One of the great ironies of 20th century according to many historians is that Josef Stalin, of all people, trusted Adolf Hitler, of all people. Historians regard Stalin as an ultra-paranoid and Hitler as a devious liar. So, why did Stalin, who didn’t trust his fellow communists, trust Hitler, a fascist leader who had compulsively lied and broken promises with other nations–big and small alike–to expand German power? Why this fatal blind spot?
But upon closer scrutiny, it may be truer to say that Stalin’s fatal flaw was not that he trusted Hitler–in fact, he didn’t–but he trusted himself. Stalin knew Hitler was and always would be a compulsive liar. Stalin knew that Hitler wasn’t trustworthy on any level. Stalin knew that Hitler was a man of bad faith. Of course, Stalin too was a liar and a cheat who operated in bad faith. For this reason, Stalin thought he UNDERSTOOD Hitler as a kindred soul–a partner in crime–even if he didn’t trust him. Stalin thought he could read Hitler’s mind at every turn. So, Stalin’s problem wasn’t trust in Hitler but trust in his own understanding of Hitler. So, it was not that Stalin ever took Hitler’s promises or assurances at face value. Rather, Stalin thought he could see the real Hitler behind the false promises and assurances.
Prior to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact–aka Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact–, Stalin was wary of Hitler’s every move. But, once the pact was made and Germany was at war with the West, Stalin felt confident in his own assessment that Hitler wouldn’t dare start a war with the Soviet Union. Stalin knew Hitler was a liar, a cheat, a thief, and a punk–and always would be. It wasn’t Hitler’s words or assurances that eased Stalin’s anxieties but Hitler’s situation vis-a-vis the West–especially UK, with which Germany was at war and with the US, with which it could potentially be at war. Stalin was confident that Hitler, though a liar and a cheat, would NOT expand the war on yet another front. Stalin understood that Hitler relied on the East for raw materials. Though Stalin always knew Hitler, he terribly underestimated Hitler the reckless gambler.
In a way, it could be said Stalin understood what was good for Hitler better than Hitler did. If Hitler had acted like the Hitler-as-Stalin-understood-him, then it’s possible that WWII would have wound down with Soviet Union controlling the East, Germany dominating all of Western and Central Europe–and parts of Eastern Europe. There was no way UK alone could have defeated Germany. And without the German invasion of USSR–and overwhelming predictions of German victory–, it’s unlikely that Japan would have felt emboldened to attack the US. Without the Japanese attack and German declaration of war, United States wouldn’t have entered WWII as the majority of Americans were opposed to intervention.
Too bad for the Germans that Hitler didn’t act like the Hitler-as-Stalin-envisioned-him.
Trust had nothing to do with it. Both men were overcome with hubris. Hitler’s hubris was militaristic. He thought Germany would trick and defeat everyone. Stalin’s hubris was about having X-ray eyes into Hitler’s soul. Trust requires a degree of humility. One trusts others because one is less sure of oneself. Stalin didn’t trust Hitler. He trusted his own assessment of Hitler. Stalin trusted himself so much that he couldn’t tolerate others who informed him otherwise. When Winston Churchill wired him about Hitler’s plan to invade the USSR, Stalin saw it as a dirty British ploy to drive Germany and USSR to war. To Stalin, Churchill just like the kid in the story of “Never Cry Wolf” who kept crying wolf when there wasn’t any. Of course, there was one at the end, but the kid who’d cried wolf got eaten by the wolf. As far as Stalin was concerned, the wolf named Hitler should eat the fat lying imperialist Churchill. When the German military buildup near the border areas of the Soviet Union became undeniable, Stalin either thought Germans were setting up reserve forces or trying to provoke a war with the USSR. As long as Stalin didn’t fall for the bait and increase tensions likewise, Stalin thought there would no war between Germany and the USSR. Again, Stalin didn’t trust Hitler; he trusted his OWN assessment of Hitler. He thought he could read Hitler’s mind like some kind of Rasputin.
Anyway, it just goes to show you that trusting yourself could be the biggest self-deception.