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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

Reviewed for H-Diplo by Sally Marks <>, Providence,
Rhode Island

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, Boston
University; Igor Lukes, Boston University; Sally Marks, Providence,
Rhode Island; and Robert Young, University of Winnipeg.  Each part
of the roundtable will be posted to the Reviews website as an
individual review, with Carley's comments linked to each individual

The Russian alliance contributed both to keeping a comparatively
weakening France in the ranks of the great powers before 1914 and to
French survival in the first years of the Great War. Afterwards a
shattered France needed the Russian tie more than ever, but
ideological factors rendered that politically impossible whereas the
eastern alliances with smaller states proved an unsatisfactory
substitute, potentially more liabilities than assets.  Thus the Nazi
challenge impelled Paris to a new Russian pact in 1935, but mutual
distrust rendered it still-born.  France's reluctant ally, Britain,
had even more strained relations with the Soviet Union.  Hostility
to a historic rival was both traditional and recent, broken only by
a decade of detente from 1907 to 1917; ideology and incidents
aggravated the interwar relationship.  In his study of the 1939
negotiations among these three powers, Michael Carley asks whether
Britain and France really sought to put aside existing distrust and
achieve alliance with the Soviet Union against the greatest danger,
Nazi Germany.  He concludes that their effort was minimal, and he
cites British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and interwar
anti-communism as two major causes of World War II (pp. 144, 256).

In lively, often colloquial prose, Carley hews closely to his topic,
writing essentially out of British and French archival diplomatic
files on Russia and the Chamberlain papers, together with recently
published Soviet files on Britain and France.  He provides a wealth
of detail, especially to demonstrate that Chamberlain strongly
opposed a Soviet tie, and quantities of translations of Russian
documents which every future historian dealing with the subject will
need to contemplate.  In throwing new light on an old but sometimes
neglected aspect of the coming of World War II and in providing much
new material for historians to mull, Carley has made an important

When Carley reaches 1939, the book becomes essentially a study of
Anglo-Soviet relations, confirming that here as elsewhere Paris left
the lead to London.  In describing the 1938 Czech crisis, however,
he demonstrates at length that French public statements of support
for Prague were mere theater. Perhaps citation of the frank 19 July
declaration to the Czechs that France would not honor its alliance
and that public assurances to the contrary were designed only to
afford Prague time to settle would permit a brisk summary of events
until after Godesberg when a second crisis arose because neither
broad Czech concessions to the so-called Sudeten German minority nor
territorial cession to Germany appeased Hitler.  Carley stresses
that exclusion from the resulting Munich conference embittered
Moscow, allied to both France and Czechoslovakia. He is right about
the embitterment and the considerable justification for it, but the
point was to have a conference and do a deal to prevent war with
Hitler, who indicated that if the Soviet Union were invited, there
would be no conference and no deal.

In addressing 1939, Carley never strays from the Anglo-French-Soviet
pact negotiations.  This provides an admirably clear focus and a
wealth of invaluable detail but on occasion has the defects of its
virtues in that there is some fuzziness at the edges. It seems odd
for one "rat des archives" to urge another to greater reliance on
secondary sources, which can be risky.  However, few historians can
read every relevant file and still complete a book; certainly those
lacking long summers and sabbaticals cannot.  Carefully selected
works of others can flesh out the surrounding circumstances and
offer at least partial answers to key questions.  Most of the
monographs in question are in Carley's bibliography but are lightly
used.  The speculations of contemporary diplomats need to be
supplemented by the judgment of careful historians who have immersed
themselves in the records of a given country.

Britain is a case in point.  The Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maiskii,
was industrious and well-connected, but foreign secretary Edward
Halifax seldom imparted the full story to him (especially of his own
growing breach with Chamberlain), and Maiskii was not privy to the
inner thoughts of key Tories.  This group has been exhaustively
studied with the aid of the voluminous Cabinet files and every
possible diary and collection of papers. Thus we can now see
Chamberlain's global dilemma, his goals, and his responses to
Britain's undoubted difficulties. In this context, most historians
still consider Chamberlain's policy wrongheaded but not "fatuous"
(p. 181).  His approach of ensuring Britain's survival as a great
and imperial power by purchasing peace through concessions to
Germany over rearmament, colonies, and eventually central Europe
entailed much less political, economic, and military cost than
available alternatives and was supported by most Britons until
mid-1938 (at first even by Sir Robert Vansittart, later the Foreign
Office's chief anti- appeaser).  The difficulty was that Hitler
wanted neither a deal nor peace, and that Chamberlain obstinately
kept rejecting this reality despite mounting evidence.

In France, alas, there are more self-serving memoirs than
collections as valuable as Chamberlain's letters to his sisters.
However, a number of able scholars have combed everything available,
including diplomatic files on related topics.  These provide much
useful context, including both policies relevant to the looming
crisis and relationships among French leaders.  In addition, they
could offer insights into how extensive fear of communism was in
France. Certainly Edouard Herriot had long favored a Soviet tie, but
one wonders about the staunchly conservative peasants of his
misleadingly named Radical Socialist party.

Studies of the Third Reich and its leader are particularly useful,
for Germany was the inescapable core problem affecting and often
generating others.  Hitler was the prime mover and determining
factor, not least regarding a Soviet alliance with the western
powers.  Carley has used _Documents on German Foreign Policy_ for
1939, but mostly for August.  Among other things, use of secondary
works would remind us not only of the primacy of the German problem
but also of early Russian overtures to the Third Reich and repeated
ones from 1935 to 1938.

The Soviet Union is particularly difficult to grapple with, and
every useful study is needed.  As Carley says, Stalin was crucial --
but Narkomindel files tell us what he permitted, not why he
permitted it. Biographies could provide at least as much
illumination as the guesses of contemporary French diplomats about
the depth of his commitment to collective security, and, for
example, why he replaced foreign minister Maxim Litvinov with
Viacheslav Molotov in early May 1939.  This has generally been
thought to indicate a policy shift. While not entirely consistent,
Carley says Franco-British indifference caused Litvinov's fall but
mainly avers that the Soviet Union remained loyal to collective
security until 19 August, after the Anglo-French military mission
proved to be less than serious.  Published studies could also
contribute to an examination of whether a more forthcoming
Anglo-French policy would have induced the Soviet Union to bear the
brunt of the fighting without promise of territorial reward when
Hitler offered so much in return for neutrality.

Literature on the smaller states at issue among the powers would be
helpful as well to add brief context and clarification.  No
historian can be expected to read all extant files on Rumania,
Czechoslovakia, the imperilled Baltics, Finland, and the Winter War,
but secondary works fill some gaps. Attention to Poland is
particularly important, for Carley correctly identifies it as the
greatest single obstacle to a western-Soviet alliance. He says with
reason that Britain and France used Poland as an excuse, but there
is more to the matter. As he notes, foreign minister Josef Beck was
disliked by contemporaries and most historians, but his
unattractiveness did not make Poland's dilemma less acute, and
subsequent history suggests that Polish fears were not unfounded.
Carley thinks Britain should have forced Poland to accept the Red
Army on its soil; in fact, London applied heavy diplomatic pressure
but with predictably limited success, especially since its guarantee
had already been given, was less than cast-iron, and had little
short-term military value.  Warsaw understood its peril, but felt
entitled to choose its executioner and, as Carley says, saw Germany
as the lesser danger.  In the event, it proved the briefer one.
Other factors enter the equation here, particularly concerning
British policy.  London and Paris had indeed forced Czechoslovakia
to accept amputation of an arm and a leg, but at that point it was
still hobbling, not ordered to suicide; 1938 was not 1939, when
Anglo-French opinion shifted after Kristallnacht and the occupation
of Prague; Poland had a British guarantee as the Czechs had not; and
in late July 1939 London and Paris accepted from the Polish
government, which knew it faced imminent military destruction, the
crucial gift of Warsaw's pioneering work on the German Enigma coding
machine and copies of the machine itself.  In the circumstances,
pointing a gun at an ally with one hand while grabbing its gift with
the other presented problems.

Carley is on firmer ground when he demonstrates, as he does
conclusively, the acute Anglo-French distrust of Soviet Russia.
Britain and France distrusted each other as well but both assumed
that, in the final analysis, the other would be at its side when the
crunch came.  They did not assume this about the Soviet Union, nor
it about them.  Britain and France thought Russia would enter the
fray only after the capitalist powers had destroyed each other, as
had long been Stalin's hope. Carley stresses that the western
powers, especially Britain and the United States, feared that war
would lead to revolution and the bolshevization of Europe.  Events
between 1945 and 1950 (including what nearly happened in France and
Italy in 1947-8) indicate that this fear was not idle.  It is not
clear when concern for survival overtook fear of bolshevization, to
what degree, in which British and French circles, or when
Chamberlain could have carried the mandarins of the Conservative
party for a Soviet alliance had he wished it. Carley proves that he
did not wish it and blocked a Russian rapprochement. He further
indicates that western politicians (if not military attaches) tended
to dismiss Russia's potential military contribution of 100
divisions, stressing their lack of offensive capability.  He
shrewdly points out that Britain and France lacked that as well and
were planning a long war.  He argues that the purges equally served
as an excuse to dismiss the Red Army; perhaps, though, Britain and
France had more reason here since 80% of Soviet officers above the
rank of captain were removed. In any event, western fear of
communism was as much a key fact as the 100 Soviet divisions.

Carley demonstrates that Britain was not serious about an alliance
and that the military mission was a hollow gesture, though perhaps
it took on some reality for France when Paris reached utter
desperation in August.  Carley also stresses that Russian distrust
of Britain and France was both acute and justified, though
reinforced by historic enmity to Britain and chronic suspicion of
capitalist motives.  One must ask, however, whether western distrust
of the Soviet Union was equally justified and examine the underlying
motives of Russian policy insofar as one can.  Did Stalin really
endorse Litvinov's collective security policy or merely use it to
gain time and/or as a tactic to other ends?  Did he opt for
collective security only when Hitler refused him?  These questions
will be debated at least until more evidence emerges, though it is
clear, as Carley says, that Russia aimed to delay war as long as
possible -- as did Britain.

Carley believes that Moscow was in earnest about the western
alliance to and partially through the futile negotiations with the
Anglo-French military mission in mid-August, but his account implies
that Russia was trying to prevent agreement. He says, "Soviet
instructions anticipated every weakness of the Anglo-French
delegations, and their scornful tone foretold no good result." (p.
189) The approach seemed designed to cause maximum Anglo-French
embarrassment, and one wonders whether Stalin really thought Polish
consent to Russian troop transit was obtainable.  Moreover, by
Carley's account, Moscow agreed to negotiations with Berlin before
the first meeting with the mission and offered Germany a pact while
still talking to the delegations. Carley argues for a sudden,
catastrophic reversal of Russian policy, but when in fact Stalin
made his decision is unclear.

Carley also says, "The objectives of Soviet policy were state
security and the recovery of the tsars' lost territories." (p. 212)
The implications of this undoubtedly sound statement are vast,
whether Moscow was impelled by ideology, habitual Russian
imperialism, or both.  A case can be made for granting Russia its
traditional east-central European sphere, as Paul Schroeder has done
on H-Diplo in a contemporary context, but a Tory cabinet of the
1930s was unlikely to accord that to a bolshevized historic foe even
in an era of extreme danger -- especially when it was so much easier
to hope that Germany and Russia would devour each other.

Carley displays fairly consistent sympathy for the Russian
diplomatic point of view, though he never condones Stalinist
brutality, shows much enthusiasm for Molotov, or fully excuses
Russian policy.  When there is a clash of evidence, he tends to
accept the Russian version. He provides a few minimal, unelaborated
statements implying Russian annexationism, as above and as in: "The
British feared giving the Soviet Union license to threaten Baltic
independence or to spread communism" (p.  169) but does not linger.
Despite occasional qualification, he assumes that Moscow was serious
about collective security throughout.  His heroes are Litvinov,
Maiskii, and Vansittart, all proponents of the Anglo-French-Soviet
alliance and all lacking power. Litvinov was not a Politburo member
and served mainly as a high-level functionary until his ouster,
Maiskii an emissary with little policy influence, and in 1938
Vansittart had been promoted to oblivion partly because he resisted
appeasement of Germany.

Carley says that appeasement was driven by fear both of the Nazis
and of victory over them because such victory required Soviet aid
and thus risked spreading communism westward.  This is an important
insight -- and one more reason why Chamberlain favored peace at
almost any price.  Carley argues that the feared bolshevization
occurred because collective security failed and because of the
German-Russian pact, adding, "Indeed, anti-communism helped to
compromise western security against Nazi Germany." (p. 257) He
continues that if collective security had existed in 1939, the
victorious Allies and especially the Poles would have blocked Soviet
expansion.  This seems a bit much to expect of a Poland presumably
occupied by the Red Army at the first shot.  Why this blocking of
Soviet expansion did not occur as a result of collective security in
1941 with the Red Army starting much further east is unclear.

Nonetheless, Carley is right that the events he describes were part
of the early Cold War, and his approach is a refreshing antidote to
Cold War rhetoric assuming that all double-dealing lay on one side.
A thorough exposition of the Russian viewpoint is immensely
valuable, and Carley has made a major contribution to our
understanding of Litvinov's thinking.  Providing the contents of so
many Soviet documents to those who do not read Russian is an
important service to Clio's practitioners, for it offers a wealth of
valuable and revealing detail.  Undoubtedly this book will figure
prominently in future debates about the origins of World War II.

At the outset, Carley warns that his story is depressing.  Indeed it
is. One emerges wondering whether Britain was prepared to fight to
the last Frenchman, France to the last Russian, and the Soviet Union
to the last capitalist.  It is salutary to be reminded with
considerable verve that Anglo-French hostility to the Soviet Union
played a role in the advent of the Russo-German treaty.  How large a
role is debatable, and many historians will prefer a more nuanced
verdict than Carley's assertion that "The Munich crisis and the
failure of Anglo-Franco- Soviet negotiations in 1939 led directly to
the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact."  (p. 258)

     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
Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 06/03/2000
S D Stein

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