Third of five parts
OBVIOUSLY, there was no alternative. Otherwise, the USSR would face seriously increased risks because — I will say this again — the old Soviet-Polish border ran only within a few tens of kilometers from Minsk. The country would have to enter the inevitable war with the Nazis from very disadvantageous strategic positions, while millions of people of different nationalities, including the Jews living near Brest and Grodno, Przemyśl, Lvov and Wilno, would be left to die at the hands of the Nazis and their local accomplices — anti-Semites and radical nationalists.
The fact that the Soviet Union sought to avoid engaging in the growing conflict for as long as possible and was unwilling to fight side by side with Germany was the reason why the real contact between the Soviet and the German troops occurred much farther east than the borders agreed in the secret protocol. It was not on the Vistula River but closer to the so-called Curzon Line, which back in 1919 was recommended by the Triple Entente as the eastern border of Poland.
As is known, the subjunctive mood can hardly be used when we speak of the past events. I will only say that in September 1939, the Soviet leadership had an opportunity to move the western borders of the USSR even farther west, all the way to Warsaw, but decided against it.
The Germans suggested formalizing the new status quo. On Sept. 28, 1939, J. Ribbentrop and V. Molotov signed in Moscow the Boundary and Friendship Treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as the secret protocol on changing the state border, according to which the border was recognized at the demarcation line where the two armies de facto stood.
In autumn 1939, the Soviet Union, pursuing its strategic military and defensive goals, started the process of incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Their accession to the USSR was implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities. This was in line with international and state law of that time. Besides, in October 1939, the city of Wilno and the surrounding area, which had previously been part of Poland, were returned to Lithuania. The Baltic republics within the USSR preserved their government bodies, language, and had representation in the higher government entities of the Soviet Union.
During all these months there was an ongoing invisible diplomatic and politico-military struggle and intelligence work. Moscow understood that it was facing a fierce and cruel enemy, and that a covert war against Nazism was already going on. And there was no reason to take official statements and formal protocol notes of that time as a proof of “friendship” between the USSR and Germany. The Soviet Union had active trade and technical contacts not only with Germany, but with other countries as well. Whereas Hitler tried again and again to draw the Soviet Union into Germany’s confrontation with the UK. But the Soviet government stood firm.
The last attempt to persuade the USSR to act together was made by Hitler during Molotov’s visit to Berlin in November 1940. But Molotov accurately followed Stalin’s instructions and limited himself to a general discussion of the German idea of the Soviet Union joining the Tripartite Pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan in September 1940 and directed against the UK and the US. No wonder that already on November 17 Molotov gave the following instructions to the Soviet plenipotentiary representative in London Ivan Maisky: “For your information…No agreement was signed or was intended to be signed in Berlin. We just exchanged our views in Berlin…and that was all…Apparently, the Germans and the Japanese seem anxious to push us towards the Gulf and India. We declined the discussion of this matter as we consider such advice on the part of Germany to be inappropriate.” And on November 25, the Soviet leadership called it a day altogether by officially putting forward to Berlin the conditions that were unacceptable to the Nazis, including the withdrawal of German troops from Finland, mutual assistance treaty between Bulgaria and the USSR, and a number of others. Thus it deliberately excluded any possibility of joining the Pact. Such position definitely shaped the Fuehrer’s intention to unleash a war against the USSR. And already in December, putting aside the warnings of his strategists about the disastrous danger of having a two-front war, Hitler approved Operation Barbarossa. He did this with the knowledge that the Soviet Union was the major force that opposed him in Europe and that the upcoming battle in the East would decide the outcome of the world war. And he had no doubts as to the swiftness and success of the Moscow campaign.
And here I would like to highlight the following: Western countries, as a matter of fact, agreed at that time with the Soviet actions and recognized the Soviet Union’s intention to ensure its national security. Indeed, back on Oct. 1, 1939, Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty back then, in a radio speech said: “Russia has pursued a cold policy of self-interest… But that the Russian armies should stand on this line [meaning the new Western border] was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace.” On Oct. 4, 1939, speaking in the House of Lords, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax said, “…it should be recalled that the Soviet government’s actions were to move the border essentially to the line recommended at the Versailles Conference by Lord Curzon… I only cite historical facts and believe they are indisputable.” Prominent British politician and statesman David Lloyd George emphasized: “The Russian armies occupied the territories that are not Polish and that were forcibly seized by Poland after World War 1 … It would be an act of criminal insanity to put the Russian advancement on a par with the German one.”
In informal communications with Soviet plenipotentiary representative Ivan Maisky, British high-ranking politicians and diplomats spoke even more openly. On Oct 17, 1939, Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs R.A. Butler confided to Maisky that the British government circles believed there could be no question of returning Western Ukraine and Belorussia to Poland. According to him, if it had been possible to create an ethnographic Poland of a modest size with a guarantee not only of the USSR and Germany, but also of Britain and France, the British government would have considered itself quite satisfied. On Oct. 27, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s senior adviser Horace Wilson said that Poland had to be restored as an independent state on its ethnographic basis, but without Western Ukraine and Belorussia.
It is worth noting that in the course of these conversations the possibilities for improving British-Soviet relations were also explored. These contacts to a large extent laid the foundation for future alliance and anti-Hitler coalition. Winston Churchill stood out among responsible and far-sighted politicians and, despite his infamous dislike for the USSR, had been in favor of cooperating with the Soviets even before. Back in May 1939, he said in the House of Commons, “We shall be in mortal danger if we fail to create a Grand Alliance against aggression. The worst folly… would be to… drive away any natural cooperation with Soviet Russia…” And after the start of hostilities in Europe, at his meeting with Ivan Maisky on Oct. 6, 1939 he confided that there were no serious contradictions between the UK and the USSR and, therefore, there was no reason for strained or unsatisfactory relations. He also mentioned that the British government was eager to develop trade relations and willing to discuss any other measures that might improve the relationships.
World War 2 did not happen overnight, nor did it start unexpectedly or all of a sudden. And German aggression against Poland was not out of nowhere. It was the result of a number of tendencies and factors in the world politics of that time. All pre-war events fell into place to form one fatal chain. But, undoubtedly, the main factors that predetermined the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind were state egoism, cowardice, appeasement of the aggressor who was gaining strength, and unwillingness of political elites to search for compromise.
Therefore, it is unfair to claim that the two-day visit to Moscow of Nazi Foreign Minister J. Ribbentrop was the main reason for the start of World War 2. All the leading countries are to a certain extent responsible for its outbreak. Each of them made fatal mistakes, arrogantly believing that they could outsmart others, secure unilateral advantages for themselves or stay away from the impending global catastrophe. And this shortsightedness, the refusal to create a collective security system cost millions of lives and tremendous losses.
Saying this, I by no means intend to take on the role of a judge, to accuse or acquit anyone, let alone initiate a new round of international information confrontation in the historical field that could set countries and peoples at loggerheads. I believe that it is academics with a wide representation of respected scholars from different countries of the world who should search for a balanced assessment of what happened. We all need the truth and objectivity. On my part, I have always encouraged my colleagues to build a calm, open and trust-based dialogue, to look at the common past in a self-critical and unbiased manner. Such an approach will make it possible not to repeat the mistakes committed back then and to ensure peaceful and successful development for years to come.
However, many of our partners are not yet ready for joint work. On the contrary, pursuing their goals, they increase the number and the scope of information attacks against our country, trying to make us provide excuses and feel guilty. They adopt thoroughly hypocritical and politically motivated declarations. Thus, for example, the resolution on the ”Importance of European Remembrance for the Future of Europe” approved by the European Parliament on Sept. 19, 2019 directly accused the USSR — along with the Nazi Germany — of unleashing the Second World War. Needless to say, there is no mention of Munich in it whatsoever.
I believe that such “paperwork” — for I cannot call this resolution a document — which is clearly intended to provoke a scandal, is fraught with real and dangerous threats. Indeed, it was adopted by a highly respectable institution. And what did it show? Regrettably, it revealed a deliberate policy aimed at destroying the post-war world order whose creation was a matter of honor and responsibility for the countries a number of representatives of which voted today in favor of this deceitful resolution. Thus, they challenged the conclusions of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the efforts of the international community to create after the victorious 1945 universal international institutions. Let me remind you in this regard that the process of European integration itself leading to the establishment of relevant structures, including the European Parliament, became possible only due to the lessons learned from the past and its accurate legal and political assessment. And those who deliberately put this consensus into question undermine the foundations of the entire post-war Europe.
Apart from posing a threat to the fundamental principles of the world order, this also raises certain moral and ethical issues. Desecrating and insulting the memory is mean. Meanness can be deliberate, hypocritical and pretty much intentional as in the situation when declarations commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 mention all participants in the anti-Hitler coalition except for the Soviet Union. Meanness can be cowardly as in the situation when monuments erected in honour of those who fought against Nazism are demolished and these shameful acts are justified by the false slogans of the fight against an unwelcome ideology and alleged occupation. Meanness can also be bloody as in the situation when those who come out against neo-Nazis and Bandera’s successors are killed and burned. Once again, meanness can have different manifestations, but this does not make it less disgusting.
To be concluded on Sunday