The Blog

Stalin-Hitler Pact Redux

Russia blames Poland for failing to appease Germany in 1939.

12:00 AM, Jun 12, 2009 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


The Russian defense ministry last week touched off an uproar with Moscow's most defiant neighbor, Poland. The ministry's website posted a paper by a mid-level functionary, Col. Sergei Kovalyov, who directs an official "scientific-research department of military history." The argument of the paper, titled "Fictions and Falsifications in Evaluating the USSR's Role On the Eve of World War II," was direct and brutal.

According to Kovalyov, "the war began because of Poland's refusal to satisfy Germany's claims." Nazi demands on the Polish republic were described by the learned officer as "quite reasonable." These amounted to reoccupation of Danzig (now Gdansk), then with an ethnic German majority, under the authority of Berlin, and surrender of a territorial corridor between Germany and East Prussia (the latter is mainly now a Russian-ruled enclave called Kaliningrad).

Unfortunately for Col. Kovalyov and his presumed supporters in the Kremlin, some historical facts about the beginning of World War II are unarguable. The conflict, commencing September 1, 1939, was an act of German aggression made easier by the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact on August 23, 1939, only a week before the assault. Once the Nazis invaded Poland, the Russians marched in from the east (two weeks later, on September 17) and Poland, partitioned for the fourth time, disappeared from the map. Stalinism must therefore share some responsibility for the resulting Holocaust of East European Jewry, no less than German and Russian atrocities against the Poles and other Slav Christian people.

When a Polish state was reconstituted after 1945, its frontier with Soviet Russia conformed to the line established by the Stalin-Hitler treaty. These borders, like the existence of a separate Moldova, lately the scene of turmoil between Communists and their opponents, are surviving effects of the complicity between communism and Nazism. Still, in contrast with the 1940 Soviet seizure of Moldova from Romania, the postwar Russo-Polish delineation and the Russian occupation of so-called Kaliningrad reflected the victory of the Allies, including Russia, over the Axis. The consequences of Russia's triumph were, unfortunately, to perpetuate the rewards of Stalin's earlier cooperation with Hitler.

History also shows that the pact itself and partition of Poland were in preparation almost two years before the war began. A document from the Soviet archives reveals that the Communist International, in November 1937, prepared the secret dissolution of the large Polish Communist party; it has been published by Yale University Press. The Polish Communists could be expected to accept and apologize for a great deal of Muscovite mischief, but the direct destruction of their country by Germany, with Russian help, was doubtless too much even for them.

As noted, the Russian Defense Ministry's current promotion of the "aggressive Poland" thesis elicited predictable protests from Warsaw, and the Putinite authorities stated that the Kovalyov paper was exclusively a reflection of the author's own views, although posted in an official medium. Yet the timing of such publication offers numerous points from which to investigate present-day Russian policy in Europe and the world.

It is probably no coincidence, as the Soviets and their puppets were wont to say, that the Kovalyov text appeared while Western Europe celebrated the 65th anniversary of D-Day, with the participation of President Barack Obama in Normandy. The appearance of this polemic also came as Poland celebrated the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, election that produced a government led by the Solidarity labor movement (founded in Gdansk, the former Danzig), and would lead to the tearing-down of the Berlin Wall six months later. Such Russian propaganda blandishments have multiple and convoluted layers of meaning: They seem to say, let the West remember that Hitler and Stalin were partners in warmongering, and the Poles recall that Russia cannot let go of its enmity toward them. Russia, unlike America, prefers to be feared than to be loved.

A Russian revival of enthusiasm for the results of the Stalin-Hitler pact has other sinister nuances. As seen in the European Parliament elections in recent days, ultra-right parties are gaining popularity among protesters against the global financial crisis, as alternatives to socialists and other traditional leftists. Moscow, birthplace of a "red-brown" alliance in the 1990s, uniting Communists and neo-Nazis on a Jew-baiting platform, may now see the ultra-nationalist parties in Western Europe as more certain supporters for its "principles" than the discredited left.

Most dangerous, however, is the new Russian approval for Nazi Germany's 1939 demands that Danzig and East Prussia be united with Germany. Nazi exploitation of Germans outside their political control--in the Saar, Rhineland, Austria, and Sudetenland (the pretext for Munich), before 1939--has a direct parallel in Russian manipulation of "its" co-ethnics in Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic states, and other former colonial possessions of the Soviet empire.

The baneful character of the "ethnic unification" trope is nowhere more visible than in the Balkans. On Thursday, June 4, William Montgomery, a former U.S. diplomat in the region, published an op-ed in the New York Times disclosing a dismaying agenda. According to Montgomery, "an increase in violence against Kosovo Serbs" is inevitable, since Serbia refuses to recognize the Kosovo Republic. That all disorders in Kosovo, since the Kosovar declaration of independence more than a year ago, have been a product of Serbian intrigues, escaped the commentator's notice. According to Montgomery, Serbia is "trapped" into supporting its co-ethnics outside its territory, "to prevent a nationalist backlash while trying to move toward the E.U." The former diplomat wrote that benign Serbian intentions, and forecasted bad behavior by the Albanians, would result in "partition [of Kosovo] between the Albanians and Serbs." Like Putin in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Serbian aggressors must get their way.

Montgomery went on to propose other novel and, frankly, outrageous options in the Balkans. These include letting the so-called "Republika Srpska" or "Serbian Republic," carved out of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead, raped, and displaced Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and others, hold a referendum on independence. Montgomery suggested the West should be ready "to use military force" to impose permanent partition on Bosnia and Kosovo.

Russia and its allies are bent on regaining a zone of control made possible by Stalin's friendship with Hitler, using Hitler's own favorite method -- mobilizing "their" people abroad. How will the democracies react to these moves toward the restoration of Russian imperial dominance? The Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje (Liberation) marked the two decades since Poland achieved its freedom from Russian intimidation by reprinting a poster from the historic election, showing Gary Cooper, as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, wearing a Solidarity badge and carrying the weapon of the ballot. The past and present victims of reanimated totalitarian expansionism still look to America for help. Unfortunately, the spirit of Will Kane appears as dead as the actor who played him.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.