May 16, 2015
Translated by Alya Rea
By Dmitriy Lyskov
In an article for the popular resource of the EU “Euro-Observer,” [Ukrainian President] Piotr Poroshenko compares Russia with Nazi Germany, writing that “the people of Ukraine were caught between Stalin and Hitler.” This kind of comparison and blame are coming from the West and the liberal opposition in Russia every year. Our country is accused of the equal responsibility – with Hitler – for starting the war. And this self-righteous hypocrisy requires a worthy response, year after year. …Let’s be completely unbiased and try to trace who and when really started the World War Two, who was an ally to whom, and which regimes to consider as totalitarian ones.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or, in terms of national historiography, the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was signed on August 23, 1939, by the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the USSR [Vyacheslav Molotov] and the German Foreign Minister [Joachim von Ribbentrop]. In short, the essence of the pact is as follows: the parties shall refrain from attacking each other and should maintain neutrality in the event of military action by the parties with the participation of third countries. In addition, the treaty included a secret supplementary protocol that outlined the division of German and Soviet spheres of interest in Europe. In the Soviet sphere of interest were Finland, Latvia, Estonia (excluding Lithuania – it was part of the German sphere of influence), eastern Poland up to Warsaw, and Bessarabia.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany launched an invasion of Poland. In response, France and the United Kingdom, which were bound by the agreements of mutual assistance with Poland, declared war on Germany. At the same time, while German troops were advancing rapidly on Polish territory, the allies of Warsaw pursued a policy later dubbed the “Phony War” – in other words, they took no actions. From September 1 to 6, consecutively, the president, the government, and commander in chief left Warsaw and relocated to Brest. The German troops first attacked Warsaw only on September 8 and, incidentally, were pushed back by its defenders. The battle for the city lasted until September 28.
The move of all the Polish authorities to Brest caused a significant disarray in the command and control of the army (many historians believe that control was already lost all together). Moreover, at the same time, on September 9-11, the Polish government has already negotiated its evacuation to France. On the 16th, they asked Romania to provide them with the transit, and they left the country on the 17th. Polish historiography maintains that all this meant nothing special – that is, the highest civil and military administration of the country planned to continue the fight and to lead the country defense while in exile.
However, Moscow regarded this situation quite differently. On September 17, the Polish Ambassador of Poland to the Soviet Union had received the official note, which said: “The Polish government has disintegrated and shows no signs of life. This means that the Polish state and its government effectively ceased to exist [Thus, all agreements between the USSR and Poland were declared to have ceased to operate]… Poland bereft of leadership had become a suitable field for all sorts of hazards and surprises that could pose a threat to the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviet government could not be indifferent to the fate of consanguineous Ukrainians and Belarusians living in Poland, who were abandoned and left defenseless. In view of this situation, the Soviet government has ordered the General Command of the Red Army to cross the Polish border and take under their protection the life and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus.” [In the case with Ukrainians and Belorussians, there are confirmed reports of the forced Polonization and discrimination in Poland of 1918-1939. The national and territorial context is definitely not as simple as we wish it to be, and, quite often, it is at the root of many problems that we face today.]
Refraining from the judgment, let’s mention a couple of points. According to the Pact, the Soviet sphere of interests included the territory up to Warsaw, but, in reality, the Soviets occupied only Western Ukraine and Belarus. The same Western Ukraine and Western Belarus that were part of the Russian tsarist empire [some territories were under the Russians for more than a century] but seized from the Soviet government in 1920 as the result of the Soviet-Polish war. Back then Józef Piłsudski decided that it’s time to restore the geopolitical influence of Poland by military means and, with the support of France, the United States, and Great England, he launched the war, guided, in general, by the same principles [as the USSR in September of 1939]: the neighbor has a full-fledged Civil war, there is no recognized central government as it seems to be, and, after all, these territories primordially belonged to Warsaw. The Poles managed to reach Minsk, until it became clear that there are some authorities at place after all, and that the Red Army is worth something.
However, the Soviets fared poorly in that war. [According to Wikipedia, “a compromise peace treaty at Riga in early 1921 … gave Poland an eastern border well beyond what the peacemakers in Paris had envisioned, and added 4,000,000 Ukrainians, 2,000,000 Jews, and 1,000,000 Belarusians to Poland’s minority population.”] On the top of it, about [20,000 of Russia POWs out of] 80 thousand Red Army prisoners were killed in Polish concentration camps. Modern Polish historians say (and this is the official state position) that the policy of the government in regard to the prisoners has nothing to do with these deaths – they starved themselves to death, and then the epidemic began, those were the hard times.
Yes, it was a long time ago, and, back then, there were all kind of territorial claims to one another. But the question is: if, according to the secret protocol of the [Molotov-Ribbentrop] Pact, the Soviet sphere of interest in Poland was as stipulated but the occupied territory was different than that, and if the whole of Finland was designated to the Soviets as well but the latter, on the basis of the Winter War, did not even try to completely occupy it (although they could), perhaps, after all, there were no plans of the division of Europe by means of the conquest?
Let’s move along. If to consider the year of 1939 as the beginning of the World War Two that was launched by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (as the allies at that), then how to interpret the events of 1938, when Poland, together with Nazi Germany, invaded Czechoslovakia and took part in its division? Yes, Poland and Czechoslovakia had a long-standing territorial dispute since 1918-1919, but we have already agreed not to consider the territorial claims of the previous two decades as a justification of events. Perhaps, Poland was not bound by a treaty with Hitler? Nothing of the kind! There was the German-Polish Non-Aggression pact of 1934, the so-called Hitler-Piłsudski Pact, and the French press of that time wrote about the secret protocol to the pact, which was about the eastern direction of Polish interests. [Per Nikolay Starikov, “The talks between Nazi Germany and Second Polish Republic about a joint march on the USSR were held for quite a long time. … Hitler, who was still prepared (at the time) to meet his obligations to the West, was primarily focused on two issues pertaining to his relationship with Warsaw: the return to the Reich of the lands it had lost to Poland after World War I, and the military support of the Polish army during his future attack on the Soviet Union.” http://orientalreview.org/2015/03/28/episode-15-poland-betrayed-ii/%5D Based on this information, should we consider Poland an ally of Germany, already in 1934? It is an open-ended question. …
So, why it was possible for Poland in 1938 but deemed as unacceptable for the Soviet Union in 1939? [Or, as Molotov himself once said, “Why cannot the USSR allow itself the same privilege that Poland and England allowed themselves long ago?”] As it was the case with Poland, Czechoslovakia had its supporters – definitely France and also the Soviet Union, with which Prague was bound by agreements of mutual assistance. However, at the onset of the international crisis Warsaw hastened to announce that Poland will declare war on the Soviet Union immediately if the latter tries to send troops to Czechoslovakia. In turn, France and Britain made a [feeble] effort to resolve the conflict with Hitler peacefully. Thus, there was the Munich Agreement, signed in October 1938 by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Daladier, Chancellor of Germany Hitler, and Prime Minister of Italy Mussolini – which allowed Germany to take over the Czechoslovakian territory, the Sudetenland. Yes, Germany, too, had significant territorial claims to Czechoslovakia, and also from the times of ”twenty years ago.” A no one even asked Czechoslovakia what it thinks about the situation at hand.
But maybe France and Great Britain were not mired in their respective pacts of non-aggression with Nazi Germany (there is no need to even mention the secret protocols – unlike the Soviet Union, these countries used to divide Europe quite openly, and not simply by delineating the spheres of interests but by drawing new borders according to their own interests – Versailles, the Curzon Lane in the Soviet-Polish War, the Munich partition)? It was certainly not the case, for such agreements were in existence. In September 1938, immediately after Munich, on the initiative of Chamberlain was signed Anglo-German declaration of non-aggression. Or, to be more precise, the “Declaration on friendship and non-aggression.” There is also the notorious Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 (signed without the participation of the allies of the Entente), which, in fact, made null and void the Versailles system of limitation on the German armed forces. [Per Wikipedia, “The Anglo-German Naval Agreement was highly controversial, both at the time and since, because the 35:100 tonnage ratio allowed Germany the right to build a Navy beyond the limits set by the Treaty of Versailles, and the British had made the agreement without consulting France or Italy first.”]
In December 1938, a declaration of non-aggression was signed between France and Nazi Germany. This agreement, in particular, was clear that between their countries no question of territorial order remains in suspense and that two governments intend to build a peaceful and good-neighborly relations. At the same time Hitler and Piłsudski cut Czechoslovakia into pieces. But here’s an interesting point, after signing of Declaration of Non-Aggression in Paris, the French politician Paul Reynaud wrote: “There is such an impression that from now on German politics will focus on the fight against Bolshevism. The Reich made it clear that it has an aspiration to expand eastward.”
In addition, there were non-aggression treaties with Hitler signed by Lithuania, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia. Should we consider all these countries as Hitler’s allies? And what should be said about the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, which was in conflict with the Treaty of Versailles – basically, it was the redrawing of borders that, 20 years ago (those same 20 years, again!), were guaranteed by the Entente? After all, this Anschluss created a springboard for an attack on Czechoslovakia. And finally, what to think about the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which reshaped Europe – and hit where it hurts the most – to the liking of the “greedy triumph winners,” as it was written back then? It is exactly then the territorial claims of the previous two decades commenced. Let’s recall that modern Poland was established in the period between the surrender of Germany and the signing of the Versailles Treaty, which guaranteed its borders, including the addition of 43,000 square kilometers cut from Germany. And then later Piłsudski wanted even more – this time, already the territories taken from the Soviets. [As the consequent events showed, “Both Germany and the USSR refused to accept their territorial losses to Poland,” Anny M. Cienciala, Wojdiech Iaterski, N.S. Lebedeva.]
Should we consider the totality of European events of 1930s as the de facto elimination of the Versailles system by the countries of the Entente that were, initially, its guarantors? This development immediately raises the question – why? Why to let the fascist genie out of the bottle? Perhaps for the sake of those actions in the most eastern direction, about which wrote Paul Reynaud?
Let’s offer the only “possible” [for the West] response to a variety of issues. In Europe, it was only the Soviet Union so “special” that it could not conduct the foreign politics, including the one that was aimed at its own safety. It’s only we who had to live with our eyes closed, oblivious to the actions of the powerful countries of the world. And if we decided to act according to generally accepted at that time framework, then we immediately became “the allies of Hitler.” According to this “logic,” it is the Soviet Union, along with the fascists, took part in Europe’s division and, thus, launched the World War Two, despite the fact that Europe was divided by many throughout the 1930s, and, before that, was divided in 1919 – and, almost immediately, the guarantors forgot about their own safeguards given to one another.
It doesn’t befit to throw away some facts from history for the benefits of the others; it is wrong to turn history into the set of Lego, from which we can assemble whatever we want, according to the current state of affairs. But according to the logic of accusations from the Ukrainian side, the West, and the liberal intelligentsia, we are guilty a priori, we are aggressive, totalitarian – and we remain such to this day. Whereas the other people around us have open faces, they are real Europeans – they walk on the boulevards, while entertaining one another in a pleasant conversation, and they know nothing about any wars, the Anschlusses, millions of prisoners who were tortured and killed, and various pacts. Well, except for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, of course. This, obviously, is impossible to forget. After all, it was signed by Russia-the Soviet Union – the “embodiment” of evil.