“I see the 10,000 villages of Russia, where the means of existence was wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play. I see advancing upon all this, in hideous onslaught, the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking, dandified Prussian officers, its crafty expert agents, fresh from the cowing and tying down of a dozen countries. I see also the dull, drilled, docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts. I see the German bombers and fighters in the sky, still smarting from many a British whipping, so delighted to find what they believe is an easier and a safer prey. And behind all this glare, behind all this storm, I see that small group of villainous men who planned, organized and launched this cataract of horrors upon mankind.”— Winston Churchill, radio address on Germany’s invasion of Russia, June 22, 1941
Even as he made history, Winston Churchill sought to shape how it would be interpreted. He didn’t wait until he penned his bestselling six-volume war memoirs in retirement, nor even as he departed Whitehall in 1945, when he carted off 68 bundles of state papers to help him with this massive proect (as revealed in David Lough’s recently published No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money).
The British Prime Minister did so, quite memorably, as early as Adolf Hitler’s disastrous decision to abrogate the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on this date 75 years ago today.
Twenty-two months before Hitler’s troops opened fire on the Soviets, without either a declaration of war or even an ultimatum, Joseph Stalin had made a cynical secret deal with his fellow dictator: a division of the spoils that allowed them spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, subjecting that region's inhabitants to exploitation by these conquerors. (See my prior post on the background to the event.)
Though stunned by Hitler’s treachery—initially, it seems, almost to the point of paralysis—Stalin should not have been. Hitler had shown an insatiable appetite for land; he had broken the Munich agreement that Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, had naively negotiated; and, as secret agents and Allied leaders (such as Churchill himself) had told the Soviet dictator, Hitler planned to turn on him.
When he addressed his country after hearing this news, Churchill was already calling it one of four “climacterics,” or “intense turning points,” of World War II. (The others to that point, as listed in the speech, were the British decision to fight Germany alone after the fall of France, the performance of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, and the American decision to provide aid through the Lend Lease Act). This, though, may have been the turning point that sealed Hitler’s fate, for Great Britain would no longer be facing Germany by itself on the battlefield.
In the quote above, Churchill resorted to benign images of the common Soviet folk because he wanted his own countrymen to identify with people who had just become their allies. Even this, however, wasn’t enough. He also felt compelled to acknowledge his own past: “No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last twenty-five years.” Nor would he retract a word of it even now.
But the crimes of Hitler were so “monstrous,” he noted, that “We have but one aim and one single irrevocable purpose….to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime.”
Though Hitler had approached the decision to invade the U.S.S.R. with mounting anxiety, he could not shed the same logic that had doomed Napoleon Bonaparte over a century before, General Walther Warlimont would note later:
“Why Hitler invaded Russia is, in my opinion, that he found himself in exactly the same situation as Napoleon. Both men looked upon Britain as their strongest and most dangerous adversary. Both could not persuade themselves to attempt the overthrow of England by invading the British Isles. Both believed, however, that Great Britain could be forced to come to terms with the dominating continental power, if the prospect vanished for the British to gain an armoured arm as an ally on the Continent. Both of them suspected Russia of becoming this ally of Britain’s.”
For all his vivid imagery, Churchill surely could not foresee the extent of the grievous harm inflicted by Germany on the U.S.S.R.: more than 26 million lives lost. Nor, for all the fighting spirit he praised among the Russian common people, could he have anticipated that the Soviet military would ultimately be responsible for approximately 70% of the Wehrmacht loss of life over the next four years, as the powerful German war machine first became trapped by the winter weather, then by Hitler's refusal to walk away from a quagmire. Churchill remained convinced, as he wrote in his memoir The Gathering Storm, that “Fascism was the shadow or ugly child of Communism.” But he also believed that allying now with the Soviets was the only feasible way to destroy Nazism and to preserve Britain as a nation.