Cold War reflections
Friday, March 12, 2021
Bush years historiography: the axis of evil in the thirties
During the Axis of Evil years, there was a sub-category of journalistic histories that went back over the 30s and the Cold War from a Bush-ite perspective, a search for the Good Guys (Americans, Churchill) and the bad guys (Stalin, communists, useful idiots, the whole nine yards).
Because I’m writing a story about two lives in the cold war – Willi Schlamm and Otto Katz – I’ve been unpleasantly plunged into this literature. A literature heavily marked by the McCarthyism that succeeded the fall of the wall and the end of history decade of the 90s, that decade which was also the end of big government, also humanitarian intervention, and other alsos that led us to march, finally, on Baghdad.
It is a striking thing about this literature that the focus is so entirely on Stalin. There’s little mention of fascist Italy, and Hitler only crops up as Stalin’s secret ally. Much is made of the failure of the communists in Germany to join with the Social Democrats and defeat Hitler, and nothing is made of the curious failure of France, Britain and even Italy to intervene to stop the rise of a leader who quite openly wanted to trash the Versailles treaty.
It is all very curious. You would have to look around for a whole other set of books, usually in German or French, about the connections between businesses and banks in Germany and France or Britain. And if you want to find the literature on what the Anglophiles in the U.S. state department shared with their British counterparts, you will have to file FOIAs yourself – the lack of curiosity in the literature is overwhelming. This, in contrast with the examination of every move of every Russophile contact with Soviet officials. Of the counting of pores on Alger Hiss's nose, there is no end.
The paucity of information about secret contacts with the Italian fascists, not to mention the German National Socialists, is rather appalling. That is why Frances Stoner Saunders’ article about the MI6 file on Eric Hobsbawm struck so many people as a bombshell when it came out in the London Review of Books. The softness of the British establishment and government for Mussolini has been comparatively well known for some time now. But the cooperation of British intelligence and the Geheime Dienst of Hitler’s is still an unexpected news item.
“The week Hobsbawm left Berlin, Guy Liddell, MI5’s German-speaking deputy head of counter-espionage, arrived from London. The fearful symmetry in this – history throwing us a stray bone of coincidence – will become clear. Liddell left London on 30 March, and stayed for ten days. He had been invited to meet officials of the German Political Police, Abteilung 1A, which had installed itself in the KPD headquarters, now conveniently vacant. Liddell was assisted by Frank Foley, MI6’s Berlin station chief, whose diplomatic cover was passport control officer. On 31 March, the two men entered Karl Liebknecht Haus, now renamed Horst Wessel Haus and sporting a huge swastika where only weeks earlier Lenin had stared out from a hoarding.
Liddell and Foley were introduced to Rudolf Diels, head of Abteilung 1A, who explained urbanely that it was his intention to exterminate communism in its widest sense. By this he meant not only the Communist Party and its subordinate bodies but also left-wing pacifist organisations. It was immediately clear to Liddell that there was ‘certainly a good deal of “third degree” work going on’ and that ‘Jews, communists and even social democrats’ were being ‘submitted to every kind of outrage’. Swallowing his distaste (he witnessed a man being dragged into the building while ‘protesting loudly that he had never had anything to do with politics’), Liddell settled down with Foley, in a room placed at their disposal, to examine the files of Abteilung 1A, while their hosts refined their enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees held elsewhere in the building.”
If the visit to the Horst Wessel building had involved one of Stalin’s NKVD men, we would, of course, been told over and over again – a meme in the Bushite silly season – that Stalin was secretly allied with Hitler. This meeting does not mean, of course, that the British were allied with Hitler instead – but it does signify one of the motifs of the interwar period – a fear of communism that overwhelmed the fear of Naziism or fascism. Leaving Berlin, “Liddell was confident that if ‘constant personal contact [were] maintained’, the relationship would persist after the current ‘rather hysterical atmosphere of sentiment and brutality dies down’.”
This is not a pleasant story. It is much more pleasant, in hindsight, to denounce the German-Soviet Pact of 1939, which made a mockery of a decade of antifascist activity by the Comintern, than to ask questions about the Anglo-German Naval treaty of 1935, which cut out France and allowed Germany to build up a navy beyond what was allowed by the Versailles treaty. The latter, of course, has dropped into memory hole.
The past is a foreign country, indeed. Every visit to it is a visit to a new foreign country.