Review of Roger Moorhouse’s “The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-1941"

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tags: book review, Roger Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance



Murray Polner, a regular HNN book reviewer, wrote “No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran” and “When Can We Come Home? A Debate on Amnesty for Exiles, Anti-War Prisoners and Others.” He served in the U.S. Army.

 “On August 23, 1939, Stalin drank to Hitler’s health. Although the two dictators would never meet, the agreement that they had forged that day would change the world.”

So begins Roger Moorhouse’s outstanding and revelatory book about the startling and  shocking story  how Nazi Germany and Communist Russia teamed up to divide eastern Europe, allowing Moscow to absorb large swathes of Poland and the Baltics while granting Berlin a free hand  to attack Poland and successfully invade western Europe. As good as it is, he exaggerates a bit in claiming that “ignorance of the subject is surprising” and the “pact remains largely unknown,” which is certainly not true among historians of the era.

Bitter ideological enemies, the two behemoths had recently fought as proxies in Spain’s Civil War.  But on August 23, 1939, prompted by unapologetic realpolitik  and mindful of what might be gained from linking up, and in spite of some skepticism within their inner circles, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed. The Soviets had signaled their intent when it replaced its moderate Jewish foreign minister  Maxim Litvinoff, a symbol of anti-Nazism and the Popular Front, with Vyachaslav Molotov, Stalin’s classic poodle. “Fascism,” he said after dismissing criticism, “ is a matter of taste.” Hitler, meanwhile, reluctantly bought  the arguments of his foreign minister Joachim  von Ribbentrop and members of his eastern-oriented  foreign office that German national interests would best be served by such a pact.

For communists and their sympathizers throughout the world the news of the signing  was nothing less than a bombshell. Long devoted to the principle that  the Soviet Union and not the appeasement-minded west was the greatest bulwark against the Nazi evil, they were now suddenly forced to become  instant ideological acrobats, overnight shifting its messages and policies from spirited anti-fascism to isolationism. In the U.S., the Party directed its loyalists to its new catchphrase “No, the Yanks are Not Coming”— a throwaway slogan once Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and a connection to the west was imperative.

In Britain, the shock was so great the party nearly split. Kenneth Robinson, a future Labor Minister, echoed the general view. “We just did not know what to do.” Even in Moscow and Berlin it was a hard sell. Both Hitler and Stalin talked of gearing up their propaganda machines to defend the pact, but there were limits. Neither country could really convince their respective publics about the sincerity of its partners’ "newfound benevolence.” Roger Moorehouse, author of Berlin at War  and Killing Hitler, correctly observes that the pact, much like Khrushchev’s revelations in 1956 about Stalin’s terror regime, the invasion of Hungary that same year, plus  the suppression of the Czech Spring in 1968, effectively and forever destroyed communism’s appeal  in the west.

Then there was the pact’s notorious secret protocol, which the Soviets and Molotov lied about, denying for years  having signed; the original was found by U.S,. army investigators after the Nazi surrender. In it, the Soviet agreed to remain neutral in Germany’s future wars while Russia was handed the three Baltic states and Poland was divided between the two signers. If it wasn’t exactly a marriage made in heaven, it was one that temporarily suited both sides, especially as raw materials and military supplies were swapped. Two days after victorious German troops paraded down the Champs Elysees in Paris, Molotov sent his “warmest congratulations”  to the German ambassador to Russia, a Russophile “Easterner”” of the German Foreign Office and a strong advocate of the pact.

With the pact came population transfers. Both regimes resorted  to persecution, torture and death of any and all they perceived to be political or racial enemies.-- the most notable examples being the Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish army officers by the Soviets in 1940 and the savagery by the Germans  against Jews when they extended their reach into Poland.

Moorhouse might have more strongly emphasized the historic anti-Semitism of the region and how so many people, especially in Latvia, Lithuania and later in Ukraine, rightly hating communism, volunteered to serve  the Germans,  while others, convinced Jews and communism were one and the same, joined the Nazis in their killing games.\

And so by 1940, the two dictatorships controlled virtually all of Europe. Still, Moorehouse points to subtle, if growing concerns among high-level Nazis that Stalin was getting the better of the bargain. He quotes Josef Goebbels’ diary entry calling Stalin  “ Grave-robber! All down to our success. We make victory easy for others.” The following week he warned, “maybe we will have to move against the Soviets after all.” By then, Hitler was persuaded.            

There were other signs of impatience among Hitler’s most ideological followers.  Still, it is now well-known that Stalin would not take seriously the possibility  that Germany would ever invade. Repeatedly warned in late 1940 and early 1941 of an impending attack,  again and again he refused to consider that Hitler would betray him.  Famously, he dismissed  the warning by Richard Sorge, a  Soviet super-spy planted in the German embassy in Tokyo, that war was ahead.

In June 1941, the very month of the invasion, and despite  pressure from his generals to strengthen the military,  he had the TASS news agency tell the Russian people that the pact was working and there would be no war. In Berlin, there were rumors – possibly planted ---  that Stalin was planning to visit Berlin  to chat with Hitler.  On June 16, as the invasion date drew near, an NKVD agent inside the German Air Ministry sent a more urgent warning of the coming attack. Stalin answered: “Tell the ‘source’ in the Staff of the German Air Force to fuck his mother. This is no source, but a disinformer.” Moorhouse writes that when Generals Timoshenko and Zhukov dared hint he might be wrong, Stalin tapped on his ever-present pipe and rebuked them. Germany, he persisted, “will never fight Russia.” But Zhukov remained deeply alarmed, and soon after  phoned Stalin to tell him that a Wehrmacht soldier and communist supporter named Alfred Liskow had crossed the Bug River  with a warning that the attack was scheduled for the next day “The dictator was unimpressed and ordered Liskow shot for his disinformation,” Moorhouse wryly observes.

The day the unfortunate Liskow predicted was on the mark. On June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa, the German code name for the invasion, began and two murderous regimes, each led by paranoid and homicidal  maniacs, turned on one another.

Stalin answered Hitler’s treachery by blaming others and charged General Dmitry Pavlov for failing to hold back the invaders.  Accused of cowardice and treason, Pavlov allowed himself a final reproach, telling his “judges”: “We are here in the dock not because we committed crimes in times of war, but because we prepared for this war inadequately in time of peace.” He was executed and his body dumped into a garbage landfill.

Desperate to defeat the Germans and rally the country, Stalin was forced to de-emphasize communist slogans and instead relied on the appeal of  historic Russian nationalism. Despite Stalin’s blindness about the pact, and his blunders and cruelty, the Red Army and the Russian  people – 20 million of whom died in the war --eventually defeated the Nazis. Without their sacrifice and valor, the western nations would never have been able to defeat Nazi Germany. 



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