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While reading Winston's War (Max Hastings), I have been repeatedly impressed by the image of Hitler fighting against the Soviet Union, while the latter was supplied by the Allies. A collectivist society, with a totalitarian government, fighting on their own ground to defend against invaders, armed with the industrial might of the United States and Britain, must have been daunting. I don't know why Hitler wouldn't have sued for peace at some point (other than that Hitler was crazy—I'm sure WWII historians have to be careful about how often they use that explanation).

As I was trying to understand the situation, I ran into the claim that Stalin had offered peace to Hitler several times, the latest being in 1943, after the Battle of Stalingrad. (I first read it on this blog post, with this NY Times article describing a 1971 book cited as evidence). After Stalingrad, it would seem irrational for Stalin to offer peace, and irrational for Hitler to reject it.

On the other hand, Wikipedia says, “While some scholars claim that evidence suggests that Stalin considered, and even attempted, negotiating peace with Germany in 1941 and 1942, others find this evidence unconvincing and even fabricated” (with a citation to a single 2006 book, Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953 by Geoffrey Roberts, which presumably contains the claim about what “some scholars” and “other scholars” believe).

Could someone give an idea of the disputes involved here? What are the competing sources of evidence?

(I'm trying to keep this focused by asking about Stalin offering peace after Stalingrad, which is the most surprising claim to me. But if anyone wants to comment more generally about peace overtures made by either the Russians or the Germans after Barbarossa, that would be interesting as well.)

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    After Stalingrad, it would seem irrational for Stalin to offer peace - Why ? Prevents the victor from further loss; perfect strategic use of one's temporary advantage.
    – Lucian
    Dec 31, 2021 at 13:15
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    @adam.baker: At any rate, putting present certainties before future dreams is a sign of levelheadedness, not irrationality.
    – Lucian
    Dec 31, 2021 at 14:23
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    See also Why were the Germans and Russians so fixated on an unlikely "separate peace" in 1945? where several answers address your question in passing.
    – sds
    Dec 31, 2021 at 17:13
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    @Lucian the Germans were still in Soviet Territory.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 1 at 18:08
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    It's plausible that Stalin was just trying to string the Germans along, trying to get an idea of how weak they were, or if they were talking to the Western Allies behind his back.
    – Ne Mo
    Jan 3 at 0:05

3 Answers 3

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The NYT article is entirely based on the book

"History of the Second World War" by B.H. Liddell Hart, 1971.

I checked the book. Here is the complete citation:

Nevertheless, the extent to which the Germans still held firm in face of such odds was evidence — even before two years’ prolongation of the war confirmed it — that the Russian forces were still a long way from overtaking the German forces’ technical superiority. A consciousness of that professional advantage coloured the outlook of both sides in the spring of 1943. It encouraged Hitler, and even his military advisers, in the hope that the scales might still be turned in Germany’s favour if the mistakes of the past were avoided. It left a doubt underlying the confidence which the Russian leaders had gained from their winter successes, for they could not forget that the hopes raised by their successes in the previous winter had been dispelled in the summer following. With another summer at hand, they could not feel sure that the issue was certain.

That underlying uncertainty may have accounted for a significant interlude of diplomacy before the battle was joined. In June, Molotov met Ribbentrop at Kirovograd, which was then within the German lines, for a discussion about the possibilities of ending the war. According to German officers who attended as technical advisers, Ribbentrop proposed as a condition of peace that Russia’s future frontier should run along the Dnieper, while Molotov would not consider anything less than the restoration of her original frontier; the discussion became hung up on the difficulty of bridging such a gap, and was broken off after a report that it had leaked out to the Western Powers. The issue was then referred back to the judgement of battle.

That's it: No names of the officers who provided this information (why would they have wanted to keep their names secret?), not even the exact date, making it impossible to verify validity of the claim.

I would treat these claims with the late Christopher Hitchens' maxim:

"What is asserted without an evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."

Edit 1. Here is why one should not believe the account as written in the book by Hart:

Peace negotiations are not conducted by warring parties during a war on the territory occupied by one of the parties, unless the other party is in a state of collapse or imminent collapse (think of the November 1918 Armistice negotiations as an example of such). What would have Stalin had to loose by sending Molotov to German-occupied territory in 1943? Well, the peace overtures from Germany could have been just a ruse (one of the many used by Hitler repeatedly in the past). Molotov was privy to all kind of state secrets that he would have revealed to Germans under extreme interrogation if they decided to simply hold him captive. And afterwards, Germans could have paraded broken Molotov either as an example of surrender by a top Soviet official or by telling the US/GB allies that Soviets are conducting separate peace negotiations and, thus, breaking the Soviet-US/GB alliance. Given the fact that in June of 1943 the military tide was turning against Nazi Germany and USSR was not at all collapsing but gaining an upper hand on the battle field, I find it impossible to believe the story.

Why did Hart chose to include this story in his book without any critical analysis? Did he simply make it up to attract more attention to his book or did he fall for a tall tale told by one of his German interviewees? We will never know, as he died when the book was in-press. Whatever the answer, I do not consider this story in Hart's book as a reliable evidence of anything.

Edit 2. There are somewhat more believable stories about indirect contacts between mid-ranking Soviet/German officials in 1943 (and 1944) taking place in Sweden (a neutral ground, so not easily dismissible). Below are some details.

The following is based on the article

H. W. Koch, "The Spectre of a Separate Peace in the East: Russo-German 'Peace Feelers', 1942-44", Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 10, No. 3 (Jul., 1975), pp. 531-549.

(The article is freely available through JSTOR. I learned about this article from @justCal, see his comment below.)

The author pretty much dismisses Hart's account, primarily on the basis of the fact that its primary source are unidentified German officers. But then Koch discusses indirect contacts between Dr. Peter Kleist, a mid-ranking official in German Foreign Ministry during WW2 and `the head of the Central European Department of the Russian Commissariat for Foreign Affairs Alexandrov.' Alexandrov is a very common Russian last name. My best guess is that he refers to Alexander Mihailovich Alexandrov, a senior Soviet diplomat at the time. According to Kleist, the indirect contacts between the two (with Kleist acting in private capacity), through an intermediary, took place on several occasions: December 14, 1942, June 18, 1943, September 4, 1943 and at some unidentified date in 1944.

However:

  1. Kleist actually never met in person with any of the Soviet officials, he was only meeting with "a middleman, named Edgar Clauss, ostensibly a business man of uncertain nationality but apparently with excellent connections with the foreign service of the NKVD."

  2. According to the above Wikipedia link discussing Alexandrov's biography, in 1942-1944 Alexandrov was stationed in the Soviet Embassy in Australia! Could it be that Kleist was referring to a different Alexandrov? I find it unlikely since the same bio states that in 1939-1940 Alexander Mihailovich Alexandrov was indeed the head of the Central European Department of the Russian Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

At this point, it's clear to me that somebody is lying about the entire affair (Kleist or Clauss, or Clauss' Soviet contacts). Could it be that NKVD or Soviet Foreign Ministry (or both) were making indirect separate peace inquiries through Kleist in 1942-1944? Maybe. But the evidence is so indirect that I do not feel like investigating any further.


Lastly: At the end of WW2, the Western Allies captured the archives of the German Foreign Ministry (which were evacuated from Berlin). Many (if not all) of these materials were made public (in 1948), including information about secret negotiations between USSR and Nazi Germany in 1939-1940. One can find some of these freely available here at the online Law Library of Yale University. Another reference is the book:

"Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939 - 1941: Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office." University Press of the Pacific, 2003.

Caveat: The materials I found are only limited to the period prior June 1941.

I find it very likely that if anything solid about Nazi-Soviet contacts during the period of 1942-1944 were found in these archives, these documents would have been made widely available at the height of the Cold War and with great fanfare, and these would have been quoted by a variety of WW2 historians. I found no evidence of anything like that.

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  • @justCal: Please, consider adding an answer based on that article. What appears there is more believable than Hart's account and, IMHO, contradicts it. Dec 31, 2021 at 20:49
  • “Molotov met Ribbentrop of Kirovograd, which was then within the German lines” — Does that imply which party initiated the discussion/proposal, or is it left ambiguous?
    – adam.baker
    Jan 1 at 9:30
  • Book is most likely rubbish, but supposedly there were some talks between two sides in spring of 1943.
    – rs.29
    Jan 1 at 10:38
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    @rs.29: Yes, this is discussed for instance in the link given by justCal. I will add some details on this later on. Jan 1 at 15:12
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    Materials from the German Foreign Office from May to September 1943 are available online here: digi20.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/fs1/object/display/…
    – Jan
    Jan 3 at 19:58
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Deceptive spring of 1943

The general situation on the Eastern front in late February, early March of 1943 was this: the German summer offensive Fall Blau have failed, and the Germans did not capture desperately needed oil. The Soviets have counter-attacked with Operation Uranus and later with Operation Little Saturn, destroying the German Sixth Army in the process and parts of the Fourth Panzer Army, plus a large part of the Romanian, Hungarian and Italian troops on Soviet soil. Italians and Hungarians withdrew their remaining forces from the USSR, and the Romanians were confined to Crimea and Kuban bridgehead.

Practically, only the remaining Axis power (besides the Germans) with a significant army in USSR was Finland, in the far north. However, the Soviets have suffered significant casualties both in 1941 and 1942, especially around Rzhev. The Germans counterattacked in the Third Battle of Kharkov, and managed to retain parts of the territory captured during the summer (the Crimea as the most significant gain). Now, the usual spring rasputitsa dictated a pause in major operations.

German reasons for peace talks: For the Germans, it became clear that the USSR could not be knocked out in one blow (Operation Barbarossa) or destroyed economically (Fall Blau). Furthermore, with their Axis allies withdrawing from the fight, long-range operations with stretched frontlines were out of the question due to a lack of manpower to man those long lines.

At best, offensive operations with limited goals like Zitadelle could be launched to destroy Soviet forces, not to capture vast territory. The perspective of war in the East was long war of attrition, with German perceived superiority in tactics and technology being balanced by Soviet numerical superiority and ruthlessness. On top of that, US forces have landed in North Africa, and their bombers started raiding German occupied Europe, so from that side increased pressure could be expected in the coming months.

Soviet reasons for peace talks: Soviets had their own reasons to possible conclude a separate peace with Germany. First, large parts of USSR remained occupied, therefore limiting both conscription potential of the Red Army and the potential of the Soviet war economy. Especially dire was the food situation, as most fertile lands remained in German hands (Ukraine).

Second, the Red Army was still not German's equal in tactics and operational art, which the recent defeat at Kharkov clearly showed. It would take months and years to finally defeat Germany, and victory will be paid in blood of millions. Third, Soviets (especially Stalin) doubted good intentions of Western Allies. British and Americans were reluctant to open a significant second front - during the Casablanca Conference they declared willingness to fight until German unconditional surrender, but besides that, there were little concrete measures taken, except continuing the fight in North Africa and even that appeared to be stalling (defeat at Kasserine Pass).

For the Soviets, and especially Stalin, all that seemed like pinprick in the war effort, and from their spies in British ranks they knew that Churchill preferred to have the Germans and Soviets at each other throats in order to block a communist expansion into Europe. Finally, in the period mentioned, even convoys with Western Lend-Lease for the USSR were periodically suspended (August 1st - August 31st, 1942 and March 1st - July 31st, 1943), giving another reason for suspicion.

Japanese angle: There was another party greatly interested in peace between Germany and USSR, and this was Japan. Japanese interest in all of this is simple to understand - Japan was not in the war against USSR, but it was in the war with the US and UK. By establishing peace between Germany and USSR, the Germans could now devote more resources to fight against the Western Allies, thus helping the Japanese situation which was deteriorating after the loss at Midway in 1942, and the costly Guadalcanal campaign. According to Russian documents, Japan started their mediating attempts in early 1943, but only in September of 1943 did the Japanese ambassador formally offer their service to Molotov, which was rejected by the Soviets - by September, the Soviet offensives were already rolling the German army towards the Dnieper.

Italian angle: The Italians also had their own reasons for wanting a separate peace between Germany and USSR. The Italians had no particular interest in the East (their primary concern was the Mediterranean and North Africa). With the loss at El Alamein and Torch landings, the Italians saw no reason to continue fighting in the East, especially since their own forces suffered catastrophic losses. According to some Russian sources, Mussolini himself pressured the Germans to conclude a separate peace with Soviets. Again, the name of Peter Kleist is mentioned, along with contacts with Soviet diplomats in neutral Sweden.

Talks in Sweden: What many sources consider as possible (unlike story of Molotov and Ribbentrop meeting somewhere in occupied USSR) are contacts between the Soviet ambassador in Stockholm, Alexandra Kollontai and her peer on the German side Hans Thomsen in March and April of 1943. This would be somewhat usual practice; envoys from two warring sides meet in neutral country for discrete talks.

They would present initial positions of their respective leadership and throw around some informal proposals. Of course, if there is some progress, things could escalate to the level of foreign affair ministers. From what we know now, there was no such success in these talks, and they were broken in May. Some sources mention renewed Soviet interest in June, just before Zitadelle, but that was it.

Possible reasons for failure: Since the talks themselves are not confirmed, possible reasons for the failure remain speculative. From the Soviet side, supposedly Stalin only toyed with the idea in order to get more concessions from the Western Allies. He even allowed their intelligence services to learn about talks in order to "frighten" Churchill and Roosevelt. On the German side, again supposedly, Hitler did not want to negotiate without "big win", i.e., from the position of weakness after Stalingrad. That big win was supposed to be Zitadelle, but since that did not happen, negotiations failed.

In any case, the window of opportunity was small (a few muddy spring months) and when this did not happen, Soviets had fewer and fewer reasons to negotiate as their armies were now decisively advancing across the Eastern front. Since from August 1943 the initiative in the war passed firmly to the Soviet side, and the Allied help was getting more substantial, the only remaining option was the complete defeat of the Third Reich.

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    For some reason I am reminded of Schleicher's quip about being Chancellor for fifty-seven days, and on each of those days being betrayed fifty-seven times.
    – EvilSnack
    Jan 2 at 2:41
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About peace offers in general

The thing about peace offers is simple, and do not rely on Hitler's craziness, but on the principles of Hitler and the Nazi movement:

According to them (it is explained in Mein Kampf for example), the ultimate goal was not to conquer the whole world, or the United Kingdom nor the USA. It was to submit and/or destroy "inferior" people in Eastern Europe and the large Jewish population that was living there.

With this vision, the main enemy in early 1942 when Germany suffered its first big defeats (except for Battle of Britain in 1940) at Moscow and in Libya, Hitler did not want to sue peace with USSR: he searched for the contrary: peace with the Americans and the British so that Germany could focus all its forces against USSR.

About Soviet peace offers:

From the book I read, from the German Roman Töppel, there was no significant peace offer from Stalin to Hitler. The explanation, in this thesis, for eventual talks between Soviet and German diplomacies is that Stalin wanted to either:

  • Check that Hitler had no talks with the Allies already for a peace against him, as Hitler wanted
  • Put pressure on Western Allies so that they would continue to give supplies to USSR

General Note:

It is very important (I cannot emphasize enough) to consider the atmosphere of this period and not only one or two verbal or written sentences: the general atmosphere was a death fight between two opposed, extreme ideologies (communism and fascism) added with the racial opposition the Nazis put in the fight. It is important to keep that in mind because this was the reality of what, at least Hitler thought, at most all the leaders thought, and anyway this what people and soldiers were told about and how they were incited to fight. So any sort of peace tractions should only be considered in this general situation: if someone asked for peace, this is because all hope was lost.

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    Yes. My general reading over many years leads me to think that Hitler was far more interested in a separate peace with the western Allies than with the USSR. Neither Germans nor Russians even recognised such niceties as the Geneva convention. Both sides treated one another's prisoners with brutality. Besides, what was in it for Stalin to make peace with Hitler. The power of the western alliance would eventually overcome Germany, and the USSR stood to gain more territory and influence at the end if they stayed with it.
    – WS2
    Jan 1 at 0:28
  • @WS2 About the Geneva Convention , Germany signed it but not USSR (mainly because of diplomatic boycott) and because USSR did not sign it nazi Germany considered it was not tied to apply the convention on Russian prisonners Jan 1 at 11:23
  • ....being the unprincipled thugs that they were!
    – WS2
    Jan 1 at 19:27
  • @WS2 I have read that's how nazi germay justified it, but I 'm not sure how this was juridically valid. And of course morally ;;; Jan 1 at 20:02
  • Yup, and Lebensraum at the expense of Slavic nations. No great motivation for either party to back off. Jan 2 at 8:45

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