History is full of counter-intuitive facts. We all “know” that the Crusades were a series of holy wars between Christians and Muslims, right? Yet the Crusades would often see Muslims making pacts with Christian lords, infighting on both sides, and on many occasions, crusading Christians slaughtering other Christians.
Let us look at something a bit more recent. The American national anthem- what a hallowed tradition that is! Oh wait. No. “The Star-spangled banner” only became the USA’s official anthem in 1931; prior to that date, commonly used “national anthems” included “My country ’tis of thee,” an idiotic song set to the same melody as “God Save the King.” Pause on that for a second. You fight for independence from an empire, and then one of your best proposals for a national anthem uses the same melody as the anthem of the very same empire. Hopefully the guy who wrote that song got killed in a duel or something. Another de facto yet unofficial American anthem was “Hail Columbia,” an idiotic song with an idiotic title which sounds like a Prussian military march. So “The Star-spangled banner” is a real improvement over those, right? Well no. For one thing, the poem which provides the lyrics describes an incident from the War of 1812, a war which the United States basically lost, narrowly managing to preserve the status quo. And the melody? It’s ripped off from an abomination known as the “Anacreontic song.”
Crazy, right? Well that’s history. And that’s why if you hear someone talking about historical events you’re not very familiar with and their claims seem very counter-intuitive, you might want to fire up old Google before declaring that person to be “Batshit crazy.” Otherwise you might end up publishing something which makes you look like an ignorant jackass. Sadly, i09’s George Dvorsky had never heard that advice before he published this article. This is obviously a case of “I never heard that before! And it comes from Vladimir Putin, no less! That must mean it’s his idea!”
Basically what happened is Putin was addressing a group of historians in Moscow and he strongly implied that Western historians deliberately downplay the policy of appeasement and in particular, the Munich agreement. Oddly enough, if you look at much older sources from the Cold War era they tend to be far more frank about issues like appeasement, Munich, and the Phony War. This is simply not the case today. These days, thanks to shameless propagandists such as Timothy Snyder, Europe has managed to rewrite even the most basic facts of WWII. Munich is ignored while Motolov-Ribbentrop is portrayed as an alliance which actually started WWII. I was dumbfounded to learn this in 2009. All my life every source I read said that Hitler started WWII because he invaded Poland on 1 September, with Britain and France then declaring war on Germany on the 3rd. The Soviet invasion of Poland, in fact Western Ukraine and Belarus, occurred on the 16 or 17th of September depending on which source you choose, and in either case this was after the Polish government fled Warsaw. The commander of Polish forces gave the order not to resist the Red Army and to continue fighting the Germans. Neither Britain, France, or anyone else declared war on the USSR as a result, nor was the USSR expelled from the League of Nations for this action. In spite of this and dozens of other facts, many of which were never really particularly secret, the modern narrative of WWII pretty much ignores Munich, or at best treats it as a misguided mistake. Molotov-Ribbentrop on the other hand, is now upheld as proof that WWII was actually started by Hitler and Stalin, and absurd revision of history.
The author quotes Putin on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact:
At the same time, Putin claimed that Stalin’s agreement with Hitler — the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — was perfectly fine.
“Serious research must show that those were the foreign policy methods then,” he is quoted as saying, adding: “The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany. People say: ‘Ach, that’s bad.’ But what’s bad about that if the Soviet Union didn’t want to fight, what’s bad about it?”
First of all, the claim that these foreign policy methods were normal in those days is absolutely true. Chamberlain’s own personal correspondence explicitly confirms his wish that Hitler could be encouraged eastward in return for leaving Britain and France alone. This eastward move would admittedly be at the expense of countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, etc. Dvorsky seems to forget that this was an era when the two major “democratic” powers of the world held tens of millions of people in bondage in Africa and Asia. In this very same era, and for some time after WWII, both these empires eagerly suppressed uprisings, including peaceful demonstrations, with the full force of their colonial troops. Rising powers like Germany, Italy, and Japan threatened the status quo of the time. Therefore if any of them could be appeased and thus make the business of running an empire easier in the process, the sacrifice of Poland or Czechoslovakia seemed like a small price to pay. Far more important, however, was the fervent hope of men like Chamberlain that Hitler’s eastward expansion would lead to a confrontation with, or at best containment of the Soviet Union. That Hitler was welcomed in some Western circles as the builder of a bulwark against Bolshevism is again, no secret, nor is it some radical new revisionist theory.
There is one major thing wrong with Putin’s statement on this, however. That is his implication that there was no negative reaction to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact. That is utter nonsense; like the EU today, the press of that time went wild with allegations that Hitler and Stalin were now allies. I should remind the reader that the pact, proposed by the Germans and signed on 23 August 1939, came only months after the end of the Spanish Civil War in April of that same year. This conflict, which began in 1936, saw the Soviet Union providing the Spanish Republic with tons of tanks, planes, ammunition, advisers, and volunteers against the nationalists who were supplied by Germany, Italy, and Portugal. During that conflict, Britain, France, and to some extent the United States maintained an embargo against the legally-elected Spanish Republic, totally turning a blind eye to German, Italian, and Portuguese intervention. On one occasions, a Royal Navy vessel involved in the blockade did nothing while a German vessel shelled coastal targets in support of a nationalist offensive. This might seem like a digression but I bring this up because while hacks then and now love to portray the non-aggression pact as an alliance between Stalin and Hitler, it’s important to keep in mind who had been fighting fascists long before 3 September 1939. Moreover, the scandal in the West over the pact no doubt helped distract from the cowardly actions of the British and French governments in their failure to create a collective security pact and their appeasement of Hitler at Munich. Bottom line is that Putin was dead wrong about the reaction to the signing of the pact.
George goes into full on fuck up mode as he attempts to respond to Putin’s comments.
“This is so infuriating I don’t even know where to start.”
I know the feeling, George.
“First, most Western historians don’t contest the assertion that Britain and France were guilty of appeasing Hitler. There’s no conspiracy by historians to “hush” this assessment. If anything, Western historians since A. J. P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War have largely supported this view.”
True, but appeasement is often treated as a misguided mistake, and is often excused by the reluctance of the French and British to get involved in another war. While there certainly is no conspiracy to hush up appeasement, there has been a noticeable trend in the past decade or so to portray Hitler and Stalin as allies, to downplay Munich and play up Molotov-Ribbentrop, to suggest that Hitler would not have gone to war and that somehow WWII could have been avoided were it not for Motolov-Ribbentrop, and the years of Soviet striving for a collective security pact are almost entirely ignored. However I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “conspiracy” as much as it is an academic circle jerk. A conspiracy would involve hiding or fabricating evidence. In the case of this historical episode, absurd revisions and idiotic claims are made in spite of widely available evidence.
“Putin’s claim that the Munich Agreement precluded Russia from creating an anti-fascist front with the Allies is as disingenuous as it is inaccurate.”
Since the USSR continued to negotiate with France and Britain for such a front after Munich you could say this is inaccurate, but I’m afraid George has probably never heard about those negotiations. He wouldn’t have written this article were that not the case.
“Given just how fearful Western Europe was of Nazi Germany, a united front would have been entertained given the dire circumstances.”
Um…No, no it wouldn’t. It’s important to point out that during this time the USSR actually had an alliance with France. The problem was that this alliance was not militarily binding on France in the case of a German attack on the Soviet Union. The Soviets were looking to expand this pact with Britain and other countries, but most of all make it military binding and practical. What they feared was a scenario where Hitler, having expanded to the borders of the Soviet Union, could justify an attack on the latter by claiming it was an ally of Germany’s enemy, i.e. France. The previous agreement wouldn’t require France to declare war in such an event, leaving the Soviet Union to fight a war on its own.
As for fear of war with Germany well, first of all, any World War II buff worth his or her salt knows that Germany in the late 30′ was a paper tiger. Throughout WWII, around 10% of its forces were mechanized, leaving the bulk of its army to rely on horse-drawn and in some cases, camel-drawn transport. Early German panzers were not terribly impressive and models such as the laughable Pzkpfw-I and the slightly more effective Pzkpfw-II were actually outclassed by the tanks of many other nations, including Poland in 1939. In fact, the annexation of Czechoslovakia was a major boon both economically and militarily to Nazi Germany, especially in the realm of tanks. The German-named Panzer 35(t) and 38(t) were in fact high quality Czechoslovakian-built tanks, captured without ever firing a shot. During the campaign against France in 1940, at least one third of German tanks involved in the offensive were Czechoslovakian.
It is entirely fair to say that if anything enabled Hitler to go to war it was Munich, if only because the subsequent annexation and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia literally handed Germany an arsenal without a fight. The redrawing of borders also severely strained Poland’s strategic defense plans, naturally.
Moving on, George digs himself deeper:
“Second, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a non-aggression treaty, can be interpreted as its own kind of appeasement policy. It basically said to Hitler, “Go ahead and do whatever you want — we won’t get in your way.”
You could call this a form of appeasement, but then you have the following question as to why Western powers are let off the hook for wanting to avoid war while the USSR is portrayed as an ally of Hitler? The truth is that no country wanted to go to war in 1939; their general staffs all believed that they were not ready.
“Had Stalin refused to sign the non-aggression treaty, it’s unlikely that Germany would have invaded Poland. Or if it did, the Soviets could have declared war on Germany just like the Allies had done, changing the strategic parameters and dynamics of the conflict in a profound way.”
Utter nonsense. First of all, the invasion of Poland had been originally scheduled for the 26 of August, three days after the signing of the pact. ‘Fall Weiss'(Case White), the plan for invading Poland, had been organized well in advance. On the night of 25-26 August, a German sabotage group which hadn’t been informed about the delay of the invasion went into action in something that became known as the Jabłonków Incident. This mistake shows that Hitler had intent to attack Poland without or without Molotov-Ribbentrop; in fact the reason for delaying the invasion actually had to do with Britain and Warsaw hinting to Berlin that they were willing to return to the negotiation table.
As for declaring war on Germany along with the allies, what exactly would this have entailed? If the USSR were to follow suit with Britain and France this would have meant sitting back doing nothing while Germany invaded all of 1939 Poland. But couldn’t the USSR fight on the side of Poland, as an ally? Well no. According to the diplomatic relations between the two nations at the time, any attempt to cross the Polish border, even if it was to repel the Germans, would have been seen as an invasion. During those heated discussions between the USSR, France, and Britain on the topic of collective security, Poland played an obstinate role, hinting that it might side with Berlin and flat out refusing to treat with the Soviet Union. One major failure at Munich surrounded Poland’s refusal to allow the Red Army transit rights through its territory on any condition. Poland never asked for Soviet help. It’s also worth noting that the Western allies declaration of war was largely toothless, and it has been theorized that Britain and France hesitating in hopes of finding a way to weasel out of their guarantee to Poland. In any case, keep in mind that the USSR had no binding military alliance with Britain, France, or Poland for that matter in 1939. That means had they declared war after the allies on 3 September, they would have faced Nazi Germany more or less alone. This is precisely what they feared and exactly what they were trying to sort out with Britain and France.
Lastly, the idea that Hitler would not have gone to war with Poland ignores who Hitler was. Hitler really, really, liked war. He glorified it constantly in his writing. After the Munich agreement, he famously fell into a bad mood, remarking that he felt he had been “swindled” out of a war he sorely wanted. Who know, had Hitler been born in our times, he might just be an avid Call of Duty player, swigging Mountain Dew, pissing into empty bottles, and talking shit to people online instead of being a genocidal maniac. Whatever the case, the idea that Hitler would just call off the war due to the fear of a Soviet attack in response to his invasion of Poland is laughably unbelievable. Would that have been a gamble? Sure. Hitler was a gambler though, and it paid off more than once during the war.
There was one thing which could have prevented Hitler from invading Poland- a strong collective security pact between Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union backing up Czechoslovakia.
Moving on with George’s creative history.
“The Soviets were well aware that Nazi Germany was going to invade Poland, and that by letting it do so unhindered, the Soviet Union would get the Eastern portions of its former territory in return.”
Except that they didn’t let Nazi Germany do it unhindered. The Wehrmacht did not stop at any line determined by the secret protocol of the pact. That’s why there was a battle of Lvov, for example. It was clear that the Nazi goal was to take all of 1939 Poland. When you look at a map of that state, you’ll see why allowing them to do this could have led to disaster in 1941. I’ve yet to see any evidence to show that the invasion of Poland was planned in concert by Red Army and Wehrmacht officers prior to 1 September 1939 or 16-17 September for that matter. The chaotic series of events and clashes between Wehrmacht and Red Army patrols strongly suggest that Hitler had never intended to hold to any sort of territorial protocol.
“Thirdly, Putin’s comments that the Soviet Union “didn’t want to fight” is obviously bullshit of the highest order.”
Not at all. The Soviet Union was by no means alone in this respect. At the time the Red Army was going through a major reorganization of forces and was in no condition to fight a major war. The Winter War with Finland proved this. George would do well to pick up a book called Stumbling Collosus – The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Do you even Glantz, bro?
“He’s conveniently forgetting the USSR’s unprovoked invasion of Finland in late 1939, not to mention the eagerness with which Stalin went to war against Poland during the joint invasion with the Nazis a few months earlier.”
The war with Finland was not exactly “unprovoked,” however flimsy the Soviet case for war might have been. The thing is, the Soviets didn’t really expect the Finns to go to war, nor did they consider that such a conflict would be so devastating. The strategic goals of that war were deemed necessary to preparing for a much larger conflict with Germany.
“What’s more, some historians speculate that Stalin agreed to the Pact as a way to buy time before launching his own invasion against Germany some time around 1948-50 (though this is unsubstantiated).”
He’s way off here. The most believable theory about a Soviet offensive puts the potential date somewhere around early summer in 1942. In fact, all the unbelievable theories I’ve seen also use this date. The Nazis themselves claimed to be launching a preemptive attack against a coming Soviet invasion. In any case, this is rather amusing because George has basically fucked his own argument here. The Soviet Union, like many other countries, was actually trying to delay war until it felt ready. Even the German military staff didn’t want to go to war in 1939.
And speaking of fucking your own argument.
“Fourthly, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also served as a trick. Hitler made no bones that his ultimate foe was the Soviet Union. The non-aggression treaty allowed Nazi Germany to occupy the Western side of Poland, and to buy Hitler some time before launching Operation Barbarossa against the USSR — a surprise attack that left Stalin completely dumbfounded.”
Oh yeah, good point. So what could the USSR have done to prevent Nazi Germany from occupying Western Poland in 1939? Well let’s see, they could have immediately invaded Poland, which I’m sure would have totally welcomed the Red Army in spite of the fact that their government had categorically refused any sort of alliance with the USSR. Then the USSR could have gone on the offensive, more or less by itself and with whatever was left of the mauled, overstretched Polish forces all the way to Berlin! Then anti-Communist historians would actually praise the Soviet Union and this would never have been portrayed as an act of aggression and conquest by the Bolshevik hordes. Yes, that is totally plausible.
“But Putin doesn’t really doesn’t care about the facts. As noted in The Telegraph article, “Critics say Mr Putin and his administration are increasingly mobilising historical events as a means of bolstering his authoritarian rule.”
This statement is by itself true, which is why it must be all the more embarrassing when he has a busted clock moment and actually manages to get the facts straighter than Mr. Dvorsky here. Does Putin distort the history of WWII and the Soviet Union? Oh yes, absolutely. For example, the state-run Russian media is quite fond of spreading the idea that the USSR was nothing but a continuation of the Russian empire, and that the United States has always been her historical enemy. I’ve seen the alliance in WWII portrayed as one of convenience, with the US working to sabotage it at every step. In reality, the US and Russian Empire have a long history of alliances, trade, and friendly policies, while the Soviet Union wasn’t really considered a threat to the US until after WWII, i.e. when both the United States and USSR emerged as world superpowers. Russian state propaganda runs roughshod over Ukrainian history, often exaggerating the extent of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. I often find that infuriating since it actually bolsters Ukrainian nationalists’ own propaganda.
This, however, was truly a case of a broken clock being right this time of day, and George went and made an ass out of himself because he hadn’t done his homework. He heard these ideas coming from Vladimir Putin and assumed that Putin was the source of such ideas when he was inf fact merely repeating them, albeit with some errors. So the moral of the story is, if you hear something about history which sounds crazy to you because you’ve never heard about it before, do some research before screaming all over the internet how “batshit crazy” it is.
If the reader is interested in examining the details of 1930’s Soviet-British-French negotiations in regard to collective security, I highly recommend Michael Jabara Carley’s 1939: The Alliance that Never Was and the Coming of World War II. Richard Overy’s The Road to War and Geoffrey Roberts’ Stalin’s Wars are also very useful when it comes to this topic.