Could WWII have been avoided?

July 2, 2012

(Editor’s Note: These two articles by Gabriel Jackson were published in Spanish in El País, on February 11 and March 13 of this year. We thank El País for the permission to republish them in their English original.)

Part I – A neglected aspect of 20th-century history

Salvador Allende

In November, 2011, the important American liberal weekly The Nation published a most interesting article by Ariel Dorfman, the distinguished Chilean writer and longtime exile and opponent of the Pinochet dictatorship. The article, “Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile,” deals with Dorfman’s gradual change of attitude towards the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. He felt equally sympathetic to his father, who tended to accept as a practical necessity, the oppressive aspects of Stalinism, and his mother, “who had always been wary of communism’s shortcomings.” Thus for Ariel as a young man “Salvador Allende was the perfect combination of my two progenitors: an admirer of Cuba and a fervent Marxist, he insisted at the same time that we could build a more just social order without having to repress our adversaries.”

After General Pinochet had assassinated President Allende and established a repressive dictatorship under United States patronage the young exile Dorfman noted that “the international fight against the dictatorship was spearheaded by the Soviet Union,” and that “the Chilean Communist Party … constituted the backbone of the resistance to Pinochet.” These two facts led him, despite his increasing doubts about Soviet policies, to bite “my tongue whenever the Soviets or the Communists were attacked.”

In the years from 1973 to 1982, as an exile working against the Chilean dictatorship in both Western Europe and the Western hemisphere, Dorfman accepted the Communist leadership of that resistance with increasing doubts as to the repressive aspects of that leadership. A particularly unhappy meeting occurred when he was introduced to the German novelist and painter Günter Grass in 1975. The latter had recently attended

a conference of solidarity with the Czech resistance to the Soviet occupation, which the Chilean Socialists had refused to attend. “Don’t they realize,” Günter asked, “that the Prague spring and the Chilean revolution have both been crushed by similar forces, one by the Soviet Empire, the other by the Americans?”

Dorfman, and Allende himself, had both condemned the Soviet occupation of Prague when it had occurred in 1968. To Grass, this made the Chilean Socialist position in 1975 all the more disgraceful, and spoiled what was to have been a friendly and mutually admiring personal meeting. For Dorfman there were numerous other meetings in the seventies with democratic leftist exiles from the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. “My very slow opening to the victims of Communist experiments,” he writes, “was accompanied by a parallel development: the progressive loosening of the bonds securing me to my own party.”

“Irreplaceable as these organizations might be in a war against a ferocious enemy with an army of its own,” Dorfman asked himself, “did they have to swamp every aspect of life, force a choral answer to each and every problem? How to build a democratic society with parties that were self-perpetuating and prone to totalizing, as suffocating as the catacombs we were hiding in?” And the moment of “moral independence” came for him in 1982, in Washington DC, when he accompanied American friends to a meeting at the Polish embassy in support of the Polish workers resisting the recently established dictatorship of General Jaruselski. “Seven years after rejecting Günter Grass’s reasoning about the need to concurrently denouce repression originating in both the United States and the Communist countries, I had found a band of sisters and brothers who were impeccably dedicated to that very objective, who understood that one cannot be for freedom in Nicaragua and against it in Hungary, that one could not deplore US support of Pinochet and applaud” a Soviet- inspired military dictatorship in Poland.

Reading Ariel Dorfman’s fascinating “confessions” reminded me forcibly of some of my own experiences with the Communist Party in the USA. I was a second year high school student in July, 1936, when the military uprising of July 18 initiated the 30-month Spanish Civil War. Throughout that war I was among the thousands of American teenagers who supported the several committees of secular liberals, protestants, Jews, Quakers, socialists, and communists who were advocating American political support, and collecting funds to send medical supplies and food to the Republican zone. My Communist older brother was hoping at this same time to recruit me to join the Young Communist League.

But in August, 1936 Stalin staged the first of the incredible treason trials in which major leaders of the Bolshevik revolution confessed their plots to kill Stalin, to turn over the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan , and to commit other heinous crimes. My brother thought the sensational, mutually accusing, confessions proved the correctness of Stalin’s purges while I wondered how those confessions had been secured without leaving traces of torture.

Between August 1936 and the fall of 1938, when Stalin himself suggested that the purges had been slightly excessive, thousands of loyal Soviet citizens, communists and non-communists alike, were either executed or exiled to Siberian concentration camps. During those same two years I doubted increasingly whether I would ever join the Communist Party. But also, I and a great many leftists all over the world, did not desert the Spanish Republic because the most powerful single member of the Bolshevik government was a paranoid monster.

Until late in 1937 I continued to belong to a “Popular Front” committee collecting money for medical aid to Republican Spain. Our student committee had an adult communist “adviser” who attended our meetings and gave us what were often very interesting reports on foreign affairs, Popular Front activities in the USA, Canada, and England, etc. But at one of our meetings in the autumn of 1937 he described the financial needs of the Communist weekly The New Masses, and followed his talk with a motion to use this week’s financial contributions to save the magazine. During the discussion I asked him how he could justify saving a party publication by using money collected solely in the name of the committee on medical aid to Spain. He replied with an embarrassed smile that the two aims were part of the same cause. The group agreed to postpone a vote on the motion. Seventy-five years later I honestly cannot remember what decision was eventually made, but after that meeting I knew with full certainty that I would never join the CP.

I have not space here to speak of the Communist policies of which I approved in relation to the Spanish Civil War, policies of which I was also reminded while reading the essay by Ariel Dorfman. But the monster Stalin, with whom the Western powers desperately cooperated in order to save themselves in World War II, had in fact proposed from 1935 until 1939 a defensive alliance which I believe could have avoided World War II, at least in the form that it occurred. I promise to treat that question in my next article.

Part II – A second neglected aspect

In my article published on February 11 concerning the dilemmas of Western democratic Leftists in their relations with Communist parties, I promised to treat in my next article a Communist effort of which I thoroughly approved: namely, the Soviet effort from late 1934 until the Munich Pact of September, 1938, to convince the major Western powers to accept a purely defensive alliance against the constantly expressed military threats of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (the two powers which were making certain General Franco’s eventual victory in the Spanish Civil War).

The great majority of books on twentieth-century history treat the period from 1917 to 1991 as one of unremitting rivalry between Soviet communism and Western capitalist democracy, a rivalry suspended from mid-1941 to mid-1945 by the need of both parties to defend themselves against Nazi-Fascist-Japanese military aggression. They say very little, or speak disparagingly, of the Soviet effort, in the name of “collective security,” to form a defensive military alliance between Soviet Russia in the east and the democratic capitalist powers, England and France, in the west.

The absence of their own dreamed-of world revolution, and the development of strongly nationalist authoritarian governments in much of Europe between 1923 (Mussolini) and Hitler (1933), had led the Soviets to reconsider their attitude toward the capitalist world. Instead of characterizing it simply as an enemy to be destroyed, they distinguished between authoritarian and racist governments, and those which had genuine parliaments with clean elections, and middle classes which were willing to recognize the rights of trade unions and of Marxist parties. Josef Stalin, who by 1930 had consolidated his power as the supreme leader of the Soviet government, announced the formula of “socialism in one country” (the USSR) and the desire to cooperate diplomatically and militarily with the democratic governments of Europe.

In 1933 the rapid consolidation of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany, and Hitler’s constant threats to destroy the Soviet Union, motivated Stalin all the more to seek an understanding with the democratic powers. As of late 1934 his foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov , whose wife was English, and was himself a great admirer of both English and French culture, tried repeatedly, at the League of Nations meetings in Geneva and in private talks with English and French diplomats, to convince Western diplomats of the necessity for a defensive military alliance to protect both the Soviet Union and the democratic capitalist powers from the threat of a Nazi war of conquest.

Why did the West never seriously consider the Stalin-Litvinov offer? First we must understand that in response to Hitler’s demands British sentiments were decisive. France remained mortally afraid of the Germany which had defeated her in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and had almost reached Paris during the War of 1914-1918. And the United States, in the years between the two World Wars, fully accepted British di-plomatic leadership. The Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany to accept large territorial losses and huge reparations which were intended to make Germany pay the entire cost of French and Belgian physical reconstruction. But by 1933 a large percentage of Britishers, including members of the Liberal and Labor parties, were convinced that attributing the entire political and moral responsibility for the war to Imperial Germany had been a serious error.

In addition the British governing classes shared, in a more “respectable” form, the race prejudices of the Nazis. They did not approve of Nazi concentration camps or of the smashing of Jewish shop windows, but they very definitely thought that the world would be much better off if the “Aryan”, “Nordic” elements of the English-speaking countries, and of Germany and Scandinavia, would exercise the political leadership of the “civilized world”. They were therefore psychologically ready to accept Hitler’s demands not only to re-occupy the Rhineland (1936) and to annex Austria (1938), but also to rebuild Germany’s military forces.

If the British governments in the years 1936 to 1938 had felt any serious concern for the defense of political democracy on the European continent, the Spanish Civil War would have offered a clear opportunity to check the military ambitions of Hitler. However, from day one of that war the Baldwin and later Chamberlain governments gave covert economic and diplomatic aid to the Insurgent generals, and warned successive French governments not to gave any military or economic aid to that Republic which British conservatives considered to be dominated by communists and anarchists. As for the Soviets, they aided the Republic sporadically between September, 1936 and March, 1939—the sporadic nature of their contribution being largely due to preoccupations with Japan’s military probing along the Siberian border, and with the British coldness to the idea of collective security in Europe.

After Hitler had invaded and annexed Austria without meeting any diplomatic or military resistance, he loudly accused the democratic republic of Czechoslovakia of mistreating its German minority, and demanded that the portions of Czech territory in which 50% or more of the inhabitants were of German “race” should be transferred forthwith to German sovereignty. This demand was not as acceptable to the British government as his earlier demands had been. Hitler restrained the Nazi minority in Czechoslovakia in the rare moments when the British sounded as though they might oppose the annexation. But in early September the British Prime Minister organized the four power “Munich Conference” (Britain, France, Germany, and Italy) which effectively put the fate of Czechoslovakia in Hitler’s hands, while not consulting either the Czechoslovak government or the Soviet Union, with which Czechoslovakia had a defense treaty of the type that Russia was hoping to negotiate with France and England.

For its combination of political stupidity and moral cowardice, it is famous as the policy of “Appeasement”. It was a policy which, by insulting the Soviet Union, led Stalin to seek his own agreement with Germany, thereby giving Hitler the opportunity to initiate World War Two without having to fight on two fronts, the problem which had defeated Germany in the First World War. And the only military force which was finally able to save democratic Europe was the defensive alliance of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union from June, 1941 to mid-1945, an alliance which the Soviets had sought from late 1934 to September, 1938.

What in this article I am calling a neglected aspect of twentieth-century history is that five year effort of the Soviet government. After Hitler betrayed his own September signature at Munich by occupying Prague, capital of the Czechoslovak Republic, on April 15, 1939, the British Foreign Office began to look for allies in the East in case Hitler would soon proceed to a general war of conquest. After unproductive discussions with the southeastern European states and Turkey, they finally decided to approach the Soviets. But by that time, late May and June, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were already negotiating the treaty of alliance which they announced on August 22, 1939.

Gabriel Jackson is a member of ALBA’s Board of Governors. He is the author, most recently, of Juan Negrín: Physiologist, Socialist and Republican War Leader.