Canadian Journal of History, Dec 2001 v36 i3 p572(4)


Dimitrov & Stalin, 1934-1943.

(Review by Michael Jabara Carley)

Dimitrov & Stalin, 1934-1943: Letters from the Soviet Archives, edited by Alexander Dallin and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, translated by Vadim A. Staklo. Annals of Communism. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 2000. xxx, 278 pp. $35.00 U.S. (cloth).

Dimitrov & Stalin is a collection of letters from Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian head of the Communist International or Comintern, to I. V. Stalin during the 1930s and early 1940s. There is no correspondence from Stalin; the Soviet General Secretary's replies are limited to a few marginal comments and notes. The documents published in this volume are found at the RTsKhIDNI (now RGASPI), the Comintern and Soviet communist party archives in Moscow. The correspondence covers a number of interesting topics ranging from the "united front" policy (1934-39), to the Spanish civil war, the period of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact (1939-41), and relations with the Chinese and Yugoslav Communist Parties.

The editors, Alexander Dallin, professor emeritus at Stanford University, and F. I. Firsov, a former researcher at RTsKhIDNI, point out in their preface that the Comintern portrayed in these documents, while not "a benign organization of well-meaning paper-pushers," was "a far cry from the worldwide conspiracy of terrorists it was sometimes believed to be" (p. xix). The editors say they unexpectedly found evidence of muddle and confusion in policy-making: "Moscow's strategy and tactics were characterized not so much by clarity, cleverness, or consistency as by dilemmas and ambiguities in decision making. Time and again we observe the tensions between conflicting aims and interests ..." (p. xx).

Not surprisingly, the reader of this book will encounter a good deal of Dimitrov going to Stalin for approval of this or that policy, sending instructions or advice to foreign communist parties, and mediating policy disputes. According to the editors, Stalin is "something of a sphinx," not deeply involved in Comintern business, though Dimitrov may have been trying to pull him into greater involvement to gain a more important role and more resources for the organization. Stalin seems only casually interested in Dimitrov's correspondence, giving cursory responses, or none at all. "Decide for yourselves," he says, when too busy to turn his mind to Comintern business (pp. xx, 122). This may have been a frightening prospect in the purge-ravaged Soviet Union.

The role of Stalin in policy making is of great interest to scholars because he was at the centre of power in the Soviet Union and because it has thus far been difficult to find his written words in memoranda and directives. And this has led to conspiratorial interpretations of Stalin's conduct. For example, the Soviet government appeared to support a "united front" and "collective security" against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but what did Stalin really think? Was Soviet government policy only a front for a clandestine personal policy pursued by Stalin? A reader will not find that kind of speculation in this book. The editors acknowledge that new evidence may come to light, but they think themselves on relatively secure ground.

So Stalin supported the Comintem's "united front" against Nazi Germany which ran in tandem with foreign commissar Maksim M. Litvinov's advocacy of a broad based anti-Nazi alliance. The Comintern, originally an organization to promote world socialist revolution, became an organ of Soviet foreign policy. As one French diplomat put it in 1933, the Comintern, like the Red Army, was only dangerous to those states hostile to the Soviet Union.

During the Spanish civil war Stalin supported the united front policy and a broad-based coalition against the fascist rebellion. He approved of discouraging the Spanish communists from taking too prominent a role in government for fear of alienating other more conservative elements of the Republican movement. In China too, he urged co-operation between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese invasion. Chiang had to be dragooned into fighting the Japanese; his preference was to make war on the Chinese communists, who were the greater threat. The Comintern pursued a similar policy in Yugoslavia between Tito's partisans fighting the German army of occupation and the anti-communist Chetniks.

The united front policy was abandoned after the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in August 1939. The Soviet government and thus the Comintern abruptly reversed positions, depicting the European war, started by the German invasion of Poland, as a conflict between rival "imperialist" powers struggling for dominance. The Soviet Union had no interest in being drawn into such a conflict, and European communist parties should therefore oppose the war. The editors capture Stalin's cynicism after war broke out in September 1939. "We have no objection to their [the Anglo-French and Nazis] having a good fight, weakening each other," Stalin commented (according to Dimitrov): "It wouldn't be bad if by the hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially England) were shattered ..." (p. 150). The editors do not comment on the seeming contradiction between Stalin's apparent equanimity at the prospect of a protracted war between Nazi Germany and France and Britain and his support for an early end to the war. Grist to the mill, perhaps, of those who see a conspiratorial Stalin. Whatever the position, Stalin's comment mirrored the view of many French and British conservatives who had hoped that if any fighting was to-occur in Europe, it would be the Nazis and Soviets doing it. A.J.P. Taylor long ago commented that the Soviet Union succeeded in doing a deal with Hitler, where the Anglo-French had failed at Munich. And as one of Dimitrov's notes to Stalin demonstrates, the Comintern estimate of Anglo-French policy in the late 1930s was not so far wrong (p. 159). According to the editors, Comintern propaganda aimed at unmasking the "legend of the antifascist character of the war" being conducted by Britain and France (p. 164). This view, too, was not entirely off the mark. Contemporaries attributed to the British and French leaders Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier a preference for an early end to the war and for not overly weakening Germany. And what was the Soviet government to make of the "phoney war," and the ample evidence of Anglo-French hostility before and after the outbreak of the Soviet-Finnish Winter War? The French government showed a greater interest in fighting the "weak" Soviet Union than in launching an offensive against "colossus" Germany.

The collapse of France in June 1940 frightened the Soviet government, and accordingly Comintern policy shifted to allow for communist resistance to the German invader in Greece, Yugoslavia, and France. The Soviet Union, however, still hoped to stay clear. This was an "awkward position," as the editors note (p. 169), and it was also the transition back to the "united front" policy resumed after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Comintern then became a liability to good Soviet relations with Britain and the United States. As the editors note, Stalin never had much respect for foreign communist movements, still less so after 1935. "One tractor is worth more than ten foreign Communists" went a popular epigram in the 1930s (p. 223). So Stalin said it would be "good to make the Com[munist] parties entirely independent instead of being sections of the CI [Communist International]" (p. 227). And this Stalin declared on 20 April 1941, two months before the German invasion. The Comintern was dissolved in May 1943, and at the end of the war Dimitrov returned to Bulgaria eventually to become prime minister until his death in 1949.

This is an interesting book which offers a more nuanced view of Soviet foreign policy as exercised through the Comintern. We still do not see much of Stalin except by implication, though this is no fault of the editors. And we do not see anything of the commissariat for foreign affairs, though here the editors might have used the published Soviet papers in the more recent volumes of the Dokumenty vneshnei politiki to give context to Dimitrov's correspondence with Stalin. This more nuanced view of the Comintern is in striking contrast to the earlier volume published by Yale University Press in 1995, entitled The Secret World of American Communism, edited by Harvey Klehr and Earl Haynes, to which Firsov injudiciously lent his name.