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Belmont Club

Alternative History

October 1st, 2011 - 8:47 pm

Whenever anyone argues that “it was Stalin who defeated Hitler”, I always counter by observing that by the end of 1945, America alone would have had nuclear weapons and strategic delivery systems while neither the Third Reich nor the Soviet Union would have anything besides millions of soldiers with rifles and flea-ridden overcoats. That assertion, of course, proves nothing. Nobody knows how history would have turned out given different decisions. We only know how it actually turned out. God is funny in that way. He only tells us what He decided. We are never told what other options He was considering.

But I did an internship after graduating from the Kennedy School with an interesting fellow, who was not only of Romanian extraction and Jewish, but also a graduate of the US military academy and the Harvard Business School, not to mention being a former Special Forces Officer. He was then writing a doctoral thesis (for Oxford University) on the subject of whether Hitler could have actually defeated the Soviet Union given the resources available.


The death-struggle between Hitler and Stalin exercises a lasting fascination because it represents a moral singularity. It is a narrative of how men and great states act when they are completely unfettered by such considerations as humanity, morals or even sanity. Even though I never found out how my friend’s doctoral thesis went, I can understand why those long ago events were so interesting to him.

I spent a little time watching Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, an account of the last days in the Fuherbunker, with the definitive portrayal of Adolf Hitler by Bruno Ganz. Even though it only partially captures the despair, nihilism and utter god-devilishness of men at the logical ends of their thought, Downfall is powerful enough to give us a glimpse into the ultimate Black Hole, that  moral singularity –man unfettered without God, able to think anything he wants, do anything he wants, without the slightest remaining restraint.

The power of the film lies in quite naturally showing that everything the inner Nazi coterie did was completely logical given their premises. When Hitler says that “I have been loyal to the natural law that weakness is punished, and therefore the German people, having failed do not deserve to live,” ; when Hitler has his brother in law shot because “it is his will” and when Eva Braun agrees because “you are the Fuhrer”  or when Frau Goebbels poisons all her children because it is not “worth living in a world without National Socialism” we feel the force of the logic. But it is not the syllogisms that are sick; it is the premises.

The Eastern Front calls into question whether we can ever be so smug in our idealism; for the Nazis were in their own twisted way well intentioned; in fact almost as least as idealistic as the Soviets, who were no morally better and whose sole claim to justification is the fact that they survived. The fact of their success, the realization they were about to kill him won Hitler’s grudging  admiration. In one his rants Hitler says, “I should have been like Stalin and shot the lot of you.”  At the end Hitler’s logic was the same as Stalin’s. The only possible regret was to lose; the only lesson to learn was that he was not as ruthless as Uncle Joe.

‘Next time, no more Mr. Nice Guy.’

The psychohistorical attraction of the Eastern Front is that it provides the only actual recent laboratory in which we can observe men who are like gods. On the Eastern Front  one could order the death of millions; order the burning of entire nations; send however many people one liked into concentration camps. One could order ‘subhumans’ from the Soviet eastern republics to walk over minefields to clear the way for tank armies. The only constraints were resources.

But of morals, there was none. All other historical tableaus restrict the writer’s palette. Only on the Eastern Front, in the battle between Hitler and Stalin, were all colors completely unrestricted. It was where anything goes. Lincoln Steffens was wrong when he said, after visiting Soviet Russia that “I have seen the future and it works”. The real future of Communism, the portrait of its ideals carried to the ultimate limit, were the Eastern Front and the Downfall.

If I were to do the doctoral dissertation today, my premise would be different. It would not be to identify the specific operational decisions which if done differently would have resulted in the “victory” of Nazi Germany. That would be to miss the point. It would be to ambitiously claim that Hitler never knew what victory was.  Could not have ever known what victory was. Although Hitler’s plans were operationally expressed in start and stop lines, I would argue that in a very real sense Hitler was grasping for a metaphysical goal. There would always be something else. My claim would be that deep down inside Hitler — and perhaps Stalin — were making war on God.

They did not want anything so tangible as x more grams of bread, or y more liters of fuel for Ivan or Hans. Those were goals not worth pursuing. Neither wanted to gain something as mundane as a 40 hour work week, or two weeks of vacation for the populations. They cared nothing for meals, clothes — Hitler was a teetotal vegetarian — or works of art. Nobody was interested in increasing the leisure time available for barbecues and bowling. That language had no place in the world of the Titans. Both Hitler and Stalin were after power, power so pure they could never really grasp it in the form they desired it most. And that therefore the tragic events on the Eastern Front, involving though it did the deaths of millions, were really about nothing at all that you could grasp upon this earth.

That is an astounding claim, but today, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I think the claim can be fairly made. Nothing permanent was achieved by that titanic struggle, that Downfall. It was strangely enough, a bad dream, as insubstantial as its goal. It left no permanent imprint upon the land after the barriers were down, when people went back to drinking beer and eating sausages and playing video games. People went back to the real and forgot about the nightmare.

Returning to the question of “who won the war”, perhaps the most salient thing about the US atomic monopoly in the late 1940s is that America didn’t use it. They didn’t conquer the world, they demobilized. Something about America saved it;  made it want to buy cars, and radio receivers; to go out and buy an ice-cream soda at the drug store. Some have accounted that foolish, but in retrospect, it may have represented the only sane thing to come out of that decade. Hitler — and ultimately Stalin — failed because they never understood what winning was all about. In that analysis, it was the Normandy invasion, not the giant battles of the Eastern Front that were the true Hinge of Fate.

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