Stalin, appeasement, and the Second World
The issues raised by the revisionist histories of the past
20 years will not go away and have not been settled by the revisionist histories
of the past decade. The complicity of the Western Powers in Hitler's criminal
adventurism is a theme argued out in my book "Moscow in World War 2" (Chatto
It is not as if the opening of certain archives has changed
the story, only fleshed it out a little. Nor can there by an doubts about
Stalin's own views and role. Stalin's position was not just a matter of public
record, his priorities were insistently clarified in his own words andactions:
thus for example Stalin began his report to the 18th Party Congress of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), convened in Moscow in March 1939,
not witha description of the 3rd Five Year Plan then reaching its climacteric,
but with a tour d'horizon of the gloomy and threatening international scene.
According to Stalin, a new imperialist war was already in
its second year, 'a war waged over a huge territory stretching from Shanghai to
Gibraltar, and involving over five hundred million people'.
Linking the Great Depression beginning in 1931 with the
'conflicts and perturbations' which had led to war Stalin made the point that
while the Western Powers were still in the grip of economic crisis, the
'aggressive countries' such as Germany, Japan and Italy were not- but only
because their economies were already on a war footing. If peace were preserved,
these countries would soon find themselves in a far more serious crisis as a
result of the burden of arms spending. 'Unless something unforeseen occurs',
those countries would soon be on a 'downward path'. The implication was clear:
the new economic crisis 'was bound to lead, and is actually leading, to a
further sharpening of the imperialist struggle'.
It was no longer a question of competition in the markets,
of commercial war, but of "a new redivision of the world, of spheres of
influence and colonies, by military action". And Stalin listed the seats of
conflict: "In 1935 Italy attacked and seized Abyssinia. In the summer of
1936 Germany and Italy organised military intervention in Spain and in Spanish
Morocco, and Italy in the south of Spain and the Balearic Islands. In 1937,
having seized Manchuria, Japan invaded North and Central China, occupied Peking,
Tientsin and Shanghai and began to oust her foreign competitors from the
occupied zone. In the beginning of 1938 Germany seized Austria and in the autumn
of 1938 the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia. At the end of 1938 Japan seized
The territorial aggrandisement of the Axis Powers attacked
the foundations of the international settlement following the 1914-18 war, and
which had primarily benefited the victors in that war- France, Britain and the
USA. It was their global interests which were now threatened.
Stalin pointed to the "clumsy game of camouflage"
used by the aggressors to conceal their real intentions. They claimed the Axis,
founded on the Anti-Comintern Pact, was directed solely against Soviet Russia
(but where, asked Stalin, are the communist hotbeds in the mountains of
Abyssinia or the wilds of Morocco?) Unfortunately, Western leaders were only too
anxious to take the anti-Soviet protestations of Hitler and Mussolini at face
value. "Incredibly", the West was "conniving at this redivision
of the world" in which anti-Sovietism thinly veiled imperial predatoriness.
The West colluded with the fascist countries, not from weakness but because the
nonaggressive countries, "particularly England and France, have rejected
the policy of collective security". This policy of non-intervention
"means conniving at aggression... and... transforming the war into a world
war... it reveals an eagerness to see Japan... embroiling herself in a war with
the Soviet Union.... and Germany" too.
Treason and Treachery
The "bourgeois politicians" of the West
fantasised about a bloody and prolonged war, at the end of which the Western
Powers would "appear on the scene with fresh strength... and 'in the
interests of peace' would dictate conditions to the enfeebled
belligerents". Contemptuously dismissing such an outcome as "cheap and
easy", Stalin went on to utter an ominous warning to the British and
French, and their American backers. These countries had practised a policy of
appeasement towards the expansionist ambitions of the Axis Powers, Germany,
Italy and Japan. They had stood by while one country after another had been
subjected to fascist aggression. Stalin did not propose to 'moralise on the
policy of non- intervention, to talk of treason, treachery and so on'. It would
be 'naive to preach morals to people who recognise no human morality'. But,
Stalin continued, 'the big and dangerous game started by the supporters of the
policy of non-intervention may end in serious fiasco for them'. This was the
clearest possible warning to those who hoped to channel German aggression
towards the East. The Soviet Union would not allow itself to be diplomatically
isolated and left to fight single-handed against Hitler Germany and its allies.
This declaration could only have the meaning that if all its attempts at
creating collective security arrangements came to nothing, the USSR would not
hesitate as a last resort to seek an accommodation with Germany. Thus Stalin
foreshadowed the possibility of a Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact six months
before events brought it into existence.
The apologists of appeasement who have tended to dominate
debate more recently hinge their position on a great act of denial: for it was
British diplomacy above all which opened the door to Hitler's world of demons.
Perfidious Albion, not Stalinist Russia, by its acts of omission and commission,
led the world into war.
Stalin's indictment of the collusion between the flaccid
old imperialisms (France, Britain, the US) and the hungry upstarts looking for a
military 'window of opportunity' points up the essential fact of interwar
diplomacy: inter-imperialist rivalry had mutated into a contest with world
communism. Britain, still nominal guarantor of world capitalism, and not yet
under US tutelage, made of virulent anti-communism the primary engine of policy.
The significance of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact is
that it did serve to foil Anglo-American attempts to embroil Hitler in a private
war with the USSR. Stalin's deal with Hitler saved countless Soviet lives and
made possible the final victory over Hitler Germany. It also ensures that
Britain too was saved.
It was a deal Stalin had tried to avoid, an eleventh-hour
agreement reached on the eve of War. For a decade before that, the Soviet Union
sought to create a genuine collective-security system based on the League of
Few acts of great power diplomacy have been the subject of
such vilification, misrepresentation, distortion and slander as the Nazi-Soviet
Non-Aggression Pact. A stream of books, articles and programmes continues to be
published and broadcast about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, designed to show that
pre-war fascism was actually the same thing as Soviet Communism, that Hitler and
Stalin were partners in crime, that the West was virtuous and even politically
virginal and—above all—that there was no Anglo-American collusion with, and
encouragement of, the Nazis. The truth was different—but the Nazi-Soviet Pact
serves as a fig-leaf to cover British and American embarrassment. It was their
policy which led to the Second World War. They'd rather we forgot.
Blinded by hysterical anti-communism, suffused with imperial delusions of grandeur, the British establishment in fact had only one foreign policy goal since the signing of the Versailles Treaty which ended the First World War, twenty years before. As Thorstein Veblen had said, the desire to destroy Bolshevism 'was not written into the text of the Treaty [but was] the parchment upon which that text was written.' Hitler's seemingly superhuman intelligence, his ability to wrap the canny politicians of London, Paris and Washington around his little finger, resulted from nothing more than their own willingness to be duped. Actually they had no illusions about the Nazis: British statesmen referred to Hitler as 'the little corporal' and when British Foreign Minister Lord Halifax first encountered Hitler at Berchtesgaden, he mistook the Reich Chancellor for a butler. The Nazi's star diplomat, Herr von Ribbentrop, was universally derided in London as 'Herr Brickendrop' for his gaffes such as his propensity to give Nazi salutes to the king. What fascinated the financiers and patricians of London and Washington was not the Nazis' own illusions of Nietzschean grandeur but the aroma of easy money, the sexiness of raw power, which always goes with criminality and which explains the perennial proximity of bankers to gangsters. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was about as sexy as a workmen's social club in Barnsley. Earnest proletarian diplomats naturally cut no ice in the western corridors of power (British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain counted the Downing Street silver service, on the one occasion he felt obliged to receive Soviet ambassador Maisky, whose impassioned warnings about Hitler's intentions impressed him not at all. Chamberlain viscerally hated the Bolsheviks).
These were the kinds of reasons which led London and Paris
to stand idly by while the Nazis brazenly seized more territory (always in the
east), grabbing Austria almost without firing a shot, although at the time
Germany was weaker than either of the Western powers, rolling through
Czechoslovakia and finally turning up on the Poles' doorstep. Hitler achieved
his ends with astounding ease and like all gangsters planned to teach his social
betters their place: but the idea of war with England still struck Hitler as
odd, as an absurdity, something which grated against the proper scheme of
things. England was supposed to fence German ill-gotten gains: that had been
Chamberlain's role at Munich, when the Czechs were sold off. The idea that the
two countries would go to war over division of the spoils was shocking, and when
it happened Hitler was dismayed and piqued. He assumed it was a misunderstanding
which could be solved in the usual discreet way, by private talks, perhaps
involving the recently-abdicated king, talks aimed at seeing everyone right.
Unfortunately for everyone the English had issued the Poles with a Guarantee,
and to renege on it might be to reveal the truly parlous state of the English
ancestral estates, for the empire was strung together with exactly such empty
promises and gossamer guarantees. The whole house of cards might come down.
Hitler hadn't thought of that; neither had Chamberlain
until it was too late. The West had been ready to let Hitler have his way in
everything as long as he also performed the 'historic' mission proclaimed in
Mein Kampf - to destroy Bolshevism and so correct an 'error of history'. Soviet
worries about international security and the oft-professed Soviet interest in
sponsoring due process and legal framework in international relations rang no
bells in London and Paris and even seemed laughable or incomprehensible given
Lenin's bloodcurdling calls for World Revolution. What on earth were the cloth
caps up to? The Olympian calm the Western powers maintained as Hitler flagrantly
violated international agreements, their inaction at the time of the Anschluss
with Austria, their betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich- all this was advance
payment on Hitler's promise to head eastwards, against the Soviet Union.
The history of interwar diplomacy makes baleful reading
Another world war was not inevitable. It could be easily
avoided if the Western Powers took seriously the need for collective security
arrangements. That they did not was indicative of their bad faith. The evidence
of this was manifest. The 1935 Neutrality Act may have reflected a popular
current of isolationism, but the effect was to encourage the aggressors. On the
day it became law, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The Act forbade the sale of arms to
belligerents, but not of other commodities, including strategic raw materials.
Guaranteed US non-intervention, all the Axis powers continued to trade heavily
with the US, whose sales of fuel oil and other goods to Japan made possible its
aggression against China and Korea. US loans and direct investment supported the
growth of German war industry. By the mid-1930s the US portfolio totalled more
than Reichsmarks 21 bn. General Motors, Ford, ITT, Standard Oil and many other
US firms set up German subsidiaries which later supplied the Wehrmacht with more
than three- quarters of its transport requirements and the Luftwaffe with
engines, airframe aluminium and precision parts. US 'even-handedness' was not,
of course, of much use to countries like Ethiopia.
While the USA went about the business of non-intervention
in its own way, Britain and France took a different route. They had to coexist
with a resurgent Germany and sought to channel German aggression towards Russia.
This required a more active form of 'non-intervention'. The British
establishment, still suave with the emollient ease of empire, could patronise
the Germans who were still inclined to be deferential: Ribbentrop confided to
his diary a fantasy in which the Fuhrer rode up Pall Mall with King George V in
a gilded coach. Perhaps these dreams were shared by Hitler as well. The Fuhrer
had felt dismay more than anger when Lord Halifax mistook him for a footman at
their first meeting at Berchtesgaden. Nevertheless, Hitler was able to overcome
his awe sufficiently to do business. His sense of social inferiority soon led
him to feel nothing but contempt for the effete English and their cobwebbed,
crumbling empire. But Hitler did not want to destroy the British world of
illusions, he wanted to take it over as a going concern.
A Wine Merchant Makes German Foreign Policy
Joachim von Ribbentrop, by trade a wine merchant, was
ambassador to the Court of St James's before he became Reich Foreign Minister in
1938. He enjoyed London society and the patronage of the Astors, frequenting
Cliveden where he became acquainted with former Secretary for Air the Marquis of
Londonderry, an anti-Communist stalwart. They were on first name terms- 'Jo' and
'Charlie'. A Cliveden topic was the need for a rapprochement between England and
Germany. Another was the problem of the Jews. Halifax, who became British
Foreign Secretary in 1938, also attended the Astors' weekend parties. It was
here that British policy towards central Europe developed, as applied by Neville
Chamberlain when the latter became Prime Minister in May 1937.
The Cliveden set took the view that, while the Soviet Union
was the principal danger to the British Empire, the immediate threat to
international stability lay elsewhere, in the Treaty of Versailles and its
continuing consequences. The Versailles settlement had imposed particularly
harsh conditions on defeated Germany and, what was worse, had created successor
states to the Austro-Hungarian Empire which were viable only at the expense of
German national interests, and which in any case could not serve as an effective
cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union.
The rebirth of German economic power under the dynamic and
providential leadership of Adolf Hitler had created a strategic vacuum in Europe
given that the constraints of Versailles left Germany a political pygmy.
This historical conspectus suggested an obvious programme
and gave it a name-appeasement. The satisfaction of German demands would put
right the recognised inequities of Versailles, remove the sources of tension and
instability in Europe, and restore Germany to its rightful place. Britain's
acknowledgement of Germany's dominant role in Europe made that country a
potential ally and might reduce or remove German colonial pressure. Most
importantly, a renewed Germany would be a decisive bulwark against Soviet
communism. It would displace the locus of future instability further East,
making the occasion of any future war that of purely Soviet-German relations.
The Royal Navy and the Maginot Line would insulate the western powers.
Chamberlain's policy was to collude with fascism. One of
his first acts was to send Sir Nevile Henderson ("Our nazi ambassador to
Berlin", as he became derisively known). Henderson drew up a 'Memorandum on
British Policy Towards Germany'. This called for a comprehensive Anglo-German
agreement which would include the demarcation of spheres of influence, world
markets and raw material sources, and also colonial possessions. The whole sense
of such an agreement would boil down to guaranteeing Britain her colonial
possessions and preserving her great-power positions, having met Hitler's
expansionist claims at the expense of other states (notably the USSR).
At Halifax 's first meeting with Hitler he praised the
Fuhrer for having turned Germany into a 'bulwark of the West against Bolshevism'
and put his imprimatur on German ambitions: 'All other questions', ran the
minutes of the talks, 'could be said to relate to changes in the European order,
changes that would probably take place sooner or later. Among these questions
were Danzig, Austria and Czechoslovakia. England was only interested that any
changes should be brought about by peaceful evolution'.......
Within months Hitler moved against Austria. The Anschluss
of 12 March 1938 might have posed a problem: Britain was a guarantor of Austrian
independence, and the Austrian government had appealed for help. But as Sir
Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office and a
supporter of the 'Drang nach Osten', told his diary, it would 'have been
criminal to encourage Schuschnigg to resist when we couldn't have helped him. At
the end of the day H. [Halifax] and I agreed our consciences were clear!'
On April 22 Hitler told a secret conference of Party and
military personnel the West had written off Czechoslovakia. 'Operation Green',
the plan for its liquidation, was given the go-ahead.
In Britain the Foreign Office drew up 'Plan Z', according
to which the Prime Minister should wait until Nazi Germany had created a tense
situation around Czechoslovakia before, on the pretext of "saving
peace", personally meeting Hitler to negotiate that country's
dismemberment. Cadogan told his diary that Czechoslovakia after all 'was not
worth the spurs of a single British grenadier'.
'Operation Green' was not a success. The Czech government
refused to be cowed by German troop movements on the borders or by nazi
agitation among German-speaking Czechs. Hitler could not count on the collapse
of mutual assistance undertakings between Czechoslovakia, France and the Soviet
Union. The Germans backed down. This evidence of the effectiveness of collective
security arrangements did not discourage Chamberlain from selling out
Czechoslovakia when the crisis in Czech-German relations came to a head the
following September. Following Hitler's brimstone speech to the Nuremburg Party
rally, which seemed to presage quick action against the recalcitrant Czechs,
Chamberlain invoked 'Plan Z'. On September 15 he arrived at Hitler's Berghof
estate. Apologists for Chamberlain sometimes present a picture of this English
gentleman, now in his seventieth year, being outfoxed and even cowed by the
ranting dictator. The reality was rather different. Chamberlain told Hitler that
'from the moment of his appointment as British Prime Minister, he had been
constantly occupied with the question of Anglo-German rapprochement'. In any
case, there were 'at the present time, considerably more important problems than
Czechoslovakia [which] need discussing'. Hitler, who had previously confined
himself to expressions of concern for the civil rights of Czechoslovak Germans,
now made plain that the real issue was the surrender of the Sudetenland to the
Reich. Chamberlain scarcely batted an eyelid, declaring that Britain did not
have an interest in the Sudeten-German question and that in any case 'as a
practical person, he had already thought of how to bring about the possible
inclusion of Sudeten Germans into the Third Reich'.
Chamberlain 'gave the Fuhrer to understand that
Czechoslovakia could not remain poised like the point of a spear threatening the
German flank.' This would be true even 'after the Sudeten Germans enter the
Third Reich'. Hitler was quick to agree, saying 'this would be the situation as
long as the Czechoslovak state has alliances with other states which threaten
Germany'. Chamberlain asked Hitler 'if the German apprehensions would be removed
vis-a-vis Czechoslovakia if it were possible to change the relationship between
Czechoslovakia and Russia in such a way that, on the one hand, Czechoslovakia
would be free from its obligations to Russia in the event of the latter being
attacked, and, on the other, Czechoslovakia, like Belgium, would be deprived of
the possibility of aid from Russia or another country'.
Chamberlain's search for a justification for the
liquidation of Czechoslovakia did not ignore, but was based upon, that country's
role as linchpin of European collective security, connecting the Soviet Union
with France and, through France, Britain, in the containment of Hitler Germany.
It was precisely the demolition of collective security which Chamberlain sought.
On 19 September the Czech government was handed an
Anglo-French statement arising out of Chamberlain's meeting with Hitler. It
called for the ceding to Germany of Czech territories containing a majority of
Czech-speaking citizens. The rump state would be given 'guarantees' by Britain
and France providing the Czechs tore up existing military assistance treaties.
The precedent was set: solid military arrangements were replaced by worthless
scraps of paper. Soon the British were 'guaranteeing' the Balkan states too, not
to speak of Poland.
The Czech government capitulated, but not all at once.
Czechoslovakia had a strong army and defensible borders. It had repeated offers
of Soviet military assistance, a solution for which there was considerable
popular support (there were mass solidarity demonstrations outside the Soviet
embassy in Prague at the height of the crisis). The Benes-Hodza government
stalled public acceptance of Hitler's terms, partly to increase its leverage
with the British, but partly also to give it time to manoeuvre the Soviet Union
into a repudiation of its treaty commitments to Czechoslovakia - the
indispensable step if British support was to be won. The crisis dragged on until
Hitler issued a final ultimatum- he would invade Czechoslovakia on October 1st,
when US President Roosevelt issued an appeal to both Hitler and Benes to 'settle
their dispute peacefully', an approach which put aggressor and victim on the
same level. Roosevelt suggested a conference of five countries: Britain, France,
Germany, Italy and Czechoslovakia, to 'solve the dispute'. Since the only
country still to stand by the Czechs- the Soviet Union- was not invited, there
was no doubt as to how Roosevelt expected the 'dispute' solved. The conference
was duly convened for 29 September; but the package of proposals finally adopted
had already been worked out- not by the British government, but by Lady Astor's
Cliveden set, during a dinner party. They were aided in their work by the US
ambassador to London, Joseph Kennedy, who, according to Benes, 'supported and
defended Chamberlain's policy of appeasement consistently and unconditionally'.
After the Munich conference completed the mutilation of Czech sovereignty, Chamberlain asked Hitler for a private meeting. It was time to collect. The price for Czechoslovakia and a free hand in the East was Hitler's agreement to conclude pacts on non-aggression and cooperation with the British and French, including German guarantees of the integrity of their colonial possessions. Chamberlain emerged with his 'piece of paper'. One month later the French also concluded a non-aggression pact with Hitler Germany.
The Anglo-French appeasers had achieved an old dream: the
creation of a four-power pact (with fascist Italy and Germany) whose aim was the
isolation of the USSR and the ultimate satisfaction of German territorial claims
at its expense. Pravda said 'the world can clearly see that behind the
smokescreen of fine phrases about Chamberlain having saved the peace at Munich,
an act has been committed which by its shamelessness has surpassed all that has
taken place since the first imperialist war'.
Chamberlain and French premier Daladier had one residual
service to make to Benes, who had obligingly held up the scenery while they
carried off the cast. This was to foist responsibility for Czechoslovakia's fate
onto the Soviet Union. In the effrontery of this act they followed Goebbels'
favourite dictum about big lies being more believable. The Soviet Union had
repeatedly and insistently made known its preparedness to stand by its treaty
commitments to Czechoslovakia and its general commitment as a League of Nations
member. Litvinov spelled this out from the Geneva rostrum: 'our War Department',
he said, 'is ready to participate in a conference with representatives of the
French and Czechoslovak War Departments in order to discuss the appropriate
measures.... We intend to fulfil our obligations under the pact'. But the French
and British governments and their media stooges continued to fling mud at the
Soviets, the more so as the real implications of the Munich sell-out began to
sink in. It suited their purpose to argue that Soviet support had not been
forthcoming; like Benes, they too needed to argue that there had been no
alternative to capitulation. In Britain Lord Winterton, a cabinet minister, said
in a speech that 'Russia did not offer to help in the Czechoslovak crisis, but
only made vague promises owing to her military weakness'. This statement was
never retracted, a position of intransigence in which the minister concerned was
supported by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain during a hostile Parliamentary
question time. Soviet concern to dispel the miasma of public suspicion generated
by this calumny led Ambassador Maisky to protest personally to the Foreign
Secretary, Lord Halifax. Meeting him on 11 October 1938, while German troops
were still in the process of occupying the Sudeten region acquired at Munich,
Maisky told Halifax that 'the Soviet Union has never had anything to do either
with the policy that led to Munich or with the Munich agreement itself [a fact
known to Halifax, at any rate]...I am convinced that this agreement will have
catastrophic consequences for peace and will be condemned by history'.
Some of the mud stuck, as Chamberlain intended. The USSR
was left with a dilemma: the more trenchantly its spokesmen criticised the
West's appeasement of Hitler, the more its own perceived intransigence would
predispose Hitler to solve bilateral problems by fighting rather than diplomacy
(exactly the outcome sought by British). Yet to be seen supporting, even by a
tacit silence, the policy of appeasing Axis aggression, was equally impossible.
A Soviet-sponsored convention defining aggression had been concluded in the USSR in the summer of 1933, followed by a proposal to set up a collective security system in Europe comprising France, USSR, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and some other states threatened by Nazism. The negotiations led to a Soviet -French and a Soviet-Czechoslovak treaty of mutual assistance being signed in May 1935. The USSR also worked to strengthen the League of Nations and tried to establish close co-operation with the USA and Britain, but with little success. British policy was to encourage Hitler to solve bilateral problems by fighting rather than diplomacy. This policy was covert. Appeasing Axis aggression was difficult in the face of popular opposition.
In any case, the policy floundered from the start: making
deals with criminals only encourages them. Thus the nazi Hamburger Fremdenblatt
remarked after Munich that 'England, with her feelings of honour, will be the
first to realise that a proud and mighty nation of 80,000,000 people cannot
tolerate the thought that it has been deprived of its colonial mission through a
verdict imposed by violence'. So nothing was settled after all, and the 'piece
of paper' Chamberlain had in his pocket had not bought peace.
The British had nothing to show for the destruction of
European collective security. Chamberlain's duplicitous diplomacy had not
achieved even the minimal goal of satisfying Germany's immediate demands. As
Pravda also commented: "The British Conservative press and quarters
supporting Mr Chamberlain want to make political capital by claiming that an
accord with Fascist Germany and new concessions to Hitler would save Europe from
war. There is no greater falsehood than this assertion. The policy of an
agreement with the aggressor does not postpone but accelerates the advent of
'An epoch of a rampage of crude force and the mailed fist
policy is setting in' wrote Ivan Maisky, an old Bolshevik and now Soviet
ambassador to Britain. 'A mood of die-hard reaction reigns in Britain and power
is in the hands of the most conservative circles who fear communism most of
all...The USSR remains the only bright spot on this gloomy background'......
In France Soviet agents reported on a private conversation
of the French Foreign Minister with some intimates, in which he bluntly said
that 'sacrifices in the East are inevitable- it is essential to give an outlet
to German expansionism'. At the time France was still formally a Soviet ally.
A taste of the dream world inhabited by the appeasers was
afforded by a speech made by British Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, on the
same day that Stalin spoke to the Moscow Party Congress of the 'treason and
treachery' of the French and British. Calling for 'a 5-Year Plan for Europe,
greater than any 5-Year Plan that this or that country has attempted in recent
times' Hoare opined that 'a golden age' of rising living standards and
'incredible inventions and discoveries' was just around the corner if only 'the
five men in Europe, the three dictators and the Prime Ministers for England and
France worked with a singleness of purpose and a unity of action to this end-
[they] might in an incredibly short space of time transform the whole history of
the world...Our own Prime Minister', Hoare whimsically concluded, 'has shown his
determination to work heart and soul to such an end. I cannot believe that the
other leaders of Europe will not join him in the high endeavour upon which he is
Five days later—and three days after Stalin delivered his
Central committee report to the
18th Party Congress—Hitler's tanks rolled into Prague,
and the world was able to see the real fruits of appeasement. This time even the
fig leaf of legality afforded by the Munich Agreement was dispensed with; the
Germans went in 'to clear out a nest of Bolsheviks'.
Chamberlain in London now was obliged to give thought to
the 'guarantees' with which he and Daladier had equipped the rump Czechoslovak
state. He had 'worked out a plan... which is pretty bold and startling', as he
told his diary. 'I have an idea it won't bring us to an acute crisis, at any
rate at once'. In a characteristically peccant manoeuvre Chamberlain announced
that since 'Slovakia' had declared itself 'independent', the state Britain had
guaranteed no longer existed, nullifying the guarantee! Such cynicism drew howls
of protest even from the Conservative benches in the House of Commons. So great
was the storm of public outrage that Chamberlain was obliged to make a public
denunciation of appeasement, which became a taboo word. In future, fascist self-aggrandisement
was to be resisted - by the application of more 'guarantees'. Chamberlain's
adventurism was now cut entirely loose from the solid ground of historical
reality, and British policy entered the squalid fantasy-world of the last years
of peace. Only when British troops had to swim for their lives from the beaches
of Dunkerque did its catastrophic consequences become clear.
Hitler used the fanatical anti-communism of Western leaders
to screen his own grand design, which however was transparent enough. First he
would lay hands on the resources of the small countries of Central and Eastern
Europe in order to strengthen Germany's strategic positions and war machine.
Afterwards, when high political quarters in London, Paris and Washington were
expecting him to attack the USSR, the nazis would turn on France. Only then,
backed by the military and economic resources of Western Europe would Hitler
proceed to his next objective- the conquest and colonisation of the Soviet
By March 1939 German troops had traversed Czechoslovakia
and turned up on Poland's southern borders. The depth of the abyss to which
Poland's 'opera' colonels had brought the country was brought into sharp focus.
For twenty years the Poles had been ceremonialising venality into reasons of
state, while they tried to parlay their walk-on part into a leading role.
Perhaps this is not surprising; the Poles were the paupers of history and for
200 years had done without a state at all. They now fantasised a role as the
West's outermost glacis, barring the way to Asiatic communism. To Litvinov's
polite suggestion that they might have a problem with the Germans and should
perhaps discuss a renewal of the Polish-Soviet Pact of 1932, they said 'Soviet
participation in European polities' was 'needless'.
At the end of August, a week before Germany attacked it,
Poland's Foreign Minister Colonel Beck was to observe that 'No kind of military
treaty connects Poland with the Soviets and the Polish Government does not
intend to conclude such a treaty'. They too had entered fantasy-land. When the
British gave Poland one of their 'guarantees' General Sikorski issued Britain
with a 'reciprocal' guarantee. Three weeks later the Polish state had once again
ceased to exist and Beck and Sikorski were refugees in London where Chamberlain
told them the British were not in a position to help 'at the present time'. So
neither guarantee was worth much.
The 'London Poles' were a footnote in history. They hoped
that the USSR and Germany would destroy each other, and that the post-war Poland
which would rise on the ashes of those two countries to become Europe's dominant
power. Six million Poles died during the war, a higher proportion of its
population than in any other country. This was the fruit of the Polish refusal
to enter collective security arrangements with the Soviet Union.
Through all this, the British stubbornly persisted with
their vision of an Anglo-German rapprochement. When the Panzers rolled into
Prague the Federation of British Industry sent a delegation to Dusseldorf to
negotiate with its German counterpart. Throughout that last summer of peace,
talks took place on a many trade and bilateral questions. The guarantees given
by Britain and France to Poland fit into this picture of burgeoning Anglo-German
relations. Chamberlain stiffened the Poles, in effect giving them the right to
declare war on Germany on behalf of Britain and France. But war was the last
thing he expected. The British guarantees to Poland were made with the purpose
of encouraging Polish intransigence and giving Hitler reasons to swallow Poland
whole. Poland was a sacrificial pawn. British policy was to direct Germany
against Soviet Russia. It had been for more than twenty years. The unilateral
guarantees were an alternative to a political-military understanding with the
USSR which was the only country actually in a position to help Poland.
Chamberlain was trying to canalise German aggression away from the Western
Powers. Hitler had once again been given the green light for aggression in the
East. This was how Hitler himself understood the matter: when Britain and
Germany did find themselves at war a few weeks later, no-one was more surprised
than the 'strategic genius' in Berlin, unless it was Neville Chamberlain.
British policy had only one aim: to cajole, wheedle, guide
and direct Germany against Soviet Russia.
Events moved swiftly; Germany renounced its Non-aggression
Treaty with Poland and the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Treaty, and seized the
Lithuanian port of Memel. On April 7 Mussolini occupied Albania; Britain and
France responded with 'guarantees' (!) for Greece and Romania. The Soviet Union
invited them to conclude a mutual assistance pact. But this was the one
self-evident step which, next to Germany and the USSR becoming allies, the
Western Powers most feared. They responded with a suggestion that the USSR
should make a unilateral statement as follows: 'in the event of any act of
aggression against any European neighbour of the Soviet Union, which resisted
such an act, the assistance of the Soviet Union would be available, if desired,
and would be afforded in such a manner as would be found most convenient'.
This was a notion worthy of the Downing Street dreamer, who
had been encouraged by his success with the Poles into thinking that the
Russians too could be persuaded to tie a noose around their own necks. However
the Soviet government declined the opportunity to make war on Germany at
London's bidding. On the very day this Whitehall provocation was delivered,
Stalin's Tokyo agent, Richard Sorge, submitted an appreciation of Anglo-German
relations which concluded 'Germany's main objective. . . is to compel Britain to
recognise without a war Germany's claims to hegemony in Central Europe and to
yield to its colonial demands. . . on this basis Germany will be prepared to
conclude a lasting peace with Britain... and to start a war with the USSR'. In
such a war the Japanese, according to Sorge, would also attack the Soviet Union
with its Kwantung armies (the majority of Japanese land forces).
At the insistent request of the Soviet government, which
continued its urgent, not to say frantic, search for allies against Hitler
Germany, the British and French agreed to talks in Moscow.
These talks, herd in the summer of 1939, would decide
whether there would be peace or war. It depended on the British and French. The
Soviet commitment to collective security was crystal clear.
But time was short. Stalin had said in his Central
Committee report that the USSR would not pull other people's chestnuts out of
the fire. Unfortunately it became clear that the British, desperately struggling
to save an empire which in any case would disappear within twenty years, were
now ready to burn whole groves of chestnuts.
Chamberlain had been scrupulous not to guarantee the Soviet
Union's neighbouring states on the Black Sea, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
These small defenceless countries, socially riven and with extreme right-wing
governments, were perfect targets for nazi indirect aggression. In a speech to
the Supreme Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov said the British action was 'almost
a direct invitation to Germany to leave Poland and other countries alone for the
time being and to attack instead ... states on the Soviet borders by the time-honoured
nazi methods of the instigation and financing of internal revolts and then
marching in on the 'invitation' of the puppet government'. It was just these
countries which the British wanted the USSR to unilaterally guarantee. So, just
in case Hitler couldn't be embroiled in a war with Poland, Chamberlain's reserve
position was to leave open a channel between Romania and Poland which would lead
straight to the Soviet borders via the Baltic states.
Only a few days before Molotov's speech Germany and Italy
rounded off their preparations for war with the formal consummation of their
'Pact of Steel'. Two days later the British Cabinet met to discuss the ominous
international situation. The minutes of their meeting make interesting reading.
Agenda items included- Russia, Anglo-German relations, Danzig and the
reinforcement of troops in Egypt. The discussion focused on the question of
whether or not to pursue talks with the USSR for a mutual assistance treaty.
After a long and involved discussion it was decided to continue negotiations in
order, as one minister observed, to strengthen the British position so further
initiatives could be taken in the search for appeasement.
It was agreed that negotiations with Russia could indeed
result in: a more "positive" policy, namely, agreement with Germany!
This was the reality behind Chamberlain's damascene
conversion from appeasement. But Chamberlain, who according to a diary entry of
Nevile Henderson, counted the silver spoons after receiving Soviet ambassador
Maisky at 10 Downing Street, felt deep loathing for the first socialist state.
And according to Alexander. Cadogan, the Prime Minister experienced 'revulsion'
at the very thought of alliance with Russia.
But Chamberlain, Halifax and Daladier were coming in for
growing criticism. Winston Churchill, who deferred to no-one in his detestation
of Soviet Russia or his romantic attachment to Empire, told the House of
Commons: 'I have been quite unable to understand what is the objection to making
the agreement with Russia. . . for a triple alliance between England, France and
Russia. . . solely for the purpose of resisting aggression... Clearly Russia is
not going to enter into agreements unless she is treated as an equal, and not
only treated as an equal, but has confidence that the methods employed by the
allies.. . are such as would be likely to lead to success... Without an
effective Eastern front there can be no satisfactory defence of our interests in
The Soviet Government proposed that the British speed up
the crucial talks by including a senior figure with plenipotentiary powers, such
as Lord Halifax, in their delegation to Moscow. This was reasonable. As Lloyd
George was to point out 'Lord Halifax visited Hitler and Goering. Chamberlain
flew into the Fuhrer 's arms three times in succession. He went specially to
Rome to embrace Mussolini, to present him with official recognition of the
conquest of Abyssinia, and practically to tell him that we would not bother
about his invasion of Spain'. But for the Moscow talks the Government could only
find William Strang, a middle ranking civil servant. Chamberlain and Halifax 'do
not want any association with Russia', concluded Lloyd George.
The Moscow talks were a sham from the start. On 29 June
Zhdanov denounced in Pravda, British and French stalling: out of 75 days taken
for the exchange of views 16 had been spent by the Soviet Government preparing
its replies and 59 days were lost due to delays and procrastination by the
Western side: 'this all shows that [they] do not want a treaty with the USSR
based on the principles of equality and reciprocity, despite their
protestations. . . . they want us to play the part of a hired labourer. . . The
English and French do not want a real treaty, a treaty acceptable to the USSR.
.. they want to talk about a treaty and , gambling on the alleged intransigence
of the Soviet Union for the benefit of public opinion in their own countries,
make it easier for themselves to make a deal with the aggressors'. . . While the
Western Powers procrastinated, the crisis over Danzig deepened.
It was obvious to the general public, never mind political
leaderships, that a German attack on Poland was weeks away.
Not until the release of Cabinet papers 30 years later did
Strang's secret instructions for the conduct of the Moscow talks come to light.
He had been told that 'the draft treaty should be as short and simple in its
terms as possible. . . It is realised that this may leave loopholes in the text
and possibly lead to differences in the interpretation of the treaty at a later
In other words, Strang was told to create a swindle which
the British could later disown at their leisure.
Herbert von Dirksen, Reich ambassador to Britain in
1938-39, called the British tactic 'Zwillingspolitik'- a twin track diplomacy
whose primary objective was to encourage Hitler to come to an agreement.
Dirksen's papers were discovered after the Soviet Army
passed through his estate at Groeditzberg in 1945. Among them were documents
detailing the secret negotiations between Hitler and Chamberlain which continued
right through the summer and to which the Moscow talks were merely a side-show.
On 22 July 1939, a few days before the Moscow talks
resumed, the London papers were filled with a sensational story which was to
make headlines around the world. Chamberlain proposed offering Germany a loan of
one billion pounds sterling (4 billion US dollars) - an enormous sum.
Secret talks between Hitler and Chamberlain, who tries to bribe Germany
The story was leaked by the French, who feared the British
were selling them out to Germany. There was an instant clamour in the press and
political circles. The UK government's embarrassment was compounded by the
German response. Hitler rejected the offer 'with indignation'. Hudson's proposal
for a loan supposedly linked to German disarmament was dismissed as 'the fantasy
of a government which has lost its grip on reality'. Hitler denounced an
'arrogant and shameless' offer which suggested Britain thought she was dealing
with a 'defeated enemy'. But Dirksen's papers revealed a much more sinister
story of Anglo-German collusion designed to conceal the real, and far more
substantive negotiations going on by means of a synthetic hullabaloo over
These negotiations had begun more than a month earlier.
Dirksen explained the reasons for secrecy: 'the problem
which is puzzling the sponsors of these plans [i.e. Chamberlain and Halifax]
most is how to start the negotiations. Public opinion is so inflamed that if
plans to negotiate with Germany became public they would immediately be
torpedoed'. Discussions took place between Hitler's economic adviser Wohlthat
and Sir Horace Wilson, a member of Chamberlain's kitchen cabinet. The essence of
Chamberlain's proposal, relayed to Wohlthat, was as follows.
Wohlthat was told 'there were still three big regions in
the world where Germany and England could find wide opportunities for activity:
the British Empire, China and Russia. England alone could not adequately take
care of her vast empire and it would be quite possible for Germany to be given a
rather comprehensive share. Just as little could Japan satisfy all China
economically; in Russia the situation was similar'. Wilson went on to say that
'the British government had in view the conclusion of two pacts with Germany:
the first on non-aggression and the second on non-intervention' in exchange for
which, Chamberlain 'would end the British "guarantee" policy and agree
to an acceptable settlement of the problems (sic) in Eastern Europe'.
Additionally, the British would prevail on France to
abrogate her Mutual Assistance Pact with Russia and abandon all her ties in
South-East Europe. It was made clear that the British 'guarantee' to Poland was
nothing more than a device to achieve the main aim- a broad alliance with Hitler
The British wanted a 'non-intervention pact' in order to
secure a general demarcation of spheres of influence throughout the world; this
would be combined with an economic agreement which amounted to an eventual
coalescing of the German and British economies in a mutual exploitation of each
country's colonial empires. There was discussion of the 'need to open and
exploit' world markets- including China and the USSR. Just in case anything had
been left out, Wilson commented that, if Hitler had any other demands, 'the
Fuhrer only has to take a clean sheet of paper and list the questions he is
interested in'. These talks were continued in Berlin through early August, when
Britain also agreed 'to recognize East Europe as Germany's natural lebensraum
(living space)'; to settle the colonial question and end 'Germany's
'Agreement with Germany is still Britain's dearest wish' wrote Dirksen. British efforts to woo Hitler continued into August. Sir Horace Wilson met Fritz Hesse, a Ribbentrop aide, at his Kensington town house to convey a new offer by Chamberlain to conclude a 25-year 'defensive alliance' with Germany. Hesse wanted clarification: did this mean the British would take Germany's side in a war with the Soviet Union? Wilson replied that it did.
Hitler did not respond directly to the latest British
overtures. His main concern was that the Soviet Union might still manage to
persuade the French and British to negotiate seriously for a mutual assistance
pact. His own overtures to the Soviet Government for a Non-aggression Treaty now
became more insistent; and they were buttressed, of course, with the plentiful
evidence of British bad faith now available to Hitler.
In any case, Hitler had no worries about the likely British
response to a German attack on Poland; he was now convinced, and could hardly be
otherwise, that Britain would not go to war for the sake of Poland.
Even if the British and French were obliged to honour their
'guarantees' to the extent of declaring war, the Reich would be in no actual
danger from the West. So confident was Hitler of this that Germany's western
borders were left undefended while the Wehrmacht was hurled at Poland.
At the time the French could mobilise more than 100
divisions, 2000 aircraft and 3000 tanks.
But this huge force remained immobilised behind the Maginot
Faced with German intransigence and expansionism, the
Western Powers writhed on the hooks of their own opportunism and adventurism.
The tale of the Moscow Military Mission of the British and
French allies reads more like a Feydeau face than the curtain-raiser to a war
which cost so many lives.
The Military Mission grew out of the Moscow talks for a
collective- security pact, led by a junior Foreign Office official, Strang, in
the summer of 1939.
The Soviet government made plain it wanted a real
bells-and- whistles treaty, not mere paper protocols. The Czechs had already
seen the benefits of British guarantees, as the Poles were soon to do. As
Zhdanov said, 'they want us to be their coolies', but Stalin had other ideas.
So from the start the Soviet side put forward a condition
that any political treaty should be supplemented with a military convention, and
they should come into force at the same time and constitute 'one single whole'.
The pact, if there was going to be one, had to have teeth.
The Military Mission staff talks were necessary to agree on
operational matters in military co-operation between the powers in time of war.
These were concrete issues to do with force levels, dispositions and military
strategy. That kind of thing, of course, was just what the French and British
wanted to avoid at all costs.
The British Mission was headed by Admiral Drax, a
semi-retired naval with no experience of operational planning and known to be
violently anti-Soviet. His French opposite number, General Doumenc, headed a
mission as notably undistinguished and incompetent as the British.
The British Board of Trade sent the mission to Russia on
the slowest seaworthy boat they on Augusts 1939.
While it crawled around the coast of Europe at 13 knots the
officers of the missions played table tennis to pass the time. In order to avoid
the talks taking a serious turn their instructions included various draft
treaties which could be put to the Russians. Hammered together out of general
formulas, abstract principles and self-evident platitudes, these were the raw
material for what were intended to be protracted discussions.
Apart from avoiding productive talks the other main task
set the delegations was one of espionage. Thus the missions' instructions
including questions on such matters as the calibre of Red Army leadership, the
specifications of Soviet aviation fuel, Soviet naval policy in the Baltic and
White Seas and so on.
In the course of their voyage the Missions' senior members
evolved a system of secret signals for use during the talks. If delicate issues
arose on which positions needed to be coordinated, or if someone became
indiscreet or compromised, the other members of the missions were to scratch,
rub or blow their noses. To facilitate these manoeuvres Admiral Drax developed a
terrifying cough. Doumenc was endowed with a fine aquiline nose which seemed to
elongate as the talks progressed and the Western delegations became mired in
self-contradiction and a mendacious frivolising of the serious issues at stake.
The French and British intended to drag on the talks, for
months if need be, until either Hitler was pressurised into reaching agreement
with them, or until Germany attacked Poland. In such a situation, with the
Wehrmacht right on Soviet borders, the USSR would presumably have the greatest
difficulty in remaining outside the conflict whatever the then state of its
relations with the Western Powers.
But the talks took only a few days to reach a climax; the
Soviet side were simply not prepared to be fobbed off by the obfuscatory tactics
of the French and British.
The talks broke down over the question of Soviet troops
being allowed onto Polish or Romanian territory in order to make contact with
the enemy. Replying to Marshal Voroshilov, Doumenc said: 'I agree with the
Marshal that the concentration of Soviet troops must take place principally in
the areas indicated by the Marshal, and the distribution of these troops will be
made at your discretion. I think that the weak points of the Polish-Romanian
front are its flanks and their limiting point. We shall speak of the left flank
when we deal with the question of communications'.
'I want you to reply to my direct question', repeated
Voroshilov, whose patience finally gave out when confronted with this
unintelligible evasion. 'I said nothing about Soviet troop concentrations. I
asked whether the British and French General Staffs envisage passage of our
troops towards East Prussia or other points to fight the common enemy'.
General Doumenc: 'I think that Poland and Romania will
implore you, Marshal, to come to their assistance'.
Voroshilov: 'And perhaps they will not. It is not evident
At this point, accompanied by vigorous nose-rubbing, the
decrepit Drax broke in. 'If Poland and Romania do not ask for Soviet help they
will soon become German provinces, and then the USSR will decide how to act', a
statement which laid bare the totality of British wishful thinking on the
subject of a Soviet-German war.
After this the talks were adjourned at Soviet insistence
until the Franco-British Missions could get an answer to this question from
their governments (they had no powers to negotiate outside their narrow remit,
let alone sign an agreement).
The question of allowing Soviet troops through Poland was
crucial, decisive. The Red Army (self-evidently!) had to have access to the
Front, if military assistance to Poland was to mean anything.
But the refusal of France and Britain to put pressure on
the Poles over the question of passage to the Front in the event of war, was
indicative of Franco-British aims.
To have taken the question seriously would entailed serious
discussion of the whole framework of military collaboration between the four
countries, who would then be allies bound by common treaty commitments to take
definite and prearranged steps in the event of aggression. Thus the French, for
example, would have had to make commitments to open an offensive front on
Germany's western borders.
But the British and French counted on the mindless
intransigence of the Polish colonels to abort such menacing discussions. The
Poles said they were defending Christian Europe against the Godless
Bolsheviks—and simultaneously defending themselves against Hitler! It is hard
to feel sorry for them, especially because it was their fellow-countrymen who
paid the price for their folly (the colonels mostly lived in quiet retirement in
the London suburb of Kensington).
The British goal was to embroil the Soviet Union in a war
of annihilation with Nazi Germany and for the Soviet Union to begin such a war
on its own territory, in other words in the most disadvantageous circumstances.
For the same reason the Western Powers had refused to grant guarantees to the
Baltic states against 'indirect' aggression, thus leaving the way open for
Germany to sponsor the overtly fascist elements in their right wing governments
into coups, resulting in these Soviet neighbours falling into German hands.
And all the while the Moscow talks were still dragging on,
Chamberlain orchestrated his secret talks with the Germans. As we have seen,
these were aimed at turning the Non-aggression Pact which Chamberlain signed
with Hitler in Munich in 1938, into a thoroughgoing collaboration with Nazi
Germany in all spheres- political, economic and military. The Moscow talks for a
mutual assistance treaty—like the unilateral guarantees liberally distributed
to East European countries—were a charade. In his talks with Hitler,
Chamberlain pledged to break off the simultaneous talks with the USSR should
agreement with Germany be reached.
It is worth considering what such a plan would have entailed for the USSR had Chamberlain succeeded. Still engaged in its attempts to construct a European framework for collective security, the Soviet Union would have found itself completely isolated. It would have had to face single-handed a united front of capitalist countries secretly formed and directed against it, with Germany armed to the teeth as a strike force.
Chamberlain's plan thus posed a deadly danger to the Soviet
people. As Churchill was to point out, 'a wholly different policy was required
for the safety of Russia... The Soviet government were convinced by Munich and
much else that neither Britain nor France would fight till they were attacked,
and would not be much good then. The gathering storm was about to break. Russia
must look after herself.
Germany became increasingly persistent in her own overtures
to the Soviet Union. Germany too wanted a Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact, an
option which the Soviets government had steadfastly resisted during its search
for authentic collective security. Now Hitler sent a personal message to Stalin
asking for an agreement to be concluded, and despatched Ribbentrop to Moscow for
the purpose. The effective collapse of the Moscow Military talks and the obvious
imminence of a German attack on Poland forced the Soviet hand.
The Soviet-German Non-aggression Treaty was signed on
August 24, one week before the war began. Both sides understood from the start
its real meaning- the pact was a truce which suited their temporary convenience.
On August 17 Britain's Washington ambassador got word from
US intelligence sources that the signing of a Soviet-German Non-aggression
Treaty was imminent. This was one of the possibilities most feared by Daladier
and Chamberlain. It meant the collapse, at least temporarily, of their planned
war between the USSR and Germany. This did not mean, as Churchill knew, that
they would then be in the position of having to wage war on Hitler unaided. The
British had already sent a special emissary, Baron William de Ropp, to Berlin a
few days before. One of his tasks, during his discussions with Alfred Rosenberg,
head of the Nazi Party's foreign policy department, was to spell out the British
stand in the event of a German attack on Poland.
Rosenberg was told the British would fight a defensive
'war1, that is to say, would take no action in defence of Poland or in
retaliation for Germany's attack on that country. In particular there would be
no aerial bombardment of German territory- and the Germans agreed to
reciprocate, a decision which held throughout the 'phoney war' period. This
'deal' struck between de Ropp and Rosenberg would leave open the possibility of
quickly ending the war because, de Ropp said, 'neither the British Empire nor
Germany would wish to risk their future for the sake of a state which had ceased
to exist'. This discussion pointed the way to a collusion which continued
throughout the first months of the war, until Hitler struck at France in May
1940. But the British had still to deal with the possibility which now loomed up
of a Soviet agreement with Germany.
The British now resorted to tactics disgraceful even by
their own standards. So deep is the shame which still attaches to British
actions at this time that official records have been doctored to conceal the
truth. Regrettably, Western historians have tended to connive in the cover up.
When Britain's Washington ambassador got word of
Ribbentrop's impending visit to Moscow he at once sent the news to the Foreign
Office. According to the official version of events, the telegram did not arrive
until 22 August, a delay of four days. During this time the British had one last
chance to save the peace and fend off the impending catastrophe. At this final
and crucial moment their actions would be conclusively revealing about their
Five days later when the Soviet-German Treaty became a fact
the Western media raised an incredible storm of synthetic anger, claiming that
both Britain and France had allegedly sought an alliance with the USSR but that
the latter had 'double-crossed' them. This myth, assiduously fostered by western
historians, still remains ingrained in popular consciousness.
It is a myth which depends crucially on the circumstantial
fact of the delayed diplomatic telegram. For had the telegram arrived on 18
August the British government would have had ample time to act to forestall the
collapse of the Moscow military talks. A drastic step by the British government,
such as a telegram to Moscow saying that Lord Halifax or the Chief of the
Imperial General Staff, General Ironside, were ready to come to Moscow with
plenipotentiary powers to sign the treaty, could have changed the course of
events drastically and within hours. Nothing stood in the way, even at this
eleventh hour, of a collective security arrangement capable of ensuring peace,
other than the warmongering intransigence of the British themselves.
The British, of course, did not send Halifax to retrieve
the stalled talks. A treaty with the Russians was no part of the schemes of the
appeasers. What they actually did was to send a British intelligence officer,
Sydney Cotton, on a secret mission to Germany. He was to try to persuade Hermann
Goering to return with him to London to meet and negotiate face to face with
Neville Chamberlain. In a last twist of perfidy, an act of actual desperation,
Chamberlain wanted to buy off Hitler's proposed pact with the Soviet Union by
making the Germans a still better offer.
'Agreement with Germany is still Britain's dearest wish'
Goering agreed to fly in secretly on 23 August. Hitler
however was still only concerned to beat the British at their own game of
setting potential enemies at each other's throats. Goering didn't turn up;
Hitler no longer had anything to fear from the British and was now only
concerned to ensure Soviet non-intervention in the forthcoming attack on Poland.
Only in 1971 did incontrovertible evidence appear proving
that Halifax received on 18 August the Washington ambassador's telegram warning
of the impending conclusion of a German-Soviet Non-aggression Treaty- that is,
the day after it was sent.
This revelation made it finally impossible to suggest, as
several generations of historians and publicists have tried to, that it was the
Soviet Union which ditched the Moscow talks and made war inevitable. But in
reality the circumstantial evidence of British duplicity was undeniable from the
The collapse of the Moscow talks meant that the last
obstacle to Hitler's next move in the
grand design for European and world domination had been
removed. On September 1st German units crossed the Polish border. Chamberlain
and Daladier made last desperate efforts to involve Mussolini in some form of
'mediation' before public opinion forced the two governments to declare war on
Germany on 3 September.
There now commenced what the French called 'drole de
guerre', the phoney war. The French army, that 'mirror of the national virtues',
settled in behind its Maginot Line. The British began to organise an
expeditionary force of seven divisions. Chamberlain broadcast a speech in
German, in which he declared his attitude to the 'perfidy of the Fiihrer' and
gave a long list of Hitler's broken pledges. 'Hitler', he ended, 'has sworn to
you for years that he was the mortal enemy of Bolshevism; he is now its ally.
Can you wonder that his word is, for us, not worth the paper it is written on?'
That at least made clear what Chamberlain thought Hitler's
real error was. This speech marked the beginning of an intense propaganda
campaign in Britain and France, and also in the US, to prepare public opinion
not for the sacrifices and burdens entailed by real hostilities and by a real
attempt to discharge British obligations to Poland and other countries ground
under the nazi jackboot- but for a very different goal.
The French and British, backed by Roosevelt in the US, now
began to campaign with brazen and shameless openness for a repudiation of the
war against fascist Germany and for the conversion of Germany and Italy into
allies in a war against the Soviet Union. A chorus arose from many and varied
sources, all calling for the same thing- a war against Bolshevism, a creed which
according to the Daily Telegraph is 'as immoral, as murderous, as anti-social as
that of Hitler Germany'.
In the words of the Methodist Recorder there should be a
war for a 'new order' in Europe, a war in which 'France and Germany, Britain and
perhaps Italy would have fought side by side in...comradeship.'
As Lenin had urged long before, "We must explain the
real situation to the people, show them that war is hatched in the greatest
secrecy... We must explain to the people again and again in the most concrete
way, how matters stood... and why they could not have been otherwise..." [CW,
33, 1966, 447]
And: "examine the policy pursued prior to the war, the
policy that led to and brought about the [First World] war.... [we should not
forget] the question of the class character of the war; what caused that war,
what classes are waging it, and what historical and historico-economic
conditions gave rise to it.'
Most important: To whose advantage is it?'
Prefiguring the supersession of inter-imperial rivalry by
an epoch of class struggle on the international plane, Lenin said:
"... in the present world situation following the
imperialist war, reciprocal relations between peoples and the world political
system as a whole are determined by the struggle waged by a small group of
imperialist nations against the Soviet movement and the Soviet states headed by
Soviet Russia..." [CW, 31, 1966, 241]
This foreshadowed the form taken by imperialist rivalry
during most of this century, which has characterised by the coalescing of the
robbers into one hegemonic band. This is ultra-imperialism, but not the kindly,
meliorative thing Kautsky foresaw, but the decadent, planet-destroying
capitalism we now enjoy.
Lenin's notion that inter-imperial rivalry was bound to be
overlaid by conflict between the world proletariat and world capitalism, was
adopted by J.V.Stalin.
Speaking to a Central Committee plenum in 1925, Stalin said
that in a future war "we will not be able to stand idly by. We will have to
take part, but we will be the last to take part so that we may throw the
decisive weight onto the scales..."