Maxim Litvinov of the Litvinov School

The Litvinov School, part one

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This entry is part 7 of 9 in the Britain and her Jews

Our last article described some of the activities of the Focus and the early stages of their project to supplant British foreign policy with their own: regime change in Germany by threats or by war. Here we examine the collaborative efforts of the Focus and the Soviet Union toward that aim in 1938.

Collective security

Since the founding of the Focus in 1936, its members and their allies in the Foreign Office sought an alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union and were particularly attracted to Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet foreign minister. The Conservative MP Robert Boothby wrote in his memoirs that the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, “could have chosen either Russia or Germany as an ally” and that Boothby “preferred the former ‘because socialism was still their proclaimed goal; because in socialism there was at least some hope, and because Litvinov had espoused the cause of collective security’.”1 Litvinov had espoused that cause since December 1933. He argued that the Soviet Union was interested “not only in its own peaceful relations with other states, but in the maintenance of peace generally.” Litvinov persuaded Stalin to let anti-fascism surpass anti-capitalism in urgency in foreign policy, entailing a more particular focus on Hitler’s Germany. The espionage and subversion operations of the NKVD and the Comintern in Britain and around the world continued as before.2

According to Geoffrey Roberts, “Litvinov’s doctrine of the ‘indivisibility of peace’ was underlined by Stalin at the seventeenth party congress in January 1934 when he defended Soviet détente with France on the grounds that ‘if the interests of the USSR demand rapprochement with one country or another which is not interested in disturbing the peace, we adopt this course without hesitation’.”3 The countries not interested in disturbing the peace were the beneficiaries of Versailles and Trianon; the status quo was a partitioning cage for Germany. In any case, peace was an expedient stance for countries building their war capacity. Such were the interests of the USSR, as Richard Overy describes: “Like Germany, Italy and Japan the Soviet Union saw an intimate relationship between domestic economic development and future security, though the Soviet Union was rich enough in resources to be able to develop autarkic policies without foreign expansion.”4

Time was on the side of the already-autarkic, such as France. As Roberts says, “It was partly at France’s behest that the USSR joined the League of Nations – an organization that the Soviets had previously scorned as a ‘capitalist club’ responsible for carving up the globe – in February 1934.”5 The USSR in fact joined the League in September of that year; it did so at the behest of Czechoslovakia and France, allied with one another since 1924. The League, all three perceived, was a potential vehicle for their shared anti-German purposes. The Focus, and Winston Churchill in particular, wore defence of the Covenant of the League as their cloak, though the cloak became ragged after the Soviets disclosed what they meant by collective security to eastern Poland in October 1939.

From the Versailles settlement onwards, as though they had not been victors, French leaders agitated against Germany, and against peace and cooperation in general, at every juncture. Poland, allied with France since 1923, made a declaration of non-aggression with Germany in January 1934. The following month, Poland renewed the non-aggression pact it had made with the Soviet Union in 1932. According to Piotr Wandycz, “The reaction in France was distinctly negative,” although the Declaration “was, in effect‚ logically included in [the] accords of Locarno.”6 When France ratified its own pact with the Soviets in February 1936, Hitler declared it a violation of the Locarno treaties and reoccupied the Rhineland. Poland’s foreign minister Joszef Beck expressed some sympathy for Germany’s position, understanding the problem of hostile powers to the east and west; the French, encircled by nothing worse than the sea, then “engaged in intrigues to have Beck removed from his position.”7

French politicians and civil servants saw Poland and Romania as pawns in a game against Germany. According to Dov Lungu,

“Romania was important to the French strategically: first, the denial of German access to its oil, in which they had substantial investments and the Germans had few, was considered an important condition for the victory of France and its allies in a protracted European war; second, in such a war, Romania was to be assigned an important role in the defence of Czechoslovakia. The Romanians were expected to free the Czechoslovaks from worrying about their rear by paralyzing the Hungarians and, perhaps, by allowing Soviet military units coming to the assistance of Czechoslovakia to reach that country through Romanian territory.”8

In the latter scenario, France permitted Romanians to hope, or even assume, that the Soviet forces would withdraw after generously rescuing the Czechs. Even then, Romanian governments never fully consented to the role magnanimous France had assigned them. In December 1937, a pro-German government led by Octavian Goga was formed in Romania. Goga’s government began to remove citizenship from much of the Jewish population. As Rebecca Haynes describes, the result was:

“to bring the economy to a standstill as Jews boycotted work and withdrew their money from the banks. The Jewish World Congress and the Federation of Jewish Societies of France petitioned the League of Nations to investigate the situation in Romania. The British and French governments subsequently put pressure on Romania to comply with the 1919 Minorities’ Protection Treaty under which Romania was obliged to treat her citizens equally regardless of nationality.

The Goga-Cuza government fell from power largely as a result of western displeasure at its antisemitic measures… Without any formal commitment from Germany to guarantee Romania’s frontiers, Carol could not afford to alienate his western guarantors. At the same time, the extreme right-wing nature of the Goga-Cuza government had roused the wrath of the Soviet Union [and] the chaos created by the regime’s antisemitic legislation… impeded the flow of Romanian agricultural produce and petroleum to the Reich.”9


Edvard Beneš, the Czech foreign secretary until December 1935 and president thereafter, personified ‘Czechoslovakism’, and what could be called the Europe of Versailles, along with Tomas Mašaryk, the state’s only president before Beneš, and Jan Mašaryk, Tomas’ son and the ambassador to Britain. Beneš was socialist though not Marxist. Czechoslovakia had avoided diplomatic recognition of the Soviets until Franklin Roosevelt, US president from March 1933, began to show favour to them. As Igor Lukes describes:

“The shadow of Hitler, his racist doctrine, and his nationalistic claims gave pause to European democracies and autocracies alike. As a consequence, many countries started paying court to the Kremlin. In November 1933 the United States, that bastion of capitalism, recognized the Soviet Union de jure. From then on, few were willing to be left behind.”10

The Kremlin’s proclaimed policies of collectivisation and dekulakisation had caused the deaths of more than a million of its own citizens in that year alone. Thanks to the preferences of the US president and the World Jewish Congress, the benefit of doing so in ways deemed neither “racist” nor “nationalistic” was immense. Lukes tells us that Benes and his advisers “knew—in rough terms—that Joseph Stalin was extraordinarily brutal”, but they “did not intend to live in the Soviet Union; they only wanted to develop a security arrangement with it.”11 Then as now, leftist and Jewish cant about human rights and minority rights was often wholly pretextual.

The basis of Benes’ foreign policy was imaginary, as Lukes describes:

“From Prague’s perspective, Adolf Hitler made the existence of the Soviet card welcome. … [A]n equilibrium of power in Europe had to be reestablished. It was necessary to compensate for the German threat by bringing Moscow westward and giving it a real presence on the scales of power in Europe. This policy, Beneš believed, was… what the traditional concept of balance of power was all about.”12

The notion of the balance of power was not traditional in Britain, let alone elsewhere, and was a pretext invented earlier in the century by Eyre Crowe and other anti-German activists in the British Foreign Office to justify alliances with France and Russia while affecting defensive intentions; retrojection onto previous centuries enabled the advocates of the doctrine to snidely portray their innovation as hallowed.13 Geoffrey Roberts, a sympathiser of the Soviets’ strategy, says that the allegation that it was “a policy of encircling Germany, much as Russia had done before the First World War… was broadly accurate”.14 Crowe himself might not have imagined allying with a communist regime, but somehow the ‘Crowe school’ continued after the Great War; as their efforts conduced toward the Soviets’ interests, they are perhaps better termed the Litvinov school.

For the Czechs, as in Britain’s case, opposition to Germany meant alignment with France. “Beneš was encouraged by signs of growing Franco-Soviet cooperation… For its own reasons, Paris was greatly concerned about the reemergence of the German threat…”15 France already posed to Germany the kind of ‘threat’ Churchill ‘warned’ Germany might one day pose to Britain, and had already occupied the Ruhr valley from 1923-25, but its leaders contemplated with dread the prospect of having to parley respectfully with other states one future day. Beneš, at any rate, probably chose the side he believed would prevail.

Once Czech relations with the Soviets had been established,

“Beneš immediately started using his considerable influence in Geneva to bring about Moscow’s admission into the League of Nations. He succeeded on 18 September 1934. With Benes’s prompting, the Fifteenth Assembly of the League even went so far as to invite the Soviets to join. In his first speech at the League’s assembly, Litvinov recorded ‘with gratitude the initiative taken by the French Government… and the President of the Council, Dr. Beneš, in the furtherance of this initiative.’ This was not mere persiflage. Beneš wielded real influence in the League, and he used it to help the Soviet case.”16

Beneš agreed a treaty with the Soviets in May 1935 (coming into effect after ratification the following March) in which the Czechs included a stipulation that the Soviets would only send forces to assist Czechoslovakia if France did first. Britain and France supported this limitation as it denied the Soviets the freedom to start a war. The Soviets saw it as avoiding an obligation to do so. As Lukes says, “the Kremlin would not want to march on behalf of the bourgeois Czechoslovak government unless France had already absorbed the blows of Hitler’s Wehrmacht.” The treaty “strengthened Prague’s resolve to resist the Third Reich” rather than “seek a rapprochement with Berlin” which “would have been the worst possible development from the Kremlin’s perspective”.17 Happily for the Soviets, the alliance “pushed France to the position of a shield between Germany and the Soviet Union”. In 1938, “France would be able to weasel out of its obligations toward Czechoslovakia only by dishonorably breaking its legal commitment. The Kremlin, on the other hand, would use the stipulation to maintain complete freedom of action throughout the crisis.”18

Absurd as the French position was, it was welcome to those for whom helping the Soviets had become the aim. Churchill and the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky had been introduced by Robert Vansittart in 1934 and had been meeting privately ever since. By February 1936, as David Irving describes,

“[t]he peripatetic American diplomat William C. Bullitt, visiting London at this time, was baffled at the mounting hysteria he found: the German ‘menace’, he reported to Washington, was being played for all it was worth. At dinner tables he heard people say that unless Britain did not make war on Germany soon, Hitler would have his way in Central Europe and then attack Russia. ‘Strangely enough,’ wrote Bullitt to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘all the old anti-Bolshevik fanatics like Winston Churchill are trumpeting this Bolshevik thesis and are advocating an entente with the Soviet Union!’”19

Beneš declared after making the agreement that “Stalin’s Soviet Union was ‘a mighty shield of peace in Europe.’”20 Still, in pursuit of “strengthening Prague’s resolve”, the Soviets saw fit to lie. In June 1935, after signing the pact, Kliment Voroshilov, the Soviet defence secretary, told Benes “We’re not afraid of Hitler. If he attacks you, we’ll attack him…” When Beneš sought verification, “Litvinov assured him that Voroshilov had expressed the opinion of the Soviet government.”21

Stalin was inclined to be less discriminating in regard to ‘capitalist’ powers than was Litvinov. “He restrained Litvinov’s anti-Nazi tendencies somewhat and was receptive to German overtures about an expansion of trade relations” as Roberts says, in order “not to burn all his bridges to Berlin.”22 The aim was not to simply goad Germany into war, at least while Britain and Japan were uncongenial to the USSR, but Stalin intended Czechoslovakia to either inhibit German (and Polish and Hungarian) territorial revisions by its heavily armed presence or to provoke Germany into a war on two or more fronts. Beneš was considered useful toward these aims. The Czechoslovak Communist Party was required to drop its revolutionary stance toward the government in accordance with the new policy adopted at the seventh congress of the Comintern. In June 1936, the CPC’s leader Klement Gottwald returned from Moscow with new orders “to help strengthen Czechoslovakia’s ability to defend itself against Hitler, thereby erecting a protective shield in front of the Soviet Union.”23

  1. Chamberlain and the Lost Peace, John Charmley, 1989, chapter 6 ↩︎
  2. The Comintern adopted the ‘popular front’ policy at its 7th congress in August 1935, a change of approach to the same ends as before. See Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler, Igor Lukes, 1996, page 72 ↩︎
  3. The Origins of the Second World War, edited by Frank McDonough, 2011, page 411 ↩︎
  4. McDonough, p493 ↩︎
  5. McDonough, p412 ↩︎
  6. McDonough, p382-3 ↩︎
  7. McDonough, p384. “Warsaw had no cause to regret the demise of Locarno. In fact it meant for Beck the possibility of restoring the Franco-Polish alliance to its original and firm mutual engagement. This may have been wishful thinking, for the Maginot Line and the law of 1935 (defence of homeland and empire) made it clear that France would fight only a defensive war – its military aid to Poland would be of highly dubious character.” ↩︎
  8. The French and British Attitudes towards the Goga-Cuza Government in Romania, December 1937-February 1938, Dov Lungu, Canadian Slavonic Papers, Volume 30, Number 3, September 1988, p326 ↩︎
  9. Romanian Policy Towards Germany, 1936-40, Rebecca Haynes, 2016, p46. The “Jewish World Congress” presumably refers to the World Jewish Congress. Even if the Treaty was worded to condemn the removal of citizenship but permit collectivisation, arbitrary imprisonment, slavery, torture and summary execution, genuine humanitarians would not have stopped at lobbying Romania alone. ↩︎
  10. Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler, Igor Lukes, 1996, p35-6. Lukes’ approval is clear: “There seemed every reason to try to bring the Soviet Union into the equation of power in Central Europe; the Third Reich worried all clear-headed observers.” p39 ↩︎
  11. Lukes, p38. According to Lukes, Benes “was a lifelong socialist” for whom “égalité and fraternité were the two most important attributes of humanity. Liberté was secondary… Benes had little trouble accepting the social component of the Bolshevik ideology as he understood it.” p13-4 ↩︎
  12. Lukes, p38-9 ↩︎
  13. Arthur Nicolson, Charles Hardinge and others promoted by Edward VII supported and furthered Crowe’s thinking, helping to cause the First World War. Robert Vansittart was one of the younger generation who continued the theme. ↩︎
  14. McDonough, p413 ↩︎
  15. Lukes, p37 ↩︎
  16. Lukes, p39. My emphasis. ↩︎
  17. Lukes, p49. “It would become Benes’s policy to deal with Moscow via Paris.” p38-9 ↩︎
  18. Lukes, p47-9 ↩︎
  19. Irving, p54-5 ↩︎
  20. Lukes, p50 ↩︎
  21. Lukes, p54 ↩︎
  22. McDonough, p413 ↩︎
  23. Lukes, p77 ↩︎
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