Yesterday’s 80th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the curtain-raiser for Hitler’s invasion of Poland a week later, is a milestone Vladimir Putin would prefer that the world hadn’t noticed. Though few in the West need reminding that Stalin was a monster, many are still quick to add the qualification that he was also a hero in the struggle with Hitler. Fewer are aware of the scale and enthusiasm of Stalin’s support for Hitler, who wanted him to defeat Britain and France. Stalin, tempted by Germany’s consent to Soviet territorial expansion, gave Hitler a green light to attack Poland, so made the start of World War II more certain. The Molotov-Ribbentrop anniversary is also a reminder of the Orwellian contortions Western communists executed to support Moscow’s abrupt embrace of Hitler.
After Hitler’s crushing of Czechoslovakia in early 1939, his next target was Poland. But he needed an understanding with Stalin which avoided a possible war on two fronts. Stalin signalled his enthusiasm for a deal by dismissing his Jewish foreign minister Maksim Litvinov and also directing that the foreign ministry be purged of Jews.
Publicly the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was a non-aggression agreement. But it had a secret protocol, under which Hitler agreed to Stalin’s occupation of eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and parts of Romania, later extended to most of Lithuania as well.
Given the later turns of events – Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and Moscow’s switch to alliance with Britain – Stalin’s collaboration with the Nazis has been a source of long-term embarrassment to Moscow. The later Soviet line was that this was a necessary play for time given the appeasement policies of Britain and France – even though these ended in early 1939 after Hitler’s subjugation of Czechoslovakia. It was also claimed that westward Soviet territorial expansion was vital to provide a forward strategic line in case of attack.
Moscow denied the existence of the secret protocol until 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev condemned it. But Vladimir Putin has gone back to defending the pact with Hitler. While he criticised it as ‘immoral’ when visiting Poland in 2009, more recently he’s asked ‘what’s bad about it?’. At the same time Moscow furiously denies, against all evidence, that there was ever a Soviet-Nazi alliance.
The enthusiasm of Soviet support for its Nazi ally undermines claims that Stalin concluded his pact with Hitler reluctantly. After the German attack, Moscow initiated military intelligence cooperation with Berlin. And when sixteen days later the Soviets invaded eastern Poland, the two sides agreed to coordinate in the crushing of Polish resistance. In the Soviets’ case, this included deporting up to 1.5 million Poles and murdering about 65,000 military, ‘class enemies’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ – including 22,000 in the infamous Katyn Massacre. Joint Soviet-German victory parades were held in Lviv and Brest-Litovsk. Stalin and Hitler exchanged warm Christmas greetings.
After the Nazi-Soviet invasion, Molotov told the Supreme Soviet ‘one swift blow to Poland, first by the German army and then by the Red Army, and nothing was left of this ugly offspring of the Versailles Treaty.’ There followed Stalin’s attack on Finland, and the invasions of the Baltic states and northern areas of Romania.
Stalin clearly relished the opportunity afforded by his pact with Hitler to achieve substantial territorial expansion into mostly former Russian territory he feared was hostile to his regime. Such was his enthusiasm for the alliance that he actively supported Nazi Germany’s war effort against Britain and France. Soviet propaganda abruptly shifted to claiming that Germany should regain its position as a great power and that it was the Allies who had started an aggressive war. Moscow ceased anti-Nazi propaganda while communists in countries already invaded by the Germans, such as the Czechs, were directed not to oppose their occupiers. The French communists became an ally of Hitler’s, using their huge influence to sabotage and undermine the war effort. In Yugoslavia, invaded by Hitler in April 1941, the communists’ first call for resistance came on 22 June 1941, the day after the German attack on the Soviet Union.
Stalin also provided important strategic assistance to Hitler. Trade agreements associated with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact provided Moscow with military and industrial equipment in return for vast supplies of food and raw materials vital for Germany’s war effort and circumventing Britain’s blockade. Soviet oil supplies sustained the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. Moscow also acted as the supplier of vital raw materials from the wider world, such as rubber from Southeast Asia. In 1940, Molotov underlined to Hitler that Russian supplies had ‘not been without influence upon the great German victories’.
In addition, the Soviets provided the German navy with access to Murmansk and a submarine base, which were valuable for attacks on British shipping. In addition they allowed the German navy to use their northern sea route, which allowed it to attack British shipping in the Pacific as well as in the Atlantic.
Stalin also showed every sign of willingness to accept Berlin’s invitation to join the September 1940 Tripartite Pact together with Japan and Italy. The only reason Moscow didn’t join the pact is that Hitler changed his mind in favour of invading the Soviet Union. Stalin made no effort to build defences in the newly-acquired territories to defend against a German attack, refused to believe clear intelligence that Hitler was about to invade and felt betrayed when he did.
The Putin regime has maintained the Soviet claim that Nazi Germany was defeated by Russia, with little Western help. Ambivalence about this is not permitted. The line requires continued obfuscation about the pact with Hitler, no apologies for the aggression towards the Soviet Union’s neighbours or indeed apologies to Britain (and Australia) for Stalin’s extensive co-operation with Hitler.
Putin honours the Stalinist past in other ways – in murderous brutality to opponents at home and abroad, attempts to weaken Western democracies and in his efforts to re-establish control over the former Soviet empire, to the extent he can get away with it.
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