World War II has spawned many false narratives. These include:
- The myth of the clean Wehrmacht that allegedly did not participate in the Holocaust;
- The lost cause myth asserting the superiority and efficiency of the heroic German soldiers compared to the feckless rabble in the Red Army;
- Jewish passivity in the face of the Holocaust;
- Austria as a victim of Nazism rather than a participant in it;
- Hitler’s alleged Jewish grandfather.
And so on. The list is long. And new ones keep getting invented.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer and the ruler of Russia, the successor state of the old USSR. It is hardly surprising that he defends the August 23, 1939 alliance between Nazi Germany and the USSR. The Hitler-Stalin pact divided all of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of interest. It also contained a secret agreement to jointly invade Poland. The USSR, following Nazi Germany’s lead, invaded Poland on September 17, 1939.
The Russian government alleges that this alliance delayed the German invasion of the USSR by two years and enabled the USSR to defeat Nazi Germany. Last month Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov defended the agreement on the grounds that “the Soviet Union was forced on its own to ensure its national security and signed a non-aggression pact with Germany”.
Putin has not made antisemitic statements. But Putin’s false narrative about the need to negotiate with Hitler appeals to fascists and antisemites. Philo-Nazis say Churchill should also have negotiated with Hitler. They then blame Churchill for Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.
The Russian government through its RT network spouted Lavrov’s same pro-Stalin line ten years ago. A 2009 RT broadcast argued that the Hitler-Stalin pact helped the USSR.
RT argued that the Hitler-Stalin Pact postponed fighting between the Soviet Union and Germany. To advance this dubious claim, the network interviewed the grandson of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (who had signed the pact). The younger Molotov argued that without the pact, the USSR would immediately have had to fight a war with Nazi Germany and lose.
According to Molotov, the problem for the Soviet Union was whether to fight Germany immediately, when the Red Army was not prepared, or else to try to win some time. Molotov argued that the Hitler-Stalin pact’s “division of interests” was not in order for the USSR to expand into Eastern Europe, but merely to establish a line where German forces were going to stop once they had invaded Poland. Were they going to stop in Warsaw, or Minsk? Moscow? Maybe Vladivostok?
I have seldom seen an argument as witlessly ahistorical as this defense of Stalin’s folly. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. In doing so it violated the Munich agreement that Nazi Germany had signed with Britain and France in September 1938. That agreement had given Hitler permission to invade part of Czechoslovakia. Six months later Hitler took over the rest of Czechoslovakia without any action by Britain and France.
On July 31, 1940, eleven months after Germany’s invasion of Poland, Hitler got around to ordering a few of his generals to prepare a plan for the eventual invasion of the USSR. It was only on December 18, 1940, that Hitler finally set a timetable for the invasion of the USSR and ordered the Wehrmacht to draw up specific plans to invade the following year. Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.
Historians have access to all of Nazi Germany’s plans to invade the USSR. Contrary to Putin’s pro-Stalin line, there was no imminent Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1939 which required Stalin to sign a pact with Hitler to prevent it. A mere pact could not have accomplished that anyway. Hitler did not honor his pacts.
Hitler was not a man of his word. Stalin was a fool to think otherwise. Putin is no fool. His defense of the Stalin-Hitler pact could be to promote Russian territorial aggrandizement in Eastern Europe, which was the actual purpose of the Stalin-Hitler pact.
Hitler’s plans in 1939 were in fact quite different from what Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov now claims. Hitler had expected that Britain and France would peacefully accept his invasion of Poland, as they had when he had earlier invaded Austria and then Czechoslovakia. When to Hitler’s surprise Britain and France declared war on Germany, his subsequent plan was first to conquer France. He expected that Britain would then be forced to accept German rule over western Europe once the Wehrmacht had defeated Britain’s major ally in Europe.
After the successful German invasion of France in May and June of 1940, Hitler made what he termed a peace offer to Britain. Calling his demands “an appeal to reason”, the German dictator said in a speech to the Reichstag on July 19, 1940:
In this hour I feel it to be my duty before my own conscience to appeal once more to reason and common sense in Great Britain as much as elsewhere. I consider myself in a position to make this appeal, since I am not the vanquished, begging favors, but the victor speaking in the name of reason. I can see no reason why this war must go on.
Churchill turned out to be made of sterner stuff than Hitler hoped. The British PM rejected Hitler’s overture. As a result, the German dictator then authorized an invasion of Britain to occur during the summer and fall of 1940.
Fortunately the Luftwaffe got shot out of the skies in the Battle of Britain that summer. That meant that a German invasion of Britain would lack the air superiority needed in order to succeed. Furthermore, the German Army and Navy were never able to get their act together enough to agree on any kind of invasion plan at all. Each of the two feuding Wehrmacht branches insisted that the other branch’s plan would fail. Hitler declined to take sides.
It was only at that point that Hitler decided to invade the USSR before Britain had been defeated or suppressed. Hitler had some harebrained idea that if only Germany could defeat the USSR then Britain would give up.
Germany generals and Hitler himself must have known the potential folly of Germany fighting a two-front war in both the east and the west. That had been Germany’s undoing in World War I. But Hitler’s generals told him what he wanted to hear. They predicted that they could defeat the USSR in a war that lasted at most six months. That meant that if Germany invaded the USSR in the late spring then the war would be over before the winter. Why, the Wehrmacht would not even need winter clothing for its troops conquering Moscow! After this quick and easy victory, which would convince Churchill that he had no potential allies, Hitler could then resume his pressure on Britain.
The German military’s plans turned out to be wishful thinking. Operation Barbarossa precipitated a four-year conflict which ended with the Red Army conquering Berlin on May 2, 1945 and the subsequent surrender of Nazi Germany six days later. Barbarossa encouraged Churchill, who now had a major European ally once again.
Not only do Nazi records show that there was no German intent to start a war with the USSR in 1939, but the claim that there was one is illogical. If Hitler believed in 1939 that he could push past Poland and conquer the USSR too, why wouldn’t he have done so right there and then? Because he signed a peace treaty with Stalin? Hitler had no problem violating peace treaties. Ask Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who signed that Munich agreement in September 1938 and then declared that it guaranteed “peace for our time.”
Chamberlain was arguably right, if by “our time” he meant one year. Actually, the “one year” was Chamberlain’s remaining time in office. After Germany violated the Munich agreement in September 1939 Parliament replaced him with the much more resolute Winston Churchill. Unlike Stalin and Chamberlain, Churchill understood the evil of Nazism.
The reason that Hitler didn’t invade the USSR after invading Poland is that he didn’t believe it was to his advantage to do so. It was not because of some treaty with Stalin.
The Harm That Stalin’s Treaty with Hitler Caused
Contrary to current Russian government propaganda, the Hitler-Stalin pact caused great harm to everyone, including the USSR itself. The pact lulled Stalin into believing that Germany would not attack the USSR for several years. For that reason the Red Army was woefully unprepared for war with Germany in 1941.
Louis Proyect and Powel Szelegieniec mentioned some of the other damage this odious agreement caused. (My apologies for linking to an article in the far-left anti-Israel rag Counterpunch. But this article makes some good points. I ignore the superfluous Marxist jargon in it) :
- The Hitler-Stalin pact legitimized the Soviet-Nazi oppression of Poland.
- Trotsky pointed out that Stalin had become an “agent of Hitler” when the USSR joined the Nazi invasion of Poland. The Soviet invasion was a “symmetrical supplement of the Hitlerite operations”.
- Previous German-Soviet military cooperation increased in the years 1939 to 1941, when the Hitler-Stalin pact was in effect. Without Soviet raw materials the Wehrmacht would have been weaker when it invaded the USSR in 1941. Lenin’s dictum that “the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with” was thus reversed. The communist Stalin sold Nazi Germany the fuel to invade him with.
- The Hitler-Stalin pact also led the USSR to adopt a new pro-Nazi political line, which it imposed on the Communist parties in the west. Stalin forced an end to their anti-Nazi agitation in favor of support for the “peaceful German Nation that is under the threat of Anglo-France imperialism.”
- In the Soviet-occupied portion of Poland between 1939 and 1941, the USSR carried out a large-scale deportation of almost a million Poles to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. Interestingly, Menachem Begin was in one of these gulags during that time as well. He and other Polish citizens were freed in 1941 to go fight the Nazis who had invaded the USSR despite the Hitler-Stalin pact.
- The Hitler-Stalin was part of Stalin’s strategy of the restoring the borders of the Russian Empire, which had included the Baltic states and Poland.
The fear today is that, like Stalin, Putin also seeks to restore the borders of the old Russian Empire, or at least the postwar borders of the USSR. That is why Russia’s Eastern European neighbors are so concerned about Putin’s defense of the Hitler-Stalin agreement. Sławomir Dębski, the director of Polish Institute of International Affairs, has stated:
Putin is saying that annexation of the Baltic states, aggression on Poland, aggression on Romania, on Finland, all of this was not a big deal, a natural part of history, and that is a problem.
Jews Should Be Concerned Too
Jews also should be concerned. There is a growing problem with neo-Nazi groups in the west, and in Russia too. In the US, neo-Nazis who claimed that Trump is a puppet of the Jews have carried out killings in two synagogues.
It has long been an article of faith among neo-Nazis that Hitler did not cause World War II. Rather, Churchill caused it by refusing to sign new treaties with Hitler to replace previous treaties that Hitler had already broken. Foremost among such revisionists is the now eighty-year-old paleoconservative writer Pat Buchanan.
Buchanan’s book Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World reached the top twenty on the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2008. Buchanan argued that once Germany violated the Munich agreement in 1939 and demanded additional territory, the proper response would have been for Britain to sign a new treaty with the Nazis and grant them the newly-seized territory.
Buchanan furthermore claimed that even after Hitler invaded France in 1940 Britain should still have signed a new peace treaty with Hitler. Had Britain done so, Buchanan reasons, the British Empire in India, Palestine and who knows where else would have survived into the 21st-century. (As if that would have been a good thing.) Buchanan had earlier written in 1977 that:
Though Hitler was indeed racist and anti-Semitic to the core, a man who without compunction could commit murder and genocide, he was also an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the Great War, a political organizer of the first rank, a leader steeped in the history of Europe.
Maybe Hitler was indeed “steeped in the history of Europe.” However, to paraphrase Ouspensky, the history of Europe is the history of crime.
The Israel-hating paleoconservative Eric Margolis agreed with Buchanan. Margolis (Jewish father, non-Jewish mother) claimed that it was stupid and wrong for millions of people to die to prevent the 90% German Free City of Danzig from rejoining Germany. As if the port city of Danzig was Hitler’s only goal in Poland! If that was all Hitler wanted then why did he invade all of Poland and kill millions of Polish Jews and Catholics there?
And who says that World War II would not have occurred if only the Allies had agreed that Hitler could take over Danzig, or for that matter all of Poland? In whose alternate universe is that so? Can these paleoconservatives prove that is what would have happened? Anyone can come up with alternate universes with happier endings than the universe we live in.
A review on the paleoconservative LewRockwell site said that Buchanan had proved World War II was not a “good war”. In another positive review Taki’s Magazine, financed by the antisemite Taki Theodoracopulos, accused Churchill of being a hypocrite for refusing to sign a new peace treaty with Hitler.
Russia’s defense of the Hitler-Stalin pact is not only false. It confirms the claims of historical revisionists that Hitler in 1939 and 1940 could have been trusted to honor new peace treaties, and that therefore Britain should have concluded one with Hitler. According to the paleoconservatives it is thus Britain, not Germany, that is to blame for World War II.
Putin’s defense of the Hitler-Stalin pact is an attempt to whitewash Stalin, not Hitler. But it has the effect of whitewashing Hitler’s duplicity as well as justifying the claims of philo-Nazis and fascists. That should concern not just Eastern Europeans who fear Russian revanchism but Jews as well.