British historian and Germanist specialising in the history of modern Central Europe, with particular emphasis on Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and the Second World War. He is the author of “First to Fight: The Polish War 1939”.
Shortly after midnight, on the night of August 23, 1939, Joseph Stalin drank a toast to Adolf Hitler. The occasion, of course, was the signature of the Nazi-Soviet Pact – or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – the non-aggression treaty between Moscow and Berlin which gave a green light to Hitler’s aggression against Poland and so paved the way for the outbreak of World War Two in Europe. It is a date which is seared into the memories of many millions of people in Poland, Finland, Romania and the Baltic States – or those whose origins lie there – yet its significance is still strangely unrecognized in the standard western narrative of the war.
Our collective ignorance of the subject is surprising. For many of us, World War Two has a prominence today which seems to grow, rather than diminish, with each passing year. For some countries, it has passed from history into something like a national religion, as evidenced in the groaning bookshop shelves and repetitive television documentaries. In history publishing, it has become commonplace for every campaign of the war, every catastrophe and curiosity, to be subjected to endless reinterpretations and re-assessments, resulting very often in competing schools of thought and competing historical volumes.
Yet, for all that, the Nazi-Soviet Pact still barely features in the Western narrative; passed over often in a single paragraph, dismissed as an outlier, a dubious anomaly, or a footnote to the wider history. Its significance is routinely reduced to the status of the last diplomatic chess move before the outbreak of war, with no mention made of the baleful Great Power relationship that it spawned. It is instructive, for example, that few of the recent popular histories of World War Two published in Britain give the pact any significant attention. It is not considered to warrant a chapter, and usually attracts little more than a paragraph or two and a handful of index references.
When one considers the pact’s obvious significance and magnitude, this is little short of astonishing. Under its auspices, Hitler and Stalin – the two most infamous dictators of 20th Century Europe – found common cause in destroying Poland and overturning the Versailles order. Their two regimes, whose later conflict would be the defining clash of World War Two in Europe, divided Central Europe between them and stood, side by side, for almost a third of the conflict’s entire timespan. Their two regimes, whose later conflict would be the defining clash of World War Two in Europe, divided Central Europe between them and stood, side by side, for almost a third of the conflict’s entire timespan.
Neither was the pact an aberration: a momentary tactical slip. It was followed up by a succession of treaties and agreements, starting with the German-Soviet Border and Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939, whereby Poland was divided between them and both sides vowed not to tolerate Polish “agitation” on their territory. Thereafter, across two expansive economic treaties, they traded secrets, blueprints, technology and raw materials, oiling the wheels of each other’s war machines. Stalin was no passive or unwilling neutral in this period, he was Adolf Hitler’s most significant strategic ally.
For all these reasons, the German-Soviet strategic relationship – born on 23 August 1939 – fully deserves to be an integral part of our collective narrative of the war. But it isn’t. It is worth speculating for a moment on the myriad reasons for this omission. To some extent, it can be attributed to the traditional myopia that appears to afflict the Anglophone world with regard to Central Europe; the mentality so neatly expressed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who dismissed Czechoslovakia in 1938, as “a faraway country”, inhabited by “people of whom we know nothing”. 1938 is a long time ago, but to a large extent the sentiment still prevails, in spite of the recent outpouring of support for Ukraine.
In addition, there is also what one might call the “asymmetry of tolerance” in Western political discourse, in which the crimes of communism are more readily wished away or ignored than the crimes of fascism. The logic underlying this is that the excesses of the left were somehow more noble in inspiration – motivated as they supposedly were by spurious notions of “equality” or “progress” – than the excesses of the right, which were motivated by base concepts of racial supremacy. This serves, in part, to explain how the so-called Overton Window – the spectrum of acceptable political discourse – has shifted markedly leftward in recent years, and how Lenin and Che Guevara are still considered “edgy” on many university campuses.
There is also the problem of historiography. The Western narrative of World War Two traditionally struggles to see past the villainy of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich; and the centrality of the Holocaust to that narrative only tends to cement that bias. German historiography, too, is largely predicated upon the ‘original sin’ of Nazism, relegating all other sinners to the status of, at best, bit-part players. The villainy of Stalin’s Soviet Union, therefore, remains largely overlooked; minimised and relativised, a footnote to the Western narrative, rather than a headline.
In such circumstances, Soviet and later Russian propaganda – which has sought to minimise and relativise the pact and its consequences – has been largely pushing at an open door. Nonetheless, the Nazi-Soviet Pact has proved to be something of a touchstone, an obvious embarrassment to the Kremlin, which required more than the usual efforts at obfuscation, diversion and deflection. The first blast in this offensive came shortly after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941, when Stalin – now desperately courting the Allies – sought to distance himself from the Pact by describing it as a last resort, something forced on an unwilling USSR by circumstances. It is perhaps testament to the power of Stalin’s “useful idiots” in the West, that – more than eight decades on – this interpretation is still routinely heard.
In 1948, the Soviet propaganda offensive was ramped up a notch. In response to the publication of the text of the Secret Protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Pact by the US State Department, Stalin himself penned a counterblast entitled Falsifiers of History which – of course – declared the Secret Protocol to be a capitalist fake, and criticised Western perfidy for failing to halt Hitler in the first place. He also floated a new interpretation of the Pact, seeking to justify it by painting it as a defensive masterstroke – a delaying of the inevitable rather than a cynical collaboration.
Soviet denial of the Secret Protocol – the most incriminating document from the negotiations surrounding the pact – would prove remarkably durable. Towards the end of his life, in 1983, Vyacheslav Molotov was asked by a journalist about the existence of the Secret Protocol. His reply was unequivocal. The rumours about it were designed to damage the USSR, he said: “There was no Secret Protocol”. Less than a decade later, in the face of widespread popular protests in the Baltic States, Gorbachev would publish the text of the document – signed by Molotov – from the Soviet archive.
In the years that followed, the brief flowering of Glasnost – or ‘openness’ – under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, would give way to a new culture of secrecy and dogged denials. Archives, briefly opened to the world’s scholars, would be closed to all but the most loyal and dependable commentators. The memory of World War Two would in time become one of the cornerstones of Putinism; a cult of maudlin manufactured remembrance that would increasingly take the place of the once promised prosperity and stability.
Under Putin, however, the narrative was not just a retread of the Soviet story of the war; the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for instance, was rebranded as a demonstration of the Kremlin’s strength, and an implicit warning to Russia’s neighbours. When Moscow published a trove of archival documents relating to the pact, in 2019, the underlying message was clear: the same brutal logic that had motivated the pact – the logic of “spheres of influence” and of the Darwinian right of the strong to dictate to the weak – was once again enjoying currency in the Kremlin.
In these circumstances – with a disinterested West and a mendacious, revanchist Russia – it is easy to see how any honest assessment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is very difficult to achieve. Yet, honestly assess it we must, if for no other reason than for the sake of historical honesty and accuracy. The Nazi-Soviet Pact is one of the most significant treaties of World War Two. We forget the link, perhaps, but the pact led directly to the outbreak of war; isolating Poland between its two malevolent neighbours and scuppering the rather desultory efforts of the Western powers to thwart Hitler.
The Great Power relationship that the pact forged is similarly significant. The war that followed carried its malevolent stamp. Poland was invaded and divided between Moscow and Berlin. Finland, too, was invaded by the Red Army and forced to cede territory. And, with Hitler’s connivance, the independent Baltic states were annexed by Stalin, as was the Romanian province of Bessarabia, their brave, dissenting populations doomed to be deported to the horrors of the gulag. The Nazi-Soviet Pact is no parochial concern therefore, not a subject of purely local significance. At a conservative estimate, it directly impacted the lives of some 50 million people.
So, it is clear then, that the Pact is something that needs to be commemorated and needs to be remembered. In the main, it has fallen to those most directly affected to commemorate it. In the late 1980s, Baltic and East European refugees from communism in the west established “Black Ribbon Day” – on 23 August – as a focus for anti-Soviet protests. Soon after, in 1989, the inhabitants of the Baltic States protested against their annexation by the USSR – facilitated by the Nazi-Soviet Pact – by the mass demonstration of the Baltic Way; a 2-million strong human chain that snaked for over 400 miles across the three republics on 23 August.
In 2009, such popular initiatives found an official echo with a resolution, presented to the European Parliament in Brussels, proposing that 23 August should henceforth be recognised as the “European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.” It was passed with a few votes against from communist MEPs, one of whom described the juxtaposition of the Nazi and Soviet regimes as “indescribably vulgar”.
Russia, naturally, also cried foul, with then-president Dmitry Medvedev establishing in response the “Presidential Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History” – a deliberate echo of Stalin’s earlier attempt to stifle the truth of the pact. According to the new decree, transgressors could be fined or imprisoned for 5 years for deviating from the new, strictly laudatory line on the Soviet performance in World War Two. It was all rather reminiscent of the old Soviet joke: “the future is certain, it’s only the past that is unpredictable.”
Now, since 2014, the European Network of Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS) – an international governmental initiative to promote the study of European 20th-century history – has taken up the challenge of commemorating the Nazi-Soviet Pact through its educational campaign, entitled “Remember: August 23”. Its initiatives, which range from distributing pin badges to the production of short films to highlight the stories of some of the victims of the totalitarian regimes, are intended to disseminate knowledge, free of falsehood and disinformation, and provoke honest discussion.
Some might imagine that, with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine plunging the European continent once more into war, arguments about the finer points of 20th century history are somehow a luxury that can be ill-afforded. I would argue the contrary, however. Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of its neighbour is merely the latest instalment of a bloody continuum; a new offence in a catalogue of crimes – stretching back to the Nazi-Soviet Pact and beyond – which betray the mindset of suspicion, paranoia and naked aggression that has long guided the Kremlin’s world view. Now is the time for the scales, finally, to fall from our eyes; for us to realise – in bloody technicolour – the true vicious nature of Europe’s neighbour to the east, and to redouble our efforts in studying and disseminating the darkest chapters of its history. In that endeavour, August 23 can and must play a central, defining role.
Text published in the monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze (Poland) as part of a historical education project of the Institute of National Remembrance.