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Hitler’s Gamble with Destiny, 1941

by Michael D. Richards on Jul 26, 2001

Michael D. Richards

Sixty years ago, in August and September of 1941, the fate of the world appeared to hang in the balance. Adolf Hitler, gambling recklessly with the destiny of the German nation, had launched the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in quest of world domination. It seemed certain that he would win his gamble and destroy the Soviet Union. 

The German invasion of the Soviet Union was probably the most important event of World War II. There is no doubt it shaped the remainder of the 20th century. By unintentionally destroying the old world, Hitler created a new one that has ever since demanded constant attention and action from the United States. 

The Nazi Fuhrer intended his campaign against the Soviet Union to destroy what he called “Jewish-Bolshevism.” Its destruction, he believed, would end any hopes Britain had of winning the war and discourage the United States from entering on the side of Britain. 

The campaign also had a so-called world-historical goal. It would furnish a “Final Solution” to what the Nazis called the “Jewish Question,” the conviction that Jews were parasites and could only destroy, not build civilization. By the end of 1941, the Nazis were already putting in place the cruel, industrialized process of the Holocaust, which eventually killed six million Jews. 

Nazi Germany grossly underestimated the capacity of the Soviet Union to resist. At incredible cost, the Soviet Union held on through 1941, and by the end of 1942 took the offensive against Nazi Germany. 

Hitler created the opposite of what he intended to accomplish by invading the Soviet Union. Instead of destroying it, he made it stronger. By continuing to fight in 1945 long past any hope of a victory, he created a political vacuum in Europe. Germany lay in ruins. France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium were incapable of dealing unaided with the Soviet Union or with national liberation movements in their colonies. 

Hitler’s campaign and its utter failure changed, perhaps permanently, the role and power of the United States. In the new world Hitler’s destructive efforts had created, there were only two major powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. If the former retreated into isolationism, the Soviet Union would fill any political vacuum unchallenged. The United States clearly could not allow this to happen. 

If only historians could run an experiment to see how the 20th century would have turned out had Nazi Germany defeated the USSR! There is, of course, something called “counterfactual” history, which deals in speculation on what might have happened if events had gone differently. This can help determine the significance of what did happen. But it can’t prove anything. 

But we can certainly say that had Hitler won his gamble, the postwar world would have been quite different. With the Soviet Union destroyed, the world would have been reduced to three great powers — Nazi Germany dominant in a Europe that ran from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains, a Japanese empire in the Pacific, and an Anglo-American alliance centered in the Western Hemisphere. There would have been no Cold War, just great power rivalries. In an isolationist and probably very conservative United States, there might not have been a Civil Rights Movement or anything remotely resembling the insurgencies of the 1960s. 

Hitler, of course, did lose his gamble. Three consequences of his defeat are still with us in the early 21st century: 

  • Even though the Soviet Union ceased to exist ten years ago and the Russian Republic does not play the same kind of role in the world as its Soviet predecessor, the United States continues to pay more attention to Russia than to any other country of similar size and power. In discussions concerning the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States and its NATO allies constantly ask how far NATO can expand without provoking the Russian Republic. NATO doesn’t defer to any other country, so why to Russia? 
  • The United States is now the major world power. Hitler, in destroying the old world, had much to do with this. The results of World War II drew America into international affairs on a permanent basis. The end of the Cold War merely changed the context in which the nation exercises world power. The main question for the 21st century will be whether the United States will be able to use this truly unprecedented power wisely. 
  • Finally, the European Union (EU) was originally in large part a result of memories of German aggression in World War II. While the economic aspect of the EU has always been important, the countries involved also wanted to interweave the destiny of Germany with their destinies so that a Nazi Germany could never take shape again. Although the idea of containing Germany has never completely disappeared, the EU has taken on a robust life of its own. 

The reverberations of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union will eventually die out. But in terms of historical cause and effect, 60 years is not a long time. After all, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s owed much to the unfinished business of the American Civil War, a hundred years earlier. The repercussions of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 remain important, not so much because we fear another Hitler or a Nazi Germany, but  because we see more clearly the kind of world we live in when we understand how that world came to be.

Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.