Streetwise Professor

July 13, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 4:45 pm

Several posts discussing ongoing controversies about the Soviet role in World War II have resulted in extended discussions in the comment section about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.  One line of thought, expressed most cogently by Cutie Pie, is that Stalin entered into this agreement with Hitler because the French and the British had left the USSR hanging by conceding Czechoslovakia to Germany; that the USSR was willing to go to war to defend the Czechs, but that France and Britain had undermined such an effort at collective security.  Given this evidence of Western pusillanimity, the argument goes, Stalin had no choice but to treat with Hitler to protect Soviet security.

I’ve responded that this doesn’t fully account for a good deal of Stalin’s motivation for entering the Pact; excuse Soviet behavior in the aftermath of the Pact; or recognize that the Pact actually turned out to be quite detrimental to Soviet interests because it freed Hitler to attack Poland, and then turn west to dispose of France and drive Britain to the brink, thereby leaving the USSR to fight Hitler almost alone.

Here’s a few things that speak to this debate.  The Encyclopedia of the Second World War gives a fairly balanced overview:

Aware of Russia’s enormous weaknesses . . . Stalin watched Hitler’s moves to rearm German and the success of his armed diplomacy in the Rhineland (1936), Austria (1938), and the Sudetenland (1939) with increasing nervousness.

Nonetheless, Stalin’s suspicion of all the imperialist powers, combined with marked Anglo-French reluctance to accommodate Soviet political and strategic interests in eastern Europe or to commit themselves to multilateral treaties with the Soviet Union, lent increasing weight to the idea of some rapprochement with Germany.

The crude Anglo-French assumption that Russia’s ideological incompatibility with Nazi Germany guaranteed Stalin’s de facto partnership with the West without a formal alliance was not shared by Stalin, who noted the widespread conservative sympathy for German expansionism in Britain and France . . . . Employing his own style of appeasement with some skill, Stalin . . . signaled his preparedness to treat with Hitler by replacing Litvinov with Molotov in May 1939. . . .

In August, with the German attack on Poland set for 1 September, it became imperative for Hitler to have an assurance of non-interference from Russia. . . . Ribbentrop’s overtures to Molotov on 15 August stressed the urgency of negotiations but were at first stalled by Moscow.  Requesting a  trade and credit agreement as a preliminary to the signing of the pact, Molotov also referred to the need for a special ‘protocol’ with respect to mutual interests in the Baltic states.  Impatient with the progress of negotiations, Hitler intervened on 20 August with a personal telegram to Stalin.  The resulting meeting in Moscow on 23 August produced an agreement in 24 hours. . . .

Despite the undoubted triumph of diplomacy for Russia, the signing of the pact contributed directly to the exercise of Nazi aggression, to which the Soviet Union would in its turn would fall victim in June 1941.

Contrary to the narrative outlined above, in which a desperate USSR, abandoned by France and Britain, attempted to secure its own safety by treating with Hitler, this account makes it clear that a nervous and impatient Hitler initiated the agreement, after receiving signals of Moscow’s willingness to bargain.

Henry Kissinger’s  Diplomacy  discusses the Pact in considerable detail.  It is far to long to quote extensively, but the name of the chapter that sets out the analysis–“Stalin’s Bazaar”–captures well Kissinger’s verdict.  He is scathing in his assessment of the British and French, condemning their dreamy unrealism.  He clearly admires Stalin’s diplomatic skills.  But his ultimate judgment does not support the Cutie Pie Hypothesis.

The entire chapter is obviously too long to quote in its entirety, but here are some salient parts:

“Only extremely wishful thinking on the part of the democracies’ leaders could have led to the widespread belief that Stalin–the original Bolshevik and a staunch believer in so called objective, material factors–could have converted to the juridical and moral doctrine of collective security.  For Stalin and his colleagues had reasons other than ideology to be unenthusiastic about the established international order.  After all, the Soviet frontiers with Poland had been imposed by force and Romania had seized Bessarabia, which the Soviets considered their own.  

Nor did the potential German victims in Eastern Europe desire Soviet help.  The combination of the Versailles settlement [which created many small states] and the Russian Revolution had created an insoluble problem for any system of collective security in Eastern Europe: without the Soviet Union, it could not work militarily;  with it, it could not work politically.”

This is particularly germane to the discussion of the realism of conjectures that the USSR would have defended Czechoslovakia militarily if the British and French hadn’t have folded at Munich:

One can only speculate what Stalin might have intended at the time of Munich.  Yet his least likely course at the moment when he was convulsing his country with purge after purge  would have been automatic and suicidal implementation of a mutual assistance treaty.  Since the treaty with Czechoslovakia committed the Soviet Union only after France was at war, it left Stalin with a number of options.  For instance, he could demand passage through Romania and Poland and use the nearly certain refusal of  those countries as an alibi to await the outcome of battles in Central and Western Europe.  Or else, depending on his assessment of the consequences, he could recapture the Russian territories lost to Poland and Romania in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, much as he did a year later.    The most unlikely outcome was one in which the Soviet Union would mount the barricades as the last defender of the Versailles territorial settlement in the name of collective security.  

No doubt, Munich confirmed Stalin’s suspicions about the democracies.  Yet nothing could fundamentally deflect him from seeking to fulfill, at nearly any cost, what he considered his Bolshevik duty–pitting the capitalists against each other and keeping the Soviet Union from becoming a victim of their wars.  The effect of Munich, therefore, was primarily to alter Stalin’s tactics.  For he now opened up a bazaar for bids–one which the democracies had no hope of winning if Hitler was prepared to make a serious offer.

On the distrust of the British, and the difficulties of Britain and France in dealing with the USSR on Stalin’s terms:

[I]f Great Britain concentrated on a Soviet pact, Stalin was sure to demand his pound of flesh for helping the Poles by pushing the Soviet border westward, toward the Curzon line.

Spurred on by public outrage and convinced that retreat would further weaken Great Britain’s position, the British Cabinet refused to sacrifice any more countries, whatever the dictates of geopolitics . . . . Above all, the British leaders distrusted the Soviet Union: “I must confess,” Chamberlain wrote, “to the very most profound distrust of Russia.  I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to.  And I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears.”

On the calculating nature of Stalin’s diplomacy post-Munich:

The Soviets’  interest in preserving the status quo in Eastern Europe ended with the Eighteenth Party Congress . . . . Crucially, Stalin did in fact have the option of turning to Hitler and, after the British guarantee of Poland, could play his Nazi card with considerable safety. . . . his strategy . . . . was to make certain that the Soviet Union was the last major power to commit itself, thereby achieving the freedom of action for a bazaar in which either Soviet cooperation or Soviet neutrality would be offered to the highest bidder.  

More on the virtual impossibility of Britain (and France) dealing with the USSR on Stalin’s terms:

Yet it was not Great Britain’s clumsy diplomatic conduct that led to the Nazi-Soviet pact.  The real problem was that Great Britain could not meet Stalin’s terms without abandoning every principle it had stood for since the end of the First World War.  There was no point in drawing a line against the rape of small countries by Germany if that implied having to grant the same privilege to the Soviet Union.  A more cynical British leadership might have drawn the line at the Soviet border instead of Poland’s, thereby greatly improving Great Britain’s bargaining position with the Soviet Union and giving Stalin a serious incentive to negotiate about protecting Poland.  To their moral credit, the democracies could not bring themselves to consecrate another set of aggressions, not even on behalf of their own security. . . . Stalin had a strategy but no principles; the democracies defended principle without ever developing a strategy.

This last point emphasizes the importance of avoiding, to the extent possible, the error of interpreting decisions in light of what transpired afterwards.  From the British and French perspective, in 1939, it was not a trivial task to determine who was the greatest enemy to peace, Hitler or Stalin’s USSR.  The USSR was a committed enemy to capitalism and democracy, that had a longstanding policy of aiming to overthrow the western democracies.  It had a demonstrated record of mass murder and atrocity–more in fact, in 1939, than Hitler.  It had obvious designs on Eastern Europe–as did Hitler.  It could be expected to act brutally if it did move in to that region.  It is understandable that the British and French declined to deal with Stalin.
In the light of events, it is very plausible to assert that Hitler was in fact the greater threat, due Hitler’s unique psychology, in combination with Germany’s military and geographic characteristics.  From this perspective, it is possible to argue that the Allies misjudged.  

But Stalin clearly misjudged too.  He calculated that Germany would become bogged down in a war with France and Britain, and that this would give him the time he needed to prepare the USSR to defend against a German onslaught.  He calculated incorrectly.  The rapid German victory in the west, made possible by the Nazi-Soviet pact and the consequent securing of Hitler’s rear, left the USSR to face Hitler alone.

Here’s Kissinger’s final judgment:

Russia played a decisive role in the outbreak of both [World Wars].  In 1914, Russia had contributed to the start of the war by rigidly adhering to its alliance with Serbia and to an inflexible mobilization schedule; in 1939, when Stalin relieved Hitler of the fear of a two-front war, he must have known that he was making a general war inevitable.  In 1914, Russia had gone to war to preserve its honor; in 1939, it encouraged war to share in the spoils of Hitler’s conquests.

This seems to be a balanced judgment.  In this assessment, although Munich affected Stalin’s calculations, the Nazi-Soviet pact cannot be seen as primarily a response to it.  Instead, Stalin had territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe, and dealt with Hitler because that was the most effective way, in his view, to advance those ambitions.  Deflecting Hitler westwards also, in Stalin’s view, created the possibility of a vast Capitalist War that would destroy the USSR’s main rivals, Britain, France, and Germany, leaving the USSR dominant not only in Eastern Europe, but Europe more generally.  

In other words, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was the result of a bloody-minded calculation–or, in the event miscalculation.  Although French and British diplomacy in 1936-1939 was a disaster, to blame it for the Nazi-Soviet Pact is mistake.  The responsibility for this Pact lies squarely with its principals, Hitler and Stalin.  The consequences of the Pact–a World War that commenced in Poland on 1 September, 1939, and also, tens of millions of Soviet losses– therefore lie squarely with its principals as well.  The OSCE resolution that lays blame for the war on both Hitler and Stalin is therefore well grounded.

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  1. It’s incomplete by downplaying the role played by Munich – which happened before M-R. Therefore, the discussed OSCE statement isn’t “well grounded.”

    Upon a quick perusal and not back-checking in detail, what about the idea that a Soviet refusal of M-R would give the Nazis a better option to move even closer to the USSR?

    Yes, Stalin had “territorial ambitions.” So did Poland, Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany, in relation to their actions of 1938.

    The bottom line is that the West could’ve considered a Soviet alliance in 1938 to stop the Nazi led assault which was to include (thought not coordinated with Berlin) Hungary and Poland. Hypothetically, had a stand been reached with the Soviets in 1938, there could’ve have possibly been no M-R – with Stalin nevertheless seeking some territory. This scenario might’ve (stress might’ve) limited the likelihood of a greater war.

    On the professor’s reference to Stalin’s revolutionary instincts: some might recall the term attributed to Stalin which pertain to the idea of building socialism in one country, over the wreckless pursuit of trying to takeover others. He was an opportunist who moved when it served him best. With the right policy in place, his aims could be better managed.

    Munich served to give the Soviets more reason to consider M-R. The points expressed in this note give credence to the opinion that the OSCE statement is incomplete.

    The Professor’s reference to WW I overlooks how the Hapsburgs were provoking matters in Bosnia, with Russia not the only party advancing itself into a misguided alliance structure.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 13, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

  2. Simply put in another way: Why the hangup in stressing M-R, while leaving Munich out?

    This mmanner falls into the mind-set of seeking to coverup the latter over the former.

    Thus, the OSCE statement isn’t being practical.

    Diplomacy is supposed to involve an understanding of what sensitivity might be triggered with a given declaration. The discussed OSCE statement is either intended as a provocation or grerat oversight (perhaps both being at play).

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 13, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  3. So many confusions, so little time…

    To start with, Soviet intentions to militarily aid Czechoslovakia are indicated by the delivery of Soviet-built combat aircraft in August and September 1938 through Romanian airspace, Soviet willingness to set aside the issue of Bessarabia in discussion of Soviet forces transiting Romania in the event of a German attack on Czechlslovakia, the mobilization of 10 Tank and 60 Rifle Divisions in the fall of 1938, and the diplomatic note to the Polish government warning that hostile Polish action against Czechoslovakia would void the Polish-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Benes makes it clear that Soviet support was unstinting.

    As for the “Stalin’s Bazzar” piece, contemporary military authorities, such as CIGS General Ironside, the British military delegation to the Moscow military staff talks, and the combined Deputy Chiefs of Staff, considered that the Soviet proposals concerning operations of Soviet troops on Polish and Baltic territory to be a requirement of the military situation, without which Polish resistance to German attack would rapidly collapse.

    A factual error: Hitler planned to attack Poland at dawn on 26 August, not 1 September.

    As for the Pact being a requirement for the start of the war, Colonel-General Franz Halder, Chief of the German General Staff, was confident of being able to defeat the Polish armed forces before the Soviets could intervene, and of defeating them if they did.

    And if the Pact was so critical for Germany, why did Hitler cancel the attack on Poland on 25 August 1939?

    A factual error: The German plan was to attack Poland at dawn on 26 August, not 1 September.

    Comment by rkka — July 13, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

  4. I dug up the Benes quote:

    “In September, 1938, therefore, we were left in military, as well as
    political, isolation with the Soviet Union to prepare our defense
    against a Nazi attack. We were also well aware not only of our own
    moral, political, and military prepardness, but also had a general
    picture of the condition of Western Europe; as well as of Nazi Germany
    and Fascist Italy, in regard to these matters.

    At that moment indeed Europe was in every respect ripe to accept
    without a fight the orders of the Berchtesgaden corporal. When
    Czechoslovakia vigorously resisted his dictation in the September
    negotiations with our German citizens, we first of all recieved a
    joint note from the British and French governments on September 19th,
    1938, insisting that we should accept without amendment the draft of a
    capitulation based essentially on an agreement reached by Hitler and
    Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden on September 15th. When we refused,
    there arrived from France and Great Britain on September 21st an
    ultimatum accompanied by emphatic personal interventions in Prague
    during the night on the part of the Ministers of both countries and
    repeated later in writing. We were informed that if we did not accept
    their plan for the cession of the so-called Sudeten regions, they
    would leave us to our fate, which, they said, we had brought upon
    ourselves. They explained that they certainly would not go to war
    with Germany just ‘to keep the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia’. I
    felt very keenly the fact that there were at that time so few in
    France and Great Britain who understood that something much more
    serious was at stake for Europe than the retention of the so-called
    Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia.

    The measure of this fearful European development was now full,
    precipitating Europe into ruin. Through three dreadful years I had
    watched the whole tragedy unfolding, knowing to the full what was at
    stake. We had resisted desperately with all our strength.

    And then, from Munich, during the night of September 30th our State
    and Nation recieved the stunning blow: Without our participation and in
    spite of the mobilization of our whole Army, the Munich Agreement –
    fatal for Europe and the whole world – was concluded and signed by the
    four Great Powers – and then was forced upon us.”

    Dr. Eduard Benes “Memoirs”, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1954,
    pgs 42 – 43.

    “I do not intend to examine here in detail the policy of the Soviet
    Union from Munich to the beginning of the Soviet-German war. I will
    mention only the necessary facts. Even today it is still a delicate
    question. The events preceeding Munich and between Munich and the
    Soviet Union’s entry into World War II have been used, and in a
    certain sense, misused, against Soviet policy both before and after
    Munich. I will only repeat that before Munich the Soviet Union was
    prepared to fulfill its treaty with France and with Czechoslovakia in
    the case of a German attack.”
    Benes, pg 131.

    Comment by rkka — July 13, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  5. Professor, if you’ve followed the recent Russian revisionism of WWII, Poland is now being blamed for starting it. France and Britain were at fault for enabling the Poles’ “delusions of grandeur”. At least that was the nonsense posted recently on the Russian defence ministry’s website.

    Here’s another recent article on how far the Kremlin is taking this:

    On 19 June the home affairs ministry in St Petersburg shut down the site The website had been Russia’s largest online history resource, widely used by scholars in Russia and elsewhere as a unique source of biographical and historical material.

    Too bad that documents in the Soviet archives especially those that would be inconvenient in sanitizing Stalin are surely being shredded. Yes, it’s all so confusing and there is so little time.

    Comment by penny — July 13, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

  6. The late Polish born and anti-Soviet Menachem Begin would periodically note how Munich played a great role in triggering WW II.

    He’s on record for acknowledging the great role the USSR played in defeating Nazism and how that occurrence saved the Jews.

    I mention these comments by Begin to show how someone anti-Soviet can nevertheless recognize the role of Munich.

    This point relates to the shameful attempt to downplay the significance of that appeasement – in place of provoking an otherwise unnecessary joust of sorts.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 13, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  7. “Too bad that documents in the Soviet archives especially those that would be inconvenient in sanitizing Stalin are surely being shredded. Yes, it’s all so confusing and there is so little time.”

    I do wonder whether the notes of the interrogation of Hess, or of the talks between Sir Horace Wilson and Goering’s economic planner Wohltat have survived in British archives.

    It is evident that you’ve got nothing useful to add in the way of facts.

    Comment by rkka — July 14, 2009 @ 12:53 am

  8. Regarding my initial comments at that thread, I mistook Kissinger’s WW I reference as the Professor’s.

    HK is being a bit choosey to say the least.

    The Nazis immediately wanted a good portion of Poland in addition to seeming to want additional territory on a grand scale different from the territorial ambitions of the Poles, Hungarians and Soviets in the inter-war period.

    Poland didn’t help its cause by taking a slice of Czechoslovak territory in 1938, while having a not so democratic government (especially after Pilsudski’s death), which wasn’t so well liked by non-Poles under Poluish rule.

    This will lead to Soviet behavior at the end of WW II. Like I said, Stalin was an opportunist. Someone like him can be better put in check with better policies. The carnage resulting from the 6/22/41 Nazi attack understandably created an attitude of the USSR seeking buffers at war’s end. That Nazi attack enhanced the Soviet need for military development.

    To repeat, making a stand on Czechoslovakia with a reaching out to the USSR could’ve lessoned the likelihood of a greater war and changed the Soviet attitude on the need for buffers, as well as possibly diminishing the emphasis on military development.

    Meantime (pardon the repeats), there’s reasonable cause to not look so positively at the discussed OSCE statement on M-R. Elsewhere, someone else suggested that the statement is in part an attempt to deflect Western culpability, as well as what the Poles and Hungarians did.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 14, 2009 @ 2:39 am

  9. I think the OSCE statement was wrong, and so are any efforts to rehabilitate Stalin, including in his hometown of Gori, Georgia. As for the Baltic States, doesn’t anybody remember Studs Terkel’s The Good War, where he talked about how much the Germans loved the Estonian and Latvian ladies? Certainly, nobody visiting on the latest Heritage Foundation/name your Beltway think tank junket is going to ask his hosts what their parents or grandparents did in the war…

    Comment by Vic — July 14, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  10. Cutie-Pie:

    Re Begin and Munich. Nobody in their right mind disputes whether Munich played a great role in triggering WWII. Indeed, the Munich meme is used so often to warn against the dangers of appeasement, that the main question is whether it is overused, and used inappropriately.

    You’re getting off track. The issue is whether Munich explains or excuses Stalin’s entering into the Nazi-Soviet Pact, or justifies Soviet behavior under the Pact. And now, latterly, it seems to be about whether the Pact materially contributed to the commencement of the War. The validity of the latter view has been widely, almost universally, accepted, but rkka takes a different view.

    BTW, it is my understanding that Poland did not take any of CZ until 1939, when Hitler seized the rump of the country. Small point.

    Kissinger is scathing in his analysis of Western diplomacy at Munich and after. He clearly believes it was a major contributor to the coming of the War. That does not imply, however, that M-R was not another major historical contingency that also contributed to the coming of the War. Your basic story is that M-R followed mechanically from Munich, and hence any blame for M-R attaches to Munich. I think that is reductive, and misses much of Stalin’s thinking. Munich certainly influenced Stalin, a point that Kissinger readily concedes. His analysis attempts to show exactly HOW it did so. I think it is considerably more nuanced than the view that you have advanced.

    As a practical matter, the Western powers lacked both the means and the will to confront Hitler in 1938. There is also room for doubt as to whether Stalin would have really acted even if the French or British had come to the aid of CZ. Yes, per rkka, he made some moves in that direction, but there is considerable dispute as to the seriousness of those moves. Have some cites, but not the time to support this, but not the time right now to dig them up. I think Kissinger’s point is ultimately the right one–per you, Stalin was an opportunist, and was willing to keep his options open. I also agree with Kissinger’s view that to rely on Stalin as a pillar of collective security is to take a leap.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 15, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

  11. So another point arises. Why draw the line at M-R? Why doesn’t OSCE also condemn Poland, Hungary, France, and Britain for starting the war?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — July 15, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

  12. “There is also room for doubt as to whether Stalin would have really acted even if the French or British had come to the aid of CZ.”

    The only propositions there is no room for doubt of are tautologies. Talk about lame…

    Comment by rkka — July 15, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  13. Oops.

    Seriously Professor and without meaning to be disrespectful (for whatever differences of opinion, I nevertheless appreciate the back and forth on this):

    There seems to be a certain bit of semantics at play regarding this discussion.

    Czechoslovakia being dismantled by Nazi Germany, Hungary and Poland, with Western appeasement played a decisive role in influencing the latter M-R. (I strongly believe that I’ve the year 1938 correct for the mentioned Polish action – but as you say, it’s a small point.) Common sense analysis included, there’s primary source Soviet diplomatic historiography acknowledging as much.

    I really don’t see skirting around how this OSCE statement is frankly speaking on the half assed side (strident reference to M-R and none to Munich).

    The Soviets were on record as favoring some kind of alliance to defend Czechoslovak sovereignty. Czechoslovakia was on good terms with the USSR, unlike Poland, Nazi Germany, Hungary and probably a good number of anti-Soviet Westies; who were annoyed with Czechoslovakia, being on pretty good terms with the USSR. The latter was kept out of Munich. At the time, some were openly hoping the Nazis strike next at the USSR, with the West left out.

    Saying all this doesn’t negate Stalin’s brutal aspects and desire for some territory. Poles, Italians, Nazis and Hungarians had their land grab desires as well.

    If the issue is to unnecessarily provoke in a certain way, the OSCE statement seems agreeable. On the other hand, something more balanced along the lines of what has been suggested isn’t historically inaccurate; in comparison to the writing of the OSCE statement.

    Mind you, I’m aware of the PC balancing of blame when it isn’t really there.

    At this juncture, I think it’s fair to say that we aren’t going to convince each other on changing our views on the OSCE statement.

    An interesting discussion nevertheless.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 16, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  14. A distant factor behind this OSCE statement is perhaps the clause about encouraging NGOs to promote the study of what’s raised in the statement.

    This seems like an invite of sorts for….

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 16, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

  15. […] [There was firm evidence of Soviet intentions to coordinate with the Western Allies to contain and if necessary fight Germany over Czechoslovakia (evidence lifted from commentator rkka here): […]

    Pingback by The Myth of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact | Sublime Oblivion — August 24, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

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