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Monsters Together

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Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signing the Nazi–Soviet Pact, with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop directly behind him, next to Stalin, August 23, 1939

In the vast literature about Stalin and Hitler during World War II, little is said about their being allies for twenty-two months. That is more than an odd chapter in the history of that war, and its meaning deserves more attention than it has received.

Two factors were involved in this neglect. One was that after Hitler chose to conquer Russia he did not succeed; Stalin emerged as one of the supreme victors of World War II. The other was the Western Powers’ relative lack of interest in Eastern Europe. Yet the war broke out in 1939 because of Eastern Europe, as a result of the British (and French) decision to oppose the German conquest of Poland. The political earthquake of the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, nine days before the outbreak of war on September 1, did not deter Britain and France from declaring war on Germany upon its invasion of Poland. This is one of the few—very few—decisions in their favor at the time. That they were reluctant in the months that followed to wage war seriously against Germany is another story.

Three quarters of a century have now passed since 1939. A fair amount has been written about the Nazi–Soviet Pact since then, mostly by Eastern European writers and historians. The Devil’s Alliance is a good account by the British historian Roger Moorhouse of what the pact meant for Hitler and Stalin—and, worse, for its victims. Perhaps the book’s most valuable part deals with the immediate consequences of the pact in 1939. Before then, obviously and stridently, Nazism and communism were outright enemies. From the very beginning of his political rise Hitler described Judaism and communism as his principal enemies. Stalin, by that time, was less of an ideologue. Like Hitler, he was a nationalist; he had little interest in international communism.

In May 1939 Hitler recognized that in a German war with the West, Russia could be neutral. But to bring that about would not be simple; Russia would have to get something in return. During that summer a British-French delegation seeking some kind of a military alignment with Russia got nowhere. There were high German officials and diplomats, foremost among them Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who were much inclined to a German–Russian deal. Meanwhile in Moscow Stalin had already moved: in early May he dismissed his foreign minister, the Jewish Maxim Litvinov, replacing him with Vyacheslav Molotov (who would remain his foreign minister during the war and well after). Hitler understood what that meant. In August Ribbentrop flew to Moscow to sign a Nazi–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact; a photograph of Ribbentrop with pen in hand shows Stalin visibly content in the background. Hitler hoped this near-fantastic event might deter the British and the French from going to war with him over Poland. That did not happen, although Stalin was not disappointed with that.

What was more important than the Non-Aggression Pact was its addendum, a Secret Protocol, that called for nothing less than a division of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, part of which was to be taken over by the Soviets. In addition, Germany recognized Russia’s “sphere of interest” in Estonia, Latvia, Finland, some of Lithuania, and the Romanian province of Bessarabia. Moscow denied the very existence of this Secret Protocol for a long time, well beyond World War II. But it existed in the German archives; and in 1939 it became a somber and dreadful reality. As late as 1986 the aged Molotov (then over ninety) denied its very existence to a Russian journalist. In fact, many of its conditions survived both the world war and the succeeding conflicts until 1989.

Poland, its army and its people, fought the Germans bravely for a month in 1939 (almost as long as France, with its considerable army, in 1940). But seventeen days after the German invasion Stalin’s armies invaded Poland from the east. A few days later in Brest, a meeting place then just on the Russian side of the new partition of Poland, there was a small joint military parade of Nazi and Soviet soldiers and military vehicles. Just over two months later, less than three months after the outbreak of World War II, the only fighting on land in Europe was between Russians and Finns, who would not accept Russian control of their country. The British were aghast. They (and the French) even considered, briefly, intervening, but this did not come about. Soon Hitler’s armies conquered Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium—and then France. Churchill and Britain stood alone, for more than a year to come.

At the end of September 1939 Ribbentrop flew to Moscow once more to arrange some border deals that would carry out the Secret Protocol. Throughout the war, of all Germany’s high officials, he was the most inclined to seek and keep agreements with the Russians. (His counterpart among the Russians, Molotov, had often reciprocal inclinations.) In this respect we may also notice the reciprocal tendencies of Hitler and Stalin. Hitler thought it necessary to carry out the terms of the alliance with Stalin; Stalin, for his part, was more enthusiastic about it than Hitler. One example is his perhaps unnecessary toast to Hitler after the signing of their pact on August 23, 1939: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer, I should therefore like to drink to his health.” More telling for the historical record and more consequential for the peoples of Eastern Europe were the Soviets’ intentions and their aggressive behavior soon after the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact.

On the day of Ribbentrop’s second visit to Moscow the Russian pressure on the Baltic states began. Russia demanded changes in the Baltic governments, first in Estonia, then its neighbors Latvia and Lithuania. More important, now Russia stationed many troops in those countries, particularly in their seaports, drastically reducing their independence. Their governments were under pressure to defer to Soviet orders and, except for Finland, did so. Two months later the Winter War with Finland began. The small Finnish army fought well and courageously, a fact that even Stalin had to accept; the result was a treaty that gave up pieces of territory to the Soviet Union but for the most part maintained Finnish independence.

Far more ominous and horrible was the situation in Poland. There the Soviet occupation was at least as brutal and murderous—if not more so—than in the parts of Poland subjugated by the Germans. The Russians deported at least one million people—including entire families, without any of their belongings—to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Russian far north, with very few ever seeing their homelands again. In April and May 1940, some 22,000 Polish officers were shot to death near Katyn. More than a million Polish prisoners and workers were deported to Germany for forced labor during the war.

It is telling that many of these practices began soon after the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in September 1939. Some Poles, including Jews, welcomed the Russian soldiers, thinking that they had come to relieve them from the Nazis. (Their subsequent disappointment in the Russians was such that some Jews in eastern Poland thought it better to escape to the Nazi zone, even though they knew how the Germans treated Jews.) Between 1939 and 1941 perhaps the majority of Jewish people in the world lived in Eastern Europe, most of them in eastern Poland, western Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia. Their final extermination by the Germans was not decided by Hitler until September 1941 and not put into effect before January 1942: but in many ways their fate had been foreshadowed by the Nazi–Soviet Pact.

On June 14, 1940, the very day the German army marched into Paris, Moscow finally decided to implement the Secret Protocol. Within a day or two it declared the total incorporation of Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Their governments were imprisoned or exiled. Many of their former officers were executed, and at least 25,000 of the Baltic peoples were deported to the Soviet Union. Hitler transported the German minorities in the Baltics to Germany on German ships.

In November 1940 Molotov traveled to Berlin. His journey was not a success. His diplomatic manner was characteristically stiff. In view of the German conquest of almost all of Europe, he proposed to include Bulgaria in the Russian sphere. The Soviet Union would thus have a presence near the Bosphorus, at the expense of Turkey. The Germans did not respond to this. Sometime in December 1940 Hitler began to plan for an eventual war against Russia.

Stalin was somewhat critical of Molotov’s behavior in Berlin; he thought his foreign minister may have been too rigid. This was typical of Stalin during the next six months. He could not and would not believe that Hitler would start a war against him while Germany still had Britain to deal with.

Stalin made some moves to improve Russia’s situation. He negotiated a friendly pact with Yugoslavia, which amounted to nothing, since Hitler invaded Yugoslavia on the day of its signing. He invited the Japanese foreign minister, Yōsuke Matsuoka, to visit Moscow on his way back to Japan after his visit to Berlin. Surprisingly, he then signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Japan. (Soon after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Matsuoka, back in Tokyo, suggested a Japanese invasion of Russia from the east. So much for the value of Non-Aggression Pacts in 1941. But he didn’t get his way, since Japan’s main enemy was now the US.)

Stalin ordered many friendly gestures toward Germany, including speeding up the deliveries of Soviet products there. He did not in the least react to a warning from Churchill about a prospective German attack against the Soviet Union. During the ten days before the Nazi invasion—all kinds of information about the German threat notwithstanding—Stalin did his best or, rather, his worst, to affirm his faith in Hitler and in Germany. I do not know of a single instance of such abject behavior (for that is what it was) by a statesman of a great power.

The German attack shocked Stalin into silence at first. (Molotov’s words after the German declaration of war were also telling: “Did we deserve this?”) Stalin’s first orders for the Soviet army were not to respond at all. It took him hours after the invasion—until noon—before he ordered the army to resist.

There is still a controversy about how shaken he was during the first days of the Nazi onslaught. Eventually he pulled himself together. On July 3, 1941—eleven days after the German invasion—he addressed the peoples of the Soviet Union as a patriot. By that time some Nazi troops were more than one hundred miles inside the western Soviet Union and advancing toward Moscow. Roger Moorhouse concludes his modest introduction: the history of the Nazi–Soviet Pact “deserves to be rescued from the footnotes and restored to its rightful place…. I can only hope that this book makes some small contribution to that process.” It does.

Of course there still remain questions for historians. One problem is that many of the Soviet archives are still closed, and their texts are often unreliable in any case. A deeper question still unresolved is what Hitler’s main purpose was in 1941. His explanation to his people and to his allies was clear and simple. He was never at ease with his alignment with the Soviet Union. He despised communism. But there was another element, probably decisive, in his mind. Here and there he dropped remarks about this to some of his generals. They involved Britain—and, behind it, the United States. Once he had conquered Russia, forcing Stalin to surrender, or to withdraw what remained of Soviet power behind the Urals, to Siberia, what then could Churchill (and Roosevelt) do? They would face a Nazi–Eurasian colossus, with a giant German army that no longer had to fight a war on two fronts.

Stalin’s problem was graver but also simpler. As early as September 1941 he wrote to Churchill that the Soviet Union was “in mortal menace.” It did not come about; and by 1942 he recognized that he would gain more from his alliance with Britain and the United States than with Germany. But at least until June 1941 Stalin and Molotov preferred Hitler’s Germany to the West.

In this respect there is a place for a biography, or biographical sketch, of the sinister Soviet official Vladimir Dekanozov, close to Molotov for a long time, who was one of the prime pro-Germans among high Soviet officials (and in 1941 also ambassador in Berlin). There is some evidence that as late as the spring of 1943 Molotov sent him to Stockholm with the aim of establishing contact with the Nazis. Ribbentrop was ready to meet with Dekanozov but Hitler forbade him to do so. In late 1953, Khrushchev ordered that Dekanozov be executed.

Two historic statements appeared in print well after the war. In December 1941 Churchill sent his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, to Moscow. The German advance forces had stopped short of Moscow but gunfire could even be heard beyond the Kremlin wall. Stalin said to Eden: “Hitler’s problem was that he does not know where to stop.” Eden: “Does anyone?” Stalin: “I do.” Those two words were not entirely devoid of truth. In November 1944 Churchill came to see De Gaulle in Paris. De Gaulle berated the Americans for letting Russia take over all of Eastern Europe. Churchill said, yes, Russia is now a hungry wolf. “But after the meal comes the digestion period.”* Russia would not be able to digest most of Eastern Europe. And so it was to be.

  1. *

    It is interesting that this exchange is not recorded in Churchill’s war memoirs but in De Gaulle’s. Churchill said this well before his “Iron Curtain” speech of 1946.