NEAL CONAN, host:
Sunday, June 22nd, was the longest day of 1941, and perhaps the most momentous day of the 20th Century.
Gigantic and powerful German armies launched an attack on the Soviet Union that would have vast and unforeseen consequences, including Germany's defeat, the triumph of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War that defined much of the rest of the century.
In a new book, historian John Lukacs argues that this pivotal moment rested entirely on two men, and forces us to rethink why Hitler and Stalin became allies in 1939 and enemies a year and a half later.
If you have questions about this critical relationship, why Hitler would risk a war on two fronts, why Stalin refused to believe an invasion was imminent, or why John Lukacs believes that Hitler was more focused on London and Washington than on Moscow, give us a call.
Our phone number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Lukacs joins us from Audio Post Studios in Philadelphia. His most recent book is June 1941: Hitler and Stalin.
And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION. John Lukacs, are you there?
Mr. JOHN LUKACS (Author): Yes.
CONAN: Hi. Nice to have you back on the show today. In no small part, your new book is a catalogue of blunders, misunderstandings, and miscalculations. And let me begin with Adolph Hitler.
In the spring of 1941, he was the master of continental Europe. Britain stood alone. He enjoyed a profitable non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. And most historians conclude that he decided to turn east because they say it was inevitable that this was the war he really wanted all along. You disagree.
Mr. LUKACS: There was some truth in that, and everybody must, everyone must understand that no single decision has a single purpose. He had, obviously, from the very beginning of his public career, he was a dedicated anti-communist. He also had a view of the German necessity to expand eastward, and thereby gain more territory for German settlers here and there. And that was, that cannot be denied.
But Hitler, in 1941, faced himself as a situation where there was another very important element. England was holding out. He could not defeat the British. The British could not defeat them. Behind the British, the Americans were getting closer and closer to the war.
He believed--this is not a speculation, we have multiple evidence it is true. His words, they can be found in my book--that if he defeats Russia, which he believed was quite possible, then Churchill and Roosevelt will be in an extremely difficult situation. For one thing, communism will have to be, would be eliminated. That's a plus. A lot of people would say that worldwide.
But more important, he would be, in many ways, invincible. And opinion, people in Britain and America, not matter how they dislike Hitler, would begin to think that they have to review, to revise, to correct this view that this war can go on forever.
He believed that, in a way, the road to London and to Washington was through Moscow. If he defeats the Russians, his western enemies will be forced to negotiate with him--and pretty much on his terms.
CONAN: And then there is Stalin. Universally described as shrewd and suspicious, canny, but who could not bring himself to accept overwhelming evidence that an invasion was about to happen.
Mr. LUKACS: He didn't, and there was a, there were what we might call, again, more than--there was more than one reason in his mind. One of them was obvious. He knew that, particularly Churchill would like to see a war between Germany and Russia. He believed it was in the British interest for that to happen. So he was with his usual suspicion--and also to some extent lack of profound knowledge of the western world--believed that much of this was machination, because Hitler, and this comes as a second element, would be foolish. It would be very unlikely for Hitler to start a war, a two-front war, when the one-front war is not at all concluded.
Now added to this comes a very important element that some people have known, and that's Stalin had a liking for Hitler. Stalin greatly admired Hitler. The odd thing is that his respect and admiration for Hitler appeared in drips and drabs even after the war started, even toward the end of the war, here and there he dropped some quite comfortable remarks about Hitler, or rather he had admired.
And another element connected with this is that Stalin had a great liking and respect for Germans and for Germany. And that goes back to pretty early in his career.
Now, as I tried to write, and I'll tell my listener, there are many causes for any decision for any human act. And, these causes exist on different levels. They change. Some are more important than others. And so, what happened in June 1941, both on Hitler's side and on Stalin's side, had multiple elements, multiple factors.
CONAN: We're talking with John Lukacs, the author of, among other things, the best seller Five Days in London: May 1940. His new book, June 1941: Hitler and Stalin.
If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get a caller on the line. This is Ed. Ed's calling us from St. Louis, Missouri.
ED (Caller): Thank you. I was wondering, when Hitler made the decision to turn on Germany, did he have the support of the military? Or were they hesitant to fight a war on two fronts at that time? Thanks.
CONAN: Thank you.
Mr. LUKACS: He had the support of the military, with just a few exceptions. As a matter of fact, shortly before the actual invasion, it's an odd thing, and I write about this in this book, in passing. Hitler, for a moment, was more dubious, more pessimistic about a campaign than were most of his generals. But that happened in the last minute.
You see, a decision develops in phases. It was in July 1940 that he first thought and told a very small group of his advisors that we might have to, you want to prepare an eventual war against Russia. This was a contingency plan, though an important one. Then, in December, he orders the definite preparation for a campaign, and then, of course, the last decision is made just a few hours before the invasion begins.
But, it cannot be all blamed on his single-mindedness. Very few of his generals, and practically no one in his circle doubted that the Germans can defeat the Russians very soon.
CONAN: Let's talk with Peter. Peter calling from Miami.
PETER (Caller): Hi. Right on that point, I'm wondering, with the professionalism of Hitler's staff as I understand it, and their knowledge of military history, why didn't they look at this in light of Napoleon's invasion and see the same kind of problems developing? Or did they, and were they simply afraid to bring it forward?
Mr. LUKACS: No, they weren't afraid. And the Napoleonic element did not occur to anyone. You must understand that when the German invasion begins, the universal opinion, across the world, including Germany's enemies, including the American chiefs of staff, the American secretary of state, the secretary of war, who certainly didn't like Hitler, thought this will last--the Germans will now have their hands busy in Russia for a maximum of three months.
CONAN: Hm. Peter, thanks for the call.
PETER: Thanks very much.
CONAN: Among the blunders that happened, in, on, and around this date, John Lukacs, you suggest that one of the worst was made, not in Moscow or in Berlin, but in Tokyo.
Mr. LUKACS: Yes, I'm so glad you mentioned this. This is a small portion of my book, but I think it's very decisive. After all, the world was round. The Japanese were allies of Germany, and the Japanese made the worst possible decision by, I mean, I'm simplifying this. They had three choices. There was a crowned council meeting about this in Tokyo after the German-Russia war began, they thought about it, discussed this for 16 hours.
Attack Russia first. Attack the British, and perhaps with this, bring the United States into the war. Or, stay out of the war with the United States as much as possible. Of these three choices, they took the worst one.
CONAN: The purpose of your book is not to compare these two great monsters, but comparisons are inevitably drawn. You conclude that Hitler and National Socialism remain more interesting and more extraordinary than Stalin and Communism. Why?
Mr. LUKACS: Well, this goes, in a way, beyond the province of this book. But, you must understand, history does not repeat itself, but there were precedents of Stalin in Russia. Czars, brutal czars, there are some.
History does not repeat itself, so I said. But in many ways, Stalin was reminiscent of Ivan the Terrible. Also, the Russians were not a very educated people. The Russians had not many traditions that were comparable to Western Europe, whereas there is no precedent to Hitler in German history.
I mean, Hitler was, in my opinion, the most revolutionary, most extraordinary figure in the history of the 20th Century. And he was able to unite, very often for very bad purposes, and to unite and have behind him at least a majority of who--at that time, the Germans--were the most educated people in the world. That is something extraordinary--much more extraordinary than communism in Russia.
CONAN: John Lukacs, thank you very much. It's always wonderful to have you on the program. Appreciate your time today.
Mr. LUKACS: Thank you.
CONAN: John Lukacs' new book is June 1941: Hitler and Stalin.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.