It is generally accepted that the Second World War began on 1 September 1939, and it is unlikely that anyone would consider it began on a different date. But for the sake of truth, it is worth determining exactly when the war began, especially because it would answer many other questions regarding its history. Strictly speaking, armed conflicts with multiple casualties were already going on in the Far East before 1 September 1939. And while the Sino-Japanese War is not regarded as the start of the Second World War, the entry of three European powers into the war on 1 September 1939 did not make it a world war either.
Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were involved in fighting in Europe at that point. Incidentally, no one who criticises the Soviet Union has a bad word to say about the US, but if the US had entered the war in 1939, it probably would have been over almost instantly. It did not become a true world war until December 1941, when fighting reached the USSR, and the US and Japan entered the war.
I guess you could say that what began in 1939 was a Franco–British–German conflict, in which the fate of Poland was decided. And, therefore, the question of whether the USSR needed to get involved in the conflict should be considered in light of other circumstances that will be examined below.
The Three Betrayals
If we proceed on the basis that the entry of these three European powers is enough to consider it a ‘world’ war, then it actually began in September 1938 with the signing of the Munich Agreement, when these three countries and Italy agreed to partition Czechoslovakia. The fact that there were no weapons involved does not change the truth of the matter. After all, there can be wars between the strong and the weak where the strong have no need for weapons. This is particularly true in the case of Czechoslovakia, which, finding itself isolated (having simply been betrayed by its allies), surrendered immediately, although it had real scope for resistance. Its army was considered one of the strongest in Europe and it had its own ‘Maginot Line’ on its border with Germany. France virtually trampled all over the Franco–Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance in the event of Nazi aggression, and Poland was involved in the partition, which is probably why it refused to let the Red Army through to help Czechoslovakia – it didn’t want to interfere.
What were Soviet leaders supposed to think about the reliability and morality of its future allies who at that time, as now, were claiming to be a beacon of democracy, when they had in fact betrayed the only democracy in Eastern Europe? Not to mention the Polish government, which took advantage of the situation to benefit from the victim of the betrayal. In fact, Czechoslovakia was betrayed twice. The first time in September 1938, with the signing of the Munich Agreement and the annexation of Sudetenland, and the second in March 1939, when Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and none of the signatories of the Munich Agreement lifted a finger to help.
But these weren’t the only acts of betrayal, including claimed ideals, on the part of the Allies. It was in 1939 that the Spanish Civil War came to an end. The democratic forces in the country were defeated by Franco’s fascists for two reasons: the assistance Franco received from the ideologically similar fascist regimes of Germany and Italy; and the policy of non-intervention adopted by France and the UK, which also prevented the Soviet Union from helping the Republicans. After all, the Spanish government was headed by liberals and socialists with extensive ties among the Western liberals and socialists who, at that time, were succeeding each other at the head of the French government.
Another point about the Allies is the Évian Conference convened in 1938 at Évian-les-Bains, France, at the initiative of US President Franklin D Roosevelt to discuss the possibility of providing asylum to refugees from the Third Reich, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jews. The outcome of the conference was the virtual refusal of its participants – representatives of 33 European and Latin American countries including the US, Great Britain and France – to accept these refugees, many of whom were forced to return to their homeland where they subsequently became victims of the Holocaust.
All this was also preceded by the Four-Power Pact – an international agreement signed by representatives of Italy, Great Britain, Germany and France on 15 July 1933. Literally a few months after Hitler came to power, in other words, and exactly when the Soviet Union started curtailing its cooperation with Germany, which was common practice during the Weimar Republic. So when someone writes that the Soviet Union was preparing pilots for Hitler, it is out of ignorance at best. The USSR was preparing them for the Weimar Republic, which, at that time, was the most democratic country in Europe and no one even imagined that Hitler would come to power. And the USSR started curtailing its cooperation precisely because it understood what Nazism was. There is good reason why the slogan of the German Communist Party in the Reichstag’s final elections before the Nazis came to power was “Hitler is War”. The Germans did not heed the warning and neither did the future Allies.
The Greatest Enemy
Literally until the very moment the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, the Soviet Union, and the Communist movement as a whole, regarded fascism as its greatest and most dangerous enemy, especially German fascism, although the Soviet leadership also accused other political forces of imperialism. During a discussion with Romain Rolland in 1935, Stalin stated which side the Soviet Union would take in a conflict between fascist and bourgeois democratic states: “Naturally, on the side of the bourgeois democratic governments… Intervening in this way, we would help tip the scales in the battle between fascism and anti-fascism, between aggression and non-aggression. We would be the extra weight that tips the scales in favour of anti-fascism and non-aggression.” Also in 1935, speaking at the 7th World Congress of the Communist International, Georgi Dimitrov stated: “Fascism in power [is] the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital. […] In foreign policy, fascism is jingoism in its most brutal form, fomenting bestial hatred of other nations.”
But let us return to the policies of Western countries. Why did they choose to behave so obsequiously when confronted with Nazi Germany, not to mention Hitler himself? Especially given that, by all contemporary accounts, not just the combined power of these countries, but the French army alone exceeded German forces. Even Czechoslovakia had considerable military strength. What did the German generals, afraid of this power and plotting against Hitler in anticipation of his impending defeat, know? The answer is simple: fear of a possible war. Great Britain and especially France were haunted by memories of the First World War. It is known that, after the war, when Henri Pétain was tried in court for France’s surrender in 1941, he said he had done what the French wanted. And Czechoslovakia’s refusal to resist was also based on a desire to avoid war, even at the cost of enslavement. One could say that the gist of France and Great Britain’s policies was to appease Germany at any cost. This explanation is understandable, but it still does not justify the behaviour of these two countries.
From an anti-Nazi alliance to a treaty with them
So, by the start of the trilateral Soviet–Franco–British talks on a mutual assistance treaty in April 1939, Moscow already had knowledge of how the Western participants had betrayed their allies and distrusted the sincerity of France and Great Britain’s intentions to actually sign such a treaty rather than stall on it while pushing Germany towards war in the east. This distrust was reinforced by the behaviour of the French and British representatives at the talks when they refrained from making any kind of commitments to the USSR. This wasn’t an accident or a political game. It is known that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain repeatedly spoke of his fundamental distrust of the Soviet Union. And although this was not made public, the Soviet leadership was more than likely aware of it. The situation was made worse by the position of Poland, which, on the one hand, was refusing to allow Soviet troops to enter its territory even should war break out, and, on the other, was trying to reach an agreement with Germany on a general confrontation with the USSR.
This is what Chamberlain wrote in his diary regarding the position of Poland’s foreign minister: “[Beck] was very anxious not to be tied up with Russia, not only because the Poles don’t like the Russians, but also because of the effect on German opinion and policy. He thought that such an association could still be avoided. I confess I very much agree with him for I regard Russia as a very unreliable friend with very little capacity for active assistance but with an enormous irritative power on others.”
This is all common knowledge, but critics of the Soviet–German pact of 1939 seem to somehow forget about it.
So, the Soviet leadership was faced with a dilemma. It could continue talks with France and Great Britain with unknown results and, in the event of no agreement and the inevitable outbreak of war, face a possible German attack with no support. There was also no certainty that the Allies would fulfil its obligations to Poland, as history had shown with Czechoslovakia. The other option was to enter into an agreement with Germany and deliberately delay its entry into a war that the Soviet Union was not ready for, and also take of advantage of the situation to move the border a few hundred kilometres west of the Soviet Union’s centres. The Soviet leadership chose the second option in the almost certain belief that, among other things, if the Allies did fulfil their obligations to Poland, the war would become as protracted as the First World War, when trench warfare on the Western Front lasted for the whole four years. That is, the Soviet leadership tried to play the same game it suspected its future allies of playing. Indeed, no one could have imagined the defeat of France in 1940, when what was considered to be the strongest army in Europe crumbled under German pressure in just a month and France chose the shame of surrender over fighting back.
The defeat no one expected
So, the treaty with Germany signed, Germany attacked Poland. And, sure enough, the Allies – who, although having declared war on Germany, hadn’t really made any serious attempt to get involved in the war – behaved exactly as the Soviet leadership had suspected and betrayed Poland just as they had betrayed Czechoslovakia. Also as expected, they were counting on Hitler moving further east. The Phoney War began, which lasted until the defeat of Poland. With the deployment of troops, the Polish press had enthusiastically welcomed the Allies’ declaration of war on Germany, but, by the end of the campaign, it was full of vitriolic caricatures of their behaviour.
But the Phoney War continued for a while until Germany decided to end it and launched its attack on France on 10 May 1940, which ended with the latter’s defeat and its signing of the Armistice agreement on 22 June 1940.
The ‘partition’ of Poland
Critics of Soviet policy during this period place particular emphasis on the so-called partition of Poland, which they regard as complicity in German aggression against the country due to a secret conspiracy between Germany and the USSR. We’ll leave aside the accusations of a secret conspiracy – such agreements are only ever secret.
But let us try to answer two questions. First, would war have been avoidable if the Soviet Union hadn’t signed the agreement with Germany? And second, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the war, did the Soviet Union have any other choice but to occupy part of Poland?
In answer to the first question, note that many believe Hitler was afraid of a war on two fronts, and if the USSR had entered into an alliance with Western countries, then he would have been in two minds about attacking Poland. But he had actually already driven himself into a corner with his demands on Poland for Danzig to become part of Germany and the elimination of the Polish corridor. Deviating from these demands was, firstly, not in the Führer’s style and, secondly, would have meant a complete loss of face because it was one of his biggest promises when he came to power. So Hitler was hardly likely to back down, especially as it wasn’t really possible for the Soviet Union to join the war given that Poland was refusing to allow Soviet troops to pass through its territory. It seems that the Soviet leadership was also of this view.
One shouldn’t forget, either, that in Mein Kampf (1925–1926), Hitler declared that his main goal was to conquer land to the east of Europe in order to increase German living space and that this could only be achieved by starting with Poland.
In answering the second question, one needs to understand the dilemma being faced by the Soviet leadership: to allow German forces to occupy the whole of Poland or occupy part of Poland with a view to moving the new border with Germany a few hundred kilometres away from the centres of the Soviet Union. And if the Soviet leaders chose occupying part of Poland, then, given the unavoidability of German aggression against the country, would it not be better for them to reach an agreement with Germany? It sounds extremely cynical, but it is not like the European leaders of that time were known for their idealism.
As Churchill wrote: “In favour of the Soviets, it must be said that it was vital for the Soviet Union to push the initial positions of the German armies as far as possible to the West so that the Russians would gain time and be able to gather forces from all over their colossal empire. The minds of all Russians had been branded with the catastrophes suffered by their army in 1914, when they attacked the Germans before being fully mobilised. And now their borders were considerably further east than they had been during the first war. They needed to occupy the Baltic states and most of Poland either by force or deception before they themselves were attacked. While their policy was coldly calculating, it was also highly realistic at the time.”
Was the Soviet leadership harbouring illusions with regard to Hitler’s ultimate goals? Of course not. This is evidenced by the USSR’s ongoing preparations for war.
Consequences of the Pact
Critics of the pact state that one of its negative consequences was the Soviet Union’s supply of large quantities of raw materials to Germany that made it possible for Germany to mitigate the consequences of the blockade being established by Great Britain and the US. But much less attention is paid to what the USSR was receiving from Germany. These supplies were extremely important for strengthening the USSR’s defences. Why exactly Hitler agreed to them is a different matter, however. Chances are he thought the Soviet Union was so weak that the supplies wouldn’t make a difference.
Among other things, the USSR received hundreds of advanced military vehicles and industrial goods, including samples of the latest warplanes and a variety of aircraft equipment. It also received the incomplete naval cruiser Lützow and naval equipment, samples of tanks and artillery, equipment for the oil industry and for nickel, lead, copper smelting, chemical, cement and steel wire plants, and much, much more. Could the USSR have ignored these opportunities?
But the most important thing is that the pact gave the Soviet Union an additional two years of relative calm and the advancement of its borders to the west, which played a significant role in 1941 outside Moscow, strange though that may sound. In his classic work The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, well-known British historian Adam Tooze acknowledges that, for the most part, the defeat of German troops outside Moscow was, among other reasons, due to logistical difficulties between the advancing army and the main supply depots in Poland, and the extra 200–300 kilometres provided by the pact was a big part of that.
Occupying the Baltic states also averted the immediate capture of Leningrad, which is just a few dozen kilometres from the Estonian border. Chances are not everyone in the Baltic states was happy about it, but the USSR had very little choice. It could either allow the Baltic states to be occupied by the Germans or occupy them itself. Especially as the Soviet leadership had the example of Belgium, which the Germans occupied despite its neutrality.
A great power ignoring the interests of smaller countries for the sake of its own security sounds cynical, of course, but it is the cynicism of history. Have we not witnessed, not only in the most difficult of times but in every post-war decade, a well-known power behaving the same way towards other countries it believes are in its sphere of interests, even when they are on the other side of the world?
The capture of Leningrad would also have meant that communication would be cut offs between the centres of the USSR and the most important northern ports – Murmansk and Arkhangelsk – through which came the majority of aid from the Soviet Union’s allies.
When the Germans nevertheless established a blockade around Leningrad, they were no longer up to it, having been forced to abandon all their reserves outside Moscow.
To conclude, it is safe to say that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was a standard treaty in the style of Realpolitik prevalent in every state at that time. Every single one of Germany’s future opponents feared war, they all tried to come up with ways to avoid it, even at the expense of others, they were prepared to betray their closest allies, as has been shown, and they all underestimated the adventurism of Hitler, who was just not comfortable with Realpolitik.