Because of the recent centenary, debates over the origins of World War I rage with renewed vigor. By contrast, the origins of World War II seem ever more settled and uncontroversial. Adolf Hitler, so the conventional narrative runs, attacked Poland as the first step in the capture of lands to the east—thereby seizing the Lebensraum, or living space, that Germany supposedly required. He paused to neutralize France and Britain before moving on to an assault on the Soviet Union that was, in great part, ideologically motivated. Rolf-Dieter Müller’s refreshing new look at the events of 1939, “Enemy in the East,” does not challenge Hitler’s primary responsibility, to be sure, but it does compel us to look again at the whole origins story.
Mr. Müller, an accomplished German military historian, is the first specialist to explain Germany’s strategic planning in 1938-39 for a larger audience. In a nutshell, he shows that, in the late 1930s, Hitler sought not war with Poland, still less with the Western powers, but a confrontation with the Soviet Union before the decade was out. Ideally, Hitler and his army wanted to advance on the Soviet Union in a broad front—in full alliance with Warsaw. When the Poles declined, the Germans drew up plans for establishing two corridors through Polish territory—one north, the other south—through which the Wehrmacht could attack Stalin. Such a two-pronged approach would require only Polish cooperation and toleration rather than wholehearted participation. Once again, Poland refused.
It is clear, from Mr. Müller’s culling of military and diplomatic records, that Germany’s eastern campaigns were, for the most part, conceived of strategically rather than ideologically. Far from despising the Poles as Slavs and expressing his views in a drumbeat of invective—as the standard narrative too often suggests—Hitler made rather few remarks about the Poles before 1939, and those were positive. Even after Warsaw had closed the door on him, he clung to the hope that the Poles could be bribed with chunks of the Ukraine to allow an invasion of the U.S.S.R. through Polish lands. He was an admirer of Marshal Pilsudski, the Polish national hero and dictator, who had led Poland in the interwar years until his death in 1935. Hitler claimed that war would have been avoided if Pilsudski had still been alive in 1939.
ENEMY IN THE EAST
By Rolf-Dieter Müller I.B. Tauris, 316 pages, $29
Likewise, the decision to attack Stalin in 1941, Mr. Müller argues, was driven primarily not by ideological antipathy, powerful though it was, but by a quest for yet more “living space” to balance against the might of the Western empires. The immediate trigger seems to have been disappointment at the economic returns from the 1939 pact with Stalin, who had gouged Hitler at every turn. That said, Mr. Müller is of course clear that the execution of the campaign was from the start highly ideological. It included, most notably, the mass murder of Jews, a policy that culminated, a year later, in a plan for full-scale annihilation across occupied Europe.
There are some current resonances here, although Mr. Müller—who is perfectly entitled to study the story in its own right—doesn’t draw them out. Stalin’s concerns about joint Polish-German ambitions in the Ukraine were at least half-justified in the 1930s. Today, Moscow is again at odds with Warsaw and gripped by paranoia, no less virulent for being (this time) largely baseless. Among Poland’s leaders and commentators, there is a feeling that Poland’s independence is once again being tested, though mercifully only from one side and not from east and west simultaneously.
If one were to criticize “Enemy in the East,” it might be for its limited attention to the wider global context. To be sure, Mr. Müller brings in the Japanese dimension admirably, showing that Hitler initially relied on the Japanese to tie down substantial Soviet forces. Mr. Müller is somewhat light, however, on the Anglo-American dimension. (One can’t help noticing that his brief references to Theodore Roosevelt in the original, German-language edition of the book have been corrected to FDR in the English translation.) It was, after all, fear of the immense demographic and economic power of the British Empire and the “American Union,” as Hitler called it, that underlay the Lebensraum imperative, aimed at seizing lands to feed Germans who would otherwise starve or emigrate.
Finally, Mr. Müller writes that Hitler’s excursions into the Balkans in the spring of 1941 delayed or harmed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union that began in June. Here he might have addressed the work of Martin van Creveld (not cited in an otherwise comprehensive bibliography), who has suggested that the German troops involved in the Balkans were only slated for second-echelon work in the east and, in any case, arrived in good time.
Mr. Müller’s achievement is not only to explain Hitler’s strategic thinking but also to debunk the myth of him as a master of Machiavellian deception. He did not lull the Poles with false promises in the 1930s, planning to consume them all along. Instead he mistakenly convinced himself that a joint venture against the U.S.S.R. was possible. Having allied with Stalin in despair at continued Polish recalcitrance, Hitler underestimated Soviet rapaciousness in 1939-41, leaving him in a much less strong position than he had hoped against the impending Anglo-American coalition. His “pact with the devil” ceded territory in eastern Poland and the Baltic states that the Wehrmacht spent precious resources capturing during the opening months of Operation Barbarossa. Hitler certainly wanted war in 1939, as well as in 1941. But in both cases, as Mr. Müller shows, he did not get the war he wanted.
Mr. Simms is the author of “Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present” and, most recently, “The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.