Join us for a casual conversation with Professor Haslam, who will offer us a window into the Soviet Union and, through it, today’s Russia, on Sunday, January 8 at 3 pm Eastern Time (US).
Jonathan Haslam, from July 2015 to June 2021, was the George F. Kennan Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton NJ. He is a fellow of the British Academy, a fellow of Corpus Christie College, Cambridge, and professor emeritus of the history of internati0onal relations at the University of Cambridge.
And he is the husband of Karina Urbach, who was our guest at a Casual Conversation sponsored by the Jewish Culture Group several months ago, speaking with us about the subject of her new book Alice’s Book: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother’s Cookbook. Perhaps some of you used a few of her grandmother’s recipes for your Hanukah feasts.
Professor Haslam is a leading scholar of the USSR and the role of Communism in international affairs from the October Revolution to the end of the Cold War. Last year Princeton University Press published his groundbreaking book, The Spectre of War: International Communism and the Origins of World War II. In it, Professor Haslam examines the significant impact that fear of Communism, and the revolutions actively pursued by the USSR around the world through its control and direction of the Comintern, had on European states and how that influenced their embrace of fascism as a bulwark against overthrow of the established order. Hence, argues Professor Haslam, appeasement, and, ultimately, a critical factor and heretofore insufficiently examined, in leading to World War II. In the course of his book, Professor Haslam discusses the USSR’s (and Stalin’s) treatment of the social democrats as “social fascists,” an enemy that must be destroyed.
This is a portion of a review of his book that appeared in Times Literary Supplement:
“Historians have long been cautious about considering communism as an explanation for Hitler’s war. In the 1980s, the German right-wing historian Ernst Nolte controversially claimed that National Socialism had been the inevitable consequence of the Russian Revolution, starting the Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute). Haslam rejects Nolte’s thesis as “dangerously simplistic”; yet “more importantly”, he observes, the controversy “stifled further historical research”, and as for “the majority of the academic centre-left, Nolte was sufficient reason to rule out Bolshevism as having played any role at all”. Haslam’s book avoids simplifications. It leaves little doubt that, in international affairs, communism was a factor, prompting western statesmen to be conciliatory towards Berlin – until it was too late.
“Of course, the focus on the fear of international communism does not mean that other forces that led to the war should be discarded. It was Hitler’s radicalizing foreign policy and territorial expansionism in central and eastern Europe that eventually made war inevitable. On the Allied side, the western powers’ appeasement efforts were also rooted in a fundamental misreading of Hitler as a rational statesman, the widely held belief that he could be sated by some territorial concessions, and the determination of war-averse statemen, traumatized by the First World War, to avoid an escalation into another brutal and bankrupting conflict (or at least to postpone it as much as possible). There is no monocausal explanation for the Second World War, as Haslam, too, acknowledges.
“Drawing on sources in English, French, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish from archives across Europe (and beyond), The Spectre of War is full of fascinating stories that offer a unique glimpse into the tormented world on the eve of the Second World War. Elegantly crafted, it offers the reader the knowledge of a scholar who has worked in the field for decades.
“Most importantly, the book cautions us to take ideology seriously . “The meat of history”, Haslam concludes, “comes to us only through the restoration of the prevailing ideas and dominant assumptions of an era, and the way in which these interacted with material life to push us to the edge of disaster.” This is particularly true for the twentieth century, which cannot be understood through rationalist considerations, materialist interests, or traditional balance-of-power politics. The Spectre of War powerfully demonstrates that, in the age of ideology, it was ideas that mattered.”
Understanding the Soviet Union is a prerequisite to understanding Russia today, particularly Putin’s Russia. I invite you to watch Professor Haslam’s 2015 inaugural lecture at IAS, Do We Understand Putin’s Russia?, in which he explains that the USSR was an extension of the old Russian Empire: “Russia had never been a state; it had always been an empire,” and its empire was over lands contiguous to Russia, not like the British empire, or that of France. Here is a link to that lecture: https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2015/haslam-putin-video . Here is the link to his CV: https://www.ias.edu/scholars/haslam .
The more we know about the past, the better equipped we are to deal with the present and plan for the future. That is a value of history, and of the constant re-examination of what has brought us to this pass. Professor Haslam will offer us a window into the Soviet Union and, through it, today’s Russia, on Sunday, January 8 at 3 pm Eastern Time (US). Usual rules apply: email me at firstname.lastname@example.org by close of business the Friday before, January 6.
Please let me know if you plan to attend.