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


  1. Fascism and Communism came to appear as the same thing because they were not what they were designed to be. They became dogmas whereby a dictatorship controlled a country. Communism under Stalin, or Mao or anyone else really, was not Marxism as a social science it was a dogma. It was thus used as Fascism was used; and now as radical Islamists use Islam and neo-Conservatives use Capitalism. They all are similar in that they strike dogmatic postures from which they will not shift. And these postures only improve the position of an elite.

  2. Hi Ana,

    The pact between Stalin and Hitler was really a Devil's Pact.

  3. Yes, thanks boys from Indonesia. :-)

  4. Hi Ana,
    They made a virtue of expediency, I suppose but I've never really understood how Hitler and Stalin 'sold' the Pact to their respective supporters abroad - those less gullible than the sort you describe. No problem at home for either of them, I should imagine.

    I experienced the dilemma in a manner in a short story. I needed a Polish Communist, a partisan, to remain steadfastly pro-Soviet until the Red Army arrived and things turned nasty for him.
    'Hard for Micha to turn his back on the Soviet Union. A staunch communist, an agitator before the war, he'd kept the faith during the German-Soviet Pact, when Stalin grabbed land in the Poland's east: 'merely a tactic' he'd said to anyone who would listen. He'd rejoiced when Hitler invaded Russia. His zeal had survived the discovery of the mass graves of murdered Polish officers in the Forest of Katyn: 'Russian atrocity' the Germans claimed: 'elaborate German propaganda trick' said the Soviets. Now, he ran.'

    A bit shaky .. but the best I could come up with.

    I liked your article on the Spanish Civil War, by the way - a convincing tangential approach.

  5. Oh, hi, David. It's so nice to see you here. :-)

    Thanks for comment. Did you publish your story? I'd love to read it.