Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines around the world last week when he defended the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, by which Stalin and Hitler agreed secretly to divide Eastern Europe between them. It was, Putin said, in line with the normal “methods of foreign policy” of the time.
“What is so bad about it, if the Soviet Union did not want to fight?” he asked.
Putin’s language was harsher than when last he spoke publicly on the subject, at a 2009 commemoration of the outbreak of World War II, when he dismissed “all treaties” with the Nazis as “morally unacceptable” and “politically senseless.” The reason for the shift in tone seems clear: Over the last year or so, relations between Moscow and the West have all but broken down and there is no mileage for Russia in accommodating Western sensibilities.
More worrying, though, are the uncanny historical parallels to the era of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that seem to have accompanied Russian actions in the last year: the sabre-rattling, the talk of rescuing Russian minorities, the border provocations, the mysteriously downed aircraft, the invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and the annexation of its territory. The Kremlin playbook that guided Stalin in 1939-40 would appear to have found a new reader.
Look a little closer, though, and the substance of Putin’s argument on the Nazi-Soviet Pact hasn’t changed. Last week, as five years ago, he echoed a familiar Soviet-era justification of the agreement, according to which, Stalin was forced into the deal by the perfidy of the West and his decision to sign it was “defensive” in motivation.
Both propositions are thoroughly disingenuous. Nothing prior to Hitler’s attack on Russia in 1941 suggested Stalin’s motivation in signing the Pact was defensive. On the contrary, the available evidence suggests strongly that his goal was to encourage Hitler to attack and undermine his old enemy, the Western Imperialists. At that point, he surmised, he would be able to march westward unopposed and turn the entire continent of Europe communist.
We know this was the thrust of Kremlin thinking, because numerous senior Soviet politicians said so at the time. They made little mention of not wanting to fight. We know it, too, because the Soviet Union was not shy of fighting when the war began – just not against Hitler.
The attempt to shift blame for the Pact on to the West is similarly mendacious. When Putin said in 2009 that all treaties signed with Nazi Germany were morally unacceptable, he was juxtaposing the Nazi-Soviet Pact with the Munich Agreement of 1938.
It is certainly true that collective security had failed by 1938, and each state was seeking to make the best bilateral arrangements it could. But the British and French effort to placate Hitler in 1938 cannot seriously be viewed in the same category as Stalin’s pact with him of the following year. One was a failed attempt to preserve the peace (at the expense of Czechoslovakia); the other was a successful attempt to launch a war. One was a political arrangement to head off a crisis, the other opened a two-year economic and strategic relationship that was an alliance in all but name. Including both under the rubric of “treaties with the Nazis” is a deliberate and cynical obfuscation.
So, what about Putin’s contention that the Nazi-Soviet Pact (better known by the names of the two foreign ministers involved, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop) was “not so bad.” Well, it depends on where you were standing. From the safety of the Kremlin, perhaps it might have seemed so, but few people further west would have agreed. The Nazi-Soviet Pact launched World War II and divided Eastern Europe between the Nazis and Soviets, directly affecting at least 50 million people. Hitler invaded Poland 10 days after the deal was signed and Stalin followed suit a little more than two weeks later. Poland was divided and enslaved by the two most hideous and murderous totalitarian regimes the world has seen.
The Pact gave Stalin the green light to launch an unprovoked attack on Finland six weeks later. It also left the Baltic States at his mercy, consigned by the stroke of Ribbentrop’s pen to a dark fate of occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union; their brief 20-years of independence snuffed out. The Romanian province of Bessarabia was similarly affected: annexed, occupied and sovietized.
Stalin’s march westwards in 1939-40 had profound human effects. Over 2 million people were deported from Poland, the Baltic States and Bessarabia to the wilder shores of the Soviet Union. Countless thousands more endured persecution, hardship and privation. For many of them, it was a life sentence. Comparing this litany of horrors to the honourable if futile appeasement of the Munich Agreement is not only disingenuous, it is ridiculous.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact was an archetype of cynical, Machiavellian, totalitarian politics, a natural product of the two hateful regimes that spawned it. It may well have been “typical” by the perverted standards of Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Third Reich, but that does not mean that modern politicians can glibly play it down, make light of it or rehabilitate it. The fact that – in 2014 – Putin is openly prepared to do so should concern us all.
Roger Moorhouse is a historian and author of several books on World War II. His most recent book is The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941.