Hitler's ideal war weapon

Grand Delusion - 1939

June 9, 2000

The study of the Soviet role in world politics is thriving as never before. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there has been a boom in books, articles and conferences devoted to the history of Soviet foreign policy. Inspired by the opening of Moscow's archives, much of this work, often by younger scholars, has centred on the post-1945 cold war. An emergent theme of the new scholarship has been the importance ascribed to the role of ideology in Soviet foreign policy. As Nigel Gould-Davies put it, "ideology is back", in the sense that the ideological trappings of the Soviet state - its socialistic aims, its Marxist theorising and its communist discourse - are seen to matter in its foreign policy.

These two books are by scholars from another historical tradition, one that is more inclined to view Moscow's manoeuvrings on the world stage in terms of realpolitik . Though the ideological factor is far from absent in these texts, its source is not so much Moscow as the anti-communist opponents of the Soviet regime.

Michael Carley's book examines the failed Anglo-Soviet-French triple alliance negotiations of 1939 - the alliance that never was. The story of the triple alliance negotiations has been told many times, but Carley tells it mainly from the Soviet point of view. Moreover, in a unique synthesis, he integrates into his narrative the British and French role in the last pre-war effort to form a great power front against Hitler. Carley's sources are the British and French archives together with a large number of Soviet documents on Moscow's pre-war diplomacy. With such detailed evidence, Carley constructs a fascinating, lively and multi-perspectival narrative of Anglo-Soviet-French relations from 1938-39.

Carley positions himself as a "counter-revisionist" in the appeasement debate, asserting that there was an alternative to appeasement. He forcefully reinstates the anti-appeasement critique of Anglo-French foreign policy and insists that there was a feasible alternative to negotiations and deals with Hitler: an anti-fascist alliance with the Soviet Union. The failure to achieve such an alliance, argues Carley, was primarily the result of "ideological anti-communism" in Britain and France.

Carley sees two trends among British and French decision-makers in the 1930s: "realists" and "ideologues". Realists in both countries urged an anti-German alliance with the Soviet Union. Ideologues, on the other hand, were obsessed by the war-revolution nexus - the fear that the Soviets had much to gain by a new world war that would lead to revolutionary upheavals in Europe. For such western ideologues, anti-communism was far more important than anti-fascism. This is not a new view of the driving force behind appeasement, but Carley sustains his argument that "interwar anti-communism was an important cause of the second world war" by detailed exposure of how ideologue influences undermined the triple alliance negotiations.

As well as British and French anti-communism, there was the East European variety. Poles, Romanians and Balts also perceived a Soviet communist threat and did what they could to impede Moscow's efforts at a western alliance - an arrangement that might have opened the door to Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe. Carley is quite clear (and the evidence bears him out) that this was not Moscow's aim in 1939 and that the Soviets sincerely sought an anti-fascist alliance that would defend the independence and sovereignty of small states as well as safeguard Soviet security interests. Yet, by the end of the second world war, something very like the war-revolution nexus had materialised in Eastern Europe, albeit via a highly contingent and convoluted route. Were the anti-communist ideologues so off-beam then? To what extent was the second world war as much Stalin's war as Hitler's?

The hypothesis that Stalin played a precipitate role in the outbreak and expansion of the second world war is a minority viewpoint among historians but currently a highly vocalised one, especially in Germany and Russia. The advocates of what he calls the "revolutionary war" theory are the main target of Gabriel Gorodetsky's important book.

Like Carley, Gorodetsky has reaped the harvest of Soviet archival access. His book, based on a dazzling array of Soviet diplomatic, political, military and intelligence sources, liberally spiced with British, Bulgarian, French, Swedish and Yugoslav archives, is one of the most interesting and innovative studies of Soviet foreign policy for some years.

Gorodetsky's subject is Soviet-German relations 1939-1941. His starting point is the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 - Stalin's alternative to the failed triple alliance negotiations with the West. Gorodetsky characterises, as does Carley, Stalin's pact with Hitler as a purely pragmatic measure designed to stave off war and to prevent a capitalist coalition directed against the Soviet Union. Subsequently, Stalin pursued a geopolitical strategy in Europe of securing Soviet spheres of influence in the Baltic and Balkans and, crucially, control of the Black Sea Straits - a traditional goal of Tsarist foreign policy. Gorodetsky emphasises that while Stalin hoped to harmonise his foreign policy actions with a continuation of the rapprochement with Germany, his moves in the Balkans and elsewhere actually brought him into acute conflict with Hitler.

At the heart of Gorodetsky's text is a brilliant reconstruction of Stalin's policy on the eve of the German attack on Russia in June 1941. Gorodetsky decisively refutes the view that Stalin was preparing a pre-emptive strike in summer 1941 in pursuit of some kind of programme of revolutionary expansionism. Instead, Gorodetsky demonstrates Stalin's strivings for a prolongation of the peace with Germany even as Hitler prepared to attack.

Stalin's belief in the possibility of peace on the eve of Operation Barbarossa was rooted in complex interlocking perceptions. Stalin, says Gorodetsky, projected onto Hitler his own pragmatic mode of thinking and believed that the German dictator would not attack Russia if he thought he could make substantial gains short of war, and in any event not before finishing off Britain. Such beliefs were reinforced in Stalin's mind by an ambiguous and contradictory intelligence picture and by perceptions of a split in the German military-political elite between a war party and peace party. There was, in fact, a sort of peace party in the person of Friedrich Werner, Berlin's ambassador in Moscow, and other German advocates of a Russian alliance. But what they said and did was completely at variance with what Hitler intended.

Particularly illuminating is Gorodetsky's analysis of the distorting impact of Stalin's personal domination of the process of policy deliberation and decision-taking. It may have been Hitler's war, but it was Stalin's miscalculations and misperceptions - his grand delusions - that facilitated the surprise attack of June 22 1941 and almost handed victory to the Germans on a plate.

Both Carley and Gorodetsky provide persuasive evidence of the power of realpolitik analysis to illuminate these crucial episodes in pre-war Soviet foreign policy. But some critical queries remain. If there were ideologues in the West, what about those in the Soviet Union? Was Soviet ideological posturing really of no account? How does one explain the ideological as well as territorial expansion of the Soviet system in 1939-1941 (not to speak of the postwar period)? Was Stalin really bereft of ideological aspirations, as Carley and Gorodetsky suggest?

It may well be that the 1939-1941 period was an exceptional one in the history of Soviet foreign policy - a period of exceptional crisis in which an exceptionally powerful dictator ruthlessly subordinated ideology to realpolitik . Ironically, Stalin might have been better advised to stick to ideology. Certainly, he should have taken Hitler's anti-Bolshevik ideological commitments more seriously.

Geoffrey Roberts is statutory lecturer in history, University College, Cork, Ireland.

Grand Delusion

Author - Gabriel Gorodetsky
ISBN - 0 300 07792 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 408

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