Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Why we still argue about the World War

This article was first published in the Western Morning News on 3 September 2009.

The origins of World War II are well understood and uncontroversial – or so we might think. Everyone knows that in September 1939 Hitler launched an unprovoked attack on Poland, having laid out his ruthless ambitions in Mein Kampf many years earlier – so what could there possibly be left to argue about?

Seventy years on, the answer turns out to be ‘plenty’. Whilst historians continue to debate the factors that influenced the Nazi drive to war, the current hot potato surrounds the actions of the other great powers in the years and months before the conflict broke out. In particular, some Russian politicians and historians are currently seeking to justify the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. This non-aggression treaty, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, cleared the way for Hitler to launch his attack on the Poles. Not only that, but secret clauses – condemned by the Soviet parliament during the Glasnost era – laid out in advance how Germany and the USSR were to carve up Polish territory between them.

It might seem that the Pact’s modern-day apologists are defending the indefensible, but trying to understand their viewpoint is instructive. Lev Sotskov, a former KGB man who has published a collection of documents related to the question, argues that Britain and France’s deal with Hitler at Munich the previous year left Stalin with little choice. ‘Now the thinking behind English politics is revealed’, he says: ‘let Germany start a war with the USSR and then we’ll see what happens.’ MP and former Soviet diplomat Yuli Kvitsinsky claims that in this situation ‘the pact was a brilliant step on Stalin’s part’ and ‘practically preordained the formation of the anti-Hitler coalition after Germany attacked the USSR’ two years later.

Taken that far, the argument is clearly absurd. The implication is that Hitler’s invasion of Russia – ultimately disastrous for him – was planned all along by an all-seeing Stalin. But Professor Alexander Chubaryan, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History, offers a subtler take on the problem. ‘From a moral perspective, the Munich Agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are not very different’, he says, noting that the first of these high-handedly transferred Czech territory to Germany by Great Power diktat. ‘Both documents were signed in the absence of the nations whose destiny they concerned.’ Chubaryan does not deny the immorality of the secret protocols to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but argues that the events cannot be reduced to the line ‘Hitler decided to attack his neighbours, and Stalin became his ally.’

Chubaryan is right of course to point out the complexity of the historical background. But he goes wrong when he suggests that Munich destroyed a previously-existing anti-Nazi ‘consensus’ between Britain, France, and the USSR, making Stalin’s later actions almost inevitable. If the British government was not quite as complacent about Hitler’s progress as is often believed, it is still true that successive Prime Ministers believed he could be appeased – Munich was the high-water mark of this opinion, not some sudden new departure. In March 1939, Hitler invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia, showing that his earlier promises had been worthless. Stalin failed to learn the lesson, made his own agreement with Germany a few months later, and paid the price when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941. By that point, he was so suspicious of the British that he failed to listen to their intelligence-based warnings of what was about to happen.

Chubaryan is also off-beam when he remarks that ‘we want to be sure to remind our Western colleagues about the Munich Agreement’. This comment makes it seem as though history is a game of national tit-for-tat, in which different communities of scholars brandish discreditable episodes in each other’s faces. He is correct, of course, that we should consider our own country’s past record before getting self-righteous about what other people did. Yet if he thinks that Westerners are in danger of forgetting about Munich they are mistaken.

In fact, that agreement remains an obsession of our politicians, who in the post-war years have constantly striven (not always with happy consequences) to avoid doing anything that could be portrayed as ‘another Munich’. Although many scholars in recent decades have sought to draw a picture of Neville Chamberlain that avoids the caricature of a foolish old man with an umbrella, there are not too many who would offer the kind of wholehearted defence of him that some Russians are now mounting for Stalin. We should also remember that although Munich was very popular in Britain at the time, a vocal minority (including Churchill) criticised it heavily at the time. No-one in the Soviet Union had that kind of liberty of expression.
The inevitable suspicion, of course, is that the rehabilitation of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is being sponsored by today’s Kremlin because its ambitions are basically the same as those of the USSR – that is, territorial aggrandisement in the name of national security. Undoubtedly, there is some reason for concern. We should not, however, rush to make too easy an equivalence between Stalin’s regime and that of Medvedev and Putin.

Although dissenting voices are increasingly marginalised in today’s Russia, they do still exist, to an extent unimaginable in the Stalin era. Some of them are now being raised against the attempts to justify the actions of 1939. At the same time, we should recognise that the smaller states on Russia’s borders are often happy to exploit the memory of past Soviet aggression for their own current purposes. This week the Polish President described the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a ‘stab in the back’. In response, Putin admitted his own country was to blame, but emphasised that all agreements with the Nazis (including Munich, of course) ‘were morally unacceptable’. As history continues to be politicised, the fight over World War II looks set to continue for some years yet.