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Harold Roberts

Litvinov Ouster Bid to Hitler

Timing Startles War-Bent World Capitals

Litvinov’s Head Marked for Ax as Stalin Puts an End
to “Collective Security” Overtures to Anglo-French Bloc

(May 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 31, 9 May 1939, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The sudden removal of Maxim Litvinov from the Foreign Affairs Commissariat at the most critical phase of the Anglo-Soviet negotiations marked Joseph Stalin’s latest bid” for an understanding with Adolf Hitler.

The purge of Litvinov has long been a foregone conclusion. One after another his chief assistants and his principal ambassadors in key posts abroad have fallen under the bloody ax of Stalin’s purge. Litvinov hung on by the shreds of his international reputation. After Munich, when his whole carefully-nourished system of “collective security” fell to pieces, it became plain that Litvinov was headed for an early one-way visit to the cellars of Lubianka Prison.

It was not, therefore, the actual dismissal of Litvinov which caused surprise, consternation, glee, or furrowed concern in all the capitals of the war-bent capitalist world. It was the timing of the blow that gave it such startling significance.

Stalin’s Game

Litvinov was the diplomatic symbol of Stalin’s effort from 1934 to 1938 to line himself up with the Western imperialist powers in a bloc against Hitler. It took Munich to prove dramatically the utter bankruptcy of that policy. After Munich Stalin renewed more boldly the attempt he had never fully abandoned to come to some kind of understanding, tacit or otherwise with the Hitlerite Reich.

In the fresh war crisis that has been permanently boiling since March, Stalin’s whole diplomatic game has been played for the purpose of bargaining tentatively with Britain and France as a means of making a German-Soviet understanding look more attractive to Hitler. At the same time he left the road clear for actually entering the Anglo-French bloc in case Hitler remained unpersuaded.

Moscow’s Reply

Thus when Great Britain, retreating in panic from its Munich orientation, asked Russia to join in its system of “guarantees,” the Moscow government replied with a sweeping proposal for a hard and fast alliance under conditions which would compel France and Britain to be actually carrying out their end of the bargain before Russia had to budge. The Moscow counter-proposal also apparently sought to include Japan along with Germany as a prospective object of the alliance’s operations.

At this the British demurred. They fancy the Russians, not themselves, in the role of chestnut pullers. Moreover the Poles and Rumanians – already guaranteed by England and France – and the Bulgarian and Yugoslavian dictatorships – whom the British are trying to draw in – were inclined to wonder whether absorption by the Reich was not preferable to “aid” from the hated and feared Soviet state.

Hitler’s Counter-Offensive

Meanwhile Hitler showed that he was fully capable of countering the Anglo-French diplomatic drive with an offensive of his own. Aiming directly at Poland, Hitler proceeded to put his gun at the heads of the Baltic stales with a view to cutting Poland off. But far more important than the Baltic states is the position of the Soviet Union. A German-Soviet bargain would completely doom Poland and leave the Anglo-French coalition helpless as far as Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe is concerned.

Poland, let it be remembered, is another of the state-monstrosities created at Versailles. Its territory was carved out of Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and more recently it seized part of Czechoslovakia, its population of 34 million is less than 70 percent Polish. The remainder is composed of minorities – including 5,000,000 Ukrainians – deeply hostile to their Polish overlords.

Poland’s Position

Except as a buffer between themselves and the Germans, the Russians have no great interest in the preservation of Poland. On the contrary, with the revival of the Great Russian tendencies in the Stalin regime, it is not at all inconceivable that a German-Soviet agreement would include plans for another Polish partition.

Aside from this, however, there are far broader strategic and political considerations involved. By making terms with Hitler, Stalin could help pit the Anglo-French coalition against the German-Italian bloc and remain situated himself – even if only temporarily – on the sidelines. From Hitler’s point of view, the “neutralization” of Russia – again only temporarily – would increase his chances against his Anglo-Frenab rivals. That is why such a deal has so profound an inner logic and that is why both Stalin and Hitler, each in his own way, is cautiously reaching out for it.

At the party congress in March, Stalin openly offered Hitler a bloc and decried the “war-mongers” in the “democracies.” In his Reichstag speech on April 28, Hitler demonstratively refrained from his customary attacks on Russia and on “Bolshevism.” On May Day in Moscow the bellicose speeches of Voroshilov and others were notably lacking in any direct references to the Reich. At the same time, almost unnoticed in the rush of events, Russia has been easing the situation on its eastern front by new transitory agreements with Japan and Manchukuo both.

The Psychological Moment

Last week the British were about to send new proposals to Moscow for a modified pact. Lord Halifax was scheduled to meet Litvinov at Geneva on May 15. It is easy to see that Litvinov would be the most ardent partisan of reaching some agreement wit h England and France, thereby carrying out the fundamental orientation assigned him by Stalin and at the same time saving something from the wreckage of his previous “collective security” set-up. It was precisely at this juncture that the ax fell on his neck and Litvinov passed from the scene, probably forever.

London and Paris were badly frightened. Berlin was quietly jubilant. Chamberlain began to talk about a “non-aggression” pact with Hitler and supporters of the “appeasement policy” at once again raised their heads. In other words, London is trying once more to see if by a fresh deal of some kind with Hitler it can prevent any German-Soviet deal from going through.

At the same time, the British diplomats may extend themselves as never before to draw Russia into their camp, for it is also part of Stalin’s purpose, in purging Litvinov at this juncture, to give Britain a “final warning” to meet the Russian terms or else lose out entirely.

Stalin’s Weakness

In these days, however, there are many slips between the desires and the pacts. Stalin is trying, in his own distorted fashion, to repeat Lenin’s policy of 1918, of playing off one imperialist coalition against another. The fatal difficulty for Stalin is that he sits himself on a precarious perch of his own making. He has sapped the resources of the revolution, shivered and shaken his entire: apparatus, disorganized the economy of the country, and demoralized its armed forces by the catastrophic purges of the last three years.

Divorced from Workers

The other even more fundamental weakness that dogs him now is the complete divorce between the Soviet government and the masses of workers and farmers of the capitalist nations. He abandoned the policies and methods of the proletarian revolution for a mess of imperialist pacts which proved worthless even before the War broke put. Now he fumbles for new pacts and can no longer establish any identity with the interests of the Soviet Union in the minds of the war-menaced millions of workers in the world.

Thus sapped internally and isolated externally, Stalin rides to his own doom whatever the outcome of the over-cunning diplomatic maneuvers between the rival camps of imperialism. The great question that remains to be solved in the conflicts of the future is whether the Russian people will in time free themselves of the Stalinist oligarchy and find the way to join with the workers of the rest of the world in making the coming war the final war of capitalism and the opening of a new epoch of world-wide liberation for all the oppressed.

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