During the first decades after the end of the most terrible war of our century, historians who searched for an explanation of its coming often came close to adopting the one that the fifteenth-century soldier-diplomat Philippe de Commynes found to describe the reasons for the unprecedented violence that followed the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France in 1494. Commynes attributed it to “the bestiality of some princes and the inadequacy of others, who have intelligence and experience enough but use them badly.”1 In the same way, his modern successors divided the blame for the coming of the Second World War between Hitler’s inhumanity and the weaknesses and mistakes of his antagonists, and every book on the crimes of the German Führer that came from the presses was matched by one about British appeasement or French defeatism or American isolationism.
Sir Winston Churchill set the tone with a high-buskined passage in the first volume of his great history of the war, in which he described the prewar years as a shameful period in his country’s past,
a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness, which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even so far as they have unfolded, are absolutely beyond comparison in human experience.2
With less rhetorical elaboration, the same note was struck by many others.
There was much truth in these early works, but also a good deal of exaggeration and criticism of decisions without proper weighing of the attendant circumstances, and they are no longer as persuasive as they once seemed. Of the older literature on appeasement, David Dilks has written recently:
There was a time, not long ago, when the affairs of the 1930s looked so simple. Recession and unemployment could have been avoided, or rapidly put right by deficit financing; Germany’s grievances should have been assuaged before the victors disarmed; German rearmament should have been prevented; the Führer’s own plans should have been apparent to anyone who cared to scan Mein Kampf; Roosevelt’s hand proffered across the Atlantic would have been there for the taking if only matters had been managed differently in 1938; Hitler was bluffing at Munich or, if not, would have been overthrown by his opponents within Germany; the effective help of Russia was available. Indeed, whole books were written about British policy toward Germany as if the Far East, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean had not existed. To put it kindly, all these assumptions are open to question, and some demonstrably mistaken. Others will bear fresh reflection in the light of fuller evidence and lengthening perspectives. It is time for us to look at the 1930s with a stronger determination to understand why ministers behaved as they did, and to realize that almost everyone was an appeaser somewhere.3
It is the great merit of Donald Cameron Watt’s study of the immediate causes of the war that it is inspired by precisely this kind of determination. “I have attempted,” he writes in his preface,
to tell the story of how the Second World War began from the direct evidence left by those whose actions (and inactions) played a part in that beginning. I have used not only the official records but, where possible, the private papers, letters, and diaries, the reminiscences, published and unpublished, of the political and professional makers of policy and their advisers in all the countries involved.
The last phrase is not an idle boast. If Watt is necessarily preoccupied for much of the time with the actions of the major players in his drama, he never forgets the supporting roles of the Greeks and the Turks, the Romanians and the Bulgars, the Yugoslavs and the Finns, the Hungarians and the Czechs, Slovaks, and Ruthenians, the Scandinavians and the Swiss, and the Belgians and the Dutch. Their “actions, their dilemmas, their fits of courage and caution,” he writes, were important since they
added to the uncertainty, the confusion and the breakdown of power and resolution which opened the way for Hitler’s attack on Poland. They command the narrator’s attention as much as do Roosevelt and Stalin.
In telling their story and that of those representatives of the greater powers who were charged with the responsibility for guiding the fortunes of their countries in the greatest crisis of their times, Watt has little patience with the stereotypes of the older historiography. He rejects with asperity, for example, the idea that Neville Chamberlain had a secret passion for the Germans and finds no substance in the notion that Franklin Roosevelt would have played a major part in the events of 1938 and 1939 if he had not been prevented from doing so by the strength of isolationism. He is quick to correct the false judgments of history and, to take only one example, writes a generous defense of Sir Robert Craigie, whose skill and patience prevented the crisis caused by the Japanese blockade of the British concession in Tientsin in northern China in the spring of 1939 from becoming a serious distraction as the danger of war in Europe came closer, but who was, for his pains, stigmatized as an appeaser and given no recognition by his countrymen.
Watt is never uncertain or mealy-mouthed in his judgments, which greatly adds to the interest and readability of his book. There will doubtless be readers who will wonder how one would go about proving his statement that Molotov was “one of the most inexorably stupid men to hold the foreign ministership of any major power in this century,” but the doubters would probably admit that, even if exaggerated, the remark suggests a perhaps underestimated cause of the obliquities of Soviet policy in the late 1930s.
Even Watt’s asides are as instructive as they are apt to be devastating, like his comment on the complacency of Mussolini and Ciano during the visit of Chamberlain and Lord Halifax to Rome in January 1939, vaunting themselves as leaders of a young and vigorous Fascist movement and sneering at the tired decrepitude of their visitors. In fact, Watt remarks, both of the Englishmen possessed a very considerable physical stamina, whereas
Mussolini and Ciano (once the daring young airman) were both, by now, chubby chairbound urbanites, fit only for the sports of the boudoir (if fit for any at all), and then only in regimented moderation.
There is an intimation here of the deterioration of their political gifts as well, which is corroborated in the subsequent diplomatic record.
Not unnaturally, it is the figure of Adolf Hitler that dominates this book. At the very outset, Watt makes it clear that “contrary to what some historians are now beginning to argue, whether from an instinctive bent towards apologetics, or in an attempt at an inhuman detachment or from an exaggerated respect for the role of accident in history, the Second World War was willed to happen” by Hitler and his accomplices, and at the end of his account he comes back to the point by writing:
What is so extraordinary in the events which led up to the outbreak of the Second World War is that Hitler’s will for war was able to overcome the reluctance with which virtually everybody else approached it. Hitler willed, desired, lusted after war; though not war with France and Britain, at least not in 1939. No one else wanted it, though Mussolini came periously close to talking himself into it. In every country the military advisers anticipated defeat, and the economic advisers expected ruin and bankruptcy.
Neither the warnings of the soldiers and the bankers, nor the desperate efforts of the Western powers to devise an effective system of deterrence had the slightest effect upon Hitler. He wanted war and that was what he got, although not the kind of war he had expected.
The Führer’s intentions were by no means clear in September 1938, in the wake of Munich, least of all to Neville Chamberlain. The British prime minister stood at that time at the height of his reputation, with a solid majority in Parliament and strong support in the press and the country, much of which considered any criticism of the prime minister to be unpatriotic. At Watt’s preparatory school, the headmaster informed his charges that they should not believe those who told them that Mr. Chamberlain had done something wrong at Munich. On the contrary,
He had been sent by God to preserve the peace of the world. What he had done was noble and Christian and [they] were never to forget that.
Chamberlain himself had no doubts that the policy that had led to Munich was the correct one. As early as 1934 a committee of military advisers and civil servants had named the already rearming Germany as the main threat to British security and pointed to 1939 as the year of greatest danger. British rearmament had begun two years later, although by 1937 it was becoming clear that its costs were threatening the possibility of full recovery from the slump of 1931. It was by then also apparent that the possibility of conflict with Japan and Italy was very real and that the country did not possess the forces to protect its interests in three divided areas at the same time. To reduce the possibility of conflict and, if possible, to turn one of the potential antagonists into a friend or an associate seemed only logical, and this was the justification for the appeasement policy. If Chamberlain is to be faulted, it is less because he adopted it than because he pursued it with an arrogant contempt for anyone who doubted its success or suggested that an all-out attempt to build up the defenses of collective security against aggression might be a better course for Britain to follow, for it would avoid the moral dilemma of having to seek peace at the expense of the freedom of small nations—which is what appeasement entailed, as the fate of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 showed all too plainly.
Chamberlain was, Watt writes, “relentless, sanguine, a most efficient dispatcher of business, impelled always to act and to decide and never afraid of taking an unwelcome or unpopular decision.” Not that the decision not to fight over Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland be turned over to Germany was unpopular. The chiefs of staff had warned categorically that war in 1938 would entail the gravest risk of British defeat; the Dominions were lukewarm and, in some cases, actively hostile to the prospect of war; and the rapture of the crowds who met Chamberlain at Croydon on his return from what, after all, was a capitulation to Hitler at Munich was evidence of broad popular support.
It is not clear that Chamberlain was as euphoric about what he had accomplished as some historians have professed or that he was at all confident that the Anglo-German agreement that he had persuaded Hitler to sign on the morning after the conference had really secured “peace in our time.” In the weeks that followed, he alternated between states of cautious optimism, based upon his feeling that the Sudeten crisis had brought the possibility of war home to the Germans in a way that had frightened them and that this and Germany’s current economic troubles would tend to restrain new adventurism, and admissions of the darkest gloom, saying in one letter that he
found Hitler unstable, if not mad—that he didn’t believe a word he said and that he hoped he had won a year to rearm before Hitler’s lust for conquest overcame him.
This ambivalence marked a change in the self-confidence that had characterized his behavior at the flood tide of appeasement, and indeed, even before the German march into Prague in March 1939 had proved the truth of his gloomiest forebodings, he had sensibly modified his policy.
During the mini-crisis of January 1939, which was caused by erroneous information that the Germans were on the point of invading Holland—and which, Watt says, showed the “curious mixture of alarmism and excitability” of the usually unflappable Foreign Office at this time—Chamberlain consulted the chiefs of staff, who told him that if Britain did nothing while Holland was invaded the moral repercussions in the Dominions and elsewhere would be serious enough to deprive the country of support in a future contest with Germany. Since Hitler’s future course seemed quite incalculable, the prime minister took a series of safety measures. In February, he asked Parliament for authority to double British borrowing for defense, placing the sum to be spent in 1939–1940 at £580 million pounds. In order to stiffen resistance in France and the Low Countries, he took steps to assure them of support in case of attack. And he redoubled his efforts to detach Mussolini from Hitler by warning him that it would be a “terrible tragedy” if aggression took place under some misapprehension about the reaction of Britain and France.
Well pleased with this outburst of energy, the prime minister began to feel that he was taking the initiative away from the dictators and in March made some incautious remarks about the strengthened prospects of peace. But the measures he had taken had not had enough time to acquire any deterrent force, and on March 15 Hitler destroyed all of Chamberlain’s illusions by sending his tanks into Prague. Two weeks later, Mussolini, whose soundest political instincts were always defeated by his desire to see his name in headlines, betrayed all his easy assurances to Chamberlain by invading Albania. Then, a month later, he bolted into a fateful military alliance with Germany, the Pact of Steel.
“The feeling in the lobbies,” Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary on March 17, 1939, “is that Chamberlain will either have to go or completely reverse his policy.” The latter proved to be true, and it was announced in Chamberlain’s speech at Birmingham on the same evening, in which two new notes were struck: first, that war was not unthinkable and that situations could arise, as a result of new aggression, presumably by Germany, that would compel Britain to take up arms; and, second, that Britain’s security interests were not limited to Western Europe. Indeed, even before Chamberlain had begun to speak, his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax (a man for whose integrity and judiciousness Watt has a high regard, while noting that he was “subject to attacks of alarmism, verging on panic”), had been startled by agitated and wildly exaggerated charges by the Romanian minister Virgil Tilea that German troops were poised on his country’s borders. Halifax had been so concerned that within hours he had dispatched telegrams to Athens, Ankara, Bucharest, Belgrade, Paris, Warsaw, and Moscow, asking for reactions to the news and inquiring about the willingness of each government to consider forms of counteraction.
From this hasty and perhaps ill-considered reaction much followed: a Soviet proposal for a conference between the Soviet Union, France, Britain, Poland, and Romania to consider common action; a Chamberlain substitute for the Soviet proposal suggesting a statement of intention by Britain, France, Poland, and the Soviet Union to consult in the event of further threats to the independence of any state in Europe; a good deal of waffling and backing and filling by the Poles, Romanians, and French; a split in the British cabinet over the merits of having any dealings with the Soviets; pressure from Finland, Japan, Portugal, Canada, and South Africa to avoid dividing Europe into ideological blocs; and much else. The upshot of it all was not a collective pact against aggression but the British guarantees to Greece and Turkey and Romania and Poland, the full implications of which were not carefully thought out. Watt’s considered opinion of the process and the result was that the British and French cabinets had been
harried and hurried into guarantees that they could not or would not implement, into a system of deterrence they did not understand, and which left them in the last days of August desperately trying to avoid the realization that their policy had failed to deter.
An effective policy of deterrence depends upon an agreement that one’s interests in a region threatened by an opponent are important enough to require a commitment to defend them and a willingness to make that commitment clear by threats that are both credible and sufficiently potent to impress the opponent and dissuade him from acting. This requires, of course, a rational opponent, one who can be expected to calculate the advantages of the choices open to him on the basis of existing evidence. Watt’s meticulous recapitulation of the diplomatic record between March and August makes it clear that the Western experiment in deterrence fell short of this model in several particulars. The Anglo-French commitment was strong enough, although the French often needed to be stiffened at critical moments and there were some foot-draggers in the British cabinet, but neither power was willing to use threatening language toward the Germans for fear of triggering what they were hoping to avoid, and in any case any military threat that they could have made would have certainly lacked credibility.
General Gamelin, the French Army chief of staff, could not even tell the Poles, let alone the Germans, what France intended to do if Germany attacked Poland. (Watt, perhaps influenced by the general’s behavior in 1940, says, “Gamelin…knew that there was no intention on France’s side to assail the German fortifications in the West, not on the fifteenth day, not on the thirtieth, not within the first year of war.”) The greatest weakness of the deterrence system was the inability of the West to protect Poland and Romania without the active assistance of the Soviet Union, and this Chamberlain and Halifax were long disinclined to seek because of their lack of faith in that country’s military usefulness and its reliability as an ally.4
Watt admits this but points out that the fault lies more with the Soviet Union than with the British leaders. Badly served by their diplomats in the West—Ivan Maisky in London, of whom Watt paints a brilliant portrait, spent more time cultivating the opposition and the editors of leftist magazines than he did the leaders of the government—who reported only what they thought their masters wanted to hear, the men in the Kremlin never grasped the idea that the British had been slow in perceiving but now saw clearly enough: that the sooner Hitler was defeated and overthrown, the better for everyone, not least the Soviet Union, which was to lose 20 million citizens in the coming war.
If the appeasement of Germany, as practised by the British Government headed by Neville Chamberlain, was mistaken and wrong; if the failure to achieve an alliance against Hitler in 1939 was mistaken and wrong, then the Soviet conviction that Britain needed the alliance and the Soviets did not was also wrong. So too were the Soviet convictions that it was for Britain to court the Soviets, that the Soviets were free to choose whether the marriage contract being offered was reliable enough to make acceptance worth while, and that it was for Britain to send Lord Halifax to Moscow in June or their Chiefs of Staff in August, rather than for the Soviets to send Molotov and Marshal Voroshilov to London. What mattered was the alliance.
But even if the alliance had been consummated, was the other condition of effective deterrence present? Was Hitler sane enough to assess the odds against him? The question of the Führer’s sanity was one that worried Chamberlain and kept recurring in his letters, and on the very eve of the war, in a letter to his sister Ida, he wrote:
With such an extraordinary creature one can only speculate. But I believe he did seriously contemplate an agreement with us and that he worked seriously at proposals (subsequently broadcast) which to his one-track mind seemed almost fabulously generous. But at the last moment some brainstorm took possession of him—maybe Ribbentrop stirred it up—and once he had set his machine in motion he could not stop it. That, as I have always recognized, is the frightful danger of such terrific weapons being in the hands of a paranoiac.5
There is perhaps a self-exculpatory note here, but it is nevertheless shrewd. Hitler had his weapons in order, and he lusted now for their employment; indeed, he admitted to his generals in November, “After all, I did not raise the army not to use it.” In all probability, he would have gone to war even without the pact with the Soviet Union, for he had no respect for the Soviet armed forces; and, sane or not, he was utterly incapable of appreciating the signals of growing strength and resolution that came to him from Great Britain, because his opinion of the Western leaders had been set in 1938. On August 20 at the Berghof, leaning against a piano upon which there was a bust of Richard Wagner, he told his senior military commanders of his determination to crush Poland and assured them that the British and French would not invervene. “Our enemies are small fry,” he boasted. “I saw them at Munich.”
What Hitler failed completely to comprehend was the dramatic change of mood that had taken place in Great Britain since September 1938. At that time few people in public or private life wanted a war at any cost; and, if the British were a logical people, they would have felt the same way a year later, for thanks to Hitler’s gains in Bohemia and Moravia, the country was relatively weaker than it had been at the time of Munich. Hitler took over 2,000 antitank guns, 800 tanks, 2,000 pieces of artillery, 57,000 machine guns, 750,000 rifles, and 1,200 aircraft ready for use, as well as the enormous armament-producing complexes at Pilsen and Prague and Brno, and 800,000 ounces of gold and vast stores of nonferrous metals to ease the shortages of the Four Year Plan. But such matters now seemed irrelevant. Even before Prague, it was apparent that opinion was swinging strongly against Germany, as if deep atavisms of ancient pride and defiance were rising to the surface, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact did nothing to diminish this. Watt writes:
The British people were, in fact, retreating, as they were to in the summer of 1940, into one of those profoundly non-realistic states of conviction, incomprehensible to citizens and statesmen of other countries alike, with which by that very strength and single-mindedness the British can make nonsense of “realism,” as applied by such observers to their situation.
They were in fact remembering that great powers are supposed to act like great powers, and they no longer had patience for further talk of compromise. The violence of this feeling was demonstrated in the dramatic scene in Commons on September 2, the day after the German attack on Poland, when Chamberlain, perhaps because he was distracted by vain efforts to get the French to say when they would be prepared to go to war, gave an uninspiring speech that did not include the ultimatum to Germany that members expected and found himself assailed by both sides of the House and his government on the verge of overthrow. None of this could have been imagined by Hitler, and his savage remark to Ribbentrop when the British ultimatum arrived on September 3, “What happens next?,” showed dumbfoundedness as well as anger.
With respect to American influence in the events of 1939, Watt is dismissive. He is inclined to agree with the view that “the ambiguities of Franklin Roosevelt’s policy grew as much out of his own character and attitudes as they did out of his celebrated deference to the dictates of public opinion,”6 and carries this to the point of writing that
the President’s secretiveness, his distrust of his supporters, and his total confidence in his own judgment and vision were to encourage him to entertain a series of beliefs and convictions about those with whom he was dealing that left him very nearly as ill informed and as myopic in his judgment of European, indeed of world, politics as Stalin was.
He is particularly severe on Roosevelt’s note of April 14, 1939, in which he asked Hitler if he would be prepared, as a preliminary to a conference to discuss legitimate German claims, to pledge not to attack thirty-one countries, whose names were appended. “The message,” Watt writes,
illustrated only too clearly the disordered priorities, the lack of grasp of realities and perceptions outside the United States, the desire to play the great mediator, the preoccupation with American public opinion, and the concentration on easy rhetoric, rather than on politically hazardous and difficult action, to which all American presidents are prone.
Aside from being another example of Watt’s weakness for the all-purpose put-down, this seems at the very least ungenerous. Roosevelt’s note, to which Hitler gave a devastating answer in the Reichstag, may, as Watt argues, have convinced the Führer that he had nothing to fear from the United States (in which case he was, of course, very wrong), but it was not a naive exercise, let alone an act of “folly.” As William R. Rock points out in his book on Anglo-American relations from 1937 to 1940, in nearly every country except Germany and Italy the note met with a favorable response and this was particularly true in England, where Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister that the President’s appeal was “very skillfully framed,” had put the dictators into “a tight corner,” and that, though they could not be expected to react positively, world opinion, and particularly American opinion, would be consolidated against them and their own peoples would be disappointed and alarmed. It is not, indeed, impossible that the note may have contributed to the slackening of the momentum of the dictators after Prague and Albania and even caused some second thinking in the Palazzo Chigi.
That Franklin Roosevelt was slow in acquiring a realistic view of totalitarianism would be hard to contest. In May 1933, in a conversation with Hjalmar Schacht, he praised Hitler and Mussolini for their energy as reformers, which he compared with his own,7 and, as late as 1935, in a private letter he referred to the Duce as “that fine Italian gentleman;”8 he had a stubborn belief that conferences of world leaders under his chairmanship could resolve all of the world’s problems (which led William Bullitt to remonstrate that this would be as useful as calling a conference of psychoanalysts in the heyday of Al Capone to talk about the psychological causes of crime); and before 1938 there was little to choose between his belief in appeasement and Neville Chamberlain’s.
But, as Rock points out in his interesting and highly readable study, “Roosevelt was clearly discouraged—and frightened—by Munich,” and his policy assumed a new direction and consistency. He became convinced that if Hitler and Mussolini succeeded in dominating Europe they could not help but become so serious a threat to the United States that in order to defend itself it might have to sacrifice the social and economic reforms won by the New Deal and become a garrison state. In his view and that of such close associates as Ambassador Bullitt and the secretaries of the treasury and the interior, Henry Morgenthau and Harold Ickes, this would require, first, educating the American people to the reality of the threat and the necessity of opposing it by all means short of war; second, beginning a significant degree of rearmament; and, third, encouraging Britain and France, which must be considered as forming America’s first line of defense, to resist the dictators by promises of material and financial support.
Roosevelt promoted the educational process at home by a series of speeches and fireside talks, beginning with the address to Congress on January 4, 1939, in which he declared that “survival cannot be prevented by arming after the attack begins.” To maintain the will and resistance of the French and British governments, he did what he could. He became increasingly outspoken in his public references to the dictators; he gave advice when he thought it was needed (as when he argued at length that the British would not impress the Germans with their military will unless they passed a national conscription law, advice that Chamberlain eventually took); he stretched the letter of the law to provide military assistance (by schemes like the Bullitt plan for providing material for the construction of aviation plants on Canadian territory as a means of facilitating the buildup of the French air force, which didn’t have adequate plant capacity of its own). He also intimated to British friends that he had worked out ways of providing patrols to protect convoys in the Atlantic if war should come; and he dispatched the Atlantic Fleet to Pacific waters to help protect Britain’s Far Eastern interests; and during the negotiations for a Soviet-Western military alliance, he urged the Soviet ambassador in Washington to persuade his masters that it was in the best interests of the Soviet Union to come to an agreement, sound advice that the men in the Kremlin did not accept.
This was something, but in Rock’s view not enough. Surveying the relationship between the American and British leadership for both the prewar years and the first year of the European war, he finds it completely lacking in the qualities that marked the later partnership of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Instead of personal attraction, systematic understanding, and imaginative statesmanship, the relationship between Roosevelt and Chamberlain was marked by “mutual seclusion, patent excuses, selfish pursuits, and missed opportunities.” There were many reasons for this. On the one hand, there were Chamberlain’s fixed belief that “it is always best and safest to count on nothing from the Americans except words”; his brusque rejection of the Roosevelt initiative of January 1938 because it might interfere with his effort to wean Italy from Germany by recognizing its conquest of Abyssinia; and his subsequent lack of interest in consulting Washington before Munich or in the critical days after Prague. On the other hand, there were Roosevelt’s private reservations about British imperialism and, after Munich, his recurrent fear that Chamberlain might revert to appeasement, which was fed by rumors of Anglo-German economic talks in the summer of 1939, or become discouraged and susceptible to new pressures. After listening to some discouraged talk from Lord Lothian in May 1939, he wrote, “What the British need today is a good stiff grog.”
On balance, Rock is inclined to believe that Chamberlain and his colleagues must bear the burden of the blame for the faulty relationship because they were unable or reluctant to accept the patent fact that they could not defend their interests in Europe, the Far East, and the Mediterranean without full participation by the United States in efforts to keep the peace and, when the fighting began, to win the war. In part, he writes, this was because “emotional factors with strong historical bases, ranging from a belief in their own superiority and ability to handle things alone to a genuine distrust of a politically immature America, often took precedence in their thinking.” But it was also because Chamberlain, with that unshakeable self-confidence of his, never fully realized how desperate England’s plight was and how indispensable American collaboration until the skies fell in upon him in May 1940.
At the end of this past August, an international historical congress on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second World War took place in the Berlin Reichstag, and among its most interesting aspects were papers by three Soviet historians which dealt with the Nazi-Soviet Pact with critical incisiveness and an unprecedented freedom from ideological bias. Particularly impressive were the remarks of the Moscow historian Mikhail Semiriaga, who denied the traditional Soviet view that Stalin was forced by the objective circumstances to sign the pact with Hitler. Semiriaga analyzed the other choices available to Stalin, accused him of violating the principles of glasnost and Lenin’s prohibition of secret diplomacy, and declared in tones of deep emotion and shame that, because Stalin had known Hitler’s motives and shared in the booty, taking over the Baltic states and part of Poland, he had done “great harm to the reputation of my country.”9
All three historians admitted that their papers were written without the opportunity to consult the Soviet archives and regretted that Stalin’s motives were therefore a matter of conjecture. This is a situation with which Soviet diplomatic historians and their colleagues abroad have to live, and it has to be remembered whenever new accounts of Soviet policy in the years 1939–1941 appear on the market, particularly books like Viktor Suworow’s Der Eisbrecher (The Ice-Breaker).
The author, whose nom de plume is that of a long-dead Russian military hero, and who is described on the jacket as a Soviet exile who was once a “high-ranking officer of the Soviet military secret service GPU,” argues, pace Donald Watt, that the author of the Second World War was not Hitler but Stalin. As early as 1927 the Soviet leader had recognized fascism as the tool that would destroy capitalism and bring Europe under his control; he helped the Nazis to power in Germany and encouraged their leader’s aggressive tendencies; he signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact in order to turn Hitler, his ice-breaker, against the democratic West; and he then set about deliberately planning a war against Germany that would open the rest of the continent to him.
So confident was he of victory that he systematically destroyed all Soviet defensive positions, which would have impeded the advance of his armies, and all of his defensive weapons (treaded tanks, for example, in favor of ones with wheels, which would run better on the paved roads of the West), and concentrated hordes of airborne and glider troops in undefended positions along the frontiers of East Prussia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania. Stalin, according to Suworow, intended to start a general advance on July 6, 1941. Unexpectedly (although why unexpectedly, since Stalin had been warned by both the British and his own agent Richard Sorge, who actually named the day?) Hitler attacked on June 22, and the great offensive army that was to conquer Europe was utterly destroyed.
Part of this argument is not unfamiliar, and the role of Stalin in using the German Communist party to destroy German social democracy has been the subject of considerable but inconclusive discussion in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. As for the pact, we must wait on the documents, although it would appear that Stalin’s mind in August 1939, and indeed for the next two years, was too much filled with suspicion of the West and fear of the Germans to have room for schemes for the conquest of all Europe.
The most fantastic part of this account, which is written with great spirit and conviction, is the story of the deliberate destruction of the Red Army’s defensive capacity and the movement of troops to their jump-off positions for the great offensive westward. This is largely based upon short excerpts from military memoirs, rather than upon directives or strategical plans. Even Stalin’s secret speech to his marshals and senior commanders on May 5, 1941, in which, we are told, he announced the impending attack upon Germany, remains secret here, and Suworow’s readers must be content with what Marshal Zhukhov thought he remembered Stalin saying. No reference is made in The Ice-Breaker to the diplomatic relations between Germany and the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941, particularly to their differences over Romania, which have a direct bearing on Suworow’s story and raise some awkward questions. And one wonders why, if all this military activity of destruction and replacement was going on, there were no references to it in the diplomatic files of foreign embassies or in the reports of their military attachés.
Suworow admits that there have been objections to his theory of why the events of June 22, 1941, happened as they did, but he says that all his critics have to offer in its place is the view that Stalin and his associates were, in this matter, fools. There is a rule in history that, when one is offered the choice between an elaborate and a simple explanation for an event, it is generally wiser, other things being equal, to accept the latter. That would appear to apply here.
October 12, 1989
Philippe de Commynes, Mémoires, edited by Joseph Calmette, 3 vols. (Paris, 1924), Vol. II, p. 211. ↩
Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Houghton Mifflin, 1948), p. 89. ↩
David Dilks, ” ‘We Must Hope for the Best and Prepare for the Worst’: The Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and Hitler’s Germany, 1937–1939,” The Raleigh Lecture on History, Proceedings of the British Academy, LXXIII (1987), p. 351. ↩
See my article “Dangerous Liaisons,” The New York Review (March 30, 1989). ↩
Cited in Dilks, Proceedings of the British Academy, p. 348. ↩
David Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-German Alliance, 1937–1942 (University of North Carolina Press, 1982), p. 27. ↩
Documents on German Foreign Policy: 1918–1945 (Washington, 1949 ff.), Series C, Vol. I, p. 313. ↩
Gloria J. Barron, Leadership in Crisis: FDR and the Path to Intervention (Kennikat, 1973), p. 9. ↩
See Günter Gillessen, “Vom Verfall des Staatensystems: Internationaler Historiker-Kongress in Berlin über die Entfesselung des Zweiten Weltkriegs,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (August 26, 1989), p. 21. ↩