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"The Soviets Getting Ready for War"

Book Essay on:
Hugh Ragsdale, The Soviets, the Munich Crisis, and the Coming of World War II
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 192 pages.
UCSB: D727 .R335 2004

by Patrick Osborne
March 19, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning
$40 & searchable
at amazon

About Patrick Osborne

I am a senior, double majoring in history and Slavic languages & literatures. Next year I plan to study in Saint Petersburg through the IMARS program at European University. After that I plan on going to Law school or Graduate school. I have a great interest in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. In the last couple of years I have traveled and studied in Eastern Europe extensively. I chose to read this book because I wanted to further enhance my knowledge of Soviet history during the period of the 1930s.

Abstract (back to top)

While focusing mainly on the issues surrounding the Munich Conference in 1938, Hugh Ragsdale’s book examines the politics of European states during this critical period of world history. Ragsdale’s analysis addresses the politics of Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, France, Romania, and the USSR regarding German aggression towards Czechoslovakia. Ragsdale does a good job in coming to some conclusions about these given countries actions. Ragsdale concludes that European states and politics had an important role in the mysterious surrender of the coalition of powers to Hitler’s advance during the Munich Crisis. These political situations Ragsdale argues give insights to the impracticality of the Soviets being mobilized and ready to competently fight a major European War in 1938.

Munich diplomats, 1938
The Munich conference. From left: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, Ciano.

Essay (back to top)

The Soviets Getting Ready for War

Hugh Ragsdale’s book The Soviets, the Munich Crisis, and the Coming of World War II is a historical account of the political and popular issues surrounding the Munich Conference. It deals with the issues concerning Czechoslovakia and the stabilization of Europe as a whole. Ragsdale’s analysis addresses the politics of Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, France, Romania, and the USSR regarding German aggression towards Czechoslovakia. Ragsdale asks two key questions: what role did the perceptions of other countries play in the decisions made in 1938, and what were the Soviets intentions throughout this crisis? Ragsdale does a good job in answering these questions. First, Czechoslovakia and its leader were put into a precarious position in 1938, a position advantageous for German occupation. Second, France and Britain did not help the situation in the actions that they took. Third, Romania played a key role as well in the political conditions of 1938. Finally, the USSR’s desire to have control in Eastern Europe was an important factor in its role throughout the situation. Ragsdale concludes that European states and politics had an important role in the mysterious surrender of the coalition of powers to Hitler’s advance during the Munich Crisis. These political situations Ragsdale argues give insights to the impossibility of the Soviets being mobilized and ready to competently fight a major European War in 1938.

Czechoslovakia’s position in central Europe and the political situation at the time made it disadvantageous to getting a beneficial result out of the Munich Conference. Edvard Benes, the Czech president, could not act effectively without full collective security support. This was not possible because of the German and Continental perception that not only did Czechs live in Germany, but in fact in certain areas more Germans lived than Czechs.

There were a million Germans in Poland, half a million in Hungary, half a million in Yugoslavia, nearly three quarters of a million in Romania, and over three million in Czechoslovakia. They had long been valued for the skills and capital that they brought and resented for their economic and superiority and the attitudes of cultural superiority that naturally accompanied them. (Ragsdale, 18)

This shows why other nations would not take a hard line on the issue of Czechoslovakia. Documents show that Sudeten Germans did not turn against Czechoslovakia even in times of depression. In fact despite the hard times of the 20’s Sudeten Germans were quite happy and showed their political support for the Czech government. “The electoral experience of the republic demonstrates clearly that it was not the depression that generated the fatal discontent. Rather it was the propaganda and subversive agitation of Hitler in the context of the superior performance of the German economy across the frontier.” (Ragsdale, 20) But with the arrival of Hitler on the political scene, Czech president Benes was unable to hold off Hitler and the German advance.

Edvard Benes is an important figure in the Munich Crisis. He was the Czech president from 1935-1938. From new archival documents on Benes the reader is able to get a clearer picture of the man and the decisions made. He failed for three reasons as the political leader of a free Czechoslovakia which Ragsdale discusses. Primarily, Benes’s German was not very good and therefore his political language skills were not up to the challenges of coming to an advantageous resolution for the state of Czechoslovakia with German diplomats. “In fact, the German minister in Prague reported late in the 1930’s that although Benes habitually spoke German with him ‘he has only an imperfect command of it and frequently has to seek for the correct expression.” (Ragsdale, 22) Second, Benes’s image on himself was very idealistic and he thought very high of himself.

An infallible practitioner of politics. ‘I have never failed in my life and never will,’ he was heard to boast. He had ‘an almost mystical faith in his mission derived from his conviction that he would certainly escape from any danger, including a hail of bullets in the front line.’ He did not delegate responsibility. (Ragsdale, 23)

Benes ideological view and other paradoxical ineptitudes did not allow him the opportunity to express fully the importance of the situation. This brings light to his third mistake, in not getting the full attention of France and England. “Unfortunately, his were not the only plans, nor the most cunning nor powerful. More unfortunately, he was deserted by friends and allies who had committed themselves to him by treaty, allies who shared his interests, although they did not recognize it in time.” (Ragsdale, 23) This gives insights into Ragsdale’s part of the story to why England and France acted so passively.

France and Britain did not help the situation with their actions. First of all France had signed an alliance with the Soviet Union with certain stipulations:

In May 1935 the French and the Soviets signed a treaty of alliance. Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union signed a nearly identical one. The Franco-Soviet Treaty stipulated their mutual military assistance in the event that either power was attacked by another European power. The Czechoslovak-Soviet contained an additional provision stipulating Soviet aid to Czechoslovakia only following that of France. (Ragsdale, 10)

This turned disadvantageous in the Munich Crisis. Secondly, Ragsdale argues that France and the major powers failed the test of collective security:

The most dramatic and important test of collective security before the Munich crisis, was the remilitarization of the Rhineland on 7 March 1936. It was in some respects decisive, because it largely ruined respect for France in the eyes of its allies and its enemies alike, and it thereby destabilized the very foundation of the status quo and undermined the collective nature of security. (Ragsdale, 12)

This showed France’s inability to uphold the laws of the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Agreements. Hitler knew how to exploit this weakness:

Hitler knew how eager the apprehensive supporters of collective security were for reassurance, and he found promises to be cheap and useful. In 1934 and 1935, he issued public statements guaranteeing his respect for Locarno and its provisions for the Rhineland. When the Franco-Soviet Pact was signed, however, he argued that its provisions were incompatible with the League Covenant and therefore with the Treaty of Locarno. In other words, the violation of the Covenant and Locarno released Germany, he argued, from the obligations undertaken under Locarno. If so, Germany was clearly, by implication, free to remilitarize the Rhineland. (Ragsdale, 13)

This is the starting point to the French lack of response. This accompanied by British desire to take the policies of appeasement, showing that the list of allies on the side of Czechoslovakia to standing up to German aggression was becoming thin. Ragsdale continues:

As the conflict approached, Benes looked to three sources of support, the French, the Soviets, and his nearby allies in the Little Entente. As German revisionism advanced, as the French moved more clearly into the camp of British appeasement, and as Soviets support of Czechoslovakia depended on the prior initiative of the French, Benes’s Little Entente allies, Romania and Yugoslavia, looked on nervously. (Ragsdale, 25)

This gives insights into the importance of the Little Entente, most importantly Romania.

For with new evidence Ragsdale shows that “ Romania remained loyal to Czechoslovakia and would serve as a potential conduit to Soviet troops to assist Hitler’s targeted victim,” (Ragsdale, 26) a subject that will be explored subsequently, as Romania’s role in this crisis increases. Ragsdale argues Romania role plays an important part in the outcome of the Munich Crisis:.

In the meantime however, both the French and the Soviets were turning their attention to the cooperation of Romania in providing a feasible route for the intervention of Soviet forces to assist Czechoslovakia, and France in particular began to represent Romania as the last best hope of peace or war (Ragsdale, 52)

The Romanian government played a key role as well in the political situation in 1938, since it had the right to except or deny the transit of Soviet troops to aid Czechoslovakia in face of a German attack. The Soviets, if they were going to help the Czechs, needed a way to get to Czechoslovakia. “The most obvious liability of the Soviet-Czechoslovak Pact was the fact that Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union had no common frontier.” (Ragsdale, 54) The choice was between Poland and Romania to see who would allow the transit of Soviet troops. “ Romania appeared, from the viewpoint of Soviet assistance to Czechoslovakia, a less serious obstacle, and Moscow clearly recognized its geographically crucial position in the Soviet security system.” (Ragsdale, 54) Romanian documents show the plan of action that the Romanians were willing to take. Ragsdale writes:

In addition, and most dramatically, the document called clearly for the formulation of plans to permit the Red Army to cross Romania on its way to render to Czechoslovakia the assistance stipulated in the treaty of mutual defense: ‘If Russia remains allied with France an intends to support Czechoslovakia we will need to permit the Russian forces to cross Romania in order to assist the Czech Army.’ In fact, in June 1936, at a meeting of the Little Entente General Staffs in Bucharest, the Romanians informed their allies of the change of outlook, using virtually the same words. IN the event of war, ‘if Russia remains allied with France and agrees to assist Czechoslovakia, we will permit Russian forces to traverse Romania in order to assist Czechoslovakia.’ (Ragsdale, 59)

The USSR was going to help out Czechoslovakia in case of German aggression, but problems arose with the idea of collective security. Romania was primarily afraid of having a foreign army cross its country because of the overall fear of an eventual Soviet occupation of Romania. This was the end of the issue on collective security involving the Soviet Union and the other powers of Europe. “Having abandoned the idea of a close reliance on the Soviets, the French then turned inevitably to Britain. And there the French found their support virtually as frail as Soviets found that of the French.” (Ragsdale, 37) This caused Soviet Union to abandon the policy of a Soviet army assisting Czechoslovakia by way of Romania and thus the Soviets took the chance to crave out it own policy toward the Germans, Czechs, and Romanians. New evidence sheds light on to this and the Soviet true intentions. Did the Soviets have the capability to fight in a war? Newly found evidence sheds light on the notion of the Soviet need for control and ability to have effective fighting force in 1938.

The USSR’s desire to have control in Eastern Europe played an important factor in its decisions in 1938. The inability to set up truly substantial agreements was not good in the end for Czechoslovakia, but Ragsdale argues that if the Soviets were thinking of the idea of military support then they were in a position to wage war in 1938. Documents and accounts from this time shed light on this issue. First, this is shown through military over flights of Soviet planes to Czechoslovakia. “As early as April, Polish consuls began to report flights of Soviet planes over Romanian territory to Czechoslovakia.” (Ragsdale, 83) The Czech government adds validity to the argument. “On 15 April 1937, the Czechoslovak government concluded with the Soviet government an agreement stipulating the purchase of 61 Soviet SB-2 bombers and a license to produce 161 more in Czechoslovak industries.” (Ragsdale, 86) Second, by September 1938, there are accounts of the Red Army being mobilized on the western part of the Soviet border:

By this time, the Red Army was mobilizing. This is precisely the development of which both the contemporaries and the historians of Munich crisis have been so skeptical. It is, then, a somewhat fine and a decidedly controversial point, and hence it must be pursued here with some concentration. The published Soviet documentation is by no means spare; Western historians have simply paid little attention to it. (Ragsdale, 112)

Soviet Marshal Zakharov's memoir adds to this argument:

At 1800 hours on 21 September 1938 the Kiev Special Military District was ordered to mobilize and deploy in the regions of Volochinsk Proskurov, and Kamenets-Podol’skii a group of forces consisting of the Vinnitsa army group, the 4th Cavalry Corps (34th, 32nd and 9th Cavalry Divisions), the 25th Tank Corps, the 17th Infantry Corps, and the 23rd and 26th Light Tank Brigades. At the same time, the infantry divisions called up 8,000 reservists per division as well as their required complement of horses, and the 2nd Cavalry Corps was moved to the Polish border. (Ragsdale, 113)

Other orders such as this occurred in the final days of September 1938. This is evidence to the argument that Soviets wanted to have control in Eastern Europe which was a primary factor in their active role throughout this situation. Also this lends evidence to the argument that the Soviet were ready to participate in a large scale war by September of 1938.

Counter evidence shows that the USSR was not ready and not planning an offensive in 1938. This is evidence on the whole issue of the planes going to Czechoslovakia. “Perhaps the most curious feature of this arrangement, given all of the speculation about the Soviet planes sent to the assistance of Prague in the face of the Munich crisis, is that the original arrangements were made long before the Sudeten problem arose, and the planes themselves, purchased by the Czechs, did not constitute direct Soviet military assistance.” (Ragsdale, 86) Evidence shows that the Soviet Union had no military intentions and was just conducting normal military commerce with Czechoslovakia. Secondly, if there was a massive Soviet mobilization on the border wouldn’t military intelligence have observed this fact?

If the Soviet mobilization and frontier deployment actually occurred on the scale alleged, it should have been apparent to the intelligence operations of the other powers. Yet one of the stranger features of this episode is that, although the nations of Europe were increasingly anxious about the outbreak of war, the military intelligence of Britain, France, and Germany appear not to have noticed and Soviet measures of mobilization. (Ragsdale, 118-119)

This is evidence for the counterargument but Ragsdale’s disagrees with this argument, he agrees with another historical argument to why the Soviets were not ready for war. That is, if the Soviets were able to effectively take part in a major European war in 1938, then-why were they not able to mount successful campaigns one or two years later. This is evident in the Soviets disastrous campaign against the Finns in the Winter War of 1940 as well as the demoralizing defeats of the Soviets by the Germans from June to November of 1941. (Weinberg, 278) This evidence shows that the Soviet Union was not ready for a major European campaign in 1938, but did want to have control in Eastern Europe and did play an important role throughout the situation.

Overall, Czechoslovakia’s position in central Europe and the political situation at the time made it disadvantageous for it to stay unoccupied after the Munich Conference. Second, Edvard Benes was an important figure in the Munich Crisis, but was not able to gain much support for Czechoslovakia. Third, France and Britain did not help the situation by not coming to the aid of Czechoslovakia and being indecisive on the issue of true alliances with the Soviet Union. Romania’s government played a key role as well in the politics of 1938, in potentially allowing Soviet troops to transit through Romania to help Czechoslovakia. The USSR’s wanting to have control in Eastern Europe also played an important factor in its decisions in 1938. Ragsdale’s analysis shows that European states and politics had an important role in the mysterious surrender of the coalition of powers to Hitler during the Munich Crisis. These situations, he argues, give insights to the Soviets not being ready to effectively fight a war in 1938, but do show that they did want to have control in Eastern Europe and did play an important role throughout the situation.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/07)

Book Reviews

  1. Goldfrank, David; Hans Bagger, Alfred Rieber, David MacKenzie, and David McDonald. "An Ambitious New Work on Russian Foreign Policy," Slavonic & East European Review. October 2002 v80 n4 p.688-709. UCSB: D1 S53 v.1 (1922) – v.83 (2005).

Books and Articles

  1. Ragsdale, Hugh. "The Munich Crisis and the Issue of Red Army Transit across Romania," Russian Review. October 1998 v57 n4 p.614-617. UCSB: D1 R88
  2. Farnham, Barbara; Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey 1997. UCSB: E183.8.G3 F37 1997
  3. Weinberg, Gerhard. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War 2. Cambridge University Press. New York 2005.
  4. Eubank, Keith; World War II: Roots and Causes. D.C. Heath. Lexington, Massachusetts 1992. UCSB: D741 .W67 1992

Web Sites

  1. Spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk offers a link to general facts and the history surrounding the Munich Agreement. It gives an accurate account of the conference in detail and allows the viewer to use links to find biographies on the politicians involved in the Munich Agreement. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWmunich.htm
  2. Historyplace.com has an essay on the Munich Agreement. This essay argues how the Munich Agreement was a victory for Hitler’s foreign policy agenda. http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/triumph/tr-munich.htm

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/21/07; last updated:
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