Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes. Secret Cables of the Comintern: 1933–1943. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. xi, 306 S. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-19822-5.
Reviewed by Richard Spence (University of Idaho)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Over the past twenty years, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, in such works as The Secret World of American Communism (1996), Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999), and Spies: The Decline and Fall of the KGB in America (2010), have made a virtual cottage industry out of revealing the conspiratorial underbelly of the American Communist movement and its role in Soviet espionage. In doing so, they have collaborated and coauthored with former Soviet scholars, archivists, and intelligence officers, including Kyrill Anderson, Alexander Vassiliev, and Fridrikh Firsov. Firsov, in fact, is the “senior author” of the present work, a position better defined below (p. 251n4).
Haynes is a retired twentieth-century political historian of the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division and Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University. Firsov was a Soviet-era scholar and more recently section manager of the former Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Contemporary History later absorbed into the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History. His research into the Communist International (Comintern) goes back to the 1960s, and he is the coauthor or editor of various works on the topic, including Dimitrov and Stalin, 1934-1943 (2000, with Alexander Dallin), and Deutscher Oktober, 1923 (2003, with Bernhard Bayerlein, et al.). It is fair to say that “few scholars in the world can match [his] expertise on the Communist International” (p. 6).
The authorship of Secret Cables of the Comintern, 1933-1943 is a bit complicated. It is basically a translated, scaled down, and rewritten version of Firsov’s thousand-page Russian magnum opus on the topic. Lynn Visson provides the translation. As Firsov describes it, the original focused heavily on the “technical aspects” of the Comintern’s code and communication system, whereas Haynes and Klehr have shifted the emphasis to how the cables reflected “Comintern policy and the actions of the Communist parties” (p. ix). They also limited the time frame to the last decade of the Comintern’s existence, which encompasses the Popular Front era, the purges, and the early part of World War II. The end result is a work that is, as Haynes and Klehr put it, “more accessible to historically-minded readers in the United States as well as more generally to the English-speaking world” (p. 6). In that, overall, they have succeeded admirably.
In roughly 250 pages of text (the remainder being notes and index), Secret Cables covers a lot of ground, albeit to varying degrees of depth. While many cables are quoted, some extensively, and all clearly referenced, none are reproduced. The book does not offer any grand revelations, nor does it put forth any particular claims to revisionist reinterpretations. Rather, its strength lies in the sheer weight of corroborative and illuminating details revealed in the secret cables. For instance, anyone still clinging to the notion that the Communist International “was truly an international organization” aligned with, but distinct from, the Soviet regime will find nothing here to support it (p. 12). In every instance, it is abundantly clear that the Comintern possessed neither a mind nor a soul of its own and functioned only to abet and promote policies determined in the Kremlin. To keep up appearances, in 1934 Joseph Stalin put Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, a non-Soviet, at its head. Under Dimitrov’s watch, there is ample and stark evidence of the Comintern Executive’s (ECCI) bullying and micro-managing of national Communist parties, which, with few exceptions, slavishly bowed to the dictates.
The first of the book’s ten chapters is a summary of the above “technical aspects” and offers a necessary overview of the Comintern’s use of ciphered communications, a job handled by the ECCI’s hush-hush Department of International Communications (DIC). The most interesting thing is how unsystematic and unsophisticated the codes were and how careless many of the people using them, including big shots like Andre Marty, were (p. 16). The extensive use of radios to communicate with Moscow also proved a liability when British cryptographers broke the codes in the early 1930s. The matter of secret communications inevitably touches on the collaboration and continuity between the Comintern and Soviet intelligence organs. In that regard, it is telling that in 1935 the new chief of the DIC was Meer Trilisser, the ex-head of the Joint State Political Directorate’s (OGPU, predecessor to the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, NKVD) foreign intelligence section. Trilisser and many other DIC personnel would perish in the purges just a few years later. The subsequent chapter deals with the Comintern’s monetary support to Communist parties, which is most remarkable for the relatively modest, if often absolutely critical, sums involved and the ECCI’s obsessive penny-pinching. As the authors make clear, comradely solidarity aside, such subventions served as “a lever for exercising influence and ensuring subordination” (p. 45).
The authors get more to the meat of the matter in the following chapters dealing with the efforts to forge a Popular Front in France and in the Spanish Civil War. The former is a blatant example of the Kremlin dictating strategy and tactics to foreign comrades to keep them in line with the best interests of Soviet diplomacy, not their own. Comintern operatives, such as Marty and Palmiro Togliatti, played important roles in Spain, and the creation of the International Brigades, a de facto Comintern Army, is often seen as a crowning achievement of the organization. The reality, as revealed in the cables, was much less organized and rather less heroic. International Brigades troops commonly proved “ill-trained, poorly equipped, and commanded by officers many of whom were as woefully short of training and military experience as they were.” Morale was often poor, desertion rife, and casualties heavy. ECCI chiefs in Moscow preferred to lay blame on “infiltration by spies and fascists” but the root problem was the vanity and incompetence of men they put in charge, notably Marty (p. 99). At the Brigades base camp in Albacete, Marty set himself up as a mini-dictator whose capricious cruelty earned him the nickname “Butcher.” When the highly capable commander of the First Brigade, Emilio Kleber (Manfred Stern), earned too much attention, Marty successfully schemed to get him recalled to Russia (where he ended up in the Gulag). The politburo of the Spanish Communist Party blasted Marty for mismanagement and “lacking flexibility” and tried to rein him in with a collective executive (p. 97). When the ECCI dispatched Togliatti to sort out the Spanish mess, his sensible advice to replace Marty and others fell on deaf ears. Marty even picked a feud with Maurice Thorez, secretary of the French Communist Party, which hindered French support for the International Brigades.
The authors next turn their attention to the Terror back home in the USSR and the Comintern’s role as the uncritical “megaphone of the Stalinist regime” in justifying show trials, mass arrests, and general hysteria (p. 127). Beyond this, the Comintern took an active hand in ordering or enticing foreign Communists to Moscow where they were duly arrested and liquidated by the NKVD. The most glaring example of this was the Polish Communist Party which ended up formally abolished and most of its leadership shot. Ominously, the “confessions” of the Polish comrades only fueled notions of “the existence of an espionage organization within the Comintern” (p. 126).
Perhaps nothing better indicated Stalin’s disregard for the Comintern than the fact that “the ECCI leadership had not been warned of Stalin’s intentions and had not grasped the meaning of Stalin’s sharp shift towards a rapprochement with Hitler’s Germany” (p. 141). The blindsiding left everyone from Dimitrov to local party leaders scrambling to wrap their minds around the new order of things, a process, depending on your sense of humor, at times almost comical. As the authors note elsewhere in the book, the “typical Communist boilerplate” that permeated the Comintern’s public propaganda was just as evident in its internal communiqués and reflected the “deeply ingrained nature of the Stalinist belief system,” effectively, a kind of mental straitjacket (p. 247). Thus, on Stalin’s instruction, all good comrades eventually learned that the resulting war was not caused by Nazi aggression but by the nefarious “aggressive British-French imperialist bloc” (p. 166).
At least, that was the line until Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941. Much of the latter part of the book is devoted to the Comintern’s role in supporting the Soviet war effort and foreign policy goals. This chapter bounces around a good deal, but arguably the most interesting parts concern the Comintern’s relations with Josip Tito and his already independent-minded Partisan movement and the 1942 reanimation of the Polish Communists under the label of the Polish Workers’ Party. The latter was almost at once dragged into the Comintern’s frantic campaign to refute Soviet involvement in the infamous Katyn Massacre of Polish POWs. The authors conclude that “it is quite unlikely that the Comintern leadership knew that this massacre had been carried out pursuant to a decision of the Politburo” (p. 212), but it also seems unlikely they would have acted any differently if they had known. A separate chapter centers on the ECCI’s wartime dealings with the Chinese Communists who also displayed a tendency to pursue their own agenda, not Moscow’s. At the heart of this was the Comintern’s (i.e., Stalin’s) insistence that Mao Zedong and his comrades play nice with Chiang Kai-shek in fighting the Japanese, whereas Mao stubbornly regarded Chiang as his primary enemy.
In the end, it is perhaps surprising that the Communist International survived as long as it did. Stalin toyed with abolishing it as early as April 1941. When the axe finally fell in May 1943, the authors conclude, once again wartime expediency, in this case the arrival of American diplomatic representative Joseph Davies in Moscow, was the precipitating factor. However, they also note that despite the formal dissolution, little really changed. In June, Dimitrov cabled party leaders around the world that they should “continue to send information in the same way as heretofore” (p. 244). Moreover, ECCI or no ECCI, the “mental Comintern” still exerted a powerful influence over Communist movements (p. 247).
Secret Cables does a splendid job in showing Stalin’s personal dominance and manipulation of the Comintern in its final decade, as well as the ECCI’s domination and manipulation of the thinking and actions of Communist parties. The book likely will be of greatest value to those who already have a solid grasp on the Communist International and its history, but it has something to offer to anyone interest in Communist history or in the diplomatic and political history of the 1930s and WWII.
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Richard Spence. Review of Igorevich Firsov, Fridrikh; Klehr, Harvey; Earl Haynes, John, Secret Cables of the Comintern: 1933–1943.
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