18 June 2011

The Biggest War in History, Part One: A Delaying Deal with the Devil

This Wednesday, 22 June, marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the biggest conflict that has ever happened on this planet: the Eastern Front of the Second World War between Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

As a man with a keen interest in things Russian, I could let this anniversary go by without making some comment on my blog. This series will be in seven parts, hopefully one a day:
  • Part One: 1939 and 1940 - the lead-up to the war
  • Part Two: 1941 - the initial invasion
  • Part Three: 1942
  • Part Four: 1943 - with a focus on Stalingrad and Kursk
  • Part Five: 1944
  • Part Six: 1945 - with a focus on Berlin.
  • Part Seven: The consequences then and now.
(15 August 2014 - it became eight)
Part One: A Delaying Deal with the Devil

Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov signs the German-Soviet non-aggression pact; Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Stalin stand behind him, Moscow, 23 Augst 1939 (via Wikipedia, original German photo)

It's fair to say that the Soviet Union was viewed with a great deal of suspicion by much of the world very much since the October Revolution. The Communist system naturally had very negative implications for the ruling elites of the West; reports of atrocities going on in the USSR (as it turned out later, pretty well founded) naturally must have made people afraid of what Marxism- Leninism would mean if it were to become the governing ideology of their country. Many of the Fascist groups that took power in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s played on the fear of this to get votes and retain power; it can be argued that Hitler would never have gotten anywhere near the Reichs Chancellery without the USSR.

Many, to their later shame, decided to try and deal with the "devil they knew" - even Churchill himself was keen to have good relations with Fascist Italy until the Abyssinian invasion of 1935-6, which showed the clear lack of power of the League of Nations. It seemed to be a decent alternative to the economic chaos of the Great Depression - despite the fact that Hitler's hatred of Jews was clear from the off.

If the West had made better relations with the USSR earlier, the entire war could have been prevented.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 22 August 1939, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed not to attack each other (all while the former at least was secretly planning to do so anyway) is rightly considered a nasty, grubby deal that resulted in massive, unprecedented suffering for the peoples of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As a historian, I do not seek to justify it - only to understand why the deal was made.

We know why Hitler did it - he wanted to be able to invade Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. The Soviet reason is a bit more complex.

There's a saying: "it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you". While Stalin was not the sanest man around, he had good reason to be paranoid - British forces had been involved in the Russian Civil War; there had been plots to oust him (dealt with by "Operation Trust", a Soviet intelligence operation that had basically created a fake plot so they could control any plotters) and Hitler's comments about Lebensraum were a clear statement that he was "out to get" the USSR.

It's also not like the Red Army was exactly in brilliant form - the Great Purges had crippled its command structure, with large numbers of senior officers ending up dead or in the gulags. The Red Army's embarrassing stalemate against Finland in the Winter War of 1940 only served to show up its failings quite clearly.

Moscow needed time to prepare (so for that matter, did Germany, as their weapons programmes were tied to a war in 1945, not 1939). Arguably that delay did the trick and may well have saved the USSR.

Yet, one can only feel that if Russia had come to the defence of Poland or at least threatened to do so, a lot of lives could have been saved. Mind you, it's very unlikely the Poles would have let Soviet forces in - they didn't when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and indeed took a part for themselves. Perhaps a threat to their own existence might have changed their minds... we'll never know.

Edit: The evidence regarding plans by the USSR for an attack on Germany is highly disputed. I have revised the paragraph appropriately.

Part Two

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