German Communist Walter Ulbricht’s 1940 article defending the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact
The untitled article below is a relic from one of the most remarkable periods in Bolshevik history. First published in February 1940 in Die Welt, the Comintern’s German-language journal distributed to communists-in-exile, the article made its appearance during that period when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was still in full effect, when the Third Reich and the USSR were still involved in active military collaboration. Its author was Walter Ulbricht, the later leader of communist East Germany and First Secretary of its ruling Socialist Unity Party from 1950 until 1973. Ulbricht had been a member of the Communist Party of Germany’s Central Committee since 1923, and was before 1933 a major communist organizer in the Berlin-Brandenburg area, as well as a member of both the Saxon Landtag and the Reichstag. At the time of writing Ulbricht, like many other German communists, was in exile in the USSR and disseminating propaganda to the German-speaking diaspora on behalf of the Soviet state; in this case the propaganda was directed towards those quaverers who still had qualms about German-Soviet collaboration. Ulbricht’s article presents the Second World War not as a war for liberty against tyrannical imperialism, but instead as a great anti-socialist war by reactionary-capitalist powers against the growing strength of the Soviet Union. In the vision Ulbricht paints, the German-Soviet alliance is a reflection of the German government’s growing recognition of the power and vitality of the Soviet nation and its socialism, and of the growing influence which the German working masses are increasingly having over their government. While never going so far as to praise National Socialism or to whitewash some of the German government’s actions, Ulbricht nonetheless presents it as a nation wanting peace – a peace which is continually denied to both it and the USSR by the plutocratic powers of the West, including England, the “most reactionary force in the world.” This most remarkable position soon became infamous among the non-Stalinist left, and still presents some of the clearest Bolshevik justification for the ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact.’
The Neue Vorwärts [‘New Forwards’], organ of the former Central Committee of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, has published an article by Dr Hilferding, entitled ‘The Purpose of the War,’ in which the author comes to the conclusion that one must unreservedly wish to see the victory of France and England. [Note: Rudolf Hilferding was an Austrian-born Jew, former German Finance Minister, and one of the leading theoreticians of the German Social-Democratic Party -Bogumil]
Hilferding maintains that the war is being waged by the governments of England and France for the ideals of liberty and not for capitalist class interests. The bourgeois press of Britain and France expresses itself somewhat more precisely regarding the purpose of the war. The press which represents the views of the City of London has in the last few weeks openly declared that by means of the war ‘freedom’ is to be gained to carve up Germany and use it as a war-instrument against the Soviet Union. By unreservedly desiring the victory of Britain and France, Hilferding also endorses this war aim. This war policy of the Social-Democratic leaders is not only directed against the interests of the German people, but is contrary to the will of millions of working men and women in Britain and France. How many declarations and demonstrations of workers against the imperialist war have been reported in the last few months? M. Blum complains that many workers refuse to read his paper any more. [‘M. Blum’ likely refers to ‘Monsieur Blum’, i.e. Léon Blum, former socialist Prime Minister of France and editor of the newspaper Le Populaire -Bogumil]
The special task of the Neue Vorwärts now obviously consists in concealing the war aims of British imperialism with a false picture of alleged ‘freedom and democracy’. On the other hand, the German workers rightly ask, would it not be more in place if the British and French governments, in order to prove that their words are seriously meant, gave complete freedom to the peoples of India, Africa and Egypt? When the middle-class papers declare in one article that England is fighting for freedom, and report in another article in the same paper the arrest of fighters for freedom, the muzzling of the workers’ press, the establishment of concentration camps and special laws against the workers, then the German workers have the proof before their eyes that the ruling class in England is carrying on the war against the working class, and that, if Germany were conquered, the German working class would be treated in the same way. The German workers know the big business men of England and the two hundred families of France, and are aware what an English victory would mean to them. The revolutionary workers and progressive forces in Germany who, at the cost of great sacrifices, are fighting against the terror and against reaction, do not wish to exchange the present regime for a regime of national and social oppression by British imperialism and German big capitalists who are subservient to Britain, but are fighting against all enslavement of the working people, for a Germany in which the working people really rule.
When Hilferding says further, ‘the war is not a war resulting from antagonistic capitalist interests’, and asserts that ‘the capitalist class is not responsible for the war’, then he is simply flying in the face of such facts as the struggle between the capitalist classes of the various countries for new spheres of interests, for the conversion of the smaller states into dependent states, for securing the imperialist oppression of colonial peoples, India, for example, as well as the recent enslavement of peoples, Czechoslovakia, for example. In his speech on the twenty-second anniversary of the October Revolution [November 6th, 1940], Molotov described in detail how the democratic countries:
… in the last few years have more and more sought a way out of the status quo in risky foreign policy, in the robbery and plundering of foreign territories and colonies, in the re-division of the world through war. Even the richest countries, and those which have, so to speak, become fat by hoarding riches, can find in their internal strength no easing of the present situation — they can discover no way of satisfying the people.
Herr Hilferding is so dominated by the desire to protect capitalism, that he expressly stresses not only that the British and French capitalist class are not responsible for the war, but also that the German capitalists are not responsible for the war. Hilferding is afraid that in the course of the war the masses of the people who want peace will not only turn against the war-makers in the state apparatus, but also against those who are mainly interested in the war, namely, the big capitalists and the big landowners.
It is not sufficient, however, to recognise the capitalist causes of the war, it is necessary to be clear regarding the special conditions of the present war and the grouping of forces in it. Hilferding maintains that since 1933 Britain and France continually made concessions to Germany in order to maintain peace, even at the price of a real reduction of their power. Nobody will deny that for years the Chamberlain government rendered the Hitler regime economic and foreign-political aid. But Chamberlain pursued this policy not in the interests of peace, but on the contrary, in order to make use of German National-Socialism so as to crush the revolutionary forces in Europe and prevent the bringing together of the democratic forces in a fighting People’s Front. The so-called ‘Non-Intervention’ policy, for example, was nothing else but active support of the reactionary forces in Spain.
It is true that by annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia German imperialism proved its aggressiveness. But this only goes to prove that the ruling circles in England promoted the Hitler regime with the desire to use National-Socialism (which dreadfully terrorises the German workers) as gendarme against all progressive forces and against the Land of Socialism.
If, as Hilferding says, the British and French governments were at that time concerned about the maintenance of peace, then they could very well have achieved this by concluding a pact with the Soviet Union. British big business, however, sought a way out of the difficulties of decaying capitalism in war. It sought to make use of every possibility in order to incite the German people and the people of the Soviet Union to war against each other. By the Munich Pact it handed over Czechoslovakia to Germany in the expectation that the German ruling circles would be prepared to wage war against the Soviet Union. The policy of the British government towards Poland had the same aim.
On the other hand, among the working people of Germany there was a growing desire to maintain peace. After the annexation of Czechoslovakia, discontent on account of the oppression of foreign nations by Germany increased among many German working people, who said that this policy of conquest was directed against the interests of the German people themselves.
In view of the changes in the situation in Europe this was the problem that faced the rulers of Germany: they had either to allow England to use them as a tool, and be forced by her into declaring war against the Soviet Union, or else they had to admit the truth of Stalin’s statement on the Eighteenth Party Day, when he said that the English, French and North American press ‘aim, without any clear reason, at provoking hatred against Germany in the Soviet Union’. With reference to foreign policy, Stalin says:
We stand for peace and the consolidation of fruitful relations with other countries. This is our unalterable policy, and we shall keep to it so long as those countries maintain such relations with the Soviet Union, and so long as they do not try to damage the interests of our country. [see Stalin’s Collected Works, Vol. 14, ‘Report on the Work to the Central Committee to the 18th Congress of the AUCP(b)’ -Bogumil]
The Hitler government deemed it expedient to establish peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, not only because support of the British plan would have made Germany an object of the British plan, a vassal of British imperialism, but also because the strength of the Red Army, the strong international position of the Soviet Union and the sympathy of the working masses of Germany for the Socialist Soviet Union, made this adventure appear hopeless. The ruling classes of Germany decided to adopt a new foreign policy.
The German government declared itself ready to establish peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, whilst the Anglo-French war bloc want war against the Soviet Union. The people of the Soviet Union and the people of Germany desire a speedy end to the war in accordance with the interests of the working masses. The Soviet people and the workers of Germany are against the spread of the war. The German working class wants an extensive trade alliance with the Soviet Union. By means of peaceful trade with the Soviet Union and the other nations of East and South-East Europe, Germany can not only satisfy her needs for goods, but can also show that it is not lack of Lebensraum that is the cause of the poverty of the workers; and that it is not the imperialist oppression of other nations, but peace and friendly relations with them — and above all with the great Soviet nation — that the German people want. Many workers who wish for socialism welcome the pact all the more because it strengthens their friendship with the great land of socialism.
Herr Hilferding now serves up the old Social-Democratic clap-trap that the Soviet-German Pact proves that the Bolshevist and the Fascist regimes are essentially the same. He is unable to perceive the simple fact that in Germany capitalism prevails, whilst in the Soviet Union capitalism has been destroyed by the great Socialist October revolution, and under the Stalinist Constitution Socialist democracy of the working people is being further developed. The Soviet Union has concluded agreements with the government of capitalist Germany, as it has formerly done with other capitalist countries. The conclusion of a treaty between a capitalist government and the Soviet Union is therefore nothing new in itself. What is new is that the Soviet power, supported by the economic power of Socialist economy and the moral and political unity of the Soviet people, has gone over to an active policy in the fight for peace.
If Hilferding and the other one-time Social-Democratic leaders direct their war propaganda against the German-Soviet Pact, it is simply because the British plan has the less chance of success, the more deeply the friendship between the German and Soviet people is rooted in the working masses. Therefore not only the Communists but also many Social-Democratic and National-Socialist workers regard it as their task not in any circumstances to permit a breach of the pact. Those who intrigue against the friendship of the German and Soviet people are enemies of the German people, and are branded as accomplices of English imperialism. Among the German working class greater and greater efforts are being made to expose the followers of the Thyssen clique, who are the enemies of the Soviet–German Pact. There have been many demands that these enemies shall be removed from their army and government positions, and that their property shall be confiscated.
The fight of the German working people against the agents of British imperialism, against the Thyssen clique and their friends among the Social-Democratic and Catholic leaders in Germany, in no way implies the formation of a bloc with the National-Socialist regime and toleration of the oppression of Austria and Czechoslovakia. On the contrary, this attitude demands a still more determined fight against all imperialistic strivings of the ruling circles in Germany. This imperialist policy finds its expression above all in the national oppression of the Austrian, Czech, Slovak and Polish people. Whereas the one-time Social-Democratic leaders do not give the slightest support to the fight of the nationally oppressed peoples, the Communists, and all progressive forces in Germany, are fighting for full right of self-determination of these peoples. An energetic waging of this fight is a fundamental condition of the fight for peace and for the rights of the working people in Germany itself. National oppression in so-called ‘Great Germany’ is only grist to the mill of British imperialism, which seeks to conceal its real war aims behind the slogan of liberation of the Austrian and Czech people. On the other hand the fact that the Czech people are so oppressed makes it more difficult for them to realise that English imperialism, and the accomplices of this imperialism in Czechoslovakia, have no other aim but to make the country a protectorate of England, in order to use it as a base from which to attack the Soviet Union. If they were not so oppressed the mass of the people in Austria and Czechoslovakia would fight with greater resolution to resist the English plan. The German people, and the other nations which are now under German rule, are faced with the problem of working, not with English capitalism for the spreading of the war and a new Versailles, but with the Soviet Union for peace, for national independence and for the friendship of the people. The working class, the peasants and the intellectual workers of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, will become the strongest guarantee of the German-Soviet Pact and the hindrance of the English plan.
Hilferding specially stresses that Germany is to be freed from reaction as a result of the war, that is to say, with the aid of British bayonets. He therefore demands of the British and French governments that they achieve a speedy victory. The German Communists and revolutionary workers, who even at the time of the Weimar republic were fighting against the strengthening of the reactionary capitalist forces in Germany, and who made the greatest sacrifices in the struggle against the National-Socialist regime of terror, regard it as criminal madness that some Social-Democrat and Catholic leaders should believe they can end this regime in Germany by means of a reactionary war — a war which means the destruction of millions of workers, immeasurable misery, greater than in the Thirty Years’ War. This war policy is the more criminal because the power which, according to Hilferding, will decide the outcome of the war, is the most reactionary force in the world. English imperialism gives another proof of its reactionary nature in so far as it refused the suggestion, made by Germany and supported by the Soviet government, for the termination of the war. The English answer was to lead the offensive against the workers, to carry to greater lengths all previous anti-Soviet slander campaigns, and above all to organise the concentration of all the forces of reaction for war against the Soviet Union.
The fight for democratic liberties and the rule of the working people in Germany cannot be waged in alliance with British imperialism. The working people of Germany are fighting heroically against oppression and exploitation by the present regime in Germany, because its terrorist rule does harm to the German people and discredits Germany, and because it thereby weakens the resisting power of the working people and helps reaction in Britain and France to deceive their own people regarding the true war aims of British imperialism.
Hilferding’s article, and also the declaration of the former Central Committee of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany against unity of action of the workers, indicate that the war and the new tasks arising from it confront the Social-Democratic workers in Germany with the decision: either, together with the Communists, to set up the united front from below, to stand for the common fight for a people’s front of the workers, peasants and intellectuals, for active friendship with the Socialist Soviet Union and to turn from the bellicose anti-Soviet reactionary Social-Democratic leaders, or to share responsibility for realising the predatory plans of British and French imperialism and the reactionary plans of German big capital.