How Fear of Communism Led to the Rise of Hitler, Nazism and World War Two

Jonathan Haslam’s book is a corrective and also makes a critique of how the history of international relations is practised.

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In 1848, in the unforgettable opening line of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote, “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.’’ The same spectre loomed again to haunt Europe in the years between the two world wars.

Jonathan Haslam’s marvellous book, The Spectre of War – enviably researched in detail in various archives across the world and analytically provocative – examines how the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the propagation of the idea of an international revolution by Lenin and Trotsky had a profound impact on policymakers in the chanceries of Europe. Without a comprehension of this dimension, any analysis of how the western powers viewed Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of the World War II would be, according to Haslam, incomplete and impoverished.

Haslam’s book at one level is a corrective but at other levels it also provides many original facts and insights, and it also makes a critique of how the history of international relations is practised.

The Spectre of War: International Communism and the Origins of World War II, Jonathan Haslam, Princeton University Press, 2021.

The narrative breaks from the conventional chronological framework of placing World War II in the context of what happened in the 1930s. He begins with the aftermath of the World War I and the revolution in Russia. The latter was inextricably linked to Czarist Russia’s plight in the course of the great war.

The World War I tore apart the fabric of international relations as it had existed till the outbreak of the conflict. The triumph of the Bolsheviks added a new dimension. The communist movement had always propagated the view that the communist revolution would be global – “workers of all countries unite’’ was the rally cry. The Bolshevik leadership following this ideological line was committed to the idea that the revolution in Russia would not be and could not be an isolated historical phenomenon. It would be the first step to revolutions that would sweep aside capitalism and all its manifestations – empire and colonies – in every part of the world.

Further, the Bolsheviks believed that the continuing success of the revolution in Russia was predicated upon the revolution in Germany which they believed was imminent. A global revolution was thus intrinsic to the ideology of communism and was thus an integral part of the Bolshevik policies and propaganda. They set up the Comintern as an instrument to push forward the agenda of a global revolution.

Policy and opinion makers in Europe recognised the danger posed by the revolution in Russia almost as soon as it occurred. As early as 1919, the London Times issued a call to the western powers to confront the “danger of Bolshevist imperialism”. There were, however, more substantive actions to thwart the progress of the revolution.

Haslam writes, “British troops landed in Murmansk, an ice-free port on the Barents Sea, in late July [1918]. Ostensibly these forces had been sent to push back the Germans. But their underlying purpose soon became apparent. Instead of marching west to German positions in Finland, they marched south to attack the soldiers of the revolution in Petrograd. This was the first scene in the unfolding allied war of intervention, an undeclared war that for 18 months was rationalised away by the allies with increasingly implausible, contradictory justifications.” This war engulfed the revolutionary regime and served as the basis of Lenin and Trotsky’s ruthless suppression of the forces of counter-revolution, the dismantling of the workers councils, severe restrictions of freedom and the unleashing of Red Terror.

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In the heartland of Europe, the project of an international revolution made no progress. In Germany, attempts at insurrections failed; the left forces were divided between the communists and the social democrats; and what was worse, as Haslam reveals, the Bolshevik government was in secret negotiations with the Weimar regarding trade and the rearmament of Russia. (For reasons of realpolitik, the ideologically driven Bolshevik regime was willing to overlook the fact that the Weimar government had suppressed the Spartacist insurrection and the uprising in Munich by using the worst Freikorps elements who had murdered communist leaders like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.)

The two pariahs of Europe – Germany and Russia – had thus come together. In Italy, the revolution floundered and led to the rise of Mussolini and fascism. Europe tottered on the brink of uncertainty and the unexpected. The conventional wisdom in the corridors of power in Washington, London and Paris was that Bolshevism had to be contained and that Germany could not be allowed to fall apart. The close military co-operation between Moscow and Berlin was supposed to be secret but rumours about it were circulating. This wind in the grapevine made the British anxious to win back German sympathies “at almost any price”.

The prevailing mindset was summed up thus by Alexander Cadogan, permanent under-secretary at the foreign office: “Some people forget the years, say 1920-26, when the only danger was ‘Bolshevism’.” Under these circumstances, the unexpected embodied in Adolf Hitler emerged as a powerful force.

Hitler and Nazism

As the prospect of a European revolution receded, the Bolsheviks turned their attention to Asia and this meant targeting the colonies of the British Empire. Trotsky averred that “the road to Paris and London lies through Afghanistan, Punjab and Bengal”. India became the main terrain for revolutionary activity carried out under the auspices of the Comintern which as Lenin cannily maintained was distinct from the Russian government. The full extent of the Comintern’s involvement in the revolutions in the East was revealed to the British in an extraordinary way.

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In April 1927, with the connivance of the diplomatic corps, the troops of Chang Tso-lin, the northern warlord, raided the Soviet embassy in Peking. In the process, they unearthed a treasure trove of evidence of Moscow’s involvement, including payments, in inciting revolutions in Britain’s colonies. This, combined with the general strike of 1926, gave anti-communism in Britain “a life force of its own”.

Harold Nicolson made this clear in a cabinet paper: “…the Russian problem is for the moment Asiatic rather than European…she hangs as a storm-cloud upon the Eastern horizon of Europe – impending, imponderable… she is indeed the most menacing of all our uncertainties.”

The mistrust of the Soviet Union within the British establishment was visceral.

Within the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death in 1924, political power came to be concentrated in the hands of Stalin who, unlike Lenin and Trotsky, was convinced that building socialism in one country was not only possible but also should be the overriding priority of the Soviet Union. He eliminated all opposition within the party and embarked on a policy of forced collectivisation of agriculture and of five-year plans for industrialisation.

Joseph Stalin, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is not to argue that Stalin brought the shutters down on the Comintern. Haslam notes that the victory of the Labour Party (in coalition with the Liberal Party) in the general election in May 1929 was partly made possible by a secret Soviet subsidy. Stalin also made impossible any alliance between the German Communist Party and the social democrats by dubbing the latter “social fascists”. The division of the Left had ominous consequences. The Left’s influence and electoral positions declined and this enabled an authoritarian regime under Heinrich Bruning to rule through emergency decree and thus paving the way for Hitler’s accession to power and its outcome.

British policymakers were faced with a paradox. On the one hand, there was Soviet Russia, “a country with demonstrably weak offensive military capabilities” and on the other Nazi Germany, “a state armed to the teeth and bellicose in rhetoric”. Policymakers preferred the latter over the Soviet Union whose powerful ideology was threatening to all that the ruling classes of Britain considered valuable and “civilized”.

Hitler and Nazism were not too pleasant but more acceptable because the British ruling classes believed that they and Hitler shared certain core beliefs. At least it was less menacing. In the words of Haslam, “…instead of worrying about fascism, the British elite worried more about what would likely as not replace it – Communism – were fascism to be destabilised and overthrown.” Who constituted the ruling classes of Britain? “Knights of the realm”, Haslam calls them, schooled in the leading public schools and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

One such knight – Nevile Henderson, ambassador to Berlin – remarked that “Great Britain should not be rated as a democracy but as an aristocracy”. He was spot on. If the battle of Waterloo, as Wellington unforgettably declared, was won on the playing fields of Eton, the same playing fields made possible Hitler’s success and the holocaust that followed.

Underlying the preference was the assumption that Hitler was a reasonable leader with limited aims and ambitions who could be contained when required by territorial concessions. In contrast, the aspirations of communism were global. Robert Hadlow, then first secretary at the embassy in Vienna argued with great clarity that weakening Hitler would result in a communist Germany “led by utterly unreasonable men – which I do not consider Hitler to be. I prefer to help Hitler than risk a worse alternative in his place.” The assessment articulated by Hadlow was shared by influential members of the British elite, men who dined and entertained in their country homes and city clubs and were served champagne by liveried valets.

On the Soviet side, responses to the rise and success of Hitler were muted. Stalin “sat on the fence, saying nothing in public”. There were influential voices within the Comintern that argued that Hitler’s rise to power was “a passing phenomenon”. Such opinions were somewhat predictable since Comintern policy by erecting barriers between the communists and social democrats had facilitated Hitler’s rise; and moreover, an admission that the Nazi government had a long future would be a direct acknowledgement that the entire analysis regarding capitalism being in crisis was incorrect.

Adolf Hitler surrounded by German supporters in 1937. Photo: De Agostini Editorial

One immediate consequence of Hitler’s complete control was the annihilation of the communist movement and countless communists in Germany. Out of these circumstances arose the idea of the Popular Front. But to those opposed to the Soviet Union and fearful of its growing military and industrial strength and of its ideological intentions, the Popular Front only aggravated perceptions of the communist threat.

Georgi Dimitrov, one of the principal ideologues of the Popular Front, made it clear that “The aim of our fight against fascism is not the re-establishment of bourgeois democracy but winning Soviet power.” To the “knights of the realm”, the Popular Front represented opposition to fascism and a threat to capitalism and bourgeois democracy. The Soviet Union could not be trusted but Hitler could be since he was assumed to be a reasonable man who more importantly was opposed to communism.

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These conditions determined the policy of appeasement that Neville Chamberlain championed and for which he was later pilloried. In reality, Chamberlain was following a policy which was underpinned by convictions that were shared by large and influential sections of the ruling class in Britain and the intelligentsia. The news of the Nazi-Soviet pact signed in August 1939 only intensified the anti-Bolshevism of the appeasers – in Haslam words it “acted as an accelerator to diehard appeasers”.

Arthur Rucker, Chamberlain’s loyal private secretary told his colleague John Colville: “Communism is now the great danger, greater even than Nazi Germany.” Such assessments were vindicated when Russia seized eastern Poland. Faced with two evil systems, Chamberlain and his ilk chose what they considered to be the lesser evil. What they did not reckon with was that Hitler was “too impatient to wait for what the British had to offer’’. On September 1, 1939, German tanks and troops rolled into Poland. Two days later when Germany failed to respond to an ultimatum from Britain, the latter declared war against Germany. The cosy illusion of appeasement transformed itself into a dance of death.

Through his analysis Haslam highlights some features of understanding international relations which he believes are inadequate. One of these is the propensity of diplomatic historians “to pay rather more attention to process rather than purpose, assuming the motive springs to be known and unchanging as everything inexorably follows its usual geopolitical course.” This mode of analysis is associated with A.J.P. Taylor who in his two remarkable and very influential books, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe and The Origins of the Second World War argued that eventual outcomes in international relations grew out of uncontrollable concatenation of events.

Haslam shows that in the interwar years, statesmen made deliberate choices and these choices were informed by certain perceptions/assumptions which in turn were founded on ideological prejudices and class interests. Haslam, thus, introduces the importance of ideas which “make explicit the purposes of power”. The purposes of power in the period that Haslam analyses were “divergent and contested”.

Thus, he believes that foreign policy in the interwar years cannot be explained along traditional lines since “politicians and diplomats came to fear more the insidious power of ideas than the measurable components of military capabilities”. They, thus, preferred Nazi Germany over Soviet Russia.

Haslam’s scholarly and academic book immediately brought to mind the novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro where he recreated the societal and intellectual ambience that produced the phenomenon of appeasement. The entire story is narrated through the voice of a butler who overhears and records conversations taking place in the lavish dining and reception rooms of country houses belonging to English aristocrats. Creative artists often have greater insights into history than historians ploughing through dusty files and waiting for access to closed archives.

There has been no better depiction of Russian society at every level – the Czarist court, the lives of the nobility, the sufferings and the festivities of serfs and peasants and of the battlefield reeking of gun smoke and dead bodies – than War and Peace. In India, the multi-faceted nature of the national movement was poignantly captured in Tagore’s The Home and the World.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of History at Ashoka University.