The War Scare 1926-27

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 18 Pages

History - Asia



In the summer of 1927, the government and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fell victim to an acute war panic, which became known as “the War Scare”.[1] Many high-ranking Soviet politicians expressed their fear that war was likely to break out at any moment. The political leadership worried about a concerted effort by a united imperialist world to invade and destroy the young and fragile Soviet state. Frantic steps were taken to alarm and mobilize the party, the Soviet people, and the constituent parties of the Communist International (Comintern) to defend the “socialist fatherland.” A massive propaganda machinery was conducted with urgent appeals to the Soviet population, to the proletarians of other countries, and to the colonized people of Asia, to prepare for “war against war.”[2]

In the historiography of the early Soviet Union, the War Scare is still a disputed topic among scholars. Many argue that Soviet politicians manipulated the danger of war in the course of a factional struggle in the ruling Communist party for their own advantage.[3] Although it was Stalin, who ultimately exploited the War Scare more effectively and derived the greatest benefit from it, he was not the only one. It was Bukharin, the head of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern), who initiated it. Moreover, the Opposition consisting of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, tried to use the opportunity to carry out an assault on Stalin’s foreign policy and to criticize the degeneracy of the party regime under his control.[4] This attempt backfired, and the Opposition saw itself suddenly confronted with charges of disloyalty in the face of an external threat. A few months later, Trotsky and Zinoviev were expelled from the party and the reign of Stalin began.

For the historians, it is hard to say what the protagonists really thought or believed during the War Scare. However, they know that the Soviet leaders often used times of crisis in international politics to mobilize and rally the nation behind them, thereby suppressing and silencing the Opposition further. On the other hand, the interwar era is also known as “the twenty years crisis” with many ruptures in international relations. The First World War and the foreign intervention of Western countries during the Russian civil war are not forgotten either. Therefore, the historians should not only look at a single aspect of an event, but also take a broad overview of the domestic and international circumstances, including social, economic, and political determinants surrounding the historical event. They should try to see where these elements began, where they ended, which policies endured and which of them ended abruptly.

I will first give an overview of the international stage and the incidents leading up to the War Scare, and investigate their effects on the rhetoric and the policies pursued by the protagonists. I will also explain some domestic factors and reactions that accompanied these events, and look for any logical connections between them. Was the War Scare fabricated to manipulate political outcomes in the struggle for power? Did the Soviet leaders really believe in a looming war, and if so, what did they do to address it? How did the War Scare abate? By asking these questions, I will try to find out if the War Scare was genuine or fabricated.

The International Theater 1926/27. Chain of Events

The possibility of a British-organized coalition against the Soviet Union had been a major headline of the Soviet discourse in world politics since 1924, in the time of the “Zinoviev letter”.[5] However, during the summer of 1926, the content of foreign-relations predication in Moscow changed. A generalized fear of diplomatic and economic isolation, which eventually led to war, radicalized to a more concrete fear of imminent military attack. The Russians assumed that the key to European politics lay in London, and therefore became vigilante observers of British diplomacy and its every move.[6]

During the last months of 1926, the Soviet press repeatedly made alarming concerns about the international scene. In the summer of 1926, Soviet-British relations worsened, because during the British coalminers strike, the Red International of Trade Unions (Profintern) attempted to offer the British strikers financial assistance.[7] However, this offer was rejected by the British Unions, and the funds were offered directly to the striking British miners. Although the Profintern made no efforts to advise the miners in the practical matters of organizing their strike, the diehard campaign against the “Red Menace” intensified in the press and inside government circles.[8] The British government became very hostile. Many cabinet members made aggressive statements against the Soviet government and pleas for a united front of European powers against Russia appeared in the British press.[9]

In May of 1926, Marshal Pilsudski conducted a coup d’etat in Poland, which raised further Soviet anxiety.[10] The coup had come as a surprise, and Pilsudski was well known in Soviet Russia as the Polish general who had brought serious defeats to the Red Army during the civil war. He was seen as a counterrevolutionary general and a reminder of the intervention years. In the Soviet press, the propaganda implied that Britain stood behind the Pilsudski coup and that it was part of the British anti-Soviet campaign.[11] Although no evidence could be found to support these accusations, the Soviet propaganda continued to run the same pattern.

The stage for an invasion became more pronounced during the following months, and later turned into a full-scale War Scare crisis. It was believed that through diplomatic means, Britain would form a coalition of European countries consisting of Germany, Poland, Romania, and Finland. The script was as follows: Germany would be won over by promises of reparations relief and the return of Danzig and the Polish corridor. Poland would be compensated with Memel, all or part of the rest of Lithuania, and an international loan. Finland and Romania would be involved to some extent as well. Pilsudski would create an incident involving the USSR, France would come to his assistance, and the second imperialist onslaught against the Soviet Union would then begin.[12]

The Soviet foreign policy took another blow in early December 1926, when the Manchester Guardian and the German Social Democrats – the latter was the source of the information – revealed the secret dealings between the German and Soviet Armies.[13] This embarrassment had a great impact on the Soviet leadership, which feared that as a result of this leak, the relations from which both countries had profited greatly would now end.[14] As it turned out, the German side suffered more than the Soviets; nevertheless, the initial psychological impact of the revelations was painful to the Soviet leadership.

Soviet Reactions

Bukharin was the first Bolshevik leader to make the alarming accusations. In January 1927, he blamed Britain for preparing an ideological and morale ground against the USSR and for forging a coalition of interventionist countries to encircle and destroy the Soviet Union.[15] Bukharin said, “We possess no guarantee against an invasion of our country. It is of course not a question of today or tomorrow, or even of next month, but we have no guarantee whatever that it may not come in the spring or the autumn.” He repeated his warnings and added that even dissension among the capitalists would not hinder the formation of a joint intervention against the Soviet state.[16]

As the head of the Comintern, Bukharin lent authoritative support to the propaganda already started by the press, and ignited a wave of popular alarm. The urban population rushed to buy consumer goods, the peasants reacted very unfavorably to calls to prepare for a war attack, and party members were constantly questioned by the masses.[17] To read the press from this period, is to experience a sense of concern, if not fright, that there was a logic to the events of the period, and that they were manifestations of an elaborate scheme to isolate, weaken, and then destroy the Soviet state.[18]


[1] See two main articles related to the topic, John P. Sontag, The Soviet War Scare of 1926-27, Russian Review 34, 1 (Jan. 1975): 66-77 and Alfred G. Meyer, The War Scare of 1927, Soviet Union/Union Sovietique 5, No.1 (1978): 1-25.

[2] See, Alfred G. Meyer, The War Scare of 1927, 1.

[3] See, Adam Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1921-1929 (New York: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1968), 165, 183 and see also, Mikhael Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich, Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (New York: Summit Books, 1982), 215 and Sontag, The Soviet War Scare, 66.

[4] See, Alfred G. Meyer, The War Scare of 1927, 2.

[5] The Zinoviev letter was a controversial document circulating in the British press during 1924. It was blamed on the Bolshevik leader Grigori Zinoviev, who also headed the Comintern. The letter purported to be a directive from Moscow to the British Communist Party, calling for political agitations against the British government. It was responsible for the fall of the first Labor government under Ramsay MacDonald. It was later proved that as a phony, nevertheless, British politicians and the press used it allover again to remind the people of the hostile and cunning attitudes of the Soviets. See, Gabriel Godoretsky, The Precarious Truce: Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1924-27 (Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 35-52.

[6] Ibid, 232.

[7] See Wolfgang Eichwede, „ Der Eintritt Sowjetrusslands in die Internationale Politik, 1921-1927.“ In Dietrich Geyer (ed.), Sowjetunion: Außenpolitik 1917-1955 (Köln, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1972), 207.

[8] See, Jon Jacobson, When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 169.

[9] See, Eichwede, Der Eintritt Sowjetrusslands, 208.

[10] See, Louis Fischer, The Soviets in World Affairs: A History of Relations of the Soviet Union and the Rest of the World, 1917-1929 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1960), 527-535.

[11] See, Fischer, The Soviets in World Affairs, 433-436. Poland, which had an army of an quarter million men, enjoyed favorable relations with Romania to its south, claimed a kind of diplomatic hegemony over the Baltic states to the north, and maintained a close alliance with a major European power France. This political and geographical problem was in turn mediated by an ideology of inevitable conflict between the forces of imperialism and those of proletarian revolution. See, Jacobson, When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics, 216-217.

[12] Ibid, 217. In the latter half of 1926, Soviet diplomats repeatedly sought assurances from their German counterparts that Berlin was not conspiring with the British in East-Europe. Despite German annoyance, at Soviet persistence in this matter, Chicherin the Foreign Commissar pressed very hard for German renewed disavowals. See, Sontag, The Soviet War Scare, 67.

[13] See, Edward Hallet Carr, A History of Soviet Russia: Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926-1929 Volume Three – I (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976), 36-46 and Arthur L. Smith, The German General Staff and Russia, 1919-1926, Soviet Studies 8 (October, 1956): 125-133.

[14] See, Alfred G. Meyer, The War Scare of 1927, 5.

[15] See Stephen E. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 260-265.

[16] See, Alfred G. Meyer, The War Scare of 1927, 4.

[17] Ibid, 5.

[18] See, Sontag, The Soviet War Scare, 71.


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Title: The War Scare 1926-27