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Albert Gates

Stalinist Diplomacy and the War

A Review of an Important Book

(November 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 10, November 1942, pp. 309–313.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.

Of the endless stream of books on the world political and military situation contributed by correspondents returned from their respective journalistic safari, few have genuine merit. At best they are descriptive narratives of locales and personalities, the latter generally pictured as the moving forces of history. Occasionally there appears a book that endeavors to give more fundamental explanations of the political, economic, social and military events of the past several years. One of the better books recently published is Duel for Europe [1], written by the son of Scott Nearing, the author of semi-Stalinist analyses of “Russian Communism” in the popular vein for American readers.

John Scott’s book is an amanuensis of Russian foreign policy from the period of the Munich pact up to and including the Russo-German war. It is written with acute awareness of the diplomatic intrigue of these years and it was a fortuitous circumstance which gave him access to first-hand information of the events he describes. Scott lived in the Soviet Union for ten years. He was employed in Magnitorsk, married a peasant girl and settled down to live a Russian life, learning its language, the habits of its people and the life of the masses under the “Holy Father” in the Kremlin. Having lost his job during the purges, Scott found a position with the London News-Chronicle, where his knowledge of the Russian language served him in good stead. He was able to study the development of Stalinist policy at first hand, without the need of interpreters. He had good contacts and has written, in the opinion of this reviewer, a reasonably objective book.

Duel for Europe confines itself to the struggle in the eastern part of the Continent between Germany and Russia, which he personalizes as the struggle between Hitler and Stalin. Thus he writes in the preface:

This is the story of the duel between Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler for the continent of Europe. It is the story of the maneuvering, intrigue and deceit whereby each tried in advance to win the war against the other and against other lesser enemies in this wolf-eat-wolf world of ours ... It is not a nice story. Lying and blackmail, brow-beating and beguiling, these are the stock in trade of contemporary diplomacy. Those who try other means often come to no good end. Our own President Wilson tried to introduce fair play (!) into European diplomacy a quarter of a century ago, and ended up a brilliant failure internationally and a defeated and broken man at home. Stalin did not make Wilson’s commendable mistake (!) ... I want to make it clear that this story has very little to do with the Russian people, the hard-working and patient Mishas and Mashas ... They were busy working in mine and mill, behind desk and plow ... A few hundred, or at most a few thousand, men in Moscow were lying and bluffing, deluding and circumventing in the name of two hundred million simple, kindly men and women who were too busy ... It is an ugly story, one unworthy of the Russian people.

He hastens to add, however:

Yet it is the true story of a logical policy conceived in the interests of the Russian nation and carried through to its logical conclusion with relatively few mistakes.

In the very last statement one will find the answer to many “mystifying” aspects of Stalinist policy. The answer, as we will endeavor to point out in a further elucidation of the material contained in Mr. Scott’s report, is to be found in the bureaucratic nationalist self-interest of the present ruling class of Stalinist Russia, a self-interest that has not a single relationship to socialism and socialist internationalism.

Prelude to the Storm

As an essential introduction to the main theme of Russo-German relations, Scott refreshes one’s memory by a brief résumé of the Munich period as seen by a resident of Moscow. The story is old, but worth repeating.

Hitler came to power in Germany as a result of a combination of economic and political factors: an acute national crisis, direct material aid of the German financial and industrial ruling class; assistance from a section of the British ruling class which sought, in its system of “checks and balances on the Continent,” a counterweight to French domination; collusion between a section of the French ruling class and the German reactionaries, and finally and most important, the failure of the proletarian organizations in Germany to prevent Hitler’s ascension to power, the militant communist section, at the behest of Stalin in order “to retain peace and the status quo.”

Once in power, this agent of German imperialism proceeded to prepare for war, to bring about a change in the relationships between the powers, to obtain hegemony over the Continent and thence, world economy. The military rearmament of Germany, made possible by the circumvention of the provisions of Versailles, was carried through without opposition from the Anglo-French alliance, the latter willing to nip in the bud a prospective threat of war from Germany, the former giving assent to Hitler in order to achieve the afore-stated “checks and balances.”

In addition, the British “appeasers” were quite willing to see war between the Soviet Union and Germany, in the hope that they would “devour each other” to the advantage of the British Empire. British policy sought to fortify Hitler’s “Drang nach Osten.”

Clearly, if Hitler was to engage in any campaign against the Soviet Union, it was necessary to solve the central European question, i.e., to secure the necessary geographical and material bases for such an attack. But it is necessary to bear in mind at all times, if one is not to lose sight of the Realpolitik, that Hitler’s enemy was not Russia alone, but, in the last analysis, the Anglo-French and later the Anglo-American bloc. It was necessary to solve the central European question in relation to them also. And while it is impossible to know everything that transpired on Wilhelmstrasse, it is clear that once Hitler began to sweep up central Europe he was prepared to take his stand against France and England before trying his hand at the Soviet Union.

The history of these European events cannot be explained by saying that Hitler was more daring or a great deal more far-sighted than his opponents. It would be more correct to say that he was more desperate. The position of German economy under world capitalism dictated his course. His early strength lay in his determination to open the offensive before the terrified British and French ruling classes could arm for a desperate war. When he took Austria, signed the Munich Pact and then proceeded to break the pact with the seizure of Czechoslovakia, he was then aware that he had nothing to fear from an England led by Chamberlain, or a France led by Daladier. Moreover, he was convinced that he could defeat them in an immediate war. And he was certain too, after so easy a triumph in Austria and in Czechoslovakia, that Poland was his for the taking. The foregoing “conjecture” is borne out by the succession of events.

At this point, new, strange and feverish diplomatic exchanges take place between Germany and Russia, not unknown to the British and the French. And here is where the Scott story unfolds itself.

On the Way to the Pact

After the Munich Pact, Stalin began to “explore the possibility of making a deal with Germany.” A special representative, Kandalaki, was sent to Berlin for the purpose of making contact with Hitler. “In February, 1939, the Soviet military attaché in Germany said to General Keitel at a luncheon: ‘If in the course of events Poland collapses, we cannot be expected to remain indifferent to the fate of our fellow Russians and Ukrainians in Poland.’ It was the first real hint at a partitioning of Poland, Keitel reported the matter to Hitler, who ordered it hushed up. It was not a new idea.”

The collective security policy having collapsed, Stalin made a turn in his diplomacy. Unprepared for a major war, he turned toward an alliance with Hitler. In his March report to the 18th Party Congress, he made no attack upon Germany. Stressing the Russian aim of peace, he launched into an attack upon France and England for trying to push Germany into a war with Russia. It was the famous “pull their chestnuts out of the fire for them” speech.

From then on the Soviet-German rapprochement moved rapidly. Astakhov, counselor of embassy in Berlin, “was already working on the outline of a Soviet-German agreement.” The date: April 1939! Kandalaki, the man sent to see Hitler, was apparently wiped out in the purges. According to Scott, Astakhov and Count von der Schulenberg, the German ambassador to the Soviet Union, laid the groundwork for the eventual alliance, naturally, at the specific instructions of their governments. At the same time, formally in any case, the Stalinist regime, through Litvinov, continued to call for collective security. And it is clear from what transpired that this was, at one and the same time, subterfuge and a safeguard, just in case Hitler did not come across.

The British, becoming aware of the negotiations in Berlin and Moscow, hastened to repair some broken fences, but in that diabolically clever British manner – they sent some second-rate diplomatists, in no position to guarantee anything, to seek some agreement with the Russians, yet at no time willing to come to a military alliance with Stalin, even though the French made a last-minute plea for such an alliance.

On April 19, Russia proposed a triple alliance against Germany, a system of mutual guarantees against attack. While the French ambassador urged acceptance, the British procrastinated, seeking a less costly bargain. But on August 23, when Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow to seal “the pact of blood,” the British hastily announced that they were ready to accept the Russian proposals. Russia, however, signed up with Germany, believing that she had obtained the best bargain.

Between April and August, when the Russo-German pact was signed, the Russians had negotiated large trade pacts with Germany. Litvinov was removed from office as a gesture of friendship to Hitler. After all, he was the outstanding advocate of collective security! In this interim period they had also raised the question of the Baltic States, the matter of Russia’s defense and how necessary it was that these countries become Russian “spheres of influence.” Obviously, this question was part of the discussions with Germany. The closer the date of signing of the German-Russian pact, the more intense became the negotiations between the military missions of the British-French and the Russians, but the former suddenly felt something completely hopeless in their labors. Relations between the Russian and German diplomatic staffs were uncommonly warm and friendly – as a matter of fact they seemed too exuberant. Their attitude to the French and British became sharper and even arrogant. It was precisely while the military missions were meeting that the pact was announced!

But, says Scott: “The Soviet-German pact obviously did not result from the breakdown of the Anglo-French-Soviet staff talks, as the former had been initialed before the Anglo-French military talks were even well under way ... The Soviet-German pact had been initialed since the sixteenth of the month. Scott reports that “from August 16 on it was just a question of playing the Anglo-French missions for as much as they were worth.” (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

It seemed certain during these fateful months that there was no escaping war in Europe. No other intelligent explanation is to be discovered for the intense speed of negotiations carried on by the two contending imperialist camps with the Soviet Union. According to Scott, the British were ready in August to agree to any pact with Stalin. What, then, drove Stalin into Hitler’s arms? The belief that England and France were incapable of thwarting Hitler’s ambition, a conviction that they were unable to resist effectively the military might of fascist Germany. Stalin, in addition, believed that a pact with Hitler would permit him to stay out of the war while the Western powers engaged in mutual destruction. In the beginning at least he had faith in Hitler’s assurance that, between Germany and Russia, there was no conflict of interest and that the two countries could co-exist to their mutual economic benefit.

The love feast that followed the pact seems incredible today. But it is only incredible to those who view capitalist diplomacy as an honest profession. For Hitler, the pact was a convenience; for Stalin, a vain hope that it would last for many years. But the real significance of the alliance is that it gave the German butcher a green light to open the war in the West. The Polish partition had already been decided upon. Hitler’s eastern frontier was made safe. The holocaust began!

The New Allies at Work

Duel for Europe traces the right-about turn of Soviet policy subsequent to the signing of the pact. Now it was Great Britain which was the war-monger. France became the aggressor. The United States was behind these two bandits, waiting only to pick up the economic plums. The world was told by Moscow and her satellites throughout the world that it was not Germany which threatened the peace of the world, but Great Britain. Germany, we were informed, was a peace-loving nation. Nobody was going to force war upon these two friendly neighbors.

What did Russia gain from the pact? In the immediate sense, a little time. It also gained part of Poland and the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Esthonia. The stony seizures of these countries is a lurid tale of power diplomacy in the best tradition of imperialist politics. But the interesting thing about the seizures of these territories, says Scott, is that they were part of a Russo-German agreement on a division of geographic interests! The unpublished Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement provided for the partition of Poland, the occupation and incorporation into the Soviet Union, by means of a plebiscite, of Lithuania, Latvia, and Esthonia. In each instance some insignificant “insult” was discovered as the reason for occupation. In the case of Esthonia, the escape of the interned Polish submarine Orzel was the cause célèbre which led to the “invitation,” much in the manner of Hitler calling Schuschnigg to Berchtesgaden, of the Esthonian Foreign Minister to Moscow, where he was told the fate of his country.

In the case of Latvia, Pravda accused that:

British politicians not only sought to utilize Latvia as a drill-ground and place d’armes for the plan of aggression against the USSR, they also tried to convert her into a colony, into an agrarian appendage of industrial England.

The incorporation of these countries naturally led to a bureaucratic “socialization” of their economies and their attachment to the Soviet economy. This “socialization” was hailed by the Stalinists (and some Trotskyists) as a victory for the international proletariat.

When the war broke out, Germany and the Soviet Union solemnly issued a joint declaration and put the blame upon England and France. Thus they thought they had given the verdict of history on the origin of the Second Imperialist World War. Moreover, the two governments announced that they would stand for no interference in eastern European events from England, France or any other power which had no business in that part of the world! Says Scott: “The Kremlin was convinced more and more every day that an era of prosperous Soviet-German cooperation was dawning.” Relations between them could not have been better. And the building of Soviet fortifications in the West, Scott ascribes to Stalin’s natural suspiciousness and “that at the time old Uncle Joe was mainly concerned about a British attack in case of a German defeat, or a combined attack after a negotiated peace.” The villain in the drama was at all times England!

Prologue to the Finnish Débâcle

The crowning achievement of the Hitler-Stalin attack was the Russo-Finnish War. The general story is fairly well known. But Duel for Europe contains some interesting material that was not hitherto available. The original demands made upon Finland were predicated on the needs of Soviet defense. It asked for territorial concessions and special military rights for the Red Army. Stalin believed, after the way the Balticum was seized, that the Finns would surrender to any demand. But to his surprise, the Finns said nothing doing. What is more, they made it clear that they would resist any attempts by Stalin to achieve his demands by forcible means. In order words, the Finns were ready to go to war.

Scott shows first, that the Finnish masses backed the régime to the limit because they feared, above all, incorporation into the Soviet Union and life under Stalin. Truly, a beautiful testimonial to Stalin’s internationalism! But the author also adds that the Russian masses were completely indifferent to the subsequent barrage of charges in the Soviet press against the Finns; they believed them all to be lies!

How did the Russian leaders interpret Finnish resistance? It is only possible for the Finns to resist because some power or powers (England and France) have given them assurance of aid. That must be it because Germany would stand behind the Russians against the Finns. Scott is of the opinion that Stalin did not hold entirely to this thesis because he had less faith in the Soviet-German pact than did most Soviet officials. This, however, is conjecture, because Stalin never differentiated himself from the others in this stage of German-Russian relations. Moreover, the Germans gave practical proof of their support to Russia as the war unfolded in the North.

What did the bureaucracy expect from such a war? An uprising of the people and a mass welcome by the Finnish people of the Red Army. But the Finns mobilized their forces in reply to Moscow’s further pressure. Then came the propaganda campaign to convince the Russian masses that Stalin was fighting a Finnish threat to the Soviet borders, particularly to Leningrad. Press attacks on the Finns appeared daily. There were attacks on the bourgeois Finnish leaders, gingerly spiced with many personal insults. Meetings were organized throughout the country to mobilize mass support. Hundreds of anti-Finnish resolutions were passed, but Scott relates:

... These resolutions were written by the central authorities and sometimes not even voted on at the meetings. The Soviet workers were and continued to be uninterested in Finland. I heard many plain Moscovites expressing shame at the recent Soviet-German partitioning of Poland and waxing indignant over the press demands for intervention in Finland. The Soviet people felt they had their hands full without fighting wars on someone else’s territory.

Then Stalin resorted to a stale stratagem. Since the Finns would not accede to all the Soviet demands, it was necessary to invent some “incident.” So it was charged that Finnish artillery had fired shells upon Soviet troops, killing three and wounding nine. A demand was made that the Finns withdraw their troops a distance of twenty or twenty-five kilometers. The Finns delivered a note in reply stating that an inquiry established that no shots had been fired from their side and that no Finnish guns “were within range of Mainilia,” the scene of the firing. The Finns offered to cooperate in a joint investigation and were ready to discuss a mutual withdrawal of troops.

How the War Broke Out

When the Finns were convinced that the Russians meant war, they sent a long telegram to their legation, acceding to Stalin’s demands. But before this telegram was completely translated and delivered into the hands of Vice-Commissar of Foreign Affairs Potemkin (a matter of a single night), he informed them that diplomatic relations had been severed “because of continued Finnish attacks on Soviet troops.” During the same night the Red Army invaded Finland at several points. “Finnish appeals for reopening of negotiations fell on deaf ears.”

How did the Russian masses react to this war? Scott writes:

All this was received coldly by most of the Soviet population. I heard many Russians saying: “We know about this artillery firing,” with cynical significance. There was grumbling and sneering even in streetcars and in queues in stores. The workers assembled in meetings to pass fiery resolutions were indifferent. There had been too much provocation employed internally by the Soviet authorities during the purge of 1936–38.

Months later I was told by a Red Army man who had been stationed near Mainilia that no one in his unit had heard of the reported incident on the twenty-sixth. From the standpoint of Realpolitik, it is unimportant, however, whether seven shells were fired at all or whether they came from Soviet or Finnish guns. The significant fact was that the Soviet public at large did not believe the government assertions.

This tragedy was followed by its farce. On December 1, from the fishing village of Teroiki came the announcement of the formation of a “Finnish People’s Government” headed by Otto Kuusinen. “Within a few hours a pact was signed between the Soviet Government and the ‘People’s Government of the Democratic Republic of Finland.’” Note, not the Finnish Soviet Republic, but the Democratic Republic of Finland! Here again Scott gives us an interesting picture of the reaction of the Russian masses:

The whole Teroiki fiasco was so transparent and crude that the simplest Moscovites were skeptical, even amused, when Pravda front-paged a photograph of Stalin and Kuusinen after the signature of the pact. There was no radio station in Terioki which could have broadcast the declaration of the new government; Kuusinen had not been in Finland in two decades, and until quite recently had headed the Anglo-American section of the Comintern; and the Terioki government was laughed at by most Finns. These facts were widely known among Moscovites. It was the only instance I can remember in nearly a decade in Russia when large numbers of average Soviet citizens actually laughed at Stalin’s government. At various times Stalin had been praised, maligned, worshipped, cursed, feared and hated, but the Teroiki performance made him an object of ridicule for many street car conductors, plumbers and other ordinary citizens.

The Moscow reply to the League of Nations, which subsequently expelled it from that body, explained; The Soviet Union was not at war with Finland or the Finnish people; it maintained peaceful relations with the “People’s Government of Finland; Helsinki no longer represented the Finnish people, and all matters had been settled by the Moscow-Terioki pact.” (!)

The war itself was a débâcle for the Russians. Ill-prepared, cocksure, disorganized, they suffered terrible defeats. The disorganization behind the lines gave expression to enormous inefficiency of the bureaucracy. A sharp crisis was registered in Moscow and Leningrad. Eventually overwhelming preponderance won for Stalin, but not without severe Soviet losses which greatly outnumbered those of the Finns.

What part did Germany play in this side-show to the main war? Trotsky had stated that the invasion of Finland was started in agreement with Hitler. Scott gives this analysis a qualified support. In any case he points out that it was within the accord of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement.

He writes that, while the Germans gave no formal assistance to either side, “unofficially they were reported to have supplied the Red Army with the plans of the Mannerheim Line casemates and equipment installed by German firms.” The Germans were anxious to avoid friction with the Kremlin because “Soviet oil and wheat deliveries to Germany were made as per schedule and other undertakings were fulfilled to the letter.” Germany warned Norway and Sweden not to permit the passage of any Allied units or they would be faced with immediate occupation by Germany. On February 28, 1940, “the German Minister to Helsinki rendered further aid to Russia by informing the Finnish government that a formal Finnish request for military aid from the Allies would be followed by immediate German military action against Finland.” And this was all the assistance Stalin, who feared direct Anglo-French intervention, wanted or needed from his German allies.

The Helsinki regime sued for peace and the Terioki farce was played out. It was a tragedy for Kuusinen. The peace was negotiated between Helsinki and Moscow, i.e., with a government Stalin had “liquidated” and had refused to recognize. The Terioki government disappeared without a trace, unmourned and unwept.

Thus ended one phase of the war. Stalinism alienated another working class through the bureaucratic pursuit of an anti-proletarian policy to “increase its power, prestige and revenues.” (Trotsky)

Preparation for a New and Bigger Straggle

The Finnish war showed what dire consequences resulted from the army purge; it compelled a drastic reorganization of its structure, leadership and training. The mobilization of the military forces and a little diplomacy in the Balkans preceded the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany. In June 1940, France fell and with that came the collapse of the Allied armies in Western Europe. Hitler’s victory came with astonishing ease and great surprise even though his attempted knockout of England through an air assault failed dismally.

The victory of Germany in the West shocked the Russians, who believed that the war there would last for many years. When the struggle against England began to drag, indicating that no great battles would be fought, that the struggle would be protracted, the Kremlin became uneasy. Scott speaks with confidence that this marked a turning point for Stalin and began the immense preparations for war with Germany. At the same time the Russians continued to do everything in their power to placate the Germans. They lived up to the provisions of the pact by supplying Germany with many of her needs on time and in great quantities, much to the pleasant surprise of the Germans themselves. A list of materials sent to Hitler included wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, oil, seeds, beans and peas, oil cake, starch products, sugar, dressed poultry, fish, leather, manganese ore, asbestos, magnesite, soda, wool flax, petroleum products, pharmaceutical and chemical products, zinc ore, wood, cotton and cotton waste, and copper. There is no doubt that these shipments constituted no small reason for enabling Hitler to carry on the war.

If the victory in the West marked a change in Stalin’s policy it also meant a change for Hitler. He could not remain at the Channel endlessly. If he could not invade England, he was certain that England could not invade the Continent. Hitler began to look toward the East, especially when he noted the extended preparations made by Stalin for war. Russian seizure of Bessarabia, Bukovina, the pact with Jugoslavia and the pact with Japan, which was topped off by a “drunken” scene of friendship between Stalin and Matsuoko at a railroad station only served to hasten Hitler’s attack on Russia. Russian economic overtures short of turning over parts of Russian economy to Hitler were rejected by him.

As part of the campaign to prepare for war, Stalin put Timoshenko at the head of the army. The absence of proletarian policy is further indicated by the “reforms” introduced under Timoshenko’s direction. Scott reports the following changes in 1940:

For the Stalinist regime, for the bureaucratic collectivist class, these measures were necessary in order to prepare for war. Yet this is what the Cannonites call “Trotsky’s Red Army.”

The New Stage in the War

The rest of Scott’s book covers more familiar material leading to the outbreak of war between Hitler and Stalin. Hitler, master of the Continent, had one job to perform to insure that his one remaining border was guaranteed, i.e., to invade Russia and to destroy her colossal armies. After a year and a half, he is still engaged in that task. But the attack on Russia altered the line-ups in the war. Stalin is no longer the blood brother of Hitler. Now England is no longer responsible for the outbreak of war. Now Hitler has become the arch-enemy of humanity, while Stalin has become a great democrat allied with the “great democracies” of Great Britain and the United States. Now, the Red Army is fighting for “Mother Russia,” for national independence, for world peace, for democracy. Now the imperialist war has become a “people’s war.” Now Russia has entered an alliance with her “arch-enemies” to re-establish the pre-war status quo.

What stands out in Scott’s analysis of Soviet diplomacy and foreign policy is that indirectly he establishes its relationship to domestic policy. There is not a shred of socialism in Stalinist conduct; there is not the slightest trace of internationalism to be found. The theory of socialism in one country has found its fruition in Stalin’s “national war.” Given this condition, built upon fifteen years of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union in the war is indistinguishable from her allies, either in her conduct of the war or in her war aims. That is so clear and has become so “natural” that nowhere in his extremely interesting and valuable survey does Scott find it possible to make any reference to the socialist policies, socialist thinking, or socialist aims of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Only self-deception can enable people to say that Stalin is “fighting the war of the workers,” for the truth is concrete.


1. Duel for Europe, by John Scott. Published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston; 381 pages, $8.50.

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