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.