Seventy-five years ago this summer, a deal was struck that took the world’s breath away. Even in the dirty-dealing climate of the time, the Nazi-Soviet pact was a shocker. Hitler and Stalin, who had spent years reviling each other, were now apparently the best of friends. The grotesquery was summed up in a brilliant Low cartoon in the Evening Standard of September 20, 1939 showing the two leaders greeting each other over a prostrate corpse. “The scum of the earth, I believe?” says the Führer. “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume,” responds the Vozhd.
Even then Low knew the story was not going to end well. A few weeks later he scored another direct hit depicting the pair striding along shoulder to shoulder, each with a pistol behind his back over the caption: “Someone is taking Someone for a Walk”.
The agreement was an act of supreme cynicism perpetrated by two of the most perfidious creatures to stain history. Given the magnitude of its consequences it is remarkable that it does not loom larger in our historical consciousness.
When Vladimir Putin stands alongside world leaders at next year’s 70th-anniversary VE Day celebrations, few will reflect that he is representing a nation that spent nearly a third of the war allied to the Nazis. The Russians will not be in any hurry to remind anyone. Ever since Hitler broke the pact by the brutal expedient of launching Operation Barbarossa, the Russians have been engaged in a massive historical damage limitation exercise. Too big to airbrush from the record, the episode has been contorted to fit a narrative that places Stalin on the side of the Second World War angels. The basic text is that the non-aggression agreement signed by German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov in Moscow late on August 23, 1939 was an act of desperate pragmatism, designed to buy time for the USSR, which had been left high and dry by Britain and France.
Putin trotted out the Soviet-era tu quoque defence when visiting Warsaw in 2009. In an open letter to the Poles he wrote: “There are reasons to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact but France and Britain signed an agreement with Hitler the year before [at Munich] . . . destroying all hopes for the creation of a joint front to struggle against fascism.” There was no question of an apology.
Roger Moorhouse’s excellent book provides a ton of ammunition with which to demolish this version of events. Despite the innate faithlessness of the partners, there was nothing lukewarm about the initial embrace. The official photograph shows the faux aristo Ribbentrop and Molotov, known as Comrade Stonearse for his ability to endure interminable committee meetings, signing the fateful document while Stalin stands behind beaming approval. Shortly beforehand he had drunk Hitler’s health.
The pact was ostensibly an understanding that each would not attack the other nor ally with its enemies with a trade deal attached. It was the green light Hitler needed to start his war and eight days later the Panzers were in Poland. Seventeen days after that, the Red Army invaded from the East, in accordance with a secret protocol of the pact that divided territories in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Romania into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence.
Naturally all this took some explaining to populations schooled to hate their neighbours. Moscow’s propagandists in particular had their work cut out justifying the astonishing volte-face to the Communist faithful beyond its boundaries. It was too much for the British Communist Party chief Harry Pollitt to stomach, but the great majority of the Central Committee eagerly accepted Moscow’s declaration that the “division into fascist and democratic states has now lost its former sense” and that the USSR had the right to defend the revolution in whatever way it saw fit.
The government reaction was cool, measured and pragmatic. The professional view of the diplomats was that the arrangement could not last and it was essential that Moscow was kept in play.
On the ground, though, everything started off fine. Agreements were honoured and both armies paraded and even socialised together as they trampled over the inhabitants of their new conquests. Beneath the surface differences there was much shared ideological DNA. This was indeed a pact between two devilish creeds. Both Nazism and Communism had rejected a notion that until then had sustained civilisation, that of the universality of mankind. Both sides thus set about murdering and enslaving with the same merciless efficiency. For the Germans the racial enemy was the primary target; for the Russians, the class enemy, a category that, as well as Trotskyists and conservatives, included Esperantists, philatelists and those with “white hands” that had never done manual labour.
Each had gone into the bargain imagining they were hoodwinking the other. “I have them!” exclaimed Hitler on hearing that the Russians had signed. The pact brought him peace in the rear while he set about his Polish and Western conquests, as well as access to Soviet raw materials to feed the war machine and circumvent the threat of blockade.
To Stalin it looked like a sweet deal. Despite their overtures, France and Britain could give him nothing but promises, whereas the Nazis were offering military technology, a free hand to expand his domains, and a stay of execution that might extend indefinitely. If things went really well the Germans and the Allies might bleed each other white, leaving the USSR to dominate Europe.
Moorhouse makes it clear that the pact meant more to Stalin than it did to Hitler, for whom ideology would always eventually trump expediency. Despite overwhelming evidence that Germany was planning to renege, Stalin almost to the end refused to accept that the game was over, literally shooting the messengers who brought the bad news.
As the ultimate victors, the Russians never had to undergo the national self-examination and acts of contrition forced on the Germans for their wartime behaviour. There is no sign of them doing so now. Instead in all likelihood they will use next year’s anniversary to reinforce the message that it was their sacrifices that ultimately defeated Hitler. While that may be true, it is good that we have Moorhouse’s book to remind us of the bigger and darker story.