The Hitler-Stalin pact of August 23, 1939, was arguably the most important event of the 20th century. Without it, Germany wouldn't have dared invade Poland one week later. Britain and France wouldn't have been obliged to declare war on Germany, and the shrewd Stalin would almost certainly have kept the Red Army at home. So, with any luck at all, 60 million people wouldn't have had their lives cut short, and hundreds of millions would have been spared misery and homelessness. Alas, it wasn't to happen. The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 is another superb history from Roger Moorhouse, most recently the author of Poland 1939, which I reviewed in July. Here, he prepares the groundwork for Armageddon. The cash value of the pact was significant, 800 million German marks, or $5.9 billion in today's dollars, at a time when the world was just recovering from the Great Depression. German weapons and machine tools flowed east, and Russian grain, oil, and minerals came back on trains pulled by the same German locomotives. Then there was Europe itself, which the two despots split evenly between them. Mr Moorhouse is clear that Hitler was desperate for the pact, and that Stalin as usual got the better deal: "with a single evening's negotiation and a single phone call, he had regained almost all of the lands lost by the Russian Empire in the maelstrom of World War I." Poland of course was the first victim, but on June 6, 1940, as German troops marched down the Champs Elysees in Paris, the Red Army occupied the capital of Latvia. In the heart of Europe, only Switzerland remained more or less free.
More than most historians, Mr Moorhouse gives Stalin the benefit of the doubt. Hitler's treachery becomes apparent as 1939 wears on, yet Stalin refuses to mobilize the Red Army for fear he might thereby trigger a German attack. Indeed, Stalin increases the pace of Russian goods bound for Germany, until the rail system could no longer handle the traffic. Nor does Moorhouse portray Stalin as dazed by the blitzkrieg when it does crash upon him on June 22, 1941, as most historians do. And perhaps, in the end, the Hitler-Stalin Pact is what enables the Soviet Union eventually to prevail: "The T-34s and KV heavy tanks ... had rolled off production lines set up largely using imported German machinery -- lathes, cranes, forges, and mills." If I have one quarrel with The Devils' Alliance, it's that I would have liked more detail about these transactions, and especially about the contribution of Russian raw materials to the German army and air force.
Also reviewed this month: The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World (if not for DARPA, you wouldn't be reading this page) and Tom Cleaver's I Will Run Wild: The Pacific War from Pearl Harbor to Midway. For my thoughts on those, see the Warbird's Book Club. Blue skies! -- Daniel Ford
Here are a thousand or so files on airplanes, pilots, and the wars of the past hundred years, grouped under these headings: