The Bloody Treaty
August 23rd marks the anniversary of the infamous Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. While the document ultimately led to the start of the Second World War, the Kremlin continues to challenge this historical consensus. This corresponds with Moscow’s past attempts to obscure the memory of millions of Jews who suffered directly as a result of the agreement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin presents himself as a fighter against Nazism. However, in his hobby as a historian, he has unexpectedly rehabilitated the 1939 pact between Stalin and Hitler that divided Europe. Putin is revising the history of the USSR and “whitewashing” the Soviet regime. This is how he also views the Soviet Union’s invasive and unsuccessful wars in Finland in 1939 and Afghanistan in 1979. He does the same with the imperialist Non-Aggression Pact concluded between the USSR and Nazi Germany in August 1939, more famously known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact after the two countries’ foreign ministers. From 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union was Germany’s ally in the eastern theatre of war and supplied Berlin with minerals, oil and foodstuffs needed to fight France and Britain. These years saw the Soviet Union’s internal propaganda present Nazi Germany as a friendly state, with German policy left uncriticised and some Nazi speeches even published. Sometimes at meetings people would openly praise “Comrade Hitler” and call for the “triumph of international fascism”. Swastikas began to be placed on buildings and even in posters with images of Soviet leaders. Joseph Stalin personally signed the agreement’s secret protocol, which provided for the partition of Poland, Finland and the Baltic States between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as the annexation of Bessarabia by the Soviet Union (then part of Romania and now Moldova). The country most affected by this treaty was Poland, which ceased to exist as an independent state. Stalin had a special score to settle with this country. During the failed Polish-Soviet War of 1920, the leader was a member of the Revolutionary Military Council (political commissariat) on the south-western front. The neighbouring country was called in the USSR by no other name than “Panský Polska” (“lordly Poland”) and was blamed for everything and always. Poland, “the country of masters”, was presented as a despicable nation, an enemy of the Soviet toilers. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact talked about “friendship” between the USSR and Germany. In a telegram to Hitler in response to his congratulations on his 60th birthday in December 1939, Stalin repeated and strengthened this idea: “The friendship of the peoples of Germany and the Soviet Union, cemented by blood, has every reason to be long and strong.” This alliance was ultimately cemented by the blood of the millions of victims of the Second World War.
The treaty today
In 2009, the European Parliament proclaimed August 23rd, the date of the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the USSR, as a day of remembrance for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. On September 19th 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “On the importance of preserving historical memory for the future of Europe”, in which it condemned the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, which “divided Europe and the territories of independent states between two totalitarian regimes” and “paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War”. In total, 535 MEPs voted in favour of the resolution, while 66 voted against and 52 abstained. The resolution was sharply condemned by Russia, with Putin stating at a meeting with CIS heads of state on December 20th 2019 that “the true causes of the war lie in the policy of European states that encouraged Germany’s militarisation and its expansionist plans.” In an article for the American conservative publication National Interest in June 2020, Putin called the Soviet annexation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact “consistent with the international and state law of the time”. The times were different but the policy of seizing foreign territories in today’s Russia and the USSR seem to be similar. Russia’s campaign against Ukraine in 2014 was similar to the German campaign against Czechoslovakia in 1938, as they used ethnic nationalism and invented historical regions populated by Germans (Sudetenland) and Russians (Donbas, Novorossiya) respectively. They also supported separatists, who simply had no chance of success without external support from their patrons. While Czechoslovakia was the most democratic country among the countries of Eastern Europe, Ukraine is the most democratic country still currently in the post-Soviet space. The struggle of the totalitarian powers of Germany and Russia against the democratic countries of Czechoslovakia and Ukraine may explain Putin’s desire to justify the conclusion of a treaty between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Conspiracy of silence
In 1939, the USSR’s minister (people’s commissar) of foreign affairs was a Jew called Maxim Litvinov. However, three months before the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact, he was dismissed from his post and replaced by the Russian Vyacheslav Molotov. With this dismissal, Stalin wanted to please Hitler, who did not want to deal with Jews in any way. The Soviet leader became aware of the plight of the Jews in the German zone of Poland. However, he was unwilling to help them. In February 1940, Adolf Eichmann proposed to the Soviet leadership that two million Jews, that is, most of Polish Jewry, be transferred from Germany to the USSR. This move would have saved most Polish Jews from extermination. The Soviet Union responded to this proposal with a refusal.
Many Jews contributed to the birth, establishment and consolidation of Soviet power. Despite this, times were changing, as Soviet internationalism ceased to exist after the USSR concluded a peace treaty with Nazi Germany. In September 1939, the Second World War began. It started with the German attack on Poland but Polish newspapers still had time to report on the Nazis’ genocidal behaviour towards Jews. However, the Soviet people did not read Polish newspapers. They did not read any newspapers other than Soviet ones. Therefore, Nazi crimes against the Jews were unknown to them. As a result, between 2.5 and 2.6 million Jews quietly remained in the western parts of the USSR, leading to almost all of them perishing during the German occupation. Isaac Deutscher, a Polish-British biographer of Stalin and Trotsky, wrote: “Stalin’s propagandists found nothing better to do than to keep embarrassed silence. He forbade them to respond with a counter-strike that would expose the strange, inhuman nature of Hitler’s antisemitism. He was afraid to appear as a defender of the Jews, a role that nothing in the world could force him to take on. He was frightened by the response that antisemitism received among the masses, and the readiness with which Russian and Ukrainian Jew-haters supported the Nazis in the occupied territories only strengthened him in such fears.” Deutscher further writes that “the press and radio were silent about the extermination of European Jewry that was taking place in the Nazi rear. They barely mentioned the death camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek, and if they did, they wrote about them in such a way that no one realised that Jews were the main victims.” Because of this conspiracy of silence, millions of Jews of the USSR perished. The Soviet authorities did not warn the Jews that they were risking their lives by remaining in Nazi-occupied territory.
A form of forgetting
In justifying a policy that cost millions of Jewish lives, Putin contradicts his statements on the fight against Nazism and antisemitism. He glosses over the extermination of the Jews that took place thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This agreement was the first act of state-mandated antisemitism in Soviet history, as it left millions of Jews to be slaughtered by the Nazis. This was not “primary” but “secondary” state antisemitism. When the extermination of Soviet Jews, as well as their resistance to the Nazis in the partisan units of Belarus and ranks of the Soviet army, became known, the Soviet government decided not to mention anything. The Soviet authorities did not need Jews either as victims or as heroes. It was forbidden to indicate the deaths of Jews on monuments to the victims of Nazism. Instead, they named Soviet citizens as victims. This was a silencing of the Holocaust. It was not the Holocaust denial that existed in a number of countries but it was a form of forgetting. It was a manifestation of so-called “secondary antisemitism”. “Primary” conventional antisemitism stems from the inequality of Jews with non-Jews. This sees Jews cast as inferior people because of their supposed negative traits and acts, among them the crucifixion of Christ, the poisoning of wells, the drinking of blood of Christian babies, racial inferiority, economic predation, the desire to rule the world, etc. The concept of “secondary antisemitism” was introduced by Peter Schoenbach, a student of Theodor Adorno, one of the leaders of the Frankfurt School. The Dutch political scientist Lars Rensmann interprets “secondary antisemitism” as a “new source of criticism of Jews, motivated by the desire of some European nations to suppress the guilt of their ancestors and remove the memories of the Holocaust from the collective memory of the nation.” Secondary antisemitism is also the desire to conceal involvement in the extermination of Jews or the refusal to help them in an attempt to avoid extermination. Soviet secondary state antisemitism, which isolated Soviet Jews from helpful information about Nazi policies in the occupied territories, and the unwillingness of the Soviet authorities to save Polish Jews from extermination, was not merely a collaboration with the devil, but an endorsement of his crimes.
Alex Gordon is a native of Kyiv and graduate of Kyiv State University and Haifa Technion (Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Science). He emigrated to Israel in 1979 and served in IDF reserve infantry units for 13 years. He is a full Professor (Emeritus) of Physics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Haifa and at Oranim, the Academic College of Education. He is also the chair of the committee for the appointment of professors on behalf of the Council for Higher Education of the State of Israel. He has written ten books and about 700 articles in print and online, and has been published in 84 journals in 16 countries in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, English, French and German.
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