Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 33. Hitler’s Lessons

HISTORIANS ARE TEMPTED to take Hitler and Stalin in tandem, as parallel studies of the psychopathic dictator. In fact, they differ from each other as much as either differs from a normal human being. They are alike as totem figures of evil, striving to dominate the world, brooking no contradiction, unconstrained by remorse or affection. They are unlike in all other ways: Hitler left, as much as he could for his purposes, Germany’s social, legal, and economic structure unchanged; he chose an ideology, anti-Semitism, that appealed to all classes in Germany, to the Christian churches, to the European nations he would conquer; he used rhetoric and armed force as his main instruments. Stalin finished Lenin’s mission of demolishing the social, legal, and economic structure of Russia’s society; he made revolutionary socialism a hollow container for his own fascism—he was no more a communist than a Borgia pope was a Catholic; he expressed himself in silences, gestures, and clichés, and, except for two years at the height of the Second World War, no dictator did more to keep his armed forces under his heel. Hitlerism was like a cancer on the body politic, letting the body apparently function normally until the cancer destroys it; Stalinism was more like the larva of a parasitic wasp—devouring and converting to itself the body politic that it has invaded. But despite their differences and their enmity, Hitler and Stalin had common interests for a decade, from 1932 to 1941.

For most of the 1920s Germany and the Soviet Union, the two nations left hungry at the feast of the Treaty of Versailles, had an understanding that went beyond common diplomatic and commercial interests. When Hitler took power on a program hostile to the USSR, Stalin naturally had to sound out new alliances and Hitler became a valuable bogeyman. From 1932 until 1939 the USSR and the Comintern, managed by Stalin’s puppets Kuusinen and Béla Kun, depicted Hitler’s Germany as a menace so great that all antifascists had to overlook Soviet blemishes. Was not the USSR now the sole defender of peace, the Jews, and the workers? Correspondingly, Hitler made the Bolsheviks into a bogeyman for all anticommunists: were not the Bolsheviks and international Jewry the source of all the world’s evils?

But antagonism concealed respect, although Hitler seemed at first to Stalin, as he did to Western leaders, a malleable buffoon. Because he thought he would be able to manipulate Hitler, Stalin’s Comintern forbade German communists to join the social democrats in resisting the rise of the Nazis. Stalin thus helped Hitler to gain power, just as his vendetta against other parties of the left helped General Franco defeat the republic of Spain.

Hitler’s first political actions imitated Stalin: setting up concentration camps, attacking homosexuality and “degenerate art.” Stalin had outlawed male homosexuality after Iagoda reported on December 19, 1933:

While liquidating recently a union of pederasts in Moscow and Leningrad, OGPU has ascertained the existence of salons and dens where orgies have been arranged. . . . Pederasts have been recruiting and debauching completely healthy young people, Red Army men, navy men and students. We have no criminal law to enable us to prosecute pederasts. . . . I would consider it essential to issue an appropriate law to make pederasty answerable as a crime. In many ways this will clean up society, will rid it of nonconformists.15

Hitler impressed Stalin when he burned down the Reichstag in summer 1933, then framed communists for the arson. Hitler had not sufficiently suborned German judges to carry off the fabrication, but he was imitating Menzhinsky’s show trials. Stalin sent two Soviet journalists to cover the Reichstag trial. 16 Commissar for Foreign Affairs Litvinov was traveling via Berlin, and was happy, “if Hitler desires, to talk with him too . . . if they propose signing a protocol that all conflicts are settled, then we can agree to that, if they express in an apologetic form regret for a number of incorrect actions....”17

In summer 1934 Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives also excited Stalin’s admiration. Hitler killed the leader of the brownshirts, Erich Röhm, with scores of his followers, thus getting rid of his own left deviation. Stalin exclaimed, it is reported, “Clever man, that’s how to deal with opposition, cut them out in one go!” Stalin told his army intelligence, “The events in Germany . . . must lead to the consolidation of the regime and to the strengthening of Hitler’s own power.”18 He drew analogous conclusions for himself.

At the Nuremberg rallies of summer 1935 Goebbels and Rosenberg berated the Soviet Union. Stalin held back Kaganovich and Molotov: “My advice is not to make a hysterical noise in our press and not to give in to the hysterics of our newspapermen. Nuremberg is a response to the Communist International, if you recall that the Comintern congress poured filth over them and besmirched them. Let Pravda criticize them in a principled, political way, but without street language.” In Hitler’s virulent anti-Soviet Reichstag speech Stalin saw “no basis for protest.”19

The differences in principle between Hitler’s national and Stalin’s Leninist socialism can be reduced to Hitler’s declaration: “My socialism is not the class struggle, but order.” However, Stalin’s socialism converged with Hitler’s in that it too became national. From 1933 Stalin encouraged Russian chauvinism, implying that Russians were politically and culturally superior—elder brothers to the other peoples of the USSR and the Slavs, just as the Germans were a superior race among the Aryans. True, Stalin’s anti-Semitism was inconsistent, but only in temperament were Hitler and Stalin diametrically opposite.

Once Hitler secured power, Stalin nevertheless sought friendlier relations with Britain and France; he was hedging his bets. To sever economic relations with Germany was not, however, in the Soviet Union’s interests. Some in Hitler’s entourage, particularly Goering, felt that it was not in Germany’s either. The countries had shared political goals: the crushing of Poland, for both Hitler and Stalin an upstart and a usurper of national territory. Germany and the USSR also remained territorial victims of the Treaties of Versailles and Genoa. They still felt the grievances against Britain and France that had allied them in 1922 when they signed the Treaty of Rapallo. A militarily revived Germany in Stalin’s eyes could provoke a war which would destroy Western capitalism and thus initiate a world proletarian revolution. Even in 1935, Marshal Tukhachevsky speculated that Hitler’s anti-Soviet rhetoric was “just a convenient umbrella to cover up revanchist plans against the west and the south.”20

Hitler was always anti-Bolshevik. Some of his ministers, however, believed that Stalin was extirpating the worst, in other words the Jews, in Bolshevism. Karl Radek, the Bolshevik most appreciated in Germany, where he spent many years either in exile or in secret negotiations with government ministers and with revolutionaries, famously joked, “What’s the difference between Moses and Stalin? Moses got the Jews out of Egypt, Stalin is getting them out of the Politburo.” In the 1930s Jews were to disappear—at Stalin’s behest—from the NKVD and the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs until only two remained in Stalin’s entourage, Kaganovich and Lev Mekhlis. Mekhlis lurked in the shadows, and Kaganovich, as Joachim von Ribbentrop remarked with relief, “had nothing Jewish about him at all.” Goebbels and Ribbentrop overlooked the fact that Stalin was repressing ethnic Germans with even more alacrity.

In the late 1920s military collaboration was the backbone of the German–Russian alliance. Forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles to modernize its forces, Germany obtained, as well as naval facilities, three bases in Soviet Russia: Lipetsk, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, to train its air force; Kazan in Tataria, 400 miles east of Moscow to test tanks; and Tomka for experimenting with chemical weapons.

Collaboration had its teething troubles. The first Soviet agents with one hand negotiated the purchase of naval vessels and with the other incited the workers of Hamburg to rise up in the “Red October” of 1923 against their government. But by 1926 dealings were more professional: Józef Unszlicht, image’s colleague, went to Germany and established relations with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who would head Hitler’s Abwehr. The security services of the two countries, when the time came, found cooperation easy.

In return for providing Germany with testing grounds and bases, Russia received technology for high-quality steelmaking, and was helped to build tanks, artillery, and airplanes. German facilities in Kazan and Lipetsk trained Soviet troops and airmen, and their technology promised better aviation. Stalin had difficulty with aircraft: throughout the 1930s Soviet aircraft were so unsafe—there was at least one crash on most days—that party officials who were not pilots were forbidden to fly; Stalin himself did not board an aircraft until 1943. Stalin feigned concern for human life on June 24, 1932, when he wrote to Voroshilov: “The most alarming thing is the accidents and the deaths of our pilots. The loss of airplanes is not as terrible (to hell with them) as the death of living people, pilots. Living people are the most valuable and most important thing in all our cause, especially in aviation.” The only pilots whose lives Stalin willingly ended were those who complained of having to test “flying coffins.” High-ranking officers commuted between the two countries; the Red Army under Tukhachevsky developed jointly with the Germans blitzkrieg tank tactics.21

France could not offer Stalin comparable help. Although after Hitler came to power imports from Germany dropped to less than a tenth of their 1931 level, when Stalin exchanged grain for steel, in 1934 Stalin bought for some 64 million marks military hardware and technology.22 Stalin’s trade representative in Berlin, even in autumn 1934, was permitted by the Nazis to visit all plants and factories supplying goods to the USSR. 23 Hitler did close the German army’s operations at Lipetsk, Kazan, and Tomka, but on the nonideological pretext that he had to cut spending. By 1936 Soviet imports of technology from Germany were doubling again. 24

From 1934 to 1937 Stalin had a secret go-between with Hitler: a Georgian, David Kandelaki, whom Stalin knew through his first in-laws, the Svanidzes. Kandelaki had been educated in Germany. Officially, he headed the Soviet trade mission to Germany and Scandinavia, but he answered to neither the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs nor the NKVD. His remit went beyond trade. 25

Two Nazis looked eastward. Hermann Goering’s cousin Herbert wanted to work with the Soviet Union against France and Britain. Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the finance minister, despite planning to invade the Soviet Ukraine and share it with Poland, offered Stalin 500 million marks’ credit in exchange for oil for Germany’s military. “Tell Kandelaki,” Stalin told Kaganovich in September 1935, when Germany and the Soviet Union were disowning each other publicly, “to insist on getting from the Germans everything we need for military purposes and for dyes.”

Whether or not Stalin thought peaceful coexistence possible with Hitler, he eagerly stirred up rivalry between France and Germany for the Soviet Union’s support. “The old entente has gone,” Stalin wrote to Kaganovich and Molotov on September 2, 1935. “Instead two ententes are forming: that of Italy and France on one hand, and of England and Germany on the other hand. The worse the fight between them, the better for us. . . . It is not at all to our advantage for one of them to smash the other. Our advantage lies in their fight being as prolonged as possible, without a quick victory for one over the other.”

Social democracy or Trotskyism stuck in Stalin’s throat far more than fascism. In September 1933 Mussolini and Stalin added neutrality and friendship to their nonaggression pact; in 1936, Mussolini’s press acclaimed the shooting of Zinoviev and Kamenev as proof of Stalin’s conversion to views compatible with Italian fascism.

By 1937, Stalin had become so confident of Hitler’s strength and France’s and Britain’s weakness that he had Kandelaki draft a pact with Hitler. The author was rewarded with the Order of Lenin, but was shot a year before the pact was signed.