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The 80th Anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact

Today is the anniversary of perhaps the most awful international agreement in all of world history.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact, as Joseph Stalin looks on. August 23, 1939.

Today is the 80th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, signed on August 23, 1939. What I wrote on the 75 anniversary five years ago, remains true today. In this post, I reprint it with minor changes and additions:

History is full of cynical international agreements, many of which led to terrible results. But it is likely impossible to find any worse than this one.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact set the stage for history's bloodiest war, which killed some 50 million people. Without assurance of Soviet noninterference, the Germans could not have gone to war against Britain and France (they realized that, in 1939, they lacked the military power to fight a two-front war). The agreement also enabled both powers to inflict horrible atrocities against the people of the Eastern Europe states they occupied as a result.

Everyone knows about the Nazi part of these crimes. The Soviet part is less well-known, but almost equally heinous. For example, the treaty gave the Soviets the "right" to occupy the Baltic States, and Eastern Poland. This led to the extermination of some 3% of Estonia's population, and the deportation to Gulags of many more in all three Baltic states. The other areas occupied by the USSR (including a large part of eastern Poland) suffered comparable atrocities. It is difficult  to precisely calculate the overall harm caused by the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But the death toll surely runs into the many millions. Historian Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin includes a far more extensive account of the many atrocities perpetrated by both regimes as a result of their agreement.

To this day, defenders of Stalin's decision to sign the pact claim that he needed to do it because the British and French otherwise might have simply stood aside and let Hitler attack him. There is no justifying the Anglo-French appeasement of the late 1930s. But at least they did not actively collaborate with Hitler, as Stalin chose to do. Moreover, Hitler could not have attacked the USSR in 1939 without going through Poland, which the British and French had just guaranteed against German attack.

Finally, by allowing Hitler to deal with his Western enemies before having to worry about the Soviets, Stalin set up a situation where the Nazis could, in 1941, attack the USSR without having to face any other opponent on in Europe on land. By signing the pact with Hitler, Stalin himself helped create the absence of a "second front" that he later spent much of World War II complaining about.

On a more personal note, my great-uncle was killed in the Russo-Finnish War, just a few months after the pact was signed. Finland was, of course, one of the states allocated to Soviet [sphere of influence] under the agreement with the Nazis. It is unlikely that Stalin would have dared to attack Finland without first being assured of German noninterference. Thus, my relative became one of the millions who lost their lives as a result of history's most infamous agreement. Many other relatives died in the Holocaust (which likely would not have happened on anything like the same scale without the Pact), and later phases of World War II that the agreement made possible.

Today is also an appropriate time to take note of the enormous contrast between present-day German and Russian views of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Almost no one in the political mainstream in modern Germany defends the  agreement, or the other crimes of the Nazi era. By contrast, state-controlled media under the regime of ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin, who called the fall of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century" have have sought to whitewash the communist past, including the 1939 agreement with Hitler. Such refusal to learn the lessons of the past increases the likelihood of similar moral regression in the future.

 

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26 responses to “The 80th Anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact

  1. One other thing to note is that the SU would have been in a much better position to defend itself in 1939 (and to deter aggression by the Nazis), if Stalin hadn’t imprisoned and/or executed nearly the entire Red Army senior officer corps (Colonels and above) in 1938.

  2. One puzzle related to this is why Churchill pivoted to Stalin’s best friend so aggressively after the German invasion of the USSR two years later. I understand he thought Germany might actually capture Moscow, but was he really so naive as to think that the Soviets would just roll over and give up? In hindsight, would it not have been better to let the two dictators exhaust each other? I doubt the number of dead soldiers, partisans, and citizens would have been any less. Supporting the USSR had tremendous materiel costs for Britain at such perilous times.

    I understand that making such decisions in real time is harder than in hindsight, but I still can’t see how rescuing Stalin was worth so much risk to Britain.

    1. Hitler was an existential threat to Europe, including the UK. Indeed, most probably, any attempt to defeat Hitler without the alliance of the USSR would have resulted in a severe military defeat for Britain. The Germans were simply the most powerful military in Western Europe, and by a large margin.

      So no matter how much the western leaders detested Stalin, they had no choice. The USSR ended up taking 20 million casualties in tying the Germans up on the Eastern front, which was necessary for the Allies to win the war.

      1. You didn’t answer the question. Existential threat or not, why not let Hitler and Stalin beat each other up? He increased the risk of Britain losing by diverting materiel to the USSR at great expense in blood and treasure. Arctic convoys, keeping the Persian route open … all taking precious resources. They came close to losing Suez; they would have been able to keep Rommel farther away without all those resources diverted to help Stalin.

        The Eastern Front would have tied up Hitler just as much with or without Churchill’s aid.

        What did Churchill think he was gaining?

        1. You don’t take the risk that Hitler might win that conflict.

          1. I thought of that, and I’m sure Churchill did too. He couldn’t hold on to it. There were far too many conquered people to just roll over and acquiesce to Hitler. He’d have to occupy the USSR for years and be stretched scarily thin in occupied France, Greece, the Balkans, etc. There were far too many instances of that in history to think otherwise. For current examples, look at Japan trying to conquer and occupy China.

            The idea that Hitler could just roll over the USSR and go on to conquer the rest of the world was known to be poppycock then as much as now.

            1. I think that’s the certainty of hindsight. Hitler’s success was already beyond what people thought possible.

            2. You are overlooking the history and nature of the USSR.

              You are assuming that it was a monolithic all powerful united nation with the force of popular will behind it. But it wasn’t. It was a dictatorship screwed on to the top of a mass of discontented serfs, of many nations. Far more discontented and with better reason than had been their fathers in 1917.

              Although plenty of Red Army units fought bravely, if not very competently, in the summer of 1941, others surrendered quickly. The populations which were overrun during Barbarossa – in Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Baltic States were not hostile to the Germans. Or at least not any more, and probably less, hostile to the Germans than they were to the Bolsheviks. Which is hardly surprising since the Bolsheviks had been murdering, enslaving, terrorising and starving them for the previous 24 years.

              Even in Russia proper, the population was not immediately and universally hostile. Had Hitler been Dwight D Hitler rather than Adolf, and had he made nice to the locals, he’d have had an excellent chance of getting to Moscow, chopping the Bolsheviks off at the neck, and collapsing the regime. And then installing puppets in each zone. He blew that chance because he insisted on moving directly and enthusiasticaly to murder and enslavement, not just of the Jews but also the Slavs.

              Remember in 1917-18 the Russian Empire had indeed collapsed from the interaction of political rot and military defeat. The Germans were able to impose a Carthagian peace and had they not lost in the West would have controlled most of Ukraine and Western Russia indefinitely. Why would anyone be confident that the same thing couldn’t happen again ? Especially since the Germans of 1941 had, unike their 1917-18 forbears, already beaten all comers on the Western Front and driven the feeble English back to their damp island.

              Now even if Hitler had not prioritised murder and enslavement over victory he might not have succeeded in deposing the Bolsheviks and imposed his quislings. But Churchill would have been crazy to assume it couldn’t happen.

              Moreover, English foreign policy for at least the last 500 years has been based on supporting the second power in Europe against the first, since the one thing England fears above everything is a European hegemon. Churchill would hardly have been ignorant of that.

        2. Hitler controlled all of western Europe in 1941. If USSR goes down, Britain is next.
          Math is pretty easy.

    2. There is another alternative, what if the allies who declared war on Germany for the invasion of Poland had at the same time declared war on Germany’s ally, who also invaded Poland, the Soviet Union?

      1. Would it work better if I had worded it like this?

        “declared war on Germany’s ally, the Soviet Union, who also invaded Poland?”

        However you read it, the fact remains that at virtually the same time as Hitler invaded from the West, Russia invaded from the East and the two countries divided Poland (which had its own problems) up.

        1. By not also declaring was on Russia, they avoid Russia joining in defense of Germany for self-defense reasons. Russia would stay out of it. Non-aggression =/= mutual defense.

      2. By the way, this is not an original idea of mine. I just don’t have time to find links to the original source.

      3. They nearly did. And once the French and British discovered that the USSR was sending oil to Nazi Germany they put together plans for the bombing of the Soviet oil fields near Baku – the plans for which were discovered by the German’s.

        Reference Operation Pike if you’re interested in this facet of WW2.

    3. Churchill was then aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb.

      Churchill wanted Hitler defeated as quickly as possible.

      Churchill did not want to risk Hitler having a nuclear bomb.

  3. I took a history course that made the case that the revelation of this pact during Glasnost and subsequent loss of faith was a great reason why Communism fell.

    Rewriting history makes you stronger in the short-term, but brittle in the long term.

    1. Whatever role it played in the ultimate fall of communism, it appears to have also played a big role in disillusioning a good number of American communists.

  4. You know who else…oh, wait, never mind.

  5. The Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact and its immediate aftermath was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American left.

    1. I don’t know what the American left had to do with Molotov-von Ribbentrop, but surely it can’t be as bad as two terms of Obama?

      1. However much you may dislike Obama, it doesn’t compare to how the Left behaved during the 1930s.

        After the pact, but before 1940, the Communist-influence part of the Left actively preached peace and love with the Nazis. Nazis are good people, War is never worth it, American Germans, support your motherland! – whatever it took to keep the US out of the fighting.
        After Germany invaded the USSR, it was a one-day 180 flip. Suddenly the same people were marching in the streets demanding we support Stalin, and revealing all sorts of evil things the Nazis had been doing (and this was before the discovery of the Holocaust).

        1. I was being sarcastic. I think Obama was fine. I also think your recollection of shameful pre-war behavior is selective.

  6. Eugene, why not point out that Hitler was just another Socialist.

    Hitler said the exact things Socialists say, and Hitler did the exact things Socialists do. For example, Hitler’s death camps were copied from Lenin’s/Stalin’s death camps, the greatest of which was in the Ukraine (the year before Hitler came to power).

    1. Presumably because Ilya wrote this post.

    2. Just because among the first things the Nazi’s did on taking power was to nationalise the four largest banks and half the steel industry and set price and currency controls on the entire economy and place restrictions on farmland ownership, transfer and usage doesn’t make them socialists…

  7. Mighty Stalin who said that “the capitalists will sell us the rope we use to hang them” then sold the Nazi’s enough rope to hang 30 million Soviet citizens (in the form of oil, hay, coal and various other metals that Germany desperately lacked).

    And thanks to the communist traitors within Germany, it wasn’t like the USSR didn’t know how desperately the German’s needed these to avoid collapse and defeat.

    It was only thanks to Stalin’s “generosity” that Germany was able to invade France and only thanks to the success of that invasion that Germany was able to invade the USSR.

    Far from being the strategic “genius” various Stalin apologists promote, he was a strategic moron.