Germans continued to be seen as potentially useful partners – even after the start of the war. In the autumn of 1940, Avraham Stern, the creator of a movement called the Lehi, which became known to the authorities in Palestine as the Stern Gang and whose members included the future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir as well other founding fathers of modern Israel, sent a message to a senior German diplomat in Beirut with a radical proposal. ‘Common interests could exist,’ it began, between Germany and the ‘true national aspirations of the Jewish people’, whom Stern (and others) purported to represent. If ‘aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognised’, it went on, Stern offered to ‘actively take part in the war on the German side’. If the Jews could be liberated through the creation of a state, Hitler would surely benefit: apart from ‘strengthen[ing the] future German position of power in the Middle East’, it would also ‘extraordinarily strengthen the moral basis’ of the Third Reich ‘in the eyes of all humanity’.73

This was bluster. In fact, Stern was being pragmatic – even though the hopes he placed in allying with Germany were not shared by all within his own organisation. ‘All we want of the Germans’, he said shortly afterwards to explain his stance, is to bring Jewish recruits to Palestine. In doing so, ‘the war against the British to liberate the homeland will begin here. The Jews will attain a state, and the Germans will, incidentally, be rid of an important British base in the Middle East, and also solve the Jewish question in Europe . . .’ It seemed logical – and horrific: leading Jewish figures were actively proposing collaboration with the greatest anti-Semite of all time, negotiating with the perpetrators of the Holocaust hardly twelve months before genocide began.74

As far as Hitler was concerned, where Jews were deported to was unimportant, such was the power of his anti-Semitism. Palestine was just one location among many that were considered, with locations deep inside Russia also discussed seriously. ‘It does not matter where one sends the Jews,’ Hitler told the Croatian military commander Slavko Kvaternik in 1941. Either Siberia or Madagascar would do.75

Faced with chronic problems in Russia, this casual attitude now hardened into something more formal and more ruthless as it dawned on Nazi planners that the fact that Jews had been gathered in camps meant that mass murder could be accomplished with little difficulty.76 Faced with a drain on resources that were already scarce, it was a short jump for a systemically anti-Semitic regime to start to look to murder on a massive scale. Jews were already in camps in Poland; they were a ready and easy target at a time when the Nazi leadership were realising that there were millions of mouths too many to feed.

‘There is a danger this winter’, wrote Adolf Eichmann as early as the middle of July 1941, ‘that the Jews can no longer all be fed. It is to be seriously considered whether the most humane solution might not be to finish off those Jews not capable of labour by some sort of fast-working preparation.’77 The elderly, the infirm, women and children and those ‘not capable of labour’ were dismissed as expendable: they were the first step in replacing the ‘x million’ whose deaths had been so carefully forecast before the invasion of the Soviet Union.

So began a chain of events whose scale and horror were unprecedented, the shipment of human beings like livestock to holding pens where they could be divided into those who would work as slave labour and those whose lives were deemed to be the price to pay for the survival of others: southern Russia, Ukraine and the western steppe became the cause of genocide. The failure of the land to generate wheat in the anticipated quantities was a direct cause of the Holocaust.

In Paris, where the police had been carrying out secret registrations of Jewish and non-Jewish foreigners since the late 1930s, the process of deportation was simply a question of rattling through the card index that was handed to the German occupiers and then sending guards to detain entire families for transportation to camps in the east, mainly in Poland.78 The registration of Jews in other occupied countries, such as the Netherlands, as part of the broad programme of institutionalised Nazi anti-Semitism also made the process of deporting those now identified as surplus to requirements distressingly easy.79 Having attacked the Soviet Union with thoughts of surplus zones, thoughts now revolved around surplus populations – and how to deal with them.

As the hopes of what the invasion would bring were thwarted, the Nazi elite concluded that there was one solution for Germany’s problems. In a grotesque mirroring of the meeting that had taken place in Berlin on 2 May 1941, another meeting took place less than eight months later in Wannsee, a leafy suburb of Berlin. Once again, the question revolved around the issue of the deaths of unquantifiable millions. The name given to the conclusions reached on the frosty morning of 20 January 1942 sends shivers down the spine. In the eyes of its makers, the genocide of the Jews was simply a response to a problem. The Holocaust was the ‘Final Solution’.80

Before long, tanks, aircraft, armaments and supplies were on their way to Moscow from London and Washington as the fightback against Germany began to gather pace. These were networks, trade routes and communication channels that had functioned since the days of antiquity through the so-called Persian Corridor, stretching inland from the Gulf ports of Ābādān, Basra, Bushihr and others, through the interior to Teheran via Arak and Qom, and eventually through the Caucasus to reach the Soviet Union. Routes were also opened up through the Russian Far East across into Central Asia.81

Russia’s old commercial connections with Great Britain were again activated, despite the challenges involved: Arctic convoys taking provisions and resources to Murmansk and northern Russia had been treacherous enough in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Doing so within range of U-boats and heavily armoured cruisers like Tirpitz and Bismarck, which treated the North Sea coast of Norway as their stamping ground, required tremendous resilience and bravery. Sometimes, less than half the number of ships that set out made it to their destination and back – and many of the servicemen who travelled this route were not given medals for their service or their bravery for decades after the end of the war.82

Slowly but surely the tide turned as German forces were squeezed out of the centre of the world. For a moment, it had looked as though Hitler’s gamble would pay off: already master of Europe in all but name, his effort to open up Central Asia from the north and from the south seemed to be working when his troops reached the banks of the Volga. But, one by one, the gains slipped away as the German army was relentlessly and brutally driven back to Berlin.

Hitler plunged into despair as the realisation of what was happening dawned on him. A classified British report revealed that in a speech given on 26 April 1942, despite the apparent successes in the east, the German leader was betraying clear signs of paranoia and fatalism, together with growing evidence of what was termed a Messiah complex.83 From a psychological perspective, Hitler was an astonishing risk-taker, a man who fitted the profile of a compulsive gambler.84 His luck was finally starting to run out.

The tide began to turn during the summer of 1942. Rommel had been halted at El Alamein, putting paid to the plans of Muimageammad al-imageusaynī, who had told the inhabitants of Cairo to prepare lists of homes and workplaces of Jewish residents so they could be rounded up and exterminated in gas vans developed by a fanatical German officer who had been stationed locally.85

The entry of the US into the war also took time to make a difference. Shocked into action by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans geared up for war on two fronts. By the middle of 1942, victory at the epic battle of Midway enabled the US to move on to the offensive in the Pacific, while major troop deployments from the start of the following year in North Africa, Sicily and southern Italy and later elsewhere in Europe too promised to turn the course of the war.86

Then there was the situation at Stalingrad. In the spring of 1942, Hitler had approved a proposal codenamed Operation Blue that involved German forces swinging through southern Russia to secure the oilfields in the Caucasus that had become central to the Third Reich’s war planning. The offensive was ambitious and risky – and victory depended on it, as senior generals and Hitler himself realised: ‘if I do not get to the oil of Maikop and Grozny,’ the German leader declared, ‘then I must end the war’.87

Stalingrad represented a major problem. It was not essential to capture the city, despite the prestige associated with its name. Although it was an important industrial centre, its significance lay in its strategic location on a bend in the Volga: neutralising Stalingrad was vital to protect the gains the Germans envisaged making in the Caucasus. By the autumn of 1942, it was clear that things had gone badly wrong. The German offensive had begun late, and soon ran into trouble. Manpower, ordnance and increasingly precious fuel – resources Berlin could ill afford to spare – were expended in huge quantities at Stalingrad, which was bad enough. Worse was the fact that attention was diverted away from the campaign’s primary strategic goal: oil. Some within Hitler’s inner circle, such as Albert Speer, had understood what delays would mean. Germany had to win the war ‘by the end of October, before the Russian winter begins, or we have lost it once and for all’.88

While there was still much to do in terms of planning how to uproot German troops from the east and the west, and how to co-ordinate the pincers that would close in on Berlin, by the end of 1942 the thoughts of the new Allies – Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union – were turning to the future. When the leaders of the three countries met at Teheran in 1943, at Yalta in the spring of 1945 and finally at Potsdam a few months later, it was clear that the effort, expense and trauma of another massive confrontation had exhausted western Europe.

It was already obvious that old empires had to be wound down; it was simply a matter of how best to manage this process. In a sign of the pervasive moral fatigue, the question at hand was how to make the least bad decision – and even that was not done successfully. In October 1944, Churchill returned home from a visit to Moscow ‘refreshed and fortified’, he told Stalin, thanks to the ‘Russian hospitality which is renowned, excel[ing] itself’. Minutes record the performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, the opportunities for some ‘light shopping’ alongside a host of conclusions reached during the meetings. They do not record the discussions about the fate of post-war Europe, which were excised from the official reports.89

The territorial integrity of Poland that the House of Commons had sworn to protect in 1939 was surrendered, its borders crudely altered when Winston Churchill decided the moment was ‘apt for business’ and used a blue pencil to mark a map that moved a third of the country into German territory and gifted a third to the Soviet Union; he also proposed divisions across scores of other countries in central and eastern Europe that might be mutually satisfactory – such as a 90:10 split in Rumania in favour of the USSR’s influence over that of Britain, and the opposite in the case of Greece; in Bulgaria, Rumania and Yugoslavia, a 50:50 division would apply. Even Churchill recognised that the ‘offhand manner’ in which the fates of ‘millions of people’ had been decided might be considered ‘rather cynical’. The price of keeping Stalin sweet involved the sacrifice of the freedom of half of the continent of Europe. ‘Let us burn the paper’, Churchill told the Soviet supremo; ‘No’, replied Stalin, ‘you keep it.’90

Churchill realised the true situation too late. In his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946 that warned of an Iron Curtain falling across Europe, he observed that ‘all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia’, now lay within the sphere of the Soviet Union.91 All but Vienna and half of Berlin would stay there. The Second World War had been fought to stop the dark shadow of tyranny falling across Europe; in the end, nothing could, or would, be done to stop the Iron Curtain descending.

And so Europe was cleaved in two at the end of the Second World War. The western half had fought bravely and heroically; and for decades afterwards congratulated itself on its achievement in taking on the evil of Nazism, without paying the price of recognising its role in its genesis. Nor could it spare much thought for the part of the continent that had been surrendered in a new set of post-war settlements. The defeat of Germany had resulted in chronic war fatigue, the exhaustion of the economies of Britain and France and the collapse of those of Holland, Belgium, Italy and the Scandinavian countries. Coupled with the dislocation was the fear not only of an arms race that was likely to involve extensive research into nuclear weapons, but of direct confrontation. With Soviet troops in Europe enjoying a 4:1 numerical superiority over those of the other Allies, supported by advantages in tank deployment, there were real fears that further hostilities might break out following the German surrender. As a result, Churchill ordered contingency plans to be drawn up that were based on a hypothesis that Hitler’s defeat simply marked the end of a chapter, rather than an end point in itself. The name given to these plans concealed the reason why they had been prepared in the first place: Operation Unthinkable was eminently thinkable in the minds of British planners.92

The need to prepare for contingencies was firmly based in the reality of a fast-changing situation as Germany crumbled. Stalin had taken up an increasingly uncompromising position, no doubt driven by the sense of betrayal arising out of his catastrophic alliance with Hitler in 1939, but also as a result of the astonishing price that the Soviet Union had had to pay – above all at Stalingrad and Leningrad – to survive the German onslaught.93 From Moscow’s point of view it became important to build a system of buffer zones and client states, as well as to create and reinforce the fear that direct action could be taken if the Soviet Union felt threatened. In the circumstances, crippling countries to the west by targeting and even removing their industrial bases was a logical step to take – as was providing financial and logistical support for nascent Communist parties. As history shows, attack is often the best form of defence.94

One result of this was that Hitler’s oppression was deemed worse than that of Stalin. The narrative of the war as a triumph over tyranny was selective, singling out one political enemy while glossing over the faults and failings of recent friends. Many in central and eastern Europe would beg to differ with this story of the triumph of democracy, pointing out the price that was paid over subsequent decades by those who found themselves on the wrong side of an arbitrary line. Western Europe had its history to protect, however, and that meant emphasising successes – and keeping quiet about mistakes and about decisions that could be explained as realpolitik.

This was typified by the European Union being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012: how wonderful that Europe, which had been responsible for almost continuous warfare not just in its own continent but across the world for centuries, had managed to avoid conflict for several decades. In late antiquity, the equivalent would have been giving the prize to Rome a century after its sack by the Goths, or perhaps to the Crusaders after the loss of Acre for toning down anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Christian world. The silence of the guns, perhaps, owed more to the reality that there was nothing left to fight for than to the foresight of a succession of supposedly brilliant peace-makers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, or to the wonders of an unwieldy international organisation of European states whose accounts have not been signed off by its own auditors for years.

A new world had started to emerge in 1914 as the sun began to set on western Europe. The process accelerated with the hostilities of 1939–45, and continued after they had finally ended. The question now was who would control the great trading networks of Eurasia. And there was good reason to ponder this carefully, for it had turned out that there was more to the fertile earth and golden sands of the heart of the world and to the waters of the Caspian Sea than met the eye.