Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


The British Political Élite and the Soviet Union

Louise Grace Shaw
The British Political Élite and the Soviet Union
Frank Cass, London 2003, pp. 210

THIS book is a contribution to the long-running debate over a key moment in British foreign policy, the question of whether a collective security agreement involving Britain, France and the Soviet Union to forestall any aggressive moves by Nazi Germany in the late 1930s was a desirable or possible course for the British government to have adopted. Dr Shaw’s thesis is simple and direct. Firstly, it would have been a desirable policy option, as ‘the combined efforts of Britain, France and the Soviet Union would have posed serious, and very possibly, successful resistance to Germany in 1938 and 1939’ (p. 16). Secondly, she considers that it would have been perfectly possible were it not for certain prominent people within Britain’s political élite, most notably the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who refused to countenance any governmental adoption of an Anglo-Franco-Soviet bloc in the run-up to the Second World War.

Shaw notes the growing trend of ‘anti-appeasement’ sentiments amongst prominent Conservative politicians, most notably Churchill, Eden and Vansittart, who, despite their dislike of Soviet politics and behaviour, were keen on the idea of a collective security bloc that would, in their view, provide a substantial opposition to the expansionist intentions of Nazi Germany. She notes that during the Czech crisis of September 1938 and over the following months, there was a growing demand within Britain’s political élite for such a bloc, even though there still remained considerable wariness about Moscow’s intentions, and deep concerns that Stalin’s purges had seriously impaired the Soviet Union’s military capability. She claims that although many leading Conservatives, military chiefs and diplomatic staff were able to put to one side their own anti-communist sentiments, Chamberlain, with his strong anti-communist viewpoint that considered the Soviet Union to be a revolutionary menace to Europe and denied that Moscow and Berlin could ever be reconciled, was able, through concealing military evidence, deliberately misinforming the Cabinet and taking decisions without consulting others, to prevent such a bloc from becoming official British policy.

Demonstrating Chamberlain’s opposition to a collective security alignment is not a difficult job; indeed, it would be very hard to rake up any evidence to the contrary. The idea of a growing feeling within Britain’s political élite in favour of collective security is credible – my own research demonstrates the existence of similar sentiments running well beyond the Popular Front milieu – although it has been disputed; Philip Bell reckons that there was ‘only scattered opposition’ to Chamberlain’s policies in the Foreign Office (The Second World War in Europe, Harlow 1977). However, trying to demonstrate that the Soviet government was serious about physically confronting Germany in 1938–39, particularly over Czechoslovakia, is quite another question. Shaw takes as given Moscow’s willingness to engage in a collective security bloc. She cites Soviet Foreign Minister Litvinov telling R.A. Butler during the Czech crisis that ‘if France acted the Soviet would act too’; this she claims was a ‘wholly unambiguous answer’ (p. 39). Shaw also declares that Geoff Roberts ‘argues convincingly’ in his The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War (Basingstoke 1995) that (in Roberts’ words) the Soviet regime ‘made it crystal clear that they would fulfil their mutual assistance obligations’ to Czechoslovakia, ‘and agitated for France to do the same’ (p. 38).

This is very thin stuff. Litvinov’s statement was not ‘wholly unambiguous’; he was saying that Moscow would only move if France did so, and there were considerable doubts whether it would. Six months before the Czech crisis, in March 1938, Litvinov told the US ambassador to the Soviet Union that ‘France has no confidence in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union has no confidence in France’. With the Czech drama in full swing, Litvinov told the League of Nations Assembly that the Czech government had insisted upon Soviet aid being conditional upon French moves in support of Czechoslovakia, and added: ‘Thus, the Soviet government had no obligations to Czechoslovakia in the event of French indifference to an attack on her.’ This information is hardly inaccessible, it has been in the public domain for over five decades, having appeared in the late 1940s in the second volume of Max Beloff’s The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia 1929–1941 (London 1949).

As for Roberts, Shaw is either unaware of or wishes to avoid mentioning the fact that he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and that his book was part of the efforts of Stalinists to rescue what fragments that they imagined were recoverable from the general wreckage of the official communist experience, one of which was the idea of Moscow’s quest for a collective security deal. Roberts’ book, like his previous work Unholy Alliance: Stalin’s Pact with Hitler (Bloomington 1989), of which sizeable chunks are repeated almost word-for-word in his later volume, is not, unlike Andrew Rothstein’s The Munich Conspiracy (London 1958), exactly a whitewash of Soviet policy in the Popular Front period, but it does promote the idea that the Soviet regime wished above all to forge an anti-German alliance with Britain and France, but was unable to do so on account of the obduracy of the powers-that-be in London and Paris. For all this, however, Roberts shows considerably less optimism about the possibilities of successful collective action in defence of Czechoslovakia than Shaw reckons he does, as he realises that it was not likely when official attitudes in France and Britain were taken into consideration. He also notes that when Romania’s government finally agreed to allow Soviet troops to traverse its territory, there were tight restrictions upon the numbers it would allow through. Roberts adds that Soviet historians always maintained that the USSR would have fought alongside Czechoslovakia and that an offer of unilateral aid was made, then declares that ‘they were strangely vague and contradictory as to when and how this offer was made and never produced any hard evidence to confirm their assertions’. Roberts states that the Soviet Union probably would have unilaterally supported Czechoslovakia in the event of a German attack at the time of Munich, but even were this the case – and in my opinion it is an extremely big ‘if’ – he considers that there is little it could have practically done.

Shaw might have profited by investigating some of the other analyses of Soviet foreign policy objectives in general and Moscow’s behaviour over Czechoslovakia in particular before putting all her money on Roberts. Just because an opinion is accepted by a majority of observers does not necessarily mean that it is correct. Nonetheless, the idea that Stalin was not serious about confronting Germany over Czechoslovakia has been argued by various analysts – for instance, Beloff’s aforementioned work and Robert Tucker’s Stalin in Power (New York 1990) – in a far more convincing manner than Roberts’ contention that he was willing to stand up to Hitler.

Shaw gives but a cursory look at one extremely authoritative statement on Soviet foreign policy, Stalin’s address to the Eighteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 10 March 1939, and prefers merely to repeat what Roberts says about it. A careful perusal of the text would show that Stalin discounted any idea of German designs on the Soviet Union. He noted that ‘the majority of the non-aggressive countries, particularly England and France’, had ‘rejected the policy of collective security’, yet he made no call for a Soviet alliance with them, and only vaguely stated that he would support nations which were ‘victims of aggression’. Whilst admitting that the ‘non-aggressive states’ were ‘making concession after concession to the aggressors’, he declared that the Soviet Union was continuing its ‘policy of peace and of strengthening business relations with all countries’, and intended ‘to be cautious and not allow our country to be drawn into conflicts by warmongers who are accustomed to have others pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them’. This was intended to warn the Western democracies that they could not necessarily rely upon the automatic support of the Soviet Union in any future European war. In short, Stalin was publicly making the none-too-subtle implication that he could well conclude some form of deal with Germany. Stalin’s speech certainly does not sustain Roberts’ contention that he was still pushing the collective security line, and Shaw and Robert’s bland words on the speech – merely that it condemned the Western powers for abandoning collective security, and warned that Moscow would not sacrifice itself for the sake of others – overlook the very real hints that are not only obvious in retrospect, but were recognised for what they were at the time by certain perspicacious observers.

Shaw correctly points out that the anti-communist stance shared by many right-wingers, that Moscow was hoping for a war between Germany and the West European democracies so it could launch a revolution across a war-devastated Europe in the aftermath, was an absurdity. Nonetheless, one cannot leap, as Shaw does, from that assumption to conclude that Moscow was essentially sincere in its negotiations with Britain and France over collective security. Stalin wanted above all to avoid being dragged into a war. So long as he believed in the possibility of a collective security bloc that could contain Germany, he went along with the idea, on condition that he felt that it would not lead to war. His minions could therefore spout all manner of commitments about standing by Czechoslovakia because he was pretty certain that the determining factor in the situation – the French guarantee to Czechoslovakia – was worthless. He could hold the moral high ground without actually doing anything about it.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Chamberlain and his colleagues were extremely chary about an alliance with Moscow, which is why the mission to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1939 was arranged in such a deliberately insulting way, one can argue that the Soviet proposals for collective security earlier that year were framed in such a manner, particularly in respect of the Soviet ideas about what constituted ‘indirect aggression’ (which British officials not inaccurately considered were Moscow’s veiled intentions to move into the Baltic states and other parts of Eastern Europe under the guise that it could be threatened through rather than by them), that the Soviet leadership knew that they would almost inevitably be rejected by Chamberlain. The fact is that any meaningful collective security arrangement would eventually have brought a confrontation with Germany a lot closer, and that is something that Stalin wished to avoid. In the cold dawn of the aftermath of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the former US fellow-traveller Louis Fischer stated that Stalin signed that pact when he realised that Britain and France were serious about taking on Germany. An agreement with Britain and France would have meant war with Germany; an agreement with Germany had allowed him to avoid a war and find some pickings in Eastern Europe (Stalin and Hitler: The Reasons for the Results of the Nazi-Bolshevik Pact, Harmondsworth 1940). This seems a reasonable deduction, particularly when one considers Stalin’s extreme caution during the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which culminated in his instructions to avoid doing anything that could be construed by the Germans as a provocation a mere two hours before the Wehrmacht stormed into Soviet territory on 22 June 1941. It is thus fair to conclude that Stalin’s main aim was avoiding a war. If the sight of the mighty German war machine massing at the western border of his own country could not bring Stalin to prepare his forces to resist an invasion, how can anyone honestly expect him to have taken action over a country whose borders were not contiguous with those of the Soviet Union, and whose continued existence was not absolutely vital to the survival of his regime?

To conclude, this is not a satisfactory book. The evidence that Shaw uses as proof of her contention that Moscow was serious about forging a collective security bloc is inadequate, and has long been challenged by writers who have provided a different and much more convincing picture of Stalin’s intentions. This undermines her basic thesis, for even had the British government adopted a collective security policy, it would have been of little consequence had Moscow in one way or another blocked it. There are also a few minor slips in the text. It seems unlikely that people thought that ‘the Soviet Union wanted to exploit the crisis in Czechoslovakia to expand eastwards’ (p. 38), the name of the Czech President Beneš is incorrectly rendered as ‘Benes’ throughout the book, and the initials of Yezhov, Beria and Vyshinsky are strangely rendered as ‘MNI’, ‘MLP’ and ‘MA’ in the text and (in the latter two cases) in the index. Finally, although this is not aimed specifically at Shaw, would it not be a good idea for historians to move away from using the terms ‘appeaser’, which since the period under discussion has become perhaps the strongest insult in the British political lexicon? Even in the 1930s, this term was distinctly loaded with the implication of treachery, which, whatever one may think of Chamberlain’s political outlook and tactical acumen, cannot be laid at his door.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011