Stalin’s choice

It’s a few days ago now, but still worth noting that last Friday was the 80th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939, one of the last steps in the chain of events leading to the outbreak of the Second World War.

There’s been a lot of commemoration. For the people of the countries that were divided up by the pact – Poland, Romania and the Baltic states – it’s an occasion to remember the evils of totalitarianism. Since Soviet domination is a good deal more recent a memory than that of the Nazis, it inevitably gets more of the attention.

The view from the Russian government is a little different. Opening an exhibition on the treaty last week, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said (according to the Guardian) that in the circumstances of the time, “the Soviet Union was forced on its own to ensure its national security and signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.”

Last year I wrote a series of posts (here, here and here) on the theme of “worrying about the far left.” One of my points was that far left and far right both pose dangers to democracy, but there are good reasons for democrats to prefer working with the far left.

The situation of the western democracies in the 1930s was not dissimilar. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were both awful dictatorships; both posed an obvious threat to world peace and to civilised values of all kinds. But we could not fight both at once. Explicitly or implicitly, the west had to make some sort of choice.

In 1938-39, however, Britain and France refused to make that choice. So Stalin made it for them.

Stalin’s tactics in the early 1930s, when he treated the non-Communist left as the main enemy, had proved to be a disaster, helping to bring Hitler to power. So he switched tack, supporting “popular front” alliances with the centre-left and arguing at the League of Nations for collective security against fascism.

The critical period came after Hitler destroyed the remains of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, exposing the hollowness of the promises he had made at the Munich conference the previous year. In response the British government guaranteed the independence of Poland, and somewhat reluctantly set in train negotiations for an alliance with the Soviet Union – the only way of making that guarantee effective.

The Nazi-Soviet pact came only after those negotiations broke down. Perhaps Stalin was merely stringing the British along, and really intended along to do a deal with Hitler for the partition of Poland. But the evidence suggests that the Soviets (not without reason) were genuinely afraid for their own security, and suspected that the British and French intended to leave them in the lurch if Hitler drove eastward.

So Lavrov has a point. From the Soviet point of view, agreement with Hitler was a second-best option, but better than nothing. It bought them time, and it ensured that when Hitler did eventually turn against them, Britain (and later the United States) would be firmly in their camp as allies.

But while the strategic situation of the time might have justified a non-aggression pact, and might even have justified military occupation of eastern Poland and the Baltic states as a defensive measure, it could hardly justify continuing that occupation for forty years after the war was over. Still less could it justify the imperial domination of the rest of eastern Europe, with all its associated brutality.

So the European democracies are right to use the anniversary to mark the horror of totalitarianism in general and of Soviet imperialism in particular. But it’s also a useful reminder to the western powers that, in the long train of crimes and miscalculations that led to the outbreak of war in 1939, there is plenty of blame to go around.

5 thoughts on “Stalin’s choice

  1. If ‘strategic considerations’ are a justification for aggressive wars such as Stalin’s against democratic Finland, the Baltics (various states of illiberalsim), Poland or Romania, what’s your judgment on the Kaiser’s essentially defensive ‘strategic’ traversing of Belgium; or for that matter, the national socialists’ desire for the Polish corridor? Stalin’s acts sanctioned – and were a predicate for – Hitler’s aggression toward Poland; they deserve unqualified condemnation.


    1. Thanks Pyrmonter. The difference is that Germany wasn’t at any risk of being attacked by France in 1914 or Poland in 1939, and every sane Germany policymaker knew that. But Stalin’s fear of a German attack wasn’t fanciful. I don’t think that justifies his actions, and I do think they deserve condemnation, but that “unqualified” still worries me. I hadn’t mentioned Finland, but let’s think about that. In 1939, the Finnish border was only 32km from St Petersburg (then Leningrad). If the Finns had co-operated in a German attack – as they in fact did in 1941 – the Soviets would have been at a serious disadvantage. I’m not saying that justifies what Stalin did (for one thing, if he hadn’t given them a grievance by attacking the Finns probably would have stayed neutral in 1941), but I think his security concerns were genuine. History just isn’t as black and white as we would like it to be.


      1. In 1914, Germany was very much at risk of being encircled by the Franco-Russian allies: that’s the centre of the case made by Fischer etc that Germany was bent on war. I’m not persuaded by that argument (Germany might, in particular, have sought rapprochement with Britain, though Britain itself had reasons in central Asia to want the Russians on side), but the strategic position for Germany and Austria-Hungary was one of relative decline.

        Stalin’s behaviour toward Finland and the Baltics justifies entirely the unwillingness of the Poles to entertain the idea of Russian ‘help’ in opposition to an aggressive National Socialism: by the late 30s, almost everyone (the fellow travelers and useful idiots aside) had Stalin’s measure. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be held to account for facilitating what was, in substance, a joint war of aggression.


  2. In 1939, once negotiations for an alliance with the Western powers broke down, Stalin selected the option of seeking a deal with Hitler, when he had available the alternative option of not seeking a deal with Hitler.

    From our point of view now, there’s an asymmetry in that we have a record of what happened after Stalin made his deal with Hitler, but we can’t know, and never will know, what would have happened if Stalin had not made a deal with Hitler.

    However, what is an asymmetry from our point of view now was a symmetry from the point of view of Stalin then: he couldn’t know for certain what would follow either choice. The only way he could choose was on the basis of the best estimate available of the likely consequences in either case.

    If we want to evaluate Stalin’s choice of one option over the other, we have to make some sort of estimate of the likely consequences if he had made a different choice, making allowances for limits on the information available to him.

    I can’t figure any way of doing that estimation which doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the consequences of doing a deal with Hitler were likely to be worse than the consequences of not doing a deal with Hitler (worse for the Poles, worse for the French, worse for the British; worse also for the Soviets; worse even for the Germans).

    It’s possible that Stalin calculated that the consequences of doing a deal would not be as bad as the consequences of not doing a deal, because he calculated that if he did a deal with Hitler, Germany would not attack the Soviet Union. We know now, of course, that if he calculated that way he was wrong; but what’s more, the way I figure it any such calculation would have been obviously groundless and foolish even at the time.

    Apart from that, I can’t figure what benefit Stalin could possibly have figured was likely from the Nazi-Soviet Pact that could have outweighed the harm. It’s not obvious that the Nazis would have attacked the Soviet Union in 1939 in the absence of the Pact: indeed, it seems more likely that they wouldn’t have, and that would have been the most reasonable estimate in 1939. What’s more, it’s not obvious that an attack in 1939 would have been worse for the Soviet Union than one that occurred later, and there would have been no clear basis for such an estimate in 1939. It’s possible that Stalin calculated that the Nazis would probably be defeated by the Western powers in 1939 without Soviet participation, which we now know would have been an error, but might have seemed more plausible in 1939. But even if that was his calculation and the outcome he was hoping for, the Pact did not make that outcome more likely, it made it less likely.

    You quote foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying that the Soviet Union was forced into the Nazi-Soviet Pact to ensure national security. But it didn’t ensure national security! The Soviet Union was still attacked by the Nazis despite the pact, and that’s what should have been expected in 1939, on the basis of the information available then! There was no excuse, at that date, for anybody who believed in Nazi promises. Agreement with Hitler was not better than nothing, it was worse than nothing.


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