Stalin and Hitler, Partners From Hell

Book review:

Roger Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin 1939–1941, Penguin 2014.

It was the diplomatic deal that shocked the world. Fresh from the earthquakes of Munich and the final conquest of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact — otherwise known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact after the regimes’ respective foreign ministers — seemed to turn the entire world upside down. Two ideological arch rivals, who hated each other with a visceral passion and fought proxy struggles all over Europe during the 1930s, now suddenly became partners. In its time, it was earth-shattering.

Yet few remember the Pact today. It is overshadowed by other events — especially the war itself — and to this day you will find people who see it as a “naturally” temporary event, a mere “tactical” move by Hitler or Stalin, or both, before the two dictators “inevitably” clashed in 1941–1945 on the bloodiest battlefront ever fought in human history.

British historian Roger Moorhouse seeks to correct this misconception, and in a wonderfully readable and aptly named book seeks to restore the Pact to its proper place — not as the temporary expedient its apologists later claim, but an event that was meant to be lasting in its effects not only in the coming war but in world relations in general.

This is the story of the Pact as it was and as people saw it at the time, and it is quite eye-opening. Weaving personal stories with diplomatic intrigue, painting on a broad canvas which encompasses the whole globe, and telling personal stories while always maintaining academic honesty and accuracy, this book deserves to become one of the standard accounts of the Pact for the general public.


The Echoes of Munich

It is interesting that the Nazi-Soviet Pact is so thoroughly overshadowed by the Munich Agreement, as the former was very much the result of the latter. Most in the west remember the Munich Agreement as the nadir of the West, a combination of Western cowardice and weakness in the face of evil. Yet while there is much to this critique, this is not how everyone saw it, most importantly Hitler and Stalin themselves.

Hitler hated the Munich pact, seeing it not as an act of craven surrender but a wicked denial of the war he wanted and the military triumph he so desired. He was dead set on avoiding another Munich and would have his war one way or another — even if that meant turning to his arch nemesis, the Bolshevik leader Joseph Stalin.

Stalin also did not see Munich quite the same way we do today. To him, the surrender at Munich was a cunning attempt by the West to direct Hitler eastwards to fight him, so that the two could bleed each other white while the “imperialist” West watched from the sidelines. The logical conclusion of both dictators was the paradoxical and counter-intuitive decision to cut a deal at the expense of the ostensibly Machiavellian Western Powers.

Like Munich, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was also driven by memories of WWI. Just as the West signed Munich in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the horrors of the Western Front, Hitler signed the Pact to prevent the nightmare of a likely unwinnable two front war — and Stalin agreed to it in the hope that WWII would result in everyone bleeding themselves to the point of revolution, as had happened in Russia in 1917 and came very close to happening in countries throughout Europe in 1918 and 1919.

Both pacts, if you will, were about learning from history — but everyone learned different lessons.


The Breaking of Nations

Professor Gabriel Liulevicius once pointed out that the peoples of Western and Eastern Europe remember WWI (and WWII) very differently. If WWI was for the West a horrific and futile conflict which did little but restore the status quo, for the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe it was, albeit indirectly, a war of national liberation, which broke the backs of the empires which had subjugated them for so long. Between 1918 and 1919, many newly independent nation states emerged, most if not all of whom shared in Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a just and lasting order based not on empires but states founded on the basis of national self-determination.

The run-up to WWII and its aftermath reversed this trend. Already during the Russian Civil War, Bolshevik Russia had conquered and subjugated newly independent countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, and tried but failed to conquer the Baltic countries in 1919 and Poland in 1920. Nazi Germany continued the process from its end, annexing Austria in 1938 and conquering Czechoslovakia in 1939 until finally reaching Poland.

But the Pact sent this process into overdrive, and its division of parts of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet “spheres of influence” was but the first step to the remaking of the whole continent. Nor was this old-style European imperialism; both the Nazi and Soviet regimes were modern and totalitarian: not for them the old task of merely co-opting or replacing elites and leaving the mass of people alone. For the Nazi and Soviet empires, the newly conquered territories and their peoples would be remade or destroyed in the name of horrific and grandiose visions.

Moorhouse gives a great deal of attention to what happened on the Soviet side, a neglected topic buried under the detailed descriptions of Nazi crimes. While the Nazis were slaughtering Jews, elites and just regular Poles in the west, the Soviets were doing much the same in the east, most infamously at Katyn forest. While the Nazis were deporting and dumping hundreds of thousands of “undesirables,” the NKVD was busy doing the same to hundreds of thousands more — sending them to faraway lands in Siberia and Central Asia, in conditions which practically ensured untold numbers would not survive.

Moorhouse gives many personal stories from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia to put a face on the often incomprehensible numbers and petty cruelty of both regimes. This was the period before the Nazi mass slaughter and genocide machine really kicked into high gear, and anyone who observed both regimes from the outside would have been hard-pressed to say who was worse.


A Confusing and Terrifying New World

If this is so even for us today, it is hard to imagine what it must have felt like for the millions of citizens of states that ceased to exist, caught between “A monster with a little mustache in the west and a monster with a big mustache in the east,” to paraphrase the Rabbi character from the movie Defiance, in the period after the Pact was a dead letter.

Moorhouse brings many a heart-rending story about the various peoples — Poles, Estonians, Latvians, and others — who effectively had to decide whether to stay under one dictator and wait it out, or cross the border and try their chances with the other one. It was truly a choice of two “devils.”

Jews were no exception to this. My grandfather was one of them. A Polish religious Jew and a member of Beitar — a rare enough combination — he received warning from his movement to leave Nazi-occupied Poland. So, at the age of 15, he took his reluctant family across the border into the Soviet zone and hoped-for safety. For his troubles, he and everyone else were deported to the Archangelsk region in northern Russia, where he cut down trees in the freezing cold to feed both himself and his family. They survived the ordeal; tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands did not.

Outside the zone of the dictators, many who had joined the communist movement out of opposition to fascism found it difficult to reconcile their years-long struggle with the new truce with the worst fascist of them all. Moorhouse brings many of their stories to light, including the tale of Harry Pollitt, a committed communist who simply refused to follow the party line on the Pact, while others who were less scrupulous followed the new change without a problem. More perhaps than the murderous collectivizations or the Show Trials, the Pact forced many committed communists to break with the party, never to return.


Dividing the World

As said above, far too many have bought into the idea that the Pact was meant from the outset as nothing more than a pause before the “inevitable” war between the Nazis and the Soviets. Moorhouse demonstrates convincingly that this is a rewriting of history after the fact.

In fact, Stalin repeatedly saw the Pact as a means of flipping the west’s “plot” to have him and Hitler fight on its head by forcing Nazi Germany and the Western powers to bleed each other instead to his eventual benefit. Consistently throughout the period between the beginning of WWII and Operation Barbarossa, he haggled and negotiated and stonewalled not as a desperate man fearful of a coming attack, but as one who saw himself as a legitimate partner and even the stronger one holding all the cards.

Hitler, too, saw much that was positive in the deal, cooperating with the USSR not only in trade but also exchanging (not quite the latest) military technologies. Before his decision to invade the USSR, Hitler even tried to arrange a second, more comprehensive deal to “divide the whole world” as he put it — with the USSR moving on India, Italy in the Middle East, and Germany in southeastern Europe and Central Africa — and leave the British Empire out in the cold.

But as Moorhouse shows, Stalin overplayed his hand, and the interminable clashes between the two powers in the Balkans — the proximate cause of the First World War as well, interestingly enough — led him to decide enough was enough. In the end, Hitler decided that the world still needed dividing — but between himself and his allies. Tens of millions would be butchered, tortured, or permanently scarred before it was all over.


Freedom is not Free

Hanging over the book and strewn throughout is the reality of western weakness. Far more than Munich, the Pact and subsequent war made clear that France and Britain could not fight the two partners in crime at once and pretty much from the outset saw the USSR as a necessary ally to stop Hitler, no matter how much they knew how alike they really were.

Harebrained schemes to bomb Soviet oil fields or intervene to help the Finns aside, they recognized the basic strategic reality pointed out by eminent historian of Russia Dominic Lieven: Germany and Russia are the only ones who can truly dominate and determine Europe’s fate, unless you bring in the Americans. And the Americans, still smarting from their intervention in the first round, would not get involved until well after the Pact itself was a dead letter. This was the essential strategic reality, and it would have been the same even if the German Army were only half as gifted as it was.

Which brings us to the banal but nevertheless entirely true key lesson of all of this: freedom is not free. In the face of evil aiming to subjugate others by force, pretty words of international law or morality are as nothing without the force to back it up and the willingness to use it, with all that entails in terms of loss of life.

It was not international law but opposing armies which kept the Soviets out of Poland and the Baltic in 1919 and 1920, and all the protestations and moral indignation in the world did not stop the USSR from annexing part or all of those countries in 1939 and 1940. It was not international law that restrained Hitler from moving to conquer countries earlier, or indeed to cut his deal with Stalin, but German military and strategic weakness.

This is a lesson we seem to need to learn anew every generation, and with the rise of Russian and Chinese revanchism and radical Islam, we would all do well to thank Moorhouse not only for exposing the incredible evil that befell Eastern Europe in those years of ‘non-aggression,’ but demonstrating that if we want the world to be free, we’d better be willing and able to fight and win for King and Country.

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