Copyright 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All rights reserved.  Journal of Cold War Studies 3.3 (2001) 116-117
 

Book Review

Dimitrov and Stalin 1934-1943.
Letters from the Soviet Archives


Alexander Dallin and F. I. Firsov, eds, Dimitrov and Stalin 1934-1943. Letters from the Soviet Archives . New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 278 pp. $35.00.

The letters collected in this volume together with remarkably balanced commentary by the editors provide important information about the Communist International (Comintern). The collection adds to what we have learned from basic sources such as the diary of Georgi Dimitrov, which was recently published in Bulgaria under the title Dnevnik 9 mart 1933-6 februari 1949 (Sofia: Universitetsko izdatelstvo "Sv. Kliment Okhridski," 1997). The letters shed useful light on the Soviet Union's approach to international affairs both before and during the Second World War.

The limitations of this collection reflect the spotty access to important documentary material in the Russian archives. Unfortunately, except for some brief--albeit at times quite intriguing--marginal notes, the book provides almost no direct evidence of Josif Stalin's thought. Moreover, in some cases, Dimitrov's letters are simply notes accompanying Comintern documents, which in most cases are already known to specialists. The cover notes themselves add little to our knowledge. Nonetheless, many of Dimitrov's letters to Stalin afford deeper insights into such matters as the Comintern's embrace of popular fronts in 1934, the Spanish Civil War, the policy of the Chinese Communist Party, the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943.

The documents highlight the often arduous development of Comintern policy and the tensions and conflicts between the Comintern and some of the national Communist parties. The book confirms that decision making was centralized and tightly controlled by Stalin and that the Comintern was of secondary importance in the policy-making process. A telling illustration of this is found in a letter regarding the French Communist Party sent by Dimitrov and Dmitrii Manuilsky to Stalin on 20 April 1939 (doc. 7, pp. 40 ff.). The Comintern leaders asked whether the French Communists should support "collective security" and the Franco-Soviet pact. Only three days earlier, at Stalin's behest, Maksim Litvinov had formally proposed an alliance among the USSR, Great Britain, and France, foreshadowing an end to the divisions created by the Munich Conference of 1938. (Shortly thereafter, on 3 May, Litvinov was removed from office, and Soviet foreign policy took a different course). Stalin's laconic response to Dimitrov's and Manuilsky's questions--"decide these matters by yourselves" (p. 39)--is typical of his low regard for the role of the national Communist parties. In other cases Stalin relied on his closest aides, such as Vyacheslav Molotov and Andrei Zhdanov, to convey his views to Dimitrov. Stalin used this approach, among other occasions, when French Communist propaganda became anti-German after France fell in June 1940 (doc. 31, pp. 170 ff.).

On some crucial issues, however, Stalin did play a direct role. This was especially true for the Spanish Civil War. On at least three occasions--in March 1937, September 1937, and February 1938--Stalin held talks with Dimitrov and other Comintern [End Page 116] leaders. As is often the case, the evidence here raises more questions than it answers. The available documents do not reveal what the Soviet strategy in Spain was, or even whether there was such a strategy. Some of the policy directives issued by Moscow--such as the order to the Spanish Communists to abandon the government in 1938 (pp. 71-73)--contradicted the views of Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian Communist leader, who was the special Comintern emissary in Spain from 1937 to 1939. The editors attribute this to Stalin's scant understanding of the Spanish situation despite the abundance of information he had been receiving, including reports sent by Togliatti himself (p. 61).

The relationship between Moscow and the Chinese Communists appears even more discordant. From 1936 to 1941 the Comintern frequently called for an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek and denounced the insubordination of Mao Zedong. Stalin's role in these directives can be documented very clearly (see pp. 106 ff.).

Stalin's interventions were of decisive importance in two other key events: when he compelled all of the Communist parties to endorse the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany after August 1939, and when he dissolved the Comintern in May 1943 to mollify the Western powers with which the Soviet Union was allied. In the first case Stalin himself forced Dimitrov to abandon the anti-Fascist line and to replace it entirely with "anti-imperialist" propaganda--a turn of events that for two months caused confusion and bewilderment among the Communist parties (docs. 28 and 29, pp. 153 ff.). In the second case Stalin began as early as April 1941 to plan for the dissolution of the Comintern. Two years later he formally dissolved the organization, arguing that it was necessary to facilitate the "national" development of the individual Communist parties (pp. 226 ff.).

The documents in this volume yield ambiguous conclusions. Although the letters generally confirm that the Comintern was completely subordinated to Stalin's will, they also reveal that the decision-making process in Moscow was often turbulent and inconducive to coherent policies. The editors are justified in arguing that Soviet strategy was characterized mainly "by dilemmas and ambiguities in decision making" (p. xx).

Reviewed by Silvio Pons
Rome University II (Italy)

 
 

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