Saturday, August 29, 2009

Josef Korbel, Stalin and the Defense of Czech Democracy at Munich


   A year ago, my school was renamed for Josef Korbel, the former Czech diplomat, first dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, and father of Madeleine Albright and teacher of Condoleeza Rice. There is some dignity and even greatness in this renaming which it is not easy for those who come now or who will come later to appreciate.   Joe Korbel adopted me when I came to the University of Denver many years ago, and I got to speak about my friendship with and gratitude to him during those ceremonies. 

      Joe was away when I gave a job talk based on my book Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens (Rutgers, 1980).  But in the fall,  he took me to lunch.  He had read my first article, “Salvaging Marx from Avineri,” said it was an unusually fine essay, and looking at me shrewdly said: “You are in exile, too.” He asked me no further questions.  I had been thrown out of Harvard as a leader of the anti-War movement and later readmitted. 

      He liked to talk about politics.  World War II - at least the fact that the Nazis were mainly defeated in the Soviet Union and many related matters - was then a secret in American universities (Barrington Moore, my often brilliant teacher, had shared with me that it was cold in Russia – I soon found it hard to see why this didn’t affect Russians as well as Germans - and the ghosts of Suvorov and other tsarist generals, as well as the Church, had been invoked by Stalin.  The question had eventually  occurred to me, why didn’t these factors work for the Tsar in World War I against a less ferocious onslaught?   What the Nazis meant in Eastern Europe was even more hidden from American eyes.  That fall, Korbel invited me out to lunch or to come to his office about twice a week, and we talked the afternoon away.  He shared with me what it was like to see fascism on the rise in Europe.  He shared with me that the Social Democrats would not fight.  In Yugoslavia, as Czech ambassador after the War, he spoke of being afraid of the workers who marched (they were Communists) but of admiring them.  The Communists, he said, were the only ones who fought the Nazis (I think he meant the only organized force).

      During the War, Korbel said, he had been in the Czech resistance in exile in London, writing pro-Stalin releases (he was very critical of Stalin who murdered many of his colleagues and many innocent people, a monster, but he admired Stalin’s role in crushing the Nazis).  He asked me to co-teach a two quarter sequence on Comparative Communism with him.  In it, he would ask a striking political question and we would then all discuss them for a couple of hours.  In one memorable session, he spoke of Munich.  The Soviets alone, he said, had volunteered to defend Czechoslovakia if it fought, regardless of what France and England did.  Condi Rice was in that class, though she has now  repeated a neocon mantra about Munich for years.  To turn Hitler to the East, Neville Chamberlain betrayed democracy. Stalin, as the newspaper story below based on newly released documents from Soviet files finally reveals, was willing to fight, even to lead the effort.

        I was very critical of Stalin’s defense of the Spanish republic against Franco (he suppressed the left and the anarchists).  But there is no doubt that Stalin – as Korbel emphasized – sought to defend the Western democracies against fascism and for a long time, saw this as the only and preferred way forward.  The Soviet Union supported  Spanish republicans,  tried to strengthen Czech democrats –  Stalin went it alone while Britain and France, as the article below relates, pushed the Benes government to submit - and tried to steady even foolish English imperialists like Chamberlain (had it not been for their much greater war effort on the Eastern front, the Nazis would probably have defeated England).

         In a course session on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact , Korbel defended Stalin’s policy as a great act of state-building given English imperialism’s attempt to turn Hitler to the East.  I attacked it from the left as a betrayal of all the ordinary people, the anti-fascists, revolutionaries and democrats, who had looked to the Soviet Union for leadership.  Only after Hitler had attacked Russia anyway did the Communist movement regain, shakily, its influence, and eventually, play the central role in defeating Hitler (there were over a dozen battles in Russia in 1943 each involving a million Nazi troops; there 212 Nazi and allied fascist divisions, 6 million troops, fought  at Stalingrad; 1 1/2 million Nazis killed or captured; at the contemporary battle of El Aleman in North Africa in 1943, there were 12 Nazi divisions, 43, 000 captured or killed; along the entire Western front during the Normandy invasion a year later, when the Soviets had defeated the Nazis and were driving toward Berlin, there were but 70 German divisions).  I would be amazed if this spectrum of opinion among two professors  has ever been repeated in an English-speaking classroom including India.  Condi joined in the conversation.  See A Performer lost in her performance here

       Korbel would have been in foreign minister in the Masaryk government after World War II.  Instead, the Communist coup took place in 1948.  For 9 months (Korbel did not tell me this; I learned it from Elizabeth Bumiller when she interviewed me for her biography of Condi), Korbel remained in Czechoslovakia.  He was sent by the Communist government to work for the United Nations in Kashmir (hence his book) and emigrated to the United States.  He had been a left-wing social democrat who cooperated with the Communists to fight the Nazis.  Any sane person would (many jews did.  My sister-in-law’s father was I.F. Stone, the brilliant radical journalist, who, when blacklisted, created an initially isolated but later famous newsletter from his home which actually reported – with humor -  from Washington, pointing out the corruption, even then, of the mainstream press.  In a recent biography  American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, D. D. Guttenplan spends some time on charges that Stone collaborated with Russia.  There is no evidence for this; Izzy just talked with some people whom he may or may not have known were associated with the Soviet embassy about politics.  But being around or knowing Communists at the time – given that they were mostly leaders in the fight against fascism – was, if you hated and feared the Nazis, where any decent person was likely to be.   Stone was a “premature anti-fascist,” as the House Unamerican Activities Committee  called the 3,000 Americans who fought and died in the Abraham Lincoln brigade in Spain - half were killed; such charges are among the ravings of the people who just brought us into two aggressions, torture, global depression, and poverty - and wait still to do more damage...). 

      Korbel came to the United States, met with the Council on Foreign Relations, applied for and was settled in a job as a Professor and Dean of the School of International Studies at the University of Denver.  He wrote four anti-communist books in diplomatic history (they are not sufficiently marked by the complexity of what he really thought).  Unlike many émigrés to the United States, however,  he was, in the questions he posed in classes, an anti-fascist (he didn’t get along with a professor of Russian who was a reactionary).  When my friend Doug Vaughan came back from Chile after the US-sponsored coup against democracy, the murder of Allende and the “disappearance” of thousands of others in 1973, he met with Korbel. He was going to law school but wanted to do joint work at the Graduate School of International Studies.   Korbel listened to him talk about some of what he had done there, looked at Doug with a twinkle in his eye, and said: “you’ll be safe here.”   See It can’t happen here here.  As my colleagues Arthur Gilbert and Joseph Szyliowicz said, he made of GSIS a family.  He and his wife, Mandula, welcomed people at the School and to their home, and kept in touch with all the faculty (he recruited an unusual number of jews at the time, mainly quite conservative ones).  He also stood out against persecution.

     As Dean, however, he initially favored the Vietnam War (he came to regret this).  A young professor protested against the War and Korbel (and a majority of the faculty) let him go.  I asked him about it.  He looked at me and said; “He didn’t know much.”  I am not sure why a young professor must (Korbel had also spoken ironically of our colleagues who were mainly  political scientists: he was amused that they “don’t like to talk about politics.”)  No one is perfect. 

       Joe and I talked a lot about why the Russian Revolution had become corrupt.  I thought that introducing pay differentials in the Communist Party had been central.  To industrialize rapidly in order to fight the looming threat of Nazism in 1934, Stalin thought this measure would get people to work harder.  But the revolution itself (and the Chinese revolution) had no such differentials; people worked for the political cause, not for an extra 5 cents  an hour.  If pay diffentials are needed to motivate Communists, what is the difference between Communists and capitalists? 

       My friend Neal Koblitz from Harvard was a mathematician who spoke Russian.  He went to study in Moscow in the mid 1970s. He was appalled at the ten levels of stores.  A student from abroad (at least from the West) could shop in the fifth level and get fruit out of season.  On the Central Committee, they shopped at the highest store and got fashions from Dior.  Most of Joe’s friends in Czechoslovakia, growing up, became communists.  After the War, he wanted to keep a modest salary.  But the Communists told him: “Joe, it’s okay.  You can move up the hill now.”

        My second year at GSIS, the University of Denver’s finances were mismanaged.  The admissions director sent out forms with a date due preceding the date on which they were mailed.  The University was tuition-driven and had at the time a small endowment.  There was a wage freeze and a a decision to eliminate 12 junior faculty to make up the short fall.  GSIS had a mean, slightly crazy acting dean who decided on his own to have hearings to determine which of the four junior faculty members was least necessary to the School, and, thus, could be sacrificed. 

     Joe and I organized a meeting of the whole department, faculty and students, over a hundred people, to discuss what to do.  At it, he proposed that no one should be laid off.  Instead, each faculty member should give up some salary – he offered three thousand dollars of his own – to make up the salary of the person who would be retained.  He knew what it was to be helped or protected by the decency of others (others had helped him against the Nazis in 1939 and the Communists in 1948);  he protected all of us (I have tried to follow in his footsteps in this regard).  Honor and decency, too, should be celebrated.

      Joe died of cancer suddenly in the summer of my second year at GSIS.  I spoke, in tears, at a memorial service for him.  Condi and Chris Gibson (another close student of both of ours) attended; we just looked at each other.

      Joe's daughter Madeleine Albright became Secretary of State under President Clinton.  Joe and her mother did not share with her quite a lot of knowledge about who they had been.  She only discovered during her tenure that he and Mandula were Jews (he had not told me, either; I also learned at the renaming ceremony some details of his and his family’s hair-raising escape from Hitler in 1938).  She had known, however, some  things about their escape. She had known of the Masaryk and Czech democratic tradition of anti-sexism which her father shared (it is not surprising that Madeleine and Condi, who “had the same father,” both became Secretaries of State).  She had learned of his admiration for Gandhi which she shared with all of us at the ceremony renaming the School.

      But his subtlety or complexity of mind sometimes escaped her, sadly, as Secretary of State (following Clinton and Gore, she was the leading spokesperson for the UN boycott of Iraq which killed 4,500 children every month in the 1990s by UN statistics, and politically strengthened Saddam Hussein).  But she was exceeded by Condi who tragically became a war criminal: a direct implementer of torture and aggression.  See a video of  my debate with State Senator Shawn Mitchell here.  Doug Vaughan and I are both in the film “Courting Condi” and the documentary “American Faust: From Condi to neo-Condi” just now going into theaters (trailer here).

      From knowing Josef Korbel very well, I find myself in the midst of thinking about the Jews of Europe (and Sephardic Jews as well).  Joe was a Czech radical and democrat, with close ties to Communists, who escaped to the United States – that turbulent center of world capitalism and Truman-McCarthyism - and hid much of his background.  But I am also writing about Leo Strauss, the reactionary German Jew and exile, who had to keep much of his politics (his affection for fascism and even the German National Revolution) hidden in the United States, too. Both were subjects of and feared persecution; both were exiles.   I admire Strauss’s scholarship more than Korbel’s (Joe's books are good, but Strauss sometimes points to quite revelatory things), but in politics, Korbel is admirable, and Strauss, if he had not exerted so terrible an influence on neoconservative authoritarianism to this moment, would be best left to the critique of silence.  Philosophers and poets are exiles – Socrates speaking of his situation at the trial (a stranger in the court unable to acclimate himself or in the somewhat elitist phrase of Plato's Gorgias,  a doctor judged as a pastry chef by children), Baudelaire, in the image of “L’Albatros” in Fleurs du Mal, “ses ailes du geant l’empechent de marcher” [his giant wings prevent him from walking].  The situation of a jew in an assimilated family, a “scion of an accursed race” as my anarchist grandfather JJ Cohen once wrote about himself in The House Stood Forlorn, has perhaps merged its feelings and colors with these encounters with Korbel and Strauss.

        I had dinner one night with Thomas Pangle at the American Political Science Association meetings in 2007.  I told him some of my background, including the story of my friendship with Korbel and Stalin’s support for Czech democracy at Munich.  I had never seen this story in print.   Pangle is very well read (he did a fine translation of Plato’s Laws with an erudite commentary; must be why they denied him tenure at Yale once upon a time); he recalled  Litvinov’s – the Soviet foreign minister’s – memoirs about it.  That was until just now the only written source of which I have heard.

      Among the reactionary fantasies that drove the Cold War on the American side was the thought that Stalin had allied (temporarily) with Hitler.  Stalin corruptly shared in the dismantling of Poland (that usually isn’t added to the story since knowing even some details will eventually upset the whole thing).  The idea that the West stayed “neutral” in the Spnaish Civil War while the Luftwaffe bombed Guernica is not much discussed.  Why Picasso, among many others,  became a Communist – not much discussed.  That Munich was about turning Hitler to the East – oh, no, it’s just some mantra about “peace in our time.”  The head of the British Empire, dominating and murdering so many from Ireland to India, a “civilized” man, Neville Chamberlain, no doubt wanted “peace.”

     New documents, however, have just come to light from the Soviet archives.  In 1939, Stalin went to Britain and France with the offer to mobilize a million Soviet  troops to protect Poland and cordon off Hitler.  It was his third effort, in the Spanish Civil War, at Munich and now to save Polish democracy.  Whether he could have prevented World War II, if the Western capitalist democracies had listened, is doubtful.  But that they could have checked Hitler much earlier – that they all could have fought in a much cleaner way – and that some 20 million Russians and 6 million jews and 2 million Polish children killed in the crimes now named by the UN Convention against Genocide (1948), need not - or many of them need not -  have died.  Though a monster domestically, Stalin was a brilliant tactician (it is what Condi found most absorbing about him, adopted as a sort of “realism,”  and then showed no trace of it in lying for hopeless aggressions and torture).  One would have to look much more closely and self-critically at the democracies to see why they shunned this noble offer.

       Reactionary ideas about the Cold War have brought us to – and underpin – American militarism and unilateralism to this day.  They have cost American and many other lives and threaten in the next century or so  (through our use of depleted uranium, our propensity to wage war in ever more mechanized and hideous ways – the unmanned drones killing civilians in Pakistan - combined with global warming inter alia) human life on the planet.   Here is a news story on the possible alliance of the USSR and the democracies – one that might have humanized both and created paths to an alternate and more attractive future -  that Doug Vaughan sent me:

“Stalin 'planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact' 

Stalin was 'prepared to move more than a million Soviet troops to the German border to deter Hitler's aggression just before the Second World War'

By Nick Holdsworth in Moscow

Last Updated: 1:14AM BST 19 Oct 2008

Papers which were kept secret for almost 70 years show that the Soviet Union proposed sending a powerful military force in an effort to entice Britain and France into an anti-Nazi alliance.

Such an agreement could have changed the course of 20th century history, preventing Hitler's pact with Stalin which gave him free rein to go to war with Germany's other neighbours.

The offer of a military force to help contain Hitler was made by a senior Soviet military delegation at a Kremlin meeting with senior British and French officers, two weeks before war broke out in 1939.

The new documents, copies of which have been seen by The Sunday Telegraph, show how the vast numbers of infantry, artillery and airborne forces which Stalin's generals said could be dispatched, if Polish objections to the Red Army crossing its territory could first be overcome.

But the British and French side - briefed by their governments to talk, but not authorised to commit to binding deals - did not respond to the Soviet offer, made on August 15, 1939. Instead, Stalin turned to Germany, signing the notorious non-aggression treaty with Hitler barely a week later.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the foreign secretaries of the two countries, came on August 23 - just a week before Nazi Germany attacked Poland, thereby sparking the outbreak of the war. But it would never have happened if Stalin's offer of a western alliance had been accepted, according to retired Russian foreign intelligence service Major General Lev Sotskov, who sorted the 700 pages of declassified documents.

"This was the final chance to slay the wolf, even after [British Conservative prime minister Neville] Chamberlain and the French had given up Czechoslovakia to German aggression the previous year in the Munich Agreement," said Gen Sotskov, 75.

The Soviet offer - made by war minister Marshall Klementi Voroshilov and Red Army chief of general staff Boris Shaposhnikov - would have put up to 120 infantry divisions (each with some 19,000 troops), 16 cavalry divisions, 5,000 heavy artillery pieces, 9,500 tanks and up to 5,500 fighter aircraft and bombers on Germany's borders in the event of war in the west, declassified minutes of the meeting show.

But Admiral Sir Reginald Drax, who lead the British delegation, told his Soviet counterparts that he authorised only to talk, not to make deals. "Had the British, French and their European ally Poland, taken this offer seriously then together we could have put some 300 or more divisions into the field on two fronts against Germany - double the number Hitler had at the time," said Gen Sotskov, who joined the Soviet intelligence service in 1956. "This was a chance to save the world or at least stop the wolf in its tracks."

When asked what forces Britain itself could deploy in the west againstpossible Nazi aggression, Admiral Drax said there were just 16 combat ready divisions, leaving the Soviets bewildered by Britain's lack of preparation for the looming conflict.

The Soviet attempt to secure an anti-Nazi alliance involving the British and the French is well known. But the extent to which Moscow was prepared to go has never before been revealed.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, best selling author of Young Stalin and Stalin: The Court of The Red Tsar, said it was apparent there were details in the declassified documents that were not known to western historians.

"The detail of Stalin's offer underlines what is known; that the British and French may have lost a colossal opportunity in 1939 to prevent the German aggression which unleashed the Second World War. It shows that Stalin may have been more serious than we realised in offering this alliance."

Professor Donald Cameron Watt, author of How War Came - widely seen as the definitive account [sic] of the last 12 months before war began - said the details were new, but said he was sceptical about the claim that they were spelled out during the meetings.  "There was no mention of this in any of the three contemporaneous diaries,two British and one French - including that of Drax," he said. "I don't myself believe the Russians were serious." [the he said, she said style of “journalism” here ignores the fact of the documents]

The declassified archives - which cover the period from early 1938 until the outbreak of war in September 1939 - reveal that the Kremlin had known of the unprecedented pressure Britain and France put on Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler by surrendering the ethnic German Sudetenland region in 1938.

"At every stage of the appeasement process, from the earliest top secret meetings between the British and French, we understood exactly and in detail what was going on," Gen Sotskov said.

"It was clear that appeasement would not stop with Czechoslovakia's surrender of the Sudetenland and that neither the British nor the French would lift a finger when Hitler dismembered the rest of the country."

Stalin's sources, Gen Sotskov says, were Soviet foreign intelligence agents in Europe, but not London. "The documents do not reveal precisely who the agents were, but they were probably in Paris or Rome."

Shortly before the notorious Munich Agreement of 1938 - in which NevilleChamberlain, the British prime minister, effectively gave Hitler the go-ahead to annex the Sudetenland - Czechoslovakia's President Eduard Benes was told in no uncertain terms not to invoke his country's military treaty with the Soviet Union in the face of further German aggression.

"Chamberlain knew that Czechoslovakia had been given up for lost the day he returned from Munich in September 1938 waving a piece of paper with Hitler's signature on it," Gen Sotksov said.

The top secret discussions between the Anglo-French military delegation and the Soviets in August 1939 - five months after the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia - suggest both desperation and impotence of the western powers in the face of Nazi aggression.

Poland, whose territory the vast Russian army would have had to cross to confront Germany, was firmly against such an alliance. Britain was doubtful about the efficacy of any Soviet forces because only the previous year, Stalin had purged thousands of top Red Army commanders.

The documents will be used by Russian historians to help explain and justify Stalin's controversial pact with Hitler, which remains infamous as an example of diplomatic expediency.

"It was clear that the Soviet Union stood alone and had to turn to Germany and sign a non-aggression pact to gain some time to prepare ourselves for the conflict that was clearly coming," said Gen Sotskov.

A desperate attempt by the French on August 21 to revive the talks was rebuffed, as secret Soviet-Nazi talks were already well advanced.

It was only two years later, following Hitler's Blitzkreig attack on Russiain June 1941, that the alliance with the West which Stalin had soughtfinally came about - by which time France, Poland and much of the rest of Europe were already under German occupation. 


Amentahru said...

I wish i had known all this about Korbel when i entered DU. I wish this was commonly discussed so that there would be a stronger culture among students and faculty. Thanks for telling this truly great story.

As for the revelations about Stalin, truly amazing.

Aunuwyn said...

Thanks for the insights on who Josef Korbel was as a person. I cannot imagine why he hid their Jewish heritage from his children. Was it out of shame or defensiveness against future anti-semitism? What a tragedy to be unaware of ones own heritage.

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