Commentary Magazine


August 1939-A Memoir

In August of 1939 I am in Brittany, living with a French family and following with difficulty their fluent speech. When the news comes on the 24th of the month of the signing of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, so rapid an exchange of consternation and dismay criss-cross that 17th-century courtyard where we are having an al fresco luncheon, that communication becomes more and more difficult. It is only possible for a beginner to understand that all British nationals should cross the Channel as soon as possible (not easy to do since boats are filled and panicky tourists are already sleeping in the sheds at the Saint-Malo wharves). The word boche resounds; first in the courtyard and then in the great living-room of the villa. Two Swiss cousins, who have been hiking to Breton churches and studying the gray stone calvaires encountered along so many country roads, pack their knapsacks and leave with serious faces. One Parisian, grimly expecting conscription, returns to Paris. Those of us who are English or American set off for coastal ports. It is as if what has been well known but easily forgotten returns now to haunt us, a lesson of liberty, valued, but never before considered to take first place. Uneasily, like reproved children, we crowd at last onto the Channel boat.

There is a somber fascination about that crossing all the same, some feeling of being set adrift in a characterless ocean at a time when bonds between men are being abruptly broken off. In actuality it is only a separation from a receding shore, where already to the harsh echo of the Fuehrer’s threats a German army is marching into Poland. But the crude nationalism suggested by those barked commands now being relayed over the radio, implies that “internationalism” has been a failure; that an ephemeral sense of human solidarity, momentarily encouraged between the two world wars, has brought no convincing message. Post-World-War-I gestures toward internationalism are now seen as ineffective or strangely ambivalent. The League of Nations has not solved the problem of enforcement. The Bolshevik Revolution, bearing its burden of idealistic belief—even while it has changed world political realities—has already proved itself morally corrupt. Those most aware know, for instance, in those first days of September, that even as normal life ceases, and summer wanderers return to darkened cities, to divided families, to called-up regiments, to local home guards—a wave of quite different travelers is already on the move. Ordinary people guess that known Nazis in Britain and France will be taken in by the security police; but only the more involved are conscious of the imminent border-crossing exodus of those who have taken refuge from Stalinist as well as fascist repression in that part of Europe likely to fall under German or Russian control; and of a counter-exodus (some to North and South America) of Communist or Nazi agents, dispatched to gain special information for their governments during the circumstances of war. In this moment of emergency, when the naive are trying to assess the meaning of the bizarre Nazi-Communist alliance, that cross-pattern of travelers goes on unnoticed and unrecorded. (It has been some time since the most celebrated of them all had been first set adrift, Leon Trotsky—the Great Outsider, as his biographer Isaac Deutscher was to call him, the man with whose odyssey so many political dissidents will identify. Trotsky, with his wife Natalya and elder son, had been put on the boat Ilyich in the half-frozen harbor of Odessa on February 10, 1929. Robbed of the publicity which on a former occasion had made Bukharin weep before the Politburo; in secrecy, with in this case no company beyond his family and two GPU agents—this human threat to a great state had been driven in a cargo-less boat before icy winter gales to the shores of Turkey.) The wartime criss-cross of men, moving, hiding, escaping, going underground, takes place in shadow. If they are Jewish refugees it is still a little too early for most of them to be regarded as martyrs. If they are disillusioned Communists they seem hard to please because of their obsession with the cause they have fled (nobody likes Cassandras, as Arthur Koestler notes). If they are hiding from the GPU or the Gestapo they are naturally not heard from at all. If they belong to the Communist underworld they are known by the party as “political tourists” and move discreetly in that secrecy upon which only one surprising window—the non-aggression pact—has recently been raised.

On the morning we reach London, men with honest red-cheeked faces are digging up the flower beds in Kensington Gardens (to plant vegetables, some say; for ditches to shelter from air-raids, others add) and by afternoon a long line of cars and taxis piled high with luggage and household goods is moving decorously out of the city. Over this evacuation the evening sky falls glowing upon the serried ranks of chimneys, those chimneys which represent, in the narrow houses beneath, glowing coal grates fed by scuttling mouselike maids. The line of cars grows darker, moves as night falls, deliberately and without panic—a many-eyed insect boring into the limited safety of the countryside.

Young and colonial-minded, I had come to England from Australia at the beginning of 1938, that year of terror, which should have chilled the blood in the veins of any truly informed person, but which to the young was just another year. In this year, C. L. Sulzberger, still not professional enough to be corralled by the New York Times, sees how it is as he pushes golf balls around the rosebushes of Blickling with Lord Lothian (“Really, the young German male specimen is exceptional. I wish we had a similar movement for a fitter Britain”) and talks to Lady Astor, hostess to the Cliveden set, which considers that Hitler should be encouraged to turn his attention toward Russia. In Austria, Sulzberger sees Catholic Jews snatched from the steps of cathedrals, signs in shops, “THIS JEW OUGHT TO BE IN DACHAU,” brown-shirts mocking the hungry queues of Jews lined up outside the soup-kitchens. He spends a formidable night in the Jewish section of a morgue in the Zentral Friedhof, where urns of ashes returned from the concentration camps remain unclaimed, and some of the Jewish corpses marked “Suicide” look as though they had been beaten to death. He is too upset to write about this. The truth is that Edgar Mowrer had previsaged it all long ago in his damning survey of the weakness of the Weimar Republic, the rise of factions, of paramilitary organizations, of crude anti-Semitism, of youth propaganda. But such news takes time to be accepted and reality has to be conquered at every turn. In Austria in 1938 Sulzberger talks to Jan Masaryk, who—as if he senses something of his own fate—remarks on the possibility of a rapprochement between Germany and Russia, a possibility not thought of by many. (Although Sulzberger himself has accepted the fact that the danger to the West is two-pronged and comes from the extreme Left as well as from the extreme Right, this acceptance is still underplayed. It is not generally understood how bitter a fight is being waged in the political underworld of Europe for the control of the moral future—and how this fight will extend far beyond the bounds of the war that is to come.)

Two years after Sulzberger’s trip to Austria, a defecting Communist in the United States, Whit-taker Chambers, meets another defecting Communist from Russia, General Walter Krivitsky, a small man—wistful-looking with pale blue eyes—who tells him eagerly Stalin had been seeking to negotiate the pact with Hitler. The two ex-Communists deplore the pact as inhumane, but admit that according to Communist theory it is justifiable on the grounds of pitting two non-Communist forces, one against the other. In this acceptance of the ambivalence of their old cause, they admit to its bankruptcy. All three—Chambers, Masaryk, Krivitsky—are aware of how hard a line the Russians are prepared to follow. (In spite of this awareness, two of them are killed by the GPU. “In America,” Krivitsky tells his son as he leaves his revolver in his bureau at home, “nobody carries a revolver.” He is later found dead in the Hotel Bellevue in Washington. Masaryk is killed in 1948 in a Communist coup d’état; and Sulzberger sees the secret report describing his supposed suicide by jumping from the balcony of the Czernin Palace. According to the report, there are powder burns around the bullet wound in the back of the neck, showing that Masaryk has been shot at close range. There is also excrement on the window ledge which indicates that he is already dead or dying as the body crosses the sill. The doctor called to verify the suicide—Dr. Teply—is told by Nosek—the Communist Minister present at the scene—that he is to keep his mouth shut!)

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Although it is too late to do anything about it, people in England are asking how the disaster finally descended. How had this “stereotype of a head waiter,” as the German diarist Reck-Malleczewen called him, this insignificant and “forelocked gypsy type,” managed to make Europe march to his primitive music?

I recall days with a friend in London parks in 1938, days still characterized by decorum and peace, days when the open-air orators go through their compulsive routine to the mild air, the lush grass. The friend speaks of what the Nazis are doing to the Jews (although I cannot remember him speaking of anything as specific as what went on in Dachau and Buchenwald). The information from Germany has already given us enough of the triumph of the extreme Right, not only of onslaughts upon Jews and Communists, but also upon Socialists (along with the revival of the branding-iron and the hand-ax); but these stories filtering out seem disembodied and hard to believe. There is always the hope that some of them may be exaggerated. It is easy to share indignation against that bland Anglo-Saxon lack of imagination which characterizes the peaceful island of England. I listen to the friend’s description of a dream. He is trying to tell something to a small crowd of people, and in the dream he climbs up onto a fence to be heard better; there is a closed door behind him which might belong to a garden shed. A man who looks like a policeman is listening with folded arms, but there is something blank about the man’s face. In the dream, the friend leans forward and pulls at the helmet strap which rests on the policeman’s chin, and it breaks off in his hand. Now he sees that the policeman’s whole head is false . . . that it too is coming apart like that of a dummy in a store. “The policeman had not been listening after all,” the friend says, “and he who does not listen cannot believe. . . . So nobody listens . . . nobody believes.”

What strikes me later is that it is about the Nazi Right that my friend dreams and about the slow-moving “Establishment”; not about the Communist Left, although it is the extreme Left in the end which makes it possible for Hitler to march in safety. In England, where decency is carried so far that whatever is most under attack often gets particularly good treatment, it does not seem cricket to attack the Communists (whose deceit is hard to prove). It is clear besides that the Communists and the Nazis have been bitter enemies; and this is borne out later, when it is publicized that Hitler has dreamed of the rule of the master-race over a vast slave empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals; that his directives about Russian prisoners have been to shoot them in large numbers, to leave them to die or to starve, and eventually to brand them (this never took place) with a special and durable mark! The advance into Russia is not necessary to make that enmity clear; it has long been clear in the treatment of the Red Hundreds during Hitler’s conquest of power. But also clear has been the enmity of the extreme Left to any democratic coalition at all. This Left has taken such advantage of the democratic process that it has brought about the defeat of democratic forces both in France and Germany. And according to several historians, Stalin has repeatedly pointed out with approval that a war between imperialist powers would “jeopardize the very existence of capitalism.” For some reason this obvious truth is underplayed.

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In England, as elsewhere, many of those who view the Communists with a jaundiced eye are illogically dismissed as “afraid of change,” a charge which is to echo through the years (and is to rise up as fresh and strong as ever in the radical agitation of the 60’s). This supposed fear of change is used to distract the weak-minded liberal from the urgent situation of polarization. Because practical politics boils down to coalitions, the need for a responsible role on the part of the Left is paramount. In other words, the role of the Left is catalytic; for the “generalized Left” gathers together not only convinced Marxists and rebellious anarchists, but a host of socialists and idealists. Its missionary impact extends even to religious mavericks like the “Red Dean” of Canterbury. It misdirects therefore a large proportion of those who are essentially democratic in intent. So the stage is set. Later Albert Speer describes how Hitler’s eyes stare when he receives, in the Eagle’s Nest on the evening of August 21, 1939, the news that negotiations with the Russians have been successful, how he flushes deeply, bangs the table until the dishes rattle, and exclaims, “I have them! I have them!” . . . And in the democracies everybody feels it—the body blow!

It is true that the harm is not one-sided. The conflict created by the pact in the world Communist movement runs through this body of opinion like a great and painful fissure, a wound not to be understood or healed. The pact on Hitler’s side is so ambivalent and set upon so quaking a foundation (a foundation of hate for Communists in general, mingled with admiration for Stalin’s ruthlessness in particular) that it reflects in all those who are politically sensitive a deep sense of danger. This does not apply to old party hardliners. It is rather among those numerous gentle English men and women who have a tendency “to lean to the Left” that such uncertainty is reflected. Insensibly these pseudo-Leftists feel uneasy at such proximity to irrationality. Nobody quite meets the issue. Everyone tries to save face. Conversations take place in ambivalence. I remember an article by J. B. S. Haldane which says with what seems like bravado: “It is usual for rats to desert a sinking ship—but a number of our Left writers (I must not accuse them of rodent affinities)—have leaped into the sinking ship of British capitalism.” It must have been at about this time, at the office of Horizon, that I first remember seeing Stephen Spender, who (young then) had that brilliant hair and eyes which, rather than ordinary male good looks, seems closer to a special kind of English “beauty.” Spender explains later in a small memoir that after the publication of his Forward to Liberalism, Harry Pollitt, Secretary General of the British Communist party, had invited him to the Charing Cross Road offices, and had stressed the necessity for “hatred” (of which he seemed to feel that Spender hadn’t enough) as a driving force of the working-class movement. This demand for “hatred” penetrates to the very core of the weakness of the British Communist party. No home-grown British party is going to nail “hatred” to the mast (even the Nazi party is not able to do this in England). But leaders like Pollitt (who himself went so far as to resign after the pact) find themselves indulging in dubious verbal maneuvers in order to draw in recruits such as Spender; maneuvers which go on all through the 30’s in British radical circles, and point up that the Left (like the Right) builds upon a strong base of fantasy.

Partly because of such fantasy, those who “stick” to the Communist party line seem more noted for courage than for analysis. Yet their comrades look upon them with favor, as soldiers who take a battle position and stand by their guns come what may.

Since Marxists start out with the philosophical concept of doing away with classes, this gives them a head start in ruthless conviction (that their practical experiments have generally managed to end up with a “new class” possessed of the most complete power of any class known to history, is irrelevant). Rather than claim emotional motivation, they can lay out instead endless expositions which draw upon the supposed laws of economics and science. This ignoring of the actual in favor of the theoretical results in practice in contempt for the human beings caught in between but it satisfies those who like to know where they stand. The Right, on the other hand, does not attempt to disguise its contempt for human beings. It claims more openly that these are expendable. It draws from the rankest prejudices, the crudest truths, and appeals to that simplicity which concentrates on survival. If the Right counsels control it is in favor only of that day when power is finally gained. “Clench your fists!” Hitler cries. “Bite your teeth together! Hope, pray, work, that the day will soon come. . . .” In this theme there is obvious kinship with the Left—the same emphasis on inevitability, the same emphasis on ruthlessness and unyielding struggle, and the same hint of “future-appeal” (as per the Internationale: “. . . we have been naught, we shall be all”). That the human basis of these fantasies on the part of both Left and Right is not yet recognized, is part of the whole climate of the era. It is the age of believing Marxism to be a science; when a knowledge of the dialectic is more important than any inquiry into its legitimacy.

Even after disillusionment sets in, the Left is still to get more respect from the bemused liberal than either the Middle or the Right. Because in principle, if not in fact, it is neither so crude nor so violent as is the Right; because many think that unlike the Middle it carries forward the “sacred fire”; because, in the case of the pact, the Soviets are seen as using this as a device only, and a thousand justifications are thought up for it. No weight is given to the argument that the pact is only part and parcel of the logical development of Marxism itself. In the world of ideology, where opinions make followers (rather than acts), Marxists who view Russia as in an eternal battle with hostile capitalism don’t stress that Stalin is not only being offered a secure frontier by the Germans but also a slice of Eastern Europe and an opportunity to control the Baltic states—that Russia in fact is acting like any 19th-century capitalist power and has made a bargain which the British Establishment at this point in time, whatever its self-interest, would have found it inconceivable to make. A certain section of liberal thought, shot through with excessive kindness to the Left, neglects to do much to clarify this bargain, made at the expense not only of the Poles and of the Polish Jews, but of the supposedly sacrosanct Polish workers.

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Because of this block, which prevents him from looking at Communism, the “liberal of the Western world” is to leave an unforgettable mark upon the century. Still bound into a strait-jacket of double-think, he experiences it as a shock to see a juxtaposition of the extremist political poles. Yet the writing has been upon the historical blackboards for a long time. No single group in Germany can escape responsibility for the rise of Hitler, but the great error turns out to be that those who most resist him, most fail to unite against him. The Social Democrats are weakened by the economic depression and have a fatal tendency to delay action. The Communists, on the other hand (dictated to by the Kremlin), do act, and are committed to what Mowrer calls “the silly idea” of first destroying the Social Democrats, the Socialist trade unions, and what middle-class democratic forces exist—on the dubious theory that although this might lead to a Nazi regime, the regime can only be temporary, and must lead in the end to the long-awaited dictatorship of the proletariat.1

That these facts are well-known today does not serve to illuminate the lesson they suggest, probably because superficial repetition blunts the detail involved. According to a recent Soviet historian, Roy Medvedev, who adds new insights, the bitterness of Stalin toward the Mensheviks is far beyond that of Lenin or Trotsky. Stalin always attempts to break down his opponents and “rudely throw them aside.” In the German context, the Social Democrats remain the main enemy, with the label “Social-Fascists” or “Trotskyite wreckers” added at will; and Stalin pushes the narrow dogma home with all the blunt vigor of a man who says more than once that he believes in one thing only—the power of the human will. In the charming streets of Munich, on the Hamburg waterfront, in the beerhalls of Berlin, there are chalked up a series of bloody triangular encounters among the Nazis, the Communists, and the Socialists. The German party, strongest ouside of Russia—with a quarter of a million members, 27 daily papers, 12 weeklies, and 4,000 party cells—is actually forced, by means of preordained divisive tactics, to commit politicide. On May Day of 1929, for instance, Zörgiebel, the Socialist police commander of Berlin, enraged by Communist tactics, fires on a demonstration, leaving 100 dead on the last barricades to be seen in Germany for a long time. Committed to a course of irreconcilable enmity, the party “Infallibles” pass on the orders of the Comintern to crush the Social Democrats at any cost, to drive a wedge between their leaders and the rank and file, to combine if necessary with the Hitler storm-troopers; so that Berlin is treated to the sight of battered Communist veterans joining the Brownshirts to give a “proletarian rub-down” to the Socialists, of going to the polls to vote for those who are soon to be torturing them in the horror camp of Fuhlsbuettel.

In 1932 the Communist party makes common cause with the Nazis on the Berlin transport strike, and a profound hatred characteristic of those who differ but still share a conviction rages between the Communists and those they consider renegades from the cause. It is a policy which goes against the instinct and good sense of the Communist rank and file, who fear annihilation. Yet dominated by long years of obedience to Marxist interpretation, stripped of any real representation in day-to-day-questions, they accept in the end the Parteibefehl (“Party Order”). At one point Churchill says of England that she has a choice between shame and war—and that she has chosen shame, but got war. The rank and file of the German Communist party also has a choice, between obedience to the party and risking (in company with the Social Democrats) a conflict to the death with the Nazis. They choose obedience to the party, and in the end—when it is too late—they get death anyway. It is harrowing to read personal accounts of life in the German party in the 30’s, and more chilling still to read the brief authoritarian directives from the Comintern. The German Communist party members react with a suicidal despair.

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Writing to Ilya Ehrenburg, Ernst Henri is to describe it later: “. . . as if they had gone out of their minds, Communists and Social Democrats raved at each other before the eyes of the fascists. . . . I lived in Germany during those years and will never forget how old comrades clenched their fists . . . as they submitted to the mind and will of Stalin and went to meet death . . . in SS prisons. . . .” Spared any concerted opposition, the Nazis stage the Reichstag fire and follow it up with mass arrests. By this time it is too late, “too late for . . . the rabid enmity between the two great camps of labor . . . zealously fostered through the years, particularly from the Communist side . . . to be bridged in this . . . hour of decision.” Yet the Communist guilt in Germany (and again it is the guilt of the party machine rather than that of its confused, fettered, and hardened servants) hardly stops at the betrayal of solidarity with democratic forces. The question has to be asked as to how far apart the Nazi party and the Communist party in essence are, and who influences whom. Ktokovo as the old Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Stalin, used to ask (literally “who-whom?”—or, more broadly, “who does what to whom?”).

As we look back from where we stand today, it is clear that this question is the source of one great “liberal” misunderstanding. I remember in England the reiterated claim that the Soviets have been driven into the pact, and that it is remote from their own ideology. (Similar claims re current events are common in the U.S. today.)

But it is obvious, for instance, that the German Gestapo has modeled itself closely on the Soviet secret police, and not the other way around, that Heinrich Mueller (nicknamed Gestapo Mueller), able police officer under Himmler, is an ardent student of Soviet methods, and has been impressed by the efficiency of that internal spy system perfected by the Soviet government. The only portrait we have of this man, who disappeared after the war and has never been heard of again, comes from the trial of Heinrich Baab (a Frankfurt Gestapo official of low rank, quoted by the correspondent of the London Observer, Edward Crankshaw) in which he is described as a dapper, good-looking little man, dressed in gaiters in imitation of Adolf Hitler, who snorts (a shouting technique called anschnauzen) during interrogations; and announces, “You are now in the hands of the Gestapo. . . . Don’t imagine that we shall show you the slightest consideration. . . . The Fuehrer has already shown that he is invincible. . .,” etc., etc. Mueller has adopted the method of verbal intimidation as well as physical. He has also realized that it is important so to isolate the individual that he can no longer trust anyone else, a dependence exploited by the Soviets also, which Mueller now sets to work to reproduce in the German context. He forms groups of cells which enroll quantities of ordinary citizens as part-time members of the Gestapo, he organizes the concierge, or Blockwart, who has to report on the activities of every tenant in his block. Similarly he enrolls air-raid wardens, and so on. Each labor group has its special Gestapo representative. Voluntary informers flourish. This information network is not the only aspect of Soviet society found worth imitating. The Russian show trials, prior to which, for the sake of the record, the accused are broken by torture, are very similar to the first trials (the Rote Marine Prozess) staged under the Nazis where with every show of legality, all those Communists who crack in the torture camps are condemned by an impressive procession of judges, their robes decorated with swastikas.

Clever fascists realize that collectivism is the important thing in Russia, not the ideology, and that here finally is a technique bound to produce and maintain a society with all the cohesion of an anthill, malleable to direction in any chosen way. Perhaps similarity stops at this. What is different between the two movements—and what makes the parallel development a tragedy—is the motivation attracting to them gullible human beings. The one (National Socialism) typified by the Nazis operates upon a primitive ideological level; the other (the Communist party) gives lip-service, at least, to brotherhood and international solidarity. Yet both parties succumb early in their development to a fatal authoritarianism, which like a magnet draws groups of victims—so that while the storm-troopers click their heels, say Befehl ist Befehl and Heil Hitler, the Red Hundreds worship Stalin, accept the Parteibefehl, and repeat the slogan: Za Rodinu—Za Stalina (For the Fatherland—for Stalin).

Men caught in moments of exaltation are drawn toward self-sacrifice: Deutscher gives a vignette of Trotsky, who begging military aid and weapons from a disgraced Germany after Versailles, also attempts to lighten the load by arguing the Bolshevik cause with France’s Édouard Herriot and records talking with him of the common factors in Jacobinism and Bolshevism, while outside the Kremlin windows the Red Army marches by singing the Marseillaise, “Nous saurons mourir pour la liberié.” This willingness to die, later made complex by the fear of dying for a cause betrayed, is during the 30’s in Europe the recorded experience of the masses of workers in the party. What was once an international fraternity has now become a crude nationalism. What was “Left” has become “Right.” Yet the old signposts stand at the crossroads. Not only Communists but fellow-travelers, socialists, liberals watch in confusion, not knowing which direction to take.

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If in Germany it is less the lack of activity on the part of the socialists than the direction of Stalin’s agents which makes real opposition to Hitler ineffective, it might seem that the British people, warned by the history of European Communist activity, would have been alert enough to repudiate their own liberal Left. Instead, the socialist opposition, the Labour party, and the Communists all combine in England to stress disarmament and to support pro-League sentiment (unchanged by the fact that the League had failed to stop the Japanese in Manchuria in 1932, the Italians in Abyssinia in 1936, and the Germans at Munich in 1938). It is apparent in fact that the gap between disillusionment with the progress of the revolutionary experiment inside Russia and similar disillusionment abroad is as great in England as elsewhere; information about Russian errors and oppressions is much watered down by distance from the scene, and by such enormous tomes as those published by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and filled with statistics, data, and academic plans. (The Webbs, used to England where you can trust statistics, are hopelessly incompetent to judge of this statistical barrage.) In fact, while the Russian internal situation is deteriorating, Western (and English) opinion of the Russian experiment is improving, and those with a heavy investment in the Marxist idea are doubly unable to let go of it. There is something dreadful about this complex web of understanding and not understanding, of information and misinformation, for according to theorists, Marxist truth must always be “marching on.” It is the rule of the idée fixe. In England—in abstract terms—this ideological domination does constant, if indirect, damage. (Bernard Shaw, for example, whose name in the meantime is used to quell lesser critics, continues to disbelieve until his death both in Stalin’s slave camps and Hitler’s death camps.)

Simpler English souls seem to need no more than a sense of solidarity with their leaders. I remember the rain shining on the umbrellas of the crowds waiting for Neville Chamberlain to return from Munich, and their cheers as he steps from his car (also holding that inevitable umbrella, as if it were the last symbol of British resistance!). Things are little better on the other side of the Channel. Daladier, returning from the same sad journey, is astonished to be met by the tumultuous cheers of the crowd; and he is reported to have murmured: “The imbeciles—if they only knew what they are acclaiming!” The British yearning for peace may be natural in a people who once long ago managed to have a revolution relatively free of bloodshed; but now that strong peace drive is not balanced by an equally strong survival sense. To allay the anxiety which is being wafted across the English Channel, it becomes a habit for me to read the Hansard extracts published in the Times, and to become familiar with orations in which there is a curious mingling of pacifism and stout defiance, like some essence of England lingering on in the remnants of a half-forgotten speech. I notice that there is a vast quoting of Shakespeare and that inaccurate plane-production figures and go-slow suggestions combine with the suitable Shakespearean tag (“And damned be he that first cries ‘Hold, enough’”). It is obvious now that such quotations can scarcely balance the crucial yesterday (1926-31) of unilateral disarmament, and such extravagant suggestions as that of Attlee to the House back in 1935, when Hitler’s aim was already clear, that it might be a good idea to disband national armies as a “gesture of good will.” (It is true that at this time some more realistic members shout: “Tell that to Hitler!”) Well into 1938 one is apt to meet in England followers of a movement sparked off by the generation so damaged by World War I, devotees of Vera Brittain and readers of Wilfred Owen, high-minded gentlemen involved in “peace” work, country women with cultured voices and stout shoes, calling meetings, addressing groups, giving out pamphlets. At the entrance to the subway one day, I listen to an old workman protesting as a leaflet is thrust into his horny hand:

“’Ere, ‘old on,” he grumbles.

If the more worldly section of British public opinion also shows itself incapable of coping with the psychological facts of a new age—an age in which control of the masses is to be total—it is not surprising that it should also show itself incapable of imagining the internal Russian situation. Englishmen in general would have been shocked to the marrow to have followed the progress of even one dissident in the Soviet Union—the Yugoslav Anton Ciliga, to name one example—through his series of gloomy prisons, dungeons, and stockades; through interrogations and fastings; with the leaders of the Communist parties of Europe going down around him, along with millions of ordinary Russians, not to speak of what he calls “half the Kremlin,” among them Zinoviev, the chairman of the Third International, now a slouching old man in his shirtsleeves, trudging barefoot across the hot sand of Verkhne Uralsk, perhaps dreaming, as Ciliga says, “of a bullet in the base of the skull.” During those years of the 30’s, Moscow serves as the living center of the world Communist movement and here the national leaders meet their end; almost all the famous comrades of the past are pruned from that vital body (Béla Kun, leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic; the seventy-year-old Polish leader, A. Warski, and Maria Koszucka who has given fifty years of her life to the Polish party; leaders of the parties of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia; Bessarabian leaders; the Iranian leader A. Sultan-Zade; most of the leaders of the Yugoslav party—all were taken—“I was left alone,” writes Tito; the entire Korean section of the Comintern; Chinese leaders; in fact, leaders from almost every party in the world). Because so many German activists are in flight from Hitler, among them the toll is particularly heavy, with the NKVD giving the excuse that “every German citizen living abroad is a Gestapo agent.”

After the non-aggression pact the Jews, all of them men and women long active in revolutionary battle, are handed over to the Nazis; and the borders of the Soviet Union, center of international brotherhood, are closed to refugees from enslaved Europe. “All bow to Stalin” or meet death of one kind or another. “It seems incredible,” Ciliga writes, “that such a system of servility could have been born and developed within an international workers’ movement, yet it exists and it triumphs.” And a Soviet woman poet protests in anguish: “Who needed the monstrous destruction of a generation?” In England, even skeptics cannot imagine events so far from their own English reality. Besides which (via the propaganda of the Popular Front), a vigorous campaign has been organized in Moscow to underplay them. (Richard Krebs, alias Jan Valtin, describes in his book taking part in the organizing of a counter-offensive in London against rumors of slave labor in Siberia.) The British Communist party, mild enough in any case, does nothing to rouse native fears, and operates under the beneficent eye of a Scotland Yard which easily sorts out foreign infiltrators, treats them well, and cheerily puts them out of the country.

Like many others at that time, I know little about Communism, scarcely the names of Tchernavin (I Speak for the Silent), Ciliga (The Great Enigma), Victor Serge (Twenty Years After)—and only generally of Arthur Koestler, who had been lecturing on Spain on behalf of the Left Book Club soon after my arrival in London from Australia, and is to finish Darkness at Noon in the spring of 1940 while Hitler is planning his “Case Yellow”—the French campaign. Koestler tells in his autobiography about being already disillusioned with the Communist cause; at the same time he is fascinated to see the eccentricity and decency of the English Communists. He understands how Lenin (when shown a newspaper clipping referring to police and workers playing soccer together during a strike) can declare that the English will never make a revolution. Familiar with the turbulent European scene, he describes how much he is affected, when first released from that narrow confinement of party thinking, to meet people here from all walks of life; how England appears an island of innocence, while plotting is confined to memories of Guy Fawkes and Victorian melodrama, and where fair play is so taken for granted that to be a Communist in Shepperton, Middlesex, with a retired naval officer for a neighbor, whose daughters come over for tennis and tea, seems quite out of place. Yet few understand, as Koestler does, the separation which so characterizes the Communist movement that it makes it natural for most of those on the radical Left who happen to be clear about the moral issues, not to know the facts; and for those who do know the facts to have long ago discarded the moral issues.

So it goes. In the Liberal-Labour world of England the blind are to lead the blind until they both fall into a ditch.

_____________

 

I have come to know in 1938 a famous physicist and crystallographer, John Desmond Bernal, who is seen at various intellectual gatherings, invariably wearing a jacket with sleeves too short for his arms, and with his shock of pale hair standing somewhat on end above an extremely pliable good-natured face which is at once alert, sensitive, and preoccupied. If not actually a card-carrying Communist, Bernal is well-known for his support of the party, at which he seems to look at long-range (like one of his experiments). In the civilized English manner, his views are not held against him, and in allocating the blame for the rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union, he tells me that at the time of Munich he himself had tried to get firmer action from the British government, actually waking one Minister up in the middle of the night. He dismisses responsibility on the Russian side, and makes much of the dilatory methods of communicating with the Russians.

It is obvious at this time that the appeasement policies of France and England have accelerated the danger from Hitler. What is not so obvious is the fact that the Soviet Union, personified in this case by Stalin, has had her own more potent form of appeasement—the sharper-edged in that it is completely secret, while the record of the democracies is open for all to see. Stalin’s maneuvers are hidden not only from the West but from many of his closest advisers and military officers; it is to be some years before the details of them become clear. But their basis has been laid long ago when the two outcasts of Versailles drew together as military partners in 1922, and continued for twelve years to have a mutually advantageous relationship which leaves in its wake a series of contacts and friendships. With the rise of Hitler, when the incredible ideological blindness of the Communists decides that the Nazi power is only the prelude to revolutionary action on the part of the workers, the period of the honeymoon with Germany is highlighted by the only-too-sincere remark of Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Foreign Minister: “We don’t care if you shoot your German Communists!”—as also by Karl Radek’s panegyrics about young SA members, curiously reminiscent of similar enthusiasm from the far Right in England. “In the faces of the brownshirted German students we see the same dedication and inspiration that once brightened the faces of Red Army officer-candidates. . . . There are magnificent lads in the SA and the SS.” This kind of enthusiasm is scarcely shared by a certain block of opinion in Russia, where Bukharin and other Jewish intellectuals opposed to fascism on moral grounds form an opposition group which Stalin sees as standing in the way of his future plans. Bukharin, for example, hammers home his anti-Hitler theme until his arrest and liquidation. Since we now know that Stalin has already decided by the fall of 1936 to make a deal with Hitler, and has accordingly speeded the purge of the Yezhovshchina (time of Yezhov), it might seem strange that so little real understanding of this penetrates to the outside world, that the murder campaign which sweeps the Soviet embassies and institutions in Europe is regarded as part of the mystery of Russia itself, that few link it to any rapprochement with Germany.

Little do I imagine then in England, and am scarcely able to believe that Bernal himself could imagine, the extent to which the inner core of the party has gone in those years to bring about the pact; nor the macabre fact, later recorded by Krivitsky, of the strong impression made on Stalin by Hitler’s blood purge. The liquidation which follows, as summed up by reliable historians (Paul Blackstock, Robert Conquest), amounts to an estimated eight-to-nine million people, including two-thirds of the governing class of Russia (this is only from the time that Yezhov took over as head of the NKVD to his own extermination and replacement by Beria in 1938). Later, at the Nuremberg trials, Marshal Keitel testifies to how heavily Hitler, in his attack on Russia, depends upon Stalin’s destruction of the generals, and how he several times stresses that all “first-class officers were wiped out in 1937.”

_____________

 

Naturally I know nothing of all this, but listening to Bernal’s apologias for Stalin, I experience reservations as people do when given intellectual reasons for unprincipled acts. No justification seems possible for participation in the carving-up of Poland, and the turning over of the Polish Jews to Hitler. (At that time few talk of the Russian deportation of two-to-three million Poles to Siberia by the GPU.) But Bernal’s intellectual justifications via the Marxist dialectic make it hard to express these reservations. This brilliant child of an Irish couple (observer of the terrible poverty of the Irish tenant farmer and early bored in his teens, he tells me, by having to turn the wheel of a grainmixer on a farm) sees the Russian Revolution as the vindication of the workers of the world, and as part of a great scientific experiment. In his imagination the whole Soviet scene has a classic importance far beyond that of day-to-day error. Although he doesn’t speak openly of Stalin’s compromises, and apparently (I think afterward) doesn’t know their tremendous extent, he seems to feel that such error is necessary—not to say justified—and talks of the dialectic as religious leaders talk of the catechism. At this gathering someone nearby compliments Bernal on the high level of his conversation, and he says with a wry look: “I am afraid that I have no conversation. . . . I can only give lectures”—a confession of abject intellectualism not in keeping with the legends built up about his name, one of which deals with an extraordinary ability to welcome experience at all levels, social, intellectual, physical, political. But in talking to this strange and rather childlike man I hear him say that no action is pure, that politics operates upon two levels, and this seems to give a certain insight into an undeclared uncertainty.

Deutscher has an account in his Life of Trotsky of Lenin’s doubts as death approaches, of how he dreads what might happen to that party which no longer conforms to the old dreams. If Lenin was aware of such doubts, there is no reason for latter-day Marxists like Bernal to be immune from them. (Political parties naturally risk the corruption of power, especially those which operate according to prearranged dogmas: Marxists in trying to be consistent must necessarily be caught up in that natural conflict which envelops those who attempt to adapt an intellectualized consistency to the inconsistency of life itself.) But during this conversation with Bernal, I remember being especially conscious of the fact that the rapprochement between Stalin and Hitler has to be judged on a different level from most expressions of power politics, for the very reason that the Russian experiment has after all moral pretensions, and that this is why the word “Left” carries so much psychological weight. It is a word burdened with the heavy hopes of a generation. In fact, as I hear Bernal referring to Stalin (whom he characterizes as a great genius) as having been in the position of choosing—of having to choose, he says—between the fascism of Hitler and the fascism of imperialism (British), I answer indignantly that I know which one I would choose, and a politician standing nearby enters the conversation by stating that the Comintern and those British intellectuals who had supported it bear a load of responsibility for the “doing in” of German democracy—at this moment I think I see an expression of pained vulnerability cross Bernal’s face.

So strong an impression of kindness and nobility is created by this man, indeed, that I wonder later how much emotion and imagination have gone into sanctifying the intellectual processes by which he has reached his conclusions. (“Evidence,” Koestler says, “tends to show that the political libido is as basically irrational as the sexual drive and patterned, like the latter, by early, partly unconscious experiences, by traumatic shocks, complexes, repressions, and the rest.”) When I find out that in spite of his trips to Russia, and his role on many occasions as spokesman, liaison man, or frontman for the Communist party, he has never learned to speak Russian well enough to do without an interpreter, I then wonder whether his beliefs are as much a matter of intellectual integrity as they are of emotional prejudice. Knowing little about that curious blending of power needs with moral pretensions which penetrates the political Left, I am not disposed then to wonder what relationship there is between history as it is being made around us, and the political libido of the makers.

_____________

 

Since culture upon islands is often homogeneous, England’s quality of difference—her peacefulness, the emotional unity of her people, the difficulties she places in the way of those who would subvert her institutions—is in part due to the existence of that small Channel. Yet she is no freer of the fascist doctrine than she is of the Communist; she, too, under certain circumstances, could have seen that remorseless union of the Left and the Right crush the life out of her body of moderates and she has produced her own small image of the “leader” in Sir Oswald Mosley (the “most brilliant man in the House,” according to Beatrice Webb, “a perfect politician who is also a perfect gentleman”), a man capable of being a good Tory if he hadn’t insisted upon being instead a radical of the Right. Although Mosley takes his tradition from Mussolini (rather disturbingly he is, like Mussolini, a former socialist) and not from the ranting Hitler, he claims, with a messianic faith typical of such leaders, that he will not imitate Mussolini, but only do for England what Mussolini has done for Italy. When in 1938 I see young British fascists walking in the park and playing with their police dogs, they always seem to be tall and handsome, to be lacking in sinister qualities, and to be behaving like Englishmen even to the tilt of their Fuehrer-style moustaches. One young man, whose dog has run toward me across the damp green grass, tells me gravely that since the Public Order Act, the BUF (British Union of Fascists) has had to quiet down. Then he smiles with pride and turns the lapel of his coat so that I may see his hidden fascist emblem.

On a small scale, and with certain moderations, this infant movement turns out to be very much the same fantasy-ridden movement which it is in Europe; the same spotlights, the same mixture of patriotism and totalitarianism (except that here the old songs of England are sung along with “Britons Awake” and the “Horst Wessel” song), the same accusations hurled at the Jews (one example, “venereal-ridden vagrants”), the same violence at their meetings. On one occasion a woman who interrupts is seized by the black-shirts and thrown to the women guards who claw her clothes half off her body, and carry her screaming through the audience. One day in East London I walk the narrow, crooked streets of Stepney and Bethnal Green, which are filled with a choking fog. Numerous Jewish immigrants crowd the open-air stalls, and refugees from Hitler mingle with those who speak a scarcely intelligible Cockney and whose looks and manners suggest long years in a city which has offered them only the limited glories of poverty. On some houses nearby the blackshirts have written P.J. (Perish Judah); and later, concerned social workers note that the children in the lanes now play “blackshirts and Jews” rather than “cops and robbers.”

As events move on, the English give no impression of having been saved from fascism by a hair’s-breadth. On the contrary, they operate in a well-disciplined “daze,” and employ a sort of rearguard action like that seen later at Singapore, when the big guns turn out to the “Oceans of the Empire,” but won’t swivel inland to attack the enemy. It is not just the English confusion which operates, it is the Western, for in the realm of the journalist and the diplomat repressors of germane information are not all British. There is a general mélange of wishful thinking. A French journalist claims that Russian defense hides behind the possession of a few oversized tanks which are regularly put out on parade. A Dutch secretary derides Hitler’s plans as an exercise in military poker. One American military attaché declares prematurely that although there is certainly danger of war, parachute troops can under no circumstances be effective. He does not foresee that the Germans, more “interested” in war than he is, have thoroughly explored all its possibilities. (Along with the Japanese, who are rehearsing with their soldiers dressed as tourists a possible landing in Malaysia, the Germans are busy planning blitzes from the skies, with their parachutists habited like nuns, and aproned like butchers and bakers, who cradle machine-guns in their baskets!) Similarly an American political attaché can see no possible connection between the bombast of Herr von Ribbentrop (nicknamed Herr von Brickendrop by some of the foreign colony) and his Fuehrer. Quite apart from the men he has chosen, the Fuehrer’s merest choice of fancy-dress medals for his generals, his delight in gigantic flags and spotlights, is enough to suggest the glorious German empire which can only be brought about by war. Later Albert Speer writes in Spandau prison of his trip to London, and then goes on to philosophize about Hitler’s yearning for domes 850-feet high, for halls where 150,000 people could stand before him, for a grandeur related to his childhood deprivation. He records that Hitler is excited by the mere thought of “beating” other world buildings, and that as he plunges further and further into isolation, he begins to dream up enormous edifices which are never to become reality.

So just as Communists had underrated the paranoid brutality of Stalin, now phlegmatic Westerners tend to underrate those whose grandiose dreams verge on madness. Even in the military game those whose job it is to prophesy tend to fill in the vague outline of opponents with their own characteristics, repressing here and adding there, attesting to their own innocence and expecting it of others, forgetting that if they count the number of tanks and airplanes possessed by their enemies, they must also try to assess their dreams. Inadequate as the British are in all this, and apparently victims of an emotional retreat, they have the dubious but important. distinction of doing better psychologically than the dictators who rule Russia and Germany, and who, by their mutual pact, have put Britain “on the spot.” These two extremists gain important, but in the long run temporary, advantages. Hitler, shrewd in practical politics but always beclouded with his dreams of grandeur, shows himself convinced that the British and French are too “decadent” to make a stand, and is unable to believe that the British really mean that they intend to stand by Poland. During those days he spends effort in trying to persuade Ambassador Nevile Henderson that once the Polish question is resolved he (Hitler) intends to give up warmongering and settle down to the life of an artist. Later, as the war begins to go against him, he demonstrates what one general calls “grotesque forms of underestimation of all possibilities on the part of the enemy”; and on another occasion he flies with clenched fists and foaming mouth at a man who is reading a rather negative report from the front. Deep in his bunker he ruminates about who—if anything happens to him—is to succeed him as leader of the Reich. Again he shows his gullible faith in the “man of intuition.” Himmler won’t do, he comments, because he is “so completely inartistic”! Even while Berlin goes up in flames around him, he looks for miraculous intervention, and is ecstatically optimistic when he hears of Roosevelt’s death.

_____________

 

That other great leader, Stalin, more cautious and stubborn, yet profoundly paranoid, shows a similar inability to face reality when he learns that Hitler, with whom he has made the infamous pact, is turning eastward to cross Russia’s frontier. He has every possible forewarning—in May 1941 reports come from all intelligence agencies that the frontier is massed with German troops; there is a report from his embassy in Berlin that war preparations are complete; President Roosevelt gives warning that according to his information “Operation Barbarossa” is about to get underway; a more detailed warning from agent Richard Sorge in Japan climaxes all this with the precise hour of the attack, and the precise directions of the main strikes. According to Roy Medvedev, a warning even issues from a German ambassador, Count von Schulenburg, who is a secret enemy of Hitler’s. These reports are simply stamped “To be Filed,” or “For the Archives,” and dismissed. On one occasion, at the Moscow railway station where the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs is taking his departure, Stalin ostentatiously embraces the German ambassador, and remarks: “We must remain friends.” Shut off from detailed knowledge of the state of Russia’s cities and towns, her food supplies, and the weaknesses of the army he has emasculated by his purges, Stalin, like Hitler, has unlimited faith in his own intuition, and exhibits the weakness of the dictator who has so terrorized his advisers that they no longer dare to give adverse opinions. It is generally thought—and this is the propaganda point put out by extremist parties when they attempt to take over—that democracies are weak in times of national danger. But weak as such democracies are, an even greater weakness may be that of one-man rule which either deteriorates into legalized terror or flounders as soon as the leader is seen as fallible.

The British, however, are committed to disclosing the worst to the electorate. When it becomes obvious that war is inevitable, the whole country draws together with that fatalistic steadiness (“into the valley of death,” etc.) celebrated by its poets. It is what Hitler himself had not bargained for. “On what grounds did the British have the insolence to declare war upon the Axis?” Goebbels asks in his diaries. He admits reluctantly that these people have a certain advantage in their capacity to act in unison and without coercion. “They are a very peculiar people,” he says, “with whom it is difficult to have an argument,” and then he adds resentfully, “It gets on one’s nerves!”

_____________

 

It is at a dinner party in London in early 1939 that during some sort of discussion about horrendous confusion in the Department of the Navy, one of the guests paraphrases several lines of the poem “Mariners of England” (“Oh mariners of England, who guard our native seas,” which we had so often and inappropriately recited in Australian schools). He leans forward to address himself to an American woman who is claiming that the rumors are exaggerated, and remarks sarcastically, “That of course is the very point made by those Innocents of England, who guard our native shores.”

There is laughter at the table; but the laughter stops abruptly, checked perhaps by sobering thoughts, by the feeling that in any coming war the city of London is doomed to serve as a buffer and to absorb with her inadequate defenses the impact of a dictator’s irrationality. By now most of us have begun to look at the danger, and to see that if it is hard to understand the present, it is even harder to foresee the future: that—in fact—human beings must pay for being politically illiterate.

To question thirty years later how much better informed the British electorate could have been, how much quicker to respond to the threat posed by Hitler, how much more skeptical toward extreme Left propaganda, may seem academic. Yet through the thirty years which follow World War II, history is to repeat itself in several ways. As she swallowed up the Baltic and part of Poland, Stalin’s Russia is to swallow up great areas of Europe and to bring millions of people under her control. Revolts in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia are to be crushed by military means. The Nazi impetus is to recur—to join with the Left on many occasions (as in Argentina with Joe Baxter, leader of a group of Tacuaras declaring that “Castro is not an anti-Semite but a nationalist who got rid of the Jews!”). In the Middle East, extremist Arabs, ex-Nazi propagandists, and Soviet agents are to work together to produce a climate in which thousands of Jews are to repeat the exodus of their co-religionists in Germany. What is more, even while Marxist theories are lying in a shambles around us, that passionate emotional commitment to the Marxist idea is to rise up afresh with a new generation. Intoxicated by this ideological fervor, groups of neo-Marxists all over the world—from those in Germany and Japan, to black extremists in the United States—are to try to balance verbal addiction to the Left with rightist tactics.

But that broad unhappy history is still in the future. . . . Now in England the British people are aware only that they must extricate themselves from the mess they have got themselves into. They are able to go further than that and to say with the character in the comics, “We have seen the enemy and he is us!”

The new government sets about drawing together the extremes of feeling in the nation—the pacifists who have counseled peace and peace only, the rightists who have hoped to see Hitler and Stalin at each other’s throats, the leftists who have remained hopelessly stuck in the mire of Marxism while Stalin arranges for the liquidation of their foreign comrades. It is the moment for an expression of British humor, and there appears in the New Statesman and Nation, set to the beat of a well-known lyric “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden,” a pleasantly bitter little poem by “Sagittarius”:

There are bombers at the bottom of my garden,
And I’m not a teeny weeny bit afraid,
Cause good Sir Samuel Hoare told us long before
    the war,
What to do for home protection in a raid.
So we’ve got a lovely refuge of brown paper
On the nursery Anti-Gas-Precautions Plan.
I ‘sped some people doubt
Poison gas can be kept out—
Well, it can
.

The narrow Channel may have made all the difference to the island culture which produces such gentle satire; but it seems now far too narrow to protect England from the Luftwaffe (attacks are expected to take place in waves, 500 planes at a time, at intervals of five minutes).

At night the skies weigh over our heads. The great city slows down, its miles of lights put out, its traffic crawling, its dark river an undifferentiated serpent. We are caught up into something which we did not want, but which we did not know how to avoid. From time to time, as if asking a mute question, great searchlights sweep the sky.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 For a discussion of this theory, see “The Ghost of Social-Fascism,” by Theodore Draper, February 1969—Ed.

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