The Other Witness

When I was a graduate student in history at a university in New York, the epicenter of what remains of the Old Left, I got into an argument with a professor over the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, which at that point was 60 years old. What was billed as a non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany, long thought to be bitter foes, was in reality a military partnership. Under it, each dictator grabbed territory; this commenced before the ink dried on the agreement, with their joint invasion of Poland that kick-started the Second World War.

In our debate, my position was that the Pact was merely the longstanding secret relationship between Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler coming out of the closet, and that Stalin saw this bond as unshakeable. The professor reacted as if I had urinated on the Peace Corps. Displaying his lack of adjustment to the collapse of communism, he angrily recycled the official rationalization of the Pact that Stalin had promoted.

It was as follows:

The Soviets, long a bitter foe of fascism, had throughout the1930s sought collective security pacts with the West to stand against Hitler. Repeatedly rebuffed, Stalin threw up his hands after the Brits’ Munich sellout, which drove home to him that the West was going to continue to appease Nazi Germany. Thus Stalin was forced to come to some arrangement with der Führer. His purpose in this endeavor was to buy time to rearm for a war with the Germans that he knew was coming.

This view is not confined to the Old Left. Vladimir Putin has promoted it. Even anti-Stalinists such as the late William Manchester, in the second volume of his Churchill biography, have echoed it. So, today, does the website aphistorynotes.com.

Its logic does lead us to ask, though, why he needed to rearm in the first place. The answer: he had decimated the general staff of the Red Army in the purges of the late 1930s. Notice that this in and of itself—assuming that Stalin was clever and not mindlessly bloodthirsty—proves that he wanted to continue good relations with Hitler, as these generals were vociferously anti-Nazi. Once the Pact was signed, Stalin revealed his belief that it was inviolable, evidenced by his stunned and tardy response when the German tanks rolled across his western border on June 22, 1941.

Perhaps more than any other event, the 1939 signing of the Pact by Nazi Prime Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov had driven many foreign communists out of the party. Arthur Koestler, Jr. spoke for many when he documented his disgust with the agreement:

I remained in that state of suspended animation until the day when the swastika was hoisted on Moscow airport in honor of Ribbentrop’s arrival and the Red Army band broke into the Horst Wessel Song. That was the end, from then onward I no longer cared whether Hitler’s allies called me a counter-revolutionary.

Koestler’s shock could be excused because he was not in the know about any previous secret partnership. (This only goes so far, though—more on this later.) Those who were in Stalin’s intelligence loop were not surprised. Only one, however, defected, and it is because of him that we know of these inner workings.

Walter Krivitsky was perhaps the best-credentialed whistleblower about Stalin’s overtures to Hitler, the alleged nemesis of communists and their flagship state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The ideological résumé of the Galician Jew, born Samuel Ginsberg in 1899, was impeccable: he was a Bolshevik for 20 years, beginning during the Russian Revolution of 1917 when he was 18. He “joined with all my soul,” he wrote in his 1939 memoir In Stalin’s Secret Service. This landmark work, newly republished in paperback, describes his life as a revolutionary and his break with Bolshevism in 1937.

The new regime offered Krivitsky, as it did many others among the “have-nots” of Europe, a ready-made solution to eradicating poverty, inequality, and injustice. But he was not merely a camp follower. In the 1930s he became the chief of Soviet Military Intelligence in Western Europe. Working abroad, he was more or less cocooned from the internal party machinations through which Stalin made himself successor to Lenin (the leader who first forged a partnership with the German army).

From his unique vantage point, Krivitsky was privy to Stalin’s secret partnership with Hitler, and knew it to be an intensification of the Bolshevik cooperation with Germany that had begun when the Revolution was but five years old. Circa 1922, it was the Bolsheviks who helped Germany evade the punitive measures of the World War I-ending Treaty of Versailles by supplying it with artillery and tank officers, as well as exchanging intelligence information.

The Germans, in their turn, invested capital in the Soviet Union and agreed to a trade relationship between themselves and the revolutionary government. The shift to Nazism in 1934 most emphatically did not halt Russian cultivation of Germany. Stalin in fact rejected the report from his military intelligence chief, Krivitsky, of an anti-Nazi German officer telling him that the Wehrmacht would soon make “short work of Hitler.” During the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, in which Hitler enacted his own blood purge within the Nazi Party, Stalin authorized the Politburo to come to terms with the new order.

Krivitsky, while certain of Stalin’s being “the pro-German in the Kremlin,” does not definitively say whether he believes this clandestine support was because of an ideological kinship between National Socialism and the Soviet variety, or because Stalin feared the strength of the Third Reich. On the one hand, Stalin economically bolstered Hitler; on the other, he saw Hitler as a permanent fixture in a Germany rapidly recovering its strength after its defeat in World War I. Krivitsky calls Stalin’s fear of war his very greatest fear, the reason he so persistently sought better relations with Hitler despite initial rebuffs. Eventually, the Soviet-hating Hitler reciprocated.

The intricate background that fills In Stalin’s Secret Service, both the intelligence underside and the geostrategic picture inferred from the intelligence, is invaluable even today. Krivitsky’s analysis disproves the still-peddled version that Stalin shunned any deals with Hitler before Von Ribbentrop met with Molotov in 1939. Even the public statements of Stalin, available to everyone, support Krivitsky. In 1938, Stalin announced that there would be no war with Germany and that there was a coming rapprochement with Hitler. This, Krivitsky points out, was a green light to Hitler that a German invasion of Czechoslovakia, which occurred three days later, would not meet with resistance from the Russians. This was followed by the Russians’ selling oil to the two fascist dictators, Hitler and Mussolini.

By now, Krivitsky—disgusted not only with the courtship of and aid to Hitler, but with Russian sabotage of the Spanish Republic under siege from Franco’s insurgents—had defected. He was an ex-Bolshevik when the Pact arrive and, a month later, with the help of an anti-communist American ghost writer named Isaac Don Levine (perhaps equally famous for his assistance to Whittaker Chambers when the latter made his defection and sought to warn the Roosevelt administration of Stalin’s cooperation with Hitler), he published In Stalin’s Secret Service.

Two themes predominate in the book. The first is the betrayal of the Left in secretly allying with Hitler and trampling the Loyalist government during the Spanish Civil War, which ensured the latter’s demise.

Publicly, the Soviets advertised themselves as the sole ally of this Leftwing anti-fascist government. Privately, Stalin’s goal wasn’t to defend it but to turn it into a Soviet satellite. And the main purpose of that, according to Krivitsky, was to impress Hitler into even better relations. Stalin imported his purge trials into Spain, using his secret agents to murder leading Republican fighters not under Soviet sway. Krivitsky admits he doesn’t know how many independent-minded Leftists and communists Stalin killed, but cites an individual case that may be representative.

An English radio operator he knew who volunteered in Spain was lured by the Soviets onto a ship on the pretext of fixing its radio. The man soon appeared in the “dungeons of the OGPU in Moscow” (the secret police), and from there was never heard of again. Stalin didn’t confine the liquidations in Spain to internationalist volunteers. As Krivitsky recounts, the Red Army General Yan Berzin, the suppressor of the famous Kronstadt rebellion now stationed in Spain, was “unpersoned” for having complained to the Kremlin that its policies of arrest and execution were alienating the Spanish government.

The other theme is Krivitsky’s dismay at the economic behavior of the Kremlin. He writes as one who still thinks of himself as a Marxist, and who on that basis grows disillusioned with the “privileged bureaucrats with a material stake in defending the Soviet order.” With palpable disgust, he documents the apparatchiks’ rationalizations for their well-fed status. Supposedly because they were in the forefront of extending the Revolution, they deserved the creature comforts denied to the rest of the citizenry. Thus does the book indict Stalin not only for trucking with fascists, and for untold murders of political rivals and a host of other inconvenient people, but for his greed.

For example, Stalin would not help Spain until its Republican government gave him gold. To obtain hard currency, he supplied Mussolini and Hitler with oil. For his own part, Krivitsky, resting at a well-lit and sumptuous sanitarium in Russia, became aware of the poverty-stricken peasantry whose children stared at him and his well-fed comrades through the windows. Seeing them driven away by guards, he was moved to visit the nearby peasant village. There he was appalled by the nearly naked, starving, and feral-like children. Waiting for his first class seat on a train, Krivitsky ventured into the third class waiting room, where he saw 600 peasants in a scene so horrific he thought he saw “bats flying over these tortured beings.” Naked, dying of typhus, struck dumb with “submissive suffering,” they were kicked and pushed by the OGPU onto the prison-bound train. The most haunting image was that of an emaciated old man who died on the floor.

Krivitsky’s defection, first to France and then to the United States, earned him a place on Stalin’s hit list alongside Trotsky and Krivitsky’s close friend Ignace Reiss. As he did in the case of Spain, Stalin was able to send his agents to far-flung places to commit his political murders. He had Reiss killed in Switzerland in 1937. Trotsky was done in with a pick-axe in Mexico in 1940. Krivitsky managed to dodge the Stalin-sent assassins for some time. His death in a Washington, D.C. hotel room in 1941 is still believed by many to have been murder.

Days before, Krivitsky had warned that he would be assassinated under the guise of suicide. Whittaker Chambers, who met Krivitsky in 1939, believed to his dying day that his friend had been done in by the intelligence agents of the NKVD, despite three suicide notes in Krivitsky’s handwriting (an m.o. of the NKVD), windows locked from the inside, no fire-escape for a fleeing assassin, and a single shot to the head by his own gun.

Krivitsky was testament to the fear of ostracism and punishment on the part of any in the party who harbored doubts. American Leftists, led by literary critic Malcolm Cowley, denounced him as a “gangster and a traitor.” He never really felt at home in the capitalist United States and pined for Mother Russia. He hated that the only venue available to him for testifying about Stalin’s crimes was that collection of anti-Semites and New Deal-bashers who made up the House Un-American Activities Committee. The only kinship he found was among ex-communists like Chambers, but this did not entirely alleviate his loneliness, nor did it eradicate his self-disgust with being an informer.

One could argue that the re-publication of a book from 1939 is irrelevant to our day, at best a time capsule of the Cold War. It is, though, of value to contemporary readers. It rebuts those in academia who have never left the mental universe of 1939, as well as those who still think that ideological pronouncements make it impossible for “foes” to partner up.