Russian Influence on the Nazis

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 10 December 2021

Michael Kellogg’s 2005 book, The Russian Roots of Nazism, argues that Russian “White émigrés” exerted financial, political-military, and ideological influences that “contributed extensively to the making of German National Socialism”. As such, argues Kellogg, Nazism “did not develop merely as a peculiarly German phenomenon”, but within an “international radical right milieu”. The book is interesting but deeply flawed, overstating its case by failing to set the facts it gathers in a proper context and for similar reasons misunderstanding where some of the Russian elements under discussion fit within the politics of the revolutionary upheaval after 1917, both within the borders of Russia and in exile in Europe.

There is no doubt that the German occupation of Imperial Russian territories at the end of the First World War brought them into contact with tracts like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; it is refreshing that Kellogg steers clear of the mythology that blames this document on the Tsar’s political police, the Okhranka.[1] It is clear that as the Russian civil war[2] dragged on there was a trickle of refugees into Germany, some of whom had been involved with the Whites and some of whom held antisemitic views.[3] Nor is there any question that Russian émigrés—this distinction as we shall see is an important problem with the book—were prominent in the leadership of the Aufbau Vereinigung (Reconstruction Organisation) in Munich; that Aufbau received finance from one of the exiled Russian royals, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, though he was never involved in the civil war; and that by the first half of 1921 the Aufbau Russians had solidified an alliance with a section of the German Völkisch movement.[4] This nucleus of far-Right Russians and Germans provided some support to the March 1920 Rightist coup attempt against the Weimar Republic led by Wolfgang Kapp and was an important force behind the attempted coup in November 1923, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, by Adolf Hitler and Germany’s wartime military dictator, Erich Ludendorff.

Kellogg’s book is an excellent guide to this conspiratorial milieu, but suffers from a severe lack of contextualisation: every author, after all, is convinced that their subject is the key neglected element in the story. Related but distinct: Kellogg seems to get lost in the politics of the Russian civil war and the Russian exile communities in the 1920s and 1930s, such as that he ends up being simply inaccurate in a number of places.

The overarching major problem is that the key figures Kellogg identifies as “White émigrés” collaborating with the Nazis had no involvement with the White Movement. Kellogg somewhat tries to justify this by saying he uses it to refer to “right-wing exiles” from the fallen Russian Empire who opposed Bolshevism and that this term is “employed in Russian academic circles”. Kellogg says he does not use the term Russian émigrés because many of the figures he documents were ethnic German and Ukrainian subjects of Imperial Russia, and fair enough.[5] The problem sets in right here, however, because it creates a tension in the argument: while Kellogg’s title does refer to “Russian”, the book proceeds as if there is a connection between the development of Nazi ideology and an infusion of Russians into Germany who had fought in the White Movement, which is a specific thing of its own and is not a label that can be applied to every anti-Bolshevik Russian who left the country between 1917 and 1923. Sometimes, Kellogg looks to the more specific definition—setting the context specifically among participants in the Russian civil war and developments therein, such as the spread of The Protocols, which had been rare before 1917[6]—and then other times he zooms out to refer to Russian subjects who left the country without firing a shot in anger.

THE CAST OF CHARACTERS

One of the important Nazi figures Kellogg identifies as a “White émigré” in the Aufbau circle is Alfred Rosenberg, whom he refers to as “largely overlooked in the historical literature”.[7] As one of the twelve men sentenced to death at Nuremberg for his role as a leading Nazi ideologist, Rosenberg is hardly an obscure figure. But leave that aside. The description of Rosenberg as a “White émigré” in the sense of linked to the White Movement is a travesty.

Rosenberg, an ethnic German born in Russian Estonia in 1893, was a teacher and an outspoken antisemite during the German occupation of parts of the Baltics from late 1917, who withdrew to Germany with the army in November 1918 and joined the Nazi Party two months later, beginning work with Dietrich Eckart on Nazi publications. Rosenberg played no role whatever in the Russian civil war, living in an area that had been detached from Russia and was located more than 1,000 miles away from where the White Armies were operating in 1918.

Given that Rosenberg joined the Nazi Party before Hitler and his obvious influence on the propaganda and official doctrine of the Third Reich, this misrepresentation of him as connected to the White Movement has a distorting effect throughout the entire book, and on the entire thesis, of how influential the White émigrés were over the Nazis. It should also be noted that, in terms of Rosenberg’s influence on Hitler the man, in private the Fuhrer ridiculed Rosenberg’s paganism and denounced Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century, one of the canonical texts of Nazism, alongside Mein Kampf, as “stuff nobody can understand” written by “a narrow-minded Baltic German who thinks in horribly complicated terms”.[8]

The first Aufbau leader, Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, was an ethnic German from Latvia who emigrated to Germany with Rosenberg. Scheubner-Richter had to leave Russia in 1907 after he joined the wave of revolutionary violence against the Tsar’s government, starting in 1905.[9] Scheubner-Richter went to Germany, where he acquired citizenship, and fought on the German side of the First World War—against Russia. In the last year of the war, Scheubner-Richter was employed by the Germans in their Baltic Freikorps, designed to suppress Communism in the German-occupied Baltics after they had been separated from then-Bolshevik-ruled Russia under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918). Again, Scheubner-Richter had no interaction with the White Movement, which virulently opposed the things—German imperialism and separatism—Scheubner-Richter fought for.

The Rosenberg and Scheubner-Richter pattern holds true for Pavel Bermondt-Avalov, another Baltic German, a former Black Hundredist, who was a leader in the “West Russian Volunteer Army” set up by the German General Staff, which despite the similarity of its name had no relationship with—indeed, was opposed to the program of—General Anton Denikin’s “White” Volunteer Army. Bermondt was pulled out by the Germans at the end of the war and later joined Aufbau, going on to become of the most prominent Russians supporting Kapp’s putsch.

Scheubner-Richter’s replacement at the head of Aufbau,[10] General Vasily Biskupsky, can be said to have been involved in the Russian civil war, but he spent the period from late 1917 to late 1918 working for the German-created Ukrainian separatist units—again, a cause that could not be more inimical to the interests and ideology of the Whites.

Kellogg draws attention to a circle of Russians, many former members of the Russian Imperial Army, who were involved in extreme nationalist agitation before 1917 and later became involved with Aufbau. Fyodor Vinberg was a Black Hundred activist who rose through the military ranks to lead an infantry unit during the Great War.[11] Colonel Vinberg was a member of the Union of the Russian People, an extreme nationalist party, whose Archangel branch was led by Vladimir Purishkevich, a monarchist Duma member whose speech in November 1916 criticising Grigori Rasputin’s influence at Court catalysed the conspiracy to murder Rasputin the next month, in which Purishkevich was invited to participate. Another member of the Union was Pyotr Shabelsky-Bork, who became closely associated with Sergey Taboritsky, an ultra-nationalist extremist and a comrade from the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division (“Wild Division”). Vinberg worked with Purishkevich to form an underground monarchist organisation and produced anti-socialist propaganda during the Provisional Government period. After the Bolshevik coup, Shabelsky-Bork convinced himself that Britain and France were behind both upheavals in 1917 and the only way to restore Russia was by an alliance with Germany—a distinctly odd position, and one diametrically opposed to the Whites. Within weeks of the Bolshevik takeover, Purishkevich, Vinberg, and Shabelsky-Bork were in prison, the latter two in the same cell, where they became close friends.[12]

The final circle of Russians Kellogg itemises were involved in the short-lived, German-controlled Ukrainian state after Brest-Litovsk. There was Ivan Poltavets-Ostranitsa, the Cossack power behind the throne of Pavlo Skoropadskyi’s German puppet regime in Ukraine that took power after deposing the Rada. There is the above-mentioned General Biskupsky, scion of a Ukrainian noble family, who became an increasingly powerful figure in Skoropadskyi’s regime. Boris Pelikan and Konstantin Scheglovitov served in the Germans’ Ukrainian dependency and later helped found Aufbau; another member of the regime, Fyodor Evaldt, also joined Aufbau later in Munich.[13]

Shabelsky-Bork was released in May 1918 and made an unsuccessful effort to find and help liberate the Tsar in Ekaterinburg, before going to Ukraine, where he met his friend Vinberg, and they were joined by Taboritsky. All three, and Bermondt (by now in Ukraine), were briefly imprisoned by the pro-Entente Ukrainian nationalist leader, Simon Petlyura, later to become in effect a part of the Polish Army, who fought with both the Bolsheviks and the Whites, neither of whom had any time for Ukrainian independence. In December 1918, the Germans negotiated the release of the three men from Petlyura’s forces and took them back to Germany, along with the Ukrainian military proxies like Poltavets-Ostranitsa. It was mainly these evacuees from Ukraine that later formed the Russian contingent supporting the Kapp putsch: Biskupsky and Bermondt were the most enthusiastic, followed by Scheubner-Richter, who lost his Weimar government job for openly supporting Kapp, plus Shabelsky-Bork, Vinberg, and Taboritsky. None of the Russians had a prominent direct role in Kapp’s seditious activities, rather they provided propaganda support, trying—and failing—to mobilise popular participation.[14]

What should be obvious from this brief summary is that of these three groups of people—the Baltic German and Ukrainian separatists fighting under German command, and a clique of nationalist extremists who spent the entire civil war phase of their time in Russia in prison—none can seriously be described as “Whites” and most of them were fighting for causes that the Whites resisted in blood. Here, the ability to split the difference on what “White émigré” refers to becomes impossible. When Kellogg refers to a man like General Biskupsky,[15] let alone Colonel Vinberg, as “White officers”,[16]  and talks of “German-White cooperation in the Ukraine”,[17] this is just wrong. It is understandable if Kellogg has gotten confused about the war in Ukraine from 1917-20: it was extremely messy. But there is no sense in which Ukrainian nationalists or other separatists can be called “Whites”: it was a criticism that some Whites made of themselves afterwards that their hard stance on the Nationalities Question—refusing to countenance independence or even extensive autonomy for Ukrainians, Poles, Finns, and others—had doomed their cause because it blocked cooperation between anti-Bolshevik forces.

The same point in a different way: when Kellogg makes a reference to “German-backed White[s]”,[18] this is a flat-out contradiction in terms: the Whites were committed to the Entente cause, partly for reasons of realpolitik (an advertised willingness to uphold Russia’s part in the alliance kept a flow of supplies coming, however meagre), but more broadly because Germany really was seen as the enemy. The Kaiser’s Germany had, in the Whites’ conception (and they were not wrong), used the Bolsheviks to smash the Russian state and enable the imposition of a Carthaginian “peace” that divided the country up by manipulating the national minorities into creating a series of proxy polities.

ALL ABOUT CONTEXT

If the above creates doubts about the framing, an example of decontextualization to the point of misleading is Kellogg’s discussion of the attempted assassination of Pavel Milyukov during a visit to Berlin in March 1922. The would-be killers were Shabelsky-Bork and Taboritsky,[19] who failed because Milyukov’s friend, Vladimir Nabokov (father of the genius novelist of the same name), stepped in the way of the bullets. Kellogg’s emphasis is on the anger of these Aufbau members at Milyukov for his role in the “February Revolution” that had deposed the Tsar (undoubtedly real) and this incident being a turning point showing White émigrés bringing Right-wing terrorism to Germany (much more dubious).[20]

Once again, there is the problem that neither of the Aufbau men can be called “Whites” in any serious sense, but even if they were accepted as part of the Movement, what Kellogg does not mention is that Milyukov was far more central to the Whites: having been a powerful parliamentary deputy in the Tsardom, leader of the liberal Kadet party, which inter alia advocated for the full civic emancipation of Jews, Milyukov and his Kadets then became the leading ideological force behind the White Armies, which were often welcomed in Ukraine by Jews, some of whom joined the Whites.[21]

Surely, it is of interest that a senior, long-serving White politician, who advocated for Jewish equality, was nearly killed by two Russian Nazi collaborators with a background in Tsarist-era ultra-Rightist politics? Had Kellogg dwelled on this, it might have untangled some of the problems in nomenclature and narrative in the book, it might have forced a clarification on the definition of “White émigré”, whether the claim was of connective tissue between the White Movement and the Nazis or Russian pre-1917 nationalist extremists and the Nazis, and avoided his habit of using “monarchist” and “White” interchangeably, a myth-image of the Movement that is as persistent as it is mistaken. (Another area where Kellogg slips into myth is over the so-called Kornilov Affair, but that is beyond the scope of a review that has already gone on too long.)

Very much related, Kellogg presents a wildly distorted picture of White émigré politics, writing: “Aufbau failed to unite all White émigrés in Europe” behind their preferred candidate, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, and their preferred program of monarchical restoration.[22] This deserves some kind of award for understatement. Kirill, an ambitious man, undoubtedly gave generously to the Aufbau in the early 1920s and saw in the Nazis as a possible means to power in Russia, but his flirtation with them was much more ambiguous and brief than Kellogg suggests.[23] Even within the notoriously fractious field of Russian émigré politics in Europe, Germany was a sideshow.

The centre of gravity was in the Balkans and later Paris, and the leading figures in the most popular Whitist organisations were people like Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich (the actual favourite of the exiled monarchists) and Generals Pyotr Wrangel, Alexander Kutepov, and Yevgeny Miller, none of them relying on antisemitism even in an instrumental sense and none of them declared monarchists—the platform was “non-predetermination”: the White Army would get rid of the Bolsheviks, and Russians could choose their government after that.

Unmentioned, too, is that General Denikin, who largely withdrew from practical politics yet exercised enormous moral sway over the White émigrés, had, from 1932 onwards, very publicly, forcefully, and repeatedly denounced the idea of forming an alliance with the Nazis to demolish the Soviet regime, a view retained right through Operation BARBAROSSA.[24]

Denikin could see what some of his fellow Russians in their desperation to get home could not—and what Kellogg misses—namely that the anti-Bolshevik émigrés, even in the Aufbau days, were much more tools in the hands of the Nazis than they were “allies”.[25] Nazi racial theories on Slavic inferiority alone ensured this could not be a partnership of equals. Another central ideological impediment was the Russian émigrés’ commitment to Orthodoxy in identity and practice; the Nazis wanted to supplant Christianity. And Nazi strategic intentions to cleanse and colonise Russian territories regarded as indivisible by the Whites for “Lebensraum” made any short-term accommodation fundamentally incompatible over the long-term.

GETTING THINGS IN PROPORTION

If one reads the book, it becomes quite clear that the phenomenon of Russian émigrés in important positions within the Nazi Party, or at least its broader network, is drastically reduced after the November 1923 coup attempt, and for good reason. The Russian émigrés had walked down this path in the depths of despair, when the Bolshevik regime had proved unexpectedly durable, and it was dawning on people that they were losing touch with their country and might never get home.[26] Most of them realised what a disastrous detour the Nazi flirtation had been and gave it up.

How can this brief collaboration, which after all ended in embarrassing failure, be as central as Kellogg’s title and thesis suggests? Apart from mentions of Rosenberg’s role right down to the end, Kellogg seeks to square this circle by arguing that the Russians in Aufbau left a lasting ideological imprint on Hitler to the point of affecting his strategic policy during the Second World War. The problem again is context, presenting the evidence as if it is a larger piece of the puzzle than it really is—and not mentioning the other pieces that would make this apparent.

Kellogg lays great stress on the Aufbau and its Russian émigré leaders as directing Hitler to antisemitism and anti-Bolshevism. Doubtless, Hitler’s ideology was not fully formed in the 1919-23 period. That said, as Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw has documented, Hitler’s ideology was rather early in coming—it was “formed in full no later than 1925”—and remained constant thereafter: “It is seldom that a politician holds with such tenacity to a core body of ideas over such a lengthy period of time.” Most importantly, Hitler’s ideology has virulent antisemitism as a pillar from the very beginning: his first recorded political statement in September 1919, the month he joined the Nazi Party, refers to Jews as “a racial tuberculosis among nations”; blames them for the defeat of Germany in 1918 that it was his central objective to avenge;[27] and already by this stage has the Jews down as a cosmic force behind all evils, including Bolshevism.[28]

Hitler’s belief in “Jewish Bolshevism” as a mortal enemy to Germany and his project, which Kellogg returns to again and again as demonstrating “White émigré” influence, is thus in place eighteen months before—by Kellogg’s own account—any deep connections were forged between Russian exiles in Germany and the Nazis. In terms of the threat from the Soviet regime and its Communist legions around the world, this was hardly something that needed to be brought to Hitler’s attention by outsiders: six months before Hitler’s own coup attempt, the Nazi heartland of Bavaria had seen a savage Red rising that captured and ruled Munich and much of south-east Germany for several weeks.

Kellogg’s claim that Hitler’s decision in August 1941 to move down to Ukraine, rather than driving on to Moscow, can in any way be traced to the influence of “White émigrés”,[29] simply falls. The reasons for that decision relate to Hitler’s belief in depriving the Soviet regime of industry, agriculture, and other resources, to weaken the Red Army before the assault on Moscow; the Germans were occupying lands that paid for themselves and without U.S. Lend-Lease to cover the margins in late 1941, Stalin’s regime might well have gone under.[30] The wisdom of that decision is for another day; all that matters here is that Hitler’s thought-processes during BARBAROSSA are reasonably well-understood, and absorption of Great Russian nostrums two decades earlier are not among them.

Probably the largest flaw in Kellogg’s thesis—again one of contextualisation—is the failure to consider the impact of Soviet ideology and collaboration on the Nazis, and this is no small oversight since on balance the “Red” influence outweighs anything that can be called “White”. The model for Hitler’s one-party regime is Lenin’s, even if the Fuhrer never achieved as complete a totalitarian system as the Soviet one.[31] The radical politico-kinetic tactics of the Nazis before they attained power were drawn from the Bolsheviks, as was the overtly socialist thread in Nazism that was very powerful well into the 1930s and structured much of the Party’s thinking, especially on economics, to the very last. Communists in Germany moved into the Nazi Party in great numbers in the 1920s and 1930s, the “Beefsteak Nazi” phenomenon, bringing with them patterns of thought and action that outlived Ernst Rohm. Above all, the collaboration of Hitler with Stalin made the whole disaster possible, first in the more indirect form of Stalin ordering Germany’s Communists not to cooperate with other anti-Nazi forces to prevent Hitler coming into power, since in Soviet doctrine social democrats were the real fascists and a Hitlerian regime would be a door-opener for a Red Germany (“After Hitler, Us”),[32] and later in the more direct form of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had the Soviets join with the Nazis in starting the Second World War and literally fuel the initial phases of Nazi aggression.[33]

 

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[1] Michael Kellogg (2005), The Russian Roots of Nazism: White Émigrés and the Making of National Socialism, p. 275. For the best account of what is known about the origins of The Protocols, see: Charles Ruud and Sergei Stepanov (1999), Fontanka 16: The Tsar’s Secret Police, pp. 203-15.

[2] The Russian civil war begins in November 1917 with the Bolshevik coup against the Provisional Government, and is, indeed, a central policy of the Bolsheviks, who see it as the means to remake the country. The Whites are broken on the battlefield by November 1919 and their main forces driven out of Russia a year later, though isolated elements keep fighting until June 1923.

[3] There were among the Whites in Germany Christian antisemites who had always been so; there were also significant numbers who had turned to antisemitism in the bitterness of defeat to explain the collapse of their world.

[4] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 275.

[5] The Russian Roots of Nazism, pp. 3-4.

[6]  The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 57.

[7] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 2.

[8] Albert Speer (1969), Inside the Third Reich, pp. 149-50.

[9] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 42.

[10] Scheubner-Richter was killed during the November 1923 coup attempt and used in Nazi martyrdom propaganda in a way that would become much more famous with Horst Wessel after 1930.

[11] The Black Hundreds emerged after the 1905 “revolution” as a formation claiming to be more royalist than the King—to defend a Tsardom that would not do what was necessary against the Leftist revolutionaries. There were officials in government posts that sympathised with the Black Hundreds, and this blunted the effect of orders from high officials to suppress all violent and illegal activity, regardless of political complexion. For the Okhranka, at least institutionally, the Right-wing Fighting Squads like the Black Hundreds were regarded as a nuisance, threatening order and the stability of the Imperial Government, while the widespread perception that the Tsardom was softer on violent Right-wing radicals than their Left-wing counterparts did terrible political damage to the autocracy. See: Fontanka 16, pp. 102-21.

[12] The Russian Roots of Nazism, pp. 43-6.

[13] The Russian Roots of Nazism, pp. 48-62.

[14] The Russian Roots of Nazism, pp. 61-65, 106.

[15] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 59.

[16] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 62.

[17] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 47.

[18] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 59.

[19] Shabelsky-Bork and Taboritsky became very close, personally as well as in political conspiracy, with Vinberg remarking on them as “true friends” at one point. The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 63.

[20] The Russian Roots of Nazism, pp. 166-71.

[21] Oleg Budnitskii, 2001, ‘Jews, Pogroms, and the White Movement: A Historiographical Critique’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History.

[22] The Russian Roots of Nazism, p. 166.

[23] Kirill had abandoned the Aufbau and the Nazis even before he left Germany. Kirill died in France in October 1938. In July 1924, a British court declared Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich legally dead. Michael, the youngest brother of Nicholas II, had been, in the complicated events of March 1917, a candidate for Tsar at one point, but declined it. Michael was murdered by the Bolsheviks in June 1918. A month after the British decision, Kirill declared himself Emperor in exile, but it never really stuck: the exiled monarchists gravitated to the Tsar’s cousin, the dashing former Commander-in-Chief, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich. The main pro-Kirill émigré organisation was the Union of Young Russia, later renamed the Union of Mladorossi, set up in 1923. The group was bizarre from the beginning: ostensibly anti-Communist, it did not advocate the overthrow of the Soviet government, but instead recognised the Bolsheviks as preserving Russia and hoped for an evolution to a “Young” (Mlado) Russia. As with the Young Turks, there were clear fascist imprints on the Mladorossi—at least in its public presentation, though it deliberately distanced itself from similar movements in Europe. The entire thing might well have been a version of the TRUST operation, however: by the late 1920s, the group was all-but openly pro-Soviet, advocating a merger of monarchy and Bolshevism under the slogan “Tsar and the Soviets”, and in 1930, the Mladorossi founder, Alexander Kazembek, was discovered to be an OGPU agent and the group collapsed. Kazembek died in the Soviet Union in 1977.

[24] Dimitry Lehovich (1974), White Against Red: The Life of General Anton Denikin, pp. 450-52.

[25] Catherine Andreyev (1987), Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories, p. 4.

[26] Brent Mueggenberg (2020), The Cossack Struggle Against Communism, 1917-1945, p. 192.

[27] Ian Kershaw (2008), Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, pp. 90-91.

[28] Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, p. 52.

[29] The Russian Roots of Nazism, pp. 259-65.

[30] Sean McMeekin (2021), Stalin’s War, pp. 326-36.

[31] Richard Pipes (1990), The Russian Revolution, p. 399.

[32] Stephen Kotkin (2014), Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, pp. 550-51.

[33] Stalin’s War, p. 164.

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