The Eye-Opener of 1939: Or How The World Saw the Nazi-Soviet Pact

George Watson considers how news of a political and moral bombshell was received, particularly by intellectuals on both the Left and the Right.

Cartoon by David Low, published in the Evening Standard on 21 October 1939.

In August 1939, Hitler astounded the world by signing a pact with Stalin, and the effects, diplomatic and ideological, were stupendous. An eye-opener, George Orwell called it, showing that ‘National Socialism is a form of socialism, is emphatically revolutionary’. The German and Soviet foreign ministers, von Ribbentrop and Molotov, signed a pact of friendship between their two countries on August 23rd, 1939, or rather in the early hours of 24th, and the world shuddered at the news. The Poles dug trenches, a wit in the Foreign Office remarked that all the Isms were Wasms, and panic struck the intellectual Left. It was as if a heart-beat had stopped. Then, a few days later, the greatest war in all history began.

When Ribbentrop reported to Hitler the signing of a non-aggression pact with Stalin that secretly embodied the partition of Poland and the Baltic states, the news reached him in Berchtesgaden. Hitler was overjoyed. He ordered champagne and even, teetotaller though he was, put a glass to his lips. Then he hammered on the walls and shouted ‘Now Europe is mine – the others can have Asia’.

Within a year, and after the fall of France, he was nearly proved right.  Europe was his, and the pact had proved the greatest diplomatic triumph of his career. The British Foreign Office had misread the signs when, imagining he could no longer keep such allies as Italy on side, they gleefully concluded that he had made his first blunder. If the invasion of Russia in June 1941 was  to be Hitler’s biggest mistake, the pact of 1939-41 looks like a bright little picture in a frame. It marks the pinnacle of Hitler’s rise and heralds his fall.

For most Germans the reaction to the news was joyous. Der Angriff, the most ardently Nazi of Berlin afternoon papers, rejoiced in the rebirth of the ancient friendship of Germans and Russians, a ‘towering fact’ by which two great peoples had at last set out on a common policy. On the streets of Berlin, as the American journalist William Shirer reported in a broadcast, joy was everywhere, for the news meant there could never again be a war on two fronts. Within weeks Molotov declared the Soviets would respect National Socialism: ‘Everyone knows you do not destroy a political idea by force’. For his part Hitler told the Reichstag on October 5th, after the destruction of Poland, that he had no intention of criticising his new ally – ‘Soviet Russia is Soviet Russia, National Socialist Germany is National Socialist Germany’ – and the First World War had been a tragedy for both countries.

All that called for some adjustment, but not much, and books preferring the German brand of socialism to the Russian continued to appear in Germany. Der verratene Sozialismus (‘Socialism Betrayed’) by Karl Albrecht, a disillusioned Communist, had first appeared in November 1938, the work of a German who had worked as a Party official for ten years inside the Soviet Union before realising that community was better than class struggle.  Albrecht called Hitler ‘the greatest socialist of our times,’ and his book was repeatedly reprinted during the two years of the Nazi-Soviet alliance, and apparently without embarrassment, despite its shocked accounts of Stalin’s mass slaughter of the possessing classes. There was no adulation. The pact was practical, and its useful effects were evident to everyone within weeks and months. As Hitler said, Europe was his.

Beyond Germany the pact was an eye-opener, though not everyone opened the same eye. The Bulgarian George Dimitrov, a dedicated Communist in Moscow, remarked in his diary on September 7th that there need be no regrets. The West was bleeding itself while Russia built socialism in one country. He argued it was ‘not bad news if Germany shakes the richest capitalistic nations, above all England’, and it was natural if Russia and Germany should be on the same side in an imperialistic war. That view was to be echoed in the most famous German  play of its age, Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage, which is about the futility of war and is set in the Thirty Years’ War. Mother Courage was the dupe of capitalistic exploitation, eternally deluded in her struggle to profit from war. It was first performed in neutral Zurich in April 1941, a few weeks before Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, and that was just in time. As a Soviet supporter, Brecht could not have written it after June 1941, when war ceased to look futile and became heroic. So his most celebrated play bore witness to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a call to lay down arms at a time when only the British Commonwealth was fighting Germany. Years later Brecht was to become an icon of the peace movement, in spite of his public support for the Soviet suppression of the East Berlin rising of 1953.  He died in August 1956, so it will never be known what he would have thought of the Soviet suppression of Hungary in October 1956. On the other hand the point of Mutter Courage was seen at the time, and a reviewer in the Neue Züricher Zeitung called itzeitnah (topical).

Others on the political Left were less obedient to Moscow. ‘Put the brakes on history,’ remarked Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a Marxist literary critic who had taken refuge in France in 1933,  when he heard the news of the pact. The British Communist Naomi Mitchison could barely contemplate her own emotions. ‘I feel like hell, deep down, because of the Russian news,’ she confided to her diary in September 1939. It had ‘knocked the bottom out of what one has been working for all these years,’ but she added the revelatory aside: ‘One couldn’t help knowing that it wasn’t all jam’. So she had suppressed what she had known about Stalin’s terror. Her brother J.B.S. Haldane, in a letter to the New Statesman a fortnight later, decided to put on a brave face. The British Left should not think too badly of Hitler:

I would sooner 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 Annamites enjoy complete equality?

Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), Dean of Canterbury and author of The Socialist Sixth of the World, was openly unrepentant. On December 16th, he announced that Stalin was justified in whatever he did, and should simply say: ‘We are trustees for the world’s first socialist state.’ To Johnson, the Soviet cause was self-justifying and could do no wrong. Similarly, G.D.H. Cole wrote in the New Statesman that, since all morality is class morality, it was ‘justifiable and necessary for the proletariat to use any method, and to take any action, that would help it towards victory over its class enemies.’

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, by contrast, were simply appalled by the news. ‘Even Sidney is dazed,’ Beatrice wrote in her diary on August 25th, ‘and I, for a time at least, knocked almost senseless.’ In New York matters were no better for the left-wing intelligentsia. The young classical historian Moses Finley, later a Cambridge professor and Master of Darwin College, had collected 400 signatures to a manifesto denouncing the slanderous rumour that Stalin was about to sign a pact with Hitler. The terrible news broke a few days before the manifesto appeared and contributed to his loss of Communist faith.

Beyond the Left, too, views were various. Sir Oswald Mosley was plainly baffled by the new alignment, as a Fascist leader, and called the consequences unclear. That was in Action, his official journal, as early as August 26th. He needed time to think. The most hopeful interpretation, to him, was that ‘Russia may at last have rid itself of Jewish control, and may determine under Russian leadership to pursue the course of a national revolution which is primarily concerned with the Russian people.’ For a lot of people, evidently, the pact meant black eyes rather than open eyes.

Fortunately, however, there were some interesting mavericks abroad. One was H.N. Brailsford (1873-1958). A journalist of wide experience, he had met Lenin in England before the First World War and had stood as a Labour candidate in 1918, writing two pro-Soviet books in the 1920s. Weeks after the pact, on October 25th, 1939, the New Republic in New York published his ‘National Bolshevism’, where his tone was puzzled rather than amazed. The event was ‘the central enigma’ of the war. Reports from an underground source in Germany – presumably a German Communist in secret touch with army opinion – had detected a view among young officers there which might be called National Bolshevism. They wanted to work with the Red Army, and might even sponsor a purge of conservative elements in the Nazi party. In short, he expressed a hope that Hitler might be bolshevised.

Brailsford was by then an elderly journalist, and his views were wishfully optimistic. Nazi propaganda had shifted helpfully, he believed. Now it was addressing the proletariat, Soviet-style, calling Germany a workers’ paradise and insisting that ‘the German and Russian revolutions have been pursuing, by slightly different methods, the same aims.’ One large difference, however, remained: ‘Russia had destroyed private capital, Germany had brought it under iron control.’ But Germany and Russia were united in what they opposed, which was plutocracy, and Nazi broadcasts had given the war ‘an ideological meaning, as a crusade against the effete liberalism of the pluto-democracies.’ Brailsford’s chief regret, in October 1939, was that there had been no Soviet response. Russian broadcasts were still anti-Nazi. But Brailsford shows there were stirrings of hope, after the pact, of a lasting entente.

Another hopeful Communist was Sean O’Casey (1880-1964), the Irish dramatist, who was on the board of the Communist Daily Worker. For two years he demanded peace with Hitler and an end to the imperialist war. The invasion of Russia in 1941 came as a sad blow to him. He had hoped, as he wrote to a friend, that ‘Hitler would go Left.’

Other views were more prescient. Peter Drucker (1909- ), a Viennese refugee in London and later a business guru in America, bravely predicted the pact in a far-sighted book called The End of Economic Man (1939), foreseeing that totalitarian forces would have to unite because they were socially and ideologically similar:

That the European Left has not dared to admit this is understandable. By conceding that Soviet Russia is as fascist a state as Germany, they would have conceded that socialism must fail, and would have abandoned themselves,losing heart, as he put it, in their own cause. But not many saw the pact, as Drucker did, as an ideological union, a meeting of socialist minds sundered a generation earlier by the October Revolution. One English observer, however, did.

That was George Orwell (1903-50), a year later. Writing as a socialist just after the fall of France, in The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), he saw the disaster as ‘a physical debunking of capitalism’. Orwell was in no doubt that Nazi Germany was a socialist state, or at least a state with a socialist economy. It believed that competition was inefficient as well as evil and that planning was inevitably the way of the future.

The fall of France, Orwell argued, had shown that ‘a planned economy is stronger than a planless one,’ and National Socialism had triumphed by taking from socialism ‘just such features as will make it efficient for war purposes.’ Think what you please, he went on, about its foreign policy: ‘internally Germany has a good deal in common with a socialist state,’ and Hitler will go down in history as ‘the man who made the City of London laugh on the wrong side of its face’ by showing financiers that planning works and a free-for-all does not. All of which prefigures, by several years, one of the most famous sentences he ever wrote, at the conclusion to Animal Farm (1945):

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

So the pact provoked a sense of convergence, for some, and a conviction that all totalitarian systems are ultimately one. The old compass had pointed left and right, and it had broken. Orwell mooted that subversive idea in May 1940, in a review of Frank Borkenau’s The Totalitarian Enemy, challenging the easy assumption that ‘National Socialism was simply capitalism with the lid off’. To Orwell, it was a myth that both Blimps and Left Book Club members had swallowed whole. Socialists could not bear to admit that ‘the man who had slaughtered their comrades was a socialist himself.’ So all resemblances were denied or explained away.

Much of this was echoed in the Nazi press, in wartime newspapers Orwell did not see. Even before the war the German press had hailed the October Revolution of 1917 as a great event, though a great event spoiled. The trouble was, the Völkischer Beobachter announced on April 11th, 1939, that the Bolsheviks were elderly and Jewish, not youthful and patriotic:

A youthful national movement might have arisen out of the Russian revolution, as out of the Nazi and the Fascist, if Lenin and Stalin had not submerged it under the Jewish tide. But perhaps, one day, the moment will come.

This echoes a remark that Rauschning reported in Hitler Speaks (1939), where Hitler had called himself the executor of Marxism (der Vollstrecker des Marxismus), completing what Lenin had begun. Better to purify capitalism, however, than to destroy it. The free-for-all of the great plutocracies, so the Nazi press insisted, would not work. It had run off the rails, the Völkischer Beobachter claimed on October 4th, 1939, in an article called ‘Der entgleiste Kapitalismus in England’: out of control and incapable of fighting a war. Six days later the paper announced a joint German-Soviet economic programme, praising an article in Izvestiya against democratic war-mongers:

Capitalists make war to make money: the Hitler-Stalin coalition acts on behalf of their peoples.

The intellectual Left, it is now forgotten, sometimes accepted that claim. ‘The Russian invasion of eastern Poland,’ the New Republic of New York announced hopefully on October 4th, ‘has been the occasion for a social revolution’; and violent as such things are, progressive opinion in America should welcome it.

The peasants are seizing the great manors, … burning the manor houses; they are killing the lords and ladies of the manors or turning them over for trial to the newly constituted village soviets.

All this suggests a growing sense among the hard Left that a Nazi alliance may have had its advantages, with a lasting accommodation probable and even inevitable.

If eyes were opened, minds were beginning to move. There were rumours that long before August 1939 Stalin had seen advantages in Hitler’s policy, if only because it would pin down the West and give the Soviet Union time to develop socialism in one country. In the mid- thirties, for example, Soviet trade commissioner Eugene Gnedin shocked officials in the Soviet embassy in Berlin by reporting that Hitler was viewed with some admiration in the Kremlin – or so Walter Krivitzky reported in I Was Stalin’s Agent (1939).

The revelation was not isolated. On the German side Martin Helmbrecht, writing in June 1933, at the start of the Nazi era, in Neue Blätter für den Sozialismus, openly regretted that his leaders were less well versed in Marxism than Mussolini, who had been an active Communist for years. ‘That is sadly lacking in Germany,’ he wrote. ‘Few leaders of the National Socialist Party have had experience in the main practical workers’ movement,’ meaning the German Communist Party and its allies, and ‘few have any connection with the socialist theory by which that movement has been most strongly influenced,’ the Marxist. An early experience of Communism had helped Italian Fascists, by contrast, to immunise the workers against its dangers. The German movement must open its doors wider to the Left, and German Communists are to be wooed as well as bullied. This publicly echoed Hitler’s private opinion that an acquaintance with Marxian theory was indispensable to National Socialism and the basis of his own beliefs.

But these were idle imaginings. No large scheme of Marxist education is known to have been launched by the Nazis, and even in the two years of the Soviet alliance their official stance remained reticent and ambiguous. Soviet news was only coolly reported in the Nazi press, if at all, and Hitler never repeated in public his private esteem for Stalin. These were dangerous themes.

And by now forgotten. Extremists nowadays who throw bombs at synagogues are cheerfully assumed to be right-wing, as if socialism had never been anti-semitic. The eyes that opened in August 1939, or half-opened, were quickly closed.

Alan Clark recounted in his diary how in April 1981, at dinner at 10 Downing Street, he told a German lady that Hitler had been in advance of his time, and she looked at him in horror and called him appalling. The Great Lover of the Thatcher years, he was candid enough to report a conquest that did not happen. But neither he nor, in all likelihood, his German blonde knew that the call for racial purity is widely found in socialist literature, ever since Marx and Engels, and practised by Swedish Social Democrats as enforced euthanasia for some twenty years down to the 1950s. No right-wing parties in Europe ever advocated such policies.

Whether Hitler belonged to the Right or the Left is a puzzle that some thinkers in the socialist tradition, like Brailsford and Orwell, once thought they could solve. Hitler, they proposed, was a dissident of the Left, and Animal Farm is the masterpiece of that revelation. But it was soon forgotten, as Brecht’s anti-war propaganda in favour of the Hitler-Soviet alliance was soon forgotten. The eyes of the world opened briefly and then closed, and by the end of the century the most startling and momentous pact in modern history was remembered, if at all, as a passing incident in a war. It was easier to shut your eyes and not look.

George Watson is a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and the author of The Lost Literature of Socialism (Lutterworth Press, 1998).

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