World War II: Hitler and Stalin, Guilt and Responsibility
Writing about web page http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSL1655337
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:
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.
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.