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Why Is Putin Defending the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 23, 2019 (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

When the eightieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact took place last August, it attracted surprisingly little attention in the way of major commemorations or lectures. That struck me as positively eerie since the pact — also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, after the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany who signed it — was one of the most shocking and significant events of the 20th century. It declared an alliance between the two totalitarians of Left and Right — one based on race theory, the other on class theory — which until August 23 had been seen as radically hostile to each other. Their mutual hostility to democracy and the democratic powers turned out to be more important to both.

The pact was also the most flagrant breach of international law imaginable. It contained secret protocols in which the two countries agreed to invade Poland jointly and to divide Poland and the Baltic states between them in a sharing of the spoils of aggressive war.

Not least, it was the real start of World War II. Military hostilities began a week later on September 1 when Germany invaded Poland. Hitler has generally been assigned the near-total responsibility for starting WWII because Stalin was shrewd enough to delay his invasion of Poland until September 17. In reality, both men were equally guilty. And the plans laid out by both in the pact were faithfully adhered to in every other respect. In addition, for the almost two years in which the pact held, Soviet Russia supplied munitions, oil, and the other sinews of war to help Germany in its struggle against the British. The SS and the NKVD even exchanged the political refugees who had fled to them from persecution in each other’s jurisdiction so that Jews were returned to die in the Holocaust and anti-Communists to labor in the Gulag. And there were attempts by both regimes to suggest a mutual accommodation of ideologies to replace their pre-pact mutual hostility. Ironically that was the only honest thing about the pact, and so it had to be sent down the memory hole in later years.

That macabre cooperation continued right up to the day before Germany launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. It was the apex of the totalitarian age — described by Evelyn Waugh in his great wartime trilogy, The Sword of Honour, as “the modern age in arms.” And yet there seemed to be little appetite to revisit that history and to look at its lessons for today. So we at the Danube Institute in Budapest arranged a conference on it at which five distinguished historians delivered their verdict on the Pact and its various consequences: Geza Jeszenszky, the first foreign minister of a free post-communist Hungary, set the scene of events leading to the pact; Andrew Roberts, the biographer most recently of Churchill, gave a broad overall account of how it was negotiated and agreed; Danish historian David Gress described its impact on Western politics; Polish political consultant Marek Matraszek discussed its impact on Poland; and former Hungarian MEP and distinguished political theorist, George Schopflin, described its impact on Central Europe. (A video of the conference is available here; Geza starts his remarks at 3:56, Andrew Roberts at 21:39, and the other three speakers follow Andrew in succession.) It was an effective and well-received exercise in historical truth-telling. But there should have been more such events and more attention paid to a pact that started the greatest war in human history.

That was in September. Today the world is suddenly riveted by that same pact. And the man responsible for highlighting this criminal enterprise is Russian president Vladimir Putin, who in an address to the leaders of former Soviet nations meeting in St. Petersburg denounced a resolution of the European parliament blaming the pact for the outbreak of World War II. In fact, he went beyond that criticism to argue that it was in reality Britain, France, and Poland which were to blame for the war’s outbreak, since they had previously signed agreements with Hitler and thus forced the Soviet Union to do the same. (Of course, none of these agreements, Munich etc., had included illegal protocols to invade and occupy other countries.) Putin’s argument started a diplomatic storm since Poland, having been devastated brutally by the Pact and by the two oppressive regimes it imposed on the country, could not remain silent at this rewriting of history. Poland’s president issued a powerfully indignant rebuttal of Putin’s remarks here, and in a saner world that might have ended the matter. But the Russian diplomatic and agitprop machine has — to the surprise of many observers — doubled down on Putin’s assertion. The Russian embassy in Poland has even attacked the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, in crudely vulgar terms for coming to the defense of Poland on the basis of what is undeniably historical truth. The immediate result (and the conventional wisdom) is that Putin, by raising the ghosts of those who died defending Poland and afterward in the Katyn massacre, has foolishly embroiled himself and Russia in an unwinnable public-relations war for almost quixotic reasons of national pride.

I share that view while having some marginal sympathy for the Russians on it. They find it hard to understand why their heroic role in tearing the guts out of the Wehrmacht in the last four years of the war should be overshadowed by their shameful role as Germany’s allies in the first two years. But both things happened, and the Kremlin admitted the truth about the Pact’s secret protocols in the immediate aftermath of collapse of Communism. It can’t be retracted now. If I were a public relations advisor to President Putin — a very unlikely contingency — I would advise him to say something like: “We must honestly admit that Stalin’s Soviet Union made a shameful alliance with Hitler’s Germany for two years after August 1939. We deeply regret an act of immoral realpolitik that never had the support of the Russian people. But that debt to history and our wartime allies was repaid in full by Mother Russia, which gave 20 million of her sons to the defeat of fascism.” Historical facts cannot be denied, but they can be weighed against other facts, and in 1945 the Allies judged that Russia’s balance was favorable. That judgment never really changed during the long hostilities of the Cold War. And Mr. Putin is, after all, the President of Russia, not the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.

It’s not surprising that Putin has not gone as far as I suggest in my hypothetical role as Kremlin guru. But it is surprising that he has gone so far in the opposite direction. We can only guess why since there seems to be no practical benefit arising from his unbalanced justification of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and from the agitprop campaign that has subsequently advanced it. In the past he has lamented the Soviet collapse as the biggest geopolitical disaster of the last century. But if Putin entertains a revanchist dream of re-constituting the USSR under another name, then linking it with the Nazi-Soviet pact does not seem the best way to go about it.

Which doesn’t make the idea less worrying.

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