Leon Trotsky

The Second World War

(January/March 1940)

First Published: Fourth International [New York], Vol.3 No.8, August 1942, pp.252-254.

EDITORS NOTE: One of the last interviews on the war situation given by Trotsky was that to Julius Klyman, staff correspondent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in January 1940 and again in March. The interview was published in three sections in the Post-Dispatch issues of March 10, 17 and 24 of the same year.

As usual, Trotsky did not content himself with informal verbal answers to the list of broad questions presented by Klyman. He dictated his answers to a secretary and carefully revised them. They are a remarkable example of the bold and yet unpretentious way in which Trotsky analyzed the course of events while they were still transpiring. We publish his answers in two parts, the second of which will appear in our next issue. – Editor, Fourth International, 1942

QUESTION: What is your opinion of the German-Russian alliance? Did Stalin have to make it? If so, what could he earlier have done to avoid it? Russia, in going into the Baltic states and Finland, contended it was compelled to do so to properly defend itself against agression. Do you believe there was any likelihood of Nazi aggression? Do you believe there was any likelihood of an attack by the capitalist democracies?

ANSWER: Foreign policy is an extension and development of domestic policy. In order to understand correctly the Kremlin’s foreign policy, it is always necessary to take into account two factors: on the one hand, the position of the USSR in capitalist encirclement and, on the other, the position of the ruling bureaucracy within the Soviet society. The bureaucracy defends the USSR. But above all it defends itself inside the USSR. The internal position of the bureaucracy is incomparab1y more vulnerable than the international position of the USSR. The bureaucracy is merciless against its disarmed adversaries inside the country. But it is extremely cautious and sometimes even cowardly before its well-armed external enemies. If the Kremlin enjoyed the support of the popular masses and had confidence in the solidity of the Red Army, it could assume a more independent position in relation to both imperialist camps. However, reality is different. The isolation of the totalitarian bureaucracy in its own country threw it into the arms of the nearest, the most aggressive and therefore the most dangerous imperialism.

Already in 1934 Hitler said to Rauschning: “I can conclude an agreement with Soviet Russia whenever I wish.” He had categorical assurances on this account from the Kremlin itself. The former chief of the foreign GPU agency, General Krivitsky, revealed extremely interesting details of the relations between Moscow and Berlin. But, for the sensitive reader of the Soviet press, the Kremlin’s real plans have been no secret since 1933. Above all Stalin was afraid of a great war. In order to escape it, he became an irreplaceable aid to Hitler.

However it would be incorrect to conclude that the five-year campaign of Moscow in favor of a “united front of the democracies” and “collective security” (1935-39) was a pure swindle as is represented now by the same Krivitsky who saw from the quarters of the GPU only one side of the Moscow policy, not perceiving it in its entirety. While Hitler spurned the extended hand, Stalin was compelled to prepare seriously the other alternative, that is, an alliance with the imperialist democracies. The Comintern naturally did not understand what was involved; it simply made “democratic” noises, carrying out the instructions.

On the other hand, Hitler could not turn his face toward Moscow while he needed the friendly neutrality of England. The specter of Bolshevism was necessary, above all, in order to prevent the British Conservatives from eyeing with suspicion the rearmament of Germany. Baldwin and Chamberlain went even further; they directly aided Hitler in forming Greater Germany as a powerful base in Central Europe for world-wide aggression.

Hitler’s turn toward Moscow in the middle of the past year had a substantial basis. From Great Britain Hitler had received all that was possible. One could not expect Chamberlain to grant Hitler Egypt and India in addition to Czechoslovakia. Further expansion of German imperialism could be directed only against Great Britain itself. The Polish question became a turning point. Italy stepped cautiously aside. Count Ciano explained in December 1939 that the Italo-Gernian military alliance, signed ten months before, excluded the entrance of the totalitarian allies into a war within the next three years. However, Germany, under the pressure of its own armaments, could not wait. Hitler assured his Anglo-Saxon cousin that the annexation of Poland was on the road to the east and only to the east. But his conservative adversaries grew tired of being duped. War became inevitable. Under these conditions Hitler had no choice: he played his last trump, an alliance with Moscow. Stalin finally attained the handshake of which he had dreamt unceasingly for six years.

Frequent assurances in the democratic press that Stalin deliberately sought to provoke a world war by his alliance with Hitler, are to be considered absurd. The Soviet bureaucracy fears a great war more than any ruling class in the world: it has little to win but everything to lose. Counting on the world revolution? But even if the thoroughly conservative oligarchy of the Kremlin were striving for the revolution, it knows very well that war does not begin with revolution, but ends with it, and that the Moscow bureaucracy itself will be thrown into an abyss before the revolution comes in the capitalist countries.

During the Moscow negotiations of the past year, the delegates of Great Britain and France played a rather pitiful role. “Do you see these gentlemen?” the German agents asked the rulers of the Kremlin. “If we divide Poland together, they will not so much as move their little finger.” While signing the agreement Stalin, with his political limitations, could expect that there would not be any great war. In any case, he bought himself the possibility of escaping for the next period the necessity of involvement in a war. And nobody knows what is beyond the “next period.”

The invasions of Poland and of the Baltic countries were the inevitable result of the alliance with Germany. It would be rather childish to think that the collaboration of Stalin and Hitler is founded on mutual confidence; these gentlemen understand each other too well. During the Moscow negotiations last summer, the German danger could and had to appear not only very real but also quite immediate. Not without Ribbentrop’s influence, as was said, the Kremlin supposed that England and France would not make a move against the accomplished fact of the subjugation of Poland and that consequently Hitler might gain a free hand for further expansion toward the east. Under these conditions the alliance with Germany was completed by material guarantees taken by Russia against its ally. Quite probably the initiative even in this sphere belonged to the dynamic partner, that is Hitler, who proposed to the cautious and temporizing Stalin that he take guarantees by force of arms.

Naturally, the occupation of eastern Poland and the formation of military bases in the Baltic did not create absolute obstacles for the German offensive: the experience of the last war (1914-18) testifies sufficiently to this. However, the moving of the border to the west and the control over the eastern Baltic coast represent indubitable strategic advantages. Thus in his alliance with Hitler and on Hitler’s initiative, Stalin decided to take “guarantees” against Hitler.

Not less important were the considerations of internal policy. After five years of uninterrupted agitation against fascism, after the elimination of the old guard Bolsheviks and of the general staff for their alleged alliance with the Nazis, the unexpected alliance with Hitler was extremely unpopular in the country. It was necessary to justify it with immediate and brilliant successes. The annexation of western Ukraine and White Russia and the peaceful conquest of strategic positions in the Baltic states were designed to prove to the population the wisdom of the foreign policy of “the father of nations.” Finland upset these plans a bit.

The Question of the Seized Territories

QUESTION: Do you, as the former head of the Red Armies, feel it was necessary for the Soviets to move into the Baltic states, Finland and Poland, to better defend themselves against aggression? Do you believe that a socialist state is justified in extending socialism to a neighbor state by force of arms?

ANSWER: It cannot be doubted that control over the military bases on the Baltic coast represents strategical advantages. But this alone cannot determine the question of invasion of neighboring states. The defense of an isolated workers’ state depends much more on the support of the laboring masses all over the world than on two or three supplementary strategical points. This is proven incontrovertibly by the history of foreign intervention in our civil war of 1918-20.

Robespierre said that people do not like missionaries with bayonets. Naturally that does not exclude the right and duty to give military aid from without to peoples rebelling against oppression. For example in 1919 when the Entente strangled the Hungarian revolution, we naturally had the right to help Hungary by military measures. This aid would have been understood and justified by the laboring masses of the world. Unfortunately we were too weak ... At present the Kremlin is much stronger from a military point of view. However, it has lost the confidence of the masses both inside the country and abroad.

If there were soviet democracy in the USSR; if the technological progress were accompanied by the increase of socialist equality; if the bureaucracy were withering away, giving place to the self-government of the masses, Moscow would represent such a tremendous power of attraction, particularly for its nearest neighbors, that the present world catastrophe would inevitably throw the masses of Poland (not only Ukrainians and White Russians but also Poles and Jews) as well as the masses of the Baltic border states on to the road of union with the USSR.

At present this important pre-condition for revolutionary intervention exists, if at all, in a very small degree. The strangling of the peoples of the USSR, particularly of the national minorities, by police methods, repelled the majority of the toiling masses of the neighboring countries from Moscow. The invasion of the Red Army is seen by the populations not as an act of liberation but as an act of violence, and thereby facilitates the mobilization of world public opinion against the USSR by the imperialist powers. That is why it will bring in the last instance more harm than advantages to the USSR.

The Soviet-Finnish War

QUESTION: What is your opinion of the Finnish campaign from the military standpoint: as to strategy, equipment, leadership, both military and political, the matter of keeping up communications and the general training of the Red troops? What is likely to be the result of the Finnish campaign?

ANSWER: As far as I can judge, the strategical plan abstractly considered was sufficiently correct; but it underestimated Finland’s power to resist and it ignored such details as the Finnish winter, conditions of transportation, supplies and sanitation. In his satirical verse on the Crimean campaign of 1855 the young officer, Leon Tolstoy, wrote:

”Easily written on paper,
But the gullies forgotten.
And we had to march in them.”

Stalin’s decapitated and demoralized general staff repeats textually the strategists of Nicholas I.

On November 15, I wrote to the editor of one of the most widely read American weeklies: “During the next period, Stalin will remain Hitler’s satellite. During the coming winter he will in all probability make no moves. With Finland, he will conclude a compromise.” Facts showed that my prognosis was incorrect on this final point. The error was provoked by the fact that I ascribed to the Kremlin more political and military sense than it demonstrated in reality. Finnish resistance, it is true, placed the prestige of the Kremlin at stake not only in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but also in the Balkans and Japan. Having said A Stalin was compelled to say B. But even from the point of view of his own ends and methods, he didn’t have to attack Finland immediately. A more patient policy could never have compromised the Kremlin as much as have its shameful defeats in the course of 11 weeks.

Moscow discovers now that no one expected a rapid victory and makes references to the frost and blizzards. Astonishing argument! If Stalin and Voroshilov cannot read military maps, they can, one should expect, read the calendar; the Finnish climate could not have been a secret to them. Stalin is capable of utilizing energetically a situation that has ripened without his active participation, when the advantages are without question and the risk at a minimum. He is a man of the apparatus. War and revolution are not his element. When foresight and initiative are necessary, Stalin knows only defeat. Such was the case in China, Germany and Spain. Such is the case in Finland.

Not the physical climate of Finland is decisive, but the political climate of the USSR. In the Russian Bulletin edited by me, I published in September 1938 an article in which I subjected to an analysis the causes of the weakening and direct decomposition of the Red Army. It clarifies sufficiently, according to my opinion, both the present failures of the Red Army and the growing difficulties in industry. All the contradictions and defects of the régime always find a concentrated expression in the army. The enmity between the laboring masses and the bureaucracy corrodes the army from within. Personal independence, free investigation and free criticism are no less necessary for the army than for the economy. Meanwhile the Red Army officers are put under the control of political police in the form of careerist commissars. Independent and talented commanders are being exterminated; the others are destined to constant fear. In such an artificial organism as the army where preciseness of rights and duties is inevitable, nobody in reality knows what is permissible and what is tabu. The thieves and chiselers operate behind a patriotic front of denunciations. Honest people become disheartened. Alcoholism spreads more and more widely. Chaos reigns in the military supplies.

Parades celebrated on Red Square are one thing, the war is quite another. The planned “military stroll” into Finland converted itself into a merciless accounting of all aspects of the totalitarian régime. It uncovered the bankruptcy of the leadership and the inadequacy of the high commanding staff appointed because of its servility rather than for its talent and knowledge. Besides the war uncovered an extreme lack of proportion in the different branches of Soviet economy, in particular the poor state of transportation and various kinds of military supplies, especially of provisions and clothing. The Kremlin constructed, not without success, tanks and planes but neglected sanitation, gloves and boots. The living man who stands behind all machines was completely forgotten by the bureaucracy.

The question of whether the defense of “one’s own” from foreign invasion or an offensive against another country is involved, has an immense and in some cases decisive importance for the mood of the army and nation. For an offensive revolutionary war a genuine enthusiasm, extremely high confidence in the leadership and great skill in the soldier are necessary. Nothing of this was shown in the war Stalin undertook without technical and moral preparation.

The final result of the struggle is predetermined by the relation of forces. The half million of the Red Army will strangle the Finnish army in the end if the Soviet-Finnish War does not resolve itself in the next few weeks into a general European war, or if Stalin does not find himself forced to compromise, i.e., to retreat through fear of British, French, Swedish intervention. Possibly the shift in the military situation will come about even before these lines appear in the press. In the first case the Kremlin, as has occurred already during the ephemeral successes in the beginning of December, will try to supplement the military aggression by a civil war inside Finland. In order to include Finland in the framework of the USSR – and such is now the obvious aim of the Kremlin – it is necessary to sovietize her, i.e., carry through an expropriation of the higher layer of landowners and capitalists. To accomplish such a revolution in the relations of property is impossible without a civil war. The Kremlin will do everything in order to attract to its side the Finnish industrial workers and the lower stratum of the farmers. Once the Moscow oligarchy finds itself compelled to play with the fire of war and revolution, it will try at least to warm its hands. It will undoubtedly achieve certain successes in this way.

But one thing can be said now with assurance: No subsequent successes can blot out from world consciousness what has happened so far. The Finnish adventure already has provoked a radical re-evaluation of the specific weight of the Red Army which had been extraordinarily idealized by some foreign journalists devoted – we suppose disinterestedly – to the Kremlin. All partisans of a crusade against the Soviets will find in the military failures of the Kremlin a serious argument. Undoubtedly the impertinence of Japan will increase and that may create difficulties along the road toward a Soviet-Japanese agreement which actually constitutes one of the main tasks of the Kremlin. Already one can assert that if exaggeration of the offensive capacities of the Red Army characterized the former period, now begins a period of underestimation of its defensive strength.

It is possible to foresee also other consequences of the Soviet-Finnish War. The monstrous centralization of the entire industry and commerce from top to bottom, such as the compulsory collectivization of agriculture, was determined not by the needs of socialism but by the greed of the bureaucracy to have everything without exception in its hands. This repugnant and by no means necessary violence against the economy and the man, that disclosed itself clearly enough in the Moscow “sabotage” trials, found its cruel punishment in the Finnish snow drifts. It is quite possible, consequently, that under the influence of military failures the bureaucracy will be compelled to make an economic retreat. It is possible to expect the reestablishment of a kind of NEP, that is, of the controlled market economy on the new, higher economic level. Whether the bureaucracy will succeed in saving itself by these measures is another matter.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 22.4.2007