Russian invasion of Ukraine and the disparity between the West’s democratic mindset against autocratic regime have led to a surge in interesting discussion related to the conflicts surrounding it. In the book “The Spectre of War”, Jonathan Haslam tells a story of how the fear of communism/bolshevism translate to various mishap in British foreign policy prior to World War II. The book presents a coherent timeline of events from the beginning of Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the socialist/left turn of France, up to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. An interesting read for those interested in world history and ideological backdrop that shape the turns of event.
The stark lesson drummed into the immediate postwar generation—certainly in Britain, where the consequences of naïveté were the most severe, but also in France, which suffered so much from the failure of Britain to lead in the right direction, and in the United States, which at first stood aside but eventually had to carry the burden—was that appeasing dictators only whets their appetite.
ideological assumptions affected the way statesmen and their advisers saw the world about them. It mattered that Neville Chamberlain hated war and believed that wasteful arms races led to conflict. He assumed that others shared his views.”6
Indeed, politicians and diplomats came to fear more the insidious power of ideas than the measurable components of military capabilities. So, on the one hand, a country with demonstrably weak offensive military capabilities—Soviet Russia—could seem all-threatening because of the power of its ideology. Yet a state armed to the teeth and bellicose in rhetoric—Nazi Germany—could appear acceptable as an idiosyncratic member of the club because it was assumed to share core beliefs. Its ideology was seen by those ruling a country like Britain as none too pleasant, perhaps, but complementary rather than menacing. So instead of worrying about fascism, the British élite worried more about what would likely as not replace it—Communism—were fascism to be destabilised and overthrown.
When from 1937 to 1939 the threat of yet another war appeared on the horizon, the lingering menace of revolution from Bolshevism explained in large part why Britain rejected co-operation with the Soviet Union to deter German aggression. The reasoning was simple, but for the most part concealed in the form of an unwritten assumption, certainly never fully articulated to the population at large: far rather buy off Hitler with timely territorial concessions, even at the cost of dismembering dependent states in Central and Eastern Europe, than risk ushering Communist power into the heart of the continent. Insufficiently understood is the undoubted fact that throughout the 1930s leading conservative politicians within the democracies not only welcomed fascism into power but thereafter also feared that, were fascism overthrown in Italy or Germany—and fascism was seen as only an interim solution—Communism would be almost certain to take its place. The events immediately following the Second World War certainly suggest that such fears were not entirely misplaced.
War had impoverished the leading trading states of Europe, a situation made all the worse as newly emergent, not least xenophobic and protectionist nation states—victors and vanquished alike—emerged from the wreck of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. These countries through no fault of their own found themselves faced with an insoluble dilemma. They were from the outset torn from within between the observation of two mutually exclusive principles: the search for ethnically homogeneous state boundaries on the one hand, and strategically defensible frontiers on the other. When confronted by the need to choose between the two at any given moment, they invariably decided upon whatever offered the greater amount of territory—a recipe for international conflict, and, of course, a godsend to a master tactician like Hitler, seeking to exacerbate relations between those whose lands he coveted.
Mussolini summed up the dilemma of the democracies and their prevailing political beliefs: “Liberalism can be applied to a country where all the parties act within the boundaries of the state, but from the moment one party depends upon or permits itself to be inspired from abroad, liberalism becomes impracticable.”
Having seized power on 7 November 1917, the Bolsheviks were therefore not surprised to face growing foreign complications. The world war they interrupted had its own dynamic that threatened to overwhelm the revolution. Although they ceased fire unilaterally against the kaiser’s Germany, its battle-hardened armies took no notice of Lenin’s coup d’état in Petrograd and ploughed on into Russia. They then subjected it to painful territorial amputation and the weight of financial indemnities at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. As if to confirm the existence of powerful forces in opposition to the revolution, British troops landed in Murmansk, an ice-free port on the Barents Sea, in late July. Ostensibly these forces had been sent to push back the Germans. But their underlying purpose soon became apparent. Instead of marching west to German positions in Finland, they marched south to attack the soldiers of the revolution in Petrograd. This was the first scene in the unfolding allied war of intervention, an undeclared war that for eighteen months was rationalised away by the allies with increasingly implausible, contradictory justifications.
And whereas socialists and Communists alike became identified with strikes, the fascists identified themselves with new opportunities for employment, and in the most trying economic conditions. Soon desertion from socialist ranks was matched by mass recruitment by the fascists.
“How did Mussolini begin in Italy?” the dominant Comintern secretary Osip Pyatnitsky asked a few years later. “He did not begin by shooting or introducing military courts or adopting a stance favourable to capital. He came out with a demagogic program of improving the position of workers, the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry. This was his method by which he won over the masses. And when he won them over, when he became strong, then he showed his real face. But he had less strength than the national fascists when he came to power. He had no army; he had only small cadres of fascist militia.”
Hitler’s anti-Semitism, like that of the long-standing and popular mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, who set a telling example on the eve of World War I, was an artifice that appears to have been designed to appeal to the darkest prejudices of the masses in Central Europe. What was instinctive was the acute perception—which Rudolf Hess called Hitler’s “rare sensitivity for the public mood”83—that this would win as a tactic for mass mobilisation. Almost entirely self-educated politically and grammatically illiterate, Hitler soaked up ideas and impressions from the atmosphere around him—notably his conviction that the state was an organic entity and Bolshevism a virulent bacillus that, unimpeded, represented a mortal threat to it. Much of this was reinforced by extensive conversation with those who early on exerted great influence upon him, most notably Dietrich Eckart, friend and mentor. Strongly anti-Semitic, Eckart was also well-read. From him Hitler became acquainted with the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The car magnate Henry Ford provided further, contemporary reinforcement. Ford’s diatribe against the Jews was issued in German in 1922 as Der Internationale Jude: Ein Weltproblem, and Ford’s portrait decorated the wall of Hitler’s private study.84 By the beginning of June 1924, the outlines for Hitler’s book were already traced, under the draft title “4½ Years Struggling against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice”. And very close to the top of his agenda sat the evil twins, “The Jewish People and Marxism”, with “The Bolshevisation of Europe” not much further down.85 The distinguished French journalist Henri Rollin surely had it right when he described how Hitler and his lieutenants came to their fanaticism: “By the classic phenomenon of auto-suggestion, their conception of the world became an idée fixe, a kind of mystical faith so deeply anchored in their minds that nothing, it would seem, could convince them that they were wrong.”
The Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén then invented the now familiar term Geopolitik—geopolitics as distinct from the vague term “political geography”. He defined Geopolitik as “the study of the state as a geographical organism”. He believed that the state was not the product of a contract between rulers and ruled, but something intrinsically organic, self-generating. It could not move, because territory was the “body” of the state, by its nature perishable. “It has a life … It is, like a private individual, placed in a struggle for existence which absorbs a greater part of its power and creates an incessant, stronger or weaker, friction with its surroundings.”
The Foreign Office élite, never lacking self-confidence, had fervent Gladstonian confidence in the political benefits of free trade—that the Communist system would be broken down “not by boycott but by gradually increasing intercourse”.24 That is to say, by expanding trade with Soviet Russia the British expected not only to make a great deal of money but in so doing also to subvert the Communist system. The trouble was that Lenin had read Keynes and sustained a state monopoly of foreign trade precisely to put a stop to the workings of the liberal teleology; and Stalin ended all such dreams by introducing the five-year plan in 1929.
Europe to-day is divided into three main elements, namely, the victors, the vanquished and Russia. The Russian problem, that incessant, though shapeless menace, can be stated only as a problem; it is impossible as yet to forecast what effect the development of Russia will have on the future stability of Europe. It is true, on the one hand, that the feeling of uncertainty which is sapping the health of Western Europe is caused to no small extent by the disappearance of Russia as a Power accountable in the European concert. On the other hand, the Russian problem is for the moment Asiatic rather than European; to-morrow Russia may again figure decisively in the balance of continental power; but to-day she hangs as a storm-cloud upon the Eastern horizon of Europe—impending, imponderable, but, for the present, detached. Russia is not, therefore in any sense a factor of stability; she is indeed the most menacing of all our uncertainties; and it must thus be in spite of Russia, perhaps even because of Russia, that a policy of security must be framed.
The Bolshevik threat to their empire had traumatised those who owned and ruled Britain. The long-term consequences became evident only a decade hence. One immediate and symptomatic side effect was a noticeable indulgence towards fascism, because of its decisive suppression of Communists.
The postwar system of collective security centred on the League of Nations could work only if the great powers on its council behaved responsibly in pursuit of their own national interests and in indifferently sanctioning those states that misbehaved. Thus the entire structure in Geneva hinged upon the decisions of a few who would act without bias and in everyone’s long-term interest, regardless of conditions prevailing at home and abroad. In the conduct of international relations, this was too much to ask. And what the impact of the Great Depression clearly demonstrated from 1929 was that if the world economy and the international trading system broke down, so did the open-ended commitment to maintaining the international political order.
Meanwhile in the Soviet Union the focal point of Stalin’s attention was the forced collectivisation of agriculture. Only massive exports of grain could release the hard currency necessary to pay for capital goods that would give the Soviet Union the level of industrialisation appropriate to a major power. And the collapse of commodity markets in the spring of 1929 meant that ever greater quantities had to be exported in a falling market to bring in the foreign exchange Stalin sought. He had originally thought to collectivise just 20% of farms over five years. Now he persuaded the party’s Central Committee plenum in November 1929 of the need to take over all the most important regions: the Lower Volga, the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus. Resolutions were brought forward by the Politburo on 5 and 30 January 1930 for “liquidating kulaks [rich peasants] as a class”. Implementation was put in the hands of OGPU under Yagoda, which soon meant the physical liquidation of those peasants resisting the process.
On 4 April 1932 Stalin had told Thälmann’s nemesis, Neumann, that he was preoccupied with military matters and that left no time for Comintern.54 At this stage of the Depression other governments were increasingly sensitive to Comintern activity because of its international reach, even though the organisation was at its most sectarian and was therefore losing rather than gaining members. In May the Swiss minister in Rome had an audience with Mussolini, who in a bid to dominate the table played the anti-Communist card: “He told me that the four European great powers, France, Germany, England, and Italy, have to restore order in Europe; otherwise we are heading for one of the most serious social crises, the bolshevisation of Europe. Bolshevik propaganda is pervasive everywhere in all guises. Our bourgeois class is itself completely penetrated. Throughout Europe, not excluding Italy, the working class is convinced that the Bolshevik régime has succeeded.”
Dismissed by most foreign politicians and diplomats as a ranting fool and an unstable demagogue, inside eighteen months Hitler crushed the organised labour movement, extinguished the opposition of every other political party, wiped out his immediate rivals and embarked upon wholesale rearmament accompanied by the abrupt removal of Germany from the League of Nations.
Reacting to renewed pressure on Britain from France for a mutual assistance pact, in 1930 Lloyd George had complained to the Americans that “France had always been militaristic and grasping” and stated that Britain “would never assent to adding anything to her Continental committments [sic]”.20 Guaranteed to capture and mirror fleeting opinion, in September 1933 he coldly and fatalistically laid out an argument that was to become all too familiar throughout Europe, particularly from the mouths of British politicians and officials—that Hitler was the only alternative to a Communist revolution:
France and Britain were evidently drifting even further apart. More was to come. After the Franco–Soviet pact was signed, on 18 June 1935 the British served notice of their own priorities by brazenly breaching part five of the Versailles Treaty in legitimising German rearmament at sea through the Anglo–German Naval Agreement, which allowed Berlin to build up naval forces to 35% of the British level. The US ambassador to London, Robert Bingham, reported “bitter resentment in France”.118 The French had good reason to be horrified. The common front of sustaining the Versailles settlement had been sundered. In acting this way Britain was signalling that it would not allow France to veto the latent option of a rapprochement with Germany. Unilateralism in Paris could just as easily be matched by unilateralism in London.
British Government was upheld by a very large Conservative majority, who were never prepared, and now probably less than ever, to make much sacrifice for red eyes. The Russian aspect of Spain could not fail to make a difference in these sections of English feeling.” Vansittart warned that should France move “further to the Left” he “was by no means sure of the effect of such a development on my own countrymen”.
After the war Sir Alexander Cadogan came to regret that Chamberlain, a man he had once so much admired, shared Wilson’s simplistic belief that the conduct of foreign policy resembled business negotiations.9 And looking back in 1940 Anthony Eden told Ambassador Maisky, “You know, the greatest difficulty for me at this time was to convince my friends that Hitler and Mussolini were not quite similar in psychology, in motive and methods, in their entire cast of mind anything like English ‘business men or country gentlemen’. This they could never get themselves to believe. They thought that I was ‘biased’ against the ‘dictators’ and that I didn’t wish to understand them … Some of our statesmen even after me attempted to communicate with ‘dictators’ as with ‘business men’. The results are obvious.”
Interviewed in 1962, Wilson clarified the far-reaching aims that he and Chamberlain had had with respect no less to Nazi Germany than to fascist Italy: “Our policy was never designed just to postpone war, or enable us to enter war more united. The aim of our appeasement was to avoid war altogether, for all time. Our method was to seek reasonable agreements with all European powers. There was no reason why we should exclude Germany from such an agreement.”
Soviet régime’s “settled policy … to organise, finance, and arm those who agree with its social aims in every country of the world. The full implications of this policy of Moscow”, he continued, “have never been grasped in this country. Its unavoidable result is to bring the opposed foreign extremists into the field and to endanger the peace of the world.
Yet the Germans, though aggressive, were none the less seen as vulnerable. Halifax’s dream of extensive economic assistance to help them out indicated as much. It was not at this stage so much from fear of Germany that the British refused to act. No assessment existed to the effect that the Germans were anything like ready for a major war. On the contrary, the strains and stresses of an economy stretched to the utmost by hasty rearmament were only too apparent. The fears derived instead from a very different quarter: fascism was fragile, Communism strong. Gladwyn Jebb, now private secretary to the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, and therefore liaison with MI6, argued that were Britain, France and Russia to oppose the Anschluss with force, “it still seemed that a total collapse of the Germans, which might then be achieved, could only result in a Russian absorption of Poland and the probable extension of Russian power westwards in an alliance with some Russophile government in Germany”.83 It is thus a mistake to assume that because Chamberlain and Halifax behaved as supplicants they necessarily saw themselves as weak in respect of Germany.
Even moderate appeasers in Britain like Jebb felt that “we could hardly invoke Russia at this point for the purpose of restraining Hitler without a danger of bringing Russia right into Europe and prejudicing the possibility of eventually, after we had ourselves rearmed, restraining him without such an unfortunate result”.107 The crucial issue for London, as ever, was at all costs to keep the Bolsheviks out of Central Europe.
The Soviet leadership straddled a belief both in the fundamental crisis of capitalism and the need, short-term, for expediency at almost any price. Hence the Realpolitik towards Berlin. Britain, the cornerstone of capitalism in Europe, was manifestly not serious about allying with Russia against Germany. On the other hand, Stalin was by no means sure that Hitler would triumph. He “said that Germany could be beaten and then England’s position will be unclear”.9 His hope was that “it would be fine if at the hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially England) were shaken”, for “Hitler, without understanding it or desiring it, is shaking and undermining the capitalist system.… We can manoeuvre, pit one side against the other to set them fighting with each other as fiercely as possible.”10 The capitalist world’s disaster would be a Bolshevik opportunity. In this context it is worth recalling what Stalin had said, unreported to the public, on 5 April 1927: “At the time of [the] October [Revolution] imperialism was split in two coalitions, into two camps … This struggle within imperialism harmed imperialism and weakened it. It was precisely because this struggle was taking place, because the imperialist front was broken, that we, the Russian Communists, succeeded so easily in then slipping through to socialism. That was precisely why. Without that we could have been beaten.”11 A fascinating echo of such sentiments emerged in distant Beijing, from the mouth of Soviet chargé d’affaires Nikitin in June 1940 as the Russians expanded into the Baltic and the Balkans. Nikitin candidly revealed to the US ambassador that the Nazi–Soviet pact of August 1939 was based on the hope that war between Germany and the West would lead to the mutual exhaustion of both sides, “leaving Russia safe from external menace in Europe”.
“Soviet circles for some reason or other are in a markedly nervous condition; among their other fears seems to be one that Germany and the Western powers may yet get together and treat Bolshevism as their common enemy.”51 Later Stalin asked, Was it possible to get by without a war? War was necessary as peace negotiations with Finland produced no results and Leningrad’s security had to be guaranteed; no question, for it was a matter of the security of the homeland. Not only because Leningrad represents 30–35% of the defence industry of our country, and the fate of our country depends upon the integrity and defensibility of Leningrad, but because Leningrad is the second capital of our country. To break with Leningrad, for it to be seized and to have, let’s say, a bourgeois, a white government appear there, that would mean handing a relatively serious base over for a civil war within the country against the Soviet authorities.
After Germany’s assault on Poland, to the consternation of his diehard supporters, Chamberlain shifted abruptly from favouring appeasement to an obstinate refusal even to consider any offer from Germany while Hitler remained in power. Communicating to Lord Arnold in January Chamberlain had insisted there was no weakening in the government’s resolution; only when Hitler was convinced would he negotiate a lasting peace.
“Why did Germany conclude a non-aggression pact yet breach it so easily?”26 It was a lament all too reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain, but with far less excuse. Rearmament at a higher technological level had yet to be put into mass production. The “Stalin line” of fortifications ripped out with the occupation of the Baltic states had not yet been completed along the new western perimeter of the Soviet Union. At noon in Litvinov’s study where he and his wife were playing a round of bridge with a friend and dummy, their little puppy crawled over to the radio and accidentally turned the knob. The unmistakeable sound of Molotov’s high-pitched voice could be heard addressing the country in the face of disaster and concluding solemnly, “Victory will be ours.”27 Stalin evidently delayed his own appearance in the vain hope that matters might soon improve and he could deliver better news. But the situation did not get better; it got a good deal worse. Finally he could procrastinate no longer and delivered a broadcast to the nation on 3 July. Both he and Molotov revealed their own hubris and appalling neglect in naïvely accusing Germany of treachery. It took five more days for the man who had been right all along in his fears about Germany, Litvinov, to be allowed to broadcast, and then in English and to foreign audiences only. In stark contrast to Stalin and Molotov’s jejune lamentations, Litvinov bluntly reiterated what he had long been telling everyone: “No agreement or treaties, no undertaking signed by Hitler and his henchmen, no promises or assurances on their part, no declarations of neutrality, no relations with them whatsoever can provide a guarantee against a sudden unprovoked attack.… His strategy is to mark down his victims and strike them one by one in the order prompted by circumstances.” Hitler “intended first to deal with the western states so as to be free to fall upon the Soviet Union”.
Guidelines issued to Hitler’s troops directly reflected the spirit, indeed the very letter, of Mein Kampf. They underlined Hitler’s long-held purpose. Why else would he take such an enormous gamble, having won so much so easily in the West? Had he really feared the United States, he would most certainly have never ventured East. Colonel-General Erich Hoepner issued the following order for Armoured Group 4: The war against Russia is an essential phase in the German nation’s struggle for existence. It is the ancient struggle of the Germanic peoples against Slavdom, the defence of European culture against the Muscovite-Asiatic tide, the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. That struggle must have as its aim the shattering of present-day Russia and must therefore be waged with unprecedented hardness. Every combat action must be inspired, in concept and execution, by an iron determination to ensure the merciless, total annihilation of the enemy. In particular, there must be no sparing the exponents of the present Russian Bolshevik system.
whereas Trotsky believed foreigners had the capacity to make their own revolutions, because the capitalist world was on its last legs, Stalin equally firmly believed that foreigners were too incompetent to manage it without direct military assistance from the Soviet Union, because the underlying conditions were by no means as propitious as Trotsky supposed.
The lessons drawn by Americans from nuclear deterrence—that under the terrifying threat of mutual annihilation governments will behave “sensibly”—make for reassuring reading, and inevitably tend to reinforce faith in the idea of rationality conditioned by force of circumstance. When faced directly and immediately with extinction, it has seemed even the most irrational actor will draw back from the brink: Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev, for instance, did eventually back down during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, abandoning his high-risk bid to outflank US defences and force the allies out of Berlin. And let us hope good sense and the instinct for survival continue to hold true among new nuclear powers; though such instances may very well turn out to be the exception rather than the rule.
The tendency to assume like-mindedness has invariably proved overwhelming, and wrong. Society is, and always was, a complex organism. Ideology and cultural tradition always belonged more to the realm of organisms than that of machines. This matters, because ideologies in the international system, once activated, can completely undercut predictability, as they do not operate within the parameters of more settled states. The assumption that the system is run by rational actors thus falls apart because the calculation of what is rational is contingent on culture and historical evolution. The difference is fundamental between, at its most extreme, a country taken over by fanatics bent on revolutionary change and a country governed by complacent, well-entrenched élites with much to lose. The former still believe they can deliver a shot that the opponent cannot return; the latter just hope that their own delivery lands the ball in the opponent’s service box.