I don’t usually waste my time taking apart run-of-the-mill anti-Russian stuff: there’s too much of it and it usually takes more effort to tear apart than it took the author to write. Fools and wise men, as the saying goes. But we have just had a number of pieces on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in Western news outlets. For example, the Washington Times, RFE/RL, The Guardian the Globe and Mail and Bloomberg. Governments have issued condemnations. The gist of them is that the pact showed that Hitler and Stalin were soul-mates and conspired to start the war and rip apart their neighbours. In most cases the authors try to tie this to today’s Russia: enemy then, enemy now.
Most of these pieces take it for granted Putin has some sort of approval of Stalin. But is it “approval” to call communism a road to a dead end – said earlier but most recently last December? What about his statement at the Butovo execution ground?
Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people. Along with this, as a rule these were people with their own opinions. These were people who were not afraid to speak their mind. They were the most capable people. They are the pride of the nation.
Or about what he said when he unveiled the memorial in the centre of Moscow?
This horrific past must not be stricken from the national memory – let alone justified in any way – by any so-called higher good of the people.
One of Putin’s advisory councils speaks against statues to Stalin quoting a government resolution that it’s “unacceptable” to “justify the repressions” or deny that they happened. Paul Robinson has demonstrated the falsity of the “Stalin is back” here. It’s nonsense.
Another theme is that Moscow is distorting or whitewashing history. But the truth is that the articles are the ones distorting history. History is not supposed to be a box from which convenient accusations are selected, ignoring the rest: historians are supposed to try to figure out what happened and explain how it came to be. Most Western accounts of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact are selective briefs for the prosecution. Although I very much suspect that the authors don’t know any better and their outrage is founded on their ignorance.
23 August was the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement and its secret protocol for carving up Poland and other countries. An occasion to hammer Russia which was too good to pass up. But their argument – assertions really – collapse because none of them knows that what Stalin really wanted was an alliance with the Western powers to stop Hitler: the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement was Plan B, not Plan A.
When I was in university in the 1960s a text in one of my courses was AJP Taylor’s Origins of the World War II. It mentioned the British-French mission sent to Moscow upon Stalin’s invitation to form a USSR-UK-France alliance to stop Hitler. This event has mostly slipped down the memory hole but periodically makes a reappearance as, for example, in 2008 “Stalin ‘planned to send a million troops to stop Hitler if Britain and France agreed pact’“. Stalin’s anti-Hitler pact failed and, knowing that the USSR was on Hitler’s target list, he bought time with the pact and started grabbing territory so as to gain a buffer.
In other words, all these pieces, in their prosecutorial enthusiasm, leave out the context (or in the case of the Guardian, present the Russian view as mere – and, you’re supposed to understand, unwarranted – assertion). As I said, I was generally aware that Stalin had made an overture to Paris and London and therefore understood that the pact with Germany was his Plan B, but it wasn’t until I read this piece by Michael Jabara Carley that I understood just how comprehensive and long-lasting Stalin’s attempts to form an effective anti-Hitler coalition had been. I strongly recommend reading Carley’s essay in full but in summary Moscow understood the threat immediately and spent five or six years trying to get the Europeans to join with it in an anti-Hitler agreement. A weak mutual assistance pact with Paris appeared in 1935, approaches to London that year collapsed when it made a deal with Berlin, approaches to Bucharest and Prague failed, Warsaw was hopeless because of its early pact with Berlin and baked-in animosity. The Munich agreement of 1938 and (memory hole again) Warsaw’s collaboration with Berlin in eating Czechoslovakia just about ended Moscow’s hope but it tried one last time in late 1939. (The discussion here has some more details, particularly Chamberlain’s view and the British military’s warning that the Poles, alone, would last two weeks).
There were plenty of reasons why Stalin’s approaches were rejected by Western politicians: they didn’t see the threat, Chamberlain’s “most profound distrust of Russia”, no one liked communism, few trusted Stalin, many questioned the effectiveness of the Red Army, some hoped that the nazis and the communists would fight each other to the death, some preferred the nazis. Poland, whose territory was essential for an effective Soviet threat to Germany, was the decisive obstacle: Warsaw doubted that the Soviets, once in, would ever leave and believed, with its pact and collaboration with Berlin, that it was safe. So, Stalin’s Plan A never happened. Carley: “The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the result of the failure of nearly six years of Soviet effort to form an anti-Nazi alliance with the western powers”. Yes, the pact included a carve-up of several countries but Stalin was looking to the security of the USSR. (And, à la Fawlty Towers, don’t mention the Czechoslovakia carve up, it will spoil the morally superior position the West likes to take.) In the end Stalin miscalculated the timing: Hitler invaded before he’d knocked out Britain and its empire/commonwealth and before the Soviets had properly fortified their new borders.
The failure of Moscow’s long effort to put together an alliance to stop Hitler is the reason for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, not Stalin’s all-round nastiness and sense of fellowship with Hitler. Nasty the pact was, in a nasty period, but it was Stalin’s second choice. Those are the historical realities. Another historical reality (almost down the memory hole) is the fact that, if we’re talking about agreements with Hitler, Moscow was late to the party. Lots of leaders were fooled by Hitler but Stalin probably least of all.
Now, I suspect that the average Western newspaper consumer doesn’t know this background and – speaking for myself – I only found out about the Warsaw-Berlin pact a year or two ago. In fact, had it not been for remembering Taylor’s book, I would probably have been ignorant of Stalin’s Plan A too. The memory hole has swallowed much and most of the authors of these pieces seem quite unaware of that fact and are very offended when, for example, the Russians point out that Warsaw – officially the victim par excellence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – took its pound of flesh from Czechoslovakia.
Many of these pieces, after falsely establishing what they imagine to be a Stalin-Hitler common purpose, can’t resist trying to make a connection between what they imagine to have been Stalin’s motives then and Putin’s today. But it’s hard to see it. Yes, the effects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact endure but, surely, the biggest “deadly result” of Stalin’s failed Plan A is the war itself. There are at least two ways to look at the Soviet occupation/control of most of the territories it liberated from the nazis: 1) the behaviour of an aggressive expansionist power, 2) that of a power determined that its neighbours would never again be assembly areas for another attack and had learned that it would be on its own if it happened again. We all know which conclusion the Western Allies came to. Elsewhere I have speculated on the cause of that choice but that’s another bit of past living on in the present.
In short, the basic premise of these pieces is quite simply wrong: Stalin didn’t feel an affinity to Hitler and cheerfully join him to rip things apart. And when the Russian talk about the Western European share of responsibility for Hitler’s war, it’s not “odious sophistry” or “rewriting history” or “propaganda”, it’s because they know about Stalin’s failed anti-Hitler coalition and most Western commentators don’t. It is very plausible that a coalition of the USSR, France and Britain and the smaller threatened countries would have prevented the war altogether. We do know that one conspiracy to overthrow Hitler was aborted by Chamberlain’s appeasement. Perhaps when one truly understands that Stalin’s Plan A might have prevented the war altogether, one can understand how irritated the Russians are when they’re blamed for starting it.
While the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the starter’s gun for Hitler’s attack on Poland it is historical nonsense to present the pact as Stalin’s preferred option. And more nonsense to somehow tie it all to Putin.
And what of Poland? Alone, it did last only a few weeks, the nazis killed about 20% of the population and in the end the USSR occupied it anyway. (A bit reminiscent, come to think of it, of Poland, Napoleon and Russia.)
(There is, however, an unforced parallel which doesn’t occur to anybody: both Putin and Stalin looked first to the West for partners; both were disappointed. Stalin probably realised with Munich that his alliance idea was impossible and I believe that for Putin the moment came with Libya. They decided that the West was недоговороспособны (Russian for “unable to negotiate” – editor’s note). That complicated Russian word contains within it the meaning that you cannot make an agreement with them and, even if you do, they will not keep it. So, there is some connection, after all, but it’s not what these people think.)