Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet (Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact, the secret protocols of which divided eastern Europe between the two totalitarian powers.*
Rather than being a matter of shame to modern Russians (as it is to modern Germans), it is something to be defended, and by some, even celebrated as the template for a reordering of the geopolitical order. The Russian counter-narrative is that prior to the British and French appeasement at Munich, Stalin was committed to collective security to contain German aggression. After witnessing Western capitulation, however, Stalin concluded that collective security was a dead end, and that the USSR had to make its own deal with Germany in order to buy time and protect itself from Hitler.
There are myriad problems with this interpretation of events. First, although the USSR was formally a part of a collective security arrangement with Britain, France, and others, to support the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia and other European states, its commitment was thoroughly hedged, and gave Stalin many options to escape having to perform on this commitment or to utilize the arrangement as a ways of realizing his own territorial ambitions at the expense of some of the very states the USSR was allegedly committed to defending. Furthermore, even though in the days leading up to Munich the USSR did make some military preparations consistent with an intent to intervene on behalf of the Czechs, these preparations were ambiguous at best. As Richard Overy states in his Russia’s War:
[t]he new evidence [from Soviet archives on Russian thinking at this time] is open to a number of interpretations. The Soviet Union might well have used the crisis to intimidate Poland, a state loathed by the Soviet leadership [la plus ca change]. On the same day that Soviet forces were put on alert an ultimatum was sent to Warsaw warning the Poles that any move against the Czechs on their part would be regarded as an unprovoked aggression. No ultimatum was ever sent to Germany. German intelligence was unimpressed by Soviet military movements and did not interpret the Soviet position as a threat of war. War with Germany would have meant more serious of large-scale mobilization. It is not improbable, given that military preparations were being kept secret from the Germans, that they were for domestic consumption–an elaborate military exercise or another war scare like 1927, designed to keep the system on its toes. The most likely answer is that Stalin was keeping his options open. The option he did not want was to be left fighting Germany alone. Soviet intervention, if it came, was always dependent on the willingness of the ‘imperialist states’ to fight first.
In brief, the USSR may have been made commitments to collective security, but these commitments were never tested. The credibility of these commitments therefore lay completely in the realm of conjecture. Given Stalin’s well-known opportunism, there is considerable room to doubt that if Britain and France had indeed stood behind Czechoslovakia, that the USSR would have indeed joined the effort with any objective in mind other than exploiting the crisis to achieve its own ambitions.
This is particularly plausible when one avoids the error of interpreting the strategic situation in Europe in 1938-1939 in light of what happened subsequently. In retrospect, it is clear that Germany was the greatest threat to European peace–and to the USSR. In light of the campaign of 1940, it is also evident that France and Britain were no military match for Germany.
But that’s not the way it looked in 1938-1939, least of all to Stalin. Stalin, and the Soviet hierarchy more generally, saw not just Germany, but Britain and France too as threats to the Revolution and the USSR. From the Soviet perspective, informed by Marxist and Bolshevist ideology, these nations were just different manifestations of capitalism, and all deadly enemies of, and mortal threats to, the USSR. Germany and France/Britain competed in Stalin’s mind for the status of Greatest Threat to the Revolution.
From Stalin’s perspective, the best of all worlds would be for the Germans, French, and British to fall on one another and tear one another to pieces, gravely weakening all three major threats to the USSR, and potentially leaving the Soviets in a position to dominate Europe. Given the experience of the First World War–which dominated the thinking of most military and political figures in Europe of the time–bloody stalemate looked to be the most likely outcome of a war between Hitler and the Western Powers. And bloody stalemate was just what Stalin craved.
Given these beliefs, a wise strategy for Stalin during the Czechoslovakian crisis would have been to make moves that would have convinced the British and French of a Soviet commitment to intervene on behalf of the Czechs in the expectation (or hope) that this would lead to combat between the Germans and the Western Powers. In this scenario, Stalin would have had the strategic freedom to realize his own strategic ambitions, and in the best of all worlds (from his perspective) put the USSR in power not just in the entirety of eastern Europe and the Balkans, but in Germany as well. Appeasement prevented this outcome in September, 1938, but another opportunity soon presented itself.
This conjecture cannot be proven, but it is as consistent with the historical record as the view that Stalin was firmly committed to collective security. Methinks, however, that this cynical conjecture is more in conformity to Stalin’s ruthless, paranoid, and opportunistic persona than the more idealistic alternative.
Indeed, the events of 1939 bolster this argument. If (a) Stalin’s motivation for dealing with Hitler in August, 1939 was his disillusionment with British and French commitment to collective security, and (b) Stalin’s overriding fear was Hitler and Germany, then (c) British and French actions in the spring of 1939 should have led to Stalin away from a deal with Germany, and towards a closer relationship with Britain and France. At the end of March, 1939, Britain made a guarantee to Poland. France soon followed. If Stalin had indeed been desperate for an alliance to fend off Hitler, the Franco-British guarantee would have been a signal to reinvigorate collective security efforts.
But Stalin did no such thing. In early-May, about a month after the British guarantee, he replaced the Foreign Minister that had been the architect of collective security (Litvinov), and in typically brutal fashion tortured virtually the Foreign Ministry personnel associated with the policy. He did engage in talks with the French and British, and by July had agreed on a draft treaty that largely conceded his (mercenary) terms–but with this in his pocket, he reached out to Hitler. In other words, he tested the British and French commitment to oppose Germany, and when he was sufficiently confident of this commitment, openly moved to deal with the Devil.
From his perspective, this was a triumph. With Britain and France committed to fight Germany, it was in Stalin’s interest to promote war. This would entangle his three–three, not one–mortal capitalist enemies in a war that would give him the greatest opportunity to emerge the dominant power in Europe.
Note that if stopping Germany had been the sine qua non of Stalin’s policy, his interest in cooperation with France and Britain should have increased as those countries abandoned their appeasement policies, and took a more belligerent and aggressive posture towards Germany. In fact, it is almost universally recognized that the reverse is true. As France and Britain abandoned appeasement, and as Britain in particular engaged in a crash re-armament drive, Stalin became more favorably disposed towards a deal with Hitler. The more the British and French prepared to fight Hitler, the more open Stalin became to the latter’s blandishments.
Stalin’s openness to Hitler after the Western Powers became more set in their opposition to Germany makes perfect sense if you accept that Stalin’s true motivations were to embroil all of his enemies in a war, and to realize territorial ambitions in eastern Europe.
Knowing common human tendency to project one’s own views, Stalin’s fear that Britain and France were really trying to maneuver the USSR and Germany into war is very telling. Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky’s anecdote is quite illuminating:
The Boss personally thought up an explanation of the alliance for the Soviet people. In army units, a comic drawing was displayed. It showed two triangles. The caption over one of them read: “What did Chamberlain want?” At the apex of the triangle was the word “London” and at the lower two corners “Moscow” and “Berlin.” MEaning that Chamberlain wanted to bring the USSR and Germany into conflict. The caption over the other triangle was “What did Comrade Stalin do?” Now the word at the apex was “Moscow.” Stalin had brought Berlin and London into conflict, leaving the USSR on top.
It should also be emphasized that if Stalin’s true objective were to stymie Hitler, firm support of British and French guarantees of Polish security would have been the best way to do it. As a reader of Mein Kampf, Stalin would have been aware of Hitler’s morbid fear of repeating the mistake of waging a two-front war as Germany had done in WWI. (A fear that dissipated as a result of the heady triumph in France in 1940–but that was in the future.) Confronting Hitler with this prospect would have made war far less likely. Instead, just when Britain and France took measures that increased their commitment to fighting Germany, rather than taking parallel measures that would have greatly increased Hitler’s risks if the two front war he feared, Stalin did the exact opposite. As Norman Davies states in No Simple Victory:
[E]veryone saw that the key to further developments lay with Poland’s eastern neighbour, the USSR. If Moscow were openly to side with the Western Powers, a unilateral German attack on Poland would be too risky to contemplate. If Moscow were to adopt an ambiguous position, the world would be kept guessing. And if Moscow were to throw its weight behind Berlin, Hitler would be given the green light.
And we know that Stalin indeed gave Hitler the green light.
This cannot be rationalized as a Stop Germany by Whatever Means Necessary policy. Such a policy would have induced Stalin to act very differently than he did. Instead, it is best explained as an opportunistic way of dealing with all of his enemies, and realizing his fondest territorial and political ambitions in the bargain. Rather than treating Germany as an existential threat, he considered it just one enemy among many, and cannily maneuvered to pit his enemies against one another, and to swoop in to grab considerable spoils for himself.
Indeed, Stalin was brutally frank in his explanation of his motives. In a speech to the Politburo on 19 August, 1939 (but which was not made public until 1994–go figure), Stalin said:
We must accept the proposals of Germany and diplomatically discard the British and French delegation. The destruction of Poland and the annexation of Ukrainian Galicia will be our first gain. Nonetheless, we must foresee the consequences of both Germany’s defeat and Germany’s victory. In the event of a defeat the formation of a Communist government in Germany will be essential . . . . Above all, our task is to ensure that Germany be engaged in war for as long as possible and that Britain and France be so exhausted that they could not suppress a German Communist government.
Does it get any clearer than that?
In sum, the counter-narrative of Molotov-Ribbentrop, that it was needed for an isolated USSR to ensure its security after the Western Powers had capitulated at Munich, is contrary to: the actual course of events in 1939, an understanding of Stalin’s worldview and personality, and his very words. Although in retrospect it seems obvious that Hitler was an existential threat to the USSR, and that Stalin must have been acting with a singleminded purpose to counter that threat, that retrospective perspective is misleading in the extreme. The contemporary evidence tells a very different story.
To put it more bluntly: Stalin bears great responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War. He wanted war–between Germany, Britain, and France–and he got it. Indeed, until May, 1940, from his perspective the war was a great boon. It pitted his enemies against one another, rather than against him. What’s more, he gained substantial territories in the bargain, and destroyed what had long been a Soviet bugbear–an independent Poland.
The Second World War would not have broken out when it did and where it did had not Stalin, as part of a coldly calculating policy to advance Soviet interests, dealt with Hitler. We cannot say that it might not have broken out later or at some other time. But WWII as it happened was a war of Stalin’s choosing. He just thought he was choosing a war between his enemies. His was a strategy of “let’s you and him fight.” In retrospect, it was a catastrophic error. But at the time, Stalin believed he had executed an incredible coup. Indeed, he was so enamored with it that he was reluctant to admit its ultimate failure even after German tanks rolled east on 22 June, 1941.
And, regardless of the motivations for the Pact, the unspeakable brutality of the USSR’s implementation of its terms should never be ignored. I encourage you to read Overy’s account of what the Soviets did in Poland and the Baltics in the aftermath of the Pact–if you have the stomach for it. Russians who sputter and whine and posture about the hostility of modern Poles or Lithuanians or Estonians or Latvians, and who threaten retribution against those who “slander” the good name of the USSR, should instead be deeply ashamed of Soviet behavior, and understanding of these attitudes. Indeed, as Russians (and everybody else) are wont to point out, the Nazis were monsters. If so, then why do myriad eastern Europeans find it so hard to differentiate between Nazis and Soviets? The most obvious answer: The Soviets were monsters too.
Read Overy, or other honest accounts of the events of that time, and tell me otherwise.
But modern Russians, and most notably state organs, are not ashamed at the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Indeed, many celebrate it. No. This is not a sick joke.
Indeed, the efforts of the state to defend Molotov-Ribbentrop go to extremes that would be considered comical, were the subject not so horrific. A case in point is a report issued by the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR. As Pavel Felgenhauer writes:
According to Sotskov [the author of the SVR report, and a former KGB official], before signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939, Russia was trying to create a system of collective security in Europe with Britain, France, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and other nations to stop Nazi Germany. Moscow’s main condition in 1939 was that its armed forces must be allowed to massively deploy in the Baltic territories and in Poland. But the Poles and the Baltic nations refused, while Paris and London hesitated to press them to accept Russian troops on their territory. If the Russian demand had been met, “our troops would have entered the Baltic territories much earlier,” according to Sotskov, “but the Poles, the West and the Baltic countries wanted to collaborate with Nazi Germany instead.” After the West refused to cooperate, the Kremlin accepted a German offer that gave Russia what it wanted: half of Poland, the Baltic countries, Finland and the part of Romania that is now Moldova – as a sphere of influence to occupy. After the Nazis attacked Russia in June 1941, Western democracies soon formed an “effective collective security system with Russia,” which according to Sotskov is one of the main positive results of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Pact also allowed Russia to rearm and to “move the border with Germany to the West” (www.svr.gov.ru/material/pribaltica.htm).
What a tissue of lies. As just one example, the statement “after the West refused to cooperate” is flatly contradicted by Stalin’s own statement, quoted above, that “[w]e must accept the proposals of Germany and diplomatically discard the British and French delegation.” Stalin made the choice. (Not to deny that the Franco-British diplomatic efforts were late, bumbling, and ineffectual. But the point is that Stalin let everybody come to him; if he had been so anxious to secure an alliance against Hitler, he would have taken the initiative, and been less mercenary in his dealings with the West. It should also be noted that the Western Powers’ reluctance to deal with Stalin was due, in large part, to their understanding that his motives and methods were as malign as Hitler’s. As was shown in the event. The British and French–much more the former than the latter, not surprisingly–were extremely reluctant to deal with the USSR to prevent Hitler’s devouring of eastern Europe if the price was to let Stalin do it instead, with their active complicity.)
This “reasoning” is also self-contradictory. On the one hand, the USSR wanted to deploy massive forces in Poland and the Baltics as part of a plan to stop Hitler. But on the other, it is acknowledged that the USSR just wanted these territories for itself, and dealt with Hitler because he would give them what Stalin wanted.
This organ of the government oh-so-concerned about defending the integrity of the historical record heaves up stuff like this:
According to Sotskov, “it is a lie; the Baltic States were never occupied by Russia.” The KGB intelligence reports that were sent to the Kremlin in 1940, say the Baltic people volunteered to join the Soviet Union. According to the KGB, communist rule was established through democratic elections, though elections were undemocratic, since many Russian-speakers did not vote. The denunciation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the secret protocol that divided Europe by the People’s Congress in Moscow in 1989 under President Mikhail Gorbachev was a grave mistake, according to Sotskov, who is apparently fully supported by the SVR (www.svr.gov.ru/material/pribaltica.htm).
Ah, yes, the myth of the fraternal peoples united under wise Soviet leadership. And they wonder why the Balts in particular distrust them, not to say hate them?
But Falgenhauer puts his finger on it:
Today Russian official support of the Molotov-Ribbentrop accord that divided Europe into spheres of influence is not just a difference over historical interpretation. Last year, during a visit to Germany, Medvedev announced that Moscow wants to call an all-European conference to create a new collective security system (RIA Novosti, June 5, 2008). After the invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Medvedev announced that Russia has a “sphere of privileged interests.” Medvedev insisted that the war with Georgia had confirmed the need to form a new collective security system in Europe, since the existing ones (NATO, OSCE) did not manage to prevent the conflict (www.kremlin.ru, August 30, 2008).
There is really nothing surprising in the fact that the government has so passionately taken up the defense of Stalin’s foreign policy. Vladimir Putin’s understanding of realpolitik is the same as Stalin’s; everything is decided by military might and if there is a chance to bite off a chunk of someone else’s territory, you should go for it.
In other words, from the ruthlessly 19th-century realpolitik perspective of Putin et al, and large swathes of Russians more generally, Molotov-Ribbentrop, and Yalta as well, represent the way the world should work. Great powers should divide the map between them. Russia had then, as it has today, a legitimate interest in dominating eastern Europe. Molotov-Ribbentrop secured that interest–at least Stalin thought it did, wrongly in the event. The Pact, and ultimately Yalta, gave Russia what belonged to it by right. The British and French are to blame in large part because they would not recognize these interests; Russia dealt with someone who did, someone with no scruples about the human consequences. To criticize the Pact is to deny Russia recognition of its legitimate right to dominate “its” space. Molotov-Ribbentrop divided eastern Europe in 1939. Russia wants to divide eastern Europe in 2009. To condemn the former is to delegitimize the latter.
So, you can expect even more robust defenses of M-R, and more hysterical attacks against those who criticize it, on this anniversary and in the days to come. For to criticize Stalin and the revisionist USSR is, by extension, to criticize Putin and the revisionist Russia. Their means may differ, but their worldview, and their strategic objectives, are largely the same.
* Hitler agreed to the Secret Protocol on 23 August at 10 PM. The Pact was dated 23 August, but signed at around 2 AM on 24 August.