Sectarianism versus Ecumenism: The Case of V.I. Lenin

This piece is at the Monthly Review online magazine.

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The truth concerning the origins of West Germany and East Germany

How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?

Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items:

1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.

2. Reparations, vital for USSR’s recovery.

3. German unity.

And Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a shoe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.

How did these three items fare after the end of the war?

1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and they fostered pliant governments.

Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.

2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.

3. Unity. Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.

Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in such a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.

Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.

Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had already been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond with its own state soon afterwards.

The Cold War: A self-fulfilling prophecy of the West

After the Second World War, Stalin’s over-riding aims were peace and a buffer. Peace was to be attained by continuing the Grand Alliance with the UK and the USA, which would contain Germany from future aggression. The buffer against a potentially resurgent Germany was to be developed by encouraging the new democracies in eastern Europe that would be friendly to the Soviet Union. He calculated that the UK and USA would be quite amenable, given the social-democratic turns in those places and his urging of West-European communist parties to take it easy and assist with postwar reconstruction. He assumed that everyone would see the logic of having a buffer, just as they did in Western Europe.

The problem was that the other members of the Grand Alliance did not share Stalin’s assumptions and calculations. They saw the Soviet Union as a threat and with undue haste enlisted what would become West Germany as an ally (along with a goodly number of genuine Nazis). And that threat was regarded as immediate – if the Soviet Union didn’t collapse as a result of the massive war strain. They also assumed that Stalin was a conniving communist setting out the establish puppet states as a basis for world domination. It was, as Roberts points out, ‘a classic case of the self-fulfilling prophecy: the west’s overly defensive actions and reactions in response to a perceived threat provoked a counter-reaction in the form of a tightly controlled Soviet-communist bloc in Eastern Europe and a militant communist challenge in Western Europe – the very thing London and Washington had feared all along’ (Stalin’s Wars, p. 253).

Stalin was no fool, though. Already in late 1945 he observed:

Do not believe in divergences between the English and Americans. They are closely connected to each another. Their intelligence conducts lively operations against us in all countries … everywhere their agents spread information that the war with us will break out any day now. I am completely assured that there will be no war, it is rubbish … Whether in thirty years or so they want to have another war is another issue. This would bring them great profit, particularly in the case of America, which is beyond the oceans and couldn’t care less about the effects of war. Their policy of sparing Germany testifies to that. He who spares the aggressor wants another war (Roberts, p. 302).

Were the communist revolutions in Eastern Europe genuine?

As our teller of tall tales, Winston Churchill, put it in his infamous ‘iron curtain’ speech of March, 1946:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities … lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and are all subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence, but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow … The Communist parties … have been raised to preeminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.

In other words, they were not ‘genuine’ communist uprisings, but coups sponsored by Moscow, after which communism was forced upon unwilling populations.

Like Churchill’s ‘history’ of World War II, this account is somewhat gilded, more notable for its rhetoric than adherence to what was actually happening. It also provided the screen behind which former Nazis were given senior posts in Western Europe, since they were, after all, reliable anti-communists.

But let’s look at a few statistics concerning communist party memberships across Europe to gain a sense of how popular the communists were:

Country Pre-war membership Post-war membership
Albania 1,000 12,000
Austria 16,000 132,000
Belgium 10,000 100,000
Bulgaria 8,000 427,000
Czechoslovakia 80,000 1,292,000
Denmark 2,000 60,000
Finland 1,000 25,000
France 340,000 1,000,000
Germany 300,000 805,000
Greece n/a 100,000
Hungary 30,000 608,000
Italy 58,000 1,871,000
Netherlands 10,000 50,000
Norway 5,000 22,000
Poland 20,000 310,000
Romania 1,000 379,000
Spain 250,000 35,000
Sweden 11,000 48,000
UK 15,000 50,000
Yugoslavia 4,000 250,000

Apart from Spain, all communist parties across Europe made significant to phenomenal gains in membership, the highest being in Romania, with a 379% increase. Given that for every one person who joins a political party, ten more sympathise, these figures reflect a truly mass shift. It is also worth noting that the support was by no means restricted to Eastern Europe, for Italy and France experienced massive growth. Even the small Scandinavian countries saw significant rises in membership. This is far from a small cadre of crazed revolutionaries imposing their will on the masses.

Why? During times of severe and genuine crisis, communism typically gains mass support. The key, as Lenin tirelessly pointed out, is that the communist movement needs to be thoroughly organised and prepared for such situations. Of course, it helps if the Red Army is keeping order, but that, to my mind, is far preferable than the Americans or, in our time, NATO. To be added here is the fact that the Right, embodied by fascism, had been largely discredited in the popular mind after the war and that the most resolute opponent of fascism was communism. The result was an image of the communist as a straight-talking, trustworthy and resolute fighter for freedom. Even today in Russia, people tell me of a communist father or grandmother, who was precisely such a person: you knew where you stood; no mucking around; absolutely reliable.