Nothing Was Inevitable

The Leaders of the Second World War
The victors at Yalta
The victors at Yalta

Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin—four names so familiar that it may seem there is nothing more to be said about them. Here I want to try to overcome this mental numbness, to think again about what we ought to know about these four leaders in the Second World War and rescue them from the clichés that have obscured them.

Let’s start with Adolf Hitler, who was, in one sense, the greatest figure in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the word “greatest” carries at least some suggestion of admiration. So maybe it would be better to say “most extraordinary.” He ruled and directed 70 or 80 million Germans and Austrians in a world war. It took the three greatest empires of the world, six times larger than his own German empire, almost six long years to destroy him. He and his armies fought till the very end.

After the war his reputation went from seeming fearsome to seeming uniquely loathsome. The reason for this is obvious: the mass murder of those Hitler saw as actual or potential enemies—Communists, Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, but, above all, Jews. That record is well known, memorable, overwhelming. Hitler’s responsibility for this can never be denied.

Where and when did a preoccupation with the Jews crystallize in his mind? We know that it happened not in Vienna but in Munich, not before but after World War I—in 1919, when he was thirty. Anti-Semitism was less current in Munich than in Vienna, which had a larger Jewish population. It was the rise of Jewish wealth and influence in Vienna against which some of the more influential anti-Semites were reacting. “Anti-Semitism” was a relatively recent term, replacing the older “Judeophobia,” which may be a more accurate term in the case of  Hitler, who after 1919 often referred to the Jews as a spiritual rather than a physical race.

There is not much reason to further research the origins of Hitler’s unspoken motives with respect to the Jews; some part of them will always remain unknowable. We can only speculate. But there remain at least two matters in Hitler’s life that are still worth further study. One we could call “exceptions”; the other is a history not of his motives but of his purposes.

Hitler had known some Jews in his early youth. Two in particular stood out. One was Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor whose kindness and solicitude for Hitler’s mother before her death left an indelible impression on Hitler. He referred to Dr. Bloch as an Edeljude, a noble Jew. When Germany occupied Austria in 1938, Hitler made sure Bloch was protected. In 1940 he facilitated Dr. and Mrs. Bloch’s departure from Vienna for the United States. The other Jew who had meant much to Hitler was the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger. Hitler said that Weininger “before his suicide realized that the Jew lives by the decomposition of other nations and peoples.”

There are a few other instances where Hitler’s hatred for Jews was not unconditional. In 1934, the year after he became Germany’s chancellor and Fuhrer he permitted his financial advisor, Schacht, to preside at a banquet honoring the Speyers, a German Jewish family of bankers, before the last of the Speyers left for England and the United States. Hitler was convinced that Germany must maintain good relations with England. He welcomed an exceptional relationship with the English press magnate Lord Rothermere. Their meetings in 1936 and 1937 were arranged by Rothermere’s mistress, the princess Stephanie Hohenlohe, who was half-Jewish. Hitler treated her with exceptional courtesy. When in November 1938 Kristallnacht saw the destruction of Jewish stores and businesses and the cruel beatings of Jewish persons, Hitler told the SS to halt these atrocities. In 1944 he permitted the German purchase of the large Manfred-Weiss-Csepel steel works in Hungary in exchange for letting the Weiss-Csepel family, thirty in number, move to Portugal. Later that year he allowed the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg to enter Hungary and put a considerable number of houses under Swedish “protection,” whereby thousands of Jewish men and women in the city of Pest survived the war. Such exceptions and partial exceptions may suggest how complicated Hitler was, but they do nothing to exonerate him.

As for his purposes, until late 1941 his intention was to promote the expulsion of Jews from Germany (and from much of Europe). They would have to abandon their possessions and flee to other continents. He gave no thought to what would happen to them after that. For a short time in 1940 he and his minions were considering deportation of most Jews to Madagascar. Then his invasion of Russia in June 1941 brought a change. The great majority of Eurasian Jews lived in the European portion of Russia, Poland, and the former Baltic states. What was to be done with them? In 1941 it was still possible for a few Jews to escape to America. But expulsion was no longer possible. So what about those remaining millions of Eastern European Jews? Most of them (in Poland, for example) had already been oppressed, imprisoned, tortured; many had been murdered, often by special German units. Should the surviving Jews be allowed to stay where they were? No. Hitler decided they had to be exterminated. And so they were, beginning in late 1941. Having made this momentous decision, Hitler did not wish to contemplate the Jewish problem any longer. In early 1943 a statistician of the SS, a man named Dr. Korherr, presented the Fuhrer with a paper that showed how many Jews had been disposed of. Hitler showed no interest.

Churchill understood Hitler better than Hitler understood him

A final observation. In the enormous literature about Hitler, there is not much about him as a statesman. Yet here too we may detect a change. In the beginning of his political career and for some time thereafter, Hitler said that states belonged to the past. What mattered, he said, were the people, das Volk. This was a theme of his Mein Kampf, written between 1924 and 1926. (Many years later he remarked that much of Mein Kampf had become outdated.) From 1936 onward, his knowledge of and insight into strategy often superseded his ideology. There are many examples of this. In the European states he conquered after 1939 he insisted on their subservience to Germany, but he did little to impose National Socialism on them, save for a few instances. (One was Quisling in Norway.) The most important of his world-political intentions was his decision to invade Russia in 1941. That intention is still wrongly interpreted by many people who regard it as but another application of his ideology, his hatred of Communism, and/or his wish to acquire more land for Germany (Lebensraum)—which is how he explained it to the German people. Yet his main intention had to do not with Soviet Communism or with Stalin, but with Churchill and Roosevelt. Once he knocked Russia out of the war and forced Stalin to give up, what could Churchill and Roosevelt do? Germany, ruling all of Eurasia, would be invincible; the Americans and the British could no longer set foot in Europe, and they would have to come to terms with him.


Churchill was—and remains—the hero of the Second World War. He did not win it. But he was the man who did not lose it. He was a godsend. I have written about him often, and especially in two books, The Duel and Five Days in London, May 1940. They deal with the months May to July 1940. That was the period when he and Britain did not lose the Second World War. Near the end of May 1940, Hitler’s armies had conquered most of Western Europe, and France was about to fold. Almost two hundred thousand British soldiers were closed in around Dunkirk, and had to be ferried back to England. Hitler could have captured most of them. For about two days he hesitated. He thought that England might not continue the war. Churchill told his war cabinet and then the people of Britain that he and they would fight on. Hitler was convinced the he was a representative of the future—the future of Germany and of Europe, perhaps of the world. Churchill represented the past—and he prevailed.

Churchill understood Hitler better than Hitler understood him. As early as 1930 Churchill showed an interest in Hitler. This concern with a Central European demagogue was rare for a British politician. At the end of that decade the British people came to recognize that Churchill had been right all along: Hitler was dangerous, and he had to be stopped. But was that enough? On May 10, 1940, the day Churchill became prime minister, as he was on his way to the king for the ceremonial appointment, he said to his bodyguard, “I hope it is not too late. We can only do our best.” Their best would not have been enough without outside support. Hitler had to be conquered by the enormous powers of the United States and Russia. Britain, having become the weakest of these three, could only help. Churchill came to understand that all too well.

Late one Sunday evening—December 7, 1941—Churchill heard the news: the Japanese had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. He had been worried, reasonably enough, that Japan might invade Dutch and British possessions in the Pacific but not American ones, and that Roosevelt would find it difficult to declare war against Germany. Now everything was different. As Churchill wrote in his war memoirs, “So we have won, after all! Hitler’s fate is sealed. Mussolini’s fate is sealed. And the Japanese will be ground to dust.” So it was to be. The war against Germany would last for another three and half years—the direst of them, 1942, marked with British defeats. But Hitler had brought America and Britain together. By 1941 the United States was waging a war against Germany in the Atlantic. Twice in that year Churchill traveled across the Atlantic to meet Roosevelt. The extent of Britain’s dependence on the United States was obvious.

There were differences in strategic plans. In 1942 and 1943 Roosevelt and his military authorities were planning an American and British invasion of France. Churchill insisted that this was impossible. Instead he advocated a landing in French Northern Africa, which took place in November 1942, together with the first British military victory against German forces at El Alamein in northwestern Egypt. This was all part of Churchill’s larger plan to invade Europe from the Mediterranean, which he called “the soft underbelly of Europe.” Profoundly aware of the strength and resolution of the German forces, he thought this was the best way to penetrate Hitler’s domain. That, however, was not how Roosevelt and the American commanders envisaged the ending of the war—and Churchill and Britain had become very dependent on the United States. The result was the invasion of Western Europe in June 1944.

Churchill had hoped for, and to some extent achieved, a good relationship with Stalin, whom he called “Uncle Joe.” He knew how much depended on Russia’s involvement in the war. Churchill’s impressions were sometimes too romantic, but he did come to see Stalin as a statesman. In four years he flew to meet Stalin five times, traveling to Moscow twice and then to Tehran, Yalta, Potsdam. Churchill recognized that Russia’s domination of Eastern Europe was inevitable. There was nothing he could do about it without support from the Americans. In 1944 he told Charles de Gaulle that Russia was now a hungry wolf in the midst of sheep: “but after the meal comes the digestion period.” Russia, he predicted, would not be able to digest all of its conquests. About that, too, he turned out to be right.

In 1945 the Russians occupied Eastern and parts of Central Europe. Churchill tried to find some kind of an acceptable agreement with the Russians about the status of Poland, without success. On the afternoon of their last conference in Potsdam he flew back to London. Next morning the results of the British election came in. The Labour Party had won, and Churchill immediately resigned as prime minister. England had survived, but the British Empire would not. Hitler had been defeated, but half of Europe was now cut off behind an “Iron Curtain.” Churchill titled the last volume of his monumental history of the war Triumph and Tragedy.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in 1932. He helped save the United States from the Depression, and was elected president four times—without precedent in American history. When war broke out in September 1939, not many Americans thought that their country should enter it. Then, before the summer of 1940, Hitler conquered almost all of Western Europe. England stood alone.

The great German statesman Bismarck was reputed to have said that the most important fact in the world was that Americans spoke English. He had a point, but the special relationship between Britain and United States was often less sure and more complicated than it appears in retrospect. For two decades after the First World War, most Americans thought the United States must never enter into another European conflict. Franklin Roosevelt did not like Churchill. As late as December 1939 he said to Joseph Kennedy, his ambassador to Britain (and an isolationist), “I have always disliked [Churchill] since the time I went to England in 1918. He acted like a stinker at a dinner I attended, lording it all over us. I’m giving attention now because there is a strong possibility that he will become the prime minister and I want to get my hand in now.” But soon after June 1940 Roosevelt, responding to Churchill, began to support Britain in hundreds of ways, shedding American neutrality piece by piece. Still, he did not declare war on Germany until after Pearl Harbor. Unlike the war against Japan, a war against Germany was still not universally popular among Americans.

Churchill’s dependence on Roosevelt was of course greater than Roosevelt’s dependence on Churchill. The resources of America were so much greater than those of Britain. And there remained one profound difference between them that had consequences during and after the war. It involved their views about Russia. Franklin Roosevelt nurtured certain illusions about the Soviet Union even before the war. He (and Eleanor Roosevelt too) believed that Russia represented the future—not necessarily a future applicable to America, but a future nonetheless. All Russia’s roughness notwithstanding, they believed that, in the march of progress, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was midway between old imperial Britain and the democratic United States. They were unwilling or unable to see the reality: that Russia was not in-between but well behind both the United States and Britain. This Rooseveltian vision—or, rather, blindness—had long-lasting consequences. On important occasions during the war Roosevelt did not side with Churchill. He also had little or no interest in the eastern half of Europe. After the war, the American president who took the true measure of Stalin was not the aristocratic FDR but the modest Missouri democrat Harry Truman.


For a serious historian to write about Stalin is difficult—not because he was enigmatic (many historical figures, and especially Russian ones, were that), but because of the scarcity of documentary materials telling us what he thought and said, and when. After 1990 some of the Soviet Union’s archives were opened. (They are now closed again). These revealed some important things about the Soviet government but little about Stalin himself. But history is about more than official records, and my purpose here is to suggest some things about Stalin—especially before, during, and after the Second World War—that are not generally known.

Stalin was aware, through most of his life, of the weakness of international Communism

Let me begin with an observation that is generally accepted: Stalin was always a Russian nationalist. The problem is that many people, including historians who know this, accept that he also was an ideologue, a committed Communist. But as head of state, Stalin, like Hitler, became less and less of an ideologue and more and more of a politician. Of course, these two designations are not always contradictory; one can be both. What matters are the proportions. We have seen that Hitler’s early dismissal of the importance of states gradually changed after he discovered that his abilities could, indeed must, be applied to the powers of states. Stalin learned something like this also. His interest in the destiny of international Communism receded as his interest in the destiny of Russia grew. This was at least one reason why he forced Trotsky out of the Soviet Union. But the most stunning proof of his evolution was his pact with Hitler in 1939, before the start of the Second World War.

Stalin respected and even admired Hitler. That inclination was not separable from his respect for Germany. In 1938 and 1939 France and Britain had sought a military alliance with the Soviet Union—instead of which Stalin opted for a special relationship with Hitler’s Germany in the spring of 1939. Russia and Germany entered into a treaty dividing Poland and some of Eastern Europe between themselves. The treaty was signed in August 1939, less than ten days before Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain and France went to war. On the day after the treaty was signed, Stalin made a public toast to Hitler. “I know how much the German nation loves its Fuhrer. I shall therefore drink to his health.”

This was more than a well-calculated gesture. We can see this from Stalin’s choice of advisers. Earlier in 1939 he replaced his foreign minister, the Jewish Maxim Litvinov, with Vyacheslav Molotov, who became Stalin’s closest adviser during the Second World War. Molotov and his own close advisor Vladimir Dekanozov sought good relations with Hitler’s Germany. What they said on the day Germany invaded Russia (June 22, 1941) is significant. Molotov asked the German ambassador in Moscow, “Have we deserved this?” Dekanozov, then the Russian ambassador in Berlin, asked the German official bringing him the declaration of war: “Are you sure this is not a mistake?” Stalin’s reactions—indeed, his entire behavior—on that fateful day and night, and for eight days afterward, were mysterious. He knew what was coming. The amassment of a huge German army along the German-Russian border could not have been secret. Moreover, Churchill sent a message to Stalin a month before the German invasion, informing him of what the Germans were about to do. On June 22, 1941, the iron-willed Stalin collapsed. He disappeared for eight days. Even now we don’t know what he thought or did during that time. Finally, a Politburo group came to see him. According to one source, Stalin thought they had come to arrest him, but they told Stalin that he was the only one who could lead the Soviet Union. Three days later he addressed the people of Russia. His speech was that of a Russian patriot, with nothing about Communism.

The afternoon before Hitler invaded Russia, Churchill talked with his secretary John Colville. “If Hitler invaded Hell, I will make at least one favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons,” he said. That night he broadcast one of his best speeches. For weeks, even months, thereafter, Stalin welcomed Churchill’s statements (and British supplies) but did not truly trust him. Throughout the rest of 1941 and into 1942, he presented Churchill with unreasonable demands: he told Churchill that Russia was on the edge of collapse and asked him to send entire British divisions to Russia. Churchill had to tell him that this was not only unreasonable but impossible. It was only after Churchill’s difficult trip to Moscow in August 1942 that Stalin’s reservations about him began to abate.

Soon the Russian armies began to win impressive victories. In March 1943 there were rumors of a possible German-Russian negotiation, but by then Stalin knew that he could get more from Churchill and Roosevelt than anything Hitler could offer. Meanwhile, throughout 1943 and 1944 and even into 1945 Stalin and Churchill argued about Poland. The Soviet Union wanted to take a big piece of eastern Poland and give Poland a large piece of eastern Germany, and it wanted Poland’s government to be wholly subservient to Russia. Against both of these demands Churchill fought in vain. Roosevelt was indifferent.

This leaves one final question. What did Stalin really want? After the war he imposed Communist governments on at least eight Eastern European states and on East Germany and East Berlin. Many people see this as proof that he was a dedicated Communist after all, and not just a Russian nationalist. But was this so? A clue to his thinking is what he said to the visiting Anthony Eden in December 1941, when the German army was hardly more than twenty miles west of where they sat in Moscow. Stalin said that “Hitler’s problem is that he does not know how to stop.” Eden replied, “Does anyone?” To which Stalin answered, “I do.” And he did. In October 1944 Churchill flew to Moscow, desperate to reach some agreement with Stalin about Eastern Europe, most of which was about to be overrun by Russian troops. Churchill immediately produced a “percentages agreement.” Romania and Bulgaria would be predominantly in Russia’s sphere of interest; Hungary and Yugoslavia 50-50 (two days later Molotov convinced Stalin that Hungary should be 80 percent Russian). Greece would be Britain’s concern, despite a large Communist guerrilla army there. Stalin agreed to all this, and kept his word.

Why, then, did Stalin insist on foisting Communist regimes on all these Eastern European states? He did it not because of the strength of Communism there, but because he felt threatened by the West. What Churchill had hoped for was a Russian sphere of interest, but not the imposition of Communist police states in one country after another—not an “Iron Curtain.” I think Stalin believed it wasn’t enough to have governments generally loyal to Russia; he needed governments controlled by Russia. He needed puppets, not allies.

Stalin died in 1953. He was aware, through most of his life, of the weakness of international Communism—and perhaps especially in Germany. How remarkable it is that in 1952, the year before his death, he suddenly proposed ending the partition of Germany, with the reciprocal withdrawal of American troops from West Germany and of the Russian military from East Germany. The West German and American governments rejected this plan, but in 1955 both the Russian and Western powers agreed to end the zoning of Austria and to withdraw from that Central European state. A year after that, the first popular revolts against Communist governments took place in Poland and Hungary. Russian armed forces were called in to suppress them, and though they succeeded in doing so, things would never be quite the same. Twenty-five years later Soviet rule in Eastern Europe started to collapse. Thirty-five years later Russia itself was no longer a Communist state. And yet, decades later, it remains an adversary. Once again, Russian nationalism has proved stronger than Communist ideology.

Published in the January 5, 2018 issue: 

John Lukacs has written widely about the Second World War. His books include The Last European War, The Duel, and Five Days in London, May 1940. His first contribution to Commonweal appeared in 1952.

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