The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first five episodes 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, his intervention in the Spanish Civil War, and his key role in organizing the 1938 joint German Austrian invasion of Italy. In this installment we’ll recall the Anglo-French coalition’s intervention in the German-Italian war and the Soviet invasion of Finland.
It was just after 6:10 PM US Eastern Daylight Time on Septemer 15th1, 1938 when the White House first learned of the start of Case Otto; cables from the American embassies in London and Rome laid out brief summaries of the German-Austrian assault and the Italians’ desperate efforts to turn it back. At 7:00 the military attaché at the Italian embassy in Washington gave President Franklin Roosevelt a more detailed account of the invasion; twenty minutes later Roosevelt convened an emergency meeting of his top military and diplomatic advisors in the Oval Office to explore possible options for responding to the Communist bloc offensive.
Direct military intervention in the hostilities was quickly ruled out; even if isolationist elements didn’t hold a noticeable(though shrinking) amount of influence in Congress, the US armed forces were still suffering from equipment and manpower deficiencies that made it difficult to wage even a brief conflict overseas, much less the kind of long-term campaign that would be necessary to push the Germans out of Italy. Furthermore, Japan was viewed in some quarters as a more immediate threat to American interests than Germany, and those who subscribed to this view feared that US involvement in a protracted European land war would use up military resources that might soon be needed to defend the Philippines and Midway Island-- to name just two examples --against Japanese attack.
In the end, it was decided that Washington would have to limit itself to a modest increase in financial aid to the Mussolini government so that Italy could purchase surplus arms from France and Britain. And even that gesture, as Roosevelt himself admitted in a memo to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, was bound to get an argument from the isolationists before all was said and done. And it wasn’t just the isolationists who would be displeased by this move-- many African-Americans, remembering Mussolini’s 1935 occupation of Ethiopia, thought it smacked of condoning European colonial brutality towards an African country.
But while direct US involvement in the fighting in Europe was still a long way off, the federal government was already waging a no-holds-barred war on Communism at home. Even before Hitler and his allies invaded Italy a Congressional panel known as the Dies Committee2 had been zealously investigating known and suspected Marxist agitators in every corner of American society; on the morning after the invasion began, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover vowed his agency would pursue leftist subversives with the same aggressive vinegar as it had previously chased outlaws like John Dillinger and "Pretty Boy" Floyd.
Indeed, FBI agents seeking to bust one kind of lawbreaker often as not ended up netting another; an undercover operation intended to catch notorious bank robber Willie Sutton resulted in the exposure and breakup of a US Communist Party cell in the Midwest, while a sting meant to nail a gang of counterfeiters led to the arrest of two senior deputies of party chief Earl Browder. In short, it was a bad time to be a Marxist in America-- especially if, as actor Paul Robeson did in a radio interview two days after the Germans attacked Italy, you were foolhardy enough to publicly praise Hitler and Stalin for going to war against Mussolini.
Italian-Americans lashed out at Robeson en masse for his backing of the invasion of Italy. They organized boycotts of his movies and plays. They flooded newspaper editors’ offices with angry letters. They held rallies denouncing his pro-Communist attitudes. They petitioned their elected representatives at the state and federal levels to have Robeson deported. Beloved New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called him "a bum who hates his own people"; baseball slugger Joe DiMaggio, still in the minor leagues then but already well on the way to becoming one of the greatest players in the game’s history, said he’d gladly give up his last dime for just five minutes alone with Robeson. Even anti-Mussolini orchestra leader Arturo Toscanini, who’d fled Italy a few years earlier to escape Fascist censorship, assailed Robeson as "a scoundrel of the first order".3
Nor was there universal approval among African-Americans for the actor’s stance on the war in Europe. No less a figure than union leader A. Philip Randolph answered Robeson’s radio appearance with one of his own in which he vehemently disavowed any sympathy on his part or that of his union with Robeson’s pro-Hitler and pro-Stalin remarks. Marian Anderson, the great opera singer who a few months after the war began would make history by performing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, wrote a letter to a friend saying that she felt "betrayed"4 by Robeson’s open defense of two of the world’s worst oppressors.
Even the NAACP’s W.E.B. DuBois, a staunch Marxist himself, took issue with Robeson’s statements’ decrying them as "foolhardy ravings"5 which failed to acknowledge Hitler’s true character. "To my mind," he wrote in a letter to a fellow NAACP official shortly after the war in Europe began, "Hitler is as great a danger to our people as any Klansman or slaveholder...he may wrap himself in the cloak of workers’ solidarity, but his true goal is to create a second Roman Empire with himself as its modern-day Caesar and Berlin as its new Rome."
Neville Chamberlain was first informed of the invasion of Italy at 12:35 AM London time on September 16th; within half an hour he’d convened an emergency session of his cabinet and had been advised by the French embassy in London that his fellow prime minister Eduoard Daladier would be contacting him shortly to arrange consultations between the French and British governments on responding to the outbreak of war between Italy and the German-Soviet alliance. While Chamberlain’s government held out a glimmer of hope that it might be possible to resolve the hostilities by diplomatic means, Daladier treated it as a given that force was the only solution to the threat posed by Hitler’s attack on Mussolini.
By the time Chamberlain’s cabinet meeting began the French army and air force had already been put on full alert; in particular the Maginot Line6, the chain of fortifications extending the length of the Franco- German border, was on guard for a possible Volksarmee infantry and armor assault. At sea the French Atlantic fleet was deploying to guard the country’s English Channel and Bay of Biscay ports against surprise attack by Volksmarine U-boats while the Mediterranean fleet had assembled a protective cordon around the island of Corsica.
At 5:30 AM Daladier, accompanied by a half-dozen of his top military and diplomatic advisors, arrived at 10 Downing Street to find Chamberlain nervously awaiting replies from Berlin and Moscow to messages the British prime minister had sent them an hour earlier warning that unless Germany and its Communist allies halted their invasion of Italy and agreed to open cease-fire negotiations with Italy by 12 noon London time September 18th, Great Britain would have no choice but to declare a state of war between itself and the German People’s Republic. A similar dispatch would reach the Spanish foreign ministry in Madrid less than half an hour after Daladier’s arrival.
The Daladier-Chamberlain summit took place in a highly contentious atmosphere. Daladier sternly criticized Chamberlain for not attacking Germany at the earliest opportunity; Chamberlain in turn lectured the French prime minister that his decision to bring French air and ground forces to a full war footing and activate the Maginot Line’s defenses constituted a premature escalation of hostilities in Europe at precisely the time when the West needed to do everything in its power to bring Berlin and Rome to the peace table. On one point, however, Daladier and Chamberlain were in total agreement-- the Communists had to be made to withdraw from Italy, and soon.
Chamberlain’s only move toward changing Britain’s defense posture had been to step up Royal Navy submarine patrols in the North Sea. He was reluctant to go much further than that, at least until he had an answer to his call for Germany and its sister Marxist states to begin peace talks with Italy. His air minister, Kingsley Wood, had urged him to put RAF Fighter Command on alert as a precaution against enemy air raids, but Chamberlain deemed that as unnecessarily confrontational; in addition, he pointed out, even the Germans’ most advanced bombers at that time lacked the range to strike at Britain from their present bases in Germany or Spain.7 Former Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who would succeed Chamberlain as prime minister within less than six months after the war began, warned Chamberlain that simply increasing RN sub watches wouldn’t be enough to protect British maritime interests if the Communist bloc were half as serious about its newly launched campaign of conquest as Churchill suspected it was.
The first response to Chamberlain’s message came from Berlin at 1:00 PM on the afternoon of September 17th; unfortunately for the British prime minister, it wasn’t the answer he’d been hoping to hear. In no uncertain terms, Hitler bluntly informed London that Germany would not end her war with Italy until Mussolini had been overthrown and the German-Austrian alliance’s southern borders had been made secure from attack by what he called "the forces of reactionary capitalism".
Spain’s reply to Chamberlain was equally dismissive. It called Mussolini "a great pirate" who had to be punished for oppressing the working classes of his own country and Europe as a whole; added to this rejection of the British prime minister’s peace efforts was a veiled threat to occupy the British colony at Gibraltar if Britain intervened on the Italian side. But perhaps the harshest rebuff came from Moscow, where Stalin branded Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III as "archcriminals" and laid the full responsibility for the war squarely on their shoulders. As far as the CPSU leader was concerned, the Italian government was getting exactly what it deserved.
At 6:15 PM London time on the evening of September 17th, the British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, informed the German foreign minister that as of that moment Prime Minister Chamberlain had declared a state of war to exist between Great Britain and the German People’s Republic. Less than two decades after the First World War had ended, a second one was erupting as the Communist bloc and the Anglo-French alliance challenged one another to decide the future of Europe... and the world.
Those who viewed Joseph Stalin as Hitler’s henchman in Europe and assumed he’d jump into the Italian war with both feet were naturally surprised when he hesitated to declare war on Britain and France. But Stalin had good reason to be cautious when it came to intervening in the Italian-German conflict. For one thing, it took time to organize and equip a suitable expeditionary force; for another, Stalin’s eastern neighbors, Poland and Rumania in particular, had to be neutralized before the Red Army could even contemplate direct involvement in the fighting in Italy. Last but not least, in spite of the Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact, Moscow was still concerned that Tokyo might yet still move against Russia’s Siberian frontier if Japan’s economic situation continued to worsen. Thus, for the first few months of the war at least, Hitler and Dollfuss’ only European ally would be Spain.
Not that Hitler was particularly worried about the possibility of losing the war without Stalin’s help; if anything, as the Volksarmee surged down the Italian peninsula and scattered Mussolini’s hapless troops like bits of rice, the KPD leader boasted in numerous speeches before the Reichstag that the German and Austrian armies would be in Rome by November 1st. Given the alacrity with which the Volksarmee and the Heimwehr had already driven through the Italian army’s first lines of defense, it was hard not to believe he might be right.
The invasion of Italy marked the first application of a new method of warfare-- blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’, a speedy and tightly co- ordinated form of offense in which tanks and infantry operating in mass groups worked hand-in-glove with tactical aircraft to overwhelm an enemy’s defenses on the front lines and neutralize strategic targets behind the lines. The technique wasn’t by any means perfect, and a series of tactical errors hampered the initial use of tanks, but nonetheless it served to undermine Italy’s ability to defend itself. Over time both equipment and co-ordination would improve, and before long blitzkrieg would become part of the English language as a synonym for aggression.
Nor had Hitler wasted much time moving against the Anglo-French coalition. Even before Britain declared war on the German People’s Republic, the KPD chancellor had countered France’s activation of the forts along the Maginot Line by putting his own border fortifications, collectively known as the Engels Line8, on full alert; within hours after the British declaration of war was issued, he authorized the Volksmarine to commence unrestricted submarine warfare against British and allied shipping in the Atlantic. On September 20th, five full days after the first shots were fired in Case Otto, the Volksluftkorps made its first major air raid in French territory, bombing Paris and Lyon in a dawn attack that further rattled the already tense collective psyche of the French people.
Though several months would pass before either the French or the Germans would attempt to cross the two countries’ common border en masse, small skirmishes had already taken place between infantry and artillery units as the Armee de la Terre9 and the Volksarmee probed each other’s defenses looking for soft spots that could be exploited when the time came for a major offensive. Nor was there any shortage of propaganda broadsides between Paris and Berlin; loudspeakers along the Maginot Line flooded German soldiers’ ears with anti-Communist messages, and conversely by the same token radio operators on the Engels Line read statements encouraging French troops to desert to the Communist side.
There had also been numerous skirmishes between the Volksmarine and the French navy in the war’s first hours. Even as the first German and Austrian troops were crossing the Italian border, French destroyers had fired on and sunk a German U-boat near the English Channel port city of Dunkirk after the U-boat refused to acknowledge multiple hails or leave French territorial waters. As the first German warplanes were bombing Italian cities, Volksmarine torpedo boats had started harassing French naval patrols in the Straits of Dover.
It would take almost two months for the British to assemble and equip a suitable expeditionary force for deployment to France to fight the Volksarmee; by then, Communist troops in Italy had advanced as far south as Florence, the remnants of the Czech government in Prague were on the verge of total collapse and Spanish marines were beginning to make preparations for an amphibious assault on the island of Sardinia. And the situation would only get worse for the anti-Communist alliance: on the afternoon of November 7th, 1938, in an offensive coinciding with the 21st anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, the Red Army began their long-expected war with Finland.
The Soviet attack on Finland alarmed Polish prime minister Walery Slawek; he knew better than anyone else that once the Red Army defeated the Finns it would only be a question of time before Moscow turned its guns on Poland. And Slawek didn’t much like the situation on his border with Germany either-- while most of the Volksarmee was committed to Case Otto in Italy or defending the German frontier with France, Hitler was doing everything possible to expand its numbers, which made the Polish leader uneasy. And Heinrich Stuckart hadn’t helped matters any when, on the day after Britain declared war on Germany, he made a radio address to the German people calling for the total liquidation of what Hitler had called "the capitalist Polish cancer".10
Since the early 1930s Poland had possessed one of the best armies in Europe and a highly effective air force, and as hostilities between the Communist bloc and the Anglo-French-Italian coalition continued to grow, both arms would be tested as never before. The air force in particular, Slawek knew, would have its hands full in defending Polish cities against bombing raids; the Italian military attaché in Warsaw had shown him reports and photographs of the Volksluftkorps’ bomber squadrons in action against Italy, and they painted a highly chilling picture of the fate Polish cities could expect if and when Poland went to war with the German People’s Republic.
Within hours of the initial Soviet thrust across the Finnish border, Slawek ordered his country’s armed forces placed on full alert; he also had the Polish embassies in London and Paris petition the Anglo-French alliance to attack the German defenses along the Engels Line full force to deter the Volksarmee from invading western Poland. But granting this petition was easier said than done even with a fully equipped British expeditionary force on the ground in France; the fortifications along the Engels Line were generally acknowledged to be highly formidable, and even if they hadn’t been the Anglo-French alliance had its hand full trying to contain the Volksmarine. Then, as if fate itself were purposely going out of its way to spite the West, the Spanish launched their attack on Sardinia on November 12th.
The Italian air and naval garrisons on the island put up a ferocious resistance against the invasion, and the army troops defending Sardinia met the initial Spanish landing force with punishing artillery fire that rivaled anything the Spanish regular army had faced in its battled with the Falangists. But gradually the Spanish troops, aided by offshore fire support from their own navy’s destroyers and air strikes from the Horst Wessel,11 secured a foothold on Sardinia’s beaches and by November 15th at least a quarter of the island’s western coast was in Communist hands.
In hopes of dislodging the invasion force from Sardinia, the French navy ordered its Mediterranean fleet to assemble a task group including two of the fleet’s most powerful battleships and a contingent of 20,000 French marines; that group departed Toulon on November 17th, at which point Communist bloc troops held most of Sardinia’s western coastline and were steadily pushing their way east. The Spanish navy quickly moved to counter the French flotilla with a task force of its own, and on the morning of November 20th the two groups met eighteen nautical miles east of the Balearics.
Neither the French nor the Spanish committed the full bulk of their Mediterranean naval strength to this confrontation, which was fortunate for Spain-- otherwise, given the staggering casualties inflicted on both sides in the engagement, the war might have been lost for the Communist bloc right then and there. At least a quarter of the surface warships Spain deployed to intercept the French squadron were sunk outright or so badly damaged that they had to be scuttled; 1 out of every three Spanish submarines that took part in the battle off Sardinia fell prey to French depth charges.
Hitler was beside himself when news of the Spanish naval defeat reached Berlin; he’d been adamant that Spain, rather than directly assault Sardinia, should instead blockade it and starve it into submission so that Communist bloc forces could occupy it at their leisure once Italy had been sufficiently weakened in military terms. Now it was plain that he’d have to bail Madrid out by distracting the French from Sardinia, and that in turn meant it was necessary to directly attack France proper before the Volksarmee’s campaign in Italy had been concluded. Accordingly, on November 22nd, 1938 he gave orders for the Volksarmee general staff to activate Fall Grau("Case Gray"), the German campaign plan for invading northern France.
The next day, Soviet warplanes bombed Helsinki for the first time. In a heated tirade before the House of Commons, Neville Chamberlain denounced the Helsinki raid as "the most barbarous and uncivilized deed Stalin has committed in the whole of his infamous career";12 Winston Churchill proposed sending the Royal Navy to blockade Kronstadt and Leningrad.13 In France, demonstrators in Marseille, Bordeaux and Toulon braved the threat of Spanish bombs and dismal autumn weather to protest Soviet aggression and appeal to the Daladier government to help the Finns.
Across the Franco-German border, Volksarmee troops were massing for the start of Case Gray; Volksluftkorps bomber and fighter squadrons at airbases throughout western Germany awaited clearance for takeoff. At Wilhelmshaven, a Volksmarine flotilla led by the Rote Sterne put to sea with orders to attack the English Channel port of Calais. Ready or not, the French people were about to get a brutal first-hand lesson in just how far Hitler and his allies were willing to go to fulfill their dream of bringing all of Europe under Communist rule...
To Be Continued
112:10 AM London time on September 16th; there’s a six-hour time difference between Europe and the eastern seaboard of the US.
2Nicknamed after its chairman at the time, Texas representative Martin Dies. Officially it was called the House Committee on Subversive Activities; in the 1950s it would be dubbed "the McCarthy Committee" after Wisconsin congressman Joseph McCarthy.
3"Toscanini Denounces Paul Robeson", New York Times, September 20th, 1938.
4The letter was reprinted in full in her 1956 autobiography My Lord, What A Morning.
5Quoted from an interview in the September 20th, 1938 Chicago Defender.
6Named after Andre Maginot, the French defense minister at the time construction on the line began.
7By the same token, Heinrich Stuckart assured Hitler that RAF Bomber Command was in no position to strike at military or industrial targets inside the DDVR; in a boast that later came back to haunt Stuckart, he told the German chancellor that "if a single Western bomb ever falls on the soil of the People’s Republic, you can call me Meyer from that day on".
8Named after Marxist theoretician Friedrich Engels.
9Literally, Army of the Land, the formal name for the modern French army.
10From Chapter 13 of Mein Kameraden.
11In the aftermath of the Madrid government’s victory over the Falangists in the Spanish Civil War, the carrier remained stationed in the Mediterranean at Hitler’s directive.
12Quoted from a Daily Mail account of the speech published November 23rd, 1938.
13While the proposal was vetoed on the grounds of being impractical given the situation in the Mediterranean at the time, it reflects Churchill’s desire to strike back at the Soviets immediately and by all means available after their attack on Finland.