Streetwise Professor

July 8, 2009

Satisfying, But Self-Defeating, Outrage

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:04 pm

Russia blew a gasket (there’s a shocker) over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s resolution laying blame for starting World War II on both Germany and the USSR, and calling for a day of remembrance on 23 August, the date that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed:

“This is nothing but an attempt to re-write the  history of World War Two,” Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the  foreign relations committee  of  Russia‘s lower house of parliament, told  Interfax news agency.

“The reaction of the parliament to this document will be immediate and it will be harsh.”

The resolution called for a day of remembrance for victims of both Stalinism and Nazism to be marked every August 23, the date in 1939 when  Nazi Germany  and the  Soviet Union  signed the  Molotov-Ribbentrop pactdividing  Eastern Europe  between their spheres of influence.

There are two main themes in the Russian response.  One is to say that Molotov-Ribbentrop was Stalin’s doing, not Russia’s.  Relatedly, that it was an action of the USSR, not Russia, and hence it is as much the responsibility of Ukraine and Kazakhstan as Russia.  But what makes that line less than persuasive is Russia’s confusing signals (to put it nicely) on its opinion of Stalin and Stalinism.  Stalin still commands widespread popular admiration in Russia, far more than in other former-Soviet republics, and there is reason to believe that many in officialdom share this view.  Putin’s criticism is limited primarily to the 1937 purges of Party cadres, for instance, and the new history textbooks speak approvingly of Stalin’s “strong leadership” and his role in modernizing the USSR, with little mention of the millions of deaths that resulted directly from this so-called achievement.  

This defense also rings hollow because if Stalin’s USSR and the modern Russian Federation are truly distinct entities, and the latter is not the inheritor of the Soviet legacy, why the outraged, defensive reaction at criticism of the actions of Stalin’s USSR?  Indeed, insofar as Soviet actions facilitated Hitler’s actions, the millions of Russian dead can also be laid at Stalin’s feet; in this interpretation, Russia should support condemnation of actions that contributed to this horrific human toll.  

The second line of defense is to point to the USSR’s immense sacrifices in WWII, and its decisive contribution to the vanquishing of Nazi Germany.  This is true, but it is completely disconnected from the matters raised in the OSCE resolution, and other (primarily Eastern European) criticisms of Soviet actions.  The Eastern European criticisms focus on Soviet actions before the war, especially from August 1939-June 1941: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet conquest and brutality, or bestiality rather, in Poland, the Baltics, Finland, and Bessarabia, and its actions after the war, including oppression, political murder, and rampant rapine by Soviet soldiery.  

Soviet sacrifices in destroying Hitler deserve proper respect, but they do not excuse the USSR’s culpability in bringing on the war; its material assistance to Germany right up to the time of the invasion (with the last trains of materials destined for Germany rolling west up to the very moment that Barbarossa began); or its behavior in the regions it seized pursuant to the Secret Protocol.  Nor do they excuse its post-war actions.  

Indeed, the Russian refusal to engage this issue, and its furious reaction whenever it is raised, understandably creates great pain–and great fear–in Eastern European countries.  It suggests that Russia still does not view Eastern Europe as truly independent, or equally sovereign as Russia.   Hiding behind the mountain of corpses of Soviet (including Russian) dead in order to avoid a forthright condemnation of actions that arguably contributed to unleashing WWII, and which beyond a shadow of a doubt led to the unleashing of a torrent of blood and torture in the regions occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940, can do nothing but raise serious doubts about Russian attitudes towards Eastern Europe and its people.  

And that can only make Eastern Europeans more suspicious of Russia, and more anxious to receive NATO and especially American support, including military support.  This is something else which sends Russia into paroxysms of rage–and for which Russia has itself is primarily to blame.  Jingoistic chest-thumping may feel good, but it is ultimately self-defeating.

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  1. Sublime Oblivion

    “Obviously nations like the Romanians and Hungarians (not to say Germans) also suffered more after the Nazis went (with the major exception of their Jewish, Communist, etc elements), but no sympathy there because of their wartime allegiances.”

    Ah, so in your view they basically had it coming and the civilian populations essentially deserved 45 years of communist oppresion? That’s wonderful, just like Stalin “wasn’t so bad” since according to you only 10 million died needlessly under his watch.

    Comment by Virgule — July 13, 2009 @ 8:49 am

  2. During WW II, the pro-Soviet movie “Mission to Moscow” was produced at the request of the US government. I’m not sure if the US government did likewise with the other major pro-Soviet movie of that period “The North Star.” As WW II ended and with the beginning of the Cold War, a critical addendum of the USSR was added to “The North Star” movie.

    I’ve no disagreement with the comment about how some folks formally involved with the Nazis became fixtures in the West. I’m also aware what folks like Truman were saying before the outbreak of WW II (Ohoping for a Nazi-Soviet war, exhausting the two and with the West left out).

    These points don’t contradict what I said.

    History is periodically being used in a selective way. This concerns the recent OSCE statement being discussed here. Highlighting M-R, while muting Munich isn’t a complete approach in critically assessing what led to WW II.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — July 13, 2009 @ 11:31 am

  3. @rkka vs. 8/25 vs. 8/26 vs. 9/1:

    1. Big deal. W/O M-R, it wouldn’t have been any of these dates.
    2. For the record, per John Keegan, “The Second World War”: “Hitler nevertheless needed a pretext to attack. He was briefly deterred on 25 August by the news that Britain had entered into a formal alliance with Poland which guaranteed protection against aggression by a third party, and a few days of inconclusive diplomatic sparring followed. On 28 August, however, he formally abrogated the 1934 non-aggression pact with Poland . . . and on the evening of 31 August received news of Polish aggression near the Silesian border town of Gleiwitz; the incident had in fact been carefully staged by his own SS” (p. 44)

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 13, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

  4. “1. Big deal. W/O M-R, it wouldn’t have been any of these dates.”

    Not true. Hitler was determined to attack Poland in the late summer of 1939, Pact or no.

    His big fear was Western military intervention, but even in that case he was willing to risk a two-front war.

    “He was briefly deterred on 25 August by the news that Britain had entered into a formal alliance with Poland which guaranteed protection against aggression by a third party,”

    Indeed, which raised the prospect of what Hitler feared most, Western military intervention. Hence his cancellation of the scheduled attack. And once he convinced himself that there was no risk of Western military intervention, the attack was back on.

    And notice that Stalin was not in charge of Western military intervention. The issue of war or peace was not in Stalin’s hands in the fall of 1939. It was in Hitler’s most of all, and it was in Chamberlain’s, since Chamberlain, not Stalin, controlled the factor that Hitler believed posed the danger to the success of his campaign in Poland, Western military intervention.

    Comment by rkka — July 14, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

  5. rkka–

    Your confident assertion re Hitler’s determination to attack regardless is impossible to square with (a) his well-documented anxiety over fighting a two front war, (b) the fact that he eagerly sought the deal, and (c) he basically agreed to everything that Stalin demanded in order to get the deal. If Hitler was willing to go ahead, deal or no deal–then why deal? And particularly, why pursue the deal so eagerly?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 14, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  6. Hitler’s speech to a conference of his generals, 23 May 1939:

    “If it is not certain that a German-Polish conflict will not lead to war in the West, then the fight must be primarily against England and France.

    “Fundamentally therefore: Conflict with Poland — beginning with an attack on Poland — will only be successful if the Western Powers keep out of it. If this is impossible, then it will be better to attack in the West and to settle Poland at the same time.

    “The isolation of Poland is a matter of skillful politics.”

    Now, why did Hitler want the Pact? Hitler appeared to believe that the willingness of the British and French to make an alliance with the Soviets was the indicator of their willingness to oppose him forcibly.

    From Zachary Shore “What Hitler Knew”, Oxford University
    Press, 2003, pg 112, on German Foreign Ministry official Erich Kordt’s
    contact with Sir Robert Vansittart:

    “I learned from Hewel that Hitler said…that it it comes to the
    conclusion of an alliance between the Western powers and the Soviet
    Union, then he would cancel the action against Poland… But if the
    Western Powers embarass themselves and go home empty-handed, then I
    can smash Poland without the danger of a conflict with the West.”

    Shore goes onto say:

    “Kordt related this information to (British Foreign Office Chief
    Diplomatic Advisor) Vansittart because he, along with Weizacker, hoped
    that the British would be sufficiently disturbed by the news that they
    themselves would conclude an alliance with the Soviets and discourage
    Hitler from war.”

    Of course, even with this information, the British government had no real interest in an alliance with the USSR. Therefore, Hitler would not be deterred from attavking Poland with no M-R Pact. What it would have taken was an Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance. If Hitler could prevent that alliance by making a deal with the Soviets, in his mind his way to Poland was open. What Hitler didn’t know is that the Pact was unnecessary because Chamberlain had no interest at all in an alliance with the Soviets.

    Comment by rkka — July 14, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

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