The Decade of Preparation of the Second Imperialist World War
(Comunismo, issues no.37-39, September 1994-January 1995)
1932 ended with the signing of the non-aggression pact between France and the Soviet Union. Although France’s recognition of the USSR dated to 1921, relations between the two countries were always very tense and had gradually soured until 1930 when the French government banned all imports from Russia, as the latter, in retaliation, canceled all orders.
1932’s turnaround was undoubtedly due to economic interests. In the last three years, the crisis had reduced the value of trade by 54% and, consequently, the prospect of gaining the Russian market was attractive to the French, especially since they had to beat the United States and Great Britain, both of which were moving in such a direction.
The year 1933 began with Nazism’s rise to power in Germany. By many sides (especially the Socialist International circles) Hitler’s seizure of power was seen as a threat against peace. But as many as six wars were already being fought in the world:
But on the Asian continent British Imperialism was waging war elsewhere:
As we move from the Old to the New World, we find that two more wars were being fought in Latin America.
The oldest, which had been going on for a couple of years, was that between Paraguay and Bolivia for the possession of the Chaco territories. More than once, for weeks the two armies looked for each other in the endless jungle without meeting and, upon returning to their countries, both claimed victory. Bolivian war bulletins spoke of thousands of enemies killed, while the more modest Paraguayans were content with hundreds. But, exaggerations aside, the war, especially where the forts were located, was waged in earnest «not, as it would seem at first glance, for the possession of the endless, empty – and unhealthy, on top of that – jungles of the Gran Chaco, but as a function of certain imperialist interests. It is in fact the conflict between the Standard Oil Co. (Rockefeller) and the Royal Dutch (Deterding). At stake is the access to the flood of oil and tin which Bolivia is rich in. Since over the last century Chile has taken over the entire coast, all that remains is getting to the sea by the Paraguayan waterway to which the Chaco is key. Paraguay plays into the hands of the British Deterding interests which want to obstruct the access to the flood of oil in Bolivia, where Rockefeller has immense deposits» (Prometeo, issue no105, June 1934).
Concluding the list is the conflict between Peru and Colombia over the possession of the city of Letizia. This city, ceded to Colombia under a treaty, was occupied by Peruvian irregulars. The government disavowed in words the irregulars, however supported them in actuality. The fact that the war between the two States was not declared meant little as there was also no declaration of war between Japan and China. Colombia purchased fighter seaplanes from the United States and gunboats from other countries. The gunboats went up the Amazon, tasked with recapturing the disputed city. Peru, for its part, unleashed against the Colombians thousands of natives armed with poisoned arrows. We wrote in Prometeo, closing the picture of the world situation, «All these cases involve States adhering to the League of Nations and signatories of pacts against war and in favor of disarmament. However, it is precisely the policy of the League of Nations to register, platonic reservations aside, the fait accompli when it comes to powerful countries like Japan, and to pretend to ignore the events when it comes to smaller countries» (Prometeo, issue no84, February 1933).
Hitler’s rise to power was seen by Trotsky as the concentration of international capitalism for the sake of the war against Russia. The position of our Fraction was however distinct from that of all other communist opposition groups. Instead, according to the Communist Left, two imperialist formations were emerging: fascist States on one side, anti-fascist States on the other.
The democratic camp was immediately joined by the Socialist International, while Russia maintained a wait-and-see attitude. The policy of “socialism in one country” meant that the Soviet State went from being the concentration pole of the entire world proletariat to being an integral part of the chessboard of imperialist competitions, participating in one or the other side.
Immediately after the formation of the Nazi government, the Stalinist press re-established the need for the “liberation” of the German people from the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles. The Third International felt no need to make any appeal to the world proletariat, implying that the events in Germany were to be classified as ones of secondary importance. In reality, the USSR simply had no intention of loosening its relations with Germany. And that no incompatibility existed between Stalinism and Nazism was proved by Hitler’s statement “communism is not a matter of State”, meaning that the German State could have maintained its excellent relations with the Russian one without diminishing the struggle against communism. General Von Seeckt went even further by predicting the strengthening of the relations with the Soviet Union for the sake of the fight against France.
Let us now return to the Far East: «In order to conquest China we must first conquer Manchuria and Mongolia. Looking into the future of Japan, a war with Russia over the plains of North Manchuria is inevitable. If we want to control China, we must first crush the United States. Having China’s resources at our disposal we shall proceed to conquer India, The Archipelago, Asia Minor, Central Asia and even Europe». This is what was written in the memorial that, in July 1927, former Prime Minister Tanaka submitted to the Emperor of Japan. In accordance with this program, in the early months of 1933, the advance of Japanese militarism developed. The first phase of the Japanese advance ended with the creation of the puppet State of Manchuria while its second phase was about to take place.
The Japanese, it will be recalled, were not at war with China: there, they were conducting “a simple cleansing operation”. This was what the accredited Japanese representative in Geneva said, adding that the League of Nations had failed to understand what the reality in the Far East was. China, the Japanese spokesman continued, was a danger to the world because it was threatened by communism, which could become a very serious danger to both Europe and America itself. Manchuria being dissolved of all ties with China would have been, on the contrary, a solid barrier against the threat of communism. Only Japan had the strength and the will to restore peace in China, one that was deeply unsettled. And if it was true that the supreme purpose of the League of Nations was to maintain world peace, it should have trusted the intentions of the Japanese, giving the latter carte blanche, which was, after all, what the League of Nations had done up to that point.
This also explains the attitude of the League of Nations, which up to that point had simply stood by and watched, and would have continued to do so had pressure not come from the United States, as the latter felt that its interests in China and the Pacific were being threatened. Geneva then decided to establish a commission, known as the “Commission of the 19”, which was to report on the ongoing operations. The Commission’s final conclusions condemned Japan’s behavior. At this point, Matsuoka, delegate of the Empire of the Rising Sun, left the conference and his country exited the League. With its exit from the League of Nations, Japan gained the most complete freedom of action by also taking advantage of the global situation which didn’t allow any other country to directly act in the Far East.
For its part, China was living an increasingly troubled life. Manchuria was a puppet State occupied by the Japanese army. Tibet was in the hands of the reincarnated Buddha who, under London’s directives, had occupied the neighboring Chinese provinces. Inner Mongolia and the main northern provinces were in the hands of the “Northern cliques”, the “warlords” in continuous struggle with each other. The Nanjing government, in the hands of the Kuomintang, was engaged in a war against the “Soviet” territory of Jiangxi.
In this disastrous situation, the Japanese troops continued their “police action” to restore peace by aiming southward, in the direction of Peking and Tianjin. At the same time, they carried out a military operation of attrition against Mongolia in the direction of Vladivostok and the Russian maritime provinces, which the Japanese had already occupied during the civil war. The Japanese penetration was setting up for a future war against the USSR, as well as the dismemberment and conquest of China.
As we get to 1933’s halfway point, in old Europe the Fascist diplomacy was trying to shift the emerging new power relations in its favor. First Mac Donald, then Von Papen went to Rome. Right after consulting also with French Ambassador De Jouvenel, Mussolini launched the “Four-Power Pact” proposal: the establishment of a directorate of the four great European powers for the peaceful revision of the Treaty of Versailles. The new organ was supposed to resolve, without firing a shot, two essential questions, that of armaments and that of colonies. France, outvoted by the Anglo-Italian bloc, did not openly oppose the proposal, opting instead to have Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania intervene on its behalf. Therefore, in the name of safeguarding peace, the Little Entente took up the defense of the League of Nations, one that had room for all, large and small. On the contrary, the Four-Power Pact would stand upon an unjust concept, sacrificing small States and killing the League of Nations.
Ultimately Mussolini’s first attempt failed, and the representatives of France, England and Germany set off for Washington to take orders from the real head honcho – Roosevelt. The issues that had been discussed in Rome were discussed across the Atlantic and, just like in Rome, the delegates returned home with nothing decided. Or, if you will, they returned with the following directive: “truce”. «After all – we wrote in Prometeo – all these truces between imperialist brigands of all colors were dominated by one fundamental idea: the first game had been won, and what an important game it was! The German proletariat had been vanquished (...) The bottom line for all the theatrical work for so-called peace is much simpler, and it’s that truces come to essence in order to better fight, in each country, the working class, to better prepare the conditions for removing from the capitalist mode of production the great anomaly constituting a State which does not recognize the sacrosanct principles of private property. The brigands know there is no way out, just like in 1914. Tomorrow, the situation will no longer allow the sole burning of tons of agrarian products, the sole reduction of the industrial production. It will have to come to war, just like it did in 1914. But tomorrow, the great danger will be the proletariat, which moreover sees the path, the one followed by the Russian proletariat that turned the war into revolution. It is therefore necessary to prepare now, to take advantage of the first major success obtained in Germany, which must be consolidated. Furthermore, it’s necessary to entangle Soviet Russia. In this regard, the silence of the Communist International in the face of the victory of German fascism had already served as assurance» (Prometeo, June 4, 1933).
Victory over the proletariat was not yet total, time was needed to get to the final blow and, consequently, a truce between the States was needed. Five years, replied Hitler, five years of bourgeois peace. Thus purely for the purpose of fooling the masses the “Four-Power Pact” was signed, albeit revised and corrected to the point that not even a comma remained of the initial Fascist proposal: no “directoire”, no revision of the Versailles Treaty. The whole Geneva apparatus remained unchanged, from the League of Nations to the Disarmament Conference.
The signing of the pact coincided with the expiration of the Russian-German and Russian-Italian trade pacts and worried the Soviet Union, which unleashed a press campaign against the Fascist diplomacy. With the trade treaties extended, everything returned to normal and Litvinov took care to telegraph Berlin and Rome.
Hitler had spoken of a five-year truce, Mussolini wanted to exaggerate and, after the signing of the “Four- Power Pact”, he sentenced a ten-year peace.
What kind of peace the imperialist countries were capable of achieving was immediately seen at the World Economic Conference, held simultaneously in London with the participation of 66 countries. It was the 57th in a series of postwar conferences. Its preparation dated back to the spring of 1927 when, in Geneva, along with conversations about a so-called disarmament, plans were aired for customs arrangements, production agreements, workers’ co-participation in the management of enterprises, in a word, the presumption of a general rearrangement of the capitalist world on rational grounds. More than six years had passed since that proposal, and in the meantime the economic crisis had undermined the whole edifice of capitalist rationalization. The customs war, the debt war and reparations were compounded by bank failures, bankruptcies, a reduction of one third in world trade and production, a 60% reduction in wages and a 40% reduction in the number of employed workers.
«A solution to the issues discussed at the London Conference? From the formal point of view nothing could be simpler – we wrote in Prometeo – overproduction could be instantly absorbed by the thirty million unemployed, the congestion of capital frozen in the banks could be quickly resolved by resuming production as there is neither a lack of labour power nor mouths in need to consume. The whole economic edifice could be reconstituted if only issues could be dealt with without regards to the laws inherent to a classist regime. But then, when these issues have to be solved on a class basis, the procedure becomes enormously complicated and the solution, one that appeared to be very simple, gets lost, entering into the irreducible opposition between different imperialisms (...) A “world” economic conference in a capitalist regime inevitably takes on the appearance of a banquet where each of the diners looks at their neighbor’s portion with the intention of taking as much as possible from them, with the aim of passing on to the others his own difficulties, since it’s well known that no way out exists nor does anyone emerge from the crisis» (Prometeo, No. 89, June 1933).
The conference began with general statements by the various delegations. It was easy, in this first stage, to reach agreement as everyone emphasized their similar difficulties and the need to find a solution. But as soon as one went from vague platitudes to actual material details, all the contradictions immediately erupted, so much so that President Mac Donald was forced to decide for daily preliminary meetings in which, before the sessions, systems should be sought in order to keep the work of the commission on acceptable levels of confrontation.
The United States immediately rejected the stabilization of the dollar, declaring its freedom to float it up or down according to its interests. Britain, who the American maneuver was aimed against, declared the right of doing likewise. Against England and the United States, fighting each other, the bloc consisting of France, Italy and Germany formed, demanding the value of the currency to be held against gold. So that «to the sweet jingle of the French gold coins not only Poland and the vassal States, but also Fascist Italy and Hitler’s Germany danced» (Prometeo, No. 90, July 1933).
The conference, which had opened under the banner of a monetary truce, unleashed the greatest struggle between the capitalist Empires with the result of bringing the positions of Italy and Germany closer to those of France. «We’ve witnessed – our Fraction concluded – in a short period of time the subsequent failure of the Geneva conference for disarmament, of the Lausanne conference for the thorny question of debts, and, in the present moment, the resounding failure of the London conference on the monetary issue which is the most delicate of the capitalist machinery. All are proof of the inability of the bourgeoisie to rise above its crisis and steps toward the new explosion, the imperialist war of tomorrow».
Russia, whose currency was for purely domestic use, was not interested in the monetary question, keeping itself out of all the squabbles. Its intervention, worldwide, took place in other forms. Russian diplomacy declared the peaceful coexistence between capitalist and communist regimes compatible, and peace under the capitalist regime possible. In case of war, “identifying the aggressor” was declared necessary.
Given these premises, nothing prevented the former State of the Revolution from entering into a “Pact of Friendship, Neutrality, and Nonaggression” with Fascist Italy. The pact, signed in Rome in September 1933, stipulated that the two contracting parties would not participate in wars waged against the other. It pledged to respect the inviolability of all territories under their sovereignty. If either party was attacked by a third one, the other would remain neutral in the conflict. Each side would refrain from participating in international agreements that might hinder the other’s foreign trade. Each side pledged not to participate in any agreement of political nature directed against the other. The two sides also undertook to submit to arbitration procedure any disputed issue that could not be resolved by the standard diplomatic route. The pact had no specific deadline, but contemplated the right to complain only five years after its entry into force.
We might think that Stalinist centrism would find it difficult to justify the signing of the “Pact of Friendship” with Mussolini’s Italy, but we would be wrong! It’s indeed interesting to see the justification given to the fait accompli by the various servants of Moscow. The Stalinists could have declared that because times were particularly difficult in the revolutionary struggle, the “proletarian State” was forced to maneuver and make concessions to the class enemy, forced by necessity. But such a justification would have conflicted with the theory of building socialism in a single country, one that, day by day, was progressing and growing stronger. It was said, then, that the world was divided into two camps: on the one hand there was the unraveling of the bourgeois economy in all the imperialist countries, on the other hand there was the development of the proletarian economy in the USSR, therefore, as a consequence, on the one hand the weakening of capitalism throughout the world, on the other hand the strengthening of the proletarian dictatorship State. Faced with this fact, a race among the capitalist countries would take place, one to ingratiate themselves with the Soviet Union before the others, vital precondition for saving themselves from ruin.
«It’s worth asking – we wrote in Prometeo – (...) that if indeed the strength of the Russian State is such that it is the only lifeline to the various capitalist countries, why on earth this very State, instead of offering a lifeline, doesn’t just let the capitalist world plunge to ruin” (Prometeo, issue no93, September 1933). But our “naive” demands were answered by the Sept. 3 issue of L’Humanité: «For us one question, and one alone arises: what advantage can the proletariat derive from the signing of such treaties? Every success, every strengthening of the proletariat in power in the USSR consolidates, at the same time, the positions of the working class in the capitalist countries». The PCd’I newspaper, Bandiera Rossa, not to be outdone by its French brethren wrote on the Sept. 9, 1933 issue «The growing strength of Soviet Russia frightens the fascist government!». According to this aberrant logic, the Italian-Russian Friendship Treaty would have been signed out of fear of the Soviet Union and, at the same time, would have strengthened the positions (?) of the Italian proletariat...
A little later came the signing of the “Treaty of Mutual Assistance” between the Soviet Union and the French Republic. The Izvestia, highlighting the importance of the new treaty, noted that «Daladier was among the few politicians understanding the necessity of considering the USSR as a factor for peace, one of increasing strength». L’Humanité, on the other hand, had a different point of view on the matter: «If the USSR sincerely works for peace’s sake, we communists know that French imperialism has only accepted it because it was forced and coerced to» (Sept. 16 issue). For the French newspaper, the Treaty of Mutual Assistance wasn’t the the result of Daladier’s political move (“among the few politicians...”), it was imposed instead by the French proletariat, which, without even knowing it, was so strong that it determined the bourgeois government’s foreign policies while unable to make Daladier respect their very own right to strike.
At the 15th Conference of the Russian CP (1926) the funeral of the Marxist notion of proletarian internationalism was officiated, buried under the tombstone that had “socialism in one country” written on it. Having thus reversed the role of the first proletarian State, we could not but witness to the dizzying race for the open betrayal of the historical interests of the proletariat and world revolution.
As early as 1926, during the great movement of the British proletariat, the interests of the struggling workers were being sacrificed “for diplomatic reasons”, as Bukharin had openly put it. This was followed by the adherence to the Kellogg–Briand pact. Later there were interventions at the League of Nations, the London Conference, and the disarmament conference. In every instance, the central thesis was that of the peaceful coexistence between the two modes of production. To aid Russian industrialization and the construction of... socialism, Moscow gave up the emancipation struggle of the colonies, from the British Indies to French Indochina to Italian Africa. It had negotiated pacts of friendship and non-aggression implying technical and military collaboration with Mussolini, Pilsudski, Kemal Pasha and similar executioners of the proletariat and the dispossessed masses of their countries. It asserted that «the internal regime of Italian fascism does not interest the Soviet State».
Russia thus became an integral part of the world capitalist economy as the Russian market was, to a sick world capitalist economy, the oxygen supply that would have prolonged its life span for some time before its final collapse. Hence, the rush by Germany, England, France, and the United States to recognize the USSR: steps into the path that would lead the proletarian State to its integration into one of the imperialist constellations of the war already in preparation.
On November 16, 1933, the United States officially recognized the Soviet Union. It is evident that every Litvinov’s diplomatic victory was a defeat for the revolution, and the negotiations for the recognition of the USSR between the U.S. and the Russian government proved it. The American press noted that «things are different today, the Comintern is no more than a grub and nothing is there to fear anymore». At the same time capitalism overseas demanded very definite guarantees against any possible communist movement in the Soviet Union, and Moscow made sure to maintain social peace in the United States. Thus, Soviet Russia promised «to refrain from interfering in any manner in the internal affairs of the United States». However, this was not sufficient, because the Russian State was one thing, the Communist International, possibly, another. It was one thing to assure that Russia would not threaten the U.S. (and how could it?), but to prevent the emergence and development of revolutionary movements was a different story. For the “Bolshevik” diplomats, however, this wasn’t a problem, so Litvinov also guaranteed that his government would «refrain from [...] the bringing about by force of a change in the political or social order of the whole or any part of the United States, its territories or possessions» and «refrain, and restrain all persons in Government service and all organizations of the Government or under its direct or indirect control, including organizations in receipt of any financial assistance from it, from any act overt or covert liable in any way whatsoever to injure the tranquillity, prosperity, order, or security of the whole or any part of the United States, its territories or possessions [...] Not to permit the formation or residence on its territory [Russia, editor’s note] of any organization or group [...] which makes attempt upon the territorial integrity of the United States, its territories or possessions [...] which has as an aim the overthrow or the preparation for the overthrow of the political or social order of the whole or any part of the United States, its territories or possessions» (original from Litvinov’s November 16, 1933 document to F.D. Roosevelt). Throughout this, although its name does not appear, it’s more than obvious that it’s the Communist International that is being referred to.
In the first issue of 1934, Prometeo quoted passages from an article by Mussolini. Mussolini, in the writing, ridiculed all the advocates of disarmament and the naïves (?) of the League of Nations. The return to the old system of balance between the powers awaiting confrontation succeeded to Geneva’s phase of illusions. As the Duce of Fascism intoned the miserere on the broken idols of democratic pacifism, those who should have been committed to the dismantling of the whole lying edifice of bourgeois pacifism (Stalin, Litvinov, Molotov...) went the other way, claiming that the League of Nations could have indeed represented an obstacle to war. «Our attitude toward the League – Stalin declared – is not always and in every respect negative. Despite the withdrawal of Germany and Japan and perhaps even because of this, the League may become a brake to delay or hinder military action». And while Litvinov rejoiced over the diplomatic successes of Rome, Paris and Washington, Molotov, copying the words of the “Pilot”, stated, «One must recognize the positive fact that the League of Nations has functioned as a brake on the countries that were trying to wage war».
Up to that time, the position of the Communist International toward the League of Nations was the one adopted by the first congress, in March 1919. And here is what it said: «In view of the irreconcilable differences that have become apparent among the Entente powers, the “League of Nations”, should it come into formal existence, will only have the significance of a holy alliance of capitalists bent on crushing the workers’ revolution. Propaganda for the “League of Nations”, though, is the best way of confusing the revolutionary consciousness of the working class. It replaces the idea of an International of revolutionary workers’ republics with the idea of an international association, of sham democracies, attainable through a coalition between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (...) The revolutionary proletariats of all countries of the world must wage a resolute struggle against the Wilsonian notion of a “League of Nations” and protest against entry into this union of plunder, exploitation and imperialist counter-revolution».
There is no need to answer those asking whether the position of Lenin and the First Congress of the International toward the League of Nations was excessively harsh because the mass graves of workers and peasants in all capitalist countries as well as in the colonies subject to the Geneva Mandate would answer that. Geneva had created the Conference for Disarmament and its successes were embodied in the unbridled arms race taking place in all countries indiscriminately. Backing up the League of Nations was the International Labour Organization, whose benefits were instead shown by the conditions of misery and starvation in which the working masses of all countries were forced to live.
But these were not such problems as to shake the conscience of the builders of socialism in one country. The June 2, 1934 issue of Pravda, on the topic of Russia’s entry into the League of Nations, wrote: «The dialectic of the development of imperialist contradictions has led to the result that the old League of Nations, which was intended to serve as an instrument of imperialist subordination against the small independent States and colonial countries and as an instrument for the preparation of anti-Soviet intervention, has appeared, in the process of the struggle between imperialist groups, as the arena where (as Litvinov explained to us during the last session of the Executive Central Committee of the USSR) the currents interested in the maintenance of peace seem to be triumphing. This, perhaps, explains the profound changes that have taken place in the composition of the League of Nations».
In Geneva, only Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland still believed, or pretended to believe, that Russia was playing a revolutionary role. On the contrary, Barthou, on behalf of the great powers, sentenced «I am convinced that a peculiar evolution has taken place from what was during Lenin’s time». This being so, the Soviet Union, on September 16, 1934, could make its entrance, in its own right, into the den of international brigands.
Victoire eclatante, wrote the L’Humanité while the Stalinist organ in Italy stated, «It’s very clear, only enemies of the proletariat can make it a motive for slander and attack. The Soviet Union is intent on entering the Geneva body not to conduct a League of Nations policy, but a Soviet one». Moreover, it was added that after the exit from the League of the «two most belligerent imperialist powers», namely Japan and Germany, Russia’s entry was being made «in the interest of the workers of the Soviet Union as well as the world proletariat».
And exactly in the interest of the world proletariat was Moscow’s new position as outlined by Litvinov at the latest disarmament conference. The Russian envoy, after speaking of the «the futility of such a discussion on disarmament, in the absence of any proposals whatsoever which have a chance of securing universal acceptance», got to the substance of his statement: «... the question is not of disarmament itself, since that is only a means to an end, but of guaranteeing peace. And since this is so, the question naturally arises, cannot the Conference feel its way towards other guarantees for peace: or at any rate may it not increase the measure of security for at least those States which, cherishing no aggressive designs, are not interested in war, and which in the event of war may become only the objects of attack?» (original from the May 29, 1934 conference).
On the occasion of the USSR’s entry into the League of Nations, the Izvestia explained what peace, in fact, was and, in this regard, wrote that the world is divided between two groups of antagonistic powers. There’s powers that «don’t want war because war would threaten their conquests, and others who, discontented with the present state of things, are ready, in order to find a solution, for military adventures and war». The USSR thus espoused the French thesis that “peace” was synonymous with the “status quo”, and was to support the States that during the last war reaped their rewards at the detriment of the vanquished and the fools (i.e. Italy). A complete 180o given that, until the year before, Litvinov had supported the views of Italy and the other defeated countries when speaking on the “defense of peace”.
The continuous creaking preceding the collapse of the structure that was imposed by the outcome of World War I, and the subsequent preparation for a new imperialist conflict, was accompanied by the intensification of secret diplomatic work which went hand in hand with frantic and exaggerated rearmament. This phase was also marked by the extreme mutability of all combinations as the imperialist alignments had yet to be solidly established.
Russia threw itself into this devious game by establishing pacts with the neighboring Baltic countries, its recognition by the Lesser Entente, the pact with Poland and especially with France. However Moscow did not let Germany or Italy fall out of its sight, and by July the Izvestia wrote: «The Soviets for many years maintained friendly relations with Germany regardless of the changes in its government [Hitler’s coming to power, ed.]. If relations with Germany have become strained the blame must be sought in the foreign policy of the German government, which arouses the deepest suspicions (...) Between the USSR and Fascist Italy there are relations which have benefited both powers».
Germany, for its part, concluded a pact with Poland by hinting that it would have abandoned the thorny issue of the Danzig corridor. Other German victories were scored as Germany reconciled with both Hungary and Romania. At the same time, a crack between the two fascist countries was opening. One that would grow wider and wider for some years, due to, among other things, both Italy and Germany claiming their role as pole of attraction for the other defeated nations.
After carrying out a fascist-inspired coup d’état, Bulgaria, which under parliamentary rule orbited around Italian imperialism, gave signs that it wanted to come under French imperialism.
In early 1935 Leval went to Rome where, together with Mussolini, he signed a pact that was described as “historic”: needless to say the pact was concluded under the necessity of “preserving peace”. The old contention between the two Latin countries was finally settled and demonstrations of good will and loyalty were given on both sides. The African colonial frontiers were rectified to Italy’s advantage. The latter discontinued its policy of revising treaties in Central Europe, and, above all, arrogant but troubled Italian Imperialism received a generous loan of three billion francs from France.
All the intertwining of relations between the various countries showed how the international chessboard was still flowing, however it did not prevent the fact that, at the same time, each State was pursuing its own very specific aims determined by material factors far more powerful than the Duce, Fuhrer, “Pilot” or any democratic head of State.
In the Far East, Japan had resumed its advance to seize Inner Mongolia. As soon as it occupied Manchuria, under the pretext of providing security against bandit raids, it took Jehol (Chengde), the easternmost of the Inner Mongolian provinces, driving at the same time the Chinese troops back beyond the Great Wall. From there it continued its advance in the direction of the People’s Republic of Mongolia, Russia’s leading sentry.
After the war between Japan and China, the war between Bolivia and Paraguay, 1935 gave way to the opening of the hostilities between two more League of Nations member countries: Italy and Ethiopia.
An initial armed confrontation took place at the Walwal wells. The Italian provocation represented a real act of war. Italy employed a disproportionate amount of artillery, tanks and bombers to counter the few Abyssinians, which were armed with old rifles that were more dangerous to the wielder than to the enemy. The Ethiopian government complained to the League of Nations asserting that the wells in question were as much as 100 kilometers from the border of Italian Somalia, however British Minister Simon claimed that the area, located on the border between the Ethiopian Empire, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia was of “uncertain” ownership. In contrast, the fascist government said that the region was already under Italian control and had been so for 26 years. Before, there was no notice of the annexation, neither from the government in Addis Ababa nor Italy if one considers that the 1928 atlas of the Italian colonies placed Walwal about 90 kilometers west of the Somali border, thus corroborating the Ethiopian thesis. The League of Nations, invested in the matter, however, failed to determine to which of the two countries the disputed territory belonged.
Italy prepared the Abyssinia campaign scrupulously, taking care of the smallest details. In November 1934, accompanied by then Minister De Bono, King Victor Emmanuel III visited the African colonies. It should be remembered that he was the son of Umberto I who so cherished the dream of becoming emperor that he had coins with this title minted in advance. At once, Adwa’s defeat made the Umbertine illusion vanish and many coins on which stood out the words rex et imperator recast. Indeed, the psychological preparation echoed the motif of that defeat, advocating the need to “wash away the shame of Adwa”. The campaign continued under the motif of the need to civilize barbarous Ethiopia, with its two million slaves, ruled by a feudal government in which a minority caste lived – so asserted the fascist propaganda – on the exploitation of the laborers. It ranged from slogans such as «war for the defense of white civilization against the Abyssinian savages [as if Italy were in danger of being invaded by Ethiopia], the barbarian raiders», the “sellers of human flesh”. Fascist propaganda went as far as brushing up Cardinal Massaia’s Memoirs which recounted, «It’s not law that governs Abyssinia, but the brutal force of those who have succeeded from overpowering others. There is no hereditary right, but intrigue, treachery and contention at gunpoint».
The press and radio flaunted the “delirious enthusiasm” of departing soldiers and jubilant crowds. Rome had also secured the complicit silence of Paris and London, having concluded the Italian-French agreement in January and the agreement with England. Therefore, when Ethiopia had the naive pretense of protesting against the aggressors to the League of Nations under Article 11 of the Covenant (as if the Sino-Japanese example was not enough of a proof of the fate reserved to the weakest countries), on January 18 Laval and Eden convinced the Council of the League to stay out ot the affair, inviting the Ethiopians to enter into direct negotiations with Italy, which meant abandoning Ethiopia to the clutches of Italian Imperialism.
After a series of border incidents, to which was added a providential and perhaps provoked Franco- Abyssinian conflict, on January 29 came the Afdub clash (kept secret until February 12), which gave the pretext for mobilizing and sending large numbers of soldiers to Somalia.
On January 26 a ministerial reshuffle took place with Mussolini taking back for himself all the military ministries. Quadrumvir De Bono was appointed high commissioner of Italian East Africa, and General Graziani (slaughterer of Arab women and children in Libya) was given command of the troops. Forty thousand soldiers were embarked and on February 1 the enlistment of the volunteers began. As the months passed, Italian imperialism intensified its preparations for its brigand war in Ethiopia. Not a day passed without the departing from the ports of ships loaded with war material, troops, and skilled workers in charge of logistical preparation. At the same time, the ideological campaign intensified with the continuous publication of domestic and foreign articles presenting Abyssinia as a country of barbarian raiders and a threat to Western civilization.
Ethiopia filed a new appeal with the League of Nations requesting that consideration of the conflict was to be put urgently on the agenda. But this time, too, Italy had good game and the discussion was adjourned sine die. It should be noted that this decision was taken unanimously with the Russian representative Litvinov voting in favor of the fascist thesis. The League of Nations finally decided to set up a commission to examine the responsibility for the Walwal conflict, but, once again unanimously, the Italian request was granted, namely that only the incident was to be investigated, avoiding the question of whether Walwal belonged to Italy or Ethiopia. In return, Geneva asked the Italian government not to initiate war actions before September. But no one, of course, asked Italy to halt, during this time, its war preparations, which in fact intensified as a first response to the League of Nations request, given the narrow time frame between the planned start of the campaign and the end of the rainy season – September. Which was what the League of Nations had asked for.
War preparations were becoming more and more frantic by the day. By mid-August in Italian East Africa there was a mobilized force of 15 divisions of which 5 were black shirts, that is, about 200,000 men in addition to 50,000 skilled workers. In issue no121 of Prometeo, in Aug. 28, we wrote: «Since it seems that in the ruling spheres a force of at least twice this size is considered the minimum necessary to begin the operations, expeditions were intensified and for this purpose numerous ships were purchased in addition to large amounts of shiploads. Previously purchased for scrapping, they were instead patched up at best to allow the transport of soldiers and material. England, the United States and, of course, the Smaller States, are competing to sell or charter their ships – business is business. The neutrality of the conflict is at most manifested, on their part, by their refusal to supply material, even if already paid for, to Abyssinia – which has no say in the matter – and the assertion of the theoretical principle of an embargo against the two warring countries, which becomes hypocritical mockery when a country with powerful war equipment and industries faces one that has none at all. In this respect we learn that 50 new bombers have been granted permission to fly over Egypt on the condition that the aircraft were unarmed en route».
If London, Paris and Moscow were granting their full support to the Italian venture in Ethiopia, what seemed to be creaking was, however, the home front. Despite the trumpeted exaltation to “wash away the shame of Adwa”, enthusiasm for the African campaign was paltry. About eight thousand sick soldiers and workers were made to disembark overnight in the ports of Naples and Genoa and were clandestinely transported to various hospitals in Italy. The fascist newspapers themselves had to admit the ever-growing discontent, especially among the civilians. The latter were forced to work up to 19 hours a day at a temperature of 65 degrees in the shade and were under the constant threat of the Royal Carabineers’ and black shirts rifles. «These same working conditions will, from now on, also be applied to the prisoners and indigenous people of the liberated areas» (Bilan, issue no24, October/November 1935). All workers, indiscriminately, white and black, “barbarian” and civilized, were immediately given a taste of the delights of the Empire and the emancipation of slavery.
The same regime press reported the establishment also in Eritrea of a section of the Special Military Tribunal to which both soldiers and civilians, white and black, had already been referred. In addition, Italian workers received this “warning”: «The government demands the strictest discipline, especially from workers awaiting their repatriation to Italy who, for unjustified reasons, demand to be boarded before their turn. Those thinking of ’mutiny’ should know that their personal record will be noted accordingly and that their return to Italy will be notified in advance to the police and political authorities».
The League of Nations had begged Italy not to attack before September. The Italian army, obediently, waited for the rainy season to end and remained idle until October. Then, with no war declaration – for it was, once again, a simple police operation – on October 3 it entered eastern Tigray on a 60 kilometers wide front.
Ethiopia entered the war with 300,000 men equipped with the most diverse and outdated model rifles, 200 machine guns and 200 cannons of which only 50 could fire without danger of bursting. Ethiopia also had no arms or ammunition factories and its air force consisted of 8 reconnaissance planes. The Italian Expeditionary Army had already deployed 800 planes, 3,600 machine guns, 300 field guns, and 100 assault tanks on the field. In addition, to aid the front and the rear it employed 20,000 camels (and continued purchasing camels from the neighboring British colonies, despite sanctions), 40,000 mules and 10,000 donkeys, in addition to 3,000 transport vehicles.
Following their first leap, the Italians reached the Axum-Adwa-Antiscia-Adigrat mountain ridge. Immediately thereafter they resumed their advance occupying the other 100+ kilometers (including Mek’ele) already virtually dominated by the aviation and where there were but small armed nuclei entrenched on a few amba. On the southern front, because of the still-unabated rains and the difficulties of the terrain, the advance was slower. However, even on this front Italy’s technical superiority allowed for blows against key centers, road and river lines, and the rare wells.
Despite Fascist propaganda foisting endless streams of accounts on the valor of the Italian troops fighting against the enemy hordes in the name of Roman civilization and God (even though the Abyssinians worshiped the same god as the Fascists), the Italian advance was, for the most part, a mere military excursion, and the engaged troops were, almost exclusively, native-type forces: the Eritrean ascaris and the Somali dubats.
A glorious war page going into the Hall of Honor of Italian heroism was written by Vittorio Mussolini. It’s thus fitting that we Communists also learn from it paying, reverently, homage to the hero. «I was never able to see a fire. As I see a fire truck go by, I slip into the back and run away. But they either take me to the barracks, or, they send me to unclog engorged manholes. So maybe because someone had learned of this fault of mine, they ordered an apparatus from the 14th Squadron to bombard the Adi Abo area exclusively with incendiary bombs. I don’t think any other, more pressing reasons existed. However, having loaded the “ice-cream makers” [in Italian, this refers to each of the military aircraft compartments holding explosive bombing material, ed.], filled the fuselage with more bombs, we took off on the 23rd. Adi Abo is a region close to Eritrea, and perhaps it was feared that along that caravan route some military formation would come up, so to have better visibility, we had to set fire to all the mountains, the plains, the villages. We also brought some incendiary frags and in fact they came in handy: around fifty brigands tasted our slivers. It was a most amusing job with a tragic but beautiful effect. At a reasonable altitude we began dropping the bombs: as soon as they hit the ground they made a white smoke, then a great flame burning the dry grass. I thought of the animals, who knows what a stampede! The order to repeat the action came the next day. Another huge load of incendiary frags. Once the “ice cream makers” were emptied, we started throwing frags by hand. We would dive right down onto the tukul, the ghebbi and I would then try to hit them with a two-kilo bomb with a good shot. It was great fun: a big zeriba, surrounded by tall trees... I couldn’t hit it. It was necessary to hit the mark when it came to the thatched roofs, and only on the third attempt did I get it. The unlucky ones inside, seeing the roof burning, would jump out, running away like they were possessed. Someone would shoot, but to no effect. Thus, over those two days, all of Adi Abo was in flames and then for three more days as the fire advanced slowly but surely. At night, the infantrymen from the Mareb fort recounted, it was an unforgettable sight, something hellish. Those bombs caused so much heat that they could warm up half the world» (Vittorio Mussolini, Voli sulle Ambe).
Meanwhile, the League of Nations issued its guilty verdict. The “Commission of Six”, charged with reporting on the conflict, indicated, without naming it, that Italy was guilty of aggression. The Council of the League was careful, however, not to use the word “aggression”, euphemistically stating instead that «the Italian government resorted to war contrary to the commitments made in Article 12 of the Pact». An Enlarged Commission was formed to study the sanctions to be taken against Italy. Sanctions that were to be, simultaneously, “very cautious” but “effective”.
For sanctions against a nation to be effective it is essential that all countries adhere to the measures, otherwise all that happens is the market going from one place to another. To demonstrate the insubstantiality of the retaliation it’s enough to note that in addition to those countries not members of the League of Nations, such as the United States, and those that had left it, such as Germany and Japan, there were other States that refused to adhere to the sanctions, namely Austria, Hungary, Albania and Switzerland, host country of the international brigands’ den. Austria and Switzerland, being neighboring countries, were an important breach in the “anti-fascist” encirclement.
Besides the fact that financial sanctions did absolutely nothing given all international stock exchanges had already been closed for Italy for some time, the Fascist press could ironically point out that the countries most solicitous in denying loans to Italy were Greece, China, and Russia. Those that spoke out on the arms embargo were Iraq, Thailand, and the Dominican Republic. The fascists, figures in hand, showed that the U.S., Germany, Austria, and Hungary accounted for 33 percent of Italian imports and 28 percent of exports. Germany alone supplied 53% of the machinery, 48% of iron and steel, 26% of coal. The US 75% of cotton and 21% of oil. In October alone the U.S. increased its oil exports to $1 million. Russia, a sanctioning nation, denied loans to the fascist campaign because it didn’t have “a penny”. However, it didn’t deny Italy of what it could offer and get paid in hard currency for: oil, grain and other products. «In this regard the international press rightly points out that when it comes to the products essential to war, starting with naphtha, it is precisely the USSR that is the main supplier, today, of the fascist brigand» (Prometeo, issue no123, October 1935).
The previous report ended by dealing with the newly begun Italian war operations against Ethiopia, recalling that the invading army, following its first leap, had moved 60 kilometers from the Eritrean frontier along the mountainous Axum-Adwa-Antiscia-Adigrat ridge. From this position, the Italians had then resumed their advance occupying the other hundred or more kilometers virtually dominated by aviation and defended only by small armed nuclei entrenched on the amba. The Italian advance, up to that point, November 1935, had been a mere military excursion, and the troops employed in the fighting had been almost exclusively Eritrean ascaris and Somali dubats.
However, by no means the quick initial advance meant winning would continue to come so easy. As the Italian troops gained ground, even from a merely technical standpoint, logistical and supply issues increased. Partly because of the tactics the Abyssinians seemed to want to adopt, the war didn’t show signs of being short-lived. The Abyssinians avoided engaging in pitched battles that were too favorable to the invading army, which was endowed with overwhelming technical superiority. Instead, their tactic was to infiltrate from the back and the flanks against the most dismantled parts of the Italian expeditionary force. Eventually, this tactic reaped its first success.
Italy, which possessed an army of 1,200,000 soldiers and was about to enroll the 1915 class, for its part needed to conclude the military campaign quickly. To this end, General De Bono, considered too “prudent”, was dismissed and Badoglio, at the time considered the most capable amongst the Italian military, was sent in his place. The issue was to put a more military capable individual at the head of the expeditionary corps, especially anticipating the logistical struggles in organizing the occupied territory.
But the greatest difficulties were financial. As of September 30, 1935 – that is before the war even began – the Treasury recorded that, during the July-September period, an extraordinary budgeting of 4888 million was allocated for the special needs of Italian Africa. Since the war outbreak, spending had undoubtedly risen to more than 1 billion a month. At the end of the dry season 15 to 20 billion ended up being spent, and no matter how far inside the country the Italians were able to penetrate, Ethiopia still would have been able to continue its resistance: matter of fact, it would have been able to take advantage of the rainy season to launch substantial disruption and sabotage actions against the invaders.
As we recalled, the laughable sanctions implemented by the League of Nations only brought water to the mill of demagogic Fascist propaganda, which presented the 51 sanctioning States as subservient to the will of British imperialism, jealous of Italy’s rising imperial power. Regime propaganda wanted to show that Italian people as a whole stood in solidarity with the Fascist government and that, to this end, they were ready to voluntarily and enthusiastically give not just their lives but everything that could come to use to the Fatherland: gold, iron, copper, paper, rags, etc. «In this regard, the gesture of the Duce – who sacrificed, at the benefit of public treasury, a hundred kilograms of bronze in the form of numerous busts of him found in the granaries of the rustic house of Romagna – is moving. If not the treasury itself, his gesture will certainly benefit art» (Prometeo, issue no125, Dec. 1, 1935).
But all jokes aside, the campaign of “Gold for the Fatherland” and the like was really a clown show. Staged with all the propagandistic tricks of the regime, but stripped of the overused rhetoric, it was the official figures that demonstrated the paucity of the affair: as of December 15, 93 quintals of gold had been collected. Deducting the recovery expenses of the metal, that meant at most a hundred million. Fascist propaganda also heavily focused on the “wedding rings” of the Italian brides. But how many women even owned a wedding ring to begin with, or still owned one without having had to pawn it? But even admitting that all eight million married women did their patriotic duty, and valuing the average wedding ring around 15-20 liras, even in that case the total number would have not exceeded one hundred million liras, that is, what, at most, 3 or 4 days of war cost. Of course, the senators, deputies and former deputies medallions had to be added to the bill. In this regard, it’s interesting to recall Caldara, Rigola and company also rushing to perform their patriotic duty.
The propaganda of “autarkic” and “proletarian” Italy fighting alone against the international plutocracy made a further crack down on the living standards of the Italian proletariat possible, lowering it even more: not exclusively as a result of the sanctions, but above all to prepare the proletariat for the coming world conflict, educating it to the war regime.
On October 28, concluded the Corporations meeting presided by Mussolini, decrees on limiting consumption were issued. In particular:
Since on Fridays, by precept of the Holy Roman Church, eating meat was considered a moral sin, the Fascist ban extended, in effect, to three days a week. However, the totalitarian press assured that bread was to be excluded from the restrictions. “An essential and most healthy food”, thanks to the Duce who had won the “wheat battle”. «Two ounces of very Italian robiola cheese nourish more than a foreign steak», so said an advertisement. But how many proletarians could afford, not two ounces, but even a proper slice of the “very Italian” robiola cheese? The limitation on food consumption, more than by government decrees, was in fact imposed by the continuous increase in price of basic necessities.
To understand the situation, a look at the official data of the food sales index suffices. Given to January 1934 the arbitrary value of 100, one had:
And all this was before the beginning of the war, before the sanctions, before the decrees on limiting consumption.
The year 1935 was coming to an end, and with the arrival of the new year the war bulletins also took on a new look. More and more frequently, “nothing new” was the talk around the Northern Front, the most important one. But for an invading army “nothing new” means things are going badly, especially since with each passing day 35 million were being wasted. The specter of financial collapse was looming and the rainy season, which would have prevented advancing any further for another half of the year, was approaching.
However, Badoglio’s problem at this point was not so much that of advancing as that of not having to retreat. Holding a four-hundred-kilometer front with an army of 200,000 men – taking into account that for every man on the line at least three more had to be used for logistic services – is no joke. What’s more, the danger of “little rains” was already starting to come into effect, making the newly built roads impassable thus hindering the work of the air force. The Southern Front, the one entrusted to Graziani, stretched for a thousand kilometers. Adding the urgently dispatched reinforcements, it only had 100,000 men available.
The great waste of the indigenous troops sent to the slaughter to spare the national ones provoked harsh reactions from the ascari, so much so that the latest war bulletins made an effort to emphasize the losses of the white fighting troops. Like Graziani, Badoglio called for the urgent dispatch of at least 10,000 Alpine troops, better if “real soldiers” and not black shirts who, by the Command’s own confessions, were more of a burden than a plus. It was undeniable that black shirts enjoyed favorable treatment, and while they accounted for no more than 10% of the casualties, looking at the sick and injured their percentage was three times greater.
Meanwhile in Italy, even disregarding the exaggerations of a certain anti-fascist press predicting Mussolini’s collapse at the end of each month, the situation was nevertheless extremely grave and tense.
While the reports on the uprisings of Alpine troops in South Tyrol might have been bogus, it was nevertheless true that desertion by fleeing to Austria was frequent. On the other hand, demonstrations by Alpine troops occurred in Turin where demonstrations were recorded in the working-class San Paolo neighborhood. Mass desertions occurred in Calabria as deserters took it to the woods. If we add to all this the large-scale arrests that were being made in Italy, we can get an idea of the consent of the Italian people to the African War and their struggle alongside the “proletarian nation”.
The Prometeo issue of January 28, 1936 reported, «In this regard, the ballsy article in Ami du Peuple – a newspaper notoriously at the service of the Fascist regime – is interesting, for it mentions that “in the last fifteen days four attacks have been organized, and failed against the life of the Duce”. Of these attacks, of course, there is no trace in the totalitarian press».
By mid-February the fascist press was blowing its trumpets extolling the great Italian victory over Enderta and the consequent conquest of Amba Aradam. It was only natural that the Italian army, with its artillery pounding the ground from 15 kilometers away, with its assault tanks, bombers and seventy thousand soldiers had succeeded in winning the battle. And that is to say the least! But the victory itself highlighted all the struggles of the Italian army, from a military point of view. From a political point of view it highlighted other things that we shall talk about later.
First of all, no ascari were employed, a demonstration of the state of tension we mentioned earlier. More importantly, where was Amba Aradam located? Less than 25 kilometers south of Mek’ele. After four months of war, the Italian army was forced to fight in the very area it had air supremacy from the very first days. And all this with the rainy season a couple of months away. In the south, too, Graziani reported victories, but at the price of amassing troops in certain points, thus leaving much of the front undefended.
If the advance of the troops was proceeding slower than expected, nonetheless the air force was dropping tons and tons of explosive, incendiary and gas bombs, showing the nervousness of the Italian command. This was because for Italy the most dangerous enemy was not the Negus, but the weather. The weather voraciously swallowed billion after billion. A financial burden that seemed disproportionate for a simple “colonial” war and approaching that of 1915/18 world war, all while a new and more fearful world conflict loomed on the horizon.
Governor Azzolini, at the general meeting of the Bank of Italy shareholders, reported that from October 10 to December 31, 1935, in two and a half months, the gold reserve had decreased by 1,043 million. However, despite the fact that its coffers were emptying, the Bank of Italy recorded 100 million in net profits to be distributed among shareholders.
Undersecretary Lantini illustrated to the Senate the sharp increase of the industries working for “national defense”. The mechanical, textile, food, and chemical industries were booming as the reabsorption of unemployment was considerable (thanks in part to the 60,000 workers sent to East Africa). The undersecretary was also pleased to note that, for the year 1935, the trade deficit almost remained at the previous year’s level, despite increased purchases of raw materials.
The loser in this situation was thus once again the proletariat. In just a few months, retail prices had increased by 20-25%, the cost of raw materials had doubled or even tripled, and the Lira, on foreign markets, had been devalued by about 40%.
However, when no one expected it, contrary to all predictions made by all the military experts, on the night of May 9, 1936, Mussolini gave the world the “historic” announcement that the Italian Empire had been created. Fascism was in a bacchanalia of triumph: Sciaboletta, who had become King and Emperor, awarded Mussolini the highest honor for having prepared, conducted and won the war. Badoglio was named Vice-King of Ethiopia.
The overwhelming technical superiority, the ruthless use of aerial bombardment and asphyxiant gas, the work of corruption against various local ras by exploiting racial and religious contrasts were all factors of great importance, but which are not enough on their own to explain the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Ethiopian empire, precisely in the aftermath of the Maychew battle where the Italians took a heavy beating. The territories occupied by the Italians were still small, the Ethiopian armed forces had not suffered major defeats and could have created, with the favorable season, serious issues for the invaders. But the Negus, rather than fighting to maintain, only nominally, a part of his empire, preferred to temporarily lay down, waiting for the fortunes of war to restore what the Italians took from him, with the addition of Eritrea. So Haile Selassie, having taken the train to Djibouti, then arrived in Palestine, preparing to live life as a “political refugee” with the meager funds he’d been able to take with him in the haste of his escape: only four tons of gold and a few little silver things.
Native peoples were immediately freed from the servitude they had been held to for centuries by the slave regime of the negus and the ras. They could then taste the joys of capitalist civilization. The work of civilization began with the immediate establishment of the Fasci. Together with it, the mass shootings took place. In a few days nearly two thousand “savages” went through the guns.
Africa, a continent so close to Europe, which in the Nile Valley had given birth to one of the earliest civilizations in human history, was the last continent to be completely occupied and partitioned among the imperialist powers.
The 19th century, especially in its second half, was the century of black Africa’s partition, so that by the beginning of the 20th century (apart from the small republic of Liberia, which doesn’t count) only two independent States were left: Morocco and Ethiopia. Morocco had escaped occupation thanks to rivalries between England, France, and Germany, which neutralized each other until it fell under the French clutches in 1912. In 1935/36 it was Ethiopia’s turn.
The Italian colonial adventure started very late and that is only natural, having achieved its national unity very late as well.
However, in 1857, correspondence between Cardinal Massaia, vicar apostolic of the Gallas for years residing in Abyssinia, and the foreign minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia began. Massaia invited the House of Savoy to establish relations with some «negro prince (...) to secure benefits for Sardinia’s merchant navy». In a later letter he insisted that «beautiful treaties could be made». And he added, «I would well wish for Sardinia, which has for some time now taken a glorious position in politics among the powers of Europe, to therefore try to position itself in the rank of other nations».
As much as a colonialist party had always existed within the Italian parliament – Nino Bixio was an ardent supporter of it – a small State in the making had far more important “fish to fry” at home before embarking on adventures of questionable outcome. However, in 1869 (a year before the Porta Pia breach) a trio consisting of a former Lazarist friar (Giuseppe Sapeto), a rear admiral (Alfredo Acton) and a shipowner (Raffaele Rubattino), crossed the newly inaugurated Suez Canal aboard the Nasser Magid on behalf of the Italian government with a mandate to «choose the most convenient place, from a commercial and military point of view, to establish a colony».
Thus, on behalf of the Rubattino company, the bay of Assab was bought. Ten years later, in 1889, the government redeemed the territory from the Rubattino company, sending a Civil Commissioner to administer it in view of its transformation into a colony.
On February 5, 1885, the port of Massawa was occupied, under British benevolence. It was the base for being able to occupy the territory that was later called Eritrea. In 1889 came the signing of the famous Treaty of Wuchale with Menelik. In the same year Italy placed the Sultanates of Hobyo and Majeerteen under protectorate, a cue for the later occupation of Somalia.
In 1893 the Italian penetration into the Tigray region against the Ethiopian empire began, but the adventure ended badly. On December 7, 1895, two thousand Italians were exterminated at Amba Alagi. On January 21, 1896 the Abyssinians conquered Mek’ele, and on March 1 came the great defeat at Abba Garima, near Adwa. Downsized, with the peace of Addis Ababa, Italy gave up possession of the Tigris and its claim to protectorate over Ethiopia.
Peace, however, certainly could not last forever. With the conquest of Eritrea, Italy had deprived Ethiopia of any sea outlet possibility, and it was thus inevitable that a continuous state of war would persist between the two countries.
But other imperialisms besides Italy were ready to jump on Ethiopia’s neck, especially England.
Firstly, one must keep in mind that the fate of Ethiopia cannot be separated from that of Sudan and Egypt because of an insuppressible geographical fact: the course of the Nile. And its sources are located, for the most part, in Ethiopia.
In 1872, 1875 and 1876, three successive Egyptian expeditions attempting to take possession of what was called “the Water Castle” had been repelled by the Negus Yohannes. In 1868, England carried out an expedition against Ethiopia. The expedition ended with the defeat and suicide of the Negus Tewodros. After occupying Egypt in 1882, the British would have certainly repeated their attempt if the powerful Mahdi empire had not created an impenetrable barrier in Upper Egypt and Sudan. However, England, through treaties, managed (especially in 1891 and 1894) to secure freedom of action on the Nile. When French imperialism, leaning on Menelik, also tried to get its hands on the course of the great river, London did not hesitate to threaten France with war, forcing the latter’s withdrawal (the Fashoda incident of 1898).
From then on, England would claim the right to determine and be the sole arbiter of the Nile policy. It is in this light that all subsequent events must be considered.
By the early 1900s, after the Mahdi’s breakup, the entire course of the White Nile was under direct British control, but the same was not true of the Blue Nile. The latter gushed from the Ethiopian massif around Lake Tana, and contributed largely to the irrigation of Sudan’s English cotton cultures.
By the 1902 treaty, Menelik pledged not to build or let any waterworks of any nature be built in the Blue Nile or Lake Tana without prior British consent.
The Tripartite Convention of 1906, which attempted to harmonize the antagonisms of the three brigands (England, France, and Italy), after one hypocritical preamble about Ethiopia’s integrity recognized the legitimate interests of England over the entire course of the Nile, Italy over Eritrea, and France over Djibouti.
In 1935, first with the war preparation and then with the beginning of Italian hostilities, tensions with British imperialism were rekindled as the latter saw its dominance over the entire river course compromised. How is it then that the British, who had threatened France with war in 1898, gave, while violently protesting, Italy the green light when the closing of the Suez crossing would have sufficed? “All this,” we explained in Bilan, «depends on the degree of maturity of the world conflagration that is going to regulate the new partitioning of the colonies regardless of one isolated conquest by a single imperialism. And Italy may well lose, in the case of world war, the loot it had previously seized» (Bilan, issue no20, June-July 1935).
The Fraction denied in the strongest terms that the war against Ethiopia was to be considered a fascist adventure. Italian capitalism, whichever the bourgeois party at the head of the government, would have responded in the same way to the national economy’s needs. Were the British and French wars of plunder fascist? The conquests of Eritrea, Somalia, Libya were also not fascist.
The Fraction also denied that the one against Ethiopia was a true colonial war, preferring to include it as a moment of the already ongoing Second World War. That was because it went beyond the limits of a confined conflict between Italy and Ethiopia and, above all, because it prepared a climate of proletarian mobilization around the bourgeoisie of the respective countries.
On the basis of the tripartite convention of 1906 in which Italy, France and England guaranteed Ethiopian independence (unless a breakup of that State’s power was to occur), in August 1936 the three powers met again in Paris (in the absence of Ethiopia, of course) to re-discuss the problem now back on the agenda. At the conference France and England proposed a partition of the Ethiopian empire leaving it with only nominal independence, a partition in which the lion’s share would fall to Italy. In addition to this, Italy would have received substantial financial aid from England.
It’s clear that if Mussolini had had the choice he would have much preferred a peaceful solution to the conflict which, along with territorial and political advantages (and in Geneva Eden showed that these were by no means insignificant), would have also guaranteed him the sounding sympathy of millions of pounds that would have been very useful not only to the Italian economy but also for “the valorisation of Ethiopia”, as they used to say. After all, in his recent statements Mussolini made it clear that the war did not intend to harm any British interests. «Why then – Prometeo wondered – in a desperate economic situation does Mussolini prefer to dive into the Abyssinian adventure, one which, even in the event of a total collapse of the Negus’s defensive apparatus, will require capital investments whose return cannot materialize before dozens and dozens of years from now? The answer to this question is quite simple: Mussolini cannot do otherwise; he’s but an instrument of forces that can no longer be controlled» (Prometeo, issue no122, Sept. 15, 1935).
The Fraction believed that the Ethiopian campaign arised not so much from the need for expansion of Italian imperialism as from the disastrous state of Italy’s capitalist economy, one that could have not survived unless it moved towards war. On March 23, 1936, at the Assembly of Corporations Mussolini himself said, «In the present historical period the fact of war is, together with the doctrine of Fascism, a determining element in the position of the State towards national economy», and furthermore, «the regulatory plan of the Italian economy is dominated by the inevitability that the nation will be called to war».
The Fraction said that the most basic conditions for justifying a colonial expedition didn’t exist. In order for a colonial war to be justified there would have to be «a rhythm of capitalist accumulation so intense that cannot be contained within the limits permitted by the capitalist economy within national borders. From this fact, the possibility of very long-term investments arises. Such are the investments made in the colonies, where major preparatory work, spread out over many years, is indispensable before profits can be made. Now, in the present situation, we’re witnessing – in much more serious proportions than in other countries – a stagnation of capital because of the crisis and the impossibility of selling the products of even those enterprises whose cycle of industrial production is very short. Under such conditions, the employment of considerable capital for such long-term investments is totally impossible. A careful analysis of the economic conditions under which the great colonial conquests were made (in the last two decades of the past century and the first decade of our century) allows us to confirm the economic thesis that we’ve laid out. It’s indeed true that these conquests took place in periods of crisis and depression, however they took place in a historical period whose characteristics were profoundly opposite to those of our current situation. The stagnation of capital and the impossibility of its investment in capitalist production occurred as the weak decline in the development of the forces of production did not threaten yet the very foundations of the bourgeois regime. Production’s potential could expand both in the economic recovery of the metropolitan market and in the creation of additional consumers in the colonies. We are currently facing quite different crises and depressions. These are by no means temporary halting moments of the capitalist economy later capable of resuming its momentum: they are phases of the chronic crisis of capitalism going through the historical period of the final decline of the bourgeois economy. The present potential of the forces of production collides violently against the foundations of the capitalist regime incapable of securing their development, hence, the freezing of capital is insoluble. Its unfreezing (the formation of new profits) would only be possible at the condition of a formidable expansion of the productive mass, but such expansion is on the other hand inconceivable within the limits of the capitalist regime» (Bilan, issue no24. October-November 1935).
Thus, this wasn’t a colonial conquest, but a “prelude to international conflagration”. To confirm this thesis, Bilan recalled Italy’s other African campaign, the conquest of Libya. «It is absolutely clear that the repercussions – in the Balkans first, in other countries later – of this conquest flowed into the world conflict and we can say that the premises of the 1914 war are to be found in the Italian expedition in Libya. An expedition that was not directed by a reactionary government, but by the leftist leader Giolitti, who had been able to obtain the indirect help of the socialists in the plan, successfully executed, to disarm the proletarian organizations, welding them ever more closely to the capitalist State».
If the Italian hostilities in Africa were not to be regarded as a mere colonial adventure as they had the connotation of being a spark-off of the future world war – the premises of which were now mature on the international level –, from our class-based point of view the problem evaluated in all of its tragic importance was the role that the world proletariat would play during this historical deadline.
But before we see what directions were given to the proletariat, both in Italy and in other countries, by the mass organizations acting within the working class, we must mention a second point of view that arose within the Fraction. On the previously stated position, no total homogeneity existed within our Fraction: there were, in fact, two positions. «Regarding the evaluation of the Italian adventure in Abyssinia, two positions existed within our Fraction. One position insists on the particular character of this war and that it cannot be compared to a colonial one. It’s based on the fact that Italian capitalism, one that has been at the vanguard in regards to the work of strangling the proletariat (the only force capable of opposing the war), within the imperialist forces is forced to take the lead in unleashing the war. This position insists on the equal maturity of the economic and political conditions of the other countries, to arrive at the conclusion that the Italo-Abyssinian conflict represents the prologue to world war. The latter could take place in the space of a few months or a longer period of time, however, there can be no possible continuity solution between the first manifestation of the war and those that would follow. The other position opines that the Abyssinian adventure is taking place at a time in which the conditions for international conflagration do not yet exist. This position finds the cause of the adventure in the Italian situation and especially in the needs of Fascism, arriving at the conclusion that a compromise between the apparent and actual belligerents will take place» (Bilan, issue no25, November-December 1935).
So the issue was: «Is the war in Ethiopia a direct prologue of the international conflagration or simply a new opportunity accelerating its preparation? (...) There is, however, no main or political divergence as to the positions the Italian and international proletariat, as well as the exploited black peoples, will be able to organize around in view of the defense and victory of their interests and their struggle against the war. Both the one and the other claim as the only basis of the unity of the workers that of their class interests and a simultaneous opposition both against Italian fascism, and the other forces openly or indirectly supporting it, as well as against the Negus and the imperialist powers which defend its cause. For as far as outlook is concerned, no question of principle divides the members of our organization. That is because those foreseeing the possibility of a compromise between Italy and the other imperialisms take in consideration, however, that at its basis lies a necessary manifestation of the solidarity between all imperialisms around Italian fascism, which is obliged to resort to the war in Ethiopia for the purpose of diverting in this direction the phenomenon, more intense and more developed in Italy than elsewhere due to the fact that its imperialism is weaker than the others» (Bilan, issue no26, January 1936).
Let us now see the attitude of the “proletarian” organizations in the face of the Abyssinian crisis.
In Russia, the home of “socialism in one country”, no kind of demonstration was called so as not to alarm the working class about the significance and gravity of the situation. «Most likely – we wrote in Prometeo – Russia waits for the horizon to clear, to accurately identify what constellation it will take its place in. Then, the time will come to call the Russian workers to fight in the name of communism and for the victory of the bloc Russia will find itself in» (Prometeo, No. 122, Sept. 15, 1935).
A much sharper and more extremist position was taken by the socialist parties and the Second International. In its August 1935 resolution, the Socialist International had pushed its opposition against the Ethiopian War to the point of calling on the Italian proletarians to turn their arms against the fascist leaders. Was it a slogan for turning war between States into war between classes? No, none of that, it was only August and the war had not broken out yet! As soon as war hostilities began, the president of the Second International, in an interview with Populaire, stated that if the League of Nations did not vote to sanction Italy, a direct appeal to the workers of all countries would be made, so that sanctions would be adopted. Already far from the slogan of turning arms against the fascists! The League of Nations voted for sanctions and this threat too had no follow up. However, the socialist parties certainly did not sit on their hands. British Labourists immediately sided with the “anti-fascist war”, against the threat Italian imperialism posed to the British colonial conquests.
Belgian socialists proposed sending arms to Ethiopia as the capitulation of Abyssinia could have posed a threat to their colonial rule over Congo and a justification for the invasion of Belgium during the future war. Both parties were in favor of war and called on the workers of their respective countries to fight in the name and defense of national imperialist interests.
French Socialists, on the contrary, were pursuing a pacifist policy. However, highlighting the likely Italo- German alliance, were calling for a shift towards England in the French foreign policy, as well as the application of “peaceful sanctions”.
And what was the indication given to the Italian proletariat, since they were the ones, both at the front and at home, directly enjoying the benefits of the Empire’s conquest? On October 19, 1935, the “Congress of Italians” was held in Brussels. In class terminology, congress of Italians means absolutely nothing, in fact, it was no class initiative, but an interclass one, even though it was proposed by the Stalinists and Social Democrats. The invitation to participate was sent to all political, economic, cultural groups, sportsmen and ex-combatants working in emigration. The basic theme of the agenda was to distance Italy from the fascist regime and the war of aggression.
Our Fraction, which had received an invitation from the PSI, drafted a resolution declaring the impossibility of participating in a conference whose premises were antithetical to the most basic notions of class. The concept of “Italians”, while stifling any possibility of class-based intervention on the part of the workers, rivaled, at the same time, Mussolini himself in patriotism, demonstrating that the true interests of Italy would have been defended by those opposed to the “fascist adventure”. The Congress, instead of appealing to the working class of all countries to wage altogether the battle against the capitalist regime, turned the parties into appendages of the governments of those countries, to which, for imperialist reasons, the equally imperialist interests of Italy opposed.
The Fraction, however, tried to actively participate in all preparatory meetings opposing the patriotic proposals of the social-democrat/Stalinist alliance with proposals for class actions. However, our comrades were immediately targeted by the violent actions of the Stalinists to prevent the voice of the Communist Left from spreading among the working class.
«To the present congress – we wrote in Prometeo, our Fraction opposes the initiative of a convention of the class in emigration gathered in the trade union bodies of the different countries in order to establish a system of demands which, framing itself with the interests of the proletariat of each country, can realize the indispensable premise for the development of an action capable of mobilizing, around the Italian proletariat, the only forces that can support it: those of its class brothers from other countries. In accordance with previous positions, our Fraction, therefore, invites the few proletarians who got lost in the “Congress of Italians” to leave the hall immediately, thus manifesting their decisions to head towards a path of class-based objectives. It’s not possible to carry out the action on two levels: the “fatherland” level and the class one of the trade unions, the appeal to the so-called democratic capitalists and the one to the proletarians oppressed by these capitalisms» (Prometeo, No. 13, Oct. 13, 1935).
The Congress was held according to the democratic ritual, that is, according to a detailed, laid out plan by a coordinating committee. All the speakers following one another had been previously registered according to an agreement established among the participating parties, and this was because the Democratic Congress had to come out with a unanimous address. (Unanimous is the adjective that the democrats use instead of totalitarian, so dear to the fascists. Even words, in their own way, make politics!).
For the first time in the history of the labor movement, each congressman had to provide a political biography, detailed and written. It’s thus evident that when our comrades, in order to participate to the debate, asked for the floor, it was brutally denied by the Stalinists. In fairness, however, we must not forget that in solidarity with the Stalinists stood the maximalists, the social-democrats, the republicans, and (should we be surprised?)... the delegates of the League of Human Rights. One proletarian punctiliously insisted on having the floor with the intent to defend the Left’s position, and the prince of democracy, Modigliani, replied “I know you, conniver!”.
The Congress closed with an appeal to the president of the League of Nations: «Mr. Benes, President of the League of Nations, the Congress of Italians against the war in Ethiopia, which under the present circumstances had to meet abroad to proclaim its attachment to peace and freedom; Gathering the hundreds of delegates sent by the Italian popular masses and Italian emigrés in a common will to fight against the war, and representing the Italian opinion, from Catholics to liberals, from republicans to socialists and communists; the Congress notes, with the greatest satisfaction, that the League of Nations Council has clearly distinguished, in condemning the aggression, the responsibility of the Fascist government from that of the Italian people; the Congress affirms that the war in Africa is the war of fascism and not of Italy, that it was unleashed against Ethiopia and against Europe without consulting the country in spite not only of the solemn commitments made before the League of Nations and Abyssinia, but also in spite of the feelings and true interests of the Italian people; certain of interpreting the authentic thought of the Italian people, the Congress declares that it’s the League of Nations’ duty, also in the interest of both Italy and Europe, to erect an impenetrable barrier against war, and is pledging to support the measures that will be taken by the League of Nations and the workers’ organizations to force an immediate end to hostilities».
The Nov. 10 issue of Prometeo came out with an article titled, “Brussels Congress Comes to the Rescue of Fascism”. The article clarified with lucid argumentation how the anti-fascist action had only brought arguments and justifications for the fascist ideology. It’ll suffice to quote a few passages: «It’s evident that such an approach to the struggle will make no inroads with the Italian masses who will end up falling captive to the maneuvering of Mussolini who is going to have a good game where he can say: who directs the struggle against Fascism is not the working class on the basis of a proletarian and revolutionary program, who directs the struggle is the League of Nations at the instigation of a power much richer than ours, an imperialist power, England. Placed at the crossroads and facing the dilemma of Italy-England rather than capitalism-proletariat the Italian masses will find themselves unable to discern the true path, the class path, that can lead to the struggle for the overthrow of fascism and capitalism. The Brussels congress has thus realized the essential condition not for the overthrow, but for the strengthening of fascism».
Another reflection on the Congress of Italians: the official representatives of the two Internationals brought their official membership to the congress. «Should we see in this – we wondered in Bilan – a definitive indication of the further evolution of relations between Stalinists and socialists? We don’t believe so. However, it’s interesting to point out that in the face of the first manifestation of the war, socialists and Stalinists were in perfect agreement in making Geneva’s and capitalists’ decisions on the sanctions their own. Whether tomorrow the capitalist position will be different, and whether the constellation front will divide socialists and Stalinists, is a matter that only the future can verify. However, even in this hypothesis, we already know that international capitalism only needs to point the road and the old as well as the new traitors are going to take it without hesitation, putting at the service of the enemy all the demagogy they have learned in the battle waged against the Marxist tendencies acting within the proletariat» (Bilan, issue no24, October-November 1935).
Another gem: Nenni, leader of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), who had already joined fascism, who had manifested the most contradictory behaviors even within the PSI, who had been accused by more than one side of being a spy for the OVRA (though this means little because so were the Stalinists), had the courage to compare the Brussels congress to that of Zimmerwald. This acrobat had the courage to compare a meeting of revolutionary militants for the struggle against the imperialist war with an interclass congress that had voted for the war measures chosen by British imperialism.
We saw that, beyond the disagreements that might’ve existed on the assessment of the nature of the Abyssinian War, the Fraction was unanimous in its appeal towards the working class, the workers and the exploited among the colonial peoples. The position of our Fraction descended from premises repeatedly recalled, summed up in the central thesis that in the phase of war and revolutions only the international proletariat can bring aid to the exploited of the colonial or pre-capitalist countries, to overthrow at once both the ancien regimes that oppressed them and the colonizing imperialism. Therefore, the Abyssinian laborers and exploited couldn’t entrust their fates either to the Negus or to British imperialism, one which could, if anything, boast of having taught other capitalisms the finest systems of exploitation and slaughter. «The position of our Fraction consists in calling these laborers to take advantage of the situation before them to wage a struggle for their class interests, thus joining the struggle of the Italian workers. Only the concordance of these efforts will be able to harmonize with the struggle of the world proletariat for communist revolution. And it is not a coincidence at all that in the Italian movement only our Fraction defends this proletarian and internationalist position».
Speaking of the “gold to the Fatherland” initiative, we recalled how Caldara, Rigola and so many other former anti-fascist deputies had symbolically donated their gold medals as a sign of solidarity with the fatherland during the trying time. And one should not think that this was an isolated phenomenon! On Nov. 10, 1935, Prometeo published a short blurb titled “Incetta di Sporcaccioni”. The short article read, «The war in Ethiopia serves as a convenient excuse for all the souls in distress to return to the fold – to the pigsty, we might say –, eager to fit in and participate in the general grievance. The latest in date, if not in quality, is Professor Arturo Labriola who, in a letter to the Fascist ambassador in Brussels, expresses his full solidarity to “his country” engaged in a serious and difficult but “glorious” action, and puts himself at the disposal of the regime. We would not deal with the moldering corpse of one emeritus Girella, former revolutionary syndicalist(!), ending his days as minister of the king as well as interventionist – of course draft-dodger and imperialist war profiteer – if antifascism had not paraded him by elevating him to grand master (!) of Freemasonry, president of the League of Human Rights in Belgium and regular, and lavishly renumbered, collaborator for the Peuple. We hope that the Fascist government will want to test his conversion by having him participate in the “glorious” war in Africa. In that case we suggest to the Abyssinians, if by chance they happen to catch him, to not cut his testicles off, but his tongue for the sanctions to really prove effective» (Prometeo, no. 124).
But the real scums weren’t so much the turncoats of Arturo Labriola’s type, rightly called “moldering corpses” by our comrades: no, the real scums were others.
Dimitrov, president of the Third International, wrote in May 1936, «It is really ridiculous when “Left” phrasemongers of various kinds oppose these tactics [i.e., supporting the policy of British imperialism, ed.] adopting the pose of irreconcilable revolutionaries. If we are to believe them, all governments are aggressors. They even quote Lenin, who, during the imperialist war of 1914-18, correctly rejected the argument of the social chauvinists that “we were attacked and we are defending ourselves”. But the world at that time was divided into two military-imperialist coalitions which were equally striving to establish their world hegemony, and which had equally prepared and provoked the imperialist war. At that time there were neither countries where the proletariat had conquered nor countries with a fascist dictatorship. (...)The time has gone by when the working class did not participate independently and actively in deciding such vital questions as war and peace» (1938 Lawrence & Wishart, English translation of Dimitrov’s “The United Front”). Dimitrov specified what, in his opinion, was the “independent and active” way. «Not [to] exclude abstention from voting in particular cases, giving the reason for doing so, on those various measures of a defensive character which are necessary to hinder the attack of a fascist aggressor (...) Any attempt to gloss over the difference between fascist and non-fascist countries must be exposed».
To conclude and give proof of Russia’s loyalty to the temporarily allied imperialisms, he stated «It is also not true that the cause of peace will gain from attempting at the present moment to raise the question of a redistribution of the sources of raw material, colonies and mandated territories». France and England could stay safe as Russia and the International recognized to them the legitimacy of the spoils of the 14-18 war, and the proletariat, subdued to the bellicose needs of these imperialisms, would be sent to the slaughter in defense of those same spoils.
As is well known, Russia, which had never broken off economic and political relations with the fascist States (Litvinov, after the Italians entered Addis Ababa, proposed the immediate lifting of sanctions), would, three years later, switch to the side of Nazi-fascist imperialism.
To conclude, we only have to take a look at the then freshly drafted policy of the PCI. At the Brussels Congress, the one that Nenni had compared to Zimmerwald, Ruggero Grieco, after an analysis of the Italian situation, concluded by launching a call for unity addressing it to workers, peasants, socialists, republicans, Christian Democrats and... black shirts. His initiative was not too well received, so much so that Togliatti, from Moscow, criticized him by pointing out that such statements were inappropriate.
After a (admittedly brief) period of reflection, Grieco’s proposal was taken as the party’s official position. Here are a few samples, drawn at random, from the great pigsty. Better cover up your noses! April 11, 1936 issue of Il Grido del Popolo. «We have to win even the fascists of the first hour over to the struggle (...) among them the idea of the ‘second anti-capitalist revolution’ is spreading”. Lo Stato Operaio, issue no5, May 1936: «Our soldiers, the black shirts, have fought with courage, have faced great sacrifices, suffered thirst and hunger, made an effort showing the great capacity for self-sacrifice and resistance of our magnificent people (...) They believed they were fighting to make their country great, strong and happy. Behind this admirable ideal, for which even sacrificing lives is well worth, thousands of our brothers have died and thousands have remained mutilated and forever ill» Lo Stato Operaio, issue no6, June 1936: «We extend our hand to the fascists, our brothers of labor and suffering because we want to fight together the good and holy battle for bread, work, peace (...) We communists want to make Italy strong, free, happy. Our aspiration is also yours, Fascists, Catholics, Italian men of every political opinion, of every religious faith».
May also saw the victory of the Popular Front in France. The PCF, which had focused its entire campaign on national-chauvinist motives, doubled its votes, and went from having 10 deputies to 72. The Fraction saw in the Popular Front’s victory a further welding of the French working class to the interests of its own bourgeoisie and imperialism. A confirmation to this assessment of ours came from the PCI itself: Lo Stato Operaio, issue no6, June 1936: «We Italians must draw a lesson from what’s taking place in France. And the lesson is this: a profound modification of the Italian situation is possible, on the condition of developing a broad action of fraternization with the fascist masses”. Lo Stato Operaio, issue no8, August 1936: «We proclaim that we’re willing to fight together with you and all the Italian people for the realization of the 1919 Fascist program (...) Fascist workers, alongside you we want to make our beautiful Italy strong, free and happy».
On August 16, 1934, the British newspaper Daily Mail reported an Hitler interview in which, among other things, it said, «If it rests with Germany war will not come again”. Germany would be the least likely to start war because "this country has a more profound impression than any other of the evils war causes (...) Germany’s present problems could not be settled by war». It’s clear that no one placed faith in these pretentious statements, especially since barely ten days had passed since the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss, clearly as part of the German design to accelerate the Anschluss.
But we’re certainly not interested in pointing out Hitler’s bad faith, who, while speaking of peace, was preparing for war. Germany’s “pacifist” policy did not differ at all from the “pacifism” of the democratic powers France and England or even from that of the homeland of “socialism in one country”.
Having come to power, Nazism did nothing but develop in an accelerated manner the program which had already been undertaken by the governments of the Weimar Republic. In this regard it may be significant what Krupp had to say in 1942 «The basic principles of the armament and the turret design of the tanks had been worked out in 1926 (...), of the weapons in use during 1939/41 the most important ones were already ready in 1933». The first steps of the German rearmament were taken with the utmost caution and secrecy. For example, the press was forbidden to use the term “General Staff”. From 1932 the list of officers was no longer published. The 25,000-ton ships were referred to as “improved 10,000-ton ships”. There was complete secrecy in regards to the construction of submarines. Pilot training was carried out at the club of the so-called “Air Sports League”. It’s evident that this secrecy was only a play, in which everyone took part, including the League of Nations. How was it possible not to know that Finland, Holland and Spain were building submarines for the Weimar Republic?
At the beginning of 1934, the Reich Defense Council approved the plan to militarize some 240,000 facilities for war production, and at the end of the year Germany received de facto recognition of its right to rearmament. Meanwhile, we were approaching the first open confrontation between France and Germany: a diplomatic and bloodless confrontation, still a clash, however, between imperialisms over territorial claims.
Under the Treaty of Versailles, the Saar coalfield was ceded, for 15 years, to France. At the end of the 15 years, a popular plebiscite was to decide on the fate of this territory: ultimately, the alternatives were either the annexation to the French State or the return under the German flag. The Rhineland, which had too been militarily occupied for 15 years by the victorious powers, was to remain demilitarized in perpetuity.
If German imperialism used the refrain of the Germanic redemption from the abuses of the noose-like treaty of the Versailles, French imperialism (backed by the League of Nations, Social-Democracy and Stalinism) was calling for the electoral mobilization of the proletariat to “beat fascism”. What was most tragic was not so much seeing the national-communist parties take the side of French imperialism, but having to see that even the “revolutionary” opposition groups were taking part in this grim dance of traitors, suggesting the proletariat to opt for the “lesser evil”.
On this occasion, too, the Fraction distinguished itself from that whole degenerate and degenerating miasma. Referring to the Saar plebiscite, Prometeo, in August 1934, wrote: «We’re convinced that if this plebiscite takes place, Hitler will achieve a triumph, a resounding triumph, in fact. After all, Hitler’s victory, or that of the status quo, meaning that of French imperialism, represents a class defeat for the proletariat, one as much as the other». The Fraction indicated, with lucid analysis, that it was not possible for the Saar problem to be resolved via a simple local plebiscite, but rather that it should be seen as an episode of the international clash of imperialisms.
In controversy with those who accused our attitude of lacking “revolutionary realism”, Prometeo returned to the topic in the September issue by clarifying why the Saar workers, if they really had the chance and strength to express themselves, should have rejected all the solutions established by the Article 49 of the Versailles Treaty. The indisputable fact was that the proletariat had been defeated not in the tiny Saar but throughout the world. Whether the destruction of the revolutionary organ had been carried out by fascist brutality, democratic infection or Stalinist betrayal mattered little. «That is why it is the task of the revolutionary groups to not incorporate themselves into this reality, but to instead maintain their principled intransigence, to prepare the elements of its intervention (...) in the view of an evolution of events that will break the totalitarian environment of capitalism permitting the resumption of the revolutionary course (...) After all, it’s foolish to believe that the proletariat can “freely” choose the “best” form of its own dominion. If it had such a faculty, why not choose the revolutionary path? Far from being abstract, our position tends not to sacrifice the historical interests of the proletariat to the immediate contingency which, instead of bringing relief to the working masses, is a stage in capitalism’s march toward war. Therefore, refusing to choose one of the three solutions of the January 1935 plebiscite means to oppose to the latter the statement that the only solution for the Saar’s proletariat consists in its revolutionary struggle. It means preventing chauvinist diversions, the dividing of the proletariat incorporated in the two camps of French and German imperialism. It means the march toward the establishment of a front of struggle against capitalism, for the defense of the immediate interests of the workers: a path that can lead toward the revolutionary struggle, that can help to crumble the pressure of capitalism in the whole world».
Just as the Left Fraction had predicted in the August of the previous year, the Saar plebiscite (Jan. 13, 1935) ended in a landslide victory for German imperialism: 477,000 votes in favor of a return to Germany versus 48,000 for the maintaining of the status quo. More than 90% of the votes were in favor of Hitler. Not only did the Catholics, whose opposition to the Nazis the “Common Front” so much relied upon, vote en masse in favor of the German solution, but the “Common Front” itself, composed of Socialists and Stalinists, collected 1/3 of the votes the two parties had obtained in the 1932 elections. A number of votes less than the membership of the trade union organizations and «also less than the number of the participants of the rally held on the Sunday preceding the voting» (Prometeo, issue no114, February 1935).
Should this result have been considered a proletarian defeat? The proletariat was not defeated by the plebiscite results! Its defeat had already occurred at the time of the electoral tournament, and the author of the defeat was the “Common Front”, which instead of directing its battles to class positions adhered to French imperialist interests. The direction that the Social-Democrat/Stalinist alliance in the Saar stamped on the “struggle against fascism” was not that of the safeguard of the immediate and final interests of the proletariat, it was instead a repetition of the ways which, in Germany, had led to Hitler’s victory: the tactic of elections, of piling ballots upon ballots in order to achieve “moral” victory. In the Saar there was the aggravating factor that it was not a matter of directing the electoral tournament in view of the party program, but simply for the service of French imperialism. The workers, lacking a class direction, faced with the alternative of choosing a ruler, naturally opted for the oppressors who spoke their own language.
We concluded in Prometeo: «This is the lesson of the Saar events. The battle was lost in advance, the proletariat having already been defeated. Victorious are, alongside German and French imperialism, the socialist and Stalinist traitors who have achieved a new success in their work of preparing the political conditions for the war of tomorrow».
In fact, during those very days the speaker of the War Commission stated in the French Chamber that Russia had offered France its army for the defense and maintenance of the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles.
Russian diplomatic activity was, at that time, intent on forging increasingly solid relations with “pacifist” France. The French Communist Party immediately put itself at the service and pay of the fatherland publishing a manifesto stating «The French government is on the verge of signing a Franco-Russian pact of mutual assistance. Therefore, if Russia is attacked by Germany, France will have to provide the aid of its military forces. In order to ensure the victory of Soviet Russia, the workers’ party of France, far from siding against its country’s entry into war, must on the contrary push for it, because the workers’ fatherland would be in danger». Here is taken the first step toward the realization of the Union Sacrè that will reunite the destinies of the Stalinist traitors with those of the Social Democrats, under the banner of peace, anti-fascism, the attacked nation, and the defense of the socialist fatherland.
However, it was not always indispensable for traitorous Stalinism to formulate so clearly its warmongering and pro-imperialist vocation. More often than not, to prepare the proletariat to be sent to the slaughter in tomorrow’s carnage, mobilizing it under the hypocritical guise of peace and anti-fascism was enough. In line with this position Azione Popolare in its 21st issue wrote: «We must unleash everywhere a vast pacifist current so that the will of the peoples can impose itself and triumph, so that it can be vigilant against the strong currents of the warmongers who seek to drag humanity into a new slaughter. So that it can control even over those governments that say they agree with the USSR’s peace policy, because at any moment they can change and precipitate into war».
For Stalinism, it was a matter of mobilizing the proletariat for an anti-war crusade. On the other hand, control over the governments claiming their friendliness to the USSR’s peace policy meant pressuring Laval into signing the treaty of alliance with Russia. Laval’s trip to Moscow served, if nothing else, to remove the last veils from the pacifist lies. On that occasion Voroshilov, while witnessing with Laval to the review of the air force modern squadrons (until then kept secret even from the eyes of the military accreditors of the different powers), declared, «When we have 5,000 of these small aircrafts, not to mention the medium and larger ones, then we can be whole-hearted pacifists». The joint Franco-Russian communiqué said, «Stalin fully understands and approves France’s national defense policy to keep its force at the level of her security».
L’Humanité, to justify the statements of the “wise” Stalin, was forced into thousands balancing acts to the point of having to confess that «the salvation of the socialist fatherland also entails painful obligations», that is, subscribing from that point on to the war of plunder that imperialism was preparing to unleash.
The Fraction of the Italian Left commented, «In the same way that Hitler’s victory consecrated the crushing of the world proletariat, the Laval-Stalin communiqué consecrates the final triumph of inter- capitalist competitions, the imminent inevitability of war and the last stage in the degeneration of the Soviet State. Thus ends the phase that we call of the Soviet “exploitation” of inter-imperialist contrasts, a phase in which the solidarity of world capitalism had been manifested around the crushing of any revolutionary threat as the USSR became the surest instrument for achieving this goal. In place of a universal crusade against Russia, there was a universal crusade against the world proletariat to which the encirclement of the proletariat State first, and its incorporation later, was fundamental. In this sense only one must interpret the Moscow communiqué and the statements of Stalin, representative of centrism» (Prometeo, no118, May 26, 1935).
If the USSR, in the name of the defense of peace, raised the army’s coefficient to 900,000 men and equipped itself with modern war machinery, it was also in the name of peace that mobilizing took place in Fascist Italy, that in Germany compulsory military service was restored, and, after the reconstitution of the air fleet, the navy rearmament program was announced. In France the period of service was raised to 2 years, in England and the United States the number of warplanes, tanks doubled...
On March 10, 1935 Hitler officially announced what everyone by now knew but pretended not to, namely that Germany had its own air force. On the 16th, the German government decreed the restoration of compulsory conscription and the establishment of an army, for peacetime, consisting of twelve army corps and 36 divisions. This meant breaking, unilaterally, the Versailles treaty. France and England protested, but they limited themselves to just protesting. After all, what could an army have been for if not for the defense of the nation and thus of peace itself?
As early as January, Hitler had publicly declared that Germany had no further territorial claims against France, renouncing all claims to Alsace-Lorraine. But it was on May 21 that the Fuehrer enunciated his peace program at the Reichstag: «The blood which has been shed on the European continent for the past three hundred years bears no proportion whatsoever to the outcome of events in terms of nationalities (...) Had these States devoted merely a fraction of their sacrifices to wiser aims, the resultant success would certainly have been greater and more permanent. (...) Germany has solemnly approved and guaranteed the frontier with France(...) We renounce Alsace-Lorraine for ever (...) Germany has concluded a non- aggression treaty with Poland with no consideration for the past (...) Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in inner-Austrian affairs or to effect an Austrian annexation or Anschluss». Hitler pledged to keep the Rhineland demilitarized: «The German Reich Government – the Fuehrer continued – is willing to consent to any limitation which leads to the abolishment of the heaviest weapons (...) artillery, battleships (...) The German Reich Government is willing to consent to a limitation of submarine tonnage or to its complete abolishment» (Adolf Hitler, speech at the Reichstag, May 21 1935).
While the head of the German government was uttering these words, the army had already received precise directives to stand ready to reoccupy the demilitarized Rhineland, waiting for a favorable opportunity to strike. Motive was provided by the French parliament’s ratification of the Franco-Russian agreement, and on March 7, 1936, the German army took possession of the Rhineland. “Germany”, Hitler proclaimed, «no longer views itself as bound for its part to the Locarno Pact. In the interest of the primal right of a people to safeguard its borders and maintain its possibilities of defense, the German Reich Government has today re-established the full and unlimited sovereignty of the Reich in the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland» (Adolf Hitler, Great speech to the Reichstag, March 7 1936).
Beyond official and formal indignities, for the belligerent policy of the various imperialisms the situation was evolving for the best. Germany needed the Franco-Russian pact to be able to militarily occupy the Rhineland. France, Belgium, and England needed the German move to proceed, without internal opposition, to build their gigantic war apparatus. With the active participation of the social-democrat and national-communist parties, all the springs of patriotic sentiment clicked at the desired time and direction.
Prior to the German denunciation of the Pact of Locarno, support for the League of Nations policy was presented to the working masses as a proletarian position, and if the proletariat found itself side by side with British and French imperialism it was to be regarded as a purely fortuitous and occasional coincidence. However, after the denunciation of the Pact of Locarno, the situation became clearer, and more terrifying. According to the directives of the Stalinists, one should no longer speak of “warmongering fascist States”, but of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, England, and the criterion should no longer be the political form of the States (fascist, democratic, Soviet) but the nation claiming its duties, defending itself against the aggressor, the “proletarian nation” demanding justice. Capitalism in all countries could rest assured because everything was now ready for the exploited to bless their own slaughter by the way of war.
«In this terrible orchestration the proletariat remains silent, tragically silent. Those in England who voted for Baldwin or Attlee, in Germany for Hitler, in France for De Kérillis or Herriot, Blum and Cachin, in Belgium for Degrelle or Vanderwelde, are but the inanimate remnants of what once was the great army of the world revolution. In the extreme state of decay they find themselves in, the masses no longer speak with their own specific language but with the one of the traitors who ensured the victory of capitalism when the revolutionary situation shook its regime» (Bilan, issue no29, April 1936).
In March 1938 Hitler brought the Anschluss to fruition, a project already elaborated and advocated at the time of the Weimar Republic.
Fascist Italy, which had appointed itself as the champion of Austrian independence, had to take the fait accompli, now incapable of countering the towering German power. In 1934, following the Dolfuss assassination, Rome had mobilized four divisions to guard the “Brenner Pass”.
In 1935, at Stresa, France, England and Italy signed a declaration stating «The three governments
recognized that the necessity of maintaining the independence and integrity of Austria will continue to
inspire their common policy (...) They confirmed the decision to consult about the measures to be taken
in case Austria was threatened”. In 1936 the 1934 Italian-Austrian-Hungarian agreement was renewed,
and in January 1938 a further conference of this little “Triple Alliance” was held. On November 1, 1936,
in Milan, Mussolini declared that he would have defended the independence of Austria, enshrined in the
blood of his personal friend, Chancellor Dolfuss.
«After Hitler’s arrival in Vienna, Mussolini said, «What commitments did we have with Austria? None!” On March 12, 1938, late in the evening, as Operation Anschluss was starting, the Prince of Hesse by telephone communicated to Hitler the official position of the Italian government: «Il Duce took the whole affair in a friendly manner”. On his behalf the Fuehrer replied, «Please tell Mussolini that this will never be forgotten (...) I will never forget him. No matter what happens. If he one day needs help or is in danger, you can be sure that I will remain loyal to him».
But the German chancellor’s statements did not appease the government in Rome at all, which took “the whole affair” in a way that was far from friendly. Italy did not intervene, not to honor its inherent commitments to the Axis policy but because it simply realized it was totally powerless to counter events. Especially since the Anschluss, in addition to foreign policy issues, brought serious internal problems.
On April 3rd, Ciano’s diary (“Ciano’s Diary, 1937-1938” translation by Andreas Mayor) reads «If the Germans behave imprudently in South Tyrol, the Axis may at any moment blow sky high. We must give them a hint about the desirability of reabsorbing their nationals». Continuing to read from Ciano’s diary we find, «April 17 – At the same time things are not going well between us and our German friends in South Tyrol. Since the Anschluss, the Germans there have asserted themselves too much with a steady increase in irredentist demonstrations, which we cannot continue to tolerate (...) Only yesterday there was a more serious incident in Lesa, in which firearms were actually used. All this on the eve of the Fuehrer’s visit is serious». «April 18 – There have been fresh incidents and we have evidence in our possession that suggests that the authorities, possibly the minor authorities, know what is going on». «April 20 – The situation in South Tyrol [...] is becoming more and more unpleasant». «April 21 – [The Duce] intends, quite rightly, to seal the frontier with Germany hermetically – and the frontier with Yugoslavia semi hermetically, because he believes in the possibility of a Slav-German alliance based on a common irredentism». «April 24 – Another long talk with the Duce about the South Tyrol question».
This was followed by Mussolini’s bluster: «If, on the other hand, they hope to move the frontier post one single yard, they must learn that it can’t be done without the most bitter war, in which I shall combine the whole world into a coalition against Germanism». The Italian government, in effect, was waltzing around the powers that were officially enemies. Again Ciano, on May 1st, wrote: «I Presented an outline of the possible treaty with Germany to the Chief. He agreed. I shall propose the treaty to Ribbentrop, pointing out to him that (...) We have made a pact with London, we shall shortly make one with the French...»
In September 1937 Litvinov openly accused Italy of being responsible for the acts of piracy carried out in the Mediterranean by “unknown” submarines and even aircraft. Such an accusation, which in normal times would have led to serious international complications, had no follow-up. The Moscow government sent notes to Rome protesting the sinking of Russian ships, and Rome replied that it would not take such notes into consideration. That Litvinov was completely right about the nationality of the “unknown” submarines is again confirmed by Ciano: «Lunch with the pirates – The Duce assembled at his table the staff officers of the ships which conducted the piratical operations against the Reds. He made a brief address praising the work of the Navy in the Spanish war». (Diario, March 13th, 1938).
Shortly afterwards, disagreements arose between Italy and Russia over the payment, or rather, non- payment of the mazut that the “socialist fatherland” provided to the fascist aggressors. And just what is mazut? It’s the residue from the distillation of gasoline and kerosene from Russian oils. And what was it used for? It was used as fuel for the submarines. Ultimately, Russia was providing Italy with the essentials that enabled the latter to carry out the acts of piracy so bitterly condemned in the face of world public opinion.
But the “pirate” submarines were not limited to impeding the provisioning to the Spanish Republicans. They even threatened the communications of France and England with their colonial empires. In early 1938, following the bombardment of two British steamers (the Endymion and the Aleira), the first by a submarine and the second by an airplane, Eden, responding to a question from the House of Commons, stated in no uncertain terms that these were wartime actions conducted by Italy. Eden then asserted that measures had been taken. Sea roads would be established and any unknown submarine or plane caught in their vicinity would be bombarded by a constituted “international police”. The nations assigned to the maritime police actions were England, France, and...Italy. “How is it possible”, we wrote in Prometeo, «that an agreement could take place between England, which openly declares that Italy is responsible for the acts of ’piracy,’ and that same “pirate” Italy? Because among pirates there’s always a means for mutual understanding» (issue no152, February 1938). And because among pirates there’s always a means for mutual understanding, in those days the Chamberlain-Mussolini agreement was being concluded as the Franco-Italian agreement was being gestated.
Democratic England, to show good will toward Italy – which was both fascist and pirate – proposed to the discussion of the League of Nations the item: «Consequences arising from the present situation in Ethiopia». It was nothing more than a de facto recognition of the Italian empire. After all, numerous States, including five members of the League of Nations Council, had already recognized it. Among them were the very democratic Belgium and the democratic Czechoslovakia, which was under the threat of absorption by Germany. The League of Nations’ decision was to leave its members free to recognize the Italian empire.
Meanwhile, on April 10, 1938, there was total consensus for the sanctioning of the Anschluss and the elections in the Greater Germanic Reich: «Do you agree with the reunification of Austria with the German Reich that was enacted on 13 March 1938 and do you vote for the party of our leader Adolf Hitler?». That was the formula. One ballot, one vote. Only 10,000 out of 4,500,000 Austrians and 500,000 out of 48,000,000 Germans voted against the Anschluss. Exactly as our Fraction had predicted when it wrote «We can predict the result: 98 or 100 percent of the voters will answer YES and the guardians of legality will be satisfied» (Octobre No. 3, April 1938).
After Austria’s collapse, the democratic State of Czechoslovakia was Germany’s next designated victim. «That today the Danube region – one reads in Prometeo – represents one of the weakest points of the international stability, or rather instability, is obvious. But this isn’t so much due to the “aggressor bloc” of the “fascist” countries as much as it is a consequence of the “robber peace” imposed by the victors of the 1914/18 war, which are precisely the “democratic” countries. While the treaties of Saint-Germain in 1919, of Triamon in 1920 – sanctioning the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire – degraded Austria and Hungary to the level of “rump” States incapable of autonomous life, Czechoslovakia was created: of its 14,000,000 inhabitants, 3,500,000 were German and 700,000 were Hungarians. 1,500,000 Hungarians, 800,000 Ukrainians and 700,000 Germans were “assigned” to Romania. There is no question that the realization of the “Greater Germanic Reich” – of which the annexation of Austria would be the first stage – had to bump into Czechoslovakia. Not only because of the 3.5 million Sudeten Germans, but also for strategic reasons. Czechoslovakia represents a formidable advanced bastion in the German territory – the historic Bohemian quadrilateral» (issue no153, April 14th, 1938). In addition to this, there was also another reason of fundamental importance: under the above-mentioned peace treaties Czechoslovakia benefited from almost all of the economic resources of Habsburg Austria: 85% of the coal mines, two thirds of the iron and steel production, 60% of the mechanical industry, 75% of the textile industry and practically 100% of the sugar industry.
Faced with the new German threat, the first act of the new French Popular Front government, led by Blum and Boncour, was to confirm its commitments to Czechoslovakia, even at the cost, it was said, of war. The USSR hastened to keep up with France by also declaring itself ready for military intervention. Pravda wrote: «In order to gain hegemony over Southeastern Europe, German fascism has conquered Austria. For the same purpose it prepares its aggression against Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak republic presents itself as Democracy’s first line of defense [the capital D was from Pravda] against fascist aggression».
As for the democratic nature of Czechoslovakia, suffice it to recall the 1933 law providing for the banning, by simple decree, of any organization considered hostile to the State, the cancellation of the elections and the establishment of concentration camps for political “delinquents”. It was the implementation of the formula coined by Masaryk: «defending Democracy through Dictatorship».
On the Czechoslovak crisis, on the other hand, it was England that spoke plainly and, leaving aside any kind of rhetoric, asserted that in the interest of bourgeois preservation the world’s highest imperialism was willing to endorse any kind of fait accompli in order to delay the generalization of the ongoing imperialist war. Hitler had assurance from across the English Channel that world peace was not going to be endangered for the sake of saving Czechoslovakia from ruin. This pacifist thesis was also accepted by France.
However, to show that they were not willing to passively accept the German initiatives, the British invited the Italian government to act as a mediator between Germany and the powers allied to Czechoslovakia. This led to the historic Munich Conference (on September 29-30, 1938). According to accredited historiography, at the conference Mussolini showed off his wisdom and diplomacy by succeeding in reconciling the positions of the two opposing camps, the democratic and the fascist. In reality, the plan that Mussolini presented in Munich had been drafted the night before at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. It was hastily translated into French and delivered to the Italian ambassador Attolico, who telephoned the rest to Rome shortly before Mussolini took his train to Berlin. Hitler went to meet Mussolini to walk a stretch of the road together and have the “Great Mediator” go over the little lesson. Ciano wrote: «At Kufstein [on the Austrian-German border] we meet the Fuehrer. We get into his carriage where, spread out on a table, are all the maps (...) He explains the situation» (Diario, Sept. 29-30, 1938).
Participating in the conference, with their delegations, in addition to Hitler and Mussolini, were Daladier for France, and Chamberlain for England. According to German minutes Daladier «welcomed the proposals of the “Duce”, shaped by an objective and realistic spirit». Chamberlain also «appeared well disposed toward the proposals of the “Duce”, declaring that he too had conceived the solution to the problem precisely in the terms of those proposals».
Another “democratic” aspect of the Munich Conference was that it did not want to make it look as decisions were made outside and without the knowledge of Czechoslovakia. It was therefore decided that the Prague representatives, while not participating in the works, should be kept “on hand”. They were locked in a nearby room waiting to be informed of the fate that befell their country. Masaryk wrote in his report, «At 1:30 a.m. we were ushered into the room where the conference had taken place (...) Mr. Chamberlain yawned continuously, not even trying to hide it. I asked Daladier (...) whether they expected from our government a statement or a response to the agreement (...) M. Leger replied (...) with indifferent superficiality that no response was required from us, that they considered the plan as already accepted». The Czechs were given a map of the Sudetenland area, which, starting that very day, had to be immediately cleared and left at Germany’s disposal. Ciano recounts that upon signing the pact, Francois Poncet reportedly commented «This is how France treats the only allies that have remained faithful to it!». The following March 14th, by order of Germany, Slovakia declared itself independent and placed itself under the protection of the Reich. In Munich, England and France had solemnly assured that they would have stood for the safety of the new Czechoslovak borders. But since Czechoslovakia no longer existed, the pact was also considered forfeited.
The same day the Czech President Hácha went to Berlin in an attempt to salvage what he could. «The German protocol was perfect. The Czech President was accorded all the formal honors due to a head of State. There was a military guard of honor at the station, where the German Foreign Minister himself greeted the distinguished visitor and slipped his daughter a fine bouquet of flowers. At the swank Adlon Hotel, where the party was put up in the best suite, there were chocolates for Miss Hácha – a personal gift of Adolf Hitler» (W. L. Schirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich). By that time the German troops had already penetrated inside Czech territory. At 4 a.m. on March 15th, 1939, the elderly Hácha, under physical pressure and threats, agreed to sign the document which said, «The president of Czechoslovakia (...) has confidently placed the fate of the country and its people in the hands of the Fuehrer of the German Reich. The Fuehrer [expressed] his intention to place the Czech people under the protection of the German Reich».
If Hitler’s move left France and England indifferent, which, as we have said, felt disbanded from their Munich commitments, on the contrary, this move very much unnerved and worried Fuehrer’s loyal ally Mussolini. Not so much because Italy, once again, was kept completely in the dark until the deed’s completion, but because, once again, in South Tyrol the Germans went back to expressing separatist feelings and, more than anything else, there was fear of a German penetration into Croatia. On March 17th, referring to Mussolini, Ciano wrote: «He is preoccupied by the Croatian problem. He is afraid that Matchek may proclaim independence and put himself under German protection. He says, “In such a case these are the only alternatives: either to fire the first shot against Germany or to be swept away by a revolution which the Fascists themselves will bring about. No one would tolerate the sight of a swastika in the Adriatic”» (Gibson, Hugh, The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943). Indeed, not only did Balbo accuse the Duce of “shining Germany’s shoes”, but official rumors were reaching Italy that, in Munich, Mussolini was being called “Italy’s Gauleiter”.
The Fascist government, fearing that it would have to come to a confrontation, perhaps even an armed one, with Germany, set out again to distance itself from Axis policy and to make its ties, which had never been broken, with France and England more solid. But it was precisely the victorious imperialist powers that rejected Italy into the arms of Germany. On March 21 Ciano noted, «The Western Powers have today lost much ground, which was won by the Germans. News about the attempts to constitute a "democratic bloc" has hardened the Duce in favor of the Germans. The title itself identifies our destinies with those of Germany».
Italy, threatened by rabid Germany and rejected by France and England, needed to prove, more to its bewildered bourgeoisie than anyone else, that it wasn’t a second-class power. Immediately, it put into action, in April, without the slightest preparation, its plan to invade Albania. But only the precipitous flight of King Zog and the very fragile internal Albanian situation allowed the Italians to emulate, superficially, the Germans. On April 4 Ciano noted, «In Bologna a battalion of bersaglieri mobilized for Albania chanted, “We want peace and not war”. And the present officers didn’t intervene».
Apart from the sentiment of the proletarians in uniform, a sentiment always opposed to imperialist war, it was precisely the Italian military organization that was tragic. On April 29, Ciano wrote: «Some impressions which I formed on the occasion of mobilization for the Albanian undertaking, a small mobilization after all. This has increased my doubts. The military make a big ado with a lot of names. They multiply the number of divisions, but in reality these are so small that they scarcely have more than the strength of regiments. The ammunition depots are lacking in ammunition. Artillery is outmoded. Our anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons are altogether lacking. There has been a good deal of bluffing in the military sphere, and even the Duce himself has been deceived-a tragic bluff. We will not talk about the question of the air force. Valle made the statement that there were three thousand and six first-class planes, while the information service of the Navy say that they amount to only nine hundred and eighty- two. A gross exaggeration» (The Ciano Diaries).
From the apparent and “legal” point of view, the world was still at peace. In China, the Japanese penetration proceeded with unrelenting regularity, and even without taking the fanciful Japanese communiqués seriously (they spoke of hundreds of planes shot down, tanks captured, etc...) bloody clashes, especially on the Mongolian-Manchu front, had been commonplace for more than two years now. But one could not speak on war, because there had been no declaration.
Moving from Asia to Europe, the Spanish War, in which imperialisms clashed under the guises of civil war and conflict between democracy and fascism, ceased in 1939. Thus, in Europe, nobody was shooting anymore. It was however clear that the European war was, on the contrary, in full swing. It was for now a “white” war, a war without battles! It was through this war without battles that Hitler was able to seize Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Memel, while Italy had to settle for Albania.
Evidence that the war was already underway:
In international diplomatic activity it was England that, thanks to its financial power, led the dance, as, after all, it had always done. But it was certainly not resting on its laurels, and now that it had lost some of its insular invulnerability, it was striving to even things out by instituting compulsory conscription and a monthly production of a minimum of a thousand planes.
We now present again, below and almost in full, the analysis of the situation made by the Left as of July 20th, 1939 which appeared in Octobre of the following month
«Here is how the map of European alliances may arrange itself:
«(1) The Berlin-Rome Axis, which can count on the support: of Yugoslavia, which, although a member of the Balkan Entente, signed a political agreement with Italy in March 1937; of Slovakia, under German protectorate since March 1939; of Hungary, which joined the “Anti- Comintern Pact” and exited the League of Nations in April 1939; and finally, of Franco’s Spain, which also joined the “Anti-Comintern Pact” in March 1939 leaving the League of Nations the following May.
«(2) On the side of the “democratic” countries, bilateral treaties guarantee them the support: of Poland (bound to France by a political agreement since March 1921 and by the April 1939 bilateral agreement with Britain which nullified the non-aggression treaty concluded with the Reich); of Turkey, with the agreement signed a short while ago. In addition, Greece and Turkey are “unilaterally” guaranteed by the “democratic” countries.
«(3) Finally there are the “neutral” countries – Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Scandinavian and Baltic countries, Bulgaria and Portugal. In March 1939 however, Lithuania, after ceding Memel to Germany, signed a non-aggression treaty with the latter. Denmark did the same thing in May; Estonia and Latvia, in June. As for Bulgaria, which, in 1934, refused to join the Balkan Entente because of its revisionist aims, and which recently drew closer to this very “entente” with a non-aggression pact (July 1938), it now seems to be leaning toward Germany. Portugal, which has a fascist form of government and is, however, much a vassal of the British Empire, supported Franco’s coup in any way it could.
«(4) Finally, there remains the USSR to which we shall return later.
«It’s evident that this brief summary about the probable European alliances has but relative value in an age in which treaties lose their value as soon as the ink dries and the most solemn commitments fade away as soon as they’re pronounced. Some might say that this instability works as a guarantee of peace, since no one is sure of their momentary allies. Thus we see Germany imposing on its “ally” Italy a pact without possible loopholes – as it had been in the old Triple Alliance – and for which entry into war is immediate and automatic. Germany also gets its guarantees by getting its hands on all of the controls of the Italian economic and military commands. The Italy “of the past” threw onto the international fields of labor the poorest, least paid, the sweat of its demographic surplus... Now it’s the blood of this very surplus that Mussolini’s Italy uses as cannon fodder!...
«The world is in a perpetual state of alert. Easing today, tension tomorrow. This plays into the hands of imperialism, whether fascist or democratic, and facilitates the establishment of a war situation that allows, internally, the taming of all possible revolts against war. It’s a fact that the situation today is as serious as it was in September 1938. It’s just that the excitement caused by the Munich days has tapered off, and that’s because we are getting used to everything, even the specter of war. In addition, the fact that in September 1938 world capitalism resorted to compromise rather than calling for the arms could make one adopt the thesis that, even in the current tension, a maybe provisional solution will be eventually found in a second Munich... Which, on the other hand, seems to find confirmation in the fact that, despite the strong words, Hitler was able to militarize Danzig as Poland was advised not to officially protest against this violation of Danzig’s “Free City” status (...)
«Finally, there are the international negotiations with Russia. Certainly, the British conservatives are very secretive about this “pact against the aggressor” with the USSR, even if it comes, internally, with a “barricade” against any social agitation. Indeed, it’s symptomatic that the Anglo-Russian rapprochement has as its quid pro quo a would-be anti-communist, in fact anti-worker development. Russia, in return for its own commitments, which, because of its position, are the heaviest, asks England to put the Baltic countries under its guarantee. Otherwise Germany would be left with an open path toward the East. In any case, if war were to break out, the Anglo-Franco-Russian agreement would be concluded, mainly because of the Anglo-Franco-Turkish agreement, for which Britain paid with money and France through the cession of Alexandretta, also depending on it. Unless... Škoda factories have resumed their arms supplies to the USSR and a German-Italian “trade” delegation is on its way to Moscow!...
«The collapse of fascist regimes as a result of an economic crisis has always been the workhorse of “anti-fascism”. Now, especially in this regard, we see capitalist “solidarity” manifesting itself in all of its breadth. Britain hands over to Germany the Czech gold deposited of the Bank of England (10 million pounds) and France gives Franco the two billion that were entrusted to him by the Republican government. In the Far East where the situation has worsened (...) it’s the United States and England that provide Japan with the means to conduct its policy of aggression. England, which has already lost 80 million pounds of the 250 million invested in China, takes care of the remittance into Japanese banks, and not others, of the Japanese-occupied ports’ customs proceeds... France is content with signing trade treaties with that same Japan.
«It’s a foregone conclusion that Japan must procure abroad most of the raw materials necessary for the continuation of the war and that only the “democratic” countries are able to supply them.
«If mental laziness prevents the public from understanding this very simple fact, the press takes it upon itself to bring to public knowledge that of the raw materials supplied to Japan, 57% was by the US, 20.5% by the British Empire and 8.5% by the Netherlands: an 86% total on the part of these three “democratic” countries!
«When one reads the newspapers, listens to the statements, there is always the impression of being on the eve of a taking up of arms... When one sees the various imperialisms armed to the teeth and grappling with war economy, which cannot work idle indefinitely, and when, on the other hand, one notices this moving imperialist solidarity and would be stunned if we didn’t have clear the fact that democracy and fascism have a common – and only – enemy: the proletariat finding its class path once again. To prevent the awakening of the class consciousness of the international proletariat, world capitalism has as its main [ally] Stalinist Russia. These new traitors who, united with those of 1914, allowed the bourgeoisie to build the conditions for a world war, just as in France, they will allow capitalism to realize a second condition: that of taking away by violence the concession capitalism had to make in 1935/36 in order to bind the proletariat to the war economy» (Octobre, issue no5, August 1939).
On May 22, the “Pact of Steel” was signed between Italy and Germany. On August 23, the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact was concluded. On September 1st, German troops crossed the Polish border. On September 3 France and England declared war on Germany. Between September 16 and 17 the Russian army began its penetration into Poland.
The “war without battles” phase had ended to give way to one fought by arms. For the world proletariat, beaten by the front of its class enemy (fascist-democrats) and betrayed by that International which was once Lenin’s, six long years of martyrdom awaited.