DOES anybody really need to read another book about Hitler or Stalin?
If you think not, spend a few engrossingly profitable hours with John Lukacs’ new book, “June 1941,” and you’ll be reminded that the one thing history does not admit is a last word on anything.
Lukacs is a distinguished American historian, certainly one of our most distinguished on World War II and its origins. His brilliant book on Winston Churchill and his first war Cabinet, “Five Days in London, May 1940,” became a surprise bestseller after then-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani revealed that he had turned to it for inspiration in the aftermath of 9/11. “June 1941" is, in some sense, both a companion volume to that earlier study in character and statesmanship and a fascinating extension of its historical method.
“Unlike the law, history allows its students to engage in multiple jeopardy -- that is, to rethink and judge anew the records and the meaning of events and of their actors again and again,” Lukacs writes. The historian, he argues, has a “duty ... to struggle against the prevalence of untruths, since the pursuit of truth is often a struggle through a jungle of sentiments and twisted ‘facts.’ ”
To that end, the author deploys his deep familiarity with the original historical sources and literature and newly uncovered Soviet documents to explore the fraught relations between the two great dictators -- Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin -- leading up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Lukacs is plain on the reasons for his focus:
“There was a fateful condition of the Second World War that not enough people comprehend even now. This is that the Anglo-American alliance, for all its tremendous material and financial and industrial and manpower superiority, could have fully conquered Hitler’s Germany without Russia. That is why 22 June 1941 was the most important turning point of the Second World War.”
Part of what makes this book so engrossing is the convincing way in which Lukacs makes the case for the decisive role played by Hitler’s complex motives and Stalin’s self-deluding and hysterical reaction to events. To go into too great a detail would spoil part of the satisfaction of seeing something you think you understand from a wise and wholly different perspective. Suffice to say that Hitler’s reluctant decision to attack the Soviet Union when he did had more to do with stunning Britain into a negotiated peace and keeping America out of the war than it did in securing new territories for the Reich.
History is always instructive, though often ambiguously so. The only thing worse than pretending that life began on the day of our birth is the notion that it can be lived as an endless series of analogies to the past. History, in other words, is not an oracle. It informs but does not direct; it influences but does not determine.
Hitler and his Nazis were defeated through confrontation. Stalin’s successors were defeated through containment. Which is the correct formula to apply to contemporary tyrants? It depends.
In the run-up to the ongoing war in Iraq, the case for invasion was studded with references to the 1930s and appeasement’s abysmal failure. As it turns out, however, Saddam Hussein and his Baathists were nothing like Hitler and his Nazis -- not in the threat they posed to other nations nor even in their oppression of their own people. Tyrannies, it seems, are a lot like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: Each is unique, hideous and hurtful in its own way.
Because we are ourselves at war, a book like “June 1941" is bound to be scrutinized for those applicable analogies. One that is readily apparent has to do with the reliability of intelligence and military estimates. On the day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Lukacs writes, “the best military experts throughout the world predicted the defeat of the Soviet Union within a few weeks or within two months at the most.... On 23 June the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, reported the consensus of the American Chiefs of Staff to Roosevelt: ‘Germany will be thoroughly occupied in beating Russia for a minimum of one month and a possible maximum of three months.’ ”
As our own recent experience has painfully demonstrated, there are all sorts of ways and reasons to be wrong in such matters -- but all have consequences.
One of the thickets of “twisted facts” Lukacs deftly clears has to do with the contention that the Third Reich fought two wars: an evil one of aggression against the Western democracies and a “preventive war” of defense against communism in the East. “In most cases,” he writes, “the purpose of the preventive war theorists is not to apologize for Hitler. It is, rather, to exonerate Germany’s record in the Second World War.” Those who sympathize with this attempt hold that “it was the shortsightedness of the West, and of Churchill and Roosevelt, not to recognize” the preventive character of the attack on the Soviet Union. “Beneath that,” Lukacs observes, “lies the subtle, and sometimes not at all subtle, suggestion that Communism was as bad as National Socialism (yes, true for some people but not for others); and that National Socialism was but a reaction to the evils of Communism (which is largely untrue.)”
The author obliquely links this controversy to our country’s own recent debates over the legitimacy and efficacy of preventive war by noting the currency of such views among leading American conservatives and -- though this is a connection Lukacs does not make, others may -- also the neoconservative architects of many of this administration’s foreign policies. “As late as October 1989,” Lukacs recalls, “William F. Buckley Jr., an influential public writer
Lukacs is a singular voice among American historians. Though he has been fully absorbed in the American conversation for more than half a century, his scholarship carries the particular Central European inflection of his native Hungary. He was born there in 1924, the son of a Hungarian doctor with liberal political views and a middle-class Jewish mother. He was conscripted into the Hungarian army but deserted rather than serve alongside the Wehrmacht. In the immediate aftermath of the war, he provided the Americans with intelligence on Soviet activities in Budapest before he immigrated to the United States. Here, his distinguished career as a historian has spanned more than two dozen books.
More than a decade ago, historian Patrick Allitt included Lukacs in his benchmark study “Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985,” alongside Buckley, Michael Novak and others. Lukacs prefers the appellation “traditionalist” to red state-style conservatism, which he disparages for its populism. He has described himself as “reactionary,” by which he means he is “a patriot, but not a nationalist.” Lukacs has characterized George W. Bush as possessed of a “mind and character” that are “often astonishingly lazy.” Last year, in an interview with the writer Jeet Heer, Lukacs rhetorically inquired, “What is there traditional in George Bush? Nothing. Nothing.”
His, then, is a temperamental and philosophical rather than conventionally political conservatism. That is what makes “June 1941" such a provocatively -- and bracingly -- conservative work. It is so, not least, because Lukacs’ project is to restore the characters and personalities of individual leaders to a central role in a historical narrative composed of dramatically contingent choices and unforeseen consequences. Leaders matter in such a story, and the implication of that insistence is but one of the things that make this book so urgently engrossing.