“Economically and technically, the Reich wasn’t ready for the war with the USSR in 1939”

A cycle of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. Part 4: Germany

“Economically and technically, the Reich wasn’t ready for the war with the USSR in 1939” Photo: wikipedia.org

Realnoe Vremya continues a cycle of talks with Russian historians about circumstances of the beginning of World War Two whose 80th anniversary will be celebrated on 1 September. At the end of the interview with Realnoe Vremya, researcher of the Institute of World History at the Russian Academy of Sciences Konstantin Sofronov explains if Adolf Hitler could have attacked our country as early as 1939 and if the Soviet Union expected it.

It was obvious for all sound people in 1939 that the war between Germany and the USSR was doomed to end with Hitler’s defeat”

Mr Sofronov, was Hitler afraid of the USSR in 1939? And how did he evaluate its military potential?

No, as an adventurous personality, he wasn’t afraid. We can rather say that the fight of the right and the left was a topical issue in Germany since 1918, this is why the fight “against the left threat”, the Communist International, the Communist party was considered since then as a necessary fight with Bolshevism. Take the same Hoffmann Plan, which was formed in the German elite after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Editor’s Note: Max Hoffman is Kaiser’s general who offered the Entente a joint attack on Moscow in early 1919 to “get rid of Bolshevism”), take talks in the late 20s about the creation of European armed forces for a crusade against Soviet Russia in which Germany also participated. And these things affected Hitler, too. In 1924, he wrote in his book that western territories had to be colonised. The point about the fight against Bolshevism included Hitler’s “idea of blood and soil”, the idea of the supremacy of the Aryan race.

The Nazi said that Bolsheviks were Eastern barbarians, while Germans were protectors of the Eastern civilisation.

Besides, it was already seen in the 30s that USSR acquired economic power, the army of the Soviet Union increased, and all this impressed German officials who understood that a clash of two ideologies, the communist and Nazi, would certainly take place sooner or later. Yes, in some local moment Hitler could be a pacifist, for instance, even in the 20s after describing the idea of German revenge in Mein Kampf, he claimed that he had to include into the union of great powers again. But it is no more than a pre-election propagandist step: yes, Hitler’s party didn’t want to get the power with a coup in the late 20s any more, but it was still aggressive inside, including in foreign affairs.

Max Hoffman, 1917-1918. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2008-0278 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org
The fight of the right and the left was a topical issue in Germany since 1918, this is why the fight “against the left threat”, the Communist International, the Communist party was considered since then as a necessary fight with Bolshevism. Take the same Hoffmann Plan, which was formed in the German elite after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The same Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact talks about it: it was an opportunity to assault Poland and at the same time to drag the war with the USSR. It was obvious for all sound people that the war between Germany and the USSR was doomed to end with Hitler’s defeat if he had decided to declare war on the Soviet Union precisely in 1939.

But didn’t Hitler plan to assault the USSR in 1939 despite the adventurous nature of the führer?

To attack the USSR, Hitler had to at least assault Poland.

“The factor of an external threat anyway was inflated and used by Stalin to heat up the hysteria inside the country

But if Hitler theoretically had solved the issue of Poland like with Czechoslovakia, that’s to say, without military actions, would he have had a military crusade to the USSR?

You know, the issue of readiness is always a complicated thing. What is readiness? Is it a will of the political administration or technical and economic readiness of the country? If we are talking about the second moment, technically and economically the Reich wasn’t ready for a war with the USSR in 1939. Take even the year 1941: Hitler’s troops concentrated on the border with the USSR, the border was enriched with machinery, shells, but tanks near the border were to have advanced to the USSR in June uninterruptedly from Greece, which helped with the occupation of Mussolini’s country.

Different moments constantly made amendments to Hitler’s plans for a big war, and Germany had to be in a state of force majeure all the time. But as an adventurer, Hitler not only based on Germany’s possibilities but what it was to achieve as a result of some actions. While pragmatists, those who were at a lower level, were to make up an accurately running military, economic and propagandist machine of his goals.

German troops in Athens in May 1941. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-164-0357-29A / Rauch / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org
Take even the year 1941: Hitler’s troops concentrated on the border with the USSR, the border was enriched with machinery, shells, but tanks near the border were to have advanced to the USSR in June uninterruptedly from Greece, which helped with the occupation of Mussolini’s country

But as I have recently read in Historian magazine that the USSR was very afraid of Germany in 1939. Does it mean that Soviet officials considered the possibility of invasion as high?

Here we should consider that in 1919 Stalinist purges of the political and military administration of the country went on in the USSR, and the factor of an external threat anyway was inflated and used by Stalin to heat up the hysteria inside the country. In addition, Stalin wasn’t completely aware of some plans for the attack of Germany on the USSR. Zorge’s letters to Moscow in 1941 that read that Germany was ready to attack the USSR aroused mistrust in the “Centre”.

Of course, the administration of the USSR had an idea of Germany’s military potential — the two countries had military contracts since the 20s (we can remember USSR tank and aviation schools where German officers studied). But in 1939 and later Stalin didn’t understand what would be happening in Germany regarding our country in general. In addition, after Poland, Hitler’s plan had an assault of France, a “fight for England”, events in Greece, and this, unfortunately, worsened Stalin’s understanding of Hitler’s plans about the USSR.

Why did Germany decide to sign the treaty of non-aggression with the USSR?

Even if Germany got only a part of Poland after the agreement, it was beneficial for it at that moment (Editor’s Note: there was a final territorial union of the country with Eastern Prussia). In addition, the agreement was accompanied by trade agreements as well, which were quite beneficial for her: the USSR began to supply grains, oil, petrol, cotton, wood to Germany, and Germany supplied precision equipment for aviation and artillery to the USSR.

Besides, Germany also signed a protocol on division of spheres of influence in the Baltic States. The problem of the city of Memel in Lithuania it was a candidate to get aggravated since spring 1939. And it was necessary to decide under whose thumb the Baltic States would be. On the one hand, they had sympathy for Germany, and on the other hand, they were afraid of him. Hitler accepted the protocol because he was convinced that though Baltic States would be a zone of influence of the USSR, there would be anti-Soviet moods there, and soon a German invasion, which was profitable for the Baltic States, would take plaсe.

Hitler’s arrival in Memel in March 1939. Photo: wikipedia.org
The problem of the city of Memel in Lithuania it was a candidate to get aggravated since spring 1939. And it was necessary to decide under whose thumb the Baltic States would be. On the one hand, there was fondness of Germany, and on the other hand, they were afraid of him

Not that Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was a gift for Hitler, but this agreement was very beneficial”

Does it mean that there weren’t debates about conditions of the agreement in Berlin? Didn’t anybody say to Hitler that it was better to occupy all Poland for easier assaults in the East further?

This decision wasn’t made in Berlin collectively, it was made by Hitler, this is to say there weren’t any discussions in the German administration. Neither were they in the Soviet administration. The case is that both sides understood that the war between the countries was inevitable, and this agreement was just an opportunity to define the politics of both sides for several pre-war years and get ready for this war.

So did the treaty of non-aggression perfectly fit Hitler’s plans?

Not that it was a gift for Hitler, but this agreement was very beneficial in Germany’s foreign affairs, and this is why it stroke a chord there.

Which country's’ initiative was the secret protocol to the treaty of non-aggression?

The USSR. The secret protocol was an appendix to the agreement anyway — the Soviet Union wanted to push the border away, because the further it was, the more opportunities the country had to create rear boundaries. Yes, they had to follow the politics of communisation in Poland and the Baltic States, but it can be pushed away from the political centre of the country.

Chamberlain (left) and Hitler at meeting in Bad Godesberg), 23 September 1938. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H12751 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org
It seems that under the impression of talks with Chamberlain about Czechoslovakia Hitler thought Great Britain as a neutral state, appraised racial qualities of the English, kind of worshipped their colonial politics

Some scientists wrote that Hitler was very unsatisfied with the terms of the agreement as early as 1940.

Hitler saw tactical advantages in the agreement but strategically he was tuned up for military actions. Germany had to perform one task after another, one opponent after another became a victim of the Third Reich, and the USSR would anyway become the goal of this aggressive politics.

As for dissatisfaction, I also read somewhere that as Hitler felt bad during the war (though he wasn’t an old person) and he had often drug injections, he considered he should follow foreign politics more actively and launch a military conflicts in the USSR faster. Even though Germany was ready for it neither economically nor technically.

What about Great Britain and France? Did they turn into Hitler’s enemies by holding talks with Poland on possible military assistance?

To tell the truth, Hitler considered France as a future enemy since the 20s already. But not Great Britain. There was such an interesting moment with the latter. It seems that under the impression of talks with Chamberlain about Czechoslovakia Hitler thought Great Britain as a neutral state, appraised racial qualities of the English, kind of worshipped their colonial politics. While he considered France as a political and military rival, including under the impression of World War One. This is why the idea of revenge included France, not Great Britain. And this is why “the fight for England” Hitler launched broke out suddenly. He didn’t consider the war with Great Britain something important and necessary unlike the assault of Paris, even despite the Phoney War on the Western front.

By Sergey Kochnev