Russians sure do like to ‘collude’. According to the Washington Post, it’s in the blood. The following appeared in the Post a few days ago in an article by Thomas Weber of Aberdeen University entitled ‘What Russian collusion with Hitler reveals about interference in the 2016 election’:
After Adolf Hitler’s warriors had laid waste to the Soviet Union during World War II, the secret collusion of Russian nationalists with the German leader in the 1920s became an embarrassment. In the 70 years since Hitler’s defeat, Russian nationalists have done everything possible to conceal their onetime belief that he could aid them in undoing the October Revolution of 1917 and making Russia great again.
There are enough parallels here — collusion with Russia, an obsession with national greatness — to tempt people to entertain yet another ill-judged Hitler-Trump comparison.
Yet the real significance of Hitler’s secret Russian collusion does not lie in shedding light on the challenges President Trump poses to American democracy, but on the strategic challenge that Russia poses to the world. For there has been a line of continuity from the collusion of Russian nationalists with Hitler in the early 1920s, to Joseph Stalin’s secret pact with the Nazi leader in 1939, to President Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.
In all cases, Russia has ruthlessly pursued its self-interests with few concerns about the costs to human life and geopolitical repercussions. If it’s ostensibly good for Russia, it’s full steam ahead, regardless of the consequences for everyone else.
… Russia’s many apologists in Europe and the U.S. should wake up to the common denominator visible here in Russian conduct past and present: a geopolitical pursuit of Russia’s national interests, marked by a disregard for human life and dignity.
Weber appears to be shocked that Russians would put the Russian national interest first. But that isn’t what’s most wrong about his article. As evidence of Russian ‘collusion’ with Adolf Hitler, Professor Weber produces just two facts – first, in 1923 Hitler met the wife of the exiled Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, Grand Duchess Viktoria Feodorovna, as well as one of Kirill’s aides, Nikolai Snessarev; and second, Kirill provided money to Hitler. Quite what the connection is between the exiled Grand Duke and Joseph Stalin and the Molotov-Ribbentrop plan isn’t explained. Nor is the link between Kirill and ‘Vladimir Putin’s conduct in Ukraine and his interference in the elections in the United States.’ The link seems to consist of no more than: one time, a century ago, some obscure Russian most people have never heard of met a German who at the time wasn’t even very important; ergo Russians as a whole have a habit of ‘colluding’ with foreigners and we ought to be very afraid of them.
It’s shockingly bad logic. It’s also rather ahistorical. For sure, Grand Duke Kirill was quite pro-German. But a lot of inter-war Russian émigrés weren’t. The former White Army leader, General Pyotr Wrangel, for instance, stated that the Germans regarded Russians as fit only for dung for fertilizing the soil. He absolutely ruled out any form of co-ooperation with Germany. It is true that in the 1930s many White Russians hoped to be able to collaborate with Germany in the event that the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. But others also opposed the idea of such collaboration. There was a bitter polemic in the émigré press between ‘defeatists’, who took the first line, and ‘defencists’, who took the second line. Most prominent among the defencists was another White general, Anton Denikin, who wrote that, ‘In the event that a foreign power invades Russia, with the aim of seizing Russian territory, our participation on its side is impermissible.’ Inter-war Russians weren’t all interested in working with Hitler.
In any event, Kirill was an isolated and unpopular figure among Russian émigrés. He in no way represented émigré opinion, and so shouldn’t be used as an example of what Russians of the time thought. Far more popular among émigrés in the 1920s was the former Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. Unlike Kirill, Nikolai Nikolaevich was very anti-German. British military attaché Alfred Knox recounted how in 1914, the Grand Duke ‘told me how he hated the Germans because one could never trust them. … we must crush Germany once and for all … the German empire must cease to exist and be divided up into a group of states.’
Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich provides an example which utterly contradicts Weber’s statement that Russians only ever put their own interests first without regard for those of others. The Grand Duke was a fervent Francophile, who as Supreme Commander didn’t fly a Russian flag at his headquarters but did fly a French one (see picture above). In August 1914, the German Army sent most of its forces against France, leaving only a few to defend East Prussia against Russia. Despite the fact that the Russian Army had not fully mobilized, Nikolai Nikolaevich ordered his troops to invade East Prussia in order to try to persuade the Germans to divert forces away from France. The French military attaché, General Laguiche, telegraphed his Minister of War that, ‘The Supreme Commander of the Russian Army wanted to respond to France’s desires and remain faithful to the undertakings he made to our ambassador.’ The Russian Chief of Staff, General Ianushkevich, issued an order to the commander of the Russian North West Front, General Zhilinskii, to invade East Prussia, telling him: ‘Paying attention to the fact that Germany first declared war against us, and that France, as our ally, considered its duty to immediately support, we must, because of the same allied obligations, support the French.’
The Russian invasion of East Prussia ended in disaster, with the destruction of the Russian Second Army at Tannenburg and the defeat of the Russian First Army in the Battle of the Masurian Lakes. But Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich was unrepentant, telling Laguiche: ‘We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies.’
Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich did one thing. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich did another. It makes no sense to draw some broad-sweeping conclusions about the Russian character from either one or the other. It’s true that some Russians collaborated with Hitler and said some nice things about him. But others didn’t, while you can find plenty of people from other countries who spoke positively of Hitler at one time or another (David Lloyd George, for instance, to use an example close to Professor Weber’s home). Russians pursue their national interests. But so do other countries, and Russians can also be willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends.
Here’s the thing. You can create just about any sort of thesis if all you do is take one example and imagine that it personifies some general truth. But it’s not good history.