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October 25, 2012

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ajay

I only had one relative die as a consequence of World War Two (a maternal great uncle, at Anzio, with the North Staffordshires), and I don't think there's any doubt that I have the Soviets to thank for that

...in both senses; the armies that conquered France and invaded Russia were built from Russian metal, fuelled with Russian oil and used tactics developed on Russian army training grounds. If Stalin hadn't been such a bloody idiot and hadn't trusted Hitler quite so implicitly...

Richard j

One of the few times I'll give Stalin any credit is that in the face of the stonewalling he got from France and Britain over the course of the late 30s, making the pact with Hitler in the hope that the resulting Franco-German war would be a prolonged stalemate that would remove Germany as a realistic threat to the USSR was a fairly reasonable gamble that failed disastrously.

guthrie

I was under the impression that Stalin was also playing the long game, industrialising like crazy in the belief that he'd have to fight it out with Germany at some point or another. At first the timing and preparations went Germany's way.

And the British government and foreign office before the war really seem not to have had a clue what things were like, or even been particularly interested in finding out. To someone who was born near the end of the cold war, with its massive apparatus of spies and intelligence gathering, it seems incredible how little they knew.

Leinad

There was plenty of stonewalling on both sides:
Stalin's brand of Marxism-Leninism was a paranoid, defensive formula, hostile to co-operation with outside parties (the Popular Front being a late, reactive departure) and convinced that the Capitalist powers were on the verge of tearing themselves apart, so why get in the way?

At a historical level as well there were obvious grounds to be wary of joining an anti-German pact: Britain's idea of a good European war was no secret and France was clearly gearing up for another attritional slog - as a land power with a huge border to protect these weren't ideal partners.

Consequently, Molotov-Ribentropp looked like a good deal - an extra buffer, capitalist agressors locking horns and a nice sideline selling grain and flax to Germany in exchange for precision machinery. Would have worked out even better if aforesaid ideological framework hadn't blinded Stalin to the type of lunatics he was signing on with.

johnf

>And the British government and foreign office before the war really seem not to have had a clue what things were like, or even been particularly interested in finding out.

While this is certainly true of the government, there was a very strong nub of anti-Nazism within the Foreign Office - that's why Chamberlain went to such lengths to remove Eden, Vansittart and the FO's press officer Rex Leeper.

Not trusting the FO to not leak Chamberlain's missives to the dictators, his vicious spin doctor Joseph Ball even went to the lengths of organising a secret messenger service. Unfortunately he recruited blackmailable homosexuals (he had homosexual proclivities himself), including the male lead in the West End "No No Nanette" and a certain Guy Burgess. No wonder the Soviets suspected Chamberlain's late 30's approaches.

Staunch Tory anti-appeasers like Churchill and Nicolson never seemed to bear the Soviets a grudge for the Nazi/Soviet Pact. They knew where the real responsibility lay.

Phil

I haven't read Wesley K. Wark in a long time, but as I remember it British intelligence in the 1920s worked on three assumptions -

a) there would be another war, but
b) not within the next ten years, and
c) with the USSR.

b) was a rolling ten years; this estimate was supposed to be revised if ever the situation changed sufficiently to warrant it, but naturally there was a lot of reluctance to do so. When it came to thinking in terms of preparing for war with Germany, obviously c) was the real killer. It was 1935-6 before that was revised, at which point b) also had to be revised and pronto.

ajay

When it came to thinking in terms of preparing for war with Germany, obviously c) was the real killer.

As it turned out, there was another war, with Germany _and_ the Soviet Union. Britain was gearing up to put troops in to help Finland, remember - only the invasion of Norway and France stopped us.

And, sorry, but in no sense does forming an alliance with the man who's spent the last ten years talking about how he wants to invade your country and turn your people into slaves - or, rather, given we're talking about the USSR, turn your people into _his_ slaves - look like a good idea.

Phil

It was certainly controversial at the time.

Leinad

"And, sorry, but in no sense does forming an alliance with the man who's spent the last ten years talking about how he wants to invade your country and turn your people into slaves - or, rather, given we're talking about the USSR, turn your people into _his_ slaves - look like a good idea."

Sure it does. Gives you space and time to gear up to beat him, while he gets tied down fighting with your other enemy in a war he can't win. In August 1939, that looks like a very good deal, especially if your take on Great Beard Man's work is that that's the sort of thing that should be happenening anyway.

Also, the other guy can't explain how his alliance is going to work, as you taking action against the crazy guy means marching over a country that beat you in a war twenty years earlier that you're both still quite touchy about.

Richard J

And from the perspective of Britain and France, in 1939, it's a choice between someone who has actually killed millions of people by this point, and someone who talks a lot of worrying stuff, but to this point, has been positively restrained in the mass-murdering game.

Leinad

One way to analogise this is May 2010:

A Lib-Lab pact is technically possible but a massive headache to implement while the alternative is simple and workable, and allows for both sides to convince themselves the other guy will end up holding the bag.

CMcM

Hmm. I'm not at all sure about this. It seems to assume a level of logical real-politik behaviour by Stalin in the late 1930s that I've always struggled to discern.

One can see a certain real-politik logic in the brutal industrialisation of the USSR, even including the forcible confiscation of the 'surplus' of Ukrainian grain that led to mass starvation. Once the early hope of World Revolution had faded, 'Socialism in One Country' was, at least for the medium term, the only realistic option and the argument was really about how to go about it and how fast and in what way to industrialise. One can even hold one's nose and see why, on this view, the bloody purges began.


But by the late 1930s he had purged the Party of quite a high proportion not just of opponents but of a large number of Stalinists. & then he purged the senior officer ranks of the Red Army itself. This doesn't seem like the behaviour of a man preparing to 'buy himself time'.

I'll give you that even psychotic regimes can make rational policy, sometimes. But I've never been able to quite shake off the view that the Nazi-Soviet pact was more of a piece with the utterly irrational internal policies he had been busy pursuing in the immediately preceding period.

ajay

Gives you space and time to gear up to beat him, while he gets tied down fighting with your other enemy in a war he can't win

But that isn't what happened, though. Stalin spent 1939-41 supplying the Wehrmacht, even after it was bloody obvious that it wasn't going to be tied down in a stalemate on the Western Front because it had already, you know, beaten France. The last trainloads of supplies from the USSR crossed the border just after midnight on 22 June 1941.

And far from taking the time to prepare for the inevitable betrayal, he was utterly convinced - even after the invasion had started - that the alliance would last and that anyone who said otherwise was a provocateur working for the British.

Sorry, Crafty Stalin Buying Time just isn't historically justified. Idiot Stalin Getting Suckered is.

Phil

So Nick Clegg's Stalin? Or... no, that's even worse.

What I find really depressing about this lot, apart from their naked determination to smash things up, is their sheer incompetence. New Labour were a bit dim, but at least they could do politics. Cameron does actually make a pretty good Ribbentrop - over-promoted, self-important, loose-mouthed wouldbe-aristocrat - but I don't know where you'd find anyone as useless as Clegg on the other side; he'd have been purged long since. (Say what you like about Stalin, he didn't suffer fools.)

Leinad

There's a tad more method to the Army Purges than is usually acknowledged. As crazy and destructive as it was it did decapitate and demoralize one of the few remaining institutions that could credibly threaten Stalin's rule.

Arguably it _is_ the action of someone who thinks he isn't going to have to wage a world war in the very near term, but in any case mere military effectiveness was second-order to Stalin's ingrained paranoia.

Cian

Say what you like about Stalin, he didn't suffer fools.

Lysenko?

johnf

Democratically elected Erdogan could be putting himself in a similar position with his generals as Stalin did.

Putting a lot on trial while pursuing a foreign policy which could lead to war on several fronts.

Leinad

"But that isn't what happened, though. Stalin spent 1939-41 supplying the Wehrmacht, even after it was bloody obvious that it wasn't going to be tied down in a stalemate on the Western Front because it had already, you know, beaten France. The last trainloads of supplies from the USSR crossed the border just after midnight on 22 June 1941."

Actually this was a steal for the Soviets, they were shipping off grain and getting precision machinery in exchange. This was positively schizophrenic on the Nazi side - deliveries of industrial products to the Soviet Union were on equal footing with the Luftwaffe until 11 May 1941.


"And far from taking the time to prepare for the inevitable betrayal, he was utterly convinced - even after the invasion had started - that the alliance would last and that anyone who said otherwise was a provocateur working for the British."

Now we've moved from 'was making an alliance with Hitler in 1939 a bad idea' to 'was ignoring the considerable information from your top-notch intelligence services to the effect that Nazi invasion was imminent a bit nuts'. The answer in the latter case is very yes.

"Sorry, Crafty Stalin Buying Time just isn't historically justified. Idiot Stalin Getting Suckered is."

Actually, idiocy and craftiness in varying measure look to be hallmarks of dictators. In this case I'd argue Stalin's idiocy in mid 1941 doesn't prejudice August 1939.

belle le triste

re Lysenko: seem to recall a Stephen J. Gould piece noting that -- though ultimately wrong on the specific question of the heritability of acquired characteristics (and of course politically compromised), Lysenko was caught up in a scientific debate in which he was largely right on some things? Caveat: probably 15 years since I read it and too busy to chase for it, sadly

Obviously Gould's mildly contrarian history-of-science shtick was very often "that clown that the progress of science allows us to mock? not such a clown in context, and actually quite interesting, and here's why" -- so I may have misremembered this particular essay...

Phil

OK, apart from Lysenko...

Not fools so much, perhaps, as naifs. Anyone who didn't have a reasonable quotient of ratlike cunning was liable to get purged sooner or later. And ratlike cunning in leading politicians is an underrated virtue - you miss it when it's not there. Both Clegg and Cameron are rich sources of "no, you idiot, don't say that..." moments.

Richard J

Actually, idiocy and craftiness in varying measure look to be hallmarks of dictators. In this case I'd argue Stalin's idiocy in mid 1941 doesn't prejudice August 1939.

In fact, you could argue it's a classic case of cognitive dissonance. From June 1940 onwards, the predictions behind Stalin's gamble turned out to be quite disastrously wrong, and it's perfectly natural to enter into a state of denial, especially when nobody is able to contradict you.

(And let's not forget that in August 1939, without the benefit of hindsight, how the Wehrmacht would actually perform in battle was a very open question, and even arguably until France - their performance in Poland was quite shaky at times, IIRC.)

Leinad

@Phil: Clegg-Stalin comparison will break the analogy, which was only intended to highlight the comparable difficulty of rustling together a Rainbow Coalition with getting the Soviet Union to act as first defender of Polish sovereignty.

Phil

I know, but it's fun.

guthrie

SOP for a dictator is to isolate and disempower any alternative power structures.
See also the centralisation of government, e.g. in the 80's, or the current assault on any professional group that might disagree with the government.

CMcM

SOP for a dictator is to isolate and disempower any alternative power structures.

Well, yup. Except that in regime circles in the pre-war USSR the most widely feared 'alternative power structures' were reckoned (rightly in my view) to be the outside world, aka International Capitalism.So I don't think you can explain Stalin's behaviour by 'SOP'.

Barry Freed

And let's not forget that in August 1939, without the benefit of hindsight, how the Wehrmacht would actually perform in battle was a very open question, and even arguably until France...

And France was rated quite highly at the time.

There's a tad more method to the Army Purges than is usually acknowledged. As crazy and destructive as it was it did decapitate and demoralize one of the few remaining institutions that could credibly threaten Stalin's rule.


And yet, if Zhukov had been purged...

CMcM

And yet, if Zhukov had been purged..

Tukhachevsky was purged. Some say he was the real military genius.

All the Old Bolsheviks, not just Stalin, were ferociously attached to looking at their revolution through the prism of the French Revolution. Tukhachevsky may or may not have been a creditable figure to emerge as the Napoleon of the Leninist state in reality but his very real ability may have made Stalin wary of him, even without the early personal clashes the wiki articles says they had over the failure to conquer Poland in 1920.

Not that I accept that this makes purging him 'rational' - quite the opposite. It was self destructive madness.

ajay

Staunch Tory anti-appeasers like Churchill and Nicolson never seemed to bear the Soviets a grudge for the Nazi/Soviet Pact. They knew where the real responsibility lay.

That's not true at all. Churchill was very critical of it - he thought Stalin had shot himself in the foot. See his "Second World War".

ajay

in regime circles in the pre-war USSR the most widely feared 'alternative power structures' were reckoned (rightly in my view) to be the outside world, aka International Capitalism.

Depends on your point of view. The most feared threat to communist rule was "International Capitalism" (wrongly, of course); the most feared threat to Stalin himself was an internal coup by, frex, the army.

CMcM

Ajay, I don't know how loyal the Red Army command would have been without the late thirties purges. It's a interesting counter-factual to muse on.

But they didn't revolt at any other point in Soviet history did they? I agree that this doesn't necessarily mean the CP high command weren't wary of them but, as I say, since Stalin & the rest were pre-programmed by their historical materialist world view to expect some Cromwell/Napoleon figure to emerge, this isn't that surprising.

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