The 40th anniversary this year of the end of World War II has been marked by a spate of retrospective analyses, none more self-congratulatory than those drummed up by the Soviet government. Lest its own citizens and the Western world forget the Soviet role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Kremlin has been emphasizing and reemphasizing how its people suffered while heroically resisting Adolf Hitler and his fascism. What the Kremlin is presenting is hardly the whole picture, however.
The Soviets did indeed suffer during World War II, but they were not so much a victim of fascism as a victim of their government's own bad intentions. What the Soviets leave out of their account is the fact that Hitler's rise to power—and Nazi Germany's ability to rearm, seize considerable European territory, provoke World War II, and commit its crimes against humanity—was greatly aided by the very existence of Soviet Russia and later by substantial secret support from the Soviets.
Without Stalin's Soviet Union lurking in the background it is unlikely that the Western powers would have responded as they did to Hitler's rise to power and his increasingly open rearming of Germany in violation of the Versailles Treaty. As it was, England's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, along with other European conservatives, declined to effectively oppose Hitler. Instead, Chamberlain pursued a policy of appeasement and concessions, which actually encouraged Hitler's grand strategy.
Contemporary historians and dramatists have tended to explain Chamberlain's actions as the product of a weak, indecisive leader with a Jimmy Carter–style foreign policy. Although this popular characterization may be generally accurate, there is another, very important element that guided Chamberlain's policy toward Nazi Germany. Chamberlain and other conservatives in the West were simply more concerned about Stalin's rule and the possible rise of communism in Western Europe. They knew enough about Stalin and the true nature of the Soviet Union to fear its expansionist potential.
Hitler, at that time, was a relatively unknown evil. Prior to his brutal conquest of Europe, establishment of the extermination camps, and use of slave labor, Hitler was regarded by many in the West as a strong, nationalist leader who had led the German people out of economic depression and political instability. Europe's political leaders believed that a rearmed, economically and militarily strong Germany would stave off the rise of Bolshevism in Germany and other Western nations. Germany was also viewed as a buffer between the Soviet Union and the Western nations.
The historian Hugh Thomas described this outlook in his History of the World: "The British and French governments not unnaturally distrusted the Russian government under Stalin rather more than they distrusted the Germans." More to the point was Chamberlain's reply when asked by the French in 1938 to support a coup against Hitler: "Who will guarantee that Germany will not become Bolshevistic afterwards?"
Without the presence of the feared Soviet Union, it is likely that England or France would not have hesitated to stand up to Hitler, attempting to force Germany early in the 1930s to abandon its plans for rearmament. They did not stand up to Hitler, and by the mid-30s he was ready to begin his conquest of Europe and founding of the "Thousand Year Reich." In this effort, he was explicitly aided and abetted by the Soviets.
Hitler faced big obstacles. First, he feared simultaneous military opposition from France and England on the west and the Soviet Union on the east. He realized Germany could not fight on two fronts, and as long as there was a chance that the Soviet Union would align with England against Germany (there were intense diplomatic efforts toward a British-French-Soviet treaty), he was effectively checkmated. The second obstacle was a lack of raw materials essential for a war machine. Germany had, other than coal, very limited natural resources. (During World War I, Germany had been able to obtain raw materials from its African colonies.) Without a reliable source of imported raw materials such as oil, cotton, rubber, grain, manganese, and phosphates, Hitler knew he could not fight even a limited war.
Had the Soviet Union, therefore, joined the English and the French in their desperate attempts to form an alliance, Hitler would very likely have been forced to abandon his plans for military conquest and attempted instead to build the Third Reich through diplomatic intimidation and maneuvering. At very least, it would have set back his military action timetable by five or more years, during which time the British, French, Polish, and other anti-Nazi forces could have significantly increased their military strength—perhaps making Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 either unthinkable or a disastrous defeat that might have deterred him from future military adventures.
As we know, however, Hitler was able to begin his takeover of Europe, and the significant element that allowed him to do so was the acquiescence and enthusiastic support of the Soviet Union. The worrisome possibilities of military encirclement and shortage of raw materials were alleviated with the Nazi-Soviet Treaty of August 1939. The details of this gangster pact can be found in a bound and translated series published by the US State Department in 1952. It contains the complete files of the German Foreign Office, which were captured by the US Army. The series also contains the secret cables and political reports of the German Embassy in Moscow, which were returned to Germany in 1941, as well as the "special file" of Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, which includes several Hitler memoranda.
The German Foreign Office documents reveal how eager the Soviets were to form an alliance with Hitler. A secret communiqué from the Soviet government to the Nazis in August 1939 on the subject of a change in relations and a possible alliance stated, "the Soviet Government can look upon such a change only with pleasure and…is prepared to alter its policy in the direction of an appreciable improvement in relations with Germany." Hans von Herwarth, a German diplomat stationed in Moscow and involved in the pre-treaty negotiations, would later describe Stalin's motives: "I can only report what I then believed to be the case, namely, that Stalin was not merely seeking to gain time…there was near unanimity among the Western embassies in Moscow that Stalin had a higher regard for the Germans than for the other Western powers, and that he certainly trusted them more."
Stalin cabled his own sentiments to Von Ribbentrop for inclusion in a public speech announcing to the world the new relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union: "A strong Germany is an absolute prerequisite for peace in Europe, whence it follows that the Soviet Union is interested in a strong Germany. Therefore the Soviet Union cannot give its approval to the Western powers creating conditions which would weaken Germany and place her in a difficult position. Therein lies the community of interest between Germany and the Soviet Union."
It is well known that in 1939 Stalin and Hitler entered into a nonaggression pact and adopted an accompanying "strictly secret" protocol that promised half of Poland to the Soviets, as well as German noninterference with a future Soviet takeover of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. But the same Nazi-Soviet Treaty included a less well-known but highly significant trade agreement.
The secret German-Soviet Trade Agreement of August 19, 1939, would eventually provide Hitler with enormous amounts of raw materials in return for mostly machine tools, steel pipe, aircraft engines, and miscellaneous war matériel. Perusal of the documents from the German Foreign Office reveals that the trade agreement, which was honored by Hitler's Soviet partners right up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union two years later, provided the Nazis with at least:
2 million tons of grain;
1.5 million tons of petroleum products, including aviation gasoline, diesel fuel, and motor oil;
100,000 tons of cotton;
500,000 tons of phosphates;
100,000 tons of chromium;
500,000 tons of iron ore; and
5,000 pounds of platinum; plus
manganese ore, lumber, and other raw materials.
But the Soviets were not only supplying the Nazis with their own natural resources. They also willingly agreed to act as a front for Germany both in obtaining additional raw materials from other countries that would not knowingly sell their resources to the Nazis and in defeating the British blockade.
The German ambassador to Moscow, Count Friedrich von Schulenburg, described his talks with the Soviets on this matter: "The discussion brought out the readiness on the part of the Soviet government to let its own organizations effect the purchase of raw materials for us and ship them to Odessa." In a later discussion on the transshipment of raw materials to Germany, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Trade, Anastas Mikoyan, indicated the Soviet Union's ever-present concern with its international image. As the German ambassador reported: "The Soviets attach decisive importance to strictest secrecy. Mikoyan terms the procedure a German-Soviet conspiracy, knowledge of which would have to be confined to a few persons."
Commenting on a subsequent trade agreement in a Foreign Office memorandum marked "State Secret," German embassy official Karl Schnurre reported: "The Soviet Union declared her willingness to act as buyer of metals and raw materials in third countries.…Stalin himself has repeatedly promised generous help in this respect" (emphasis in original). Schnurre concluded by enthusiastically commenting, "The Agreement means a wide open door to the East for us."
The Soviets' "fronting" for the Nazis was very successful: A year after the trade agreement was signed, Schnurre wrote in a report to the German foreign minister, "Our sole economic connection with Iran, Afghanistan, Manchukuo, China, Japan and, beyond that, with South America, is the route across Russia, which is being used to an increasing extent for German raw material imports."
Thus when Hitler's Wehrmacht invaded France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway, and Greece, it was fueled by Soviet oil, fed by Soviet grain, dressed in Soviet-supplied cotton, equipped with weapons made from Soviet minerals, and firing ammunition and dropping bombs made with Soviet phosphates.
The Soviet Union has, for the past 40 years, attempted to portray itself as the world's foremost fighter against fascism. Tourists visiting the USSR are steered to monuments, museums, and exhibits extolling the "Soviet struggle against fascism." For internal and external consumption, the Soviets make much of their great sacrifices, the loss of 20 million people, Stalingrad, etc. But a more honest look at history reveals that, while the Soviets' war with Germany was indeed a horror for its people, the Soviet Union was most certainly not an innocent victim of the Nazis. The truth is that the Soviet Union nourished and protected a monster. They were delighted to join in the Nazis' takeover of Poland for half the territory. With German approval, they eagerly seized and devoured Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Soviets had only praise for the Nazis—until, in June 1941, they were stunned to find Hitler now turning on them. The Soviet government, at least, deserves as much sympathy for losses in World War II as a maimed terrorist whose bomb went off in his hand.
The Soviet Union's current explanation for their pact with Hitler is that they were only "buying time" in order to build up their forces sufficiently to resist the Nazis. But this argument is patent nonsense. Desperate attempts by England and France to have the Soviet Union join in an anti-fascist pact came to naught. This would have been a highly effective means of "buying time" and of demonstrating any genuine opposition to Hitler's fascism.
A more accurate explanation of the Soviets' motivation for joining Hitler is provided by a secret Soviet cable intercepted and deciphered by German intelligence. The cable (dated March 8, 1941, and apparently sent to Soviet embassies in Europe) discussed the Soviet position on the recent Nazi invasion of Greece. "The Soviet Government will not interfere with German activity against Greece; this is necessary in order to exert pressure on the English colonies," declared the cable. "We wish to emphasize at the same time that we are not thinking of jeopardizing the German-Russian treaty, which is necessary for the achievement of the most urgent goal, namely the destruction of the English Empire" (emphasis added).
A deeper revelation of Soviet motives lies within a January 1925 address by Stalin to the Central Committee. Should war break out between the capitalist nations, Stalin had said, "We will have to take part, but we will be the last to take part so that we may throw the decisive weight into the scales, a weight which should prove the determining factor."
While the Soviet Union suffered great losses fighting its former partner in crime, in the end it benefited enormously. The Yalta Agreements, along with its new stature as an "equal" among the great Western powers, provided the Soviet Union with more territory and resources than it could ever have gained through its pact with the Nazis. Perhaps more important than the nations and wealth it had added to its empire was the Soviet Union's newly found "legitimacy" and its opportunity to forever hence portray communism as a system and philosophy morally opposed to fascism. The truth, of course, as the captured documents clearly reveal, is that the Soviets had no moral or other objections to Hitler's fascism; they were delighted to supply the Nazis with whatever Hitler needed to crush and enslave Europe—as long as they could share the loot.
The Soviet Union is still with us—and, as in the 1930s, its existence is a fundamental element in Western foreign policy. But now, 40 years later, the Soviet Union's impact has grown exponentially and is felt, feared, and pondered in every country on the globe. Fifty years ago it was the presence of the Soviet Union that cowed the Western nations into allowing the Nazis to come to power. Today that presence—the threat of a horrible, inhuman, evil totalitarian system—has much the same effect on contemporary foreign policy. Fearing Soviet power, the West supports various regimes that, were they not anticommunist, would otherwise be unworthy of alliance with America and association with our principles of democracy and liberty.
Imagine what the world would be like without the Soviet Union: It would be very difficult if not impossible to resist the moral force of those who argue that the US government should not support authoritarian regimes like those of Chile, South Korea, the Philippines, or the corrupt African states. The only possibly valid rationale for doing so now is that the possible alternative—the spread of the Soviet system—is so much worse. We fear that a nation will fall to the Soviet sphere not only for the horrors such a system invariably inflicts upon its citizens but because, once Marxist-Leninists take control with their Soviet or Soviet-proxy advisers, mercenaries, and military aid, the democratic process is forever crushed. But right-wing dictators supported by the US government should realize that support is more a result of the threat of Marxism than of any affection for them or their policies.
Without the Soviet Union, the world would undoubtedly be a better place. The Soviets, to varying degrees, have been behind World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cambodian holocaust, the cruel regimes of Eastern Europe, genocide in Afghanistan, the island prison of Cuba, aid for a war in El Salvador via Nicaragua, starvation in Ethiopia, global terrorism, and of course the slaughter of millions of its own citizens. So as the Soviets boast of their "great role" in fighting fascism 40 years ago, we should remember the damning facts that they conveniently ignore.
Alexander Jason is an international security consultant and the president of the Republic Institute in Emeryville, California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Delivering the Goods to Hitler".