XIII. Trotsky’s grisly murder wasn’t the only commotion of the time for Communist fellow travelers. A few weeks before, the French had got what they had been expecting, and a lightning German offensive had tore through their much-hyped defenses, taking Paris and forcing a speedy withdrawal of the British army on the continent, as well as the creation of a pro-Fascist French government headed by the old World War I hero Petain. Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Norway had been overrun even faster; and the Nazis were the masters of much of continental Europe, with real or potential allies controlling the remaining independent countries.
The strategic situation had turned rather simple: there was a large Nazi-Fascist empire in the middle, with the U.K. isolated in its home islands and the Soviet Union on the other side, uncertain of its position. The biggest uncertainty of all consumed Stalin himself: Hitler was the most formidable enemy the Soviet Union had found in its history, and was apparently capable and willing of destroying the communist state; still, Hitler’s alternative to the Soviet Union was just as unappealing – for once, Stalin felt torn, even inclined to defend the country he led.
On the other hand, he was also aware of other possibilities. The Nazis were conspicuously unable to defeat the U.K., and they had been drawn into an uncertain campaign in Northern Africa, in defense of their troubled Italian allies. They looked close to overstretch themselves, and the United States were inching closer to get involved in the conflict, of course in support of their British brethren. The fresh Nazi empire could easily die of success, just like so many other empires before, if only it were pushed slightly in the right direction: in the direction of boundless expansion in exchange for little or no gain: that is, towards an invasion of the Soviet Union.
The plan was tricky and risky, but it could work – by invading the Soviet Union, Hitler could achieve a rare feat, the destruction of two large totalitarian empires in one single strike. By facing each other, Germany could be exhausted and weakened, left ready to be knocked off by a U.S. intervention; and the effort to stop the Nazis would also drain the Soviet Union of all energy, perhaps taking the country close to collapse.
As Hitler moved into Yugoslavia and Greece, Stalin quickly started to work towards his goal: he ordered all the best Soviet divisions to be redeployed next to the western borders with German-occupied Poland and Romania, in an offensive position just threatening enough to force Hitler to act. At the same time, Stalin instructed Soviet diplomats in Berlin to take an aggressive stance and propose the Germans a new pact they couldn’t but refuse: in exchange for continued neutrality in the conflict against Britain, Germany would force Romania to give up a good slice of its remaining territory to the Soviets, and would allow the Soviet Union to invade Turkey and secure control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; Germany would have to concede every major goal of the Czarist empire, or face the consequences.
Unsurprisingly, Hitler let the talks drag on as he built his forces on the Polish border. Then, on June 22, 1941, the German army attacked the Soviet Union.