By Raymond Challinor.
In his well-known work History of the Second World War, the distinguished military authority Captain Liddell Hart wrote, on page 510: "In June 1943, Molotov met Ribbentrop at Kirovgrad, which was then within the German lines, for a discussion about the possibilities of ending the war.
According to German officers who attended as technical advisers, Ribbentrop proposed as a condition of peace that Russia's future frontier should run along the Dneiper, while Molotov would not consider anything less than the restoration of her original frontier." On this disagreement - basically, a Kremlin insistence of a return to the old imperialist frontiers of Tsarism - the negotiations foundered. For months the Eastern Front had been quiescent. Once the talks failed, the battle of Kursk, the biggest tank battle of all time, ensued.
But the background to Molotov-Ribbentrop discussions needs analysing. The early Nazi dreams of quick victory had vanished on the vast Russian steppes. Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad had not been captured. On the Volga, the entire German 6th army - the victors over the French and British troops in 1940 - had been either killed or captured. A commitment of resources, both of men and materials, much more than Hitler ever envisaged now appeared essential. Yet, the same was true of the Soviet Union. Its losses had been immense, the sufferings of its peoples indescribable. Was there no way of ending the agony?
To both sides, two salient facts stood out. Such was the destruction, whichever ultimately emerged as the victor, would have won only a pyrrhic victory. The fruits would have been obliterated in the fighting. Far from being the conquering hero, strutting about with pride, the winner would lie prostrate on the ground, groaning and nursing its wounds, incapable of asserting itself as a world power. Many American and British politicians cherished this prospect, though few would be as indiscreet as Harry Truman.
The New York Times of 24 July 1941 reported him as saying: "If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and in that way kill as many as possible."
The real winner, of course, would be neither the Third Reich nor the Soviet Union but the United States. Keeping out of the murderous mayhem, the USA had waxed stronger while other countries grew weaker.
The spectre of Pax Americana may well have prompted the Kirovgrad negotiations. Yet there could also be other considerations. May not Hitler have felt like a world boxing champion, perhaps able to defeat one contender to his title but definitely not two, fighting him together?
Victory only became possible if he reached an agreement with one or other of his enemies - those in the East or those in the West. Could not another possible explanation have been that Ribbentrop entered negotiations not to secure peace but merely to sow discord between the Allies? And might Stalin not have thought, if doubts about the Soviet Union's determination to continue the fight disturbed the West, that the United States and Britain would seek, as an encouragement, to bolster up Russia's resolve to continue to resist, with extra aid - perhaps more military equipment or, better still, a Second Front? Hidden threats and blackmail are not unknown in imperialist wars.
To the best of my knowledge, the only detailed examination of the Russo-German peace moves was Professor H. W. Koch's article which appeared in the Journal of Contemporary History in July 1975. This suggests that the talks extended over three years, embracing numerous people on both sides.
Interestingly, some of these who participated had been involved in the earlier negotiations that led to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of August 1939. A key figure among these was Dr Peter Eleist, of the German Foreign Office. He mentions the 1943 talks as well as the 1939 pact in his book Zwischen Hitler und Stalin (Bonn, 1950).
Diplomatic manoeuvring undoubtedly had political consequences. A German Communist Party refugee, Wolfgang Leonhard, worked in Moscow during the Second World War. He was employed on a German language publication intended to foster resistance to Nazism. In his memoirs, Child of the Revolution, he describes how a League of German Officers was formed in wartime Moscow.
General von Seylitz became its president. Then he goes on to say how Free Germany, the journal for which he worked, was suddenly presented with a leading article entitled "Armistice - the Need of the Hour": "it was not primarily addressed to those generals and other officers who had taken an attitude in opposition to Hitler; on the contrary, it was virtually an offer of armistice, however indirectly made, to the officials of Hitler's government" (pp.256-7).
At the last moment, the content of this article was changed. The call for an armistice was deleted. Nevertheless, there is no doubt, as the highest possible authority attests, that attempts to secure at least a limited peace continued. Significantly, Stalin stated that many overtures for peace had come from Germany. It desired peace with the Soviet Union so it could defeat the West. Alternatively, he said, it desired peace with the West so that it could destroy Russia: "The Germans would like to obtain peace with Britain and USA on the condition that the latter would break with the Soviet Union; or, on the contrary, that they would like to obtain peace with the Soviet Union on the condition that it broke with the USA and Britain."
This quote from Stalin appeared on the cover of a pamphlet published by Russia Today, a British Communist Party front organisation. The pamphlet, written by George Audit, was entitled The Polish Conspiracy: Full Story of the Polish-Goebbels Plot to Save Hitler, April 11-April 30 1943. It dealt with the Katyn massacre of 10,000 Polish army officers. While this atrocity had been perpetrated by the Red Army, the Russian Foreign Office refused to acknowledge the fact, arguing it was a lie manufactured by the Nazi propaganda machine. The Kremlin made it clear Russia would regard it as a distinctly unfriendly act for Britain to accept the German version of Katyn. By placing Stalin's quotation on the front cover at a time when the Molotov-Ribbentrop peace negotiations were underway, the pamphlet uttered a none-too-subtle hint about the possible dire consequences of truthfulness.
Bowing to pressure, the British government failed to denounce the Soviet crime any more than the Russian press denounced the murderous and savage crimes perpetrated by General von Seylitz and his fellow Nazi officers in the course of their invasion of Russia. Far from calling for their prosecution as war criminals, the British continued as obedient tools of the Kremlin bosses and their propaganda machine. Truth remains the first casualty of war.
Suppression of information remains another means of deception. Undoubtedly, while the general public of all the belligerents remained ignorant, the German-Russian negotiations were widely known about among the top Allied personnel outside the British government. Robert Bruce-Lockhart, an individual prominent in British intelligence operations against the Soviets for almost 30 years, refers to them in volume two of his diaries, published by MacMillan. His entry for12 July 1942 reports a conversation with Dr Edvard Benes, the Czechoslovian prime minister. He reported that the Soviet Union's grave military position, the fact that the Red Army appeared close to collapse, had compelled Moscow to make peace overtures. As the fortunes of war later changed to the disadvantage of the Nazis, pressures for peace, culminating in the Kirovgrad negotiations, acquired a greater urgency for Berlin.
Though deprived of the most vital facts, British socialist journals, such as the New Leader, Left and, to a lesser extent, Tribune, could still discern the general drift of events and draw tentative political conclusions from them. The dismal concensus reached was that the Soviet Union did not strive for a socialist or even mildly progressive peace; it wanted to see the maintainence the old capitalist order. In October 1943, Left pointed out that Frefs Deutschland, organ of the Free German Committee, published from Moscow, flew a German flag on its masthead: not the red banner of Karl Liebinecht and Rosa Luxemburg, nor the black, red and gold flag of the Weimar Republic; no - the red, white and black of Imperial Germany, the beloved symbol of Alfred Hugenberg, the Stahlheim, the Reichwahr and the Junkers!
This indicated that all the Allies wanted was a few cosmetic changes, not a root-and-branch destruction of Nazi society. Enfolding in Italy, as Allied soldiers laboriously fought their way up the mountalos of the Appenines, were the same principles that the Allies intended to apply to Germany as well as Italy. Italian businessmen, the loyal backers of Mussolini for 20 years, retained their power and influence, as did the senile King Victor Emmanuel, who had welcomed Il Duce to power in 1922. General Badogli, responsible for gassing the civilian population in the 1935 Italian invasion of Abysinnia, was selected as the Allies' choice to head the new government in Rome.
In its quest for a German equivalent for Badoglio, it may be the Churchill government hoped the Wehrmacht might be beguiled by the pampering of captured top-ranking German officers. The Daily Herald (18 May 1943) reported captured German generals had been installed in a beautiful English country house. They were able to strole freely around its 1,000 acres. "Apart from the fact that they will be confined to the mansion and its garden, the German generals will have a normal life," the newspaper declared.
Whether or not any of these German generals were involved in the peace talks of 1944, which resulted in an unnamed Nazi army officer being given free passage from Berlin to London, remains unclear. His visit was reported in the British press, the New Leader, as well as historically in F. L. Carstein's interesting book The German Workers Against the Nazis (Scolar Press, London, 1995). However, if this German guest did visit his captive colleagues, he would have seen from their five-star treatment Britain harboured no animosity or ill-will to Nazi generals. His main purpose, however, appears to have been to investigate if a basis for ending the war existed. His visit was mentioned in British newspapers of the time as well as being in the German archives.
Yet, undoubtedly, after this episode, at various levels, surreptitious contacts continued. In his memoirs, Justice not Vengence (p.50), Simon Wiesenthal mentions a secret meeting that occurred in 1944 when German industrialists sought to reach an accommodation with the Allies. Among those present were the coal baron Emil Kirdorf, the steel magnate Pritz Thyssen, Georg von Schitzler of IG Farben, Gustav Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach, and the Cologne banker Kurt von Schroeder. All of them, having been the first to turn to Hitler in 1933, were now also among the first to turn away from him. Even if Nazism were to survive - which all of those at the conference hoped - it would be Nazism without Hitler.
Similarly, in roughly the same period, Allen Dulles, the US intelligence chief located in Zürich, recounts the numerous frantic efforts of the Italian business community to reach agreement with the Americans. The British even appointed senior officers, with experience in the City of London, to liaise with Italian capitalists once Sicily had fallen. One of the most intriguing had been that established with General Reinhard Gehlen, head of Wehrmacht intelligence on the Russian front. In his Memoirs (p.119) he states that MI6 sent him a copy of the document appraising him of its secret assessment of the situation on the Eastern Front. It was a confidential memomorandum that had gone to Churchill in February 1945. It might seem an extraordinary move to provide an enemy with information which could be of value in the prosecution of the conflict. Gehlem gives the following explanation: "It is the dusty of every sophisticated intelligence service to keep open a channel of communication with the enemy's intelligence service."
It remains a matter of speculation what Gehlen gave MI6 in return for the Churchill document. With his deep knowledge of developments inside the Soviet Union, he would be aware of the wild disorder, the mass opposition that existed to the re-imposition of Russian rule in the Baltic States and the Ukraine. He would be in a position to put the Allies in touch with valuable contacts. Extensive resistance movements existed that had no prospect of survival unless they received resources from elsewhere.
Apparently these were supplied by London once Hitler had been eliminated.
For a long time, successive British governments sought to keep quiet about their private efforts to undermine the Soviet Union. A young British conscript, subsequently an Oxford undergraduate, wrote about his own role in these cloak-and-dagger operations in an Oxford University student magazine, Isis, and was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. Soon afterward this form of subversion came to an abrupt stop. Soviet agents had penetrated the organisation and, as Tom Bower describes in his book The Red Flag, it was destroyed completely.
Gehlen merely remained a representative of a political trend, an example of an inflential section of the Nazi leadership who sought a new orientation once it accepted downfall of the Third Reich. These political waifs and strays now sought to sell themselves, for as much as possible, to the West. For the Anglo-American alliance, they had much of value to offer. Their personnel in key positions helped to man vital German state posts. They also provided the official screen behind which German industrialists, men who had financed the Nazis, could assume new democratic robes.
Of course, this was only one aspect of the drama. The Allied governments understood the ruling classes, if they were to survive, needed a new image. This led to the manufacture, mysteriously at the same time, of Christian Democratic parties encompassing the whole of Western Europe. An insignificant scribe like Pietro de Gasperi, one of 800 employed in the Vatican, suddenly found himself catapulted into being the Christian Democratic Prime Minister of Italy.
Yet, still there remained the unpleasant task of controlling the unruly multitude. The angry mass of the workers wanted to create a new society. They needed to be persuaded to forego such romantic conceptions. Nevertheless some awkward workers stayed unconvinced. Other kinds of brutal medicine remained necessary. Both in Germany and Italy the police stayed unpurged and unaltered: basically the Allies kept Hitler's and Mussolini's repressive apparatus in place.
In January 1946 Ignazio Silone visited London as a honoured guest of the Labour Party. He pleaded in vain with the Attlee government, then one of the powers involved in the military occupation, to stop the persecution of the Italian left. Sixty thousand resistance fighters had had their homes blown up by armed fascist gangs, aided by the same police who had served Mussolini. Naturally, the Labour government did not respond. It equally remained unmoved by the Yugoslav request for the return Ante Pavelic. The Yugoslavs even gave the number of the street in Innebruck, part of the British occupation zone, where he was hiding. Yet this monster, the head of the hated Croatian Ustashe, who kept by his office desk a wastepaper basket full of Serbian eyeballs, never had to stand trial as a war criminal Just as scientists like Verner von Braun were scooped up by the Allies because of their specialised knowledge, there must be the suspicion that the likes of Pavelic were protected because they, too, had specialised knowledge. Had, in the immediate post-war period, the Western allies been confronted by a workers' revolution or a conflict with the Soviet Union, then their expertise in mass murder would have come in useful.
The above consideration of the Second World War, as well as the analysis contained in my short book The Struggle for Hearts and Minds, leads me to draw certain general conclusions:
First, that, if war is a continuation of politics by other means, then it behoves the rulers not to continue the conflict a moment longer than necessary. To fight once one's objectives could be achieved, and therefore to cause needless destruction, would be be an act of senseless vandalism.
Second, that war is fought, to put it in Hegelian terms, to achieve its dialectical opposite: one fights war to establish peace. Conflict arises because the protagonists have clashing conceptions of the peace they want to establish.
Third, that in this process of trying to re-establish normal politics, neutral countries play a vital part. It is here that friend meets foe. In particular businessmen and journalists on opposing sides can chat, perhaps have a convivial meal together, where views can be swapped. Their observations could then be passed back to their respective embassies.
War results not from the evil of this or that individual or country. It results from the developments of world capitalism. While there are periods of harmonious growth, where the expansion of one does not harm another, yet there are also period where the struggle for scarce nourishing profit pits one against the other. It becomes the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. Individual financiers and gigantic corporations take their conflict from the market place to the battlefield. Whichever side wins in war, the workers are the losers - they fall at the front whoevers profits rise.
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