So, who started, and who won, WWII in Europe?

Here are five distinct, but related, sets of facts, all of which I believe are supported by the historical record:

  • World War II started when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and Hitler alone was responsible for choosing the date and target of that invasion.
  • Hitler’s decision to invade Poland on September 1, 1939 was certainly made easier by the fact that, one week before the invasion, Germany and Stalin’s USSR had signed a Treaty on Non-Aggression, which secretly arranged for Poland’s dismemberment after it had been invaded first by Germany and later by the USSR. (The USSR did invade Poland from the East 16 days after Germany’s invasion from the West.)
  • In June of 1941, in violation of the Treaty on Non-Aggression, Germany invaded the USSR, and the USSR began a campaign of fierce resistance to the invaders. That campaign was ultimately successful.
  • In the course of driving the Germans out of the USSR and back to Berlin, the Soviets suffered more casualties than any other European nation—in fact, the casualties suffered by the USSR were greater than the combined casualties of all the other allies—and, concomitantly, the German military suffered substantially more casualties on the Eastern front than on the Western front.
  • Because the Germans suffered most of their casualties on the Eastern front, it can fairly be said that, although the defeat of Germany and its allies was definitely a shared triumph, the Soviet military played a more important role in securing that victory than did the military forces of any other single nation.

A fair reading of history provides abundant support for the truth of all five of the preceding propositions.  Yet, with the recent commemorations of the 80th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland, it seems that some or all of the five propositions are being challenged by the current leaders of the nations that were directly involved eight decades ago.

On September 1, 2019, Poland conducted a memorial ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of the German invasion, and the nations that participated in the war were invited to attend, with one notable exception: Russia (which of course was the most substantial component of the former USSR) was left uninvited.  This snub was motivated by several factors.

First, Russia’s military adventure in Ukraine, which has resulted in the widely rejected “annexation” of the Crimea by Russia, has angered and alarmed the nations of Europe and beyond.  Indeed, Russia’s use of military force against a much weaker neighbor stirred memories of just the kind of aggressions that had precipitated World War II.  So, the nations that had fought in the war were not inclined to participate in ceremonies with a Russia that was using force in a neighboring country.

Additionally, there was perception that Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has “revised” history by ignoring and even denying the mutually satisfactory early relationship between Hitler and Stalin—a relationship that was consummated in the Treaty on Non-Aggression and the subsequent dismemberment of Poland.

Later in September, the European Parliament adopted a declaration stressing inter alia that “the Second World War, the most devastating war in Europe’s history, was started as an immediate result of the notorious Nazi-Soviet Treaty on Non-Aggression of 23 August 1939, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and its secret protocols[.]”  The declaration also asserts that the Treaty on Non-Aggression and its secret protocols “paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War.”

Russia’s Putin vigorously rejected the declaration of the European Parliament, and (obviously enraged at Poland’s snubbing of Russia in the commemoration earlier in September) he went so far as to suggest that Poland played a major role in starting the war.  One can readily reject Putin’s wilder accusations concerning Poland, but it does not follow that the declaration of the European Parliament is perfectly correct.

The declaration asserts that World War II started “as an immediate result” of the Treaty of Non-Aggression, which also “paved the way” for the outbreak of the war.  I think it is unobjectionable to say that the treaty “paved the way” for the war, in that it made it easier for Hitler, after the treaty had been made, to make the momentous decision to invade Poland.  And, after all, what is the literal derivation of the phrase “paved the way”?  It literally refers to paving over a rough unfinished trail so that it becomes a smooth pathway.  This is an apt metaphor for effect the treaty had on Hitler’s decision-making process.  But, still, it was Hitler who walked down that (paved-over) path, not Hitler and Stalin together.  It was only Hitler’s order that commenced the invasion—not an order issued jointly, or two orders issued simultaneously, by Hitler and Stalin.

But what should we say about the part of the declaration that asserts that the war “was started as an immediate result” of the Treaty on Non-Aggression?  It’s certainly true that the war started almost immediately after the treaty was signed—a mere nine days later.  But was the start of war an immediate result of the treaty?

When we say that Y was the result of X, we’re saying that, if there had been no X, there would have been no Y.  In a historical context, such assertions take the form of counterfactual hypotheticals: If the treaty had not been signed, the war would not have started (or would not have started when it did start).  No one can say whether that counterfactual hypothetical is true or false.  In fact, the treaty was signed, and the war started very soon thereafter.  But we can never know what would have happened had the treaty not been signed.  Perhaps the start of war would have been delayed somewhat, or perhaps there might never have been a war at all.  Your guess is as good as mine, or Vladimir Putin’s, or the European Parliament’s.

Precisely because uncertainty abounds in the realm of counterfactual hypotheticals, the European Parliament should have been more careful in its use of language.  If they had said that the war started in the immediate aftermath of the treaty, that would have been more appropriate.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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