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The Popular Front and Central Europe: The Dilemmas of French Impotence, 1918-1940.

A round table discussion in Moscow in March 1989 on the origins of World War II led historians L. A. Bezymenskii and V. Ia. Sipols to conclude that Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations in 1939 for an alliance against Nazi Germany were headed down a blind-alley. The metaphor seems appropriate, but it is apposite also for the entire interwar period. Anglo-Franco-Soviet relations were usually nasty and strained. In the west ideological dogmatists held the upper hand over pragmatists or "realists" who thought foreign policy or trade considerations should not be affected by judgements about Soviet Communism. In the U.S.S.R. the same struggle went on, though pragmatists, especially in the Soviet commissariats for foreign affairs (the Narkomindel) and foreign trade, prevailed over ideologues of world revolution. The struggle between dogmatist and pragmatist often focused on relations with Germany. In the 1920s the British and French governments reflected on the possibilities of German co-operation against "the Soviet" - the fashionable British foreign-office jargon for the U.S.S.R. The Narkomindel of course, sought to prevent the formation of an anti-Soviet block by maintaining business-like, if not good relations with the west but especially with Germany. In the 1930s debate focused on the choice between appeasement or collective security to cope with the rising danger of Nazi Germany. New terminology clothed by-then familiar arguments, but the debate was still between pragmatists and ideologues.

The books by O'Connor and Phillips are biographies of important Soviet officials of the interwar period. Leonid Borisovich Krasin and Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov played major roles in the development of early Soviet-western political and economic relations: Krasin as Soviet representative in London and Paris and commissar for foreign trade and Litvinov as deputy commissar for foreign affairs in the 1920s and commissar in the 1930s. O'Connor's work is based on extensive use of Soviet archives while Phillips writes that he was halted in the foyer of the Soviet foreign ministry in the summer of 1990. Phillips did consult the published Soviet documents, the Dokumenty vneshnei politiki SSSR (DVP), which are a good source, not always used by scholars. Williams and Jordan, for example, did not study the DVP in discussing western-Soviet or Franco-Soviet relations, though both have examined western archival sources. Jordan's book focuses on French military planning in central Europe in 1936-37, but also on Franco-Soviet relations during this period. Williams's book is a survey of Anglo-Franco-American trade relations with the U.S.S.R. during the inter-war years.

O'Connor gives a good account of Krasin's early life. Like many others of his generation Krasin became involved in the revolutionary movement as a university student during the 1890s. He passed through the various stages of arrest, imprisonment, and exile, with the difference that he also pursued a career as an engineer and businessman. This respectable cover camouflaged Krasin's eventual role as arms supplier and "finance minister" of the Bolshevik party during and after the 1905 Russian revolution.

Phillips only briefly describes the young Litvinov, who joined the army at seventeen to get away from home. He became an artilleryman and discovered Karl Marx. From there he followed the usual path of a Russian revolutionary, eventually escaping from prison to western Europe. Litvinov sided with V.I. Lenin's Bolsheviks after the Social Democratic movement split in 1903, becoming a smuggler, clandestine newspaper publisher, gun-runner, and fence for "expropriated" tsarist roubles.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution Krasin and Litvinov drifted away from the revolutionary movement. Krasin quarrelled with Lenin, and became an influential businessman with a German manufacturing firm, returning to Moscow as the company's sales representative. After the outbreak of World War I, Krasin supported the Russian war effort and managed an arms manufacturing plant - for the tsarist government! Litvinov settled in London in 1908, taking a job with a London publisher and eventually marrying a young English woman.

The outbreak of revolution in Russia in February 1917 diverted these belatedly conventional career paths. In November 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power, and Krasin and Litvinov again answered the call to revolution. Krasin got back his old job of overseeing Soviet military procurement. Litvinov, still in London, became the first Soviet representative in Great Britain. The posting was short-lived. The Allied powers - principally Great Britain, France, the United States, and Japan - after hesitating briefly, opted to overthrow the Bolsheviks, scattering troops to the four corners of Russia. Litvinov was arrested in September 1918 and exchanged for British diplomats in Moscow.

During the civil war period in 1918-19 Krasin directed the resupply of the Red Army while Litvinov negotiated with Allied agents to end military intervention. The Soviet government used every available weapon to resist the Allies: its most effective arm was propaganda, summoning the angry, war-weary masses of Europe to make world, socialist revolution. The principal conduit for Bolshevik propaganda was the Third International or Comintern. During the foreign intervention the Bolsheviks considered the Comintern a weapon of self-defence against predatory western capitalism, but afterward, the Comintern caused interminable problems as the Soviet government tried to establish more peaceful relations with the west.

Soviet Russia won the civil war, but the Soviet economy was reduced to ruins. Ironically, the Bolsheviks had to turn to the capitalist west for trade, credit, and technical expertise to rebuild. The Soviet repudiation of the tsarist state debt and the nationalization of banks and industries in 1918 impeded economic reconstruction. Angry, despoiled western investors and industrialists, who had lost billions, demanded restitution or compensation and they lobbied their governments to secure it before allowing trade with the Bolsheviks.

The Narkomindel sought western diplomatic recognition to facilitate trade and the acquisition of credit. Krasin and Litvinov were well chosen to deal with the west. Litvinov had lived for ten years in England, was familiar with the west, and spoke several foreign languages. Krasin had worked in Germany, developing an extensive network of foreign and Russian banking and industrialist contacts. Because of the Allied maritime blockade around Soviet Russia, trade with the west did not resume until 1920, and then only slowly. The ruined state of the Soviet economy did not give Krasin much to sell abroad and from the outset he sought credit to buy western manufactured goods. Krasin felt that Soviet Russia could not industrialize without western involvement.

Williams's Trading with the Bolsheviks picks up the story in 1920. The Soviet government used trade as bait to encourage western business people to lobby their governments for recognition (p. 107). French and British officials were well aware of the strategy, but were drawn into negotiations by the lure of business in Soviet Russia and the fear of being left behind by competitors in a potentially lucrative market.(2) Naturally, Soviet officials played upon these fears. British prime minister, David Lloyd George, hoped British industry would find important markets in Russia, reducing unemployment and assuring social peace (p. 59). In 1921 Krasin concluded a trade agreement with Great Britain which entailed de facto recognition and the establishment of a trade mission in London. In 1922 the Soviet government signed the treaty of Rapallo with Germany, and in 1924 Great Britain, Italy, and France recognized the U.S.S.R. Krasin and Litvinov mere in the thick of these developments.

Western recognition was grudging, especially in France where the Bloc national government of Raymond Poincare was hostile to Soviet initiatives. Alexandre Millerand, the French president, was an anti-Bolshevik ideologue determined to block any softening of French hostility. The French were torn between their fear of a resurgent Germany and their hatred of revolutionary Bolshevism. Krasin used every means, no matter how unorthodox, to indicate Soviet interest in negotiations with France. In August 1920 he showed up at the British Empire Club in London to demonstrate the bona fides of a Soviet intermediary to a startled French commercial attache.(3) In 1921 Krasin dryly noted that gold earned in trade with Soviet Russia would not jingle less in French pockets than in those of their competitors. Philippe Berthelot, secretary general of the French foreign ministry or Quai d'Orsay, warned that France would have to be on its guard against Soviet "traps" and "chicanery".(4) Before believing the Bolsheviks as to their intention to recognize the Russian debt," Berthelot minuted, "we will need to see a formal written commitment from Lenin and [L. D.] Trotsky."(5) The Tories, who deposed Lloyd George in 1922, mere not better inclined toward the Bolsheviks. In 1923 they flirted with abrogation of the 1921 trade agreement, but denied themselves for fear that a rupture would disturb increasing Anglo-Soviet trade and serve the Labour party's electoral interests.(6)

No scoundrel or get-rich-quick adventure was beneath Soviet employment to deliver the message of willingness to negotiate with the west. Krasin even used emigre Russian bankers to convey the Soviet message.(7)

Let's do business and talk about the tsar's financial obligations, proposed the Soviet government. These are in the past and not our concern. Anglo-French bankers were unmoved. You hired the money, so pay up! they shouted: creditors do not forget bad debts. We pay our trade bills, insisted Soviet diplomats. But not the tsar's bonds, came the reply. In 1923 Soviet persistence in trying to start negotiations exasperated the French government. "The Russians," Quai d'Orsay official Jacques Seydoux observed, "have discovered that it is sometimes awkward not to play one's debts."(8)

The Soviet government was ready to make concessions to the west, but not at any price. Krasin defended the Soviet trade monopoly and central economic planning which so antagonized the French and British governments. And Litvinov, while offering a de facto debts settlement to France in exchange for trade credits, would not agree to formal recognition of tsarist financial obligations or to compensation of dispossessed property owners. Krasin rightly considered such conditions a means of forcing Soviet renunciation of the 1917 revolution.(9) The Soviet government was itself divided on these issues, so that Soviet pragmatists had to persuade their own colleagues as well as the French and British to come to terms. Williams's treatment of these developments complements O'Connor's Krasin. But Williams sees Soviet officials as far less pragmatic than do either O'Connor or Phillips. According to Williams, Soviet decision-making was "intensely ideological" (p.57).

The Soviet government counted on the victory of the British Labour party (December 1923) and the French Cartel des gauches (May 1924) to facilitate recognition and better trade relations. Initially Soviet expectations were justified; Labour and the Cartel won elections and took power respectively in January and June 1924. But neither government lasted long. The "Zinoviev letter", facilitated a Tory return to power in October 1924 in the hot air of anti-Communist hysteria. An Anglo-Soviet draft treaty, negotiated by the Labour government, was not ratified. Tory "die-hards" at once began to agitate for rupture with Moscow.(10) In France Radical Edouard Herriot headed the new French government which recognized the U.S.S.R. in October 1924. Herriot was a pragmatist who advocated closer relations with Soviet Russia to strengthen French security against Germany, in spite of fierce criticism from the anti-Communist right. A Franco-Soviet rapprochement was Herriot's idee fixe.(11) Already at the end of 1924 the right-wing press began an anti-Red campaign pointing to the danger of Communist revolution and trying to split the Cartel of Radicals and Socialists. The Herriot cabinet fell in April 1925, having run into the opposition of the grande bourgoisie, or the "wall of money". In July 1926 an intransigent Poincare returned to power as premier and finance minister. Tory and Bloc national electoral interests fuelled anti-Communist polemics and made undesirable any settlement with the U.S.S.R.

A Franco-Soviet conference began in February 1926 to settle outstanding differences, but after Poincare returned to power, the French government lost interest in an agreement. "What if [G. V] Chicherin [Soviet commissar for foreign affairs] comes to Paris and gives in [to French demands]?" a French finance official asked rhetorically in May 1927. "Then, we will raise two new obstacles," he scribbled to himself.(12) Poincare had to rein in some French officials - too zealous by his lights - who thought a deal could be made.

When Chicherin came to Paris later in May to meet French officials, he did not give in to French demands. Poincare and finance officials must have been relieved. Aristide Briand, French foreign minister, told Chicherin that the Comintern was making it difficult for him to resist the growing anti-Communist movement in France. Poincare was hostile and menacing: Briand remarked that he had great difficulties in explaining to cabinet the difference between the activities of the Comintern and the Soviet government. Chicherin insisted that the U.S.S.R. wanted a political agreement with France. This will not be possible, replied Briand, until the debts question is settled.(13)

It is hard to say whether the U.S.S.R. would have concluded with the French or British governments. British creditors thought the Soviet would avoid any settlement, letting dispossessed claimants die off while creating "new connections and interests in the City." Litvinov did not seem overly disturbed when Franco-Soviet debt negotiations broke down in the autumn of 1927.(14) The Soviet government's willingness to conclude would be determined by the extent of its isolation in the 1920s and its need to trade with the west. Williams writes that the Bolsheviks "had no intention of paying up" (p. 134), but other debtor states - including France - did not "pay up" either. Soviet officials offered on an ad hoc basis the minimum necessary to obtain better credit and trade terms in the west. In 1927 the Poincare government did not want this kind of an agreement. Williams appears to have been denied access to French finance
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Author:Carley, Michael Jabara
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:2288
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