Russians Mark the Start of World War II in 1941. Here's Why They're Wrong.

tags: Hitler, Russia, Stalin, WW II

Roger Moorhouse is a freelance historian and author specialising in modern German and Central European history.  A fluent German speaker, he has a Masters Degree from the University of London and is a regular contributor to both the BBC History Magazine and History Today. "The Devils' Alliance" is his third book.

Alongside their myriad differences, one thing that America and Russia share is the conviction that – for them – World War Two began in 1941.

To be fair, the start of World War is something of a moveable feast. Those of an Asian persuasion tend to cite the war’s start at the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, and the opening of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Americans are right to date their involvement in the conflict to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Though they were broadly showing their support for the British cause prior to that, and were gearing up to be the famed “Arsenal of Democracy,” they were not yet active combatants.

For Europeans, however – and by extension much of the rest of the world – World War Two very definitely began in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland and the subsequent British and French declaration of war on Hitler’s Third Reich.

Russia’s position is rather anomalous, however. Conventionally the Soviet Union (and its successor, Putin’s Russia) saw it’s participation in World War Two as dating from Hitler’s attack on Stalin in June 1941. Only at that point, from the Kremlin’s perspective, did World War Two begin.

However, this is a view that would suggest to the unwary that the USSR played no role in the events of the preceding two years; that Stalin was somehow a mere eye-witness as Hitler launched his war and attacked and occupied half of Europe.

But – as my new book The Devils’ Alliance shows – this is not an interpretation that can be allowed to go unchallenged. A more honest reading of history would conclude that World War Two began for the USSR, not in June 1941, but in September 1939, and that Stalin was not ranged amongst Hitler’s enemies, he was his ally.

Some would rather it were forgotten, but on 23 August 1939, Stalin drank to Hitler’s health. Though the two dicta­tors would never meet, the agreement they forged that day would change the world. The ‘Nazi–Soviet Pact,’ the ‘Hitler–Stalin Pact’ or the ‘Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact,’ was in force for less than two years, but it was nonetheless one of the salient events of the Second World War. Under its auspices, Hitler and Stalin – the two most infamous dictators of twentieth-century Europe – found common cause. Their two regimes, whose later confrontation would be the defining clash of the Second World War in Europe, stood side by side for twenty-two months, almost a third of the conflict’s entire time span.

We forget the link, perhaps, but the pact led directly to the outbreak of war; isolating Poland between its two malevolent neighbours and scuppering the rather desultory efforts of the Western Powers to thwart Hitler via diplomacy. The war that followed, therefore, was one that was prosecuted by both Hitler and Stalin. Though Stalin stressed the USSR’s neutrality, his Red Army joined the Nazis in invading Poland, dividing and occupying that unhappy country between them. Then, while Hitler turned west to attack Scandinavia, the Low Countries, France and Britain, Stalin – with Hitler’s blessing – occupied and annexed the independent Baltic States: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, before doing the same with the Romanian province of Bessarabia. Finland, too, was invaded and conquered by the Red Army.

The Nazi-Soviet relationship was no love match, of course, it was a marriage of strategic convenience. But neither was it without substance. The Nazis and the Soviets signed two political agreements between them, plus the infamous “Secret Protocol,” by which they divided Eastern Europe. In addition four economic agreements were concluded between the two – the last of which as late as January 1941. Behind the scenes, therefore, the Nazis and the Soviets collaborated and colluded; trading secrets, intelligence, blueprints, technology and raw materials, oiling the wheels of each other’s war machines. For a time, indeed, the two dictatorships – or ‘Teutoslavia’ as one British politician called them – appeared to be ranged together against the democratic world.

Stalin, then, was not an innocent bystander between 1939 and 1941, he was an eager participant, not only in the expansion of his own Soviet frontiers and the persecution of his new subjects, but also in cheering Hitler’s successes in the west. This was part of his plan; seeking to exploit Hitler’s attack on the western powers to undermine capitalism itself, all of which it was hoped would rebound to the benefit of the Soviet Union. For Stalin, the pact and the war that followed it was a golden opportunity to set world historical forces in motion – he said as much at the time – a chance to ‘shake the tree,’ to roll the dice. Just as Lenin had exploited “revolutionary defeatism” in World War One, so he was using his new enemy – Nazi Germany – to attack his old one – British Imperialism.

It is quite natural perhaps that the Soviet Union – and modern Russia – should seek to gloss over such historical infelicities and pretend that they really weren’t involved in World War Two until they were viciously attacked by Hitler in June 1941. Until the fall of the USSR, the subject of the pact was effectively taboo in the Soviet Bloc and salient points of the story – such as the Secret Protocol and the Katyn Massacres – were routinely dismissed as Western fabrications or German crimes.

Yet, ignoring this early phase of the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War Two is not only dishonest, it is – to use a favourite Kremlin phrase – a “falsification of history.” Stalin was as much up to his neck in war as Hitler was by 1941. Like Hitler, he had invaded his neighbors; like Hitler, he had persecuted and deported ‘enemy’ populations; like Hitler, he had hoped to benefit from the murderous maelstrom of the war. Stalin was no innocent victim of World War Two, he was Hitler’s arch abettor and collaborator for nearly two years until the two fell out over the spoils. What Hitler’s attack on him in June 1941 signified, therefore, was not so much an assault by an aggressor on a hapless neutral – rather it was two mafia bosses locked a struggle to become il capo dei capi. Maybe we should try to remember that image next time the Kremlin tells us that Russia's war started in 1941.

© Roger Moorhouse 2014

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