Gwynne Dyer: Rewriting history in Russia

Roundup: Talking About History

[Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.]

In the Soviet Union, the future was always certain; only the past could change without notice. The signal that it had changed was often the publication of a pseudo-scholarly article that denounced the "falsifications" of the existing version of history.

Here we go again. Recently Col. Sergei Kovalev, director of the scientific research department at the Institute of Military History, published an article on the Web site of the Russian Ministry of Defense titled "Fictions and Falsifications in Evaluating the USSR's Role On the Eve of the Second World War." He says it was the Poles who started the war in 1939, not the Nazis.

The British and the French were to blame too, because earlier in 1939 they guaranteed Poland's independence if it stood up to Hitler's demands. That gave the Poles "delusions of grandeur," unfortunately, and misled them into rebuffing Germany's "very modest" requests.

Germany only made two demands to Warsaw in 1939. One was the return of Danzig, a city that had been separated from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. The other was a German road and rail corridor across the strip of territory (the "Polish Corridor") that gave the Poles access to the Baltic Sea, but separated eastern Germany from the rest of the country.

Kovalev is right about one thing: Hitler's demands were reasonable enough. By 1939 almost everybody agreed that the Versailles treaty had been wrong to blame World War I on Germany, and that the 5 million Germans whose lands had been handed out to neighboring countries under that treaty had been treated unfairly. But most historians also think that Hitler's demands were just an opening bid.

The conventional wisdom is that Hitler was set on on world conquest from the start, and that if Poland had accepted his terms in 1939 it would just have faced further demands later. But the conventional historians may be wrong, for Hitler also offered Poland a secret alliance against the Soviet Union when he made his demands.

Poland's military rulers rejected the whole package, trusting in the Anglo-French guarantee to protect them. From the day that the guarantee was issued in March 1939, they refused even to discuss it with the Germans. That may have been a mistake, for when war came in September, Britain and France were unable to help them militarily, and Poland was overrun in a month.

But this hardly explains why Kovalev blames Poland for causing the war, and why the Russian Ministry of Defense put his article on its Web site. The reason for that, most likely, lies with their need to rewrite the history of the Nazi-Soviet Pact...

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