Hitler's Secret Plans to Invade the Soviet Union

Enemy in the East: Hitler’s Secret Plans to Invade the Soviet Union
Rolf-Dieter Müller
I.B. Tauris   320pp   £25

In this volume, Rolf-Dieter Müller, former director of research at the German Military History Research Office, sets out to undermine what he regards as a persistent myth in the scholarship on the German Barbarossa campaign against the Soviet Union launched in June 1941, namely that this was an idea thought up by Hitler only in 1940 and then imposed on his armed forces, who were compelled to do what he ordered. This is a useful exercise, if he is right about the 'myth' of Barbarossa in the popular view of the war, not least because it shows that decision-making in National Socialist Germany was never a one-man show.

Müller is not helped by his English title. The 'secret plans' turn out chiefly to be a series of contingency plans drawn up by the armed forces in the 1930s, because they were forced to think about possible military scenarios, particularly in the light of rapid Soviet rearmament, rather than genuine invasion planning. As is well known, Hitler always harboured the idea that at some point Germany might need 'living space' in the East, but this was hardly secret and certainly not from the Russians. But there are no 'secret plans' hatched by Hitler to invade in the 1930s, only a deterioration in German-Soviet relations, as well as much internal Party rhetoric about the eventual settlement with Bolshevism. Müller has interesting things to say about the efforts to woo Poland as a satellite state in early 1939, which might, he speculates, have led to an earlier war against the Soviet Union, but once Poland refused Hitler's overtures, Poland became the chief target, not the Soviet Union.

When we get to 1940-41, Müller argues that the 'secret plans' were actually the army's idea, not Hitler's. Faced with a growing military threat in the East, as Stalin moved into his sphere of influence agreed in the Non-Aggression Pact, the army fuelled the desire to inflict a major defeat on the Red Army, in order to restore the balance of power in Eastern Europe in Germany's favour and keep the Soviet Union in its place. This initiative is not unknown in the historiography, but by putting the argument this way round, Hitler's 'secret plans' more or less evaporate. Building on the army's initiative and frustrated at the refusal of Britain to give up in the summer of 1940, Hitler saw in an Eastern campaign the chance of killing a number of birds with one stone: Britain would be robbed of any chance of a European alliance, while Jewish-Bolshevism would be destroyed and a new territorial empire created to give Germany European mastery. The war that Hitler wanted was much greater in scope and political aim than the army plan, though it was some time before it was certain that Hitler would authorise it. When and why this happened is a much weaker part of the book, perhaps because for Müller's argument it is what the army did in 1940 that really matters.

This is nonetheless an important argument because it finally lays to rest the myth established after 1945 by the German generals that they had been forced along a path they had not wanted by a wayward commander who did not understand the risks he ran. Right through to the invasion in summer 1941, the army underestimated the Soviet Union and assumed that, if they could knock out the French army in six weeks, they must surely be able to do the same to Soviet forces. Of course, this is a narrowly military interpretation of events and although Müller does not ignore politics and ideology, it takes a back seat. Yet Hitler's vision of a new territorial empire, peopled by sturdy German peasants and governed with harsh colonial methods, nevertheless created a campaign for which the army leadership had not really been planning. Their concerns were generally governed by power-political considerations, while Hitler was motivated by a longing for a new German hegemony that would rescue Europe and European 'culture', create a new German imperial ruling class and solve Germany's tight economic and resources situation. The army's plan to smash the Red Army quickly and put the Soviet Union in its place was more modest, though it still seems as fanciful as Hitler's. But no doubt NATO was drawing up similar contingency plans 20 years later and may be doing so again today.

Richard Overy has published extensively on the Second World War. His latest book is the Oxford Illustrated History of the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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