Oleg Plenkov: “The danger of Nazism is everywhere”
A series of interviews to the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Part 13: Hitler's charisma and miscalculations
Realnoe Vremya continues a series of interviews with Russian scholars, timed to the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. In the second part of the conversation about German Nazism, Doctor of Historical Sciences, the author of books on the history of Hitler's Germany Oleg Plenkov explained whether big German capital business helped the ideas of Nazism, why some historians hastened to call Hitler an adventurer, whether the decision was right to re-publish Mein Kampf in Germany and whether there is a threat of Nazism in today’s world.
“The charisma of Hitler had a hypnotic effect on people”
Doctor Plenkov, the Communist International (Comintern) in 1936 formulated its position on the appearance of Nazism the following way: Nazism was designed by big German business to implement the plans of imperialist expansion. What evidence does this view have?
This was the main idea of Comintern about Nazism — it was expressed by Georgy Dimitrov, saying that Nazism is a manifestation of the most reactionary forces and capital, and the Communists logically tied Nazism and fascism to capitalism. But in many ways, both Nazism and fascism had not only anti-Communist but also anti-capitalist nature, and the assistance on the part of big business to the Nazis was sporadic, or it did not exist. It should be noted that the national socialist party of Hitler was self-financed — it earned by making the entrance to its meetings on the paid basis, party members regularly paid contributions, and contributions were quite significant for certain members of the party, the Nazis even smoke cigarettes of only a certain brand — the most expensive. Thus, this party could be called the people's party — there was no influence of the big business of Germany on it, it's all fake.
So, it turns out that Nazism is the construction that won on the basis of factors of ideas and, above all, the personality of one character — Adolf Hitler, is it?
Of course, in general, in the person of Hitler, Lenin, Mussolini, the democracy of those years met very strong opponents. The personality of Hitler, his charisma, the combination of political instinct and combinatorial abilities were surprising for that time — if Stalin or Lenin had to approve their ideas at party congresses, Hitler made all decisions alone, and this is the most striking example of the alienation of the individual from the forces that were around and were in society. Hitler's charisma, in general, had a hypnotic effect on people — here it is enough to remember how in 1932 in Berlin, apparently, under the influence of the leftist forces, the stormtroopers rebelled — several hundred members of these groups Hitler ordered to gather in the great hall and for two hours walked before the ranks of the stormtroopers, scrutinizing every face, and then left, and the rebellion stopped. This magic of Hitler amazed many. Besides, many foreign authors tell about the hypnotic influence of Hitler — famous English historian Arnold Toynbee, one of the cleverest historians of the 20th century, attended one of Hitler's rallies and came out convinced by Hitler's arguments, and only after returning to England and analyzing the speech of the German leader, found there many extreme views. Toynbee found them, but how could ordinary people identify them?
Hitler's charisma in general had a hypnotic effect on people — here it is enough to remember how in 1932 in Berlin, apparently, under the influence of the leftist forces, the stormtroopers rebelled — several hundred members of these groups Hitler ordered to gather in the great hall and for two hours walked before the ranks of the stormtroopers, scrutinizing every face, and then left, and the rebellion stopped
Maybe it was a certain inclination, affection of the German nation to the cult of the leader — especially in the difficult years of the economic crisis and the way out of it?
Yes, perhaps, Bismarck among the Germans was Great, there was Frederick the Great, and the exaltation of rulers was, of course, a German trait. You see, the same German kings and emperors of the House of Hohenzollern approached their duty as a religious one, and accordingly, they educated their subjects in a religious spirit — may be from this there originated the worship of Hitler. Besides, Luther in the middle ages urged people to be faithful to those in power. Under Hitler, of course, loyalist tradition, you are right, played a role, too.
“Hitler had no adventurism”
Besides, Hitler, alas, was probably lucky with external factors in his plans — historians know that England and France in 1938 made it clear that they would not like to fight for anyone or in general, and this unleashed Hitler’s hands, and the people were given a reason to admire the Fuhrer even more. Do you agree?
I do, besides, there was the factor of Hitler as a genius — evil genius, of course. Hitler had the instinct of a scavenger — he perfectly knew that France in 1940 would not fight against him: yes, the military told him not to attack France, that it was dangerous because the balance of power was not in favour of Germany, but he did and everything happened as he had planned. Hitler knew how to combine external and internal factors of politics, and moreover, he knew how to combine them — a striking example was his proposal to Stalin to sign in August 1939 the Nonaggression Pact and a secret protocol to it. Yes, it was bad for Stalin to sign the Treaty with the Nazis but it was even worse for the USSR not to sign it, and Stalin did it. The most important thing in diplomacy is discretion in any situation: Hitler had it, but Stalin did not. And it was discretion, gained by Hitler, became, as they say in the West, the cause of the Second World War.
But some of your colleagues point to Hitler's adventurism. Did this feature prevail in Hitler's actions after 1938, or it is more complicated?
Let’s take the beginning of the Second World War and the war with Poland — the Polish army was considered a capable army and was better prepared than the Red Army, but this army in 1939 “disappeared” — the Germans coped with it in almost two weeks. Then, in 1940, it was followed by the French campaign of the Wehrmacht — in general, France had the best army in the world, but on May 10, Guderian tanks crossed the Meuse, and on May 19, they were on the banks of the English channel, that is, everything in this campaign was done in nine days, albeit it took almost a month to bring everything up to scratch. Then they are planning a campaign against the USSR since autumn, and there is also the logic: earlier, from autumn 1939 to spring 1940, the million-strong army of the USSR could do nothing with small Finland, Hitler watched this campaign, and, proceeding from its results, he considered that if they started war in May, they could finish it in half a year, especially as Germany successfully fought in the Russian territory in the First World War.
But Hitler did not take into account one thing — the Red Army in its readiness turned out to be better than the Russian army in the First World War, and above all, the Red Army was more sacrificial than the tsarist one, and Hitler did not take into account this. Hitler had no adventurism — it was the calculation from series of data, but at the same time, he did not have important information — that the military industry of the USSR was better developed, that the organization of people under totalitarian USSR was at the highest level. Therefore, the war against the USSR became a massacre for Hitler — there was a calculation, but due to the ignorance of some factors, it was wrong.
But Hitler did not take into account one thing — the Red Army in its readiness turned out to be better than the Russian army in the First World War, and above all, the Red Army was more sacrificial than the tsarist one, and Hitler did not take into account this
Today, many put Nazism and Stalinism on the same level. How reasonable is this equalization of the regimes?
From the point of view of a historian, it is, of course, all an empty phrase — Nazism and Stalinism are different in nature phenomena, but on the other hand (and that’s the point), the actions of both leaders on the mentality and evolution of society were the same: in society there appeared the need for conformism, in the absence of initiative there appeared a system that corresponded to the totalitarian mentality of society, that is, the same political culture and democracy in these systems were dying. To revive a real political culture and democracy, it is necessary to emphasize that the actions of Stalinism and Nazism were the same for society.
We declared democracy in 1991, but we have practically no way to it — there is no real system of political parties, no real parliament, there are no initiatives from parties and the parliament, which means that they are nothing — they are under the control of the authorities. Without this conclusion, it is useless to talk about the same totalitarianism — you will not explain anything either historically or politically. Only through the current situation in Russia, we can understand what totalitarianism is and how to get out of it. And it is necessary to get out, through educating political culture, a habit of criticism, a different opinion and so on.
“20-23-year-old students treat Stalin as yesterday's Communists do”
Has Nazism been defeated in Germany completely? We know that they condemned it, recognized the period of Nazism shameful.
Completely defeated — it is absolutely incredible that something like this returns there because the Germans have done a lot to prevent Nazism from repeating itself, and for our country, the current Germans are an example of how to properly process the past . I often visit Germany. Yes, I see that the Alternative for Germany (ADG) party has appeared, which in the last election picked up almost six million votes, but it is not a Nazi party! Yes, when after in 2015 German Chancellor Merkel let into the country almost a million migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan, many Germans were stunned by this decision, and therefore there was a protest movement in order to introduce emigration into some framework, but this is not Nazism, this is not a movement with some racial ideology, but simply a protest of people against the huge influx of “strangers”. You imagine a large influx of people into your country who do not know your culture or your language, they are from another world, and you do not know how to live with them — it's just difficult, and they need some common sense solution here.
When after in 2015 German Chancellor Merkel let into the country almost a million migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan, many Germans were stunned by this decision, and therefore there was a protest movement in order to introduce emigration into some framework, but this is not Nazism, this is not a movement with some racial ideology, but simply a protest of people against the huge influx of “strangers”
Isn’t it too early for Germany to lift the ban on the publication of the famous Hitler's work Mein Kampf, how do you think?
I’ve seen this book — it was released not by a publishing house but the scientific institution of Munich, with a lot of comments given, and the point is not in the reprint of Hitler’s book itself, and that it provides detailed comments, and the comments make up a large part of the book. This book is interesting in this respect — when a politician usually begins his career, he sets out the logic of his actions, so in historical terms, Hitler's book with comments by modern scientists is primarily an important source about Nazism. Therefore, it is an exaggeration to say that the reissue of Mein Kampf in Germany is a wrong step.
How would you explain the following thing — Mein Kampf is prohibited in Russia, but one of the major Moscow bookstores refused to sell Dilettante magazine with Hitler and Stalin on the cover in the form of the bride and groom, which was a caricature of the conclusion of the Nonaggression Pact — the store resented not Hitler, but Stalin. What is it?
In our country, unfortunately, there is a reverse movement in relation to Stalin — he is beginning to be praised as a modernizer, as a politician, who can safely be considered normal because he has nothing criminal and contrary to human and other norms. In short, Stalinism is alive in our country.
But what is striking here is another thing — I am increasingly faced with the fact that 20-23-year-old students treat Stalin as yesterday's Communists do, and it amazes me. They believe that Stalin deserves more of our attention and that he had a lot of positive things in his reign, and I think this is a consequence of the general atmosphere in society and, alas, positive assessments of Stalin's past.
In our country, unfortunately, there is a reverse movement in relation to Stalin — he is beginning to be praised as a modernizer, as a politician, who can safely be considered normal because he has nothing criminal and contrary to human and other norms. In short, Stalinism is alive in our country
You say that Nazism is impossible in Germany. Is this evil possible in other parts of the world? To what extent is the world, the leading powers — the United States, Russia — ready to reflect its emergence and spread?
I think that the US elected a populist president, and I often think that this Trump is a fascist. I think that when democracy feels safe, secure, it disappears, and the Americans seem to have felt that it is possible to admit to power a populist, a man who speculates on many things that are not worth speculating on. And I think that now the danger of Nazism is everywhere because our world is like a wheel — it rolls, but it can fall, and we need some kind of global struggle against such evil, world interaction not to allow to fall it, and if this interaction in the world stops, then something will begin that is not consistent with the principles on which world society is built or should be built.