Tuesday, August 25, 2009

70 Years Ago: Hitler and Stalin Carve Up Europe; Today Russian Leaders Justify It

By Barry Rubin

Exactly seventy years ago, on August 23, 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop flew to Moscow to make the deal with the USSR to carve up eastern Europe. Either ignoring orders, never getting them, or out of sheer disbelief, a Soviet antiaircraft unit near the border opened fire on Von Ribbentrop’s plane, forcing it to land until matters were cleared up. One doesn’t want to think of those soldiers’ fate.

Von Ribbentrop finally did arrive in Moscow, met Stalin, and signed the fateful agreement. Dolhinov is too small to appear on the map by name, but perhaps Stalin pressed his pen or hand down on it as he writes. At that moment, the monstrous dictator squashes the little town he’s never heard of and most of its people out of existence.

There is feasting and toasts. Stalin, with a big smile on his face—so wide as to be frightening but also showing sincere happiness—raises his glass to toast Hitler. What has just happened? Nominally, the two countries have signed a non-aggression pact. More than that, however, it is in fact an alliance. And it certainly isn’t a non-aggression pact against Poland (to be partitioned between the two); Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (to be swallowed up by the Soviets; and Finland and Romania (some of whose territory the Soviets seize). Those parts of the agreement are kept secret.

Only one week later, Germany marches into western Poland, thus setting off World War Two, in which an estimated fifty million people die. The Nazis don’t have to worry about a two-front war—until they blunder into creating one for themselves. Soviet raw materials fuel the German war machine, bypassing the British blockade. Would Hitler have gone ahead even without the pact with Stalin? Probably not.

And so the Germans invade Poland on September 1, 1939; on September 17, 1939, the USSR joins in the feast. Its share also brings Stalin control over two million more Jews.

Ten days later, Von Ribbentrop arrives back in Moscow’s airport at 6pm. After a brief rest and refreshments he meets with Stalin from 10 PM to 1 AM and then again the next day from 3 to 6:30 PM. Business concluded, there’s dinner at the Kremlin, time for one act of ‘’Swan Lake” at the Bolshoi—with the dying swans a fit prelude to the dead Poland—and back to work at midnight. The talks continue until 5 am when the agreement is signed. Von Ribbentrop takes a nap and then gets back on the plane at 12:40 pm.

The agreement signed is as brief as the visit. The two countries are “to reestablish peace and order in keeping with their national character” as they divide up Poland. For the Germans, the national character of the Jews is to die; the Slavs to be turned into slaves. For the Soviets, all are to have no more national character at all.

Stalin says that the Germans desire peace and he offers a toast: “I know how much the German nation loves its Fuhrer; I should therefore like to drink to his health.” As the German foreign minister leaves, Stalin has some words of special importance for him: “The Soviet government takes the new pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honor that the Soviet Union would not betray its partner.” It was one of the few promises Stalin didn’t break. It was one of the many promises that Hitler did.

Today, 70 years later, the Russian government is trying to justify this terrible deed. Says military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, "This is not about history at all."

In effect, the Russian government is asserting its sphere of influence over all these and other independent states. The implications are frightening, most directly for Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and others in Central Europe but also for Georgia and Azerbaijan, and for anyone who treasures liberty.

Russia has been putting increasing pressure on its neighbors, sometimes using its energy exports for blackmail, sometimes using money or covert operations. One remembers what the American diplomatist George F. Kennan wrote at the onset of the Cold War: To be Russia's neighbor means either to submit or to be considered an enemy.

The basic Russian historical claim about 1939 is that by itself seizing these territories, the USSR prevented Germany from using them as a staging ground for an attack. In addition, efforts to work out a security alliance with Britain and France had failed.

This is profoundly misleading. The Soviets genuinely saw Nazi Germany as an ally. They helped the German army train, they sold it materials to build up its military, and even up to the moment the Germans attacked in 1941, Stalin insisted that Hitler would not betray him. Indeed, he ordered punishment for any Soviet agents who sent warnings of an imminent attack.

(I once had the privilege of interviewing brave exiled Czech intelligence officers who detailed their efforts to warn the USSR. The issue is discussed in my book, Istanbul Intrigues.)

Moreover, given decades of Soviet efforts to subvert the Western democracies and its further record of alliance with Germany, London and Paris can be forgiven their skepticism about Stalin (though not, of course, their own appeasement).

Indeed, when Hitler’s ambassador came to present officially the declaration of war, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the latter blurted out, “Surely we have not deserved this.”

Russia’s claim today is, as President Dmitry Medvedev put it during Russia's attack on Georgia, that Moscow had the right to intervene militarily in any country along its borders. Or as military analyst Alexander Golts wrote:

"In his understanding of Realpolitik, [Russia’s strongman] Vladimir Putin does not diverge from the line set by Josef Stalin. Military force decides everything and if there is an opportunity to grab a piece of someone else's territory then it should be taken."

Thus do the apologetics for past dictators past blend in with the aggressive plans of contemporary ones.

Note: Much of this is drawn from Barry Rubin’s forthcoming book, “Children of Dolhinov: A Town and People in the Mists of Time.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog.

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