Putin’s New Nostalgia

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David Levine

As Russian military convoys continue the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has chosen to rehabilitate the alliance between Hitler and Stalin that began World War II. Speaking before an audience of Russian historians at the Museum of Modern Russian History, Putin said: “The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression agreement with Germany. They say, ‘Oh, how bad.’ But what is so bad about it, if the Soviet Union did not want to fight? What is so bad?”

In fact, Stalin did want to fight. The August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin. It led directly to the German-Soviet invasion of Poland the following month that began World War II. In speaking of this agreement, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as good foreign policy, Putin has violated both a long Soviet taboo and revised his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral.” What might he have in mind? What it is about rapprochement with Nazi Germany that is so appealing just at the present moment?

The historical significance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact could hardly be greater: it stands at the beginning of German and Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and all of the succeeding tragedies they brought, in Poland and elsewhere. Stalin entered the pact with Hitler fully aware of his partner’s anti-Semitism, and indeed accounting for it in his own diplomacy. On August 20, 1939, Hitler asked Stalin for a meeting, and Stalin was more than happy to agree. For five years the Soviet leader had been seeking an occasion to destroy Poland. Stalin had prepared by firing his Jewish commissar for foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov, replacing him with the Russian Vyacheslav Molotov. The dismissal of Litvinov, according to Hitler, was “decisive.” On August 23, Molotov negotiated the agreement with Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in Moscow.

In Geneva, where Zionists were meeting at their world congress, the news came as a shock. Everyone present immediately understood that Hitler had been unleashed and that a war was coming, with especially dire implications for Jews. Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the General Zionists, closed the congress with the words: “Friends, I have only one wish: that we all remain alive.” This was no empty pathos. Less than two years later, the Holocaust began in precisely the part of Europe that was dealt with in the secret protocol of the pact. By 1945 almost all of the millions of Jews who lived in these regions would be dead. Stalin famously said that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an alliance “signed in blood.” Much of the blood shed in the lands concerned by the agreement would be that of Jewish civilians.

The Stalin-Hitler alliance had devastating consequences for Poland and the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In Poland, on September 17, 1939, Stalin joined his ally Hitler in a military attack, sending the Red Army to invade the country from the east. It met the allied Wehrmacht in the middle and organized a joint victory parade. The Soviet and German secret police promised each other to suppress any Polish resistance. Behind the lines the Soviet NKVD organized the mass deportation of about half a million Polish citizens to the Gulag. It also executed thousands of Polish officers, many of whom were fresh from combat against the Wehrmacht.

Ten months later, the Baltic states were also occupied by the Red Army and annexed to the Soviet Union. These three small countries lost tens of thousands of citizens to deportations, including most of their elites. The Baltic states were declared by Soviet law never to have existed, so that service to those states became a crime. The Soviet idea that states can be declared to exist or not, now echoed in Russian pronouncements about Ukraine, is deeply etched in the political memory of Poland and the Baltic region today.

Because Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were attacked by the Soviet Union while Stalin was Hitler’s ally, their current leaders have also been particularly quick to see through other Russian propaganda positions, for example the grotesque claim that Russia had to invade Ukraine this year in order to protect Europe from fascism. They remember not only the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but also the series of economic agreements between the Nazis and the Soviets that followed in 1940 and early 1941, and the sham elections and propaganda in the Soviet zone that seemed to find an eery echo in the recent Russian actions in occupied Ukraine.

In fact, Putin’s rehabilitation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact follows other recent moves by Moscow to revive the idea of a division of Eastern Europe between Russia and the West. In March the Russian parliament proposed to the Polish foreign ministry that the two countries divide the territory of Ukraine. No one in Warsaw took the suggestion seriously. In his victory speech after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Putin argued that the protection of ethnic brethren was a legitimate reason to invade Ukraine. This was Nazi Germany’s rationale for seizing Austria and part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the Soviet Union’s for attacking Poland in 1939. It is with such historical references in mind that we must understand Putin’s suggestion in the speech that Germany should sympathize with the doctrine of changing borders. Any such support for this argument would seem difficult to imagine in Germany, whose admirable position as a major European power depends precisely upon European integration. Yet important German statesmen such as Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt have taken meaningful steps toward endorsing Moscow’s position by questioning the legality of the Ukrainian state.

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the significance of President Putin’s position is limited to the fate of Eastern Europe, important as that is. What is happening instead is an attempt by the Kremlin to move from one account of Russia in World War II to another—a shift in national historical memory that would have implications for all of Europe. Two versions of the commemoration of the war were always available because the Soviet Union fought on both sides of the war. In the first part of the war, from 1939 to 1941 the Soviet Union was a German ally, fighting in the eastern theater and supplying Germany with the minerals, oil, and food it needed to make war against Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and most importantly France and Britain.

After Hitler betrayed Stalin and the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Soviet Union was suddenly on the other side, and soon found itself in a grand alliance with Britain and the United States. For decades, official Soviet accounts of the war passed over the first part in silence and celebrated Soviet feats of arms in the second. In the international arena, if the Soviet Union wanted to present itself as a power that stood for peace, it had to deny that it was one of the powers that began the war. Soviet postwar propaganda, like Russian propaganda now, associated the West with fascism: this was one especially dramatic way of forgetting just who it was who fought on the same side as those fascists when the war began.

In view of the millions of Soviet citizens killed by the Germans after June 1941, and the undoubtedly decisive role that the Red Army played in the final defeat of the Wehrmacht, the commemoration of the struggle against the Nazis made perfect political sense. Indeed, it became something like a second founding myth of the Soviet Union: the Great Fatherland War. But in this telling of history, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had to be denied: not so much as a crime but as a blunder. After all, it allowed German troops to approach the Soviet Union well before the invasion, it aided Germany to become the European power that almost reached Moscow, and it created a false sense of complacency in the Soviet leadership. In spring 1941, despite more than one hundred intelligence warnings, Stalin refused to believe that Germany would invade The Soviet Union.

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Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin attending a Victory Day parade in Sevastopol, Crimea, May 9, 2014

As today’s Russia fights a war of aggression in Eastern Europe, the Kremlin seems increasingly ready to merge the traditional Soviet self-image as the country that defeated the Nazi aggression with Stalin’s own actions as a glorious aggressor. This implies a positive evaluation of the 1939 alliance with Nazi Germany. There has been a trial run for this sort of thing. Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet Union presented Nazi Germany in its own internal propaganda as a friendly state, ceased to criticize German policies, and began to publish Nazi speeches. People at public rallies occasionally misspoke, praising “Comrade Hitler” or calling for “the triumph of international fascism.” Swastikas began to appear on buildings or even on posters of Soviet leaders.

Today, the positive emphasis on a war of aggression goes well with tendencies in the Russian media, where defiant declarations of Russian anti-fascism are increasingly submerged in rhetoric that may seem rather fascist. Jews are blamed for the Holocaust on national television; an intellectual close to the Kremlin praises Hitler as a statesman; Russian Nazis march on May Day; Nuremberg-style rallies where torches are carried in swastika formations are presented as anti-fascist; and a campaign against homosexuals is presented as a defense of true European civilization. In its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has called upon the members of local and European far right groups to support its actions and spread Moscow’s version of events.

In the recent “elections” staged in the Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as in the earlier faked referendum in occupied Crimea, European far-right politicians have come as “observers” to endorse the gains of Russia’s war. Far from being an eccentric stunt, the invitation of these “observers” reveals why the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is meaningful to Moscow today. Although Putin would certainly have been pleased if actual German or Polish political leaders were foolish enough to take the bait of agreeing to a new division of Europe, he seems satisfied for the moment with the people who have actually responded, in one way or another, to his appeal to destroy the existing European order: separatists across Europe (including the UK Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, calls Putin the world leader he most admires); anti-European right-wing populist parties (of which the most important is France’s National Front); as well as the far-right fringe, including neo-Nazis.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not only about territory in Eastern Europe but also about the entire European legal order. In making his alliance with Hitler, Stalin had a political logic. He imagined that in supporting the Nazi state as it began its total war he would turn the German armed forces to the west, away from the Soviet Union. In this way, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist world would be exposed, and Germany, France, and Britain would collapse simultaneously. In his own way, Putin is now attempting much the same thing. Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists. His allies on the far right are precisely the political forces that wish to bring an end to the current European order: the European Union.

It should go without saying that a return to the nation-state in Europe would be a catastrophe for all concerned, including, in the end, for Russia. But there is an important difference between Stalin in 1939 and Putin in 2014. One can at least credit Stalin for attempting to resolve a real problem: Hitler did indeed intend to destroy the Soviet Union. In allying with Hitler he compromised his ideology and made a strategic mistake, but he was certainly responding to a real threat. Putin, on the other hand, had no European enemy. Without any apparent cause, in 2013, for the first time, the Russia government designated the European Union as an adversary. In its media and indeed in official foreign policy pronouncements it has characterized the European Union as “decadent,” in the sense of about to disintegrate.

This change in policy toward Europe, accompanied by the creation of a rival Eurasian Union, was then followed by the Russian assault on Ukraine. The Kremlin has continuously presented its intervention in Ukraine as resistance to European aggression. This is all a bit strange. The Russian invasion of Ukraine precipitated a rupture with the West that, from the point of view of protecting Russia’s basic interests, makes absolutely no sense. This was Russia’s choice, and it hardly seems a masterpiece of strategic thinking. Now the Kremlin’s tortured search for a justification and precedent has led to the jettisoning of one of the basic moral foundations of postwar politics: the opposition to wars of aggression in Europe in general and the Nazi war of aggression in 1939 in particular.