Given recent comments by Russian President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin’s comments yesterday marking the observation of the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II were a welcome step back from what was becoming an uniquely Russian view of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the coming days and months we will find out, if Putin’s words today mark the first step in a more honest Russian reassessment of Stalin’s role in making World War II possible, or if the differences were simply part of a Russian good cop-bad cop routine.
Uncomfortable as it was for many other participants, and problematic as the comparisons between the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact with other questionable acts committed by other states in the run up to the war, I am glad Putin brought them up. For one of the most important facts about the path leading to World War II is that Hitler posed a peculiar challenge to European diplomacy, one that as Richard Overy has just shown old school diplomats used to the idea of balance of power had no experience with, so mistakes were bound to be made. Thus the real lesson of the path of World War II is the need for diplomats to be aware that the existing diplomatic order is not always the aim of all parties, and more controversially when a party shows an unhealthy readiness to go to war frustrating efforts to go to war with anyone should take precedence over any one state’s short term interest in peace.
Even if we accept that Stalin sincerely believed that the only way to buy time was to reach an non-aggression pact with Hitler, we should note that unlike other negotiations with Hitler, which were aimed at preventing war, the deal the Stalin had Molotov make implicitly opened the way for Hitler to go to war. In short, Stalin finally gave Hitler what he wanted the chance to use outright military force, and what is worse used the result of that war to annex Polish territory. (While this is close to what the Poles did in regard to Tešen Cieszyń from Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement, it was not quite the same and is a diversion. True the Polish government opportunistically, and in hindsight foolishly, played into the hands of Nazi diplomacy by ratifying the notion that the borders created by Versailles and associated treaties were illegitimate and subject to change by force or the threat of force.) The key is that Stalin’s cooperation with Hitler, both prior to the Pact, and with the pact made the war possible, and all the brutality that followed, and this gets to the great thought experiment every future diplomat should engage in, what happens if Hitler is not given the opportunity to go to war. While we can be sure that Hitler would have continued to seek to provoke the Polish government and work to keep his main potential allies from formulating a coherent strategy, had Stalin lent support to Poland in 1939 by joining France and Poland in declaring their readiness to go to war if Poland were invaded both those aims would have been made much more difficult. Furthermore, we might add it would have been a setback to Hitler, who up to that point could point to all his previous diplomatic ploys had gone his way, something that would have bolstered the hands of influential figures who had their doubts about Hitler. And just so we are perfectly clear on the significance of this, each day Hitler desire to go to war is a day that the circumstances that made the Holocaust possible would have been delayed.