Two major powers changed sides – into the Allied camp – during World War II: Italy, midway through the conflict after becoming a battleground, and Soviet Russia, which earlier found itself attacked by the country it had signed an unprecedented treaty for advantage and territorial gain. But while the first defection’s impact remained to the country concerned, the second had much wider ramifications but has never been fully explored.
And with good reason, as it is an episode that the Soviet Union and even its successor state, Russia – for obvious reasons – and even the Western Allies – for their own opaque reasons – have never much dwelt on much or sought to ignore altogether. And the defeated opponent’s attempts to highlight it were suppressed.
Author of the first full-length work on this “forgotten” aspect of the war – the nearly two-year-long association between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia that also helped start the war in September 1939, historian Moorhouse notes that, during research, telling his non-historian friends and others about what he was working on, only led to “blank looks and furrowed brows”.
For the pact between the two dictatorships, is – apart from those affected, especially Poland and the three Baltic nations, though its remit extended from Finland down to Turkey – “not part of our collective narrative of the Second World War”, says Moorhouse, adding it is his “firm conviction” that it should be.
“Our ignorance of the subject is surprising” and even “scandalous” when “every other curiosity, campaign and catastrophe” of the conflict has been explored, given “the pact’s obvious significance and magnitude”.
“Under its auspices, Hitler and Stalin – the two most infamous dictators of twentieth-century Europe – found common cause. Their two regimes, whose later confrontation would be the defining clash of the Second World War in Europe, stood side by side for twenty-two months, almost a third of the conflict’s entire time span.”
It also “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”.
As history books tell us that Germany attacked Poland on September 3, 1939 and made rapid progress but what is not often mentioned that the Soviet Union followed suit on September 17. Poland was soon overrun and partitioned between the two, and it is with a joint parade, presided over by Wehrmacht’s Gen Heinz Guderian and Red Army’s Brig Gen Semyon Krivoshein in then Brest-Litovsk (today’s Brest in Belarus) as the Germans handed it over to the Soviets that Moorhouse begins his account.
As footage of this spectacle was shown across the world, “contemporary observers were bewildered” (one memorably noting that all our ‘isms’ had become ‘wasms’), communists “baulked at the ideological gymnastics that they were suddenly obliged to perform, while many Nazis harboured deep-seated misgivings about the country’s new bedfellow and collaborator”.
How this came about, what followed and what the consequences were is what Moorhouse engagingly narrates – with all the twists and turns, including an Allied plan to bomb Russian oil wells.
The story, which formally begins on August 23, 1939 from when Nazi German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his team landed in Moscow to sign the pact, doesn’t, as expected, end on June 22, 1941 when German troops crossed over into Soviet territory, throwing the Soviet leadership into near-paralysis, but over a month later, when Soviet Russia resumed diplomatic ties with Poland.
But why should what happened long and far away interest any of us (apart from those in east Europe, where bitter memories still linger), when the Soviet Union has joined Nazi Germany in the pages of history?
For one, its effect was wide both in time and space (explaining why in Central and East Europe, a powerful Russia is distrusted) but more importantly, shows how regimes with diametrically-opposed ideologies, who may have spent years in mutual villification, can cooperate for mutual benefit. Realpolitik must trump ideology for success, and ignoring this can be lethal – as many apart from Hitler learnt, or are learning.
By Vikas Datta