Tag Archives: Josef Stalin

The 22-Month Criminal Partnership That Turned the World On Its Head



Roger Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance:
Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41 

     On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union stunned the world by executing a non-aggression pact, sometimes referred to as the “Ribbentrop-Molotov” accord after the foreign ministers of the two countries.  The pact, executed in Moscow, seemed to come out of nowhere and was inexplicable to large portions of the world’s population, not least to German and Soviet citizens. Throughout most of the 1930s, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had vilified the other as its archenemy.  Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany in no small measure because he offered the country and especially its privileged elites protection from the Bolshevik menace emanating from the Soviet Union. Stalin’s Russia viewed the forces of Fascism and Nazism as dark and virulent manifestations of Western imperialism and global capitalism that threatened the Soviet Union.

     In his fascinating and highly readable account of the pact, The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41, Roger Moorhouse, an independent British historian, writes that the “bitter enmity between the Nazis and the Soviets had been considered as a given, one of the fixed points of political life.  Now, overnight, it had apparently been consigned to history. The signature of the pact, then, was one of those rare moments in history where the world – with all its norms and assumptions – appeared to have been turned on its head” (p.142). Or, as one commentator quipped at the time, the pact turned “all our –isms into –wasisms” (p.2).

     According to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, when the Fûhrer learned at his mountain retreat that Stalin had accepted the broad outlines of the proposal Ribbentrop carried to Moscow, Hitler “stared into space for a moment, flushed deeply, then banged on the table so hard that the glasses rattled, and exclaimed in a voice breaking with excitement, ‘I have them! I have them!’” (p.35). But Moorhouse quotes Stalin a few pages later telling his adjutants, “Of course, it’s all a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler’s up to. He thinks he’s outsmarted me but actually it’s I who has tricked him” (p.44).

    Which devil got the better of the other is an open and perhaps unanswerable question. For Germany, the pact allowed Hitler to attack Poland a little over a week later without having to worry about Soviet retaliation and, once Poland was eliminated, to pursue his aims elsewhere in Europe without a two-front war reminiscent of Germany’s situation in World War I up to Russia’s surrender after the Bolshevik revolution.  The conventional view is that for the Soviet Union, which had always looked upon war with Nazi Germany as inevitable, the pact at a minimum bought time to continue to modernize and mobilize its military forces.

     But, Moorhouse argues, Stalin was interested in far more than simply buying time. He also sought to “exploit Nazi aggression to his own ends, to speed up the fall of the West and the long awaited collapse of the West” (p.2). The non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany provided the Soviet Union with an opportunity to expand its influence westward and recapture territory lost to Russia after World War I.  The pact ended almost exactly 22 months after its execution, on June 22, 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the code name given to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But during the pact’s 22-month existence, both Hitler and Stalin extended their authority over wide swaths of Europe.  By June 1941, the two dictators — the two devils — between them controlled nearly half of the continent.

* * *

     As late as mid-August 1939, Soviet diplomats were pursuing an anti-Nazi collective defense agreement with Britain and France. But Stalin and his diplomats suspected that the British and the French “would be happy to cut a deal with Hitler at their expense” (p.24).  Sometime that month, Stalin concluded that no meaningful collective defense agreement with the Western powers was feasible. Through the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, therefore, Stalin preempted the British and French at what he considered their own duplicitous game. Three days prior to the signing of the non-aggression pact, on August 20, 1939, Berlin and Moscow executed a commercial agreement that provided for formalized exchanges of raw materials from the Soviet Union and industrial goods from Germany. This agreement had been in the works for months and, unlike the non-non-agression pact, had been followed closely in capitals across the globe.

     The non-aggression pact that followed on August 23rd was a short and in general non-descript document, in which each party guaranteed non-belligerence to the other and pledged in somewhat oblique terms that it would neither ally itself nor aid an enemy of the other party.  But a highly secret protocol accompanied the pact  — so secret that, on the Soviet side, historians suspect, “only Stalin and Molotov knew of its existence” (p.39); so secret that the Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge its existence until the Gorbachev era, three years after Molotov had gone to his grave denying the existence of any such instrument.  The protocol divided Poland into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of interest” to apply in the event of a “territorial and political rearrangement of the area belonging to the Polish state” (p.306).

     The accompanying protocol contained similar terms for Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, anticipating future “territorial and political rearrangements” of these countries. The protocol also acknowledged Moscow’s “interest in” Bessarabia, the eastern portion of today’s Moldova, then part of Romania, for which Germany declared its “complete disinterest” (p.306). For Stalin, the pact and its secret protocol marked what Moorhouse terms an “astounding success,” in which he reacquired a claim to “almost all of the lands lost by the Russian Empire in the maelstrom of the First World War” (p.37). Moorhouse’s chapters on how the Soviets capitalized on the pact and accompanying secret protocol support the view that the Soviet and Nazi regimes, although based on opposing ideologies, were similar at least in one particular sense: both were ruthless dictatorships with no scruples inhibiting territorial expansion at the expense of less powerful neighbors.

* * *

       After Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939 (eight days almost to the hour after execution of the pact), the Soviet Union followed suit by invading Poland from the east on September 17th. The Nazi and Soviet occupiers embarked upon a “simultaneous cleansing of Polish society,” with the Nazis motivated “primarily by concerns of race and the Soviets mainly by class-political criteria” (p.57).  Moorhouse recounts in detail the most chilling example of Soviet class cleansing, the infamous Katyn Forest massacre, where the Soviets methodically executed approximately 21,000 Polish prisoners of war – high-ranking Army officers, aristocrats, Catholic priests, lawyers, and others, all deemed “class enemies.” Stalin attributed the massacre to the Nazis, and official acknowledgement of Soviet responsibility did not come until 1990, one year prior to the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

     The Soviet Union browbeat Estonia into a “mutual assistance” treaty that, nominally, obligated both parties to respect the other’s independence. Yet, by allowing for the establishment of Soviet military bases on Estonian soil, the treaty “fatally undermined Estonian sovereignty. Estonia was effectively at Stalin’s mercy” (p.77). Similar tactics were employed in Lithuania and Latvia. By mid-October 1939, barely six weeks after signing the pact, Stalin had “moved to exercise control of most of the territory that he had been promised by Hitler” in the secret protocol, “securing the stationing of around 70,000 Red Army troops in the three Baltic states, a larger force than the combined standing armies of the three countries” (p.78). By August 1940, each Baltic state had become a Soviet constituent republic.

     The Soviet Union also invaded Finland in November 1939 and fought what proved to be a costly winter war against the brave Finns, who resisted heroically. The war demonstrated to the world – and, significantly, to Nazi Germany itself – the weaknesses of the Red Army.  It ended in a standstill in March 1940, with Moscow annexing small pieces of Finnish territory, but with no Soviet occupation or puppet government. The Soviet Union also wiped out Bessarabia. Although the secret protocol had explicitly recognized Soviet interest in Bessarabia, Hitler saw the Soviet move as a “symbol of Stalin’s undiminished territorial ambition.” Though he said nothing in public, Moorhouse writes, “Hitler complained to his adjutants that the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia signified the ‘first Russian attack on Western Europe’” (p.107).

      In the same timeframe, Hitler extended Nazi domination over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg and Northern France, as well as much of Poland, some 800,000 square kilometers.  Hitler and Stalin thus divided up Europe in 1940, with Nazi Germany becoming the preeminent power on the continent. Stalin “did less well territorially, with only around half of Hitler’s haul at 422, 000 square kilometers, but was arguably better placed to actually absorb his gains, given that all of them were long standing Russian irredentia, with some tradition of rule from Moscow and all were neatly contiguous to the western frontier of the USSR” (p.106).

    Hitler’s concerns about the extent of Soviet territorial ambitions in Europe after its annexation of Bessarabia were magnified when the Soviets also demanded nearby northern Burkovina, a small parcel of land under Romanian control, nestled between Bessarabia and Ukraine. Northern Burkovina was Stalin’s first demand for territory beyond what the secret protocol had slated for Moscow. By late summer of 1940, therefore, the German-Soviet relationship was in trouble. The “mood of collaboration of late 1939 shifted increasingly to one of confrontation, with growing suspicions on both sides that the other was acting in bad faith” (p.197).

    In November 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was summoned to Berlin to try to breathe new life into the pact. Hitler and Ribbentrop made a concerted effort to head off westward Soviet expansion with the suggestion that the Soviet Union join the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan and focus its territorial ambitions to the south, especially on India, where it could participate in the “great liquidation of the British Empire” (p.215).  Ribbentrop’s contention that Britain was on the verge of collapse was called into question when certain meetings with Molotov had to be moved to a bunker because of British bombings of the German capital.

    Molotov left Berlin thinking that he had attended the initial round in what were likely to be lengthy additional territorial negotiations between the two parties.  In fact, the November conference marked the end of any meaningful give-and-take between them. In its formal response back to Germany, which Molotov delivered to the German Ambassador in Moscow, the Soviet Union made clear that it had no intention of abandoning its ambitions for westward expansion into Europe in exchange for membership in the Tripartite Pact. No formal German response was forthcoming to  Soviet demands for additional European territory. Rather, the often-vacillating Hitler had by this time made what turned out to be an irrevocable decision to invade the Soviet Union, with the objective of turning Russia into “our India” (p.295).

* * *

    In the period leading up to the invasion in June 1941, Stalin refused to react to a steady stream of intelligence from as many as 47 different sources concerning a German build up near the Western edges of the new Soviet empire.  Stalin was obsessed with not provoking Germany into military action, “convinced that the military build up and the rumor-mongering were little more than a Nazi negotiating tool: an attempt to exert psychological pressure as a prelude to the resumption of talks” (p.229). Stalin seemed to believe that “while Hitler was engaged in the west against the British, he would have to be mad to attack the USSR” (p.230).

    But ominous intelligence reports continued to pour into Moscow. One in April 1941 concluded that Germany had “as many as one hundred divisions massed on the USSR’s western frontier” (p.238). In addition, over the previous three weeks, there had been eighty recorded German violations of Soviet airspace. “Such raw data was added to the various human intelligence reports to come in from Soviet agents . . . all of which pointed to a growing German threat” (p.238).  Still, Stalin “did not believe that war was coming, and he was growing increasingly impatient with those who tried to persuade him of anything different” (p.239).

    In the early phases of Operation Barbarossa, German troops met with little serious resistance and were able to penetrate far into Soviet territory.  In many of the areas that the Soviets had grabbed for themselves after execution of the pact, including portions of the Baltic States, the Germans were welcomed as liberators. The Soviet Union incurred staggering loses in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, losing much of the territory it had acquired as a result of the pact.

     Minsk, Bessarabia’s largest city, fell into German hands on June 28, 1941.  Its fall, Moorhouse writes, “symbolized the wider disaster not only for the USSR, but for Stalin personally.” It was the “moment at which his misjudgment was thrown into sharp relief. Only a dictator of his brutal determination – and one with the absolute power that he had arrogated for himself – could have survived it” (p. 273).  Moorhouse’s narrative ends with the Germans, anticipating an easy victory, not far from Moscow as 1941 entered its final months and the unforgiving Russian winter approached.

* * *

      Moorhouse contends that the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-non-aggresson pact has largely been glossed over in Western accounts of World War II, which focus on the fall of France and Britain’s lonely battle against the seemingly invincible Nazi military juggernaut during the  22-month period when the Soviet Union appeared to be aligned with Germany against the West.   To the degree that there is a knowledge gap in the West concerning the pact and its ramifications, Moorhouse’s work aptly and ably fills that gap.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
May 13, 2016


Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, Soviet Union

Soul Reaction


Steven Marks, How Russia Shaped the Modern World:
From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism 

                   From the autocracy of the Tsars to the totalitarianism of Stalinist communism, and on to the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin, over the last two centuries, Russia (and the Soviet Union, when it existed), have charted a path politically well removed from that of the democracies of Western Europe and North America. But if Russia has been depressingly resistant to the democratizing currents of the West, I have always assumed and never doubted for a moment that Russia was a indispensable part of European culture, a huge contributor to its every aspect, literature and art, music and dance and more. Steven Marks’ “How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism,” which first appeared in 2003, did not dispel that assumption but added a new twist to my understanding of Russia’s contribution to both European and world culture.

               Marks, a Russian history specialist at Clemson University, argues that since the late 19th century, Russians have shaped the modern world by leading the reaction to it. Throughout this period, Russian art and literature, as well as its politics, have had the common characteristic of being in opposition to the liberal, individualistic, capitalist ethos of the West. Marks characterizes these tendencies across diverse areas as “rejectionism,” frequently encapsulating them in an elusive notion termed the “soul of Russia.” There was, he writes, a “perception of tsarist Russian and Soviet thought as Eastern and exotic, which made it especially appealing beyond the empire’s borders. This was the strain of ‘Orientalism’ that was embraced as an antidote to modern civilization” (p.4). This theme runs through his analyses of Russian anarchistic 19th century political thought, literature – especially the giants Dostoevsky and Tolstoy – anti-Semitism, dance, visual arts and music. He finishes with the Leninist Bolshevik project. On each topic, Marks shows Russian influence throughout the world; he does not limit his study to Western Europe and North America.

               Marks writes for the general reader. His scope is breathtakingly broad, with a dizzying series of short portraits of Russian luminaries in each of the areas he treats. Experts may contend that he overstates or oversimplifies the extent and nature of Russian influence in some of these areas. But readers wishing to consider a different perspective on the soul of Russia and the Russian contribution to world thinking and artistic expression should find the book highly engaging.

* * *

                Marks starts with the Russian anarchists of the late 19th century and finishes with those pesky Bolsheviks who took the reins of power in 1917 and set Russia off on a nearly 75-year experiment known as the Soviet Union. The opening chapters on Russian anarchism were for me the book’s most captivating. Anarchism was a branch of socialism that arose in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century as a “combined legacy of the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of humankind and the Romantic fervor for noble savages and stormy rebelliousness” (p.7), Marks writes.

          By the 1860s, Russia had become the acknowledged international leader of the anarchist movement and its opposition to state power and bourgeois industrialism, the “ills of which were often . . . more apparent than the benefits” (p.7). Anarchism was the “first Russian intellectual movement to have a significant international impact. Its glorious promises for society’s future electrified followers around the world, and the organizational and killing methods developed by Russian revolutionary adherents to fight the tsarist regime marked the birth of modern terrorism” (p.7).

            The most prominent of the anarchists were Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin.  Although Bakunin and his followers were atheists, Bakunin “worshipped the peasant masses as the vessels of the Absolute” (p.10). Bakunin thus tapped into the soul of Russia cult, infusing his ideas with “spiritual yearning and secular ideological substitutes for religiosity . . . Religious messianism was transferred to the revolutionary movement, a process Bakunin embodied” (p.8). Freedom for Bakunin was a “mystical notion” derived from Russian Orthodox metaphysics which “required not the preservation of individualism bur rather its total dissolution in a collective form of unity that would free humankind from the suffering brought on by the selfish competitiveness of the capitalist bourgeoisie” (p.11).

                Bakuninst anarchism went on to become an important rejectionist force in Italian politics from the 1870s to the 1920s. Gavrilo Princep and his fellow Serbian ultra-nationalists fed on Russian conspiratorial-revolutionary-anarchist literature. Poles, Armenians, Macedonians and Serbs formed the earliest organized terrorist movements outside Russia to serve the cause of national liberation. Political terrorism came to be known as the “Russian method.” Although anarchism sought to shield the individual from the depredations of state power, Bakunin was a “closet authoritarian who thought a dictatorship was necessary to organize the future communal society” (p.11).

          Although less well known than Bakunin, Kropotkin was more eccentric and offered a far softer version of anarchism. Kropotkin challenged the understanding of Thomas Malthus and Charles Darwin of competitive relations between and among species. For Kropotkin, nature is not a struggle between individuals, but a “struggle between individuals and the environment.” The fittest are not the strongest, but “those who have learned to live cooperatively” (p.41). Kropotkin’s utopian solution relied on the Russian peasant commune as the “prototype of the ideal form for the future organization of humanity” (p.42). Kropotkin’s slogan was “to every man according to his needs,” and he called his program “anarchist communist” because of its emphasis upon cooperative organization.

                  Kropotkin’s communitarian vision gave rise to certain strains of Western urban planning in the 1920s, such as creation of garden cities and back-to-the-land alternatives to city life, and foreshadowed the contemporary ecological movement. Kropotkin’s radical ideas even account “partially” for the “ancestry of certain features of the modern American suburban landscape” (p.48), Marks asserts. When Kropotkin died, his funeral was the occasion for the “last mass demonstration against Bolshevism” (p.53).

         Many leftist intellectuals projected their anarchist, pro-peasant soul-of-Russia views onto the Bolshevik Revolution. Few “understood that Lenin and Trotsky were autocratic. Most believed that the Bolshevik leaders were implementing the decentralizing, anarchist agenda that had long been recognized as the hallmark of Russian radicalism” (p.284). With good reason, then, those on the outside often saw little difference between Russian anarchism and Bolshevism. Marks shows how Lenin used ideas drawn from the anarchists when useful to him. Stalin, for his part, added a “theocratic and Russian chauvinist imprint to Soviet official culture” (p.279).

               Marks treats the familiar and always fascinating theme of the early Western attraction to the Soviet experiment. Carrying forward prerevolutionary stereotypes of “soulful Russia as a repository of Eastern wisdom and collectivism” (p.282), Western intellectuals were surprisingly “prone to messianic delusions,” with an “astonishing capacity for fooling themselves” (p.285-86). Upon reviewing Stalin’s industrialization efforts, John Dewey commented that he felt, “as if for the first time the moving spirit and force of primitive Christianity” (p.285). British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb lauded the “entirely ‘new civilization’’ which Stalin was in the process of creating, with a “truly democratic system of representation” (p.285), while George Bernard Shaw insisted that Stalin was “simply secretary of the supreme controlling organ of the hierarchy, subject to dismissal at ten minutes’ notice if he does not give satisfaction” (p.286).

         Marks finishes with a chapter on the influence of Russian Bolshevism outside the Soviet Union, mostly a discussion of the degree to which lesser developed countries adopted the Russian model of socialism. In the years immediately following the Bolshevik revolution, intellectuals from what came to be known as “Third World,” “reacting to their own countries’ trauma in the throes of modernization or imperialism, were similarly attracted to Russian culture and ideology. They, too, perceived Russia, despite a thin European veneer, as being non-Western, and thus close in spirit to their own experiences” (p.4-5).

                The chapter on Russian anti-Semitism is extremely dark. To a surprising degree, Marks argues, 20th century European anti-Semitism was a Russian import. By the end of the 19th century, Russia had the world’s largest Jewish population, and anti-Semitism was stronger in Russia than in the West. Tsarist Russia maintained an apartheid-like regime, buttressed by Jim Crow legislation and recurrently violent anti-Jewish pogroms in the years leading up to the 1917 Revolution. In late 19th century Russia, Jews were perceived as the “quintessentially evil representatives of modernity, whether as financiers, traders or revolutionaries” (p.140). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the basic text in anti-Semitism, was a Russian product. The Protocols, whose precise origins are still uncertain, were “purportedly the secret resolutions of international Jewish leaders, a game plan for the domination of the world and enslavement of the goyim – Yiddish for Gentiles” (p.149). The Protocols were at the foundation of “all Nazi anti-Semitic belief and rhetoric,” helping to “extinguish lingering good will toward the Jews, and . . . to rationalize their annihilation” (p.170).

             Militantly anti-capitalist and rabidly anti-Semitic Russian organizations came to be known at the Black Hundreds. Marks characterizes the rise of the Black Hundreds as a “transitional phase in the history of the European right between old-fashioned reactionary movements and dynamic modern fascism” (p.148). The Russian extreme right formulated major strains of Nazism and fascism at least a decade before these phenomena appeared in Western Europe, Marks contends, forging an “alliance of old elites and resentful masses” (p.148). Its “radical rejectionism; its reliance on violence as its chief political tool; and its demagogic anti-Semitism all anticipated the future fascist movements of France, Germany and Romania” (p.148).

              Marks’ chapters on Fydor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy provide good comparisons between the two, and demonstrate the enormous influence of each beyond Russia’s borders. Dostoevsky’s focus on the complexity of human psychology and man’s irrationality established him as one of the 19th century’s deepest but darkest thinkers. Dostoevsky’s world view was based on what Marks terms a “holy trinity” of individual freedom, orthodox Christianity, and Russian nationalism. For Dostoevsky, Western rationalism had produced a “cold, unloving kind of devotion to humanity that often concealed an abhorrence of human beings as individuals” (p.62). Freedom for Dostoevsky was an inner, spiritual matter, not a “juridical or constitutional problem,” embracing a “Christ like spirituality that overcomes man’s fractured and wounded personality, through love, brotherhood, and community” (p.65). Dostoevsky transformed the soul-of-Russia sense of uniqueness into a “strident and hostile anti-Western credo — despite his intellectual engagement with European philosophy and literature” (p.65).

             Dostoevsky’s work fit well with the late 19th century European interest in individual psychology and the irrational. He had a huge impact upon Sigmund Freud, whose ancestors had migrated to Austria from Russia. Freud found that Dostoevsky had captured the psyche if not the soul of Russians, who, as Freud saw them, were inclined to “ascetic mysticism, chauvinism, fanaticism, violence, and other ‘compromise[s] with morality’” (p.72). In the first decades of the 20th century, Dostoevsky’s popularity in Europe soared, nowhere more than in Germany, where he gained the dubious distinction of being the Nazis’ favorite non-German writer.

                  Tolstoy, described as “genius and crank” (p.102) by Ivan Turgenev, another 19th century Russian literary giant, sought to simplify Christianity and reduce it to what he considered its core values. He promulgated a version of Christianity that didn’t have much to do with Russian Orthodoxy or any other institutional form of Christianity. Marks characterizes Tolstoy’s religious outlook as “Christian anarchism,” another strain of Russian rejectionism that attracted a global following at the turn of the century. Tolstoy’s entire body of writing “reeks of contempt for Western capitalism, materialism, parliamentary democracy, law and constitutionalism” (p.105), Marks writes. Through his fictional and theological portrayals of the peasant, Tolstoy “contributed to the international image of the Russian soul as the antipode of the rationalizing, industrializing West” (p.109).

             Tolstoy fashioned a lifestyle that foreshadowed 1960s hippies. He became one of the first advocates of vegetarianism. Among those attracted to his views and life style was an obscure Indian lawyer practicing law in Durban, South Africa, Mahatmas Gandhi. Gandhi’s reading of Tolstoy was a critical step in his transformation as liberator of the Indian people. By 1900, Tolstoy was a recognized voice against American racism. He was one of the first international mass-media celebrities, a role he relished, curiously enough, and one that befitted a man who helped usher in the modern world even as he struggled against it.

                   In his chapters on music, dance and painting, Marks shows how in each domain, the major Russian artists were in some sense reacting to Western modernism. Marks starts with Sergei Diaghilev, publisher of The World of Art, a journal which, with its initial appearance in 1898, marked the beginning of the Russian Modernist movement. Diaghilev and his associates fostered a “discriminating love of music, dance, and painting alongside scorn for what they saw as the stagnant Russian art of the day. They yearned for the revival of Russian art as a bulwark against the dominance of western European, bourgeois culture” (p.177). Diaghilev combined ambivalence toward the West with “massive expectations of Russian culture. He was at bottom a Russian nationalist whose purpose was not to Europeanize domestic art but to remedy its effects through exposure to contemporary trends” (p.179).

                Diaghilev created the dance company “Ballets Russes.” Ballet for Diaghilev and his followers was a “non-descriptive and suggestive means of means of expressing pure emotion” (p.180). The essence of Ballets Russes, according to Diaghilev, was its “elemental spontaneity. We wished to find an art through which all the complexity of life, all feelings and passions, could be expressed apart from words and ideas – not rationally but elementally” (p.181). The Ballets Russes “opened the door to the embrace of an array of exotic, lower class and foreign music and dance impulses” (p.200). Ballets Russes never performed in Russia owing to official ostracism of Diaghliev before 1917 and Diaghilev’s hatred of communism afterwards.

                    Meanwhile, Russian artists “ceaselessly pushed the limits of artistic firmament” (p.228). Vasily Kandinsky was Russia’s primary “practitioner and theorist of abstractionism,” which reflected a common view among avant garde Russian artists that painting could replicate the psychological effect of music or poetry and vice-versa. Russian abstractionism shared with Russian antecedents an “anti-modern sense that Western Civilization had gone tragically awry. Humanity required radical aesthetic and political measures to reduce it, namely their brand of abstract painting plus socialism or anarchism” (p.270).

               Marks emphasizes the “global adaptability” of the Russian avant-garde forms of artistic expression. Like Russian anarchists, writers, visionaries and anti-Semites, the Russian avant-garde “appeared as wise men of the East offering access to higher truth” (p.274). Rooted in mysticism, messianism, and anti-Westernism, Russian visual arts, dance and theatre “rejected industrial-bourgeois existence and sought to remake society anew” (p.274). But the obvious irony was that these artists’ legacy was to be found in “realms of mass culture such as Hollywood movies, fascist propaganda, and Western commercial advertising” (p.176), with individualistic and capitalist audiences avidly pursuing their works.

* * *

                 Marks indicates at the outset of his sweeping and exuberantly written work that Russian intellectual and artistic life has always had a “close and symbiotic relationship with the West” (p.6), with the Russian thinkers and artists he discusses influenced in differing degrees by European counterparts as well as influencing them. Nonetheless, his book could be criticized for its “one way street” effect, the sense that there was little cross-fertilization, little positive absorption of Western lines of thought and artistic expression in Russia – only reaction to decadent capitalist and individualistic Western models.  Specialists might also criticize the book for trying to pack too much into the notion of Russian rejectionism and the soul of Russia. The American suburban landscape would likely have taken its present form even had Peter Kropotkin died in early childhood, for example; and Fascism and anti-Semitism hardly needed Russian models to thrive in Germany, France, and Italy. But Marks deserves credit for creative thinking across a wide range, bringing highly diverse subject matters together into an intriguing conceptual framework.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
November 22, 2014


Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Soviet Union

Far Away Country


Madeline Albright with Bill Woodward, Prague Winter:
A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-48

           Although it is easy to forget, Madeline Albright was the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of State, nominated for the position by President Clinton shortly after Clinton’s re-election in late 1996. Prior to becoming Secretary of State, Albright served as US Ambassador to the United Nations. But in addition to being a distinguished diplomat, Albright is also a first-rate storyteller, as she demonstrates in “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-48.” Combining a mellifluous style with what strikes me as a distinctly Central European sensitivity to history’s capriciousness, Albright offers a riveting account of the daunting challenges which her native Czechoslovakia confronted between 1937 and 1948, along with personal remembrances of her earliest years.
1937, the year Albright was born in Prague as Marie Jana Korbelová, marked the onset of a tumultuous and dispiriting period for Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak Republic that had come into being after World War I had a rich, humanist cultural tradition and seemed ideally suited to transition to democratic governance. Yet, liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia during what Albright terms the “Prague Winter,” 1937 to 1948, faced steep obstacles it was unable to overcome by itself. A “beacon of humane government until snuffed out by Adolph Hitler,” Albright writes in her introductory chapter, Czech democracy enjoyed a brief post-war revival, only to be “extinguished again by the disciples of Josef Stalin,” (p.1-2)

           Albright also indicates in her introductory chapter that much of her motivation to write this book, which is about one third personal memoir and two thirds Czech political history, came from the revelation in the 1990s that her family had been Jewish. With little to no fanfare, her parents converted to Catholicism in 1941, when Albright was a young girl. As she grew up, Albright’s family said nothing about its Jewish roots or the conversion. Albright thinks that her parents considered Catholicism “more Czech” than Judaism. She surmises that her parents could see the suffering and prejudice to which Jews in Europe were subjected, and wanted their children to avoid such stigma. But Albright says she would really like to know more, speculating that her parents’ 1941 decision, when the “grim unfolding of the Holocaust was still in its earliest stages” might have been different in 1945. By war’s end:

acting to substitute a Christian identity for a Jewish one would have been – in the absence of a genuine religious calling – hard to conceive. When viewed through the lens of the Holocaust, the moral connotations of such a choice had been altered irrevocably. Perhaps that is why my parents never found a good time to discuss the decision with me and seemed to avoid doing so with others. Before the slaughter of six million Jews, they might have found the words; after it, they could not (p.193).

           Albright moves back and forth between her life with her family as a young girl, and the plight of Czechoslovakia between 1937 and 1948. But her book also contains a good background primer on the country prior to 1937. Czechoslovakia was created in the aftermath of World War I, carved out of the former Hapsburg Empire. A small country, surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors, notably Germany, it was made up of three major ethnic blocks, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the South Germans. Each dominated in a portion of the country, and each portion included a substantial Jewish population.

           In the 1920s, the young country looked like it was set to prove that liberal democracy could succeed in the heart of Central Europe. It had a forceful and widely revered President, Tomáš Masaryk, the “rare leader who taught as he led” (p.402), whose vision was to “embrace religion without the straightjacket of the Church, social revolution without the excesses of Bolshevikism, and national pride without bigotry” (p.39). Masaryk, “could easily have been elevated president of Europe,” Albright speculates, if such a post had existed in the inter-war period (p.47). Czechoslovakia had a literary rate twice as high as neighboring Hungary, even higher than Germany. Guided by a national motto, “in work and knowledge is our salvation,” the Czechs were industrial leaders in Europe. By 1930, their country ranked 10th world wide in industrial production. An obscure insurance agent from Prague and part-time writer named Franz Kafka introduced the safety helmet into workplaces, while a young German physicist, Albert Einstein, propounded on new theories of matter at Charles University in Prague.
But in Albright’s view the country’s most basic problem was its “system of ethnically distinct schools and social organization” among its three major ethnic groups, an “obstacle to building a united Czechoslovakia” (p.65). By 1937, the year Albright was born, it had become clear that Hitler had his sights on the Sudentland, Czechoslovakia’s German speaking region. In broadcast after broadcast, Nazi propaganda announced that the Czechs were conducting a “passionate fight for extermination” against the Sudetens (p.78). German-owned businesses were being “forced into bankruptcy, children were starving, the level of oppression was incredible,” Albright writes, going on to note that this propaganda was “carefully disguised as independent reporting to deceive international audiences” (p.78).
One year later at Munich, without consulting Czech leaders, Great Britain and France (along with Italy) gave into Hitler’s demands in October 1938 to cede the Sudentland to Germany in a futile quest for peace with the obstreperous dictator. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explained in still-chilling words the rationale for what would come to be the classic instance of pre-World War II appeasement: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Albright describes Chamberlain as a “practical, business-oriented man, supremely confident in his judgments and disdainful of critics” who “did not believe that war was a solution to any problem and felt sure that all intelligent men would conclude the same. . . In Chamberlain’s universe, people might be flawed, but they worried about their souls and did not set out to do monstrous things” (p.71).
Less than six months later, the German Wehrmacht moved into and occupied the remaining Czech territory. Czechoslovakia’s President Edvard Beneš, who had succeeded Masaryk in 1935 when the latter resigned because of poor health, fled to London, where he headed a Czech government-in-exile. “Small countries can survive hostile neighbors,” Albright writes, “but the odds lengthen when a significant minority identifies with the enemy” (p.62). What happened in Czechoslovakia in 1938 was “not an inevitable consequence of ethnic diversity” but rather the tragic convergence of events, most notably the “failure of governments in and outside Central Europe to comprehend the scope of the danger they faced” (p.62).
Albright ‘s father, Josef Korbel, was a diplomat who served before the war as press attaché in the Czech Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. When war came, he took his family to London. During her years in London, from 1939 to 1945, Albright had many contacts with Beneš, by then Czech President in Exile. Even at her early age, Albright developed a fondness and admiration for the man who is the lead figure in this historical narrative of Czech history between 1937 and 1948. A less commanding figure than Tomáš Masaryk, with less intellectual range, Beneš nonetheless “worked consistently within the confines of the democratic and humane values that Masaryk championed. . . [and] performed miracles in holding the government in exile together and realizing its goals” (p.401-02).
Several members of Albright’s extended family were less fortunate during the war years than Albright and her immediate family, winding up in Terezín, a Czech city converted into a concentration camp after Czechs in 1942 assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the German protector of Czechoslovakia and Hitler’s personal envoy. There were no gas chambers at Terezín. It was not an extermination camp but was a killing ground nonetheless, because the “deaths from supposedly natural causes were due to unnatural conditions” (p.245). In all, 25 members of Albright’s family were sent to Terezín, including three of her four grandparents; none survived.
Albright recounts the heroism of the Czech resistance during the war. But after the war, Czechs turned savagely upon the ethnic German minorities still within the country. During the late spring and early summer of 1945, “due process was widely neglected” (p.333), Albright writes with considerable understatement. In some cases:

alleged collaborators were simply killed; in others, they were hauled off to makeshift prisons to be interrogated and tortured. In many towns, the maiming of local Germans became a spectator sport, as crowds gathered to jeer. To the local guardians of security, the rough treatment was not lawlessness but justice. Germans were given the same rations that Jews had been allotted during the war and were prohibited from entering hotels, restaurants, and shops. They could no longer speak their language in public. In some towns, they were required to wear specially colored armbands; in others, swastikas were painted on their backs. . . Czech women who had a reputation for fraternizing with Germans were humiliated (p.333).

           At the 1945 Potsdam conference, Great Britain and the United States approved the “orderly and humane” expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czech territory (p.337). Roughly 3.5 million ethnic German Czechs were formerly expelled to the American and Soviet zones of Germany, along with the uncounted thousands who were pushed out before the program officially began. In the end, only about 250,000 ethnic Germans remained in Czechoslovakia, about 10% of the pre-war population. Albright recognizes the post-war treatment of ethnic Germans as a dark chapter in Czech history, an indiscriminate imposition of collective war guilt which fell most heavily upon the innocent, the defenseless and the weak. Still, she says, her father supported the expulsion, although he qualified his support by admitting that it was “sometimes accompanied by excesses of brutality which no decent man can condone” (p.339).

            After the war, Albright’s father returned to Belgrade, this time as Czech Ambassador to Yugoslavia, and watched at a distance as his country succumbed to another totalitarian power, the Soviet Union. The post-World War II Soviet-led takeover of Czechoslovakia was more gradual, more nuanced than that of the Nazis, but the end result could not have seemed appreciably different to most Czechs.

            As the war ended, Beneš concluded that he could not depend upon Great Britain or France to guarantee the country’s future security. Nor did the distant United States seem likely to be an effective guarantor. Accordingly, Beneš let Stalin and his Kremlin associates know that he sought good relations with the Soviet Union and Czech Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald. As Albright explains, “Establishing a firm bond with Moscow was an essential element in Beneš’s postwar strategy. . . Beneš believed that his country needed a powerful friend” (p.256-57). As the war ended, Beneš faced the tall order of “trying to champion democracy, implement leftist economic policy, mollify the West and butter up Stalin all at the same time” (p.295).

           Together, Beneš’and Gottwald planned for a post-war Czechoslovakia that would give each a leading role. When Beneš’returned from exile in London, he added seven communists to his government. The Communists dominated the security forces, with the power to investigate and arrest, giving them enormous leverage over the government. In response to an attempt in February 1948 by the Interior Minister to purge non-Communist elements within the Ministry, the government’s non-Communist ministers resigned. After about two weeks of Communist-inspired labor unrest and violence, Beneš accepted the resignations of his non-Communist ministers and appointed a new government under Gottwald’s leadership. These resignations proved to be a huge tactical error, giving Gottwald the “chance to seize power through what many would see as constitutional means” (p.385-86).

             The only important non-Communist to remain in the government was Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Masaryk, Tomáš Masaryk’s son and Albright’s father’s boss, the nation’s “emissary to the world” (p.231). Two weeks later, Masaryk was dead under mysterious circumstances. The Communists maintained that Masaryk’s death was a suicide. Albright thinks he was murdered, but even today the question has not been definitively resolved. After Masaryk’s death, Czechoslovakia became the last of Stalin’s Eastern European satellites. The country’s 1948 fall to the Communists was a turning point in the Cold War, with Masaryk’s death and the Soviet takeover erasing “any lingering hope that collaboration between the Soviet Union and the West – so essential during the war – could survive even in diluted form” (p.411).

           Albright’s family immigrated to the United States one year after Masaryk’s death, in 1949, settling in Denver, Colorado. Josef Korbel found a job teaching international politics at the University of Denver and went on to found the school’s Graduate School of International Studies. Before Korbel died in 1977, he almost certainly never imagined that in addition to his daughter becoming the first female Secretary of State, one of his students, Condolezza Rice, would become the second woman to hold the position and the first African-American. Czechoslovakia remained within the Soviet orbit until 1989, when it threw off the communist yoke in the “Velvet Revolution,” only to split into separate Czech and Slovak republics in the “Velvet Divorce” of 1993.

           Czechoslovakia was surely not a far away country to most in the West in 1938, Chamberlain’s cringe-inducing description notwithstanding. That year and the full period of the Prague winter may nonetheless seem like a far away time for many readers, including Czechs and Slovaks who came of age after 1989. The Nazis have now been gone from Czechoslovakia and Central Europe for nearly 70 years and the Communists for almost 25. But, as Albright reminds us in the conclusion to this powerful story, twice in her lifetime, “Central Europe lost and then regained its freedom; that is cause for celebration – and also for vigilance” (p.411).

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
May 8, 2013


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