Whiplash: Communists Worldwide Scrambled to Adjust to the Pact

Peter Kenez’s interesting Liberty Forum essay on the motives, misjudgments, and maneuverings of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Great Britain, and France leading up to the Nazi-Soviet Pact focuses on the leaders and decisionmakers of countries. The pact upended European diplomacy and directly led to the most bloody and destructive conflagration in world history. In spotlighting the actions of governments and their authorized representatives that eventuated in the August 1939 pact, Kenez briefly mentions that “the international communist movement became an agent of Nazi propaganda.” That observation deserves a more thorough airing, because it had momentous consequences.

The Communist International, or Comintern, which was headquartered in Moscow yet supposedly an independent body, was tasked with coordinating the global communist movement. It had since 1936 been ordering its members around the world to reach out to non-communist groups, socialists, and democratic forces and build “popular fronts” to counter the fascist menace. Such alliances held more than symbolic value.

Before that time, there were no such alliances. In fact Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1932 had been immeasurably aided by the German communists’ steadfast support for the Comintern tactic of “class against class,” which demanded no cooperation with other anti-Nazi forces. German communists blithely insisted that Hitler’s triumph would be evanescent—summarized in their optimistic slogan, Nach Hitler, kommen wir (“After Hitler, us”). By 1936, the folly of that policy was evident, leading the Soviet Union to drop it and seek alliances to stop Hitler.

In the last half of the 1930s, the German Communist Party had ceased to function within the country, its leaders either dead or in concentration camps, its remaining members demoralized and underground. And the communist parties in England, France, and Spain made anti-fascism the centerpiece of their propaganda and activism. Under Comintern direction, fighters (mostly but not all communists) from around the world had come to Spain as part of the International Brigades to confront General Francisco Franco and his fascist allies, German and Italy, in an ultimately futile effort to buttress the Loyalist government in Madrid. Thousands of communist soldiers had died. The Communist Party of the United States of America, though far less significant than its counterparts in Europe, established a toehold in the Democratic Party and gave fervent support to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Out of the Loop

The Comintern’s executive committee, made up of a handful of Russians and several exiled leaders of constituent parties, was the organization’s nominal decisionmaker; but in practice, it followed Josef Stalin’s dictates. Therefore the Nazi-Soviet Pact created an immediate dilemma for the Comintern and its leader, the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov. The executive committee’s ciphered correspondence with national communist parties (some 764 files of this correspondence, covering 1933 through 1943, were made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union[1]) illustrates the dilemma quite dramatically.

What can be inferred from these exchanges is Stalin’s contempt for the Comintern; though based in Moscow, it was kept entirely out of the loop. The organization clearly had no idea what the pact meant or that it portended the division of Poland or the end of the idea of popular fronts and collective security. On August 22—the same day that Moscow newspapers reported on the arrival of the German foreign minister to sign the agreement—the Comintern was assuring foreign parties that the negotiations were an effort to compel Britain and France to come to an agreement with the USSR, and it urged the continuation, with even more energy, of the struggle against German fascism.

On August 27, the Comintern leadership asked Stalin for advice on what the French communists should do: Should they continue to oppose German aggression? Stalin did not reply immediately. On September 5, Comintern chief Dimitrov began work on a draft resolution that, while it opposed the new “imperialist war,” warned that the greatest danger remained German militarism and supported national liberation and the defeat of fascism. But Dimitrov was concerned that, with the outbreak of war, perhaps something new was required. In particular, he wanted advice from Comrade Stalin.

He met with the Soviet leader on September 9 and learned that the war was between two groups of capitalist countries, and so “it would be fine if at the hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially England) were shaken.”[2] The Popular Front was over and communist parties should be opposing their own governments. The only reference Stalin made to fascism came in the form of a denunciation of fascist Poland. Nothing was said about the need to fight Germany; communists were to direct their fire at the democratic states of the West.

Dimitrov quickly distilled these suggestions into a new Comintern document, disseminated to all constituent parties, explaining that there was no longer any difference between fascist and democratic countries. Good communists were ordered to oppose anyone intending to stand in Hitler’s way.

With Ribbentrop’s second visit to Moscow at the end of September and the signing of a German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, the Comintern emphasized that the primary adversary was those countries that were at war with Germany, and those socialists and social democrats fighting against fascism. Germany had concluded a pact with the USSR, while “reactionary” England, at the helm of a vast colonial empire, was the “bulwark of capitalism.” Thus, communist parties in England and France were ordered to call for the defeat of their countries—ordered, in other words, to officially embrace treason.

The leader of the British Communist Party, Harry Pollitt, who had initially opposed this new Party line, was quickly demoted. Maurice Thorez, the French CP leader, deserted from the army and fled to the Soviet Union.

“Disoriented” by Russia’s Position

In Czechoslovakia, which was now being occupied and dismembered by Germany, the Comintern denounced not the Third Reich but the British, the French, and the Czech government-in-exile, while dropping all mention of fascism, even as the Czech CP reported that many workers were “disoriented” by the Soviet Union’s position. The Comintern’s response was to urge solidarity with the German working class, the avoidance of “anti-German chauvinism,” and refusal to participate in any protests that might be mounted against the German occupation.

In neutral Bulgaria, the Comintern persistently criticized the Communist Party for underestimating the dangers of British imperialism and overestimating the German threat. Stalin himself explained that the USSR had no objection to Bulgaria’s joining the Tripartite Pact, an alliance of Italy, Germany, and imperial Japan; if it did so, and also concluded a mutual assistance agreement with the USSR, “we ourselves in that event will also join that Pact.”[3] By the spring of 1941, Bulgaria had allowed German troops to pass through the country en route to attacking Yugoslavia and Greece.

But nothing highlighted the perversity of the Comintern’s policy more than the advice it gave to the beleaguered German Communist Party. Almost entirely destroyed, and surviving largely in exile, it was instructed by the Comintern’s executive committee to issue a statement calling for an alliance of the National Socialist, social democratic, Catholic, and communist workers for the struggle against imperialism and war. Blame for the war was placed on the Western powers. While some Comintern officials prudently suggested that this message, after being sent to the German, Czech, and Austrian parties, not be published or widely circulated, its import was clear: The Soviet Union and communist parties supported Germany in this conflict begun by Britain and France.

German Communists were instructed to work with Nazis in Germany to oppose the “rapacious plans” of Western imperialism and traitors to the fatherland in Germany to maintain and strengthen friendship between the Soviet Union and Germany. When a joint manifesto by the CPs of Britain, France, and Germany included a sentence urging the German working class to struggle against Hitler “using all possible means,” the Comintern leadership quickly repudiated it.

Not even the German invasion of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in the spring of 1940 dissuaded the Comintern from continuing to castigate Britain and France as aggressors. After Prime Minister Molotov wished Germany “a total victory in its defensive undertakings” against these five neutral countries, the Comintern’s executive committee instructed the Danish communists to prepare for underground activity, but to avoid provoking the German occupation troops or cooperating with those resisting the occupation. This contradictory advice led to such absurdities as the Belgian and French communists’ negotiating with the Nazis to publish their newspapers—a step too far for the Comintern, which incoherently condemned these negotiations as tantamount to solidarity with the occupiers.

The Germans, however, understood the lay of the land very well. A June 1940 Gestapo report approvingly noted that the Soviet government was favorably disposed to the Third Reich and had endorsed its invasions of the Scandinavian states and Belgium and Holland “as necessary and proper.” The report went on to note that the Comintern had avoided open attacks on Germany,  and that the parties and publications allied with the Comintern were not pushing for communists to struggle against National Socialism or denounce fascism.

Sudden Reorientation

Not until the spring of 1941 did the Comintern begin to alter its stance, adding veiled criticisms of Nazi policy to its messages to European parties, and supporting Yugoslav and Greek resistance to Germany’s invasion in April 1941. It continued, however, to treat the war as imperialist and declare its support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

Stalin, despite warnings from numerous sources that Hitler was planning a massive attack on the Soviet Union, was taken completely by surprise on June 22, 1941 when Operation Barbarossa began, with more than three million Axis (German and also some Italian, Romanian, Finnish, and Slovak) troops smashing across the Soviet borders. From denouncing the imperialist war and vilifying the British-led democracies, the USSR immediately swung to new language, proclaiming that the struggle against Nazi Germany was a patriotic war against fascist aggression that had enslaved millions. The Comintern’s executive committee, following Stalin’s orders, instructed communist parties to shelve all talk of socialism and the proletarian revolution. When a handful of CPs repeated old tropes about the international class struggle, they were sternly warned that such heresies were a form of aid to Hitler because they frightened conservative forces in the democracies.

Nations deploy armies to fight their enemies in combat. And World War II was ultimately decided on the battlefield as millions of soldiers killed their enemies and used airplanes and bombs to destroy the infrastructure and morale of their enemies. Communist parties across Europe, jerked around by their puppet masters in Moscow, played a far less consequential role, but still it was not an insignificant one. They held the loyalties of many civilians and, in some countries, controlled large sectors of the labor movement. They played an inordinately large role among intellectuals and in the cultural elite.

While some European and American communists were disillusioned by the pact and quit the Party in the fall of 1939, most continued to look to the Soviet Union for political guidance. Their refusal to give their full loyalty to their own nations, struggling against fascist aggression, might not have tipped the scales between 1939 and 1941 toward a German victory, but it made resistance to fascism that much harder. American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which fought in Spain, liked to flatter themselves as having been “premature anti-fascists.” They and their fellow communists could far more accurately be called premature pro-fascists.

[1] The material is in Opis 184, fond 495 of the files of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI). The cables cited in this post are discussed more fully in Fridrikh I. Firsov, Harvey Klehr, and John Earl Haynes, Secret Cables of the Comintern, 1933-1943 (Yale University Press, 2014).

[2] Georgi Dimitrov, The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 1933-1949, introduced and edited by Ivo Banac, German part translated by Jane T. Hedges, Russian by Timothy D. Sergay, Bulgarian by Irina Faion (Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 115-116.

[3] The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, pp. 136-137.