September 03, 2009

World War II: Hitler and Stalin, Guilt and Responsibility

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For Britain, World War II began 70 years ago today. On a personal note, today would also be the 71st wedding anniversary of my mother and father. They married on September 3, 1938; one year later, they heard Neville Chamberlain declare war on Germany. The war didn't stop them from believing in the future; by 1945 they had two baby girls, my older sisters. I'm thinking of them all as I write.

Who was to blame for World War II? This question is not the same as "What was to blame?" World War II had many deep causes. Ultimately, however, the decision for war is a political act, taken by human beings whom we can hold to account for their actions.

So, who was to blame:

  • Germany?

In Europe, the guilty men were the leaders of Nazi Germany. Hitler's plan was to build a German Empire in the East, making Germany self-sufficient in food. Hitler intended to conquer, depopulate, and then resettle Russia and Ukraine. This plan, not yet worked in detail, was soon elaborated in parallel with, but somewhat in advance of the much better known plan to exterminate Europe's Jews. Like the "final solution," the Hungerplan was genocidal: it envisaged starving up to 30 million people of the European part of the Soviet Union to death. 

Between Germany and the Soviet Union lay Poland and Czechoslovakia; these states had to be destroyed to clear the path into Russia. The attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, in response to which Britain declared war on September 3, was a necessary step towards Hitler's wider goal. Others contributed to the timing of Hitler's decision and played into his hands in various ways. This is the context in which the behaviour of the British, French, Polish, and Soviet governments should be judged.

  • Britain and France?

The worst thing for which the British and French were to blame was the Munich agreement of September 1938. By this agreement Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, the French prime minister, betrayed Czechoslovakia, their ally, by giving part of it away to Germany. They made themselves accessories before the fact of Hitler's crime. Correctly interpreting this as weakness, in March 1939 Hitler broke the agreement and took the rest of Czechoslovakia.

  • Poland?

Although not signatories to the Munich agreement, the Poles also played a small role. First, they refused Soviet offers to send troops to defend Czechoslovakia. They suspected Soviet motives; it was less than twenty years since the Red Army's last invasion. (And history after 1945 strongly suggests that their suspicions would have been correct.) Second, when it became clear that Czechoslovakia was up for grabs they grabbed their own slice, a Polish speaking region on their border. In this small way they became accessories after (not before) the fact of the crime. On the scale of guilt, however, it was very minor. Like the British and French, they acted out of weakness. The best way to understand the Polish leaders at this time is that they were both overplaying and trying vainly to improve their hand in a game they hadn't chosen to enter and couldn't win; it is also true that they were willing to do so at the expense of others.

  • The Soviet Union?

The responsibility of the Soviet Union is more complex and wide-ranging. The Soviet government -- in other words Stalin who, by this time, was an unquestioned dictator --did several things, the sum of which was far worse than the Anglo-French collusion with Hitler at Munich. It is important that they all came after the Munich agreement. Until Munich, Stalin hoped to deter Hitler through "collective security" -- an agreement with Britain, France, and their allies Poland and Czechoslovakia, to contain Germany. The Munich agreement told Stalin that this was no longer an option. As his least bad remaining option, Stalin decided to collude with Hitler himself.

To the public, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (named after the Soviet and German foreign ministers) of August 1939 was simply an agreement between two countries not to attack each other. This in itself was no crime; Moscow had a similar pact with Tokyo that both sides upheld until August 1945. The crime of the pact was its secret clauses. Infamously, it dismembered Poland, which the Soviet Union had previously offered to defend, carving up that country with Germany, and creating the common Soviet-German border across which Hitler would attack less than two years later.

The pact was Hitler's green light to attack Poland, and determined the timing of today's anniversary. By agreeing to it, Stalin became a co-conspirator in Hitler's decision for war. At the same time it is clear that, even without any secret clauses, Hitler was ready to attack Poland anyway. Thus, Stalin made the Soviet Union an accessory to the crime before and after the fact, but he was not the prime mover in the major crime.

Stalin is directly to blame for many other crimes that followed directly from the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland. The very worst of these was his decision to approve the mass shooting of some twenty thousand Polish officers whom the Red Army had taken prisoner. The officers killed in the Katyn woods were not just professional soldiers; they were the elite of Polish society, politics, and business. The only possible reason for the massacre was that Stalin had determined to prevent the reemergence of an independent Poland.

Just as Stalin gave Hitler permission to attack Poland, other clauses, with some later amendment, gave Stalin Hitler's permission to do what he liked around the Baltic. Thus the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact led directly to the destruction of the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and to the "winter war" in which Stalin tried, at huge cost, to adjust the Soviet border with Finland. Like Poland, the three small Baltic republics suffered political and social decapitation through the imprisonment and deportation of their former elites.

The official Soviet justification of these measures -- at least, of those that were admitted -- was that Stalin was manoeuvring defensively from a position of weakness and was therefore, like the British, French, and Poles, not primarily to blame; through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, he bought the Soviet Union time to prepare for an eventual war with Germany. On first hearing, this justification sounds a little like what I said about Poland: Stalin was trying to improve his hand in a game he had not chosen to play. I take it half seriously. Stalin feared Hitler, realized that war was almost inevitable, and played for time, although he went on to develop many illusions about the likely timing of war and the margin for avoiding it. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact did buy time, and he did use the time to prepare.

There are big differences from Poland, however. One is that the Soviet Union was militarily much stronger than Poland and had much more freedom of action. This must undermine Stalin's excuses for behaving badly. Yet Stalin behaved far, far worse than Poland ever did. The annexations, deportations, and mass killings that he authorized did not buy time or friends, and had little or no justification as preparations for war. On the contrary they caused or intensified anti-Russian feeling in the borderlands that persists to this day. The Katyn massacre had nothing to do with defendng against Germany and everything to do with completing the destruction of Polish independence. One thing to remember about Stalin is that it suited him to have tension on his borders, because this played well with the narrative of encirclement that he used to justify his own rule and the repressions that secured it. 

Stalin's decisions had profound effects on the timing of World War II and the course that it followed. But they did not cause the war. The war's trajectory was determined first and foremost by the character and aims of the nationalist socialist dictatorship in Berlin. If Germany had been governed by liberals, socialists, or traditional conservatives in the 1930s, there would not have been a war in the heart of Europe. Without Germany at war, there would still have been an Italian war in North Africa and a Japanese war in China, but neither the Japanese nor the Italians would have been brave enough on their own to start wars against Britain or America in the Mediterranean and the Pacific.

It is true that in 1941 Nazi propagandists tried to justify the German attack on the Soviet Union as a defensive reaction to Soviet preparations for an attack on Germany. This explanation. built on speculation at a time when all the Soviet documents were secret, continues to find traction today in some quarters, but the opening of the Soviet archives has found no more hard evidence for it than there was before.

  • Italy? Japan?

Italy was also involved, not only as a signatory at Munich but as an empire-builder around the Mediterrranean. And Japan; don't forget that World War II began in Asia in July 1937 when Japan opened full-scale hostilities against China. Mussolini and the Japanese leaders share the guilt for the war.

  • Deeper causes?

When we see several countries bent on the same course, we have to suppose that there might be common factors at work, and these factors might go deeper than any one person's calculations. These deeper factors must include the tensions and imbalances left over from World War I, and the devastating impact of the Great Depression. I've written elsewherethat in the long run the main cost of the Great Depresson was not economic but political, in the way it opened up European politics to dictatorships and aggressive warfare.

Does this reduce the guilt of the individual leaders? I don't think so. A criminal gang that exploits the devastation of a natural disaster to loot and kill is still a gang of criminals.

The idea that World War II had underlying causes is sometimes used to shift the focus away from Germany to Russia. Above, I suggested, "No Nazis -- no World War II." A counter-argument is "No Bolsheviks -- no Nazis." The Soviet Union was a frightening neighbour for both Poland and Germany. Before Hitler came to power, the Bolshevik record of government already included class warfare, mass killings, and concentration camps. Between 1918 and 1924 the Bolsheviks had incited several armed insurrections in Germany. The Red Army had invaded Poland as recently as 1920. This record certainly helped Hitler's racial politics and plans for expansion to play well with the German public. It also undermined any Polish inclination to a common front with the Soviet Union against Germany. 

At the same time, Germany did not attack the Soviet Union to restore democratic government or property rights to the Russians or anyone else. Hitler did not target only communist countries, nor did he spare Poland and Czechoslovakia on the grounds that they did not have Bolshevik regimes. His war in the East was a grab for land and food, regardless of who would be displaced. Saying that Bolshevism was responsible for this has more than a whiff of blaming the victim for the crime. The Bolsheviks should have been held to account for many crimes of their own, but not this one.

  • How does Russia see Stalin today?

The major crime was the world war itself. The primary guilt for it belonged to leaders in Berlin, Tokyo, and Rome. The war unfolded through many stages; at various times Hitler won cooperation from London, Paris, Warsaw, and Moscow. Those who colluded with him did so sometimes under duress, sometimes to play for time. In retrospect this might look weak or foolish, but those who did it did so to avoid war, not to cause it.

Sometimes it was worse than that. On occasion, Hitler's allies of convenience worked with him opportunistically, because it suited their other goals. This applied more than anyone to Stalin, who exploited his temporary truce with Hitler between 1939 and 1941 not only to build up defenses but also to weaken or destroy the previously independent states on his borders. In the course of this the Soviet Union committed crimes on its own account, that did not flow from Germany's crimes.

In spirit, my apportioning of responsibilities for World War II may not be that different from the account offered by Vladimir Putin to the Polesat ceremonies marking the anniversary of the German invasion on September 1. For example, Putin condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact -- although only as a "mistake." He also offered a joint Russian-Polish commission to establish the facts of what happened at Katyn, although the facts are already well documented. Apart from that, what Putin said in Poland is not the problem.

The problem with Russia's present-day administration is not what it says abroad, but what it says at home. To the Russian public President Medevev has declared, in remarks that were notably anti-Polish and anti-European, there can be no debate over

who started the war, which country killed people, and which country saved people, millions of people, and which country, ultimately, saved Europe.

And for professional historians in Russia the message of the Presidential decree of May 15 this year, directed against "attempts to falsify history to the detriment of the interests of Russia," is again that on certain matters debate is to be ruled out -- by law if necessary.

The Soviet Union, led by Stalin, did not cause the war, but everything else in Medvedev's formulation is highly debatable. The Soviet Union certainly killed people in very large numbers for purposes that ought to be condemned. For Poland, Katyn was a national tragedy. It is true that the Soviet Union "saved Europe" from German domination, and "saved people, millions of people" from destruction. But Stalin did this primarily to save himself; it is not clear that he deserves their thanks for that.

As for the people that the Soviet Union saved most directly, its own people and the citizens of the countries that the Red Army "liberated," it saved them in order to subjugate them, and it subsequently killed more than a few of them in repressing their freedom and independence.

Stalin's legacy is complex. It is in Russia itself that well-informed debate, free of government pressure and "patriotic" restraints, is most needed. When polled, for example, most Russians approve of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact but do not know that the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland under its provisions.

Meanwhile, I'll stop to think for a moment about Roger and Betty Harrison, married under the gathering stormclouds of September 3, 1938, and their war babies.

- 12 comments by 2 or more people

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  1. Interesting thoughts.

    Your discussion of the role of Russia leads one to consider the transition from WWII into the Cold War and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. I guess you can also extend this into the Balkans and so on. Whilst the US is no Third Reich (though some may argue about that!) they have had no fear of operating through allies who could be easily compared to that regime. I suppose that our Western European focus tends to see Germany as the dominant aggressive force in Europe over the last 100 years, when with a different perspective one might look further east for a different motive force, even if you perhaps allow for Napoleon’s invasion perhaps beginning 200 years of Russian insecurity about its neighbours to the west (in the end, it’s always the fault of the French!). From the Crimea to Georgia, our relationship with Russia is very complex.

    I always feel somewhat shamed by my lack of understanding of Eastern European history. The current problems with radicalised Islam have quite rightly encouraged a deeper understanding of the historical relationship between the Islamic World and the rest of us. It would probably pay dividends to develop a better and broader understanding of he intricacies of Eastern European history – and now it’s mentioned, the relationship between all three – Islam, East and West. I started thinking about two periods of Islamic expansionism bookending a European struggle for dominance in its own borders, but thinking about it further, these things never get resolved. To quote from Watchmen:

    Adrian Veidt: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
    Dr. Manhattan: ‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.

    I guess we are all doomed to the whims of politicians and warmongers.

    07 Sep 2009, 10:03

  2. Ana Souza

    Some very valid points brought up, but I felt the absence of the unresolved issues and conflicts arising out of WWI (especially in Germany) as a fuel for Nazism, and thus, for the Second World War. While Stalin may have been a cruel and power hungry dictator, he was nevertheless intent on saving his country, not only himself. It was through his leadership that the people of Russia took initiative and were able to drastically delay the German advance through the scorched earth policy, a prime factor in their defeat on the Eastern Front. However I felt you did a great job of evaluating how the blame can be divided among the main players.

    09 Sep 2009, 13:45

  3. himmelwerft

    > It is true that the Soviet Union “saved Europe” from German domination, and “saved people, millions of people” from destruction. But Stalin did this primarily to save himself; it is not clear that he deserves their thanks for that.

    I would assume that a highly professional historian would not equate the entire Soviet Union, even under Stalin’s rule, with Stalin himself, just as we don’t equate all Germans and Germany with Hitler. Actually, the USSR was forced into the war in such circumstances that even Stalin’s death or life did not mean much in terms of war – the USSR would still be forced to defend itself even if Stalin died, and would still have to save, selfishly or not, the people from the Nazi occupation and annihilation plans. I would say that Stalin’s Soviet Union was not a monolithic entity and neither was Stalin personally responsible for each political and miiltary choice the USSR made (despite even wanting to do so – even the most absolutist dictator cannot do without a bureaucracy).

    Instead of speaking of Stalin’s legacy, perhaps it is more valid to speak of the Soviet legacy?

    As for “deserving no thanks”, it may be improper to thank the robber for saving you from a killer, but it stands an absolute certainity that life is more valuable than death, and certainly the victim of the killer would be more willing to be robbed than killed. It may have not been the “knight in the white armor”, the Soviet Union was a selfish and harsh “saviour”, but regardless of not being morally pure, saving the lives of those people was still far more moral than destroying them, am I not correct?

    > As for the people that the Soviet Union saved most directly, its own people and the citizens of the countries that the Red Army “liberated,” it saved them in order to subjugate them, and it subsequently killed more than a few of them in repressing their freedom and independence.

    It is however true that the Germans would have destroyed them physically by their policies; their plans for the population of the occupied territories – regardless of whether they were Soviet territories or not, for all East European territories – are well known. The Soviet Union was not the only nation that subjugated the citizens of other nations or even citizens of their own nation during the war. Britain and America had their own share of crimes, which are quite similar in nature to the Soviet repressions and differ only in scale and severity, like e.g. British colonial opression in India.

    The issue of the culpability of various parties is also not well explored in the aspect of economic cooperation with Germany, of both the USSR, and the various Western powers, and the role that this cooperation played in the German re-armament, et cetera.

    W.R., Stanislav.

    21 Sep 2009, 04:52

  4. Mark Harrison

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Of course, I accept that the government and the people are not the same—in any country. Historians of foreign policy have the tradition of writing history as if the players are nations rather than governments. It is a lazy or perhaps elitist tradition; I followed it, or perhaps fell into it, because it does at least have the advantage of economizing on words.

    You raise the subject of the British Empire. Quite rightly: If Churchill’s first concern was to contain Germany, his second was to defend the Empire. I have no desire to promote anyone’s imperialism, British or other. The most I would say for the British version of imperialism is that it was comparatively honest; the British did not claim to be liberating India when they conquered it. In contrast, the Soviet tradition of conquest pretended to be something else. The fact that the Baltic states and Eastern Poland were annexed under the flag of proletarian internationalism does not make it worse, but it does not make it better either.

    You compare the quality of repression in Soviet times with those of the British or American empires. I am not sure what regions or centuries you have in mind; I wonder which are the British or U.S. administrations that ordered mass killings of their own or colonial citizens on the scale that Stalin personally authorized in 1937/38 or 1940?

    23 Sep 2009, 20:09

  5. HistoryLover

    Wow, these points are amazing!! Although I was hoping to find out more about WWI and Russia. _

    23 Sep 2009, 21:08

  6. HistoryLover

    can anyone help me with this question:

    Why did Russia perform so poorly in WWI?

    *Lack of Coordination and Cooperation between Ministry of War and HQ
    *Shortages of food
    *Mental & physical condition of troops
    *The HQ leadership quality

    Please help!! Thanks!! _

    23 Sep 2009, 21:12

  7. Mark Harrison

    Russia did badly in World War I because, with a large but low-income agrarian economy, it was not so hard to mobilize men into the army but very difficult to mobilize the food or industrial capacity to supply them. You can read more in two pieces that I wrote with Stephen Broadberry:

    “Economics of the Two World Wars.” In The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (second edition). Edited by Stephen Durlauf and Lawrence Blume. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


    “The Economics of World War I: an Overview.” In The Economics of World War I, pp. 3-40. Edited by Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    (You can find preprints at

    24 Sep 2009, 08:21

  8. himmelwerft

    > You compare the quality of repression in Soviet times with those of the British or American empires. I am not sure what regions or centuries you have in mind; I wonder which are the British or U.S. administrations that ordered mass killings of their own or colonial citizens on the scale that Stalin personally authorized in 1937/38 or 1940?

    Like I said, the measures employed by e.g. British Empire differed in scale and severity, but not in nature.

    Principally, the actions of British Empire in Palestine, India and British Malaya during the period 1917-1960 included massacres of political opposition, mass detention without trial (e.g. 1942, when the scale of such detentions in India rose to hundreds of thousands of people), extrajudicial punishment, murder squads (e.g. SNS) during the pacification of colonial territories. I wrote a little about the British Empire and parallels to Russia here:

    The USA, being quite frankly a self-contained territory that enjoyed a level of industrialization overall superior to most or all other nations on Earth, and did not have poor or underdeveloped territories unlike USSR/Russia or the British Empire, of course had a far lesser degree of severity in it’s crimes likewise. Still, it engaged in forced deportations, say of Japanese-Americans, during the war, which were not fundamentally different in nature from the Soviet deportations of “suspect nationalities” (Poles, Germans, Chechens) deep into Russia as possible instigators of violence during the war.

    Difference was in scale. The USA overall enjoyed a higher life level and that extended to prisons and detention camps. Same applied to Britain, which was the first nation to industrialize.

    USSR in 1937, of course, is unique in scale of extrajudicial peacetime killings, and that is not under dispute.

    P.S. I would advise HistoryLover to look for “Economics of World War I” here:,M1

    I found it highly illuminating.

    25 Sep 2009, 06:12

  9. Quite an interesting post. I am not a History or Politics student but I would like to add something to your post:

    ” * Britain and France?

    The worst thing for which the British and French were to blame was the Munich agreement of September 1938. By this agreement Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, the French prime minister, betrayed Czechoslovakia, their ally, by giving part of it away to Germany. They made themselves accessories before the fact of Hitler’s crime. Correctly interpreting this as weakness, in March 1939 Hitler broke the agreement and took the rest of Czechoslovakia. “

    The Munich agreement was shameful, that is for sure, but Britain and France had previously done something much worse, at least in my opinion. Nobody here has even mentioned the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the rehersal for World War II. That was a battle against fascism and nazism that was utterly lost, due to many factors, one of them being the fact that both France and Britain did nothing to prevent fascism getting over the power in Spain along with the support of Italy and Nazi Germany. Instead of supporting and joining the democractic Spanish government, they decided to let fascism and nazism grow inside Europe. Why did they do nothing about it? Actually, even though it is hard to say this, I believe both Britain and France preferred, at that time at least, to have a fascist dictatorship in Spain instead of a Leftist-Socialist government, which they feared more than nazism at that time. That was for me, by far, the worst thing they did during that time, which was in accordance with his non-interference behaviour, which we all now can say was a huge mistake. A free Spain would have been a valuable ally for France and Britain in their battle agaisnt nazism.


    28 Sep 2009, 13:01

  10. Pat

    For Hitler, the people were to blame, by following his arrogance blindly, and refusing to apply the skepticism of morality and compassion to his methods of economic recovery. Dictatorships cannot produce recovery, only more misery, though it may be undocumented who bears that misery.

    In Hitler’s case, there was no undocumented misery; all was documented because of the grandiosity of his methods, and the ultimate mission he came, along with others, to self justify. It is the problem of blind faith, and false assurances, and produces an outcome that is rooted in fantasy, not reality or practicality.

    Fantasy doesn’t belong in government who must administrate over real conditions that affect real lives. Putting some people in harms way to make the lives of others more convenient doesn’t work however long it is allowed to be the method of sustainability. Only persons without public conscience may do so, and ignore the consequences of the misery they cause.

    Hitler cannot bear all of the blame for allowing the conditions of WWII to evolve as they did, and all nations suffered under the misery that was the result. Not repeating that era is among mankind’s most responsible obligation in order to have a future as well as to preserve the present possibility, but not necessarily the status quo of political privilege.

    Rarely has humility in government been acknowledged as the powerful essential it is to produce a practical society of caring persons who may all live together in peace.

    14 Nov 2009, 16:56

  11. Roy

    I can tell you read your history books,the one’s you were given in school with the answers they wanted you to hear.Of all the people you named and their level of blame Hitler and the German people were the least to blame.I would say it’s a toss up between Churchill and Stalin and leaning more towards Churchill.Hitler asked many times over the months leading up to the war for help from Britain and France to talk to Poland but they refused because Churchill wanted war with Germany so he could wipe all Germans off the face of the earth.

    07 Feb 2016, 13:54

  12. trin


    20 Dec 2016, 17:19

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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