How ideologies backfire

There exist good and bad faiths, good and bad principles, good and bad ethics, and we can argue which is which.

Some people take their ideology too seriously

No such dichotomies with ideologies. They are all bad by definition. Ideology is godless faith, thoughtless rationalism and amoral morality. As such, it’s always pernicious, regardless of its slogans or institutional symbols.

Propositions are sometimes best illustrated (indeed proved) by analysing extremes. I suggest we do just that by looking at the two most malignant ideologies of modernity, Bolshevism and Nazism.

The former preached international socialism; the latter, the national variety. Both claimed a superman status for its adherents, Bolshevism on the basis of class, Nazism on the basis of race. Both were committed to aggressive expansion, Bolshevism because of its doctrine of world revolution, Nazism because of its doctrine of racial hegemony.

Anyone who wasn’t a communist was Stalin’s enemy, to be enslaved or exterminated; anyone who wasn’t German was to Hitler more or less sub-human, to be enslaved or exterminated.

Both were socialist, with the Bolsheviks seeking total control over the economy, while the Nazis allowed some corporatist elements. Both identified ‘capitalists’, especially of the Anglo-Saxon variety, as their ultimate enemies.

Unlike Stalin (who came to the same idea later), Hitler lavishly leavened his anti-capitalism with anti-Semitism, taking his cue from Marx, a teacher he shared with the Bolsheviks. Both Britain and the US were to him viper nests of Jews, who ran their governments and dictated their policy.

America was out of immediate range, but Britain was at Hitler’s doorstep. A well-timed thrust, and all those Downing Street Jews would end up where they belonged: in death camps.

In line with their ideologies, both Hitler and Stalin were preparing for conquest – with Stalin doing so on a vastly greater scale. The Soviet economy was put into a wartime mode in the early 1930s, while Hitler only did so in 1942, three years after the war started.

Stalin had an in-built advantage over Hitler: an unlimited supply of both human and natural resources. Yet Hitler also had something Stalin lacked: a highly trained and expertly led army, and a workforce to match. A potential for exchange was rife.

The Pact the two predators signed on 23 August, 1939, was a marriage of convenience, but it’s a mistake to consider it just that. It was also a marriage of ideological commonality between two socialist, and therefore rabidly anti-Western, powers.

The two predators pursued similar goals in their alliance, up to a point. Hitler knew he couldn’t wage war against half the world without a steady supply of strategic materials, and Russia was the only possible source. Stalin was less desperate, but he knew German technologies would be useful.

Strategically, Hitler used the Pact to protect his rear while he sorted out Europe. Stalin promptly obliged by entering the Second World War on Hitler’s side, attacking Poland from the east just 17 days after the Germans attacked her from the west.

Both countries also had further-reaching plans. Hitler wanted to conquer the European continent and use it as the springboard for the conquest of Britain, leaving Russia for later. Stalin wanted Hitler to exhaust his relatively modest capacities on the continent and then get bogged down in the British Isles.

Then the Soviets would strike, stoking up the fire out of which Hitler would have pulled all the tasty chestnuts for Stalin. Hitler, on the other hand, also planned to trounce Britain before turning his attention to Russia, but he thought he could do so with ease, without enfeebling his army too much.

While Hitler was pursuing his plans, Stalin amassed on his new western borders the most monstrous army ever seen. By the end of 1940, he had over eight million men under arms, some 25,000 tanks, about as many warplanes, the world’s largest artillery park, more airborne troops than the rest of the world combined (all that in peacetime).

Moreover, not only did his armaments outnumber Hitler’s, but they were also of higher quality. The T-34 and KV tanks were already fighting in Finland when Hitler didn’t have their analogues even on the drawing board. His first Tigers saw the light of day only in December, 1942, when the great encirclement at Stalingrad was complete and the outcome of the war had been decided.

But in 1940 Stalin was in no hurry – he was patiently waiting for the Nazis to land in Britain. Only then would he take his foot off the brakes of his juggernaut. Given his overwhelming superiority in both quantitative and qualitative aspects of warfare, the thought of a German attack never even occurred to him. The numbers simply didn’t add up.

However, by then Hitler had realised that Operation Sea Lion would have to remain a cherished fantasy. The Germans didn’t have the sea transports and landing craft to get enough troops over the Channel to establish a beachhead. They had failed to establish air superiority during the Battle of Britain, while the Royal Navy’s sea superiority was still intact.

A massive airborne attack was the only chance, but Hitler had only one paratroop division, and even that was to be practically wiped out by the British during its brilliant landing on Crete, which was widely seen as a rehearsal for the invasion of Britain.

Meanwhile, Stalin’s monstrous army was poised to strike across the Reich’s eastern border. Secret mobilisation was well under way; the Red Army was moving its command centres and airfields close to the border; there were no warehouses left to house mountains of ammunition, and they were growing in the open air, often without even tarpaulin covers.

The Red Army was deployed in an attacking formation: most of its first echelon (there were three altogether) was concentrated in two salients, Bialystok and L’vov, which were like two tines of a fork ready to pierce Europe.

Hitler found himself in a desperate situation. An undefeated Britain increasingly supplied by America meant that, in case of a Soviet attack, Germany would have to fight a two-front war, something every German schoolboy knew was a rotten idea.

Hitler’s only chance now was in pre-empting Stalin’s attack and routing the Red Army with the same blitzkrieg thrust that had worked such wonders in Europe. He sighed and, late in 1940, ordered his General Staff to develop a plan codenamed Barbarossa.

That was coupled with a massive deception campaign designed to convince Stalin that Sea Lion was imminent. Stalin eagerly went along with the ruse because he couldn’t imagine Hitler being so reckless as to plunge into a war on two fronts.

That’s why he accepted Hitler’s assurances that the German troops amassing on Russia’s border were there for training and re-formation purposes. Stalin knew for sure that Sea Lion would have to come first, and his intelligence chiefs knew that they could only argue with him at their peril.

Several GRU heads had been tortured and shot, mainly for telling Stalin what he didn’t want to hear. General (later Marshal) Golikov, who took over the GRU in 1940, knew better. That’s why he diligently suppressed the intelligence reports of 110 German divisions, 11 of them panzer, poised on the border.

The offensive formation in which the Red Army was deployed was risky. Surprise flank strikes at the bases of the two salients could have entrapped the forces deployed there – and that’s exactly what happened.

Hitler managed to achieve strategic surprise and rout the regular Red Army. But still, surprise or no, any military theorist will tell you that shouldn’t have happened.

The traditional war wisdom says that the attacking side needs a threefold superiority as a precondition of success. In the war that started on 22 June, 1941, exactly the opposite was the case.

It was the Soviets who enjoyed at least a threefold superiority in every category – and that was just with their first, western, echelon (remember, they had two others). They had, for example, 11,000 tanks there, compared to Germany’s less than 3,000. They also had 11,000 warplanes, putting the Luftwaffe to shame.

The lies spread by post-war propagandists, both Soviet and Western, say that both the tanks and the planes were destroyed in the first days of the war by the preemptive Nazi strike. Yet the Red Army then lost only 1,200 planes and 600 tanks. The remainder still outnumbered the Wehrmacht by a wide margin.

It’s only now, after this long but necessary preamble, that I’m approaching my today’s theme. Yes, Stalin made some bad strategic mistakes. Yes, the Germans achieved surprise and struck first. Yes, their army was infinitely better led at every level, from general to NCO.

But that still shouldn’t have enabled them to advance at practically march speeds, reaching Moscow by December. The sheer physical mass of the Red Army bristling with an inexhaustible arsenal of armaments, should have stopped the German onslaught within a month – provided the Red Army had wanted to fight.

But it didn’t, and not anticipating that was Stalin’s greatest mistake. The mistake was ideological: he thought the Soviet people had been sufficiently brainwashed to do battle for world revolution, aka conquest. This, though there was hardly a Soviet soldier who hadn’t lost friends and relations to Bolshevik terror, and who himself hadn’t starved during the rape of the peasantry.

Instead, what happened in the first months of the war was in fact an anti-communist revolution. The Soviet people rose against Stalin and refused to fight for him. Many of them would rather fight for Hitler.

Before 1941 was out, the Germans took 4.5 million prisoners, and 1.5 million of them demanded weapons to fight Stalin. Many of those 4.5 million marched into Nazi captivity fully armed, sometimes to the sound of regimental bands.

So why didn’t Hitler end up winning the war, and why did Stalin do so? The answer lies in their ideologies. They both were evil, and in many respects similarly evil. But Stalin was less ideologically intransigent than Hitler.

All Hitler had to do was form a Russian Liberation Army, and it could have more than a million men under its banners already in 1941, a year before the widely publicised capture of the turncoat Gen. Vlasov. Then that army could have grown larger than Stalin’s, and the war would have ended differently.

Top Hitler generals, such as Franz Halder, realised this and begged Hitler to hoist a liberation flag. That made sense militarily – but not ideologically. “We aren’t liberating Russia from anybody or anything,” explained Hitler to Halder. “We are conquering her.”

And so the Nazis behaved as savage conquerors, armed ideologically with Rosenberg’s infamous pamphlet Der Untermensch (for which the author won the ultimate literary prize at Nuremberg). Suddenly the Russians found themselves between two devils, and at least Stalin was the one they knew.

Moreover, having realised that the Russians wouldn’t fight for communism, Stalin jumped on a different ideological horse, one, incidentally, that even his today’s successors are riding: patriotism, Mother Russia – even the church.

Old Russian heroes, such as Suvorov, Kutuzov and Nakhimov, who until then had been described in Soviet encyclopaedias as evil satraps to the tsars, were taken off the mothballs and re-canonised. The army was issued insignia reminiscent of the Russian Imperial Army. The institution of the patriarch was restored, and church hierarchs, until then culled in their thousands, were invited to the Kremlin and had a lovefest with Stalin.

All this was accompanied by the more traditional Bolshevik methods of unrestricted terror. Retreating soldiers were machine-gunned by the newly formed ‘blocking units’ of the NKVD, those guilty of desertion, encirclement or imprisonment – including those who had broken out of encirclement or escaped from POW camps – were tried by tribunals, and either hanged or shot.

During the war, 157,000 Soviet soldiers were thus executed, and perhaps three times that number killed even without a kangaroo trial. Moreover, Stalin’s message to the troops was that the family of insufficiently valorous soldiers would be prosecuted and, as a minimum, deprived of ration cards (that is, starved to death).

That combination of the ideological carrot and terroristic stick turned the course of the war around. Soviet soldiers began to fight, and Hitler was drawn into a long war on two fronts, one he had no chance of winning.

Indeed, ideologies – any ideologies – are more effective in the breach than in the observance (with apologies to William Shakespeare for bowdlerising his line). One hopes today’s ideologues would realise this.   

4 thoughts on “How ideologies backfire”

  1. “Given his overwhelming superiority in both quantitative and qualitative aspects of warfare, the thought of a German attack never even occurred to him. The numbers simply didn’t add up.”

    Given the overwhelming advantage the Soviets had in men and material and yet the German did as well as they did says a lot about German leadership and the German soldier.

  2. Alexander totally [or nearly totally so] believes in the theories of the Soviet defector who writes under the name of Survorov [M-Day]?

    1. Your guess is spot on. I did read it — some 40-odd years ago. I know what it’s about and who the author is, but I’m afraid I that’s about all I’ve retained. Many others have written about the opportunity Hitler missed, and even in the absence of such scholarship common sense would have suggested the same thing.

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