Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 22, 2021

Postwar: The Totalitarians Emerge

In the aftermath of the war, the two great tyrants of the first half of the 20th century would sense their path to power and begin their movement to the top. By 1919, according to his biographer Robert Service, Josef Stalin was already recognized by Lenin and the inner party circle making up the Central Committee as an intelligent and decisive political operator, very willing to take on responsibility in difficult situations. In 1919, to achieve his expanded assignments, he would apply terror and violence on a greater scale than any of his colleagues, including Trotsky. This would both enhance his "can do" reputation and his already intimidating aura.

By May 1919 Stalin Had Made It to Lenin's Side

During the two years of Russia's civil war, Stalin was active on or near the military fronts. In 1918 he led Red forces in strategically valuable—for the nation's food supply—Tsaritsyn on the Volga River. Challenging Trotsky, who was Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, he had out-maneuvered him to gain full control of the military units in the region. Once in control, he stabilized matters by applying a formula of executions of deserters and bandits along with the burning villages to ensure the cooperation of the peasants. His success at Tsaritsyn (which in 1925 would be renamed Stalingrad, then in 1961 Volgograd) marked him as a man who could restore a crumbling situation.

In May 1919, a larger crisis would provide Stalin with a greater opportunity to shine. A coalition of Russian and Finnish White forces supported by a British naval flotilla attempted to capture Petrograd. Further, there were concurrent mutinies among some Red units and fortress garrisons around the former capital. The Central Committee appointed Stalin to fix things, which he did in short order. Calling in Red Army reinforcements, he focused first on recapturing the forts and executing the traitors. The invading forces were then quickly routed and Stalin had another triumph. In November 1919, the government awarded him the Order of the Red Banner for his wartime service.

Come September he was returned to the Southern Front and began acting as if he were a law unto himself. In November Stalin threatened to resign over a minor matter, a technique he used repeatedly. Nevertheless, in the same month, the government awarded him the Order of the Red Banner for his wartime service. In 1920, with the civil war effectively decided, Stalin would be drawn into the Soviet War with Poland, a struggle he had personally opposed. The defeat by the Poles would tarnish his reputation, but his behind-the-scenes role in the administration of party affairs would allow him to accrue more power in the meantime. "Koba" was on his way to the top.

Adolph Hitler, on the other hand, was nowhere as visible or influential in Germany, as was Stalin in Russia. His 1919 was spent observing the political scene in Bavaria, selectively demonstrating his oratorical skills, and what we today call networking with kindred souls. In October 1918, toward the end of World War I, Hitler had been partially blinded in a mustard gas attack near Ypres. He was sent to the military hospital in Pasewalk and was there at the time of the Armistice. Hitler returned to Munich on 21 November 1918, two days after his release from the hospital in Pasewalk, Pomerania.

Hitler Connected with Herman Goering and Ernst Roehm (Right) Early in His Budding Career

During the next six months, Hitler had an opportunistic association as soldiers’ council representative to the civilian authorities in Bavaria with the independent Socialist-led coalition Bavarian state government of Kurt Eisner, which assumed power in November 1918. After Eisner’s assassination by the fanatic Count Anton von Arco-Valley in February 1919, Hitler had a similarly opportunistic association with the Bavarian Soviet Councils Republic. He played no part in the overthrow of the Councils Republic on 2 May by Freikorps units or in the establishment of the military administration that governed Bavaria until a civilian government could be formed.

At the end of May 1919, however, Hitler was recruited to work for the information office of the military administration commanded by Captain Karl Mayr. Among its tasks were gathering intelligence on political movements potentially hostile to the Bavarian authorities and tending to the “political education” of the troops to counter Bolshevik influences. Hitler excelled in a training course in early June and in August 1919 became an instructor for a five-day course for Reichswehr (German armed forces) personnel at a base in Lechfeld near Augsburg. Hitler stood out as an effective communicator and made his first virulent anti-Semitic speeches in Lechfeld.

Impressed with Hitler’s skills as a communicator, Mayr entrusted him with responding to a Reichswehr client request for elaboration on the so-called Jewish question. In a letter of 16 September 1919, Hitler first identified Jews as a so-called race that served as the “driving force” of Communist revolution in Bavaria.

In his intelligence-gathering function, Hitler and two colleagues attended a 12 September 1919, meeting of the German Workers Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei–DAP), a Völkisch-nationalist organization. During the meeting, Hitler denounced a speech favoring Bavarian separatism. Within a month, Hitler had joined the DAP with the number 555. Due to his speaking abilities, charisma, and tireless energy, Hitler quickly rose in the renamed National Socialist German Workers Party leadership ranks. He contributed significantly to the development and announcement of a new party program on 20 February 1920, at the Munich Hofbräuhaus. It called for German abandonment of the Treaty of Versailles, the expansion of German territory, and exclusion of Jews from citizenship. His discharge from the army came through on 31 March 1920.

Combining his considerable oratory capabilities with an unusual ability to read audience mood, both in individuals and large groups, Hitler established himself as absolute Führer (Leader) of the National Socialists by 1921. Under Hitler, the Nazi Party grew steadily in its home base of Bavaria. It organized strong-arm groups to protect its rallies and meetings. Within two years the party had grown to a membership of 55,000 and Hitler felt confident enough to launch his overly ambitious effort to overthrow the Weimar Republic, known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Imprisonment followed for him, but it provided an opportunity to become an author.

Sources: The Holocaust Museum, WW2Timelines, Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. We have enough distance to more rationally evaluate these two tyrants and the people they influenced.