Copyright 1999, H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list.

H-Net Review.jpg (37078 bytes)

Michael Jabara Carley. 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the
Coming of World War II.  Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.  xxvii + 325
pp.  Bibliographical References and Index.  $28.95 (cloth), ISBN
1-56663-252-8.

Reviewed for H-Diplo by Robert Young <ryoung@io.uwinnipeg.ca>,
University of Winnipeg


Note:  H-Diplo recently ran a roundtable discussion on Michael
Carley's book 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of
World War II.  The participants were William Keylor of Boston
University, Igor Lukes of Boston University, Sally Marks, and Robert
Young.  Each part of the roundtable will be posted to the Reviews
website as an individual review, with Carley's comments linked to
each individual contribution.

I have known Michael Carley for many years, and have been a
beneficiary of his friendship. In testament to the latter, I
acknowledge that it has withstood some measure of interpretive
discord. United in our fascination with interwar France, and
impatient with those too inclined to dismiss the Third Republic, we
have combined a natural affinity of field with an apparently natural
disposition to disagree on our reading of that troubled regime. Our
personal history, then, includes a succession of civil protests,
when one of us thinks the other has gone too far.

In his Preface to _1939_, Carley draws a line between himself and
those of us who may have taken tolerance to excess. With his mind on
the late 1930s, and on people like Edouard Daladier and Georges
Bonnet, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, Carley thinks that
recent historians have been far too soft in their judgements. By
explaining it to death, by invoking every conceivable impediment to
stiff action against Hitler's regime, they have excused away
appeasement, overlooked the fact that it was, _tout simplement_,
immoral.

Unsurprisingly, this book has no sympathy for the appeasers. After
years of research in international archives, and years of
reflection, Carley finds himself at ease with the earlier post-war
notion of "guilty men"  mired in a 'dishonest decade,' and an
unabashed hero-worshipper of people like Maxim Litvinov and Winston
Churchill. All that the villains succeeded in doing, the
Chamberlains and Daladiers, was to sell out one ally after another,
the Czechs, the Poles, the Russians, in a cowardly as well as vain
attempt to avoid war with Germany. Stupid, as well as cowardly,
because their pathetic efforts to avert war only made it more
likely, and in worsened circumstances. Such is at the core of this
provocative book.

Improbable as it would be for me to abandon my practised role of
Carley-critic, there are some other things that should be said at
the outset. These include the assurance that _1939_ is an
exceptionally well researched book, a book which illustrates the
connection between lucid prose and lucid interpretation. Rephrased,
it benefits from extensive Anglo-French archival sources as well as,
notably, a large collection of published Russian documents; its
language is terse yet colourful; its argument is that ideological
bias, namely anticommunism in western governing circles, undermined
the potential for resisting fascism and therefore for averting war.
The Cold War really began with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; and
it triggered a hot war in 1939 as soon as the British and French
squandered the chance to secure a firm military alliance with the
Soviet Union.

There is a link between that very strong, and very clear
interpretive argument and another of this book's positive features.
Carley gives us an unusual amount of material about, and from, the
Russian side:  the calculations of Foreign Commissars Litvinov and
Molotov, the reflections of Ambassadors Potemkin (Paris) and Maiskii
(London); the observations of Coulondre, Naggiar, Payart, Palasse in
the French embassy in Moscow, or those of Chilston and Seeds in the
British embassy. It is a good and worthy thing to provide a better
balance between the perceptions of eastern and western Europe, and
it is a service to lay bare the force and the resources of
anticommunist circles in the British and French capitals.  There may
even be an argument for over-stating the case, magnifying the
anti-Soviet influence as a way of ensuring that never again will it
be ignored or tossed off as a factor of no account.

What concerns me, however, as I resume my accustomed role of
friendly critic, is the sense that the ideological factor has been
force-fed and all else under-nourished. Here there is no careful
examination of western analysts' attempts to appraise their own
current economic, fiscal and military resources vis-a-vis those of
the Axis, or their projections of preparedness in the future, or the
strength of each other's commitment to an effective military
alliance, or the responsiveness of their own public opinions to an
Anglo-French war against the Axis powers, or their conviction that
neither Poles nor Roumanians regarded Russia as a saviour.  While
touched on, alluded to, all of this is so masterfully subdued that
not even the most dull-witted could miss the tyrannical importance
of ideology. The end result is a blindingly clear interpretation,
which has its advantages. But so too does sight. Indeed, this
spotlighting technique may have the same distorting effect as the
"overdetermined" perspectives which Carley detects in the works of
colleagues too impressed by the complexities of the 1930s, and whose
respect for the power of "social forces" makes them shrink from the
vocabulary of "villains" and "heroes".

Too bright in one respect, the book offers a darker ambiguity in
another.  When one has worked tirelessly to attribute blame to the
foot-dragging of Western anti-Soviet ideologues, why would one start
to distribute blame in August 1939 with the signing of the
Nazi-Soviet pact?  Having been encouraged at the outset of this book
to give two cheers for the Soviets' pragmatic decision to sign with
the Nazis (p.xix), why would the reader welcome the view that some
measure of blame now had to be accepted by the USSR? "In the end",
Carley writes, "neither side, Anglo-French or Soviet, was in a
position to reproach the other for its appeasement of Nazi Germany
or its hostility toward the other."(259) But guiltless for the
better part of 240 pages, it is not clear what the Soviet regime had
done to suddenly lose its innocence. Unless, that is, there really
had been something behind the misgivings of even some of Carley's
heroes: people like Vansittart who concluded Britain had been
hoodwinked by 'Soviet duplicity'(246), or like Coulondre who,
despite his support for alliance with Russia, had projected that a
Nazi defeat would indeed lead to a Soviet crushing of Poland and an
extension of Soviet influence in central Europe - one of the
scenarios most canvassed among the West's anti-communists. (46) So
there is more doubt here than meets the eye, including that which
arises around Carley's closing reflections on this pact. "It seems
incredible", he writes, that after more than a decade-long,
unwavering commitment to the principles of collective security and
anti-fascism, the USSR could have "abandoned" that commitment
"during a fortnight". But why "incredible"? Why, given Stalin's
"easy shifts in domestic politics ...and his murderous elimination
of rivals and innocents..."? (211-212) Is there not, in this
characterization of the Soviet leader, a faint discordance with the
carefully manicured argument about the Soviets' unwavering loyalty
to the principles and ideals of collective security?

Too much clarity, and too much ambiguity, take me to my final
concern, which is the equation of policy-making with foreign
ministers and ambassadors alone. There is a wonderful amount of data
here on Litvinov, Molotov, Potemkin, Maiskii and Surits, for which
we should be grateful. There is very little on Stalin directly, the
man who, we are led to believe, called all the shots in Russia. And
this is no cavil, not in a world of moral judgements, for
ultimately, it was not Litvinov, whose intentions and reliability
had to be assessed by the contempt-covered Chamberlain or Bonnet. It
was not Molotov either, even if, as Stalin's "henchman," he was a
"ruthless, cold-blooded son of a bitch." (137) Rather it was Stalin,
"ruthless, and unscrupulous" (159), a man who, perhaps on "simply a
tyrant's whimsy" (106) spent the second half of the 1930s brutally
purging the personnel of his Foreign Ministry and the officers of
his armed forces, a man who caused the heroic anti-appeaser Litvinov
to sleep with a pistol beneath his pillow, and the heroic
anti-appeaser Maiskii eventually to be arrested. (9,13)

This is why the near-absence of evidence regarding Stalin's thinking
or state of mind, the cursory references to his purges, the
comparable paucity of data on Soviet policy-making beyond the level
and confines of the Foreign Ministry, the downplaying of Comintern
propaganda and its blurring effect on Russia's public declarations,
all leave us with an interpretive chord which, to my ears, is played
too vigorously and has too many sharps.

Little, if any, of the foregoing will come as a surprise to Michael
Carley. He has tolerated my views long before now, including those
accompanied by applause. The latter he has again inspired, for this
is a important piece of scholarship, powerfully expressed.
Misgivings, too, for as he knows well, I am not much taken with the
language of heroes and villains. Even less so, in this context, when
I am left unsure of Stalin's place in this lexicon.

     Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This work
     may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
     is given to the author and the list.  For other permission,
     please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.
Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 06/03/2000
Stuart.Stein@uwe.ac.uk
S D Stein

Reviews Index Page
Holocaust Index Page
Genocide Index Page
ESS Home Page