The deal in August 1939 between the two worst regimes in European history—Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union—should live in infamy. It paved the way for the war and the Holocaust. The agreement is usually named after its co-signatories, the Nazi foreign minister Joachim Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov. But the best book on the subject, by the British historian Roger Moorhouse, gives it a better name: “The Devils’ Alliance.”
The Pact created the evil empire but also doomed it. Protests on its 50th anniversary in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse. Now August 23rd is a European day of remembrance for the victims of fascism and communism—the two murderous totalitarian ideologies being treated, finally, as two sides of the same ghastly coin.
In the 1990s Russia lamented its totalitarian past. Now Vladimir Putin says any attempt to link Nazi and Soviet behavior reflects “incredible cynicism.” For him and many other Russians, Soviet sacrifice in the struggle against Hitler trumps all other details. Always thin-skinned about Soviet crimes, the Russian leader now mounts a full-throated defense of Stalin’s diplomacy. Western deals with Hitler, he says were the real disgrace. He notes that the Soviet Union was the last European country to sign a deal with Nazi Germany; Stalin, unlike his French and British counterparts, never met Hitler.
Putin’s particular target is Poland—a Nazi ally for signing a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1934. He highlights the enthusiastic support given by the pre-war Polish ambassador to Berlin, Józef Lipski, to Hitler’s plan to deport German Jews to Africa, calling him an “anti-Semitic pig.” The Russian leader also claims that far from invading Poland in September 1939 the Soviet Union merely protected territory abandoned by the collapsed Polish state.
All this is nonsense. Lipski was no anti-Semite; his words are wrenched out of context. The Chief Rabbi of Poland has condemned Putin’s remarks. The Soviets did not protect Poland. They occupied, annexed, despoiled, and decapitated it. Yes, other countries did deals with Hitler. They look dreadful in retrospect. But only the Nazi-Soviet Pact had a secret protocol, consigning 75 million innocent people, and their countries, to the totalitarian meat-grinder.
For the Putin regime, history is both a weakness and a weapon. Linking modern Russia to the Soviet-era stokes controversy in some quarters, but also borrows past generations’ glory, from the triumphs of the space program to the defeat of Hitler in 1945. The Kremlin also likes to depict all its critics as Nazi sympathizers. However absurd or distorted this charge may be, the mud will stick. In an increasingly ahistorical West the horrors of the Holocaust are the only salient fact of 20th century history. The domestic and international context, including the role of Stalin’s Soviet Union before, during and after the war, is all but impenetrable.
But the Soviet record on opposing Nazism was, to put it mildly, patchy. Between 1939 and the invasion of June 1941, there were parades, toasts, intelligence ties, economic cooperation, and even joint naval operations. The anti-fascist propaganda line was tied in knots to explain this. The Soviets handed over German communist exiles to their deaths at the hands of the Gestapo. For the victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in Poland, the Baltic states and elsewhere, it made little difference if the savagery they suffered was chiefly because of their racial origins (on Hitler’s side of the line) or their class, cultural, or religious affiliations (under Stalin).
Russia has designated 2020 as the “year of memory and glory,” with a big celebration planned in May on the anniversary of the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. Boycotting that will not bring back the dead. But it will show that outsiders have no appetite for the Kremlin’s historical ghost stories.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.