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Peter Kenez’s fine Liberty Forum essay accurately captures the historical and political sense of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. I would like to emphasize two points that supplement his analysis: Russia’s role in the outbreak of the Second World War, and the tragic plight of Poland.
The 1939 pact came as a shock to almost everyone in and outside Europe. This was partly due to the ideological narratives through which both totalitarian regimes, National Socialist Germany and Soviet Russia, presented themselves to the world. Communist propaganda made anti-fascism its loudest war cry and a major symbol of identification. The German Nazi ideology responded in kind, indicating the Bolsheviks as their main enemy, which tallied well with the traditional German condescending attitude toward Slavic nations.
A coalition between these two sides seemed unthinkable. On the other hand, the history of German-Russian relations up to that time features several periods of rapprochement, primarily motivated by the attraction that the two most powerful countries in the region had to feel towards each other. The one preceding Ribbentrop-Molotov was the Pact of Rapallo, which had been signed in 1922, also to the astonishment of outside observers. (It was a mutual renunciation, after the end of the Great War, of territorial or financial claims against one another.) Naturally, all of the German-Russian acts of rapprochement generated serious concerns in the smaller countries in the region. The phrase “the spirit of Rapallo” evoked positive emotions in the western part of Europe, but struck an ominous tone in the ears of the Central and Eastern Europeans.
For the West European countries, the pact of August 23, 1939 should have sounded the alarm. It meant that Russia would not be Germany’s first object of attack and that, therefore, Hitler—after Poland—would rather turn to the west for his Lebensraum. For several years, the West European societies, as well as the vast majority of their leaders, had cherished the hope that war could be prevented because Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were each reasonable men with whom one could strike a deal. But once Ribbentrop and Molotov signed, there was no hope.
The pact unleashed a long process that dramatically changed Europe, a process that would only come to an end in 1989: the crushing of Poland by Hitler and Stalin, the conquering of a large part of Western Europe, Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Germany’s defeat in 1945, the emergence of Soviet Russia as a major player, and the postwar division of Europe. The pact was the spark that ignited the fire.
All this makes Soviet Russia, together with Germany, responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War. This fact is often forgotten, the Soviet responsibility being diluted or brushed aside. There are several reasons for this, historical amnesia and the efficiency of Soviet/Russian propaganda included. But there are political reasons, too. One does not judge victors. The Soviet Union won the war, gained strength and international influence, and it would have been politically imprudent to dwell too long and too much on its past sins.
And yet there is no doubt that the war started when Hitler and Stalin decided to act together against Poland: the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement was almost immediately followed, as Professor Kenez points out, by Germany’s invading Poland on September 1, and Russia’s doing the same two weeks later. The fact that Russia, being later attacked by Germany, had to change sides and helped to defeat Hitler does not diminish her disgraceful role in the outbreak of the conflict.
When Russia joined the anti-Hitler coalition, its earlier complicity created a situation that was morally and politically dubious. For not only were Soviet sins forgotten, but Russia’s spoils of war were confirmed by Great Britain and the United States at the summit meetings in Teheran and Yalta. The Soviet crimes committed before the Wehrmacht’s 1941 invasion, including the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn and several other places, were ignored. For many years, Western governments did not dare to question the mendacious Soviet version that the Germans were responsible. Not surprisingly, the Soviet perpetrators, then in the glory of the victors, were allowed to take the role of judges in the Nuremberg Trials. And in geopolitical terms, most of the territorial gains that Russia guaranteed for herself in the Hitler-Stalin pact and her sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe would stay intact until the Soviet Union’s collapse decades later.
Post-Soviet Distortion of History
In Russian propaganda in the period since 1989, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact has been interpreted as a clever move by Stalin to buy time so that the Red Army could prepare itself for the imminent German aggression. This is obviously untrue. Stalin did not expect Hitler to break the pact and panicked when the invasion happened. It took some time before he composed himself to be able to address the nation and to start organizing a defense. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The First Circle (chapter 21), claimed that Hitler was the only person Stalin trusted. This may be a somewhat exaggerated interpretation, belonging to literature rather than to the study of history, but the truth is that the Russian leader consistently dismissed all reports of Hitler’s preparation for war against Russia. Stalin was immensely pleased with the alliance, and the cooperation between his secret police force (the NKVD) and Hitler’s (the Gestapo) was exemplary.
The Russians suffered terribly under Stalin’s rule, and under the German occupation. Russian prisoners of war were exposed to the most inhuman treatment at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Note the great contrast with how Stalin himself fared: He emerged from the war not only a victor, but also as an architect of the postwar world order. He turned the victorious war into a great heroic epic that was to give a new identity to the Soviet (and, as it became clear later, the Russian) nation.
According to Russian propaganda, World War II started on June 22, 1941, the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union. What happened before, including the cordial alliance with Hitler, does not count, and is treated as a negligible episode in a game that ultimately led to the Soviet soldiers’ putting the Red Star flag on the Berlin Reichstag. And this Soviet/Russian narrative—of Russia’s being a conqueror of Nazi Germany, not its accomplice—was widely accepted by the Allies and by the peoples of Europe and North America.
Each anniversary of the “outbreak” of the war is an occasion to talk about Hitler, his attack on Poland, and the subsequent consequences. Stalin is rarely mentioned. Usually escaping public attention is the anniversary of Stalin’s attack on Poland on September 17, 1939, even though this action was the fulfillment of the secret protocol in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the completion of the preparatory stage before spreading the war across the entire Continent.
The Coming of Armageddon
One may speculate about what course European history would have taken if Hitler and Stalin had not come to a non-aggression agreement. Maybe the Führer would have attacked France first, to which Stalin would not have responded in any meaningful way. There was no reason why the Soviet tyrant should have been worried about the “capitalists” being at each other’s throats, a development perfectly in tune with Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Whether Poland and England, both bound by a defense treaty with France, would have helped the French militarily is an open question. Probably we would have had another drôle de guerre (“phony war”), this time with France as an abandoned ally, receiving nothing but moral support from its partners.
Without the pact, as Professor Kenez points out, Germany could not have invaded Poland. Stalin would have been alarmed and would have treated the invasion as an act of hostility toward Russia. From the perspective of Germany and Russia, the pact was indeed a brilliant gambit. For France and England, it meant a political defeat: The moment it was signed, they no longer had any means to keep Germany in check.
For Poland, the pact meant the coming of Armageddon. As a result of the war, the Polish population was decimated; millions were killed; millions deported; many thousands died in the concentration camps and in the Gulag; the Polish citizens of Jewish origin annihilated in the Holocaust; the cities destroyed (some, like Warsaw, almost entirely); the material culture (churches, museums, mansions, libraries, castles) demolished or plundered; half the Polish territory annexed by the Soviet Union; the Polish elite in large part murdered. The Polish nation was mutilated, raped, and recycled. When in May 1945 the entire world joyously celebrated the end of the world war, Poland was in despair: the day marked the beginning of the new occupation.
How Might Things Have Been Different for Poland?
For decades, the Poles have been discussing whether this Armageddon could have been averted and whether some other strategy could have been feasible. In theory and in practice, there were only three strategies possible for the Polish government: 1) to make an alliance with France and Britain to deter the German invasion; 2) to make an alliance with Stalin in order not to be attacked by Hitler; or 3) to make an alliance with Hitler in order not to be his first victim.
The Polish government chose the first option, the tripartite defense treaty. It was the most honorable option—after all, France and Britain were respectable partners. Each had a civilized political system free from totalitarian ideology. It also seemed a rational option, for had it worked, Poland would have remained sovereign since neither France nor Britain was interested in subduing the Polish government or in grabbing parts of the Polish territory.
Unfortunately, the chosen strategy ended up a catastrophe. For one thing, signing the tripartite defense treaty infuriated Hitler, and he reacted to it by abrogating a non-aggression declaration that Poland and Germany had signed in 1934. Instantaneously Poland became an open enemy of the Third Reich and its powerful propaganda machine turned against Poland, accusing the Poles of being obsessively hostile to Germany and to a German minority living in the Polish territory.
In practice, it meant that the moment the war began, Poland had to depend solely on its own military potential, given that the promised support from the Allies never came. True, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, but no military action followed that declaration. Launching such an effort would have taken several months, and Poland had not this much time. The inaction was not due solely to technical causes, either. There simply was no political will to launch it. No wonder the “phony war” created a lot of bitterness among the Poles. When Poland was stabbed in the back by the Soviets on September 17, the country was doomed.
Option number two above was mostly propagated by the Polish communists, who had been arguing from the very beginning that the government should come to terms with Stalin and should have sought Soviet support to prevent the German invasion. Had the government done this, the argument runs, there would have been no Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Hitler would not have attacked Poland.
The argument is lame, to say the least. Such a scenario required the presence of the Red Army on Polish territory, which would have meant a de facto annexation or, at least, a subjugation of Poland of the sort that the country underwent anyway in 1944 and 1945, which subjugation would have brought about similarly disastrous consequences. Stalin did not need Poland as an ally; he needed her as booty.
With option number three (coming to terms with Hitler), the argument would be that signing the defense treaty with France and Britain was a mistake. The defense was only on paper, and the price of this paper was to provoke Germany. Would it not have been more rational to satisfy Hitler’s demands, by giving up any claim to Gdansk and allowing him to build an exterritorial motorway on the Polish territory, connecting Germany with East Prussia? These concessions, the argument continues, might have been humiliating but would have appeased Germany for a while. They would have made a Hitler-Stalin pact unnecessary. Whatever might have happened afterward, we can only speculate; but certainly Poland, even if colonized by Hitler, would not have had to suffer the same degree of brutal violence it did.
This option—not honorable at all—was not seriously contemplated by the Polish government. Poland preferred to fight, fought bravely, and lost terribly. Looking back at the history of the countries that did not oppose Hitler—such as France or Hungary, which suffered much less than Poland—one might come to a not very uplifting conclusion that sometimes being honorable in politics does not pay.