01 сентября

About the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II (the truth and falsification of history) Part I

The main principle of history as a science is not to approach the assessment of past events only based on today’s situation. Only the support of authentic historical sources and taking into account the competent opinion of professional historians, allows us to draw fr om the past relevant and needed lessons.

For the Poles and the Germans, World War II (WWII) began on September 1st, 1939. For the British and the French, it began on September 3rd. For the Americans on December 7th 1941. Different nations remember the same facts differently.

Starting fr om the very beginning of the Versailles-Washington system that was built up as a result of World War I, the main principle of the world order between the two wars, aсcording to many historians, was inequality. The so-called “great powers” - England, France and USA – attempted to secure their domination by a targeted weakening of potential rivals. Germany was deprived of its rights, was demilitarized and was subject to humiliating reparations. The Osman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires were split up and Soviet Russia was internationally isolated.

Along our entire western border, a “cordon” of states was formed that had arisen on the debris of the Russian Empire, partially with nationalist regimes. The largest of those was Poland under Pilsudski, a country that in 1921 took Western Belarus and Western Ukraine fr om Russia and where the local population was polonisized with force.

The genuine position of Great Britain and France to this “entrance hall of Europe” was demonstrated in the Locarno treaty of 1925. Fearing an upcoming rapprochement between the Weimar republic and the Soviet Union, the guarantees of Versailles divided the borders of Germany into a western, inviolable border that could not be questioned, and an eastern where the Germans had quite a lot of freedom to act. In other words, it was suggested not to inhibit the ever stronger German revanchism but to “canalize”, to direct it in the “correct” eastern direction. It is not a surprise that just after the Nazis had come to power there were appeals to the “occupation of new Lebensraum in the east and its relentless germanisation”. This became the backbone of the foreign policy of the Third Reich. The aspiration to annihilate the Soviet Union, and later common cowardice, made Great Britain and France give unprecedented concessions to Hitler. The policy of “appeasement” made it easier for the Nazis to build up a fighting fit army, made it possible to have a comfortable «warming up exercise» in Spain and then, in 1936, to take back demilitarized Rhineland.

In March of 1938, with the silent consent of Great Britain and France, Hitler implemented the Anschluss of Austria and initialized the Sudetenland crisis when completing the infamous “Munich moment”. On September 12th, on the day before he met the Fuhrer, Neville Chamberlain said that Germany and England were “two pillars of the European world and the main supports against communism”. After that followed the division of the independent Czechoslovakia, representatives of whom were not even invited to the negotiation table.

“What happened in Munich will be the end of bolshevism in Europe, the end of Russian political influence on our continent”, said the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini triumphantly. It had become clear that such “small matters” as international law could not stop fascist aggressors and their supporters. The Soviet Union was now in a difficult situation and had to change its international priorities fast.

Let us remind ourselves of the fact that from the moment when the Nazis came to power the Soviet Union had tried to pursue a policy of collective security in Europe. In 1934 the Soviet government responded to a suggestion by the French minister of foreign affairs Louis Barthou who had taken the initiative to form an “Eastern pact” with the participation of the states in Eastern and Central Europe, including USSR and Germany.

For reasons that became evident at a later stage, Hitler flatly refused to sign such an agreement. And Germany, this is the irony of history, was warmly supported by Poland.

The blind anti-Sovietism of the “regime of colonels” for a long time had pushed the Poles into the sphere of Hitler’s influence. The Germans encouraged them for a long time and in 1938 gave them a part of Czechoslovakia and afterwards tantalized them with promises of Soviet Ukraine and an access to the Black Sea. At any rate this is clear from the notes from talks between the German minister of foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the head of the Polish Ministry of foreign affairs Josef Bek, notes that were found by Soviet foreign intelligence. These talks took place in Warsaw in January 1939.

In March 1939 Europe was hit by the next diplomatic crisis. Against all guarantees given to Great Britain and France in Munich, Hitler occupied Czechia and declared a German protectorate in Slovakia. Developing the success, the aggressor annexed Lithuanian Memel and after that came up with two ultimata at the same time, to Romania and Poland. The perspective of a huge war in Europe became clear to everyone.

Under huge pressure from general public, London and Paris condemned Germany and recalled their ambassadors from Berlin. During the whole of March there were tense international consultations and to these, in the end, the Soviet Union was invited as a participating part.

As an answer to the suggestion from Great Britain, the Soviet government came up with an initiative of working out a new Anglo-French-Soviet agreement of mutual help and as an annex to it a triparty military convention. On April 17th, 1939, on the threshold of war, the Moscow talks began, a foolhardy and sadly belated attempt to form an anti-Hitler coalition. It is symbolical that even before their beginning, on April 11th, 1939, the German general staff adopted the deplorably well-known “Fall Weiss” – the plan for a sudden attack on Poland.

Historians continue to argue about the reason for the collapse of the Anglo-French-Soviet initiative. First and foremost, one should notice that neither the British nor the French leaders wanted to meet Stalin personally. “Mister Chamberlain had direct talks with Hitler… He and Lord Halifax visited Rome”, remarked former prime minister of Great Britain David Lloyd George. “But whom did they send to Russia? They did not even send one of the junior ministers in their cabinet, they sent a clerk from the Foreign Office.”

In July Latvia and Estonia declared that they did not want to accept Soviet guarantees and entered into an agreement of non-aggression with Germany. In this way the whole of the Baltic area turned into a German foothold for an attack on the USSR.

The decisive, or more accurately the final point, was the disagreement on the question of transit of the Red Army through Poland. Continuing to be captured by their illusions, the Poles, on principle, denied giving Soviet forces the right to transit. Even pressure from official Paris on Warsaw did not help.

Further events developed rapidly. Having made sure that is was futile to consult further with London and Paris, the Soviet leadership declared its readiness to have direct consultations with Germany. Already on August 23rd, 1939 the minister of foreign affairs of the Third Reich, Joachim von Ribbentrop, came to Moscow on a urgent visit.

German diplomates went to unprecedented concessions in order to guarantee Soviet neutrality in the Polish campaign. The plan for the agreement was approved the same day and signed in the night in the Kremlin.

The tactical agreement with Hitler made it possible to shatter the coalition of Anglo-French “peacemakers” and the “axis powers”, gave the Soviet Union a couple of years of peace and helped to move the border with Germany to the west. The main benchmark of the agreement was national security and in the long run nobody at that time believed in a steadfast peace with the aggressor.

The further events confirmed that to have said no to the suggestions from von Ribbentrop would have put the Soviet Union in a much more difficult military and political situation.

Poland did not get any real help from Great Britain and France. After just two weeks it seized being an independent state and the guarantees from the western leaders turned into a diplomatic asylum for the Polish government in exile.

In spite of Hitler’s urgent demand Soviet troops did not cross the border into Poland up to the time when the Polish army had totally stopped resisting and the evacuation of the central organs of the government of the Polish Republic had been finished. On September 17th, 1939 the first units from the Red Army crossed the Soviet-Polish border. Sensibly analysing the situation, the commander-in-chief of the Polish army, marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly gave the order not to go into battle with them.

The Red Army reached the former border of the Russian empire in five days (let us remember that it was only 18 years ago that these former Russian territories were handed over to Poland as a result of the treaty of Riga).

The presence of Soviet soldiers, both in Poland and later in the Baltic states, made it possible not to allow for large pogroms on Jews, pogroms that were organized by local Nazi thugs without waiting for the German hosts to arrive. Of course, all these circumstances should be considered when assessing the Soviet foreign policy at the time.

The new Soviet-German border was met with silent international acceptance. “The fact that the Russian army should stand on that line, was totally necessary for Russia against Nazi threats”, Sir Winston Churchill underlined in a speech. A half-hearted consent to the territorial changes was also given by official Paris.

Great Britain and France were told that “today’s demarcation line is not the state border between Germany and the USSR”.

In the period from 1941 to 1944 Polish national units were again formed and armed behind the Soviet lines. Soldiers of the Polish army fought shoulder to shoulder with soldiers from the Red Army and freed their fatherland from the Nazis. More than 600 000 Red Army-soldiers gave their lives fighting on Polish soil.

They freed prisoners from Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka.

Already after the victory over Nazi Germany, and based on an initiative from the USSR, a large part of the industrialised territories were given to Poland: Silesia, Eastern Prussia and Pomerania. With the help of Soviet diplomats Poland enlarged its territory with almost 25%.

In the end of the 1930-s the USSR was the only country in Europe whose soldiers and officers were fighting army units of Nazi Germany and its satellites face to face. An undeclared war was ongoing in Spain wh ere the Soviet government supported the republicans, in China wh ere they defended themselves from Japanese aggression and also in Mongolia wh ere only three days before the signing of the pact, on August 20th,1939, a large attack on Khalkhin-Gol was initiated.