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September 1939: the Myth of Soviet Aggression

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Submitted by Tom Stanford…

Over the past few weeks, the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War has repeatedly been seized by European politicians and opinion leaders as an opportunity to promote one of the West’s favourite historical myths: the “evil dictators” Hitler and Stalin, after making a deal to carve up Eastern Europe among themselves (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939), supposedly invaded Poland from opposite sides, thus starting World War II.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, at the commemoration events in Poland on September 1st, put it this way: “As Poles defended their country against the Nazi onslaught, Soviet forces attacked them from the east, trapping Poland between the hammer of fascism and the anvil of Communism”.

More recently, on September 18th, the European Parliament passed a resolution equating Stalinism and Nazism. More specifically, it equally blames the USSR and Nazi Germany for starting the war: “[T]he Second World War […] was started as an immediate result of the notorious Nazi-Soviet Treaty […] known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact […], whereby two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest divided Europe into two zones of influence.”

The myth is a fundamental component of the common Western narrative of the Second World War, portrayed basically as a conflict opposing good liberal democratic countries such as Britain and the US, to Hitler’s barbaric totalitarian regime. Bad totalitarian states, namely Nazi Germany, Japan and, of course, Communist Russia, supposedly started the war, while only the intervention of the good, democratic USA brought the war to an end, crushing two of the world’s three totalitarian monsters. The fact that over three quarters of Hitler’s forces were defeated by the Soviet Union is an inconvenient fact rarely mentioned.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: evidence of Soviet guilt?

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939 is usually cited as evidence of Soviet guilt. Formally named Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, the pact committed both sides to resolve disputes peacefully and not to provide assistance of any kind to any third party involved in a war with the other party.

In addition to the main part of the Treaty, a secret protocol (secret clauses were common in international treaties at that time) drew a line dividing Eastern Europe into the so-called “spheres of interest” of each of the two signatories, a kind of red line that should not be overstepped by either side. Territories to the East of the line had all belonged to the Russian Empire until the First World War broke out in 1914. This line would ensure that any conflicts or territorial changes involving other central or eastern European countries would not lead to a direct clash between Germany and the USSR, thus enabling the workability – and credibility – of the Non-Aggression Treaty and providing a guideline for resolving disputes which may arise between the two parties.

Unlike what Western commentators would have us believe, the Secret Protocol did not allocate any territories to Germany or the Soviet Union. There was no agreement for a Partition of Poland. Nevertheless, following this agreement to draw a line between “spheres of interest”, Germany invaded Poland, which caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany, and Soviet troops did soon move into the East of the country to take control of the regions corresponding to the so-called Soviet “sphere of interest”. But is this proof that World War II was the product of both German and Soviet aggression?

A matter of life or death for the USSR

By quoting events out of context, historical facts can be used to fabricate any narrative that suits one’s political agenda. History did not begin in August 1939. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact can only be understood when seen in the light of the geopolitical and ideological background of the 1930s.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Soviet Union had good reasons to fear for its long-term survival. The Nazi government soon put an end to the rather extensive economic cooperation with the Soviet Union which had prevailed over the previous ten years. Not only had Hitler always declared the destruction of Soviet Communism (or “Jewish Bolshevism”, as he normally described it) as a fundamental goal, he had also claimed in his pamphlet “Mein Kampf” that the German people needed their own “living space” (Lebensraum) in the East, as a necessary source of food and raw materials. Russia was to be an ultimate target of the German Nazis, regardless of the political system which prevailed there.

Amid continual anti-Communist, anti-Soviet, anti-Russian rhetoric, Germany engaged in intensive rearmament starting in 1935, when he remilitarised the Rhineland in full breach of the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The Soviet Union alone called for action against Germany’s move, while France was persuaded by Britain not to react.

The threat of Germany and Japan joining forces to destroy the USSR

The threat posed by Germany to the Soviet Union was rapidly growing; it culminated with the signing of the Anti-Comintern Treaty (the Comintern, with its headquarters in Moscow, was the international union of Communist parties) between Germany and militaristic Japan in 1936. This treaty identified the Soviet Union as the main enemy of both Germany and Japan and required cooperation between these two countries in their fight against Communism. The Anti-Comintern Pact was joined the following year by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and in 1939 by Hungary and Spain.

Now the USSR was at serious risk of being attacked from its Eastern and Western borders at the same time by two formidable enemies who would not stop short of total victory. Japan had already gained control of Manchuria and had imperial ambitions over Siberia. Soviet leaders were fully aware that the country could not sustain a simultaneous, coordinated, full-scale attack by two of the world’s greatest military powers on two fronts separated by thousands of miles. And of course, they knew no help would come from the staunchly anti-communist Western powers. They were faced with the realistic prospect of the destruction not only of the communist Soviet Union, but of Russia itself as a state and a significant nation, signalling the end of one thousand years of national and civilizational history.

Early Soviet attempts to build anti-Fascist alliance

To counter the German threat, the USSR signed treaties with both France and Czechoslovakia as early as 1935. Until 1939 it relentlessly pursued diplomatic efforts to build a solid anti-German alliance with the Western powers. Soviet fears increased in early 1937, when Japan engaged in a full-scale invasion of China, capturing the cities of Shanghai and Nanking, thus making China the first major battlefield of the second world war. The USSR immediately signed a treaty of cooperation with China, providing the Asian country with substantial assistance in its resistance against Japan. The Soviet leadership hoped to deter a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union by helping the Chinese bog down Japanese forces in China.

Diplomatic efforts to reach out to Western powers intensified but encountered British reluctance to strike a deal with the USSR. British elites generally still viewed Soviet Communism as a much greater threat than German fascism.

UK reluctance: “Let the Soviets and Germans fight it out!”

As late as May 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, responding to the Soviet proposal for a tripartite alliance (Britain-France-USSR), told his colleagues that he “would rather resign than accept an alliance with the Soviet Union”. In 1936, Chamberlain’s predecessor Stanley Baldwin had already shed some light on the goals of UK foreign policy in the 1930s: “We all know the German desire […] to move East, and if [Hitler] moves East, I shall not break my heart […]. [Moving] West would be a very difficult programme for him […]. If there is any fighting in Europe to be done, I should like to see the Bolsheviks and Nazis doing it.”

When in June 1941 Hitler finally did launch his attack on the Soviet Union, the future US President, Senator Harry Truman, then Head of the Senate’s War Committee, made a statement to the press which in its own way mirrored Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s pre-war thoughts, but lacked the British sense of diplomacy: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible […]”.

Soviet fears that Britain and some of its allies were encouraging Germany to attack the USSR were thus far from unfounded and cannot be pinned down to Stalin’s supposed paranoia.

The possibility of a German-Polish alliance against the USSR

Furthermore, an alliance against the Soviet Union bringing together Nazi Germany and fascist-leaning, fiercely anti-communist and historically anti-Russian Poland remained a real possibility at least until early 1939. Germany had made many attempts to draw its eastern neighbour into the Anti-Comintern Pact. Germany also long believed it would be able to resolve its territorial claim on the Danzig Corridor in a peaceful manner. (The Corridor had separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany since the end of WW1.)

A non-aggression treaty with Poland had been signed in 1934 and the two countries had engaged in friendly cooperation in many areas ever since. In its attempts to obtain a voluntary, negotiated surrender of the Corridor by Poland, Germany went as far as to promise to compensate Poland for the loss of the Corridor by giving the Slavic country a substantial part of Ukraine – to be conquered in a joint attack on the USSR. But Poland at the time had reservations about getting involved in another war against Russia, which had strongly increased its military potential since the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. Wisely, Poland also pondered whether there would be any room for a powerful, independent Poland in a Europe dominated by Germany.

Munich, 1938: French and British betrayal of Czechoslovakia

However, the main turning point for Soviet decision-makers came in Autumn 1938 with the signing of the Munich Agreement by Germany, Britain, France and Fascist Italy. Hitler was given the green light to invade and annex all predominantly German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. In addition, this pact allowed for Polish and Hungarian territorial claims on Czechoslovakia to be settled during so-called negotiations supervised by… Germany and its Italian ally. As a result, Czechoslovakia was torn up by its neighbours and the rump state, deprived of its most prosperous industrial regions, lost its economic – and political – viability.

For the Soviet Union, this was a stab in the back by the Western powers, still viewed as potential partners in an anti-Fascist alliance. Both France and the USSR had Treaties of Mutual Assistance with Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union signalled its readiness to intervene militarily in support of the central European country. But Czechoslovakia was prepared to resist only with the support of both France and the Soviet Union, not the Soviet Union alone, so faced with France’s betrayal, the country turned down the Soviet offer and basically surrendered to its enemies.

Munich outcome: Hitler strengthened, USSR weakened and isolated

According to Italy’s Fascist leader Mussolini, Munich signalled “the end of Bolshevism in Europe, the end of communism in Europe, the end of any political influence of Russia in Europe”. The Fascist and near-Fascist regimes of Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary had come to a fundamental agreement with Britain and France, keeping the Soviet Union out of the equation and thus leading to its isolation on the international stage – a major victory for the Anti-Comintern alliance.

By March 1939, Germany had annexed the entire Czech part of Czechoslovakia and installed a puppet government to rule over what remained of Slovakia. Soviet leaders, not without reason, feared that Germany had now gained an important foothold for a prospective invasion of the USSR, and that such an invasion would take place with the full blessing of Britain, France and the US, whose ruling elites would relish the prospect of “freeing the world from the threat of Communism” while sparing their own populations the horrors of another war: ideally, Germany would carry out a proxy war for the elites of the entire Western world.

British and French “appeasement” policy until 1939 had clearly less to do with alleged pacifist goals of preventing war altogether than with keeping war – should it arise – at a safe distance from the Western powers’ borders.

Soviet hopes of anti-Fascist alliance begin to fade

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued negotiations with France and Britain with the hope to form a tripartite defensive alliance against any future German aggression. After the Munich betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the country’s Western allies, the Soviets would now accept nothing short of solid, unambiguous guarantees from those very same Western states, not just some vague promise of mutual assistance. Wisely, Stalin wanted to know with certainty that should Germany attack the Soviet Union, France and the UK would immediately declare war on Germany and conduct a serious offensive on Germany’s Western front, with reciprocal assurances from the Soviet Union. For only the fear of full-scale and simultaneous war on both Germany’s Eastern and Western fronts was likely to deter Hitler from aggression.

However, even after reluctantly agreeing to engage in negotiations with the USSR in May 1939 (as mentioned above), Chamberlain and the Foreign Office were quite unwilling to provide the Communist state with the guarantees it required. Any remaining hopes for an agreement floundered when Poland unequivocally refused to allow Soviet troops onto its territory in case of an attack by Germany. (Of course, the inescapable realities of European geography would have made it impossible for the Soviet Union to militarily defeat Germany without ever entering Polish territory!)

Final Soviet attempt to strike deal in fear of imminent attack by Germany and Japan

In early July 1939, Japan launched a major attack on Soviet forces in an undeclared war, which had started with minor military skirmishes along the Soviet border over the previous two years. This led to the highly significant Battle of Khalkhin-Gol, involving over 60,000 Soviet troops, of which about 10,000 were killed.

In August, the Soviet Union was in the middle of its counteroffensive against Japanese forces. Now the prospect of a coordinated attack on the USSR by the joint forces of the Anti-Comintern alliance, better known today as the Axis Powers, was beginning to materialise. Hitler was quickly moving East: after annexing Austria in March 1938, then German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia in October 1938, then subjugating the rest of the country in March 1939, he was now, in Summer 1939, stepping up his anti-Poland rhetoric due to the country’s refusal to hand over the Danzig corridor.

On August 15th, two weeks before Hitler attacked Poland, the USSR made a final attempt to persuade France and Britain to form an anti-Nazi alliance: the Soviet Union proposed to put up to 120 infantry divisions (about two million soldiers!) as well as about 10,000 tanks and 5,000 fighter aircrafts on the Polish-German border in the event of a war between Germany and its Western neighbours. But Britain showed little interest in the offer. When the British delegation announced that the UK had only 16 combat-ready divisions, the Soviets understood that Britain had no serious intention of fighting Nazi Germany. The USSR could not count on the Western powers and was now desperate for an alternative solution to counter the Fascist threat to its survival. Ironically, the opportunity was presented by Nazi Germany itself.

Soviet leaders already knew that if an alliance was not possible between the USSR and the Western powers, then some agreement might have to be reached with Germany, even on a temporary basis. The country’s survival was at stake, and gaining even a few years of peace may allow the Soviet Union to significantly build up its ability to defend itself. The first exploratory contacts with Germany had begun when Molotov took control of Soviet Foreign Affairs in May 1939.

Hitler’s calculation

In Summer 1939, Hitler was losing patience with Polish inflexibility on the Danzig issue. He knew that British leaders were rather sympathetic to German claims on Danzig. Britain kept urging Poland to find a peaceful solution through negotiations with Germany. And yet, in March 1939 the UK had given Poland a guarantee of military assistance in case of an attack by Germany. This did not mean that Britain was expecting to go to war. The promise to Poland was mainly aimed at strengthening Poland’s bargaining position in negotiations with its Western neighbour and at deterring Hitler from taking military action. The UK was wary of letting Germany become too powerful in Europe and did not want to see Poland go the same way as Czechoslovakia, but clearly did not wish to go to war over Danzig.

But Hitler, who was preparing to act against Poland, feared that Britain may yet intervene on Poland’s side. He wanted to avoid a war with the UK at all costs. Above all, Germany needed to avoid the risk of a war on two fronts. However, Hitler believed Britain would not declare war unless it expected Russia to be drawn in as well, as in this case Soviet forces would do most of the fighting on the ground. Hitler understood that Britain had no desire for a big war with Germany and that would much prefer to see the Nazis fight the USSR. It is also true that, even without a formal alliance between the USSR and the Western powers, a German attack on Poland could easily have led to a self-protective Soviet intervention against Germany, especially if Britain and France were already attacking Germany from the West. If Soviet neutrality could somehow be guaranteed, “England” would not – so Hitler believed – dare to start a war with Germany. Therefore, Hitler was prepared to make huge concessions to Stalin in exchange for a promise of Soviet neutrality. He sent his Foreign Minister Ribbentrop to Moscow to meet his Soviet counterpart Molotov with instructions to come back with a deal, whatever the price. The outcome was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23rd, 1939.

The Pact: a red line on German aggression to protect the Soviet people

Neither Stalin, nor Hitler believed the deal would be long-lasting. But, at least temporarily, it set an Eastern limit to German expansion, a red line that Hitler was not to cross. To the Soviet leadership, the pact with Germany provided a unique opportunity to escape a deadly attack on the USSR by the Axis Powers.

As it was already clear to Soviet leaders that Hitler was about to attack Poland, the Secret Protocol ensured that the Nazis would not enter areas considered vital to the security of the USSR, which largely corresponded to the territories within Russia’s pre-WW1 borders. Until 1939, Stalin had never laid any claims on these territories or entertained any plans for occupation or annexation. Western claims that the USSR, like Germany, engaged in a war of conquest against its neighbours is not based on a single piece of documented evidence. It is the product of pure fantasy.

The pact provided invaluable benefits to the Soviet Union. First, it prevented Germany from moving its troops to the then Eastern border of Poland and thus gaining a strong foothold for a future invasion of the Soviet Union. Had there been no deal between Germany and the USSR, a German invasion of Poland would have meant that Nazi forces could be stationed as near as 100 miles from Kiev and 25 miles from Minsk, two of the USSR’s most significant cities. A Blitzkrieg could have led to the immediate capture of these two cities, after which German forces could have quickly reached the proximity of Moscow and Leningrad.

Second, the pact ensured that Germany would not be allowed to build up a foothold in Finland, Estonia and Latvia, which enjoyed friendly relations with the Nazi state, and use these countries’ territories as additional launching pads for an attack on the Soviet Union.

Third, it provided the USSR with the time and necessary breathing space to intensify its military industrialisation and be in a much better position to defend itself against potential aggression in the future. Economic cooperation with Germany was a component of the deal and allowed the Soviet Union to acquire valuable technology from the Germans.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, it seriously damaged the alliance between Germany and Japan. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in clear breach of the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact. Japan viewed it as a betrayal by Hitler and, as a result, would no longer fully trust the German leader. Consequently, Japan immediately reduced its war efforts against the Soviet Union, leading to, only three weeks after the German-Soviet pact was signed, a quick Soviet-Mongolian victory against Japanese forces and the end of the undeclared war in the Soviet Far East. This “betrayal” also largely explains why, when Hitler finally attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Japan refused to support Germany by launching its own attack from the East.

Hence, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact most likely saved the Soviet Union from being torn apart by the two main Axis Powers, whether in 1939 or later.

There was no Soviet invasion: the Polish state had already collapsed

Soviet leaders did not sign the pact as a means of conquering foreign territories, but as an absolute necessity in terms of security for the USSR. When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, France and Britain formally declared war on Germany – Hitler had indeed miscalculated the effect of the Pact on the UK. However, the two Western powers did not carry out any real offensive against German forces, allowing Hitler to conduct a highly successful Blitzkrieg against the well-armed and well-trained Polish Army. By September 8th, Germany had already reached the outskirts of Warsaw.

On September 17th, the Polish government fled the country into neighbouring Romania. Only then did the Soviet government announce that as the Polish state had collapsed, it would move its troops into the predominantly Ukrainian and Belorussian parts of Poland, East of the demarcation line, to fill the power vacuum and protect the local population. The German government had previously sent a message to the Soviet Union, warning that should Soviet forces not quickly move into Eastern Poland, German forces would be forced to enter and occupy the entire Polish territory.

At the time, nobody considered that Poland had been “attacked by the Soviet Union”, not even the Polish government, who called upon its allies for support against Germany, but not against the USSR. Russia, Polish forces in the East of the country were instructed not to fight the incoming Soviet troops, while resistance against the German invaders was to continue until total defeat on October 2nd. The UK and France perceived the Soviet move as a natural consequence of the German invasion, not as an attack planned in advance.  Winston Churchill, then a member of the British War Cabinet, strongly welcomed this development, as it limited the extent of German expansion. At the time, Churchill even predicted that the UK and the Soviet Union would “soon be fighting together against Hitler”.

The Phoney War: UK and France no

For eight months following their September declaration of war, Britain and France refrained from launching attacks on German Territory – this period is famously referred to as the Phoney War in the UK, or Sitzkrieg, meaning “sitting war”, by the Germans. This gave Hitler plenty of time, not only to finish the job in Poland, but to invade Norway and perfect preparations for his Blitzkrieg in France in May-June 1940, which ended in French surrender after only five weeks of fighting. British and French preparations during the Phoney War were purely defensive. Chamberlains’s government still hoped that peace could be reached with Germany and continued negotiations with the Germans throughout autumn 1939.

From the Soviet perspective, the Phoney War was strong confirmation that the previous attempts to strike an alliance with France and Britain would have led nowhere. First, these countries had betrayed their liberal democratic friend Czechoslovakia and handed it over to Hitler as a sacrificial lamb. Now, when Poland was attacked, they failed to do anything to support this ally, apart from a verbal declaration of war. So, even if the demonized, Communist Soviet Union had somehow been able to make an alliance with the UK and France, and had subsequently been attacked by Hitler, then not just a “sitting war”, but a “sleeping war” would have been too much to expect on Germany’s Western front!

Re-writing of history

After the Second World War came the Cold War. The needs of Western propaganda then called for a certain re-writing of history aimed at countering the perception of the Soviet Union as the main liberator of Europe. But the distortion of historical facts has reached Orwellian proportions in recent years, largely due to the currently fashionable demonization of Russia and of its Soviet past.

Today, such seemingly respectable institutions as the European Parliament, the governments of Western democracies, supported by the unbiased, truth-loving, European quality media, keep parroting a blatant lie as historical fact: that Nazi Germany and the USSR supposedly became natural allies as the “twin brothers of totalitarian Fascism and totalitarian Communism”, the natural enemies of every freedom-loving nation, and consequently started the Second World War after making a Devil’s pact for world conquest.

Western powers more responsible than USSR for WW2 tragedy

In reality, while the Western powers had made a decisive deal with Hitler (Munich, 1938), allowing him to tear up Czechoslovakia and Poland and Hungary to take their shares of the booty, the USSR remained firm in its refusal to give in to Germany’s bullying and showed its readiness to defend Czechoslovak sovereignty, alongside its Western partners, in the face of German aggression.

The UK and France engaged only half-heartedly in negotiations with the Soviet Union. Unlike the Soviet Union, they did not live under the threat that their countries may be turned into sources of raw materials for Germany and their people enslaved to the Master Aryan Race, if not exterminated. They were given clear opportunities to stop Hitler in his tracks, but did not wish to confront Germany directly, for they were not prepared to treat Communist Russia as a full and equal ally, probably hoping that the two deadly ideological enemies, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, would simply wreak destruction on each other in a massive war, with little or no direct participation of Western nations.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: a blessing for the world

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not the cause of the Second World War. Hitler was determined to move East, and as we have seen, the Western powers were unlikely to prevent him from eventually doing so. The Pact, anyway, had been due to a miscalculation on Hitler’s part – Germany gained little, or nothing, while the Soviet Union benefited immensely. Had Stalin refused Hitler’s offer of a deal, Hitler may have attacked Poland anyway, and reached the then Eastern borders of Poland, on the doorstep of Minsk. He would have had little trouble moving his troops through the Baltic States, possibly even with the agreement of the Latvian and Estonian governments. Finland and Romania may have helped as well. Hungary was already a clear ally.

The Phoney War shows that Hitler would not have had too much to fear from his Western neighbours. As soon as he had attacked the Soviet Union, France and Britain would most likely not have budged. Japan would have supported Germany by attacking the USSR from the East. The Soviet Union would have fought hard, but almost certainly been defeated by the double assault. After gaining control of Soviet territory, having exterminated and starved to death much of its population, Hitler may have later moved South-East, and confronted Britain in South Asia, possibly dividing up South and East Asia between Germany and Japan.

The latest scenario particularly worried Winston Churchill, a strong believer in British Imperialism. He was convinced that Britain should prevent Hitler from building its own Empire on European and Russian territory, for by turning into an imperial world power Germany would sooner of later challenge the British Empire in a fight for world domination.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and subsequent Soviet control over most territories in its “sphere of interest”, by giving the Soviet Union the means of defending itself and consolidating its military strength, as well as containing Hitler’s expansion, led to its final victory over Nazi Germany. The alternative may have been a world enslaved under the rule of the barbaric Nazi regime. In this light, the Pact may even – given the historical circumstances – be considered as a blessing for the entire world.

Chillingly Orwellian

Particularly disturbing is that historical truth is now being established by political institutions such as the European Parliament, rather than emerging from an open discussion between historical experts. In the September 18th resolution quoted initially, the European Parliament accuses those who, like the Russian government, challenge these supposed truths of making “efforts […] to distort historical facts” and even “calls on the [European] Commission to decisively counteract these efforts”. This sounds chillingly Orwellian. But what makes it all the more Orwellian is that this is supposed to be a resolution against totalitarianism!

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Daniel Christof

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