Thursday, 12 November 2009
The Devil's Pact
The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 seemed to turn a whole world of belief and conviction upside down, literally overnight. A contest which might be said to have defined the politics of a good bit of the inter-war period, and had given shape to mutually opposing ways of looking at the world, underwent a rapid re-evaluation: the most bitter of enemies were now friends. There were some in Germany who greeted the news with considerable satisfaction, most notably Josef Goebbels, who always retained a lingering respect for Stalin and Bolshevism. His newspaper, Der Angriff, greeted the Pact as a renewal of an 'ancient' friendship between two peoples.
What the whole thing demonstrated was the capacity of certain people, particularly on the left, to embrace a radical intellectual shift, seemingly without any crisis of conscience. In Moscow, the veteran Bulgarian Communist, Georgi Dimitrov, noted in his diary after the outbreak of the Second World War, a corollary of the Pact, that it was 'natural' that Germany and Russia should be on the same side in an 'imperialist' war. His German colleague, Walter Ulbricht, was to broadcast from Moscow that 'Britain was now the most reactionary force in the world.'
In London, J. B. S. Haldane, another Communist and brother of the writer Naomi Mitchison, wrote in the New Statesman, a well-respected socialist periodical, that the British Left should not think too badly of Hitler, for, after all, was not oppression 'worse' under the rule of the western Empires;
I would rather be a Jew in Berlin than a Kaffir in Johannesburg or a Negro in French Equatorial Africa. If the Czechs are treated as an inferior race, do Indians or Annanamites enjoy complete equality?
Hewlett Johnson, the 'Red Dean of Canterbury', and author of The Socialist Sixth of the World, announced in December 1939 that Stalin was justified in whatever he did. Similarly, G. D. H. Cole, a moderate socialist and a long-time member of the Fabian Society, wrote in the New Statesman that since all morality was 'class morality', then it was justifiable and necessary for the "proletariat to use any method, and to take any action, that would help towards victory over its class enemies." But the most deluded of all was surely H. N. Brailsford, a left-wing journalist, who in October 1939 published a piece in The New Republic, entitled National Bolshevism, in which the hope was expressed that Hitler might be 'Bolshevised.' Even Sean O'Casey, the dramatist, who sat on the board of the Communist Daily Worker in London, was to hope that Hitler would 'go left.'
Perhaps the greatest literary monument of the whole Nazi-Soviet honeymoon, though one no longer recognised for its original intention, is the play Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. It was not meant to serve as a condemnation of war in general, though this is how it is now read. Rather, it was conceived, from a Communist perspective, as an attack on the 'imperialist war', that of the western allies against Germany, a message that was fully recognised when it was fist performed in Zurich early in 1941.
For George Orwell the whole period, and the seemingly infinite capacity on the left for self-deception, provided ample confirmation of some of his central political and intellectual concerns, later to find fullest expression in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Inside the Whale, an essay published in 1940, he writes;
Every time Stalin swaps partners, 'Marxism' has to be hammered into a new shape. This entails sudden and violent changes of 'line', purges, denunciations, systematic destruction of party literature etc. etc. Every Communist is in fact liable at any moment to have to change his most fundamental convictions or leave the party. The unquestionable dogma of Monday may become the damnable heresy of Tuesday, and so on.
The world of Big Brother, Newspeak and the Thought Police were just over the horizon of history