Poles Apart: Putin, Poland and the Nazi-Soviet Pact

News Abroad
tags: Russia, Putin, Poland, history wars, World War 2

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork, National University of Ireland. His latest book (co-authored by Marin Folly and Oleg Rzheshevsky) is Churchill and Stalin: Comrades-in-Arms during the Second World War.


As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, two of that war’s main victims – Poland and Russia – are once again embroiled in a highly emotional dispute about its origins. At the heart of the matter is the perennial controversy about the Nazi-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939. 


The polemics were kick-started by President Vladimir Putin when he was asked about the European Parliament’s resolution on the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II at press conference in Moscow on 19 December. Putin deemed the resolution unacceptable because it equated the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and accused its authors of being cynical and ignorant of history. He highlighted instead the Munich agreement of September 1938 and Poland’s participation in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. The Soviet-German non-aggression treaty was not the only such agreement made by Hitler with other states. Yes, said Putin, there were secret protocols dividing Poland between Germany and the USSR but Soviet troops only entered Poland after its government had collapsed. 


This is not the first time Putin has made such arguments. He made many similar points in 2009 on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war. But his tone then was conciliatory rather than combative. At the commemoration event in Gdansk, Putin stressed the common struggles of Poles and Russians and called for the outbreak of the war to be examined in all its complexity and diversity. Every country had been at fault, not just the Soviet Union: “it has to be admitted that all attempts made between 1934 and 1939 to appease the Nazis with various agreements and pacts were morally unacceptable and practically meaningless as well as harmful and dangerous.”


Responding to Putin, the then Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, stressed that on 1st September 1939 his country was attacked by Germany and then two weeks later, invaded by the Soviet Union. But Tusk also emphasised that while “truth may be painful, it should not humiliate anyone.”


The day after his news conference in Moscow, Putin addressed leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States at a meeting in St Petersburg convened to discuss preparations for the 75th anniversary. Putin used the occasion to deliver a long analysis of what led to the outbreak of war in September 1939, including detailed citations from many diplomatic documents.


One document that caught Putin’s eye was a September 1938 dispatch from Jozef Lipski, the Polish ambassador in Berlin, reporting on a talk with Hitler. During the conversation Hitler said that he was thinking of settling the Jewish issue by getting them emigrate to a colony. Lipski responded that if Hitler found a solution to the Jewish question the Poles would build a beautiful monument to him in Warsaw. “What kind of people are those who hold such conversations with Hitler?", asked Putin. The same kind, he averred, who now desecrate the graves and monuments of the Soviet soldiers who had liberated Europe from the Nazis.


The main point of Putin’s trawl through the British, French, German, Polish and Soviet archives was to show that all states had done business with the Nazis in the 1930s, not least Poland, which sought rapprochement with Hitler as part of an anti-Soviet alliance. Putin linked this history to present-day politics: “Russia is used to scare people. Be it Tsarist, Soviet or today’s – nothing has changed. It does not matter what kind of country Russia is – the rationale remains.”


Putin vigorously defended Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s. According to the Russian President, Moscow sought a collective security alliance against Hitler but its efforts were rebuffed, most importantly during the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938 when the Soviets were prepared to go to war in defence of the country, provided France did the same. But the French linked their actions to that of the Poles, and Warsaw was busily scheming to grab some Czechoslovak territory. In Putin’s view the Second World War could have been averted if states had stood up to Hitler in 1938.


In relation to the Nazi-Soviet pact, while Putin accepted there was a secret protocol, he suggested that hidden in the archives of western states there might be confidential agreements that they had made with Hitler. He also reiterated that the Soviet Union had not really invaded Poland, adding that the Red Army’s action had saved many Jews from extermination by the Nazis.


Putin returned to the subject of the war’s origins at a meeting of Russia’s Defence Ministry Board on 24 December: “Yes, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed and there was also a secret protocol which defined spheres of influence. But what had European countries been doing before that? The same. They had all done the same things”. But what hit him hardest, Putin told his colleagues, was the Lipski report: “That bastard! That anti-Semitic pig – I have no other words”.


To be fair to Putin there is more to his view of history than pointing the finger at Poland and the west. He also identified more profound causes of the Second World War, including the punitive Versailles peace treaty that encouraged “a radical and revanchist mood” in Germany, and the creation of new states that gave rise to many conflicts, notably in Czechoslovakia, which contained a 3.5 million-strong German minority.


Poland’s first response to Putin’s furious philippics was a statement by its foreign ministry on 21 December, expressing disbelief at the Russian President’s statements. Poland, the foreign ministry said, had a balanced policy towards Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930s, signing non-aggression pacts with both countries. “Despite the peaceful policy pursued by the Republic of Poland, the Soviet Union took direct steps to trigger war and at the same time committed mass-scale crimes”.


According the Polish foreign ministry the crucial chronology of events was that in January 1939 the Germans made their claims against Poland; in mid-April the Soviet ambassador offered Berlin political co-operation and at the end of April Hitler repudiated the German-Polish non-aggression pact; in August the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed; in September Germany and the USSR invaded Poland and then signed a Boundary and Friendship Treaty that formalised Poland’s partition.


Among Soviet crimes against Poland was the mass repression of Poles in the territories occupied by the Red Army, including 107,000 arrests, 380, 000 deportations and, in spring 1940, 22,000 executions of Polish POWs and officials at Katyn and other murder sites.


On 29 December 2019 Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, issued a statement, noting that Poland was the war’s first victim, “the first to experience the armed aggression of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and the first that fought in defense of a free Europe.” The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not a non-aggression agreement but a military and political alliance of two dictators and their totalitarian regimes. “Without Stalin’s complicity in the partitioning of Poland, and without the natural resources that Stalin supplied to Hitler, the Nazi German crime machine would not have taken control of Europe. Thanks to Stalin, Hitler could conquer new countries with impunity, imprison Jews from all over the continent in ghettos and prepare the Holocaust”.


Morawiecki pulled no punches in relation to Putin: “President Putin has lied about Poland on numerous occasions, and he has always done so deliberately.” According to Morawiecki, Putin’s “slander” was designed to distract attention from political setbacks suffered by the Russian President, such as US sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline project and the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banning of Russia from international sporting events for four years.


 All states like to present themselves as victims rather than perpetrators and this not the first time Poland and Russia have clashed over the Nazi-Soviet pact. The piquancy of the polemics is obviously related to the dire state of Russian-Western relations and to the presence in Warsaw of a radical nationalist government.


But how should we evaluate the historical content of these exchanges? My first book, published in 1989 on the 50th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact, was The Unholy Alliance: Stalin’s Pact with Hitler. Since then I have written many more books and articles about the Nazi-Soviet pact. My research has led me to conclude that Putin is broadly right in relation to the history of Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s but deficient in his analysis of the Nazi-Soviet pact.


After Hitler came to power in 1933 the Soviets did strive for collective security alliances to contain Nazi aggression and expansionism. Moscow did stand by Czechoslovakia in 1938 and was prepared to go war with Germany.


After Munich the Soviets retreated into isolation but Hitler’s occupation of Prague in March 1939 presented an opportunity to relaunch their collective security campaign. In April Moscow proposed an Anglo-Soviet-French triple alliance that would guarantee the security of all European states under threat from Hitler, including Poland.


Some historians have questioned the sincerity of Moscow’s triple alliance proposal but extensive evidence from the Soviet archives shows that it was Stalin’s preferred option until quite late in the day. The problem was that Britain and France dragged their feet during the negotiations and as war grew closer so did Stalin doubts about the utility of a Soviet-Western alliance. Fearful the Soviet Union would be left to fight Hitler alone while Britain and France stood on the sidelines, Stalin decided to do a deal with Hitler -that kept the USSR out of the coming war and provided some guarantees for Soviet security.


The Soviets were not as proactive as they might have been in trying to persuade the British and French to accept their proposals. Some scholars argue this was because the Soviets were busy wooing the Germans. However, until August 1939 all the approaches came from the German side, which was desperate to disrupt the triple alliance negotiations. The political overture of April 1939 mentioned in the Polish foreign ministry statement is a case in point: the initiative came from the Germans not the Soviets.


One state that Moscow did actively pursue in 1939 was Poland. The bad blood in Soviet-Polish relations notwithstanding, after Munich the two states attempted to improve relations. When Hitler turned against Poland in spring 1939 Moscow made many approaches to Warsaw, trying to persuade the Poles to sign up to its triple alliance project. But Warsaw did not want or think it needed an alliance with the USSR given that it had the backing of Britain and France.


The failure of this incipient Polish-Soviet détente sealed the fate of the triple alliance negotiations, which broke down when the British and French were unable to guarantee Warsaw’s consent to the entry of the Red Army into Poland in the event of war with Germany.


After the signature of the Nazi-Soviet pact there was extensive political, economic and military co-operation between the Soviet Union and Germany. Most people see this as a tactical manoeuvre by Stalin to gain time to prepare for a German attack. However, I have argued that in 1939-1940 Stalin contemplated the possibility of long-term co-existence with Nazi Germany.


Putin makes the point that Stalin did not sully himself with meeting Hitler, unlike British, French and Polish leaders. True, but Stalin received Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop twice - in August and September 1939 - and in November 1940 he sent his foreign minister, Molotov, to Berlin to negotiate a new Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler. It was the failure of those negotiations that set Soviet-German relations on the path to war.


The first clause of the secret protocol attached to the Soviet-German non-aggression treaty concerned the Baltic states. Throughout the triple alliance negotiations Moscow’s major security concern was a German military advance across the Baltic coastal lands to Leningrad. With the signature of the Nazi-Soviet pact that Baltic door to German expansion was locked by a spheres of influence agreement that allocated Latvia, Estonia and Finland to the Soviet sphere. Lithuania remained in Germany’s sphere but was transferred to the Soviets in September 1939.


It was the second clause of the protocol that divided Poland into Soviet and German spheres but this should not be seen as a definite decision to partition Poland, though that possibility was certainly present. The protocol limited German expansion into Poland but did not specify the two states would annex their spheres of influence. The actions of both states in that respect would be determined by the course of the German-Polish war. In the event, Poland was rapidly crushed by the Germans, while the British and French did little to aid their ally except declare war on Germany. It was in those circumstances that Berlin pressed the Soviets to occupy Eastern Poland. Stalin was not ready, politically or militarily, to take that step but he knew that if the Red Army did not occupy the territory then the Wehrmacht would.


Putin glosses over the fact that the Red Army’s entry into Poland was a massive military operation involving a half million troops. Large-scale clashes with Polish forces were averted only because Poland’s commander-in-chief ordered his troops not to fire on Red Army. Even so, the Red Army suffered 3000 casualties including a thousand dead.


Often accused of parroting the Soviet line, Putin did not invoke the most potent argument that Moscow used to rationalise its attack on Poland, which was that the Red Army was entering the country to liberate Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine. 


Poland’s eastern territories had been secured as a result of the Russo-Polish war of 1919-1920. These territories lay east of the Curzon Line – the ethnographical frontier between Russia and Poland demarcated at Versailles. The majority of the population were Jews, Belorussians and Ukrainians and many welcomed the Red Army as liberators from Polish rule. Such enthusiasm did not outlast the violent process of sovietisation through which the occupied territories were incorporated into the USSR as part of a unified Belorussia and a unified Ukraine.


During the Second World War Stalin insisted that the Curzon Line would be the border between Poland and the USSR – a position that was eventually accepted by Britain and the United States. As compensation for its territorial losses Poland was given East Prussia and other parts of Germany. The result of this transfer was the brutal displacement of millions of Germans from their ancestral lands.


History is rarely as simple as polemicizing politicians would like it to be. Both sides of the Russo-Polish dispute have some valid arguments; neither has a monopoly of what is a bitter truth. The Nazi-Soviet pact is a fact but so is Polish collaboration with Hitler in the 1930s. The Soviet Union did cooperate with Nazi Germany but it also played the main role in the defeat of Hitler. Stalin was responsible for vast mass repressions but he was not a racist or genocidal dictator and nor was he a warmonger. The Red Army’s invasion of Eastern Poland was reprehensible but it also unified Belorussia and Ukraine. During the Second World War the Red Army was responsible for many atrocities but it did not commit mass murder and it did, together with its allies, liberate Europe from the Nazis.


Politicians will always use the past for political purposes. But in 2009 Putin came quite close to a balanced view about the Nazi-Soviet pact, as did Tusk in his measured rejoinder. Let’s hope that Poland and Russia can find their way back to such middle ground. 


The victory over Nazi Germany required enormous sacrifices by both countries. Surely it is possible to celebrate this common victory with dignity and with respect for differences about its complicated history.