I’ve been reading Ptolemy of Egypt by Walter M. Ellis. It is a very short – 70 page – biography of Ptolemy I Soter in seven chapters tracing such as we know (which, sadly, is not a great deal) of his life as a general and successor to Alexander the Great.
In the fifth chapter, Ellis turns to Perdiccas’ attempted invasion of Egypt in 320 BC, and he questions why it took place:
… Perdiccas, still stationed in Asia, faced a formidable coalition in the west. Antipater, Lysimachus, Craterus, and Antigonus were all aligned against him. Why Perdiccas would chose to take on such a coalition and to invade Egypt at the same time is difficult to understand…
(Ptolemy of Egypt, p. 36)
When I read this, I immediately thought of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, and I asked myself how Adolf Hitler could ever have thought that his invasion of the mighty (in terms of size and capability) USSR would succeed.
To find out, I put Ellis down and did a quick search on Google. The answer that I found was not at all the one I expected. In an interview with Laurence Rees, here, the eminent historian Ian Kershaw explains that prior to the Nazi invasion, many people – generals and intelligence agencies alike, in Germany and in the West – thought that the Soviet Union would fall, either in weeks or months. Why?
… from the contemporary point of view the Red Army had fought a war in Finland in the winter of 1939-40 and suffered grievous losses in this war against a puny military force like the Finnish Army. And then on top of that came the racial sentiments that these were somehow Untermenschen and they were inferiors and they were not capable of putting up very stiff resistance for long. And beyond that then there were notions that Stalin himself had wrecked his own army through the purges of the late 1930s and that many of these people were not really willing to fight for this regime for very long….
Except for the confidence that came from believing themselves to be racially superior to the Russians, the reasons given by Kershaw are negative. By contrast, Walter Ellis gives a positive answer to his question. He suggests that Perdiccas,
… apparently had the greatest confidence in his ally, Eumenes.
(Ptolemy of Egypt, p. 36)
I’ve no doubt Hitler thought highly of his army, too, and so it is interesting to find this little point of connection between the two men and the two eras. Although Perdiccas and Adolf Hitler don’t have anything else in common, this connection – as light as it is – brings both the moments in time that Kershaw and Ellis are talking about to life for me that little bit more.
One final point. Ian Kershaw reminds us how our perception of reality can change over time. A few days ago, I watched The English Patient with Anthony Minghella’s commentary. As the film approaches its climax, Minghella mentions that the producer, Saul Zaentz, once told him that when he – Zaentz – and his fellow sailors heard the news of the destruction of Hiroshima they did not interpret it ‘as a cataclysmic event in history’ but simply as ‘a ticket home’. Today, that seems a very crass comment to make, but Zaentz cannot be indicted of being so: the event had a different signification for him and the other men. I would have done well to remember this before wondering how Hitler thought he could defeat the Red Army. I shall certainly try and remember it the next time I come across an event in antiquity that seems to have no logical explanation for occurring!