Double Lives

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West is one of a slew of books reviewing the significance of the Cold War in the wake of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. What did the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States really mean? What were Soviet intentions? These questions have been asked since the Cold War’s beginnings in the late 1940’s. Indeed, similar questions have been asked ever since the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power and V. I. Lenin proclaimed the goal of world revolution. Yet historians have been hindered in studying Soviet strategy for several reasons. The Soviet Union was a closed society. No Western historian was permitted to examine Soviet archives or to interview Soviet officials (though some information leaked out through espionage). Soviet agents and their Western collaborators kept silent or denied their activities. Although some of them repudiated Stalinism and gave Western governments valuable information, it was difficult to verify their claims or to be certain that they were not double agents still working for the Soviet Union. Only after Soviet archives began to be opened and old Stalinists started talking more freely could students of the Cold War such as Stephen Koch begin to unravel the extent of what he calls the “Soviet war of ideas against the West.”

Koch focuses on the period between 1933 and 1940, the years encompassing the advent of the Nazi regime in Germany, the Spanish Civil War, and the beginning of World War II. He makes frequent reference to the decades before and after this seven-year epoch, but he believes that Adolf Hitler’s hegemony and Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of authority through the purge trials of the mid-1930’s are the proper frame for understanding Soviet treatment of the West.

The relationship between Hitler and Stalin has been fundamentally misunderstood, Koch argues. Until 1939, when Stalin and Hitler formed a nonaggression pact, many Western liberals believed that the Soviet Union was the major anti-Fascist force. Stalin had supported the government of the Spanish Republic against the attack of the Fascists, headed by Francisco Franco and supported by Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In what was known as the Popular Front, Stalinists made common cause with Western liberals in opposing Fascism. From his earliest days, Hitler had expressed his enmity toward Communists, suppressing the German Communist Party and putting on trial in Leipzig Communists whom he accused of setting fire to the Reichstag (the German Parliament). It is true that many liberals repudiated the Stalinists when they supported the nonaggression pact, but even then liberals were somewhat mollified by the argument that Stalin had been constrained to deal with Hitler because the pusillanimous West had failed to defeat Fascism in Spain. The Fascist victory there was regarded by virtually all parties as a prelude to a world war, which might have been prevented if the West had moved quickly against Hitler and Mussolini.

Koch argues that this Western liberal view of Stalinism (widespread but certainly not universal) is itself evidence of Stalinism’s triumph in the war of ideas. He makes the following revisionist argument: Hitler and Stalin actually needed each other and abetted each other’s tyrannical schemes under the cover of fierce propaganda battles against each other. This collusion of dictators began with the Leipzig trial. Although Hitler blamed the fire on the Communists, they were exonerated at the trial. Why? Koch asks. He does not really know, but he hypothesizes that at this early stage (1933) Hitler used the trial to discredit not the ostensible culprits—the Communists—but his own private army, the Sturm Abteilung (SA). Communist propaganda had blamed the SA for the fire, arguing that the SA constituted a menace not only to Germany but indeed to Europe itself, because the SA functioned as a gangster organization that threatened to supplant the traditional German army. Hitler himself had come to view the SA and its leader, Ernst Rohm, as a threat to his power, but in order to disguise his preparations for an attack on Rohm and the SA, Hitler allowed the Communists to set up the SA for the kill, so to speak. Stalin, who admired Hitler’s ruthlessness, connived with him because Stalin did not want a strong German Communist party. He wanted weak parties, or weak governments (as in Spain), that he could exploit and easily bend to his will.

Koch goes on to argue that Stalin never really meant to oppose Hitler, that from 1933 until the nonaggression pact in 1939 he was angling for an agreement with Hitler. Stalin wanted Hitler to weaken, if not defeat, the Western governments that had been hostile to Communism, and thus to deflect Hitler from attacking the Soviet Union. The Popular...

(The entire section is 1986 words.)