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August-September 1943: Tokyo tried to reconcile Stalin with Hitler


MOSCOW, (Anatoly Koshkin for RIA Novosti). Several years ago the U.S. National Archives published correspondence between the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin, Hiroshi Oshima, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry that had been intercepted and decoded by American secret services during World War II.

From this correspondence, it transpired that after the defeat of the German armies in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the Japanese government had tried to act as an intermediary for Moscow and Berlin. Tokyo made several attempts to arrange separate talks on the cessation of hostilities on the Soviet-German front. For example, Oshima reported to Tokyo that Hitler had ostensibly agreed to halt the war against the U.S.S.R. if the Soviet leadership gave him Ukraine. ITAR-TASS reported at the time that, "It is not clear from Oshima's encrypted correspondence whether Moscow received this proposal."

After the disaster at Stalingrad, Berlin indeed wanted to ascertain the Soviet position on "reconciliation" with Germany. As an ally of Germany, the Japanese undertook the task of sounding out Moscow, although they pursued their own objectives as well.

In February 1943, after heavy fighting, the Japanese troops were forced to abandon the strategically important Guadalcanal Islands (the Solomon Islands). The Germans simultaneously surrendered at Stalingrad. Realizing that the tide of the war had turned against the Axis powers, the Japanese government decided to resort to diplomacy.

Tokyo elaborated a plan to mediate peace talks between Germany and the U.S.S.R. The Japanese hoped that even if the talks failed, the very fact that Moscow had established contacts with Berlin would make the U.S. and Britain suspicious and mistrustful of the Kremlin: the Big Three had agreed that they would not hold separate talks with the enemy.

At the same time, the Japanese hoped that if the negotiations were successful, and the war on the Soviet-German front was brought to an end, Germany would be free to concentrate all of its forces against Britain and the U.K. In turn, this would weaken the Western Allies in the Pacific, and Japan would be able to change the situation in its favor.

At a meeting in Ankara in January 1943, the heads of the Japanese information offices in Europe decided that their main task was to contribute to the end the Soviet-German war by means of an agreement between the two warring states. The U.S. intelligence services found out about these plans. The Americans informed Moscow through their Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. that the Germans had been making strong reprimands to Japan; and that Japan had replied by asking why Germany had declared war on the U.S.S.R, and why Germany was not trying to conclude peace with the U.S.S.R. and turn it into an ally.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was apparently concerned by the Japanese maneuvers. In a telegram to Stalin congratulating the Soviet leader on the victory at Stalingrad, he wrote that it was very important to do everything possible to achieve the ultimate defeat and unconditional surrender of the common enemy. In reply, Stalin said he was confident that joint combat operations by the armed forces of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union would soon lead to victory over the common enemy. He therefore indicated that reconciliation with Germany was totally out of the question.

An order by Stalin, Supreme Commander-in-Chief, published in Pravda on May 1, 1943, reiterated this position, "This talk about peace in the Nazi camp only shows that they are in deep crisis. What peace can be made with the imperialist scoundrels from the Nazi camp, who have flooded Europe with blood, and covered it with gallows?"

Yet the heads of the Japanese information offices in Europe still went ahead with their scheduled meeting in Berlin in August 1943. This was after the Germans had lost the Battle of Kursk. By that time, officials of the Japanese General Staff were openly expressing doubts that the U.S.S.R. could be destroyed by military means. The meeting in Berlin also concluded that Germany might have already lost the war, and that its defeat might only be a matter of time. Tokyo was concerned that after defeating Germany, or even before, the U.S.S.R. might help its Allies and intervene against Japan to end World War II as quickly as possible. This caused the advocates of German-Soviet reconciliation to redouble their diplomatic efforts.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry instructed its embassy in Moscow to try to arrange peace talks between Moscow and Berlin. But when the Japanese Ambassador to Moscow Naotake Sato raised this subject with Vyacheslav Molotov on September 10, 1943, the Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs dismissed the idea out of hand, "In the current situation, in conditions of war, the Soviet government completely rules out any possibility of a truce or peace with Nazi Germany or its satellites in Europe."

Despite the Soviet government's outright rejection of the proposal, a year later, Japanese War Minister Field Marshal Hajime Sugiyama, as well as colleagues who supported his position, began once again advocating Japanese mediation of Soviet-German peace talks. They said that changes in the situation were conducive to this.

Speaking at a session of the Japanese Supreme War Council on September 5, 1944, Sugiyama assessed Japan's chances of being successful as an intermediary as follows: "On the basis of intelligence, the Army Command believes that since the start of the war with Germany, the Soviet Union has already lost more than 15 million lives and a large part of its material resources, and is now experiencing war fatigue. Moreover, the international situation points to tensions between the U.S.S.R. and Britain in the Mediterranean, in southeast Europe, in the northern seas, and in other regions. It is even possible that there will be an armed clash between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. On the other hand, even though Hitler is once again planning an offensive on the Eastern Front, he is fully aware that he does not stand to gain from a continuation of the war against the U.S.S.R. For this reason, the time is ripe for Japan to play an active role in mediating German-Soviet truce talks."

Tokyo's major goal was not so much to achieve a German-Soviet reconciliation, as to make a goodwill gesture to Moscow that would prevent it from intervening against Japan. The Kremlin was fully aware of this.

In 1944, the Japanese government continued its attempts at mediation: it officially proposed to the Soviet government that a special Japanese mission be sent to Moscow. Having surmised the true objectives of the Japanese, the Soviet leadership instructed the Soviet Ambassador in Washington Andrey Gromyko to inform the U.S. government of the Japanese approaches. On September 23, 1944, Molotov sent a telegram to the ambassador instructing him to confidentially inform the Americans that, "Being well aware that the proposed mission would be more concerned with assessing the possibility of a separate peace between Germany and the U.S.S.R than with Soviet-Japanese relations, the Soviet government rejected the proposal of the Japanese government."

Anatoly Koshkin is aDoctor of History and professor at the Oriental University.

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