It is June of 1941, and it seems perfectly clear that Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany have won the war. But Hitler has made a fateful choice: to attack the Soviet Union and open up a new front in his struggle for world domination. After a long, hot summer night spent in heated conversation with his top advisors, Joseph Stalin orders his forces to prepare for combat.
In “When Stalin Faced Hitler,” historian Stephen Kotkin tells the story of that night and narrates the lives of the two men who had led their countries into a titanic confrontation that became one of the most important turning points in World War II and proved catastrophic to Hitler’s dreams. The prereleased essay from the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs is an exclusive adaption from Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, the forthcoming second volume in Kotkin’s acclaimed three-part biography of the Soviet leader. The first volume was published in 2014 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
“Stalin,” Kotkin writes, “did what winning leaders do: he articulated and drove toward a consistent goal, in his case a powerful state backed by a united society that had eradicated capitalism and built industrial socialism. ‘Murderous’ and ‘mendacious’ do not begin to describe him. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. . . . [H]is power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their ambitions for social justice, peace, abundance, and national greatness. . . . Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.”
Hitler—a failed art student and draft dodger—seemed like an unlikely person to fill the role of Stalin’s chief foreign adversary. But, Kotkin writes, “history is full of surprises,” and “Hitler turned out to be a master improviser: often uncertain but a man possessed of radical ideas who sensed where he was ultimately going and grasped opportunities that came his way.” He was, as Kotkin puts it, “someone neither Marx nor Lenin had prepared Stalin for.”
As the Nazi war machine began to turn its sights on the Soviet Union, Stalin “shrank from trying to preempt Hitler militarily and failed to preempt him diplomatically.” The story, of course, does not end there, and “the question of who most miscalculated is not a simple one,” Kotkin notes.
The essay is available now at ForeignAffairs.com, and the full issue posts on October 17. This link bypasses the paywall on ForeignAffairs.com for one month following the release date. We encourage journalists to share with their audiences.