Stephen R A'Barrow
Putin’s Fake History Party Cancelled?
Russia’s President Putin is taking an ever more revisionist view of Russia’s pivotal role in the outbreak of World War II, of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of Alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and particularly the with regard to Stalin’s invasion of Poland.
The fact ignored by almost all historians of all nations on all sides of the historical debate around the importance of the Hitler-Stalin pact is its most enduring one; namely that Stalin insisted (and the West, and particularly Winston Churchill reluctantly acquiesced), in Stalin being allowed to keep the near 60% of pre-war Polish territory occupied by the Red Army. This territory including many of Poland’s most historically important cities such as Lwow, Wilno, Baranowicze and Stanislawow to name but a few remained parts of the Soviet Union, its Polish populations violently ethnically cleansed from these territories in the immediate aftermath of the war. As a result more than half of historical Poland today remains as part of Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine.
When I first visited Soviet Union in the mid 1980’s the Communist party’s history books denied the very existence of Molotov-Rib pact. Putin’s latest utterances with regard to the pact and the causes of the outbreak of World War II and in the rhetoric surrounding his attempt to invite the World’s leaders to Russia’s largest commemoration and celebration of the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, invite comparison to Soviet era historical rewrites.
Putin’s ire has been raised by many World leader’s failure to accept his invitation to his Red Square 9th May 75th ‘commemoration’ of the key role the Soviet Union played in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Russian president has also been particularly indignant about a European Parliament resolution in September 2019, that singled out the then Soviet Union regime and said that it was partially responsible, along with Nazi Germany, for events leading to the Second World War. The European Parliament said the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, “paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War.”
Putin’s anger at the West and Poland in particular has sought to remind the world that Poland, Britain and many other nations signed similar strategic or non-aggression pacts with the Nazi regime during the inter-war period. None of these non-aggression pacts however sought to give Stalin, or any nation, such a vast blank cheque, sphere of influence and open invitation to invade virtually all the countries along the Soviet Union’s western frontier in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the fateful Hitler – Stalin pact from the late summer of 1939.
Speaking to The Guardian after Mr Putin made further remarks about, in his view, the harmless nature of Stalin’s invasions, Slawomir Debski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said: “Putin is saying that annexation of the Baltic states, aggression on Poland, aggression on Romania, on Finland, all of this was not a big deal, a natural part of history, and that is a problem.”
That, in turn, came after a concerted effort from the Russian foreign ministry earlier this year to rehabilitate the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, which 10 years ago Putin had called “pointless, harmful and dangerous”. This year, Russia’s culture minister called it “a triumph of Soviet diplomacy”. Putin, in his 20 December 2019 speech, insisted that the pact was born of Soviet defensive requirements and only came about after other western powers, including Poland, had signed their own agreements with the Nazis. Putin pointed to Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement in particular, saying war became inevitable after this point.
I would argue that it is the biggest blind side of both Western and nationalist Kremlin favoured Russian historians, to continually ignore that as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact Nazi Germany invaded 40% of one country -Poland - and the Soviet Union invaded and kept 60% of Poland and also invaded Finland (seizing and keeping to the is day most of Finish Karelia), the three Baltic states (which they then went on to thoroughly colonise) and seized Bessarabia (modern Moldova) from Romania. Therefore the Soviet Union invaded 6 countries, arguably the most aggressive set of invasions and annexations at the start of World War II but certainly the most enduring.
It is also forgotten that Churchill’s mad plan to invade neutral Norway to assist the Finns in their heroic defence of their country against Soviet invasion during the 1939-40 Winter War. An invasion of neutral Norway that would also have seen the invasion of neutral Sweden allegedly to cut Nazi Germany’s supply lines to Swedish iron ore. Invasions, had that they succeeded would have put Great Britain simultaneously at war with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. An issue that Molotov mocked Churchill and Britain over after its disastrous invasion of Norway failed. So there are lots of reasons nations do a Lord Nelson and put the telescope to their blind eye on the entire period in the final run up to the outbreak of World War II.
Putin is on stronger ground when he points out that authoritarian Poland was no saint during the inter war period with expansionistic, militaristic and anti-Semitic policies of its own and was even considered and considering joining the Axis’s Anti Comintern (anti Soviet / Communist alliance founded by Hitler and Mussolini). The Polish Foreign Minister from 1932-39, Jozef Beck, having adopted a policy of appeasement toward Germany and endorsed the use of force in politics and international relations, expressed sympathy for Franco in the Spanish Civil War and approved Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. Poland had its own expansionist foreign policy aims, namely the re-establishment of the ‘Union of Lublin’ essentially for a renewed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whether the Lithuanians liked it or not. Poland’s government also maintained a deep-rooted loathing of Soviet Russia and was virulently anti-Semitic (see earlier article ‘Rub your lucky Jew’ on anti-Semitism in Poland). It is certainly true that for a time both the Nazi regime and the authoritarian government in Warsaw viewed each other as viable allies against Stalin’s Russia. However, the Poles were not willing to become unwitting satellites at the mercy of Nazi foreign policy, nor were they willing to cede their claims to Danzig and the Polish corridor and on these two key issues relations between Nazi Germany and Poland foundered. Poland’s final pre-war cynical expansionist land grab has been largely forgotten. Poland used the opportunity of the break-up of Czechoslovakia, when after the declaration of independence of Slovakia Hitler marched into Prague and occupied the remainder of the Czech state, in contravention of commitments he had given ‘to no more territorial acquisitions in Europe’ at the time of the Munich agreement. The Polish military used the opportunity of the ensuing chaos and crossed the Czech border to seize the strategically important industrial enclave around Teschen (Cieszyn/Zaolzie), something which many Czechs have never forgiven them for.
The core problem with Putin’s revisionist history of the causes of the outbreak of World War II and the outrageous assertion that Poland was responsible for its own invasion, or even that the Soviets were attempting to aid their Polish neighbours, is that it is essentially no more than a revival of Soviet era propaganda. Soviet historians never formally described the Red Army’s invasion of eastern Poland as an invasion at all. Instead, in the words of Corps Commissar S. Kozhevnikov, writing in the Soviet military newspaper Red Star, “the Red Army stretched out the hand of fraternal assistance to the workers of Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia freeing them forever from social and national bondage.” The Soviet Union never admitted to having conquered or annexed the Polish territory: These lands remained part of the U.S.S.R. after the war and are still part of modern Belarus and Ukraine today. Instead, the whole operation was described as a battle conducted on behalf of the “liberated peoples of Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia.” This is simply put ‘historical horseshit’ and a good reminder, if one was ever required that historians (and not nationally and especially Kremlin appointed ones) should write history and politicians should also leave history well alone.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin should be called out by historians around the World for in the course of a single week, bringing up the subject of Polish responsibility for the Second World War no less than five times. And after yet another meeting with the president, the speaker of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, publicly called for Poland to apologize for starting the war!
This is a simply staggering and deeply unsettling level of historical revisionism from the most powerful people in Russia. Poland may have been many things but it was certainly not responsible for starting World War II, in fact in percentage terms of loss of population it was one of its greatest victims and Poles are acutely aware that there were nearly as many Poles killed during the Soviet invasions, occupations and expulsions of 1939-41 & 1944-53 as there were under the areas occupied by the Nazis from 1939-1944.
Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has understandably launched a furious response to claims by Vladimir Putin that Poland was partially responsible for the outbreak of the second world war stating that “Without Stalin’s complicity in the partition of Poland, and without the natural resources that Stalin supplied to Hitler, the Nazi German crime machine would not have taken control of Europe.”
Poles are worried and even within their exceptionally fractious political system there has been an unusual call for unity in facing the threat of Russian revisionism. With former Polish Prime Minister and President of the European Council Donald Tusk pleading “In view of President Putin’s brazen lies and Russian propaganda, a joint position of the Polish authorities and the opposition is needed. This is not the place and time for an internal dispute.” While earlier, a former Polish foreign minister stated Putin’s words resembled “propaganda from the time of Stalinist totalitarianism”. Not that Polish politicians including those named above, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in particular, have not regularly also indulged in their own fair share of historical denial and revisionism.
Putin Russia remains and is likely to continue to remain unrepentant, is again ramping up denial of the many sins committed by the Red Army across Central and Eastern Europe both during and after the Second World War. Putin’s foreign policy also remains dangerous expansionistic and unchanged from the time of the Tsars, whether in Georgia, the Crimea, the eastern Ukraine and beyond. Those bordering Russia have again been given cause to fear a revisionist and expansionist Russia. It is worth noting that when mother Russia takes something it is not ever inclined to give it back and that unlike Trump’s much vaunted attempts to wall off Mexico, Putin’s wall to wall off the territories he has annexed in eastern Ukraine has already been completed. Here much of the media’s eye remains as blind as the revisionist politicians it largely continues to fail to properly scrutinise.
Hopefully this year’s May Day parades and Russia’s 9th May, 75th anniversary of the end of the War, will be undermined not only by the failure of many world leaders to accept their invitation but by the ‘excuse’ offered by the COVID-19 pandemic to politely not attend another of Putin’s propaganda and historical rewrite spectacles. It appears that Putin’s latest attempts to glorify the triumph over Nazism, as well as his own leadership, will be cancelled. If that happens then this will be a victory of one terrible virus over another - fake history. And if it does take place then let it be deservedly diminished.
For more information on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and Stalin’s ethnic cleansing / reordering or Central & Eastern Europe see also blogs on ‘Stalin’s Wars' , 'Savage Peace’, 'The Other Horror’, and read my book ‘Death of a Nation – a new history of Germany’ which is celebrating the 5th anniversary of its publication on 8th May 2020.
To read a new history of Germany and learn about its influence on modern Europe, read my book 'Death of a Nation', available now.
The book was reviewed in History of War magazine. Click the image below to read the review.
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