World War II began 80 years ago, on 1 September 1939. The following commentary is at heart a critique of ideologically-driven historical revisionism, which distorts the the truth and promotes falsehoods, and is thus a disservice to the public.
The article by Jacques R. Pauwels, “The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939: Myth and Reality” (https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/08/26/the-hitler-stalin-pact-of-august-23-1939-myth-and-reality/) appeared on CounterPunch on 26 August 2019. The article described many interesting details of the political maneuverings, prior to 22 June 1941, by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russian regime, and the British, French and Polish governments, to either protect themselves from Hitler’s evident planned aggressions, or abet and take anti-communist advantage of them. Pauwels is an enthusiastic partisan of the Russian policy of that time: “The notion that the Hitler-Stalin Pact triggered the Second World War is worse than a myth, it is an outright lie. The opposite is true: the pact was precondition for the happy outcome of the Armageddon of 1939-1945, that is, the defeat of Nazi Germany.” While an interesting article, I did not like Pauwels’s portrayal of events for the following reasons.
I never believed in Stalin’s goodness nor his infallibility, as Pauwels seems to (though a Belgian-Canadian, Pauwels is clearly an anti-“Atlanticist” ‘Communisant,’ of the type so accurately criticized by Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron and Tony Judt). I have read “Let History Judge” (Roy Medvedev), “Russia At War” (Alexander Werth), and other samizadt literature, and I think Pauwels was way too glib glossing over Stalin’s policies on: starving the Kulaks (forced collectivization in the Ukraine, 1932-1933, which Pauwels essentially denies), purging the Red Army in 1937-1938 (eliminating many capable professionals from the officer corps, and replacing them with incompetent Stalinist lackeys), and Stalin’s insistence (in 1941) that the Red Army position themselves right up to the legal limit of Russia’s western border (and/or frontline positions in occupied territories), ‘to defend every inch of Russian soil,’ instead of deploying defensive positions in depth (as the Red Army generals pleaded with Stalin to do) to be able to absorb and erode the expected Nazi mechanized army and air force invasion. These last two stupidities nearly cost Russia the war in 1941, and it was a scramble to move surviving troops (many killed, imprisoned and overrun by the invading German forces in June 1941) and industries east for regrouping.
I can easily believe that Soviet Russia did some planning in this regard prior to June 1941, but not nearly enough and not the prescient strategy that Pauwels would have you believe. Pauwels even mentions “Let History Judge,” but he certainly didn’t use it. Also, Stalin fobbed off (ignored) the incredible spying coup (the greatest ever perhaps, in this case lifting the detailed Nazi plan and schedule for the June 1941 invasion of Russia, from the German ambassador in Japan) given him by Richard Sorge’s spy ring in Japan, and even did zero to try to extract the members of that spy ring (by a prisoner exchange? diplomacy? even just a pro forma request for clemency?) from their sad executions by the Japanese military, by hanging in 1944.
Another problem with Pauwels Stalinist revisionism is that he portrays the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 (Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, 23 August 1939) as a principled diplomatic strategy by Russia to buy time to prepare for the expected eventual Nazi invasion – since Britain and France refused to form a defensive alliance with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany. The pact was an agreement between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia not to make war on each other, and it contained secret protocols detailing the limits of the Polish territories Hitler (in western Poland) and Stalin (in eastern Poland) intended to occupy when they started the war, on 1 September 1939. For Nazi Germany the goal of this pact was to secure its Eastern Front while it would prosecute war to the west, on France, England, Holland, Belgium and Norway; for Russia the goal of the pact was to buy time before having to deal with eventual Nazi aggression, but also to enable Stalin’s imperialist ambitions regarding Poland. The Non-Aggression Pact of 23 August 1939 opened the door to World War II, contrary to Pauwels’ revisionist assertion.
Stalin’s Red Army sweep into eastern Poland on 1 September 1939 [actually 17 September 1941] was anything but an unfortunately necessary, principled as possible (to the Poles) occupation to set up a defensive buffer between Germany and Russia; it was bloody murder. Part of the secret protocols of the 1939 pact was an agreement to exchange political dissidents who had fled from the two dictatorships: German Communists who had fled to Russia, and Russian fascists and anti-communists who had fled to Nazi Germany. These dissidents were marked for death.
In the samizadt literature I have read (in the 1980s), including Roy Medvedev’s “Let History Judge,” the execution of these 150 German Communists is described. It occurred at a shipyard or large factory in Poland. The German Communists originally harbored by the Russian Revolution had been corralled by the NKVD (Russia’s secret police), and at this prisoner exchange first had their Communist Party cards confiscated. Then they were individually inspected and identified (as the fugitives sought) by the Gestapo, while the NKVD similarly inspected and identified fugitive Russian anti-communists that Germany had harbored and now the Gestapo was returning to Stalinist Russia, in this secretive prisoner exchange. Once the exchange was complete, the Gestapo and the NKVD shot their prisoners. The reason the NKVD confiscated the German Communists’s party cards (expelling these Germans from the Communist Party) was to prevent fascists from executing communists — that was the extent of principle here. Apparently the bodies were burned in furnaces at this industrial plant. That, and the execution of the Polish Army officer corps (by one Red Army colonel – later highly decorated – shooting the Polish men in the back of the head every few minutes for weeks, while Red Army troops mustered them in and disposed of the bodies in the Katyn Forrest) was the essence of the “secret protocols” of the 1939 pact. Pauwels is silent on all this.
Pauwels’ story of 1934-1941 is far too neat and pro-Stalinist ideologically pure to accurately reflect the reality of those times. Without doubt, though Stalin was a crushing amoral and sadistic dictator, there was signifiant group policy-making occurring among the Soviet elite during the Russian-German War — mainly regarding military campaigns (which included civilian mobilization and control) — coordination between military people like Georgy Zhukov, political (commissar) people like Nikita Khrushchev, and the internal security and all-around coercion people (NKVD) like Lavrentiy Beria; and such coordination within the Soviet elite resulted in many of the good moves against the Nazis, and recovery from Stalin’s dictatorial blunders where possible.
Also, in real life, human planning is never perfect, chaos always introduces disruptions especially in large fast-moving situations like modern mechanized warfare of continental dimensions. This element of chaos means that for both the Nazis and the Soviets their campaigns (military and political) were punctuated by unforeseen events, sometimes big and often small, sometimes beneficial and sometimes catastrophic. No one is always ever fully “in control.” So the “end result” was an outcome derived from an initial plan that embodied an ideology — neither as well thought-out as subsequent ideological partisans would claim — that had flowed from dictatorial cunning and delusion, was brutally massaged through group “dough kneading and pounding” coordination, and then shredded and flacked by the shrapnel of war-time chaos, leading to uncountable numbers of hasty improvisations in the field at all levels from the Generalissimo down to the Good Soldiers Schweik. That “end result” was a near pyrrhic victory for Soviet Russia (and I agree probably the greatest feat of arms in human history), and a devastating defeat for Nazi Germany and the German people in 1945.
What I dislike about Pauwels’ version of WWII history (on the Eastern Front, at least 80% of the European War in my estimation), besides its ideologically-driven inaccuracy, is that it comes across as an apologia of the “wisdom” of great far-sighted deep-thinking and keen-planning political leadership (that one is partisan to), and so justifies the immense suffering that actually occurs as a consequence of the self-serving careerism of such power elites, who always ensure they are insulated from the karma they unleash on their people (except if they lose their wars badly enough to end up being captured, facing a war crimes tribunal, and executed).
I prefer historians who detail the full spectrum of reality’s unfolding: the palace intrigues (important people in high places making plans for us all to fit in as cogs and fodder), fumbled and jumbled by group planning and implementation (courtiers and mandarins filtering the emperor’s dictates and fantasies), which are aided and/or shredded by chaotic eruptions (“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”) especially in the dynamic instability of wartime. Such realistic histories help us — as survivors for the moment — see “how we got here,” and can help us learn to leave bigger margins for error, the unexpected, as well as undisclosed elite criminality, in our collective social and political planning.
There’s no doubt that during those early decades of the 20th century that Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative Party associates were primarily concerned to maintain and protect the British capitalist class system — money; that Hitler and Stalin were each avid to expand and consolidate their dictatorial national control — power; that Poland’s leadership was more delusional than realistic about Polish military power and its international political leverage, and anti-semitism was ripe among the Catholic populace (though that did not justify the bloody destruction of Poland by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the latter clearly acting on more than just realpolitik to establish a defensive buffer); and that the United States was popularly allergic to European power struggles (its white supremacy types favoring the Nazis, and its working/depression underclass favoring the Communists), while its corporate elite was politically and financially supportive of the Nazi regime both for its money-making and Russian Communist-eradicating potential.
The course and outcome of the European War of 1939-1945 (or 1914-1945, if you prefer) was no subtly elegant political dance and clean-cut military masterstroke of Soviet planning, as Pauwels paints, but the mashing together of the all the schemes — whose perpetrators Pauwels identifies — and their haphazard disruptions by wartime chaos: luck.
The tragedy of human affairs, especially as regards war and politics, is that we have learned nothing since Thucydides spelled it all out 2,430 years ago in his “History Of The Peloponnesian War.” No historian since has surpassed him; and people worldwide still suffer the same types of tragedies and atrocities that Thucydides described in antiquity, because human civilization continues to perpetrate them.
After I wrote the essay above (and sent an earlier draft to Counterpunch) a much more authoritative and much more detailed article on the subject, by Louis Proyect and Pawel Szelegieniec, was published by Counterpunch; I recommend it.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact, Reconsidered
30 August 2019
For an explanation of my earlier characterization of Pauwels as (in my opinion) “an anti-‘Atlanticist’ ‘Communisant,’ of the type so accurately criticized by Albert Camus, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron and Tony Judt,” see the section “Raymond Aron and the Paris Intellectuals of the 1950s” in my 2011 article
Political Belief And Self Image: Aron, OWS, And Libya
7 November 2011
In fact, here is that section.
Raymond Aron and the Paris Intellectuals of the 1950s
The Opium of the Intellectuals, by Raymond Aron, was published in France in 1955. This book is a sociological study of the mid 20th century intelligentsia, and a polemic against ideological fanaticism. Aron opposed the pro-Soviet views of the French intelligentsia, as exhibited by prominent personalities like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The crux of Aron’s argument was that Soviet-style communism was not in the interests of the French public because as a 19th century conception of the organization of an industrial society it was outmoded for 20th century France, and as a political system it was devoid of the personal liberties, especially of political free speech, prized by the fractious French.
Aron advocated “politics” in place of “revolution” as the means of changing French society, arguing that a modern industrialized state would progress toward a more just political economy, more swiftly and with far fewer personal tragedies, through reformism rather than violent revolution. Aron illustrated this by comparing the lag in socioeconomic development and the achievement of political stability in France in comparison to that of England during the century from 1789 (the French Revolution to the Third Republic).
Aron’s criticism of the legitimacy of the pro-communist belief of his contemporaries was not aimed at members of the Communist Parties in Europe (the true believers), but at the “communisants,” the French fellow-travelers who did not join the Communist Party in France, nor relocate to Communist countries, but condemned post-war American influence in Europe (“Atlanticism”), praised Marxist ideology, and never criticized the Soviet Union nor its actions in Eastern Europe.
“Seeking to explain the attitude of the intellectuals, merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they were committed in the name of the proper doctrines, I soon came across the sacred words Left, Revolution, Proletariat.” (The Opium of the Intellectuals)
It is possible to interpret the communisant attitude, which Aron criticized, as a defense of wounded pride. The Fall of France (1940) was not just a national catastrophe along the material dimensions of military and economic power, political independence, and social cohesion, but a psychological catastrophe as well. The humiliation imposed on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was avenged twenty-one years later when France was placed under the control of a German Occupation and a collaborationist Vichy Government for over four years, a period we can bracket from the occupation of Paris to its liberation: June 14, 1940, to August 25, 1944.
The liberation of France began with the invasion of Europe by Allied forces, landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and was completed by the end of World War II in Europe on May 8, 1945. Resistance organizations had formed themselves in every occupied country, and many of these irregular anti-Nazi fighters and agents were Communists. Immediately after WWII, the Communist parties of Western Europe had a well-deserved prestige because of the many risks taken and sacrifices made by Communist members of the Resistance.
Anyone from a country that had been occupied by the Germans, seeking some source of national pride to counter the humiliation of the occupation years, could at least look back and point to his country’s partisans.
The physical and economic ruin of Europe after WWII left the United States as the leading world power, and it applied its wealth to the rebuilding of Western Europe out of a mixture of motives: sympathy and goodwill, commercial self-interest, and a competition with the Soviet Union for political power: anti-communism. A major effort combining all these motivations was the Marshall Plan, which cycled $13B though Europe during the four years beginning in April 1948 (the U.S. had already contributed $12B in aid to Europe between the end of WWII and 1948).
Anyone who has suffered a calamity and then receives charity (which often has strings attached) can feel grateful up to the point where relief becomes overshadowed by resentment because of a growing sense of humiliation over one’s dependency. So it was with some Europeans in the early 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union locked horns in their Cold War and used Europe, Germany in particular, as their field of contention.
The Greek Civil War between the US-backed government and the Greek Communist Party lasted from March 1946 to October 1949. This was the beginning of US military assistance applied against the anti-Nazi partisans of the Occupation years. The Berlin Blockade, which was relieved by a NATO airlift, occurred between June 24, 1948, and May 12, 1949. Stalin died on March 5, 1953, and thwarted proletarian expectations erupted as the Uprising in East Germany on June 17, 1953. The Western European Union was founded on October 23, 1954, with the first inclusion of an independent West German state (the Federal Republic of Germany) into an economic and defense association of Atlantic Alliance (NATO) European nations, and which allowed the FRG to industrialize without restriction, and rearm. The Hungarian Uprising occurred during October 23 to November 10, 1956. Both the East German and Hungarian uprisings were ruthlessly suppressed by the Red Army and local paramilitary police troops.
In societies where there is wide public appreciation of their men and women of letters, the intellectuals belong to the elite class that interprets the nation to itself. The French intellectuals of the immediate postwar period were sensitive to the popular desire for a recovery of national pride, and also very sensitive to their own loss of importance in shaping the political narrative of their time. The centers of power affecting daily life throughout Europe were no longer Paris, London, and Berlin, but Moscow and Washington, D.C.
That the relatively unsophisticated Americans should have such wealth that they could act like a Salvation Army for derelict Western European nations; that they should have such military power that they could align their propped-up European charity cases like pawns in a geostrategic chess game with the Soviet Union; that America would gleefully spin the gears and pull the levers of politics in Western Europe and around the globe without the least thought to the wounded self-regard of France, or to the interpretations of history-in-the-making from one of the most brilliant sources of such narration in Western Civilization since the Enlightenment — the French intelligentsia — was galling to distraction, and shaped the pro-Soviet anti-Atlanticist orientation of a French intelligentsia seeking redemption and relevance.