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The pact between devils: The myth of Stalin as the great anti-fascist

In some circles, Russia is seen as the foremost anti-Nazi authority. Putin only has to wave his hands at “The Great Patriotic War” to give himself unimpeachable anti-fascist credentials, becoming the great defeater of Nazi Germany by proxy, authorised to speak for the dead – in exactly the same way that every enemy of the West becomes “the new Hitler” when the powers that be have the hankering to bomb them.

This feeling is not confined just to full-blown Stalinists. For much of the soft or liberal left, the USSR’s actions during the Second World War confer upon it a kind of secular sainthood – that they were friends and allies when the rest of the world most needed them.

It’s certainly true that something like 27 million Soviets died in the fight against the Axis powers in what, I think it is fair to say, was the defining conflict of the war. There’s no question that, after the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s forces, they ruthlessly opposed those invaders – and we can talk about what that ruthlessness entailed another time. But what about before they had no choice but to defend themselves? Well, that picture is not one of a clear-cut fight of good against evil, but rather undeniable complicity in horror and war.

A quick potted history; in August 1939, the governments of Nazi Germany and the USSR signed an agreement dividing Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence” and agreeing a massive trade deal. A couple of weeks later the carving began with the invasion of Poland. By September the 22nd, in the city of Brest-Litovsk in Poland (now in Belarus), the two nations held a joint military parade to celebrate their victory, which was nice for them. The Germans then handed control of the city over to its rightful owners, the Russians, as they had agreed to do.

Hitler took the west of Poland and Stalin the east, both dictators ruthlessly crushing opposition and indulging themselves in mass murder. The most well known massacre was in Katyn where Stalin had 22,000 Polish troops slaughtered. If the plan had been to prepare for war with Hitler then those men would have come in handy, but that wasn’t the plan, the plan was to expand his empire and secure a pragmatic peace with Hitler.

When Stalin betrayed Polish communists, handing them over to the Gestapo, he did it because he didn’t want to be invaded, for sure, but he also saw those men as inconveniences. They were just dog meat to him. In fact the USSR continued to betray communist refugees from Nazi occupied territories right up to the day Germany invaded, reportedly ordering the execution of a German Communist who left his unit to warn of the attack, accusing him of spreading “disinformation.”

In addition to this Stalin deported around 1.5 million Poles to Siberian labour camps. Deportees that were released only when Hitler invaded 22 months later. Many died of starvation and disease, with less than 10% of the original deportees surviving by 1945, a diaspora scattered all over the world.

If there’s any doubt that foremost in Russia’s mind was the imperialist expansion of its borders the foreign commissar Molotov gloated at the time that this was, “One swift blow to Poland, first by the German Army and then by the Red Army, and nothing was left of this ugly offspring of the Versailles Treaty.”

Over the next two years Hitler set himself to gobbling European nations left, right and centre while Stalin sent his troops unopposed into Eastern European nations like Latvia, and Estonia, all green lit by his secret deal with Hitler. The pact also handed the USSR control of Finland, although when the Russian troops arrived the Finns had very different ideas about that, and heroically repelled the invasion.

As German and Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe (and WWII officially started) the French Communist Party announced that the pact was “a triumph for this Soviet desire for peace” and “Because there is a USSR war can’t be made at will.” And you thought Chamberlain’s piece of paper was a bit silly, at least that was a year before war was declared not on the week it actually started.

The pact held tight right up until the moment the Nazis invaded Russia just under two years later. It was Hitler who decided when Stalin stopped facilitating the Nazi war machine, not Stalin, and his military opposition to it was born entirely out of the fact that German tanks were bulldozing Russia. But let’s not jump ahead.

For their part of the agreement Germany received millions of tons of wheat, oil, cotton, and soybeans – all essential for the war machine as Britain was attempting to enforce an economic blockade. Russia also agreed to provide a submarine base in the USSR at Basis Nord for the Nazis to use against allied shipping, although the invasion of Norway in 1940 rendered it no longer necessary.

The closeness of relations was such that Stalin sent his foreign minister Molotov to Berlin in 1940 to try to join the Axis although Hitler eventually broke off talks. What was the plan here? Bring the international fascist movement down from the inside? Even Hitler was bemused by Stalin’s hopes to join the Axis block.

The pact was far more than a simple, pragmatic non-aggression pact. It involved military and economic cooperation, intelligence sharing and some even bleaker moments. During Stalin’s meeting with Germany’s foreign minister Ribbentrop, Stalin promised that he would get rid of “Jewish domination”, especially among the intelligentsia.

Stalin and Ribbentrop at the Kremlin

Stalin dismissed the Jewish Maxim Litvinov as Foreign Minister in 1939 (who had been in post since 1930), by surrounding the ministry with NKVD and then arresting large swathes of his staff in the hope of extracting confessions from them. Litvinov was then sent out of the country to the US, although it was some years before Stalin had him assassinated.

The new Foreign Minister, Molotov, was instructed to “purge the ministry of Jews”, to appease Hitler and to signal to Nazi Germany that the USSR was ready for non-aggression talks. Hitler wrote to Mussolini expressing how happy he was that Stalin had dismissed the Jewish foreign secretary and this convinced him that Stalin was ready to sign a pact with the Nazis, which they did.

Recalling Stalin’s order, Molotov commented, “Thank God for these words! Jews formed an absolute majority in the leadership and among the ambassadors. It wasn’t good.” These don’t feel like the words of someone backed into a corner and forced to do something against their nature.

It’s worth saying that this agreement crippled the communist movement across the world. Some members tied themselves in knots trying to justify a pact they’d have denounced from any other power. Others crashed out of the movement in despair and disillusionment. Others simply killed themselves, unable to bear the weight of the betrayal.

Ironically the pact was far more controversial among the Nazis, who had built their movement on anti-communism, causing mass resignations. On the day the pact was signed a massive pile of torn up Nazi Party cards were dumped on the doorstep of the Berlin Nazi HQ, with Goebbels himself describing the deal as “a stain on our shield” saying, when the invasion happened, that “now I feel totally free”. Meaning the Nazis were more ashamed of the deal than modern day Stalinists. Hey ho.

Communist Parties across the world (including in Britain) argued that Britain was wrong to be at war with Germany even as the bombs were falling on London and Coventry and the skies filled with what came to be known as the Battle of Britain. Well, the Coventry thing was fair enough, but let’s leave that to one side. People went to prison following Moscow’s line to oppose the war and then, once Hitler had invaded, found themselves become the loudest advocates for that war, from their jail cells.

We need to ask ourselves that if the USSR was the greatest, instinctive enemy of the Nazis, as some claim, why did they help it circumvent sanctions and assist them as they were preparing their invasion of Britain, keeping them in the fight? It’s an odd anti-Nazi strategy, to help them do everything they are doing, making them stronger, in the hope that they consider you too useful an ally to attack.

Anyway, post-war the ever loyal historian EH Carr argued that Stalin had to sign this pact in order to buy time to prepare for war against Germany. It’s worth addressing this. If the pact was to buy time to prepare for the invasion where were these preparations? Why was Stalin taken entirely by surprise?

Germany cut through the East like a hot knife through butter, taking all the territory the USSR had seized as part of their pact in just six weeks and killing more than four million Soviet soldiers in the first six months of the offensive with a further three million captured.

If the pact was part of a cunning strategy to see Hitler defeated why did Communist Parties around the world undermine the war efforts against Germany, sometimes at the cost of lives and liberty and why, perhaps more importantly, did Stalin ensure Germany was well supplied as it pursued its war aims to occupy Western Europe, the Balkans, Britain, etc.

Perhaps the unprovoked Soviet invasion of Finland, which cost them a quarter of a million casualties, was a cunning plan to strengthen the Soviet military by trashing their aircraft and tanks and pissing Soviet lives away on a war of acquisition.

If this was all a clever chess move to prepare for an inevitable war with Germany why did Stalin have NKVD chief Beria purge the Red Army and particularly the air force between 1940 and 41 of something like 30,000 officers some dismissed, others jailed and a great many shot without trial.

My favourite charge was that of “pessimism” directed at those who thought the USSR had not done enough to prepare for a German invasion.

A more plausible explanation for the pact, I think, was that Stalin wanted to invade and occupy territories, saw a lucrative partner in Hitler, and hoped that Germany’s war against France and Britain would be a war of mutual destruction leaving all of his enemies weakened.

There is nothing about Stalin’s history up to this point that should make us think he was opposed to mass murder, or anti-Semitism, or invasions, or crushing political opponents, turning them into pate. Hitler and Stalin were certainly enemies, but they were not strangers to each other. At the time of the pact Stalin had already racked up a body count in the millions whilst Hitler had hardly got started.

One argument that the pact was necessary was that France and Britain were not reliable enough opponents of Hitler. This weirdly lopsided argument rather ignores the fact that when Germany invaded Poland France and Britain declared war on them, immediately, whilst Russia joined in.

In other words, the argument implies that the USSR were so much better than anyone else in opposing Nazi Germany that they took part in military adventures with them, fed their war machine with oil and grain and had their proxies across the world denounce the war between Axis and Allies as an imperialist conflict that they should have nothing to do with.

You would have thought that we don’t really need reminders that the Soviet Union was brutal and dishonest, except people do, don’t they. There’s a common theme in the behaviour of pre-invasion Stalin, and it isn’t being an anti-authoritarian or anti-imperialist or anti-racist. It’s viewing human beings as pawns, and their deaths as the daily business of the state.

The Soviet soldiers and civilians who died fighting the Nazis were the same Russians that Stalin regarded as valueless, that he had machine-gunned or tortured or enslaved when the mood took him.

When Germany and Russia invaded Poland the door to the Holocaust was opened. Millions died in the fight against the Nazis, often with guns on their backs. The real disrespect to their memory is to pretend that they were not ruled by murderous barbarians, who had no regard for their lives or suffering, and who regarded the deaths of millions as “just a statistic”.

To confer respect upon the mass murderers and Nazi collaborators of the Soviet leadership just because, when they had no options, they fought back does a great injustice to the memory of the millions of victims, caught between monsters in one of the darkest chapters of the twentieth century.

Arnold Beep

Feature image: Clifford K. Berryman / public domain

Image 1: German and Soviet soldiers in jointly occupied Brecht. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-121-0011-20 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Image 2: Stalin and Ribbentrop after signing the non-aggression pact, later Violated By The Third Reich in 1941. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Image 3: The secret additional protocol of August 23, 1939 to the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union. ThoralfSchade / CC BY-SA 4.0

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