Joseph Stalin statue Budapest Hungary

When the World Held Its Breath: Divide and Conquer

“We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crumbling down” was Adolf Hitler’s reassurance to his followers as he chose to embark on the invasion of the Soviet Union. The German dictator was confident that his mortal enemy was as weak as it was degenerate, the pseudoscience of Nazi ideology and racial theory providing the justifications for their leader’s optimism rather than any basis in reality.

Hitler’s optimism has since become one of the most famous examples of hubris in history with his deluded boast coming back to haunt him four years later as his regime fell apart in the face of the Red Army moving ever closer to Berlin.

But did the Germans miss a chance to destroy the Soviet Union from within? In the early days of Operation Barbarossa the Germans were often welcomed as liberators by local populations in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. The Baltic states had only recently been annexed into the Soviet Union, against the will of the majority of their populations. In Belarus, the totalitarian nature of Stalinism had been particularly hard felt. Nationalist and religious sympathies were heavily repressed. Ukraine had suffered one of the worst famines in their history in the 30s. Many blamed the Soviet system for the Holodomor, directly or indirectly. How could the Germans be worse?

The brutality and scale of the German crimes within the occupied territories were worse than anything in human history. Tens of thousands of villages and entire cities were burned to the ground, often with few of the local population escaping alive. Millions were rendered homeless. Food from the occupied territories was siphoned off deliberately to engineer a famine, the so-called Hunger Plan that would aid the planned genocide of the Slavic peoples in order for them to make way for German colonists. Within a short period of time, the traditional offerings of bread and salt many German soldiers had received from Soviet peasants had morphed into partisan insurgency of unrivaled fury that would play a major part in the Red Army’s ability to eventually throw the Germans back.

If the Germans had embraced the anticipations of many within the occupied Soviet Union that the Wehrmacht had arrived to restore independence to their nations and revive Christianity, or at least held off on their genocidal occupations until their final victory, might they have been able to succeed in disuniting and ultimately unraveling the Soviet war effort?

The “Notzi” problem versus historic Nazi pragmatism

While German support, or at least leniency, toward the people of the Soviet Union is often discussed as a potential route to victory, it is easy to find an equally common criticism of the rationale. Germany was led by a homicidally racist regime that regarded the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe as subhumans fit only to be enslaved and murdered. As such, any attempts to construct such a scenario are often written off as requiring a German regime that would be existentially different to that of the historical Third Reich: “Notzis” rather than Nazis.

However, the Nazis had shown by their previous conduct that they were willing to tolerate Slavic nationalism, at least temporarily, if it fit a more immediate purpose.

Boris III of Bulgaria Adolf Hitler
Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria is greeted by German dictator Adolf Hitler in Berlin, 1940 (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the Nazis had supported the creation of an independent Slovakian puppet state as they dismembered what was left of Czechoslovakia and did the same with Croatia when it became Yugoslavia’s turn to suffer Nazi occupation. Bulgaria had also been taken on as a wartime ally, although according to historian Gerhard Weinberg in his book Hitler’s Table Talk, Hitler refused to accept that the Bulgarians were Slavs at all after they had joined the German camp, instead insisting that “originally they were Turkomans.”

Given the flippancy with which the Nazis treated their own theories in times where it suited them to be pragmatic, is it so hard to imagine Hitler tolerating more puppet states as a wartime expediency?

It could be argued that overconfidence played a greater factor in Nazi treatment of potential collaborators. Operation Barbarossa was meant to last only ten weeks in which the Red Army would be destroyed and almost all of European Russia would be under German occupation. Had Hitler considered it beneficial to get the local population on-side without a rampage of atrocities and pillaging as the Axis advanced into the Soviet Union, then he might have supported such initiatives as a Ukrainian puppet state.

Alfred Rosenberg
Alfred Rosenberg

But this wasn’t to be. Hitler was confident that the Soviet Union could be conquered quickly and as such there would be no point in the Germans distracting themselves with supporting people who were due to be massacred anyway. This was in spite of the suggestions of Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, Alfred Rosenberg, and others that puppet regimes should be established in the Ukraine and elsewhere. Getting Hitler to consider entertaining the nationalist dreams of some within the Soviet Union would have required a far more sober understanding of Germany’s abilities to critically damage the Soviet Union, one that might have changed the Barbarossa plan altogether.

But let’s say that Hitler agreed with Rosenberg in the early days of Barbarossa that this was too good a chance to miss. Rosenberg was infamous for his contributions to Nazi ideology after all. Here was one man who was certainly not a “Notzi” and he had the F├╝hrer’s ear.

Adolf Hitler: The Great Liberator

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler

Supporting dissent within the Soviet Union would have been a propaganda coup for the Germans as they marched into the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. The idea of a “crusade against Bolshevism” that the Germans had tried to sell to Europe and the wider world would undoubtedly be buoyed by the installation of German satellite states and make it more difficult for the Allies and their supporters to depict Barbarossa for what it really was, a colonial war of extermination.

Notionally independent puppet regimes like the one declared historically on June 30, 1941 in Ukraine, alongside a German occupation more similar to that of Western Europe, would have helped to reduce dissent among the occupied population and would likely have drawn more willing collaborators, perhaps enough to raise new armies to fight alongside the Axis in their conquest.

The Germans would have had these successes that they could have achieved in our time had they been willing to tolerate a pretense of liberation. However, it is unlikely that they would have been able to manipulate them into tearing the Soviet Union apart.

While there were many Soviet citizens who welcomed the Germans for various reasons, there were also many who resented them even before their murderous occupation was opposed. Much of this came in the form of Russian or Soviet nationalism, correctly viewing the Germans as invaders and subsequently instilling a sense of duty to defend the Motherland. This was successfully manipulated by the Soviet leadership in our time, in conjunction with an easing of restrictions on the Orthodox Church in Soviet society. Without a doubt, these propaganda efforts would have been introduced earlier and intensified had the Germans attempted to play the propaganda.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin

Moreover, historian David Stahel notes that there was a large degree of support for the Soviet system, and Joseph Stalin’s regime to a lesser extent, and as such a German appeal to nationalism over communism would have its limits, particularly among the urban working class. As Barbarossa dragged on, it is likely more people living under Nazi occupation would have begun to see through any German claims of benevolence. The demands of Operation Barbarossa would have been far more compelling than any propaganda, German or Soviet.

Some eighteen million Soviet citizens died in the Second World War, but despite the genocidal intensity of the German occupation most were indirect casualties. As the Germans plundered the lands of the occupied Soviet Union, many of these people would still find themselves being robbed of their clothing, food and homes to suit German needs. Barbarossa’s logistical needs ensured that it was going to be a campaign of genocide from the very beginning, a fact that has been overshadowed by the litany of war crimes of the SS and Wehrmacht, but on its own would almost certainly have led to widespread resistance. The existing partisans, largely cut-off Red Army units in the early days of Barbarossa, were often the only source of hope for those who had lost everything due to German pillaging. Regardless of any promises of independent and prosperous nation-states that Nazi puppets might have echoed, an atmosphere of desperation and revenge would have permeated all the same.

Conclusion: “You can’t hang all 200 million of us”

There’s no doubt that the Germans missed a golden opportunity in the summer of 1941 to bolster their cause by embracing those anti-Soviet movements which attempted to welcome them, but even if we accept that the Nazi regime might have tolerated such an initiative, the essence of Barbarossa assured that it would fail. The Germans were waging a war of conquest that was dependent upon immediate crimes against the subjected populations, even if those would have paled in comparison to the horrors that awaited them in the case of a German victory. The Soviet system, devastated time and time again by military catastrophes, was saved by its people’s willingness to go on and resist.

Barbarossa, far more successful than it might have been, was in the end its own undoing.

But how successful might it have been if the Soviets had actively prepared for what awaited them?

This story was originally published by Sea Lion Press, the world’s first publishing house dedicated to alternate history.

Leave a Reply