Memorial: On the Seventieth Anniversary of 17 September 1939
23 August – 1 September – 17 September: these three dates have forever linked the names of two dictators. The Pact between Stalin and Hitler and the subsequent events – the invasion of Poland, first by the Wehrmacht and then by the Red Army – are among the most shameful pages of Europe’s history.
The immorality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was clear from the outset even to the Bolshevik leadership. It was no accident that the additional protocols to it were classified, and their very existence vehemently denied by the Soviet authorities over fifty years. Even if the pact and secret protocols had remained on paper with no political consequences, they would still have been immoral. The discussion around marking out “spheres of influence” and “interest zones” was a discussion between two predators, relying on force and not respecting the freedom of peoples.
However the 23 August Pact had political consequences. Among these were the division of pre-War Polish territory between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, the loss of independence for three Baltic republics, an aggressive war against Finland for which the USSR was expelled from the League of Nations in 1939. The mass purges and deportations on territory joined to the USSR were also as a result of the Pact.
Attempts to lay the blame for these crimes on the Soviet people, or still more so, on modern Russia, are unjustified. The Soviet population had no idea that the so-called “Non-aggression Pact” was in fact a pact about the division of Eastern Europe. Soviet citizens were not striving to either “extend their living space” or subjugate neighbouring peoples. They did not sign or approve the secret protocols – they simply didn’t know about them.
Responsibility for the abrupt change in policy towards Hitler’s Germany, for the move towards “freedom sealed in blood” lies not with the people, but with Stalin and his Politburo cronies. It was not the people, but Stalin who from 1939 to 1941 was Hitler’s conscientious partner. It was the peoples of the Soviet Union who were doomed to rectify the consequences of Stalin’s criminal policy at the price of tens of millions of lives and inconceivable privations.
Russia has a duty to itself, to the world and to future generations to provide an accurate assessment of Stalin’s foreign policy in 1939-1941 and to uncover the whole truth regarding it.
All of this is clear and well-known. And yet, incredibly, in Russia there are ever more politicians who try to justify Stalin’s partnership with Hitler from 1939 to 1941. On the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, Russian television channels, as well as some public officials, wage a major propaganda campaign aimed at justifying the Soviet-German Pact of 23 August 1939.
Attempts to make a glossy picture out of the country’s real history are a measure only barely suitable for domestic consumption. Such a picture is with justification rejected by the outside world. The longer the Russian authorities avoid honest assessment of the past, the stronger the negative effect and the greater the loss to Russia’s authority, and mistrust of modern Russia.
Against this background one can only welcome the fact that in a recent article by Prime Minister Putin, published in the Polish newspaper “Wyborcza”, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was called “immoral”. However the lack of any mention in the article of the secret protocols and the consequent events, tragic for the peoples of Eastern Europe, can hardly facilitate the building of trust between Russia and its neighbours.
Half-truths are always perfidious and sometimes more insulting than downright lies.
It was mutual distrust that prevented a system of collective security in Europe before the Second World War.
Unlike the situation 70 years ago, current distrust is to a large extent based on different views of history. It is quite easy to overcome this distrust: it is sufficient to tell the whole truth and make all material in the archives of different countries concerning the pre-War period fully available.
Until this is done, all calls to create new systems of collective security and, in the first instance, calls coming from Russia, will not be taken seriously.
16 September 2009
Board of the International Memorial Society