The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first four chapters of this series we looked at Hitler’s conversion to Marxism, his rise to the leadership first of the KPD and then of Germany itself, his transformation of Germany into a Communist state, his aggressive expansion of the German armed forces as he sought to expand Communism’s reach throughout western Europe, and his intervention in the Spanish Civil War. In this installment we’ll deal with the 1938 German-Austrian invasion of Italy and the Stalin-Hirohito non-aggression pact with which Moscow sought to buy time to complete its preparations for the start of the Second Russo-Japanese War.
The Luxembourg Brigade returned to Germany six weeks after Cordoba fell, lauded as heroes by the German masses and by the Hitler regime. While some of its soldiers would return to civilian life now that the Spanish Civil War had ended, most of them chose to be integrated into the regular armed forces so that they could put their combat experience to use in the coming fight against Mussolini. Much the same thing would happen with the pilots of Einsatz Geschwader Stuckart; almost to a man they signed up for front-line duty with regular Volksluftkorps squadrons in hopes that they’d get the chance to shoot down Italian planes.
At German shipyards construction crews were working overtime to build new ships for the Volksmarine and upgrade its existing ones; off Spain’s Mediterranean coast, German, Spanish, and Soviet naval vessels held a series of joint exercises aimed at helping all three navies further hone the tactics they had first developed in the Spanish Civil War. With Italy having launched a crash program to rebuild its own seapower after its disastrous losses of Ibiza and Majorca, Hitler and his allies considered it a high priority to make sure they were ready to match the Italians blow-for-blow.
It was about this time that the Volksmarine’s first aircraft carriers, the 11. Marz("11th March")1 and her sister ship Horst Wessel2, arrived at the Spanish port of Malaga. Construction on the two carriers had finished too late for them to see combat action in the Spanish Civil War; however, once Germany and her Marxist allies declared war on Italy 11. Marz and Horst Wessel would be making up for lost time with a vengeance.
On the other side of the Brenner Pass, Italy’s aggressive efforts to restore its naval might were being matched by an equally vigorous drive to strengthen its army and air force. Though in the first few weeks after the Spanish Civil War ended Mussolini had hoped Germany would be too exhausted to make trouble for Italy before the summer of 1939, he’d been long since disabused of that notion; his intelligence services had told him about the planned invasion of the country, codenamed Fall Otto("Case Otto"), and while they didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle yet, they were aware that Hitler intended to strike before October 1st.
While the Italian armed forces were racing against time to gird themselves for the inevitable showdown with the Communist bloc, Count Ciano had started quietly making diplomatic overtures to London and Paris in hopes of negotiating an anti-Hitler mutual defense accord. The Italian foreign minister’s efforts took on added urgency in June of 1938 when Konrad Heinlein, first secretary of the Sudeten Czech Communist Party, engineered an uprising with German and Austrian help against the Eduoard Benes government in Czechoslovakia; Heinlein, an avid advocate of Hitler’s "pan-Germanic workers’ state" concept, saw the Czech president as an obstacle to the fulfillment of that dream and was willing to go to any lengths to remove that roadblock. Heinlein’s immediate goal was to create a Sudeten Marxist state; his long-term aim was to draw the Benes government into a protracted civil war that would weaken it to the point where the rest of Czechoslovakia could be occupied by German and Austrian troops.
In the Far East, meanwhile, Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact talks were proceeding at a swift clip. Both countries had good reason to want to see the pact concluded as soon as possible; the Japanese hoped to free up troops in Manchuria for their ongoing war with China, while the USSR wanted to transfer some of its Siberian divisions to Europe to support the impending German-Austrian invasion of Italy. On top of that, Stalin needed to buy time for the Soviet air force to upgrade its long-range bomber fleet in advance of Moscow’s own projected war with Japan; for their part Emperor Hirohito’s top generals and admirals were increasingly of the opinion that the United States, not the Soviet Union, was the real main threat to Japanese security.
The final draft of the Russo-Japanese Peaceful Co-Existence Pact, or the Molotov-Matsuoka Pact as it was known in the Western press, was signed in Moscow on July 22nd, 1938. State-controlled media in both Japan and the Soviet Union applauded the treaty as a diplomatic masterpiece; Stalin in particular boasted that the new agreement would "guarantee peace in our time". At a banquet hosted by the Soviet embassy in Tokyo on July 24th to celebrate the new accord, senior Japanese diplomat and future foreign minister Mamoru Shigemetsu proposed the following toast: "May the flower of Soviet-Japanese friendship bloom for a hundred years."
These words would come back to haunt Shigemetsu; even as Stalin was declaring "peace in our time", his general staff was proceeding with their battle plans for the invasion of Manchuria, code-named Operation Borodin. The Antonov and Tupolev design bureaus were taking advantage of the breathing space offered by the pact to perfect new kinds of four- engined bombers capable of striking deep inside enemy territory; their peers with the Mikoyan-Gurevitch, Ilyushin, and Yakovlev bureaus were testing new makes of fighter and close support aircraft that promised a sharp improvement in quality over the rickety Polikarpov crates that had been the backbone of Soviet air force tactical squadrons since the early 1930s. The Soviet navy was striving to close the technical gap between itself and Japan(though it would not be entirely successful in this regard).
Last but not least, the Red Army had recently begun deploying a new tank known as the T-32 which boasted a potent 76 mm cannon and enhanced armor that could take whatever an attacker might dish out on the field of battle. Although it had originally been designed for service in Europe, General Zhukov correctly surmised that it could also be effective in land operations in Asia; when Zhukov requested one of the first production batches of the T-32 be earmarked for his divisions in Siberia, Stalin was more than happy to accommodate his favorite general’s request.3
One month after the Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact was signed, British, French, and Italian diplomats met in Geneva to sign what would be known in the American press as the Stresa Accord4. Though it ran close to 320 pages and contained no less than fifty-four preliminary articles, it essentially boiled down to this: if any of the three participating nations were to be attacked by Germany, the other two would immediately rush to its defense. To counter the massive Communist naval presence in the Mediterranean, a joint Anglo-French task force had been assembled at Plymouth and sent on a convoluted journey around the African coast that would take it past the Cape of Good Hope and up through the Suez Canal before ending at the Italian naval base in Taranto. British and French planners would have preferred the shorter route of traveling through the Straits of Gibraltar, but the Spanish People’s Navy and its German and Soviet allies had closed off that particular option for the short term.
The task force reached Taranto on September 2nd, 1938, eleven days after the Stresa Accords were concluded. As far as Benito Mussolini was concerned, they’d arrived just in the nick of time: German and Austrian forces had accelerated their buildup for Fall Otto, and the latest word from the Duce’s intelligence services indicated that with Czechoslovakia on the verge of collapse thanks to the Sudeten uprising Berlin and Vienna were feeling emboldened to strike against Italy as soon as possible.
Their assessment proved grimly correct: at 11:35 PM on the evening of September 15th, 1938 air raid sirens sounded in Milan and Venice as waves of Volksluftkorps bombers attacked both cities in the first major bombing raid to take place in Europe since the end of the Spanish Civil War. Five minutes later, a telegram arrived in Mussolini’s office with the alarming news that German and Austrian divisions had crossed the Italian border en masse and the Alpine town of Cortina d’Ampezzo was surrounded by German troops. At midnight, to a thunderous cheer from the Reichstag deputies, Hitler announced that the German People’s Republic and the Socialist Republic of Austria had jointly declared war on Italy; in Moscow a half-hour later, Joseph Stalin said in a live radio address from the Kremlin that the Soviet Union would wholeheartedly back Germany and Austria in what he called their "heroic people’s struggle to cleanse Europe of the ugly stain of fascism".5
The world didn’t have to wait long for Stalin to make good on his promise; less than 48 hours into the invasion of Italy Soviet warships, backed by a Spanish naval squadron out of Majorca, shelled the Sicilian port of Palermo and reduced much of the city(along with its naval base) to dust. By September 21st, just six days into the invasion, Cortina and the nearby cities of Bolzano and Belluno were firmly in Communist hands while the Adriatic port of Trieste was under siege.
In London and Paris, the Italian invasion had been greeted with abject horror. It wasn’t just that Europe was involved in another Great War merely two decades after the previous one had ended-- the invasion was a fulfillment of all the Western bloc’s greatest fears about militant Marxism. "The bombs that fall on Milan and Verona today", ominously intoned the London Times, "may fall on Coventry and Dover tomorrow."6 Such bombs had already fallen on the French cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux in response to prime minister Eduoard Daladier’s declaration of war on Spain and her Communist allies; soon other French cities would be feeling the wrath of the Spanish air force, and in Britain Neville Chamberlain’s government would find itself preoccupied with the question of protecting British cities against air attack.
The outbreak of war between the Communist alliance and the West also meant an unprecedented crackdown on left-wing organizations in western Europe. Remembering Jose Miaja’s famous comment about "the fifth column", lawmakers in Britain, France, Portugal and eight other countries passed legislation giving police and security forces broader powers to arrest and detain those suspected of subversive activity-- and they used those new powers to the fullest. Even in France, where leftist ideologies had long been popular, premier Eduoard Daladier decided that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure and turned the Surété loose on parties and individuals he suspected of being loyal to the Stalin-Hitler camp.
In Washington, meanwhile, the President of the United States had a difficult decision to make: whether to take his country to war with the DDVR...
To Be Continued
1Named in honor of the 1919 KPD uprising.
2Named after a KPD guerrilla who died in the first moments of the 1919 uprising.
3The T-32 was the immediate ancestor of the T-34, the tank that would serve as the primary Soviet armored fighting vehicle for most of World War II.
4So named because the negotiations leading up the accord were conducted chiefly in the Italian resort town of Stresa.
5Quoted from the September 16th, 1938 Pravda.
6Quoted from an editorial in the paper’s September 17th, 1938 edition.