The watching world was surprised and shocked when, on August 23, 1939, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin signed a pact not to attack one another for the next 10 years. It was indeed “an event that shaped our world,” as Peter Kenez wrote in his Liberty Forum essay. As Professor Kenez depicts it, absolute power was in the hands of two tyrants willing to impose extraordinary suffering on defenseless people.
Hitler’s Nazism and Stalin’s communism were more like paranoid fantasies than ideologies: Lebensraum for the greater Germanic empire, worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat for the Soviet empire. Civil war in Spain seemed a prelude to all-out rivalry on the Continental battlefield, and that 1936-1939 conflict would have ended in victory for Stalin if Hitler had not dispatched troops and armaments to thwart him.
The future of democracy lay with Britain and France but their governments were unable to decide which of the two ideologies was the greater menace, half-heartedly falling back on negotiation and appeasement. Stalin couldn’t be bothered with low-level political processes of the sort. Hitler said that he had met democratic politicians and found them “worms.” At the very last moment, he summoned Sir Nevile Henderson, the British ambassador in Berlin, to the Berghof, and contemptuously let him understand that he expected the British to give him a free hand in Poland.
The confrontation of the totalitarian regimes easily converted into their joint interest in conquering and dividing Poland. A secret protocol in the pact specified which other countries or territories were to be shared out. Professor Kenez cites the editorial cartoon, worthy of Hogarth or Gillray, that David Low drew of the two leaders in poses of mutual admiration—brother criminals smirking over their booty, the corpse of Poland. Europe now had forfeited the rule of law and there was no moral order. Looking at the future in the light of the present, a horrified George Orwell imagined a jackboot stamping on a human face forever.
Evelyn Waugh is one of the few who resorted to heroic language, when he describes the effect of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on Guy Crouchback, the protagonist of his wartime masterpiece Sword of Honor (1966). “News that shook the politicians and young poets of a dozen capital cities brought deep peace to one English heart . . . The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.”
Politics Turned Inside Out
Three weeks after the start of the campaign in Poland, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army held a joint victory parade at Brest-Litovsk. A dumbfounding photograph in The Devils’ Alliance (2014), Roger Moorhouse’s invaluable book about the pact, shows Hitler’s charismatic General Heinz Guderian fraternizing with Stalin’s charismatic General Semyon Krivoshein.
Collaboration was too cynical for some, for instance Alfred Rosenberg, the leading exponent of Nazi ideology. Kenez reports Joachim von Ribbentrop’s declaring that a visit to the Kremlin was “like being among old comrades.” Such comments put Nazis and communists on the same level, and this, Rosenberg felt, was an insult. Moorhouse records that in the course of the morning of the pact’s announcement, disgruntled Nazis had thrown their party badges into the garden of the Brown House in Munich, the National Socialists’ headquarters.
Exceptional perfidy was another outcome of collaboration. German communists, facing arrest by the Gestapo and most likely death in one of the concentration camps in their homeland, had fled to Moscow in the prewar years. Under the terms of the pact, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in an act of astonishing betrayal, arrested some hundreds of these political fugitives and handed them over to the Gestapo; and so they finished in a Nazi concentration camp after all.
Numbers are uncertain, but many communists in Britain and France objected to the pact and left the Communist Party because of it.
One such was Goronwy Rees, a high-flying academic. An acquaintance of his, the art historian Anthony Blunt, a man with impressive social connections, had already recruited Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean as informers to the Soviet secret police, and now Blunt tried to recruit Goronwy as well. In a 1995 memoir entitled Looking for Mr. Nobody, Jenny Rees writes that the pact was the point at which her father “gave up his communist sympathies and ceased to be a theoretical Marxist.” Harry Pollitt was general secretary of the British Communist Party. A lifelong opponent of Nazism, he wrote a pamphlet to argue that Hitler’s invasion of Poland was cause for a just war. Since the pact committed the Soviet Union not to attack Germany, Moscow was immediately obliged to improvise a new line that the war was unjust and the Soviet Union right to opt out of it. The British Party split between those who agreed with Pollitt and those who accepted the new line, faults and all, on the grounds that the Party could do no wrong.
The change in the CP line turned politics inside out. Reality had to be recast. The September 30, 1939 issue of the New Statesman carried an article in defense of the pact by J.B.S. Haldane, a well-known popularizer of science and a communist willing to go to any lengths to help the Soviet Union. “I cannot understand how an intelligent person can find its policy in any way inconsistent,” wrote Haldane, adding, “if the Soviet policy in Poland is correct, the Polish nation should become an element of peace and stability in Europe.”
A chapter in David Caute’s Communism and the French Intellectuals (1964) makes it clear that responses to the pact were most dramatic in France, the country with the largest and most popular Communist Party in Western Europe. The main body of the Party remained loyal to Stalin, absolving Hitler and blaming the war on Britain and France. “Down with the imperialist war” was their slogan. Some communists sabotaged the French war effort, with the result that, a month into the pact, the government of Édouard Daladier dissolved the Party. Of the 72 communist members of the Assembly, 44 were charged with treason and tried behind closed doors in a military tribunal. Maurice Thorez, the Party’s General Secretary, fled to Moscow.
It was during the pact that the German army, after a blitzkrieg, marched into Paris without firing a shot. Otto Abetz, the German ambassador, driving into the city the day after (June 15, 1940), was amazed that workers in what he knew were communist districts were out in the streets applauding him. The Hitler-Stalin Pact, Abetz stressed in his memoirs, had brilliantly disarmed opposition.
Paul Nizan, a promising writer with a couple of novels to his credit, resigned from the French CP because, in Caute’s words, he’d “evidently failed to conceal his heart-felt anger at the thought that a French army of workers and peasants would be exterminated with Soviet consent.” When Nizan was killed in the fighting around Dunkirk in 1940, the French poet and abysmal Stalinist hack Louis Aragon (himself excused from war service) wrote fictional sketches intended to punish the dead man’s defection from the Party by destroying his literary reputation.
Historians, Kenez among them, have been at pains to record the psychological dynamics behind the exceptional and irrational cruelty of both Hitler and Stalin. Whatever view the one had of the crimes of the other, he was well aware that he himself had committed the very same crimes. Although their backgrounds and experiences were very different, seemingly they recognized that they were two of a kind, maybe even a model for one another. Yet the only man Stalin trusted was to betray him. If Germany and the Soviet Union had stuck together, he liked to say, no combination of other nations could have matched them. Only a Shakespeare could do justice to the delusion and trust free-floating in their sinister relationship.
Stephen Kotkin, in his authoritative Stalin: Waiting for Hitler (2016), describes the Soviet leader as a lifelong Germanophile “mesmerized by the might and daring of Germany’s parallel totalitarian regime.” Consider the moment of crisis, in June 1934, when Chancellor Hitler, suspecting that the paramilitary Sturmabteilung might prove disloyal, gave orders to purge them. By the time the so-called Night of the Long Knives was over, there had been 85 summary executions. Stalin’s reaction: “Well done. Knows how to act!”
Five years later, at the signing of the pact, Stalin lifted his glass of champagne and said to Hitler’s foreign minister, “I know how much the German people love their Führer, and that is why I have the pleasure of drinking to his health!” In December 1939, Hitler returned a similar compliment, writing to Stalin: “On the day of your 60th birthday I ask that you receive my sincerest congratulations. I offer my best wishes, I wish good health to you personally and a happy future to all the peoples of the friendly Soviet Union.” During the first half of 1941 he was concentrating on plans to invade and smash the Soviet Union, but his Table Talk records a positive opinion: “Stalin is one of the most extraordinary figures in world history.” He praised him as a “statesman.”
Operating alongside the pact, a commercial arrangement committed the Soviet Union to supply raw materials to Germany, in return for which Germany sent a certain amount of weaponry and machinery. Thus Soviet exports (including artificial rubber, manganese, oil, and agricultural products) were to be used against their own people, just as German exports would be deployed against their own people.
By 1941, signs of the pact’s exhaustion were evident. German deliveries slowed. An extensive network of underground agents and spies informed Stalin that der Führer was planning Operation Barbarossa, the code word for the invasion of the Soviet Union, and some had even been able to pass on the expected date for it. In the longer term, Hitler was obsessed with Bolshevism and believed that his mission was to wipe it out.
To be fair to Stalin, it made no sense to think that invasion of the Soviet Union was the key to a German victory over Britain. The more Stalin’s agents and spies reported the planning of Barbarossa, the more he believed that the British were trying to provoke him into doing something that would give Hitler an excuse to break the pact. Kotkin reproduces the cover of an NKVD intelligence report dated June 17, 1941, about the imminent invasion, and on it Stalin has scrawled a note to the relevant NKVD official. “You can send your ‘source’ from German aviation HQ to his f * * * ing mother. This is not a ‘source’ but a disinformation.”
Stalin was the victim of his own conspiracy theory, and so were the Russian people. With astonishment, German soldiers standing by their positions of attack observed Soviet trains continuing to cross the frontier to deliver valuable loads right up to the moment on June 22 when the guns began to fire.
The ill-effects of this civilizational failure are still working their way through Europe.