On 19 June President Vladimir Putin published an article on the origins of World War II. He wanted to demonstrate, with some documents from the rich Russian archives, that the USSR, contrary to the west’s fake history, was far from being responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War. By fake history I mean that which is widely publicised, inter alia, by the European Parliament at Strasbourg and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The western reaction to Putin’s article has been furious, outraged, and quite simply, ridiculous. Here are a few examples which I have collected at random from Twitter.
“Russia will be remembered as an empire of cynical lies.”
“The Kremlin praises Stalin.”
“Putin veers into radical revisionism.”
“Of course it’s a piece of crude propaganda.”
These are the comments of know-nothings and haters who want to ride on the bandwagon of Russophobia and anti-Putinism prevalent in the West. It takes years, even decades to explore the various national archives on the origins and conduct of World War II. I have been working in those archives for more than thirty years. I do not say this to boast, but merely to emphasise that my life’s work has been devoted to the study of Soviet foreign policy and to the origins and conduct of the Second World War. I am now working on a new book-length manuscript, covering the period from 1930 to 1942, which at present amounts to 21 chapters and more than 1,200 pages of typescript. I still have a way to go before I am finished. Some critics will no doubt dismiss my work, using the timeless strategy of shooting the messenger in order to kill the message. You take your chances when you go up against orthodoxy and received ideas. That’s life.
Although I have written and continue to write a great deal on the subject of President Putin’s article, I will just stick to a few salient points in this column. They are based on material from Soviet, French, British, and US archives. I would add that the Soviet diplomatic papers are rich and not only explain Soviet foreign policy, but report on the politics, economics, and foreign policies of other states. There are extraordinary, detailed reports of conversations between Soviet diplomats and politicians, officials, diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and even Free Masons of the countries in which they were stationed. These foreign interlocutors spoke with remarkable candor about what was going on in their countries. A few prominent examples are Winston S. Churchill, Sir Robert Vansittart, Max Aitken (or Lord Beaverbrook), David Lloyd George, Léon Blum, Édouard Herriot, Georges Mandel, Joseph Paul-Boncour, and the less well-known Romanian foreign minister, Nicolae Titulescu.
I propose to offer a few fragments from my book manuscript. So let’s begin in December 1933, eleven months after Hitler came to power in Germany, the Soviet Politburo established the principles of a new policy of collective security and mutual assistance against Nazi Germany. The Soviet idea was to re-establish the World War I anti-German entente, composed, inter alia, of France, Britain, the United States, and even fascist Italy. Although not stated publicly, it was a policy of containment and preparation for war, should containment fail. The League of Nations became an important element of Soviet strategy to be strengthened and readied for use against Nazi Germany.
An improvement of Soviet relations with France began in 1932; with the United States, in 1933; and with Britain, in 1934. The circumstances were different of course in each country, but Soviet attempts to pursue collective security and mutual assistance against Hitlerite Germany were basically rejected in the United States in 1934, in France, initially also in 1934 (a more complex case), and in Britain, in early 1936.
The Soviet government also attempted to improve relations with Romania where the most important advocate of mutual assistance, was the foreign minister, Titulescu. He had a remarkable relationship with his Soviet counterpart, Maksim M. Litvinov, the able executor of Soviet foreign policy, and with the Soviet ambassador in Bucharest, Mikhail S. Ostrovsky. Titulescu trusted Ostrovsky more than he did his own colleagues. He (Titulescu) was squeezed out of office in August 1936; his cabinet colleagues thought he was “too pro-Soviet”. His departure marked the end of serious attempts at Soviet-Romanian mutual assistance.
In Romania, the most important advocate of mutual assistance was the foreign minister, Titulescu
In Czechoslovakia, Soviet diplomats also made progress. Their task was easier in Prague because Nazi Germany was an obvious threat to Czechoslovak independence. A pact of mutual assistance was concluded in May 1935, but was limited in scope and conditional on French intervention, first, in the event of Nazi aggression.
It may come as a surprise, but the Soviet government also attempted to improve relations with Poland, especially in 1932-1933. The Poles affected to be somewhat interested in Soviet overtures, but only as a ruse to enhance their value in negotiations with Hitlerite Germany for the conclusion in January 1934 of a non-aggression pact. Thereafter, the Poles rejected Soviet overtures for better relations. Poland became a determined opponent and spoiler of Soviet collective security and mutual assistance right up until August 1939. The Polish government served as an accomplice of Hitlerite Germany in 1938 during the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and was widely criticised for it. Churchill referred to the Poles as “vultures”. Then Colonel Charles de Gaulle considered Poland to be a “nothing… playing a double game” (1936). A French diplomat, Roland de Margerie, compared the Poles during the Munich crisis to “ghouls who in former centuries crawled the battlefields to kill and rob the wounded….” Putin’s account of Polish policy during the 1930s is historically accurate and supported by archival evidence, and is not in the least “radical revisionism”… unless one considers Churchill a “revisionist”. I imagine President Putin a little like Sgt. Joe Friday, the fictional LA police detective, saying, “Just the facts… I just want to get the facts….”
Talks with the Soviet Union were opposed by the French general staff and the defence minister, Édouard Daladier.
In 1937 the Polish high command explained their position to French counterparts. The Poles saw themselves between potential enemies, Nazi Germany in the west and the Soviet Union in the east. According to a report from the French 2e Bureau, contacts with the Polish general staff indicated “a very clear accentuation of the Polish anti-Russian position.”
“From the Polish point of view,” the report noted, “the German danger vis-à-vis Poland is limited to some known territorial claims. The Russian danger on the other hand aims at the total destruction of the Polish state.” Readers should understand that there was at that time no such Soviet aim. On the contrary, Soviet policy, as Commissar Litvinov often said, was to improve relations with Poland and to draw it into an anti-Nazi entente. The Polish elite saw matters differently. Faced with the two dangers, the Polish general staff not only did not contemplate military cooperation with the USSR, but stated to the French that in the event of a Soviet “invasion” for whatever reason [meaning Red Army intervention to aid Czechoslovakia in the event of Nazi aggression], it “could be led to accept German military aid even if such collaboration should lead to Polish territorial losses.” From 1934 onward the crucial issue for effective Soviet military support for France and for Czechoslovakia was Red Army passage across parts of Poland and Romania to engage the enemy (since the USSR did not have a common frontier with Germany). Poland would never agree to it, although Romania, under Titulescu, was more receptive on condition of French and British guarantees. The Poles were essentially blackmailing the French: if you ally with the USSR, we’ll go with Nazi Germany. What will you do then? The French general staff got the message.
The Soviet side desired a consolidation of Franco-Soviet relations to face the Nazi danger and that the French general staff did not. The reasons were complicated based on domestic hostility toward the French communist party and the USSR, defeatism, fear of war and the spread of communism, admiration for fascism, and so on.
One of the more egregious examples of western bad faith toward the USSR was French. In May 1935 France and the USSR signed a mutual assistance pact which the French side had gutted of substance. This is a complicated story. In spite of the obstacles, Soviet diplomats and soldiers pursued a consolidation of the mutual assistance pact through the conduct of military staff conversations, that is, between the French and Soviet general staffs. There were some French politicians and ministers who wanted these discussions to proceed, but the French general staff and the defence minister, Édouard Daladier, opposed them. It was difficult to do so openly (because some cabinet members supported the staff talks), and so the generals and Daladier pursued a policy of stringing along their Soviet counterparts. Delay, delay, delay became the French strategy. Daladier was a defeatist. In 1936 he told colleagues that Germany would flatten Czechoslovakia’s defences in six hours, and therefore it was not worth a fight. Shocking, impossible, you might think, but the Soviet and French archival papers fit together like bricks in a mason’s well-built wall. There can be no question that the Soviet side desired a consolidation of Franco-Soviet relations to face the Nazi danger and that the French general staff did not. The reasons were complicated based on domestic hostility toward the French communist party and the USSR, defeatism, fear of war and the spread of communism, admiration for fascism, and so on.
Titulescu’s exclusion from office in August 1936 marked the failure of Soviet policy although the Soviet side continued to pursue mutual assistance against Nazi Germany until August 1939. One after the other, the United States, France, Italy, Britain declined better relations with the USSR. The smaller powers regarded these developments with dismay. Czechoslovakia and Romania looked to a strong France and would not go beyond French commitments to the USSR. France looked to Britain. The British were the key, if they were ready to march, ready to ally themselves with the USSR, everyone else would fall into line. Without the British – who would not march – everything fell apart.
In the autumn of 1936, all Soviet efforts for mutual assistance had failed, and the USSR found itself isolated. No one wanted to ally with Moscow against Nazi Germany; all the above mentioned European powers conducted negotiations with Berlin to lure the wolf away from their doors. Even the Czechoslovaks. The idea, both stated and unstated, was to turn Hitler’s ambitions eastward against the USSR. “A spirit of capitulation,” Litvinov warned Stalin in September 1936, “has arisen not only in France, but also in Czechoslovakia….” This is why the Soviet government continued its pursuit of mutual assistance. It did not on any account wish to find itself isolated in Europe, a real danger if France and Britain could conclude, as they sought to do, a deal with Hitler for security in Western Europe.
Putin’s account of the Polish role in the Munich crisis is accurate and cannot be denied, at least based on the historical evidence. The irony is of course that Poland was Hitlerite Germany’s accomplice in 1938, only to become its victim in 1939.
Putin’s brief account of the last chance alliance negotiations in 1939 between France, Britain and the USSR is also accurate. In some ways Soviet persistence in pursuit of an alliance against the Nazi menace is remarkable in spite of years of Anglo-French disinterest or opposition. Even during the summer of 1939 the British continued secret negotiations with the Germans for a last chance rapprochement when they were also negotiating at the same time with the Soviet Union. The news leaked out in the British papers in late July causing a scandal in London. Imagine the Soviet reaction as agreement was being reached for Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance negotiations in Moscow.
In early August British and French military missions set out for Moscow on a slow chartered merchantman, the City of Exeter, making a top speed of thirteen knots. One Foreign Office official had proposed sending the missions in a fleet of fast British cruisers to make a point. The Foreign Secretary, Edward Lord Halifax, thought that idea was too provocative. So the French and British delegations set out on a lumbering merchantman and took five days to get to the USSR. They played shuffleboard to kill time. All the while, tick tock, the countdown to war was underway. Everyone knew it was approaching.
Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, Soviet commissar for war
Were the British and French governments serious about these last chance negotiations? The British chief negotiator, Admiral Sir Reginald Drax, had no written powers to conduct negotiations or sign an agreement with the Soviet side. The Foreign Office eventually sent out credentials by air mail. It is unknown whether Drax ever received them. His French counterpart, General Joseph Doumenc, had a vague letter of authority from the then président du Conseil, Daladier. He could negotiate, but not sign an agreement. Doumenc and Drax were relative nobodies. On the other hand, the Soviet delegation was headed by Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, commissar for war, and other senior Soviet officers. He had full plenipotentiary powers in so far as that was possible with Stalin. “All indications so far go to show,” advised the British ambassador in Moscow, “that Soviet military negotiators are really out for business.” In contrast, formal British instructions were to “go very slowly”, as President Putin correctly points out. When Drax met Foreign Secretary Halifax before leaving for Moscow, he asked about the “possibility of failure” in the negotiations. “There was a short but impressive silence,” according to Drax, “and the Foreign Secretary then remarked that on the whole it would be preferable to draw out the negotiations as long as possible.” Doumenc commented that he had been sent to Moscow with “empty hands”, les mains vides. They had nothing to offer their Soviet interlocutors. They could not deliver Polish cooperation, for Poland’s opposition to an agreement continued until the very end. Nor could they offer dynamic war plans to defeat Hitler: Britain could send two divisions to France at the outset of a European war. You can’t do much with two divisions. In contrast, the Red Army could immediately mobilize one hundred divisions, and Soviet forces were just then thrashing the Japanese in heavy fighting on the Manchurian frontier. “They are not serious,” Stalin concluded. The French and British governments appeared to think they could play Stalin for a dope. Oh, how wrong they were.
It is easy to criticise the Soviet side for agreeing to the non-aggression pact. It was the least attractive policy option, but what would you have done in Stalin’s boots? The Soviet side had pursued a policy of collective security and mutual assistance against Nazi Germany officially since December 1933. Démarche after démarche, attempt after attempt to achieve an anti-Nazi entente with the west had failed. The British and the French did not want it, preferring time after time to find some way forward with Herr Hitler. The deal at Munich, the betrayal of Czechoslovakia, made them unfit to criticise the non-aggression pact. As British historian, the late A.J.P. Taylor, put it sixty years ago, violent western reproaches against the USSR “came ill from the statesmen who went to Munich…. The Russians, in fact, did only what the Western statesmen had hoped to do; and Western bitterness was the bitterness of disappointment, mixed with anger that professions of Communism were no more sincere than their own professions of democracy [in dealing with Hitler].” In August 1939, the French ambassador in Moscow called it tit for tat.
The French and British governments appeared to think they could play Stalin for a dope. Oh, how wrong they were.
Even in August 1939, with war imminent, the French and British were not serious. You can only play someone for a fool for so long. Moreover, great powers will not opt for war with weak, dissembling allies. Given the circumstances, given the danger, Soviet long-suffering patience with their Anglo-French interlocutors finally ran out.
A Soviet-western alliance in the 1930s was not a pig in a poke, by the way, there were people in France and Britain who favoured an alliance with the USSR against the Axis and fought hard to obtain it. One Soviet diplomat called them “white crows” or rare birds. They reckoned that without the USSR and without the Red Army, they could not hope to defeat the Nazi Wehrmacht. They were right, as the actual unfolding of World War II would demonstrate. There were more than a few in France and Britain who favoured an alliance with the USSR, but they could not swing their governments. They were not numerous enough or influential enough for that.
Until the very end the Poles were incorrigible, played the fool’s game, blinded by their hatred of Russia, Soviet or otherwise. When it came to a choice between Germany and Russia, the Polish elite did not hesitate. The Russian was an “Asiatic”, a “barbarian”; the German at least was a civilised European. When Drax and Doumenc met Voroshilov for the last time in Moscow to plead for a continuation of negotiations, Voroshilov had this to say, according to the secret Soviet record of conversation: “At the time when we were discussing the organisation of a united front against aggression in Europe, the Polish press and individual political officials were declaring with particular vigour and without stop that they do not need any help at all from the side of the USSR. Romania remained quiet, but Poland conducted itself very strangely: it cried out to the entire world that Soviet troops would not pass across its territory [to face the common Nazi enemy], that it did not consider necessary any business with the Soviet Union, and so on. In these circumstances to calculate on the success of our negotiations, of course, was impossible.” Admiral Drax replied that he hoped in the future the circumstances would become more favourable. “We also hope so,” Voroshilov replied. In the end the circumstances did improve in 1941 when the grand alliance was organised under the fire of Nazi guns.
There is a last irony which I would like to underline. During the interwar years Stalin pursued a foreign policy intended to avoid Soviet isolation so that the West would/could not gang up on the USSR. In August 1939 he was faced with unattractive options: war with doubtful allies, and thus war alone against the Wehrmacht, or a deal, however ugly, or temporary it might be, with Hitlerite Germany to stay out of the war. Stalin’s choice proved ill-fated. In June 1941 he was to find himself isolated, facing a massive Nazi invasion. France was gone, beaten and humiliated in 1940. Britain was saved only by the English Channel and the Royal Air Force. It could offer little support to the Red Army and no troops to fight on the Soviet front. The Red Army had to fight against the Wehrmacht nearly alone for three years, exactly the situation which Stalin had always wanted to avoid. He got it anyway. Sometimes people forget that the past was once in the future. Life and death decisions are not as easy to make in the present as they are in hindsight.
The facts are the facts: nowhere in Europe did any government want to ally wholeheartedly with the USSR against the common foe. The small powers counted on Britain and France to stand firm, but they never did. The USSR was the ugly Cassandra, the truth-teller about the Nazi danger: almost everyone despised her and few would embrace her. Like it or not, the direct result was the non-aggression pact.
The facts will not stop western mainstream media, and the “experts” on Twitter from making various sorts of accusations against President Putin and the Russian Federation. It will not stop the Poles from denying their own sombre history during the 1930s. This is part of a dangerous US/NATO campaign of denigration and isolation against the Russian Federation and its president. The propaganda war over World War II will thus continue, archival evidence or not. As politicians go President Putin is not a bad historian. I share, more or less, his views on World War II, and hopefully will have a book manuscript to publish before too long, which demonstrates beyond a doubt where the responsibilities lay for the outbreak war in 1939.
So I tip my hat to President Putin for daring to challenge the west’s fake history and for braving the loud, potted indignation of western critics. His idea for better relations with the United States, Britain, and France is splendid although he must surely know that nothing is likely to come of it. When you have the great responsibility of trying to keep the peace, however, one does what one can even if it is only for the record.