Crude Stereotypes and Western Foreign Policy Blunders: Enduring Lessons from the Anglo-French Mishandling of 1939
David Kerans (USA) Aug 31, 2009
Crude stereotypes have their use for politicians, especially for demagogues seeking to mobilize mass opinion. They have no place, however, in the formation of foreign policy, where a nuanced understanding of one’s negotiating partners is essential, and missteps borne from faulty characterizations of these partners can carry the most tragic consequences. Such, it seems, should be a primary lesson of Britain and France’s mishandling of the USSR 70 years ago. A sober assessment of the evidence reveals that the West was responsible for the Soviet Union signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact that set the stage for Nazi Germany’s triumphs in the first stages of the Second World War. But elite and popular opinion in the West has been more than reluctant to admit to this responsibility, preferring deluded and self-exculpatory explanations. As we shall see, the roots of failure in 1939 survived that year to help shape Western antagonism in the Cold War, and their echoes haunt Western foreign policy to the present day. It is high time to set the record straight on what happened in 1939.
The standard Western portrayal of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is succinct: Stalin welcomed a war in which Germany, England, and France would bleed each other dry, thus opening the continent to the Red Army and the imposition of communism. In this view, the USSR’s pursuit of “collective security” agreements with Britain, France, Czechoslovakia, and other European states for several years before war broke out was a treacherous smoke screen--Stalin was simply leading the democratic states along; he always favored a non-aggression pact with Germany which would free Hitler to wage war without fear of the USSR tipping the balance against him. And so, as the story goes, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact Stalin simultaneously stabbed the West in the back and began his westward expansion (into Poland, Finland, the Baltics, and Bessarabia, as per the secret protocols of the pact).
Until recently, prominent Western and Eastern European émigré historians have thrown a great deal of weight into exonerating the top Western leaders from blame for their failure to conclude collective security agreements with the USSR in the late 1930s. Stock portraits of the USSR as a ravenous, tyrannical threat to Europe have underlain these exonerations.1 In the last decade and a half, however, thanks in part to the opening of Soviet archives, researchers have demonstrated what more scrupulous scholars of the USSR have insisted all along. Namely, that the USSR must be treated as a complex, modern society, featuring a foreign policy almost entirely dependent from the ideological posturing of the Comintern. Stalin did not want war; he did not prioritize territorial expansion; he sincerely sought alliance with the West against Hitler; and he would send the Red Army into offensive operations against Germany in a coordinated response to German aggression in Europe.2
Responsibility for the failure of Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations in the final years of peace lies at the feet of Chamberlain, Daladier, and their foreign offices, who could not overcome their ideological antipathy to the USSR even in the summer of 1939, when public opinion and opposition parties swung heavily in favor of a 3-way alliance to deter Hitler from aggression. Correspondence from the top leaders leaves no doubt of their dread over the prospect of alliance with the USSR leading to a Pyrrhic (for the West) victory, with the USSR imposing communism on a ruined Europe.3 The evidence further reveals their willingness to tolerate the expansion of Nazi Germany to the east and southeast, while they would stand aside.4 Once France and England caved into Hitler at Munich, and shut the USSR out of those negotiations, the writing was on the wall, as far as the Soviet Union was concerned: the British and French could not be relied upon to do anything tangible to stop Hitler from moving east.
By 1939, with the architects of Munich remaining at the helm in Britain and France, the USSR had no choice but to demand binding, reciprocal military commitments from the Western powers as the price for concluding any prospective collective security agreement. After Hitler occupied rump Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and war in Poland loomed close on the horizon, an Anglo-French military delegation did finally travel to Moscow to discuss plans to resist Hitler. But, just as the Soviets anticipated, the delegation was a sham. None of its members had authority to sign any agreement; neither the French nor the British had composed any operational military plan in case of war; and both London and Paris had instructed their delegates to confine the talks to vague generalities.5
After several years of fruitlessly courting Britain and France, and with every reason to fear they would stand aside when (not if) Hitler expanded eastwards, did the USSR really have any alternative to accepting Hitler’s overtures? Would it really have made sense to decline? The first stages of the war did not play out exactly as the Soviets would have liked, of course. Stalin did not anticipate how quickly Germany would overcome France6; he did not handle the Sovietization of the Baltic states smoothly7; and, much more critically, he failed to anticipate the timing of Barbarossa. But none of this invalidates the decision to conclude some sort of non-aggression pact with Germany in August 1939. The West had left the Soviet Union no choice.
The notion of ideological bias having crippled British and French diplomacy in the late 1930s is not novel.8 Unfortunately, mainstream opinion in the West has always been satisfied to lay the blame on a nefarious Stalin and the intractably menacing USSR—a stance which dovetailed seamlessly with support for Cold War confrontation. And so, no matter how convincing the recent wave of research detailing the West’s responsibility for undermining collective security against Nazi Germany has been, it cannot easily penetrate popular consciousness. Indeed, and astonishing as it may sound, just this July the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe designated August 23 (the day of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) a day of remembrance for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism.
One can only hope the truth behind Britain and France’s role in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact will eventually sink in. For the lessons it could teach are certainly relevant today, what with the West struggling to confront a variety of severe tensions vis-а-vis the Islamic world. Crude stereotypes of Islamic societies have been all too common in elite circles. They have clearly contributed to this decade’s wave of American-led adventurism, and can anyone say for sure that the wave has receded? I leave this question for others to answer.
1 Prolific proponents include Adam Ulam, Igor Lukes, R.C. Raack, and Robert Tucker. Silvio Pons’s Stalin and the Inevitable War (2002) also posits that Stalin preferred alliance with Hitler on ideological grounds.
2 Fundamental here is Michael Jabara Carley, 1939: The Alliance that Never Was and the Coming of World War II (1999), with reinforcement from Gabriel Gorodetsky’s, Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia (1999). Carley’s “Behind Stalin’s Moustache: Pragmatism in Early Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-41”, Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 12, no. 3 (Sept. 2001) and his “Soviet Policy in the West, 1936-41: A Review Article”, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 56, no. 7, (Nov. 2004) are very helpful. Hugh Ragsdale’s, The Soviets, the Munich Crisis, and the Coming of World War Two (2004) details the genuineness of Soviet preparedness to fight Germany in 1938, if in concert with France, at least.
3 Other considerations applied when weighing the scales of an alliance with the USSR, to be sure. First and foremost, the West did not want to antagonize rabidly anti-Soviet Poland. But fear of a presumed war-revolution nexus governed Western policy. Carley’s 1939 is entirely convincing on these themes.
4 Carley provides ample evidence (1939, pp.32-33, e.g.). French and British intelligence presumed Hitler would attack to the east first, not the west (ibid).
5 Protestations that the Soviets tried to drive unreasonable bargains with the West here and earlier are empty, as Carley details (1939, e.g., pp. 173, 174, 196, 208).
6 See, e.g. Jonathan Haslam’s article on early Soviet foreign policy, in Ronald G. Suny ed., Cambridge History of Russia, vol. 3, 2005.
7 See e.g. Alfred J. Rieber’s article on Stalin’s foreign policy in Sarah Davies and James Harris, Stalin: A New History, 2005.
8 Some opposition politicians in London and Paris raised the accusation at the time, naturally, and among scholarly work E.H. Carr’s German-Soviet Relations Between the Two World Wars (1951) comes immediately to mind.