Tuesday, September 1, 2009

1 September 1939: Seventy Years Ago, World War II Broke Out

One doesn't wish to be too harsh, but one can't help feeling a certain sense of parochialism here. The Seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II does not seem to be generating the sort of coverage I would have expected or hoped for in the US. To be sure, there was the occasional piece, but the date is just not part of our collective consciousness in the way that it is part of the European one. By and large, we tend to think of the War as beginning when it began for us in 1941. Let us see what 2011 brings.

From among the various publications and postings, let me call attention to this one by Barry Rubin, who takes time out from his endless commentary on the Middle East to turn to the European past. Writing on the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, he reminds us that World II began not only with a German attack on Poland from the west, but also with a Soviet attack from the east, supposedly in order to ensure order. (I wonder how many of my students know that—before I tell them, of course).

Rubin's aim is both to correct the popular historical view and to argue that the Russians are continuing a historically aggressive policy under a new government and a new guise:
Stalin says that the Germans desire peace and he offers a toast: “I know how much the German nation loves its Fuhrer; I should therefore like to drink to his health.” As the German foreign minister leaves, Stalin has some words of special importance for him: “The Soviet government takes the new pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honor that the Soviet Union would not betray its partner.” It was one of the few promises Stalin didn’t break. It was one of the many promises that Hitler did.

Today, 70 years later, the Russian government is trying to justify this terrible deed. Says military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, "This is not about history at all."

In effect, the Russian government is asserting its sphere of influence over all these and other independent states. The implications are frightening, most directly for Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and others in Central Europe but also for Georgia and Azerbaijan, and for anyone who treasures liberty.

Russia has been putting increasing pressure on its neighbors, sometimes using its energy exports for blackmail, sometimes using money or covert operations. One remembers what the American diplomatist George F. Kennan wrote at the onset of the Cold War: To be Russia's neighbor means either to submit or to be considered an enemy.

The basic Russian historical claim about 1939 is that by itself seizing these territories, the USSR prevented Germany from using them as a staging ground for an attack. In addition, efforts to work out a security alliance with Britain and France had failed.

This is profoundly misleading. The Soviets genuinely saw Nazi Germany as an ally. They helped the German army train, they sold it materials to build up its military, and even up to the moment the Germans attacked in 1941, Stalin insisted that Hitler would not betray him. Indeed, he ordered punishment for any Soviet agents who sent warnings of an imminent attack.
It may be even more complicated. The New York Times reports, "Russian Premier Calls Nazi-Soviet Pact Immoral." But Mr. Putin did so mainly by saying that other countries were just as bad: blaming the British and French for their earlier appeasement, and Poland for profiting from it:
The prime minister released his historical interpretation just before a scheduled visit to Poland on Tuesday for a commemoration of the start of World War II, 70 years ago this week.

The pact — which was followed by German and Soviet invasions of Poland — remains a source of anger there, and the article heightened expectations of what Mr. Putin would say during his visit.

Ria Novosti, an official Russian news agency, reported that Mr. Putin would use the trip to counter what the Russians call efforts by Eastern Europeans to recast the causes and lessons of World War II. Russia looks upon the war as a searing event in its history, one in which, by some estimates, 25 million Soviet citizens died.
. . . .
In his article, Mr. Putin wrote that he was compelled to discuss the pact, named Molotov-Ribbentrop for the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers who negotiated the accord, because it was being cited today by countries who have traced their postwar Soviet occupation to this agreement.

“It is indicative that history is often slanted by those who actually apply double standards in modern politics,” he wrote.

The article, published in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and posted in Russian on the Russian government Web site, did not backtrack on earlier Russian condemnations of the pact or apologies for the subsequent massacre of Polish officers at Katyn Forest.

But it did highlight a theme that has played on Russian state television in recent weeks: that even Poland was complicit in making deals with the Nazis. The article notes that the Polish Army occupied two provinces of Czechoslovakia at the same time the German Army invaded that country following the Munich agreement with France and Britain in 1938.

Mr. Putin argues that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was inevitable after the Western Allies had acceded to the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

He called that an effort by the West to “ ‘buy off’ Hitler and redirect his aggression to the east.”

Stalin’s government, Mr. Putin wrote, was impelled to sign the agreement because it was facing aggression in the east from Japan and did not want war on two fronts.

Mr. Putin did not mention that the Nazi-Soviet pact also restored a portion of the Russian empire lost after World War I and coveted by Stalin. (read the rest)
An interesting spectacle: military maneuvering, betrayals, opportunism, and aggression then, and their political equivalents today. Welcome to my world. In East Central Europe, nothing historical is forgotten (though it is often deliberately suppressed), everything has public symbolism or a hidden meaning (lying silent but threatening like a land mine). History there is never really dead; it just keeps resurfacing in new ways.

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