14 May 2015

A Pact That Started World War II

Roger Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance. Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939–1941*
Historians investigating the causes of World War II seldom return to the treaty that made the beginning of hostilities possible: to the German–Soviet pact of 23 August 1939. This so-called “non-aggression” agreement sometimes referred to as the “Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact” was sprung upon the Western powers as an unpleasant surprise; it also rocked all communist parties outside the USSR the propaganda of which had earlier been uncompromisingly anti-Fascist. While the shock might have been partly forgotten after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, one thing remains certain: Hitler would not have dared to attack Poland and start World War II had its Eastern flank not been secured by the agreement with Stalin.
For this and other reasons Roger Moorhouse’s recent book makes interesting reading. Not only the circumstances of the pact’s conclusion are traced carefully, but its immediate consequences are also laid bare: the “imperialisticre-division” of much of Eastern Europe from the Baltic States through Poland down to Bessarabia. This could take place only because the German–Soviet pact was completed by a Secret Additional Protocol that mapped out the spheres of influence or “serious interest” between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The existence of this document was hotly denied by the Soviet prosecutors at the post-war Nuremberg trials and Moorhouse tells us that “stone-arsed” Soviet Foreign Secretary Vyacheslav Molotov refused to admit it (calling it a forgery) up to his death in 1986. The Protocol not only exists (Moorhouse reproduces it on page 306 of his book), but it clearly proves that not only rapacious Nazi Germany but also Stalin’s “peace-loving” empire very much benefited from the alliance with the other Devil.
What made the short-lived Hitler–Stalin alliance possible? Undoubtedly procrastination by the major Western powers and their policy of appeasement towards Hitler were part of the equation. This made Stalin doubt the sincerity of the Anglo-French guarantee given to Poland as well as overestimate the pacifism of the masses in England and France. By signing the pact Hitler made sure that he could avoid fighting his war ontwo fronts at the same time – as for Stalin, his argument in favour of the pact sounds now less credible. Did he just want to save time? Yes, but the readiness of the Soviet army to fight a major war was not substantially improved between 1939 and 1941 (in this respect only the experience of the Winter War with Finland might have helped), strategic reforms suggested by General Zhukov were ignored, and the events of June 1941 showed that Stalin trusted his fellow-dictator, Hitler more than anyone else. The Soviet leader tried to avoid any action that might have been interpreted as “provocation” of the Third Reich, he was adamant not to listen to the deluge of information by June 1941 all pointing to an imminent German attack; in fact, he practised appeasement worse than Chamberlain and Daladier. His miscalculation cost millions of Russian lives captured or killed in the first phase of the war.
Moorhouse points out that initially both powers greatly profited from the pact, Germany economically, the USSR both economically and politically, though foreign reactions substantially reduced the political gains. Soviet foodstuff and oil helped the Wehrmacht in its campaigns in Western Europe (though it was an exaggeration to suggest that German tanks running on Soviet oil conquered France) and machine equipment imported from Germany was instrumental in building better Soviet tanks such as the sturdy T34. On the debit side stands the immense suffering caused in the occupied territories of both empires. According to Moorhouse’s statistics German forces burnt 531 Polish towns and villages, and between September 1939 and August 1940 carried out over 700 mass executions of civilians. Just between June and August 1940 the Germans’ so-called AB (Extraordinary Pacification) Action resulted in killing around 6,000 members of the “Polish elite” in the Palmiry Forest, Częstochowa and near Lublin (p. 53). These actions alone earned such hostility against the occupiers in Poland that of all European countries it became almost the only one without potential Quislings.
The Soviet authorities worked more slowly, first keeping up democratic” pretences. Here mass deportations of the Polish civilian population to the East started “only” in February 1940, to be followed by two more waves in April and June of the same year. Also in April, after a selection process which saved only a few hundred officers, the so-called “Katyń murders” began: from three different POW camps officers were taken to sites of execution, of which the best known is the Katyń Forest near Smolensk. Here the victims, with hands tied behind their backs, were forced to line up and shot in the nape of the neck. The number of people executed in this way at three different locations was around 14,000. Clearly, Stalin also decided to eliminate the possible leadership element of a future Polish state; it seems that he was not as certain as Hitler that Poland, though defeated, would cease to exist forever.
Moorhouse, as other researchers before him, points to the closeness in time of the German and Soviet mass executions: “It is certainly notable… that both the NKVD’s Katyń massacres and the Gestapo’s AB Aktion were ordered within a few days of eachother, thereby suggesting at least an element of imitation, if not concerted action” (pp. 69–70). There is no documentary evidence of collusion, but if Ivan Serov was in touch with Heinrich Himmler in those days, such records could have been easily destroyed after 1941 when neither sides would have wanted to boast of their previous cooperation.
Mass deportation of the population from the Baltic States (first “protected”, later absorbed by the USSR) started just a few weeks before the German attack on 22 June 1941. Opponents or critics of the new Soviet regime were arrested and tortured in earlier months, too, but the NKVD must have had enough information to suspect an eventual attack on the USSR by early June to carry out the brutal deportations which (as a list of the local head of the NKVD in Lithuania shows, p. 250) targeted entire classes or occupations. This explains why the Baltic populations first greeted the Wehrmacht almost joyfully, realising only slowly that their pre-war independence remained a daydream and the best they could have hoped for was a German “protectorate”. Deportations also took place from Bessarabia ceded by Romania to the Soviets in June 1940.
In the context of the German–Soviet pact and following cooperation Hungary is hardly mentioned, it merits only a couple of footnotes. This is a pity, particularly when we come to the role of Hungary in the German attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941. Some Hungarian historians tend to view Count Pál Teleki’s efforts to stay out of the world war through rose-tinted glasses. Teleki certainly sympathised with the English and actively helped Polish officers to escape to the West between 1939 and 1941. Against this stands the fact that Hungary joined the Tripartite Act on 20 November 1940, thereby fatally binding itself to Hitler’s Germany – when Hitler demanded free passage through Hungary to strike at Yugoslavia, he could refer to this pact which had preceded the Hungarian–Yugoslav Eternal Friendship Treaty by just a few weeks. So Teleki’s problem was that he had to dishonour at least one of the previously signed treaties and as he knew that Germany had the upper hand and Admiral Horthy insisted on further territorial revision, he chose suicide as a personal way out. Sir Bryan Cartledge in his excellent history The Will to Survive calls Churchill’s epitaph of Teleki “perhaps over-generous”; in Moorhouse’s book Teleki’s name is altogether missing which, I think, is probably ungenerous.
It is still hard to erase the memory of the German–Soviet Pact. Once again it is in the news as ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s increasingly ultra-nationalistic sabre- rattling grabs the headlines. Only recently Putin was asked what he thought of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. He replied with a shrug: “it was not so bad”. After all (at the cost of millions of human lives), it allowed the Soviet Union to expand its territory almost back to the borders of Tsarist Russia in 1914. Moorhouse’s book is a timely reminder of the crimes of two totalitarian systems which turned the twentieth century into a gigantic stage for unprecedented genocide.
* The Bodley Head, London, 2014, 358 pages and Index

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