Could World War II have been avoided? Or if not avoided, since Hitler was Hitler, could it have been postponed until the Western democracies were better prepared to defeat him? A credible threat in 1938 from the Soviets, backed by the British and French, to come to the aid of the Czechs might have stopped Hitler in his tracks. The Soviets had issued such a guarantee to the Czechs in 1932, but it was contingent on the French keeping their part of the bargain. In 1938, Hitler gambled that the Soviets and the West would never stand against him together. At Munich in 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier sold out the Czechs and proved him right.
This question—of whether the war could have been avoided or at least delayed—dominates the diaries of Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to Britain throughout the grim decade of appeasement. Maisky enjoyed extraordinary access to the entire British elite, because he had been a Menshevik exile in London between 1912 and 1917 and had established friendships with Sydney and Beatrice Webb, G.D.H. Cole, and George Bernard Shaw. Upon becoming ambassador in 1932, Maisky consolidated these friendships on the Labour left, while assiduously cultivating figures on the Conservative right, notably Winston Churchill.
In these diaries, Churchill, then in the political wilderness, emerges as the figure who most clearly understood that the Western democracies’ only chance of deterring Hitler lay in an alliance with the Soviet Union. In 1936, Churchill told Maisky: “We would be complete idiots were we to deny help to the Soviet Union at present out of a hypothetical danger of socialism which might threaten our children and grandchildren.”
In 1937 at a state banquet Churchill broke off a conversation with King George VI in order to engage Maisky in a probing discussion of whether Stalin’s purges of the Party and the army, then reaching their paroxysm, would leave Russia too weak to face Germany. While Churchill’s attentions to the Russian ambassador were being carefully noticed in the room, Maisky blandly assured him that the purges would strengthen, not weaken the country. Churchill shook his head distrustfully and remarked, “A weak Russia presents the greatest danger for the cause of peace and for the inviolability of our Empire. We need a strong, very strong Russia.”
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