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Hitler and Stalin

Clash of the Dictators

 

Adolf Hitler

1889 - 1945

"The great masses of the people ... will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one."

Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 in the small Austrian village of Braunau am Inn near the border of German Bavaria.  His father, Alois had risen from a poor peasant background to become an Austrian customs official.  At home, Alois was a strict disciplinarian.  Adolf's older brother, Alois Jr. bore the brunt of his father's scolding and occasional beatings until he ran away from home at age fourteen.  This put young Adolf, age seven, in line for the same treatment.

From age seven to nine, Adolf attended monastery school in the town of Lumbach.  He idolized the priests at the school where he received good grades, and even considered becoming a priest himself.  However, in 1898, Adolf changed schools when the Hitler family moved to the village of Leonding.

One day, the young Hitler came across his father's book collection, including a picture book on the War of 1870-71 between the Germans and the French.  After that Hitler, by his own account, became obsessed with military books and soldiering.  He also discovered that he had a talent for drawing, especially sketching buildings.

At age eleven, Hitler had to decide which type of secondary school to attend, classical or technical.  He had dreams of becoming an artist and wanted to go to the classical school.  However, his father decided that this was impractical and in the year 1900 sent him to the technical school in the city of Linz.

Hitler did poorly his first year at the technical school and, as a result, was kept back.  He would later claim that his bad performance was meant to show his father that he was unsuited for technical work.  Yet Hitler's father remained hostile to his artistic dreams, resulting in a bitter struggle between father and son.

The young Hitler's arguments with his father ended in 1903 when his father died suddenly of a lung hemorrhage.  Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler continued to do poorly in school and in 1905, at age sixteen, he dropped out.

With his aspirations of becoming an artist still intact, Hitler traveled to Vienna with the goal of attending the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.  In 1905, he took the school's entrance exam, but his test drawings were judged unsatisfactory.

Hitler's failure to get into the academy shook his confidence.  He left Vienna and returned home to his mother who had contracted cancer.  His mother's condition steadily worsened and she died two years later.

Hitler returned to Vienna in 1908, where he failed for a second time to gain admission into the art academy.  At age nineteen, with his artistic dreams shattered, Hitler made no effort to find steady employment.  He was gradually reduced to living in homeless shelters and eating at soup kitchens.

In 1910, Hitler moved into a home for poor men where he would stay for the next three years.  During these years of deprivation, he became interested in politics.  He read newspapers, as well as books and political pamphlets.  From his readings, he began to assemble a hodgepodge of racist and nationalistic attitudes that would over time become a political philosophy.

Hitler watched with great anticipation events unfold that would soon lead to war in Europe.  For Hitler, the prospect of war gave him a sense of purpose.  When Germany declared war in 1914, Hitler "thanked heaven" and immediately enlisted in the German army.

Hitler fought bravely in the war and received the Iron Cross first class.  (Interestingly, the lieutenant who recommended him for the medal was Jewish.)  One month before the end of the war in 1918, Hitler was temporarily blinded by a British chlorine gas attack near Ypres.  As Hitler recovered in a hospital bed, he received word that the German monarchy had fallen, that Germany was now a republic, and that the new republic had requested an armistice with the Allies.

Upon hearing the news of the armistice Hitler was distraught.  He believed that Germany had not really been defeated, but had been betrayed by politicians, Jews and Communists.  This "stab in the back" theory of Hitler's would become popular among the German army.

Germany's defeat brought with it huge economic problems, which led to worker uprisings in Berlin and Munich.  The German army sought to crush these revolts by recruiting undercover agents.  Hitler, who was still in the army, became an agent.  He was given the job of weeding out dissidents within the ranks and of investigating left-wing political organizations.

One of Hitler's undercover assignments in 1919 was to investigate a small group in Munich known as the German Workers' Party.  After attending a party meeting, Hitler discovered that the party was not a Marxist group as he anticipated.  Instead, the party had a strong nationalist, pro-military, and anti-Semitic outlook much like his own.

Hitler began to frequent German Workers' Party meetings and his interest grew to the point that he decided to join.  Party members soon recognized Hitler's oratory skills and he became a featured speaker.

Within a year, Hitler had enough prestige within the party to remake it according to his own wishes.  He chose the swastika as the party's symbol and changed its name to include National Socialist -- Nazi for short.  By the end of 1920, the party had about 3,000 members and Hitler's influence had expanded to the point that he was able to convince the party's executive committee to make him chairman with dictatorial powers.

Meanwhile, under the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic of Germany was required to pay war reparations to the victorious European Allies.  These payments caused ruinous inflation in the German economy and, consequently, there was bitter resentment among the people.  Many Germans gravitated to extremist political groups and the Nazi Party was a major beneficiary.  By 1923, Nazi membership had increased to 55,000.

With the German government and economy in chaos, Hitler made a bold grab for power.  A group of Nazis under Hitler's command shot its way into a Munich beer hall, kidnapping high officials of the Bavarian government.  The captured officials reluctantly pledged loyalty to Hitler who proclaimed "a new national government."  However, The Beer Hall Putsch, as it would later be called, soon unraveled.  Hitler was unable to enlist the support of the German army and other important institutions.

Hitler was arrested, charged with treason, and placed on trial.  In a bizarre twist, the trial's presiding judges proved sympathetic to Hitler.  They allowed him to use the courtroom as a propaganda platform to achieve nationwide publicity.

Hitler only served nine months of a 5-year prison sentence.  During his time in prison, Hitler was allowed his own personal secretary, Rudolph Hess.  Hess began writing down Hitler's political and racial ideas, which became the book Mein Kampf.

In 1924, a few days before Christmas, Adolf Hitler was released from prison.  Having learned from his Beer Hall Putsch failure, Hitler changed strategy.  His goal now was to bring his Nazi Party to power legally, through elections.

Yet Hitler's new strategy was facing a big obstacle:  the German economy had improved markedly.  As a consequence, Hitler's extremist rhetoric was losing much of its appeal.  (The economic improvement was due in part to the Allies having agreed to reduce Germany's war reparations payments.)

Moreover, Germany had a new president, the famous World War I Field Marshal, Paul von Hindenburg.  He was backed by a coalition of conservatives and moderates, which helped to stabilize the republic and keep the extremists in check.  In 1928, the Nazi Party received only 2.6% of the vote, which translated into 12 seats in a 474 seat Reichstag.

Yet Hitler had a sense that Germany's good times would not last and, as fate would have it, they would not.  In 1929, the Wall Street stock market in New York crashed with disastrous worldwide consequences.

Germany was particularly hard hit.  Unemployment soared; it would soon reach 30 percent.  For many Germans, poverty and starvation became real possibilities.  By the autumn of 1930, the parliamentary coalition that had governed Germany fell apart.

New elections were held and the Nazi Party received over 18 percent of the vote, entitling it to 107 seats in the Reichstag.  Overnight, the Nazis went from the smallest party in Germany to the second largest.

Yet none of Germany's political parties had close to a majority required to form a government.  As a result, vicious power struggles broke out in the Reichstag.  President Hindenburg attempted to mediate these disputes, sometimes issuing decrees to break the political stalemate.

In 1932, German voters again went to the polls.  The 85-year-old Hindenburg was reelected president.  However, in the parliamentary election, the Nazis increased their share of the vote to 37 percent, becoming Germany's largest party.  Still, with none of the political parties having a clear majority, the German government remained paralyzed.

Meanwhile, Hitler enlisted the support of many influential Germans who saw the Nazis as a bulwark against Germany's powerful Communist Party.  Those supporting Hitler included industrialists, military officers, and even Hindenburg's son, who some historians believe the Nazis had blackmailed.  They urged Hindenburg to appoint Hitler to a high government position.  Not trusting Hitler, Hindenburg initially refused.

However, by January 1933, the elderly Hindenburg had become exhausted from the political turmoil, even fearing the prospect of civil war.  Believing he could ultimately control Hitler, Hindenburg gave in to the Hitler supporters and appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany.

Hitler quickly used his position as Chancellor to subvert the German democratic process.  Within a month, Nazi leaders Goering and Goebbels hatched a plan to burn the Reichstag building.  When fire engulfed the Reichstag on February 27, 1933, Hitler blamed the Communists and used the incident as an excuse to begin a brutal crackdown.

Hitler persuaded a befuddled Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree "for the Protection of the People and the State."  The decree empowered Hitler to suppress all political activity and inter anyone he deemed a threat to the nation.

Truckloads of Nazi storm troopers rounded up Communists, Social Democrats, liberals, and other political rivals.  These "enemies of the state" were put in hastily constructed holding pens, which became the first concentration camps.

In March 1933, Hitler presented a defining piece of legislation to the Reichstag called the Enabling Act.  The purpose of the act was to get the Reichstag to dissolve itself and hand over its constitutional powers to Hitler, in effect making Hitler dictator of Germany.  The act required a two-thirds majority vote to become law.  It passed easily with the support of Germany's right-wing and center parties; the only party to vote against was the Social Democrats.  Deputies of the Communist Party were unable to vote, having already been arrested by the Nazis.

In early 1934, Hitler was faced with a conflict between the generals of the German army and the storm troopers of the SA.  To alleviate the discord and further consolidate his power, Hitler told the generals that he would suppress the SA if they would accept him as the legitimate successor of President Hindenburg, who was now in failing health.

The army command readily agreed to Hitler's proposal.  In what would become known as The Night of the Long Knives, Himmler (the head of the SS) carried out Hitler's instructions to arrest and execute leaders of the SA.  A few weeks later, Hindenburg died and Hitler became the undisputed ruler of Germany, officially assuming the title of Fuhrer.

From 1935 to 1939, Hitler moved toward the complete "Nazification" of Germany.  Censorship became extreme and covered all aspects of life.  Those who spoke out in opposition were carted off to concentration camps.  Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jews were no longer considered German citizens and thus no longer entitled to any legal rights.

As part of his "Nazification" program, Hitler put the German economy on a war footing.  In 1935, in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler proclaimed open rearmament.  In 1936, he remilitarized the Rhineland and formed an alliance with Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, and occupied the Sudentenland (the German-inhabited border area of Czechoslovakia) in October.  At this point, Hitler disavowed any further expansionist aims and, in so doing, won approval for his control over the Sudentenland from Britain and France at a conference in Munich.

However, in March 1939, Hitler violated the Munich Agreement by occupying all of Czechoslovakia -- a move that threatened Poland.  At this point, Britain and France abandoned their appeasement policy by guaranteeing Poland's integrity.  In response, Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in August 1939.

One month later, Hitler invaded Poland and was surprised when Britain and France honored their promise to defend Poland by declaring war on Germany.  Yet Britain and France were hesitant and disorganized in mobilizing toward war and Hitler was able to achieve a lightning victory over Poland.

In April 1940, the German blitzkrieg conquered Norway and Denmark; in May and June it swept through the Netherlands and Belgium and finally France.  On June 22, 1940, Hitler forced a defeated France to sign an armistice at Compiegne, the site of the armistice of 1918.  Hitler was at the peak of his power.

With most of the European continent under his control, Hitler made a peace offer to Britain.  When the British refused the offer, Hitler launched an air war against the British Isles.  Over the next few months, Hitler would try unsuccessfully to defeat Britain by bombing its cities and by attacking British troops in North Africa.

Meanwhile, the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union was showing signs of strain.  During the summer of 1940, Russian forces had annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, plus two Romanian provinces.  Soviet expansionism was interfering with Hitler's goal of dominating all of Europe.  In December 1940, Hitler drew up Operation Barbarrosa -- a plan to invade the Soviet Union.

On June 22, 1941, the German army attacked across the Soviet border and penetrated swiftly into Russia.  During the first weeks of the campaign, the surprised Soviets took enormous casualties.  Hitler had predicted an easy victory over the Russians, and it looked as if his prediction might become a reality.  In the Ukraine, over 600,000 Soviets were taken prisoner when German forces encircled the city of Kiev.

However, the German advance toward the cities of Moscow and Leningrad had not gone as well.  Faced with ever increasing supply lines, the German campaign to capture these distant cities began to stall.  By October, German forces were bogged down by rain and mud and increased Soviet resistance.  The weather continued to worsen with the onset of an early winter.  Soon rain turned to snow and then to record -40 degree conditions.  By December, the German advance on Moscow and Leningrad had ground to a halt.  Other factors assisting the Soviets included the deployment of a new agile tank, the T-34, and the introduction of fresh Siberian troops

As the snow melted away in the spring of 1942, Hitler's forces were again on the move and still scoring victories, but the tide was beginning to turn.  A few months earlier, in December 1941, Hitler had declared war on the United States.  As a result, Germany was now at war with the world's two greatest industrial powers -- the US and the USSR -- who were busy ramping up war production.

Hitler gradually came to believe that his best hope for victory against the Soviets lay in capturing the rich oil fields of the Caucasus.  At the gateway to the Caucasus stood the city of Stalingrad.

Hitler's campaign to capture Stalingrad began in the summer of 1942 and during that summer and for the rest of the year, the German army fought an epic struggle against a tenacious enemy.  By the time winter approached in November 1942, the situation for the Germans had grown precarious.  Hitler's generals informed him that his troops would soon be surrounded.  The generals advised a retreat, but Hitler would not heed their advice.  For Hitler, capturing Stalingrad had become an obsession.  The result was the encirclement of the Sixth Army by Russian forces and the capture of 91,000 German soldiers.  Stalingrad was the bloodiest battle in human history with total casualties for both sides estimated to be about two million.

The German defeat at Stalingrad combined with the British-American landings in North Africa marked the turning point in the war.  In July 1943, Hitler launched his last great offensive against the Russians at Kurst in what would become the largest tank battle in history.  The Germans lost the battle and from then on it was Russia and the western Allies who would take the offensive.

In September 1943, the Allies landed troops in southern Italy to begin a tough fight north.  The following year, an Allied armada of American, British and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy.  Soon France was liberated.

In a desperate attempt to regain the initiative in the west, Hitler attempted a final offensive through the Ardennes, Belgium in December 1944.  The offensive failed and soon Allied troops were converging from all directions on the Third Reich.

In 1945, with the western Allies crossing the Rhine River and the Russians closing in on Berlin, Hitler retreated to his bunker, bitter in his defeat.  It was here, on April 30, 1945, that Hitler and his mistress, Eva Braun committed suicide.

 

Joseph Stalin

1879 - 1953

"A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."

Joseph Stalin was born in 1879 in Gori, Georgia, a province of the Russian Empire located in the Caucus Mountains.  Stalin's real surname was Djugashvili.  He would later change it to Stalin which means "man of steel."  Stalin's family was poor.  His mother was a seamstress and a cook who worked for wealthier families in Gori.  His father was a cobbler and an alcoholic who beat his wife and son.

At age eight, the young Joseph was sent to the Gori church school.  He was a good student and, at age fourteen, earned a scholarship to the Tbilisi Theological Seminary.  However, a year into his seminary studies, Stalin began to associate with underground groups of revolutionaries and to read illegal Marxist literature.  As a result of these activities, Stalin was expelled from the seminary in 1899.

With his expulsion, Stalin became a full-time revolutionary organizer.  In 1901, as a member of the Georgian branch of the Social Democratic party, Stalin roamed the Caucasus, agitating among workers and helping with strikes.

In 1903, when the Social Democrats split into two groups the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Stalin supported the more radical Bolsheviks and their leader, Vladimir Lenin.  Between 1902 and 1913, Stalin was arrested and exiled to Siberia several times, but he always managed to escape and rejoin the Bolsheviks.

Lenin rewarded Stalin by bringing him into the party's Central Committee in 1912.  Stalin lacked oratorical skills or charisma, but he showed talent at organizational activity.  He served as one of the first editors of Pravda, the party newspaper.

Stalin was arrested again by the czarist government in 1913, and exiled to Siberia where he remained for four years.  In 1914, one year after Stalin's exile, Russia entered World War I.  Russia suffered heavy losses in the war, which caused social turmoil at home and severely weakened the monarchy.  In February 1917, the monarchy was overthrown and replaced by Alexander Kerensky's Provincial Government.  Stalin returned to St. Petersburg under a general amnesty.

A few months later, in November 1917, Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power by overthrowing Kerensky.  Lenin appointed Stalin to the post of Commissar of Nationalities in the new Bolshevik government.  During the ensuing civil war from 1918 to 1920, Stalin was active in political-military affairs and held several administrative positions.

Stalin assumed the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922.  Stalin shrewdly used his new authority as General Secretary to control appointments, set agendas, and transfer thousands of Party officials around.  In time, everyone who counted for anything owed their position to him.

By the time the Party's intellectual core became aware of Stalin's duplicity, it was too late.  The only person with the moral authority to challenge Stalin was Lenin.  However, Lenin had become partially paralyzed and was unable to speak as the result of a stroke.  Near the end of his life, Lenin wrote a testament in which he strongly criticized Stalin's arbitrary conduct as General Secretary and recommended that he be removed.  Lenin died in 1924 before any action could be taken and his testament was suppressed.

Between 1924 and 1929, Stalin forced most of the other Bolshevik leaders out of power.  He would ally himself with one political faction and then another, gradually isolating his rivals.  Stalin's main target was Trotsky, who left the Soviet Union (as Russia was now called) for good in 1929.  Trotsky would later be assassinated by a one of Stalin's agents in Mexico.

Having achieved absolute power, Stalin began to change agriculture and industry.  Believing that the Soviet Union lagged far behind the West, Stalin was determined to catch up.  He established a "command economy" that set ambitious targets for production.  The Soviet Union's first Five Year Plan was adopted in late 1928.

Stalin hoped to finance rapid industrialization by squeezing the agricultural sector, which included peasants in the Ukraine.  To this end, Stalin forcibly collectivized agriculture and adopted other extreme measures.  These included the expropriation of much of the Ukrainian harvest by the Soviet government.

The most successful of the Ukrainian peasants, the kulaks, resisted Stalin's edicts.  The result was bloodshed, disruption and one of the worst famines in Russian history.  An estimated five million Ukrainians perished during the collectivization period.  By the end of the 1930's, the Soviet Union had created an industrial infrastructure second only to the United States, however, at an exorbitant cost in human lives.

In 1936, Stalin turned his attention to those who appeared to have doubted his wisdom and ability.  He staged a series of show trials, at which trumped up charges were leveled at prominent old Bolsheviks and army officers.  The purges, arrests, and deportations to labor camps extended beyond the Party elite, into nearly every Party cell and many of the intellectual professions.  Stalin viewed anyone with a higher education as a potential threat to his power.

Meanwhile, Stalin's propaganda apparatus proclaimed him a genius in nearly every field.  By the time the blood purges eased in 1938, Stalin's dictatorship had become a "personality cult," unrestrained by the Party or any other institution.

By the late 1930's, Stalin was worried about Germany's leader, Adolf Hitler, who openly expressed his intention to expand toward the east.  Stalin tried to form an anti-Hitler alliance with France and Britain, but these two countries were reluctant to do so.  At this point, Stalin concluded a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939.  One month later, World War II began when Hitler attacked western Poland and, in response, France and Britain declared war on Germany.

Meanwhile, the Soviets invaded eastern Poland and by 1940 had annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, plus two Romanian provinces.  (Most of this new territory had earlier been part of the tsarist empire.)

In 1941, Stalin refused to listen to warnings by his military advisors that the German Wehrmacht was massing for an attack.  He instead chose to believe that Hitler would abide by their non-aggression treaty.

In June of 1941, Germany struck with a force of three million men and 3,400 tanks, advancing in three groups.  The northern group headed for Leningrad, the center group headed for Moscow, and the southern group for the Ukraine.  The Soviet army was caught totally unprepared and suffered enormous defeats, made worse by the fact that Stalin's purges had stripped the military of some of its best leadership.  In one battle, over 600,000 Soviets were taken prisoner when German forces encircled the Ukrainian city of Kiev -- the largest mass surrender in the history of warfare.

With the German victory in the Ukraine, Hitler turned his attention to the Russian capital of Moscow.  By early December, German tanks had advanced to within 27 km of the Kremlin spires.  The Russian army exhorted the populace to defend Moscow and "mother Russia" at all costs.  Soldiers directed the citizenry to dig entrenchments, construct anti-tank barricades and form paramilitary organizations.

During the battle, Stalin remained in Moscow in an air raid shelter positioned under the Kremlin.  He emerged unexpectedly one day in Moscow's Red Square when the population was in a state of near panic.  Stalin's sudden appearance helped calm the situation and inspire the soldiers and militia.

Stalin also reinforced Moscow with fresh troops from Russia's far eastern frontier (the Siberians) after Soviet spies informed him that Russia no longer had to fear an attack from Japan.  He also placed his best general, Zhukov in charge of operations.

The Russian strategy was to hold off the German onslaught until the full force of the Russian winter arrived.  As it happened, the winter of 1941 was the coldest in 140 years and literally froze the German advance in its tracks.  However, the better adapted Russians remained mobile and, in early December, surprised the Germans by taking the offensive.  As a result, the German army suffered its first serious setback.

Stalin was also successful in obtaining aid from his new Western ally, the United States.  He ordered that whole factories be moved behind the Ural Mountains where they would be safe from German attack.

Although Stalin's commanders were outmatched by their German counterparts, Russia had advantages of its own, including mass production techniques and a large population (two-and-a-half times that of Germany).  This allowed the Soviets to sustain heavy losses in both equipment and men.  Another asset was Russia's huge territorial expanse, which allowed the Soviets to exchange space for time and regroup.

As the snow melted away in early 1942, Stalin assumed that Hitler would again attack Moscow, but the attack never came.   Facing fuel shortages, Hitler turned his attention south toward the city of Stalingrad and its huge oil reserves.  In response, Stalin again brought his best general, Zhukov to the battle.  Zhukov employed the blitzkrieg tactics he had learned from the Germans to his advantage.

By December 1942, the Soviets had exhausted some of Germany's best divisions.  In operation Winter Tempest, Soviet troops encircled the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad.  This would mark the beginning of the end for Hitler.

Yet it would not be easy for the Soviets.  After Stalingrad the German army counterattacked and caught the Red Army in a riposte, inflicting heavy casualties.  Biding his time, Stalin waited for Hitler to mount his next big offensive.  Hitler chose the city of Kursk, and the Red Army was waiting for him.  With close to 3,000 tanks on the move, Kursk was the largest tank battle in history.  The German attack failed and Hitler was forced to withdraw.

Now Stalin was confident enough to release fresh forces and to take the initiative.  By June of 1944, the Red Army had recaptured most of the Soviet territory that the Germans had taken three years earlier.

As the Soviets and the Western powers began to close in on Germany in 1945, Stalin participated in Allied meetings at Yalta and Potsdam.  At these meetings, Stalin obtained recognition of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

However, at the war's conclusion, the Western powers and the Soviet Union soon became distrustful of one another.  As Stalin established Communist governments in Eastern Europe, Winston Churchill began speaking of an "iron curtain" and of the dangers of Soviet expansionism.  Policy makers in the United States would soon share Churchill's view.

In the post-war years, Stalin was involved in an economic and ideological struggle with the Western nations, which came to be known as the Cold War.  Stalin attempted to curtail economic relations between the newly formed Eastern European governments and the "capitalist West."  The East-West struggle also included such confrontations as the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War.

By 1953, Stalin had become increasingly paranoid and physically weak, and apparently was about to start another purge.  In January 1953, he ordered the arrest of a Kremlin corps of doctors, charging them with "medical assassinations."  The so-called Doctors' Plot seemed to herald a return to the 1930s, but Stalin's sudden death on March 5, 1953 forestalled another bloodbath.

Stalin's reputation took a steep dive when his successor, Nikita Khrushchev began exposing Stalin's crimes in 1956.   Khrushchev was political commissar at the Battle of Stalingrad, and was a beneficiary of Stalin's political regime.  Yet he was dismayed at what he had witnessed of Stalin's brutality.  While Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders did not disclaim Stalin's economic policies, they strongly repudiated Stalin's terror, falsification of history, and self-glorification.