Bryan Caplan  

The Misconception of the Twentieth Century

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Even many people with little sympathy for the Soviet Union admire its "heroic" role in World War II. What all too few people realize is that for the first twenty-two months of World War II, the Nazis and the Soviets were allies. Under the auspices of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin partitioned the countries that lay between them, beginning with Poland. Here's a nice map showing the original Nazi-Soviet deal, and its subsequent revision:

Molotov-Ribbentrop planned division of central Europe. Source: Wikipedia.

After they fell out with their Nazi allies, of course, the Soviets claimed they had just been protecting themselves from the future German invasion, but that's nonsense. World War II might not even have started if Hitler didn't have Stalin's help. And if Stalin was expecting an invasion, he wouldn't have ignored all the evidence that Hitler was about to invade.

For Hitler, no doubt, the Pact was just a marriage of convenience: He stabbed his ally in the back as soon as he had a chance. But many Nazis saw things differently. Here's a fascinating passage I came across in Nazism, 1919-1945, vol. 4, from the daily German press conference of 2/2/1940:

[T]he German public must not now be given the impression, through a description of Russian domestic life, that we want to achieve an ideological merger and that we are more or less adopting and imitating Bolshevik terminology. There is an undoubted danger that such a merger will occur because our struggle against England and France is, after all, also directed against the plutocratic system and, as a result, certain Socialist conceptions have to be discussed quite often. But one must distinguish this propaganda and keep it clearly separate from the Bolshevik terminology. The reference in some newspapers to the German state as the workers', peasants', and soldiers' state must not be repeated.

Methinks they dost protest too much!

While in alliance with the Nazis, the Soviets claimed, as usual, to be "liberating" the countries they invaded. The reality was quite different. Most shockingly, during Stalin's alliance with Hitler, almost two million Poles were deported to Siberia. Hitler's double-cross was the only reason the Polish deportees didn't all die in Soviet slave labor camps; in his desperation, Stalin allowed many to leave the Soviet Union via Persia to fight for the West.

The upshot is that there are many witnesses to the Soviets' atrocities toward the Poles. Lately a lot of them - and their surviving relatives - have been contacting me. They're known as the Kresy Siberia Group, and make it their goal to educate the world about what really happened to them.

It's a tale that deserves to be heard for its own sake. But to understand what happened to Poland between 1939 and 1941 also puts all of twentieth century history in perspective. The Big Story of the century wasn't a left-versus-right struggle, or a struggle of moderation versus extremism. It was a struggle of cosmetically different totalitarian socialisms to enslave the world. They fought freer countries to subjugate them; they fought each other out of lust for power. I'm still amazed that things didn't turn out far worse.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
snacky writes:

Nice post. When do you expect to make substantial updates to the Museum of Communism? The two planned "special exhibits" both sound very intriguing, but they've been teasing us for years now.

nn writes:

The Sovs also sent supplies to the Nazis during the Battle of Britain. And long before the war, they helped Hitler develop the panzer corps by allowing the Germans to train on Soviet territory in secret, while they themselves tried to learn from German armored doctrine. 'Course, Uncle Joe did tend to wipe out many of their own best guys so a lot of relearning was necessary in 41 and 42. The more you "come back" from near death, the more heroic things look no matter how scummy your behavior was.

It also helps that there were a lot of Westerners willing to argue with a straight face that even Mussolini and run-of-the-mill fascism was worse than Stalin long after the war was over.

T.R. Elliott writes:

Good post. It's important to ensure people understand this. Though information is available to anyone who reads The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Will you also be giving us a post on the thoughts of General Smedley Butler of the US marines who said that

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

The soviets were brutal. So were the germans. And the native americans were pretty well brutalized by the west (aside from disease, which is the fault of nonone, except when indians were purposely infected, which did happen--I suppose an early form of WMD). And a post on the brutalization of the Africans by the west would be a great one as well.

John S Bolton writes:

Communism and socialism are implicated in the mass atrocities of both the ethnic and class war kind. Capitalism is implicated in neither. Interventions of the gunboat, custom house occupation type, hardly even qualify as wars, for what killings occurred.
Somehow, the power seeking officials' own schools manage to draw the lesson, from all these events, that we just need to keep racism out of socialism, and officials can be trusted with unlimited power. That's what you get for your money.

Roger M writes:

NAZI was an acronym for National Socialist Party.

rakehell writes:

I've always been curious as to how socialist Nazi Germany was compared to the SU. Do you have any numbers comparing size of the state sector, private ownership, etc?

Robert Speirs writes:

The story of Nazis developing weapons in the USSR is not as well known as it should be. The Stuka dive-bomber was tested and proven on the steppes of the Ukraine between 1935-37, well away from the eyes of the Versailles Allies.
As to the American Indians and the Africans, what does one expect when a violent stone-age culture comes up against a violent technologically advanced culture? Victory for the guns and wheels.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Well, the standard Stalinist line, still believed by many people and for which there is considerable support, is that while there were these off and on tactical alliances, including the German Communist Party helping to undermine the Weimar Republic in Germany, knowing reasonably well that the outcome would be a Nazi takeover, Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR were always ultimately on a mutual death trip, even if Stalin convinced himself otherwise after the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact.

The official Stalinist line is that he went for an agreement with Germany after the West failed to stand up to Hilter in Munich and Czechoslovakia. Stalin's supporters would say, "Hah! the West wants Hitler to go after us, so we will let him go after them first!" This would later show up in the complaining about the delay of the West to open up the second front, even if that delay allowed the Red Army to overrun much of central and eastern Europe.

One can argue that this is all an after the fact justification, but the scale of deaths in the USSR must be kept in mind, not forgotten even today, and the fact that there were many in the US who worked with Hitler as well, including the grandfather of our current president.

Roger M and rakehell,

Yes, this title of the Nazi party is all well and good. But, if one defines socialism as state ownership of the means of production, the Nazis were only socialist in name and not in actuality. There was a genuinely socialist faction of the party, but they were the first group purged after the party actually took power. Hitler nationalized very little. Nazi Germany is in fact the purest example of command capitalism that we have ever seen.

Michael writes:

And the native americans were pretty well brutalized by the west (aside from disease, which is the fault of nonone, except when indians were purposely infected, which did happen

There is no evidence that this ever happened.

There is, however, one letter by one British officer to one other British officer that suggests the use of smallpox as a weapon against Indians during a time of war, the French and Indian War. There is no evidence that it was ever acted upon, and considerable evidence that the outbreak of smallpox among the Indians in the area, which started before the letter was sent, was the result of Indians massacring infected white settlers, their women, and their children.

If you want to list American atrocities against Indians, you will have to do better than that. You can start with the Trail of Tears, a policy implemented by the Jackson administration, the father of the Democrat party.

liberty writes:

>Hitler nationalized very little. Nazi Germany is in fact the purest example of command capitalism that we have ever seen.

Actually he did nationalize quite a bit, or keep it under central command. Some of his first policies involved both. You say its a good example of command capitalism - which is exactly what Marx would say, and he and Lenin describe command capitalism as the first form of Socialism and the one to implement in order to begin to turn it toward a more socialistic and then communistic state. There is almost no difference except in rhetoric between "command capitalism" and "socialism".

liberty writes:

>I've always been curious as to how socialist Nazi Germany was compared to the SU. Do you have any numbers comparing size of the state sector, private ownership, etc?

I have been interested in this question too. Kornai is a good source for the size of the state sector in the USSR and other communist states, but I don't think he has the NAZI data. He and other transition economists do a good job of outlining what is required to call something a state owned business, versus state controlled versus regulated versus private. Using these definitions one could compare the NAZI economy to the communist economies and determine how Socialist it was. I do plan to do this at some point...

Bob Hawkins writes:

The Nazis formally nationalized relatively little. For example, the Todt Organization, which did all military construction, was a relatively small central staff with lots of contractors. But these "contractors" worked on a standard contract, wore distinctive uniforms, and even were subject to a separate court system, similar to the separate military court system for soldiers.

For practical purposes, the Todt Organization represented the nationalization of most of the construction industry. Formally, however, the Todt Organization didn't exist -- it had no charter or other founding document. Hitler, early in his reign, started talking as if this organization existed, and no one had the guts to tell him he was wrong. So the whole thing was back-formed from Hitler's delusions!

Try applying formal definitions to a system run like that.

For more than you could possibly want to know, see "Hitler's Secret Headquarters: the Fuhrer's Wartime Bases, from the Invasion of France to the Berlin Bunker" by Franz W. Seidler and Didier Ziegert ( ).

Indegredel Toasman writes:

Victor D. Hanson (see also makes the excellent point that USSR victory was achieved with the help of tens of thousands of US trucks, including the oil to fuel them. As to the number of victims in USSR, I think it does not take much imagination to consider that in the mind of their central planners, soviet citizens were quite expendable.

Andrew Lasey writes:

To the poster who mentions that NAZI is an acronym, I believe the new thinking is: The acronymic explanation of its origin, which traces it to the "Na'' and "zi'' of the German word "Nationalsozialist,'' is now recognized as incorrect. The true origin of "Nazi'' appears to be as a shortening and respelling of the longer word, based on the German pronunciation of "Nati-,'' in which the "t'' is pronounced like "ts.''

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