An interview with Roger Moorhouse: historian and author, offering book reviews, comment and analysis on Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, World War Two and modern European History.

In 1938 Western democracies sought ways to save peace in Europe by striking a deal with Hitler. The Soviets would claim similar motivations while referring to the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. Can we tell a difference, though?

Comparing the Munich Treaty with the Nazi-Soviet Pact is an old Russian propaganda trope, and it is really rather ridiculous.  It should be said, of course, that the Munich Treaty of 1938 was profoundly significant, flawed, even shameful.  As the high-water mark of the Allied policy of appeasement, it was hoped in London and Paris that the Treaty – by meeting Germany’s demands for the cession of the German-inhabited Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia – would serve to satisfy Hitler and thereby lessen international tensions.  It was a gamble, certainly, cynical maybe, but crucially it was an attempt, however wrongheaded, to secure peace. It is also significant that it was regarded by Moscow, even then, as a betrayal, not least as they were excluded from the negotiations that led to its signature. Thereafter, indeed, Stalin began to move towards a policy of seeking bilateral agreements with other states, a policy which culminated in the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  In addition, the Munich Treaty, and the resulting dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, led to Poland occupying the district of Zaolzie, an act that served to isolate Poland and crucially rob that country of a degree of international sympathy.

So, the significance of the Munich Treaty in the run-up to war in 1939 should not be underestimated, but to interpret it – as Russia tries to do – as comparable to the Nazi-Soviet Pact is very wide of the mark. Both were examples of “striking a deal with Hitler”, of course, but where the Munich Treaty was an attempt to secure peace, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was a blueprint for war, giving Hitler a green light for his planned invasion of Poland and – through its Secret Protocol – dividing up central Europe between Moscow and Berlin. Justifying one with reference to the other is disingenuous and historically illiterate.

Beyond political propaganda, what the state of the art research tells us about motivations that drove Hitler and Stalin, to the great surprise amid European leaders, to form an alliance?

Hitler’s motivations are pretty clear. He had painted himself into a corner with his aggressive rhetoric against Poland through the summer of 1939, and so sought a temporary expedient; an arrangement with Stalin to allow him to invade Poland, while at the same time giving him a potentially advantageous economic relationship with the Soviet Union, which could aid Germany to avoid the worst effects of the expected Allied blockade in the event of war.

Stalin’s motivations are rather less immediately obvious, not least because a very simplistic, exculpatory and mendacious narrative – that of the USSR making a deal to hold off an inevitable German attack – has been allowed to prevail in the Western literature for far too long.  In truth, Stalin’s motivations in agreeing the Nazi-Soviet Pact were rather similar to Hitler’s. He wanted Poland destroyed, he wanted to re-annex the territory that Russia had lost at the end of the First World War, and he wanted an advantageous economic relationship with Germany.  Beyond all that, it is clear that Stalin was also gambling on war resulting from the crisis over Poland, and by declaring the USSR “neutral” in that conflict (which of course it was not) he hoped that the resulting war between the Western Powers and Germany would bring about the long-awaited collapse of capitalism and the spread of communism across Europe. Just as the First World War had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, he reasoned, so the Second World War would bring them to power over all of the continent.

In retrospect, it was a strategic masterstroke on Stalin’s part, cynical of course, but a spectacular piece of realpolitik nonetheless. It only backfired when his treaty partner decided to attack him in 1941, at which point the lies, deflections and excuses from Moscow began.

You have recently published a successful book on the Polish campaign in 1939 that marked the beginning of the WWII. How would you comment on the Soviet peculiar "liberation" policy in 1939 in Poland? Was the Red Army march westwards through the Polish lands in 1944-1945 implementing similar "liberational" principles or these two advances politically and ideologically are incomparable?

As I have mentioned, the USSR declared itself neutral in 1939. Even though it was intimately involved in the conflict as a de facto ally of Hitler’s Germany, it did not want its prestige among the international socialist fraternity to be tarnished by a too close and obvious association with fascism. So, given these circumstances, the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 needed an ideological and propagandistic gloss that could be sold to the outside world, and that could explain why the Red Army was marching in to the territory of its neighbour.  The story that was invented – which was trailed in an article by Andrei Zhdanov in Pravda on 14 September - was that the Polish state had collapsed and that Soviet forces were obliged to liberate and protect the Byelorussian and Ukrainian minorities of the Polish Republic – populations described by the USSR using the strangely fascistic phrase “brothers of the same blood”.

The resulting Red Army invasion – involving some 500,000 men, 5,000 tanks and 2,000 aircraft, with the instruction to “destroy Polish forces” – was proclaimed to the world as a “liberation”. It was nothing of the sort. It was a military assault, along with the violent importation of communism, with the Polish officer class initially targeted (many of whom ended up in the Katyn death pits), followed by a wider sifting of society, in which many hundreds of thousands of Poles and others were deported to the wilds of Siberia and Kazakhstan. It was a liberation from capitalism, perhaps, but it was not a liberation in the traditional sense of bringing freedom.

The Red Army’s victorious westward march in 1944-1945 shared many of those characteristics. One should not forget, of course, that they were defeating Nazi German forces in the process and that can rightly be described as a liberation. But, in the aftermath of that liberation, Soviet forces again imported their ideology with them, rapidly imposing communism upon all the territories that they entered. This, of course, was the Soviet definition of “liberation”, but it is not one that the western liberal democratic model would subscribe to, as it did not bring freedom in its wake.

Professor Roger Moorhouse

Roger Moorhouse: Historian and author, offering book reviews, comment and analysis on Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, World War Two and modern European History.

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