Shared Responsibility to History and Future: Part 2 | Daily News


 

Great Victory 75th anniversary::

Shared Responsibility to History and Future: Part 2

One of the many World War ll battles.
One of the many World War ll battles.

Nowadays, we hear lots of speculations and accusations against modern Russia in connection with the Non-Aggression Pact signed back then. Yes, Russia is the legal successor state to the USSR, and the Soviet period – with all its triumphs and tragedies – is an inalienable part of our thousand-year-long history. However, let me also remind you that the Soviet Union gave a legal and moral assessment of the so-called Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The Supreme Soviet in its resolution of December 24, 1989 officially denounced the secret protocols as “an act of personal power” which in no way reflected “the will of the Soviet people who bear no responsibility for this collusion.”

Besides, we do not know if there were any secret “protocols” or annexes to agreements of a number of countries with the Nazis. The only thing that is left to do is to take their word for it. In particular, materials pertaining to the secret Anglo-German talks still have not been declassified. Therefore, we urge all states to step up the process of making their archives public and publishing previously unknown documents of the war and pre-war periods – the way Russia has been doing it in recent years. In this context, we are ready for broad cooperation and joint research projects engaging historians.

But let us go back to the events immediately preceding the Second World War. It was naïve to believe that Hitler, once done with Czechoslovakia, would not make new territorial claims. This time the claims involved its recent accomplice in the partition of Czechoslovakia – Poland. Here, the legacy of Versailles, particularly the fate of the so-called Danzig Corridor, was yet again used as the pretext. The blame for the tragedy that Poland then suffered lies entirely with the Polish leadership, which had impeded the formation of a military alliance between Britain, France and the Soviet Union and relied on the help from its Western partners, throwing its own people under the steamroller of Hitler's machine of destruction.

The German offensive was mounted in full accordance with the blitzkrieg doctrine. Despite the fierce, heroic resistance of the Polish army, on September 8, 1939 – only a week after the war broke out – the German troops were on the approaches to Warsaw. By September 17, the military and political leaders of Poland had fled to Romania, betraying its people, who continued to fight against the invaders.

Poland's hope for help from its Western allies was vain. After the war against Germany was declared, the French troops advanced only a few tens of kilometres deep into the German territory. All of it looked like a mere demonstration of vigorous action. Moreover, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council, holding its first meeting on September 12, 1939 in the French city of Abbeville, decided to call off the offensive altogether in view of the rapid developments in Poland. That was when the infamous Phony War started. What Britain and France did was a blatant betrayal of their obligations to Poland.

Later, during the Nuremberg Trials, German generals explained their quick success in the East. Former Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command General Alfred Jodl admitted: “… we did not suffer defeat as early as 1939 only because about 110 French and British divisions stationed in the west against 23 German divisions during our war with Poland remained absolutely idle.”

I asked for retrieval from the archives of the whole body of materials pertaining to the contacts between the USSR and Germany in the dramatic days of August and September 1939. According to the documents, paragraph 2 of the Secret Protocol to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 23, 1939 stated that, in the event of territorial-political reorganisation of the districts making up the Polish state, the border between the spheres of interest of the two countries would run “approximately along the Narew, Vistula and San rivers.” In other words, the Soviet sphere of influence included not only the territories that were mostly home to Ukrainian and Belorussian population but also the historically Polish lands in the Vistula and Bug interfluve. This fact is known to very few these days.

Similarly, very few know that, immediately after the attack on Poland, in the early days of September 1939, Berlin strongly and repeatedly called on Moscow to join the military action. However, the Soviet leadership ignored those calls and planned to avoid engaging in the dramatic developments as long as possible.

It was only when it became absolutely clear that Great Britain and France were not going to help their ally and the Wehrmacht could swiftly occupy entire Poland and thus appear on the approaches to Minsk that the Soviet Union decided to send in, on the morning of September 17, Red Army units into the so-called Eastern Borderlines (Kresy), which nowadays form part of the territories of Belorussia, Ukraine and Lithuania.

Obviously, there was no alternative. Otherwise, the USSR would face seriously increased risks because – I will say this again – the old Soviet-Polish border ran only within a few tens of kilometres from Minsk. The country would have to enter the inevitable war with the Nazis from very disadvantageous strategic positions, while millions of people of different nationalities, including the Jews living near Brest and Grodno, Przemyśl, Lvov and Wilno, would be left to die at the hands of the Nazis and their local accomplices – anti-Semites and radical nationalists.

The fact that the Soviet Union sought to avoid engaging in the growing conflict for as long as possible and was unwilling to fight side by side with Germany was the reason why the real contact between the Soviet and the German troops occurred much farther east than the borders agreed in the secret protocol. It was not on the Vistula River but closer to the so-called Curzon Line, which back in 1919 was recommended by the Triple Entente as the eastern border of Poland.

As is known, the subjunctive mood can hardly be used when we speak of the past events. I will only say that, in September 1939, the Soviet leadership had an opportunity to move the western borders of the USSR even farther west, all the way to Warsaw, but decided against it.

The Germans suggested formalising the new status quo. On September 28, 1939 J. Ribbentrop and V. Molotov signed in Moscow the Boundary and Friendship Treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as the secret protocol on changing the state border, according to which the border was recognised at the demarcation line where the two armies de-facto stood.

In autumn 1939, the Soviet Union, pursuing its strategic military and defensive goals, started the process of incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Their accession to the USSR was implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities. This was in line with international and state law of that time. Besides, in October 1939, the city of Wilno and the surrounding area, which had previously been part of Poland, were returned to Lithuania. The Baltic republics within the USSR preserved their government bodies, language, and had representation in the higher government entities of the Soviet Union.

During all these months there was an ongoing invisible diplomatic and politico-military struggle and intelligence work. Moscow understood that it was facing a fierce and cruel enemy, and that a covert war against Nazism was already going on. And there was no reason to take official statements and formal protocol notes of that time as a proof of ‘friendship' between the USSR and Germany. The Soviet Union had active trade and technical contacts not only with Germany, but with other countries as well. Whereas Hitler tried again and again to draw the Soviet Union into Germany's confrontation with the UK. But the Soviet government stood firm.

The last attempt to persuade the USSR to act together was made by Hitler during Molotov’s visit to Berlin in November 1940. But Molotov accurately followed Stalin's instructions and limited himself to a general discussion of the German idea of the Soviet Union joining the Tripartite Pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan in September 1940 and directed against the UK and the USA. No wonder that already on November 17 Molotov gave the following instructions to Soviet plenipotentiary representative in London Ivan Maisky: “For your information…No agreement was signed or was intended to be signed in Berlin. We just exchanged our views in Berlin…and that was all…Apparently, the Germans and the Japanese seem anxious to push us towards the Gulf and India. We declined the discussion of this matter as we consider such advice on the part of Germany to be inappropriate.” And on November 25, the Soviet leadership called it a day altogether by officially putting forward to Berlin the conditions that were unacceptable to the Nazis, including the withdrawal of German troops from Finland, mutual assistance treaty between Bulgaria and the USSR, and a number of others. Thus it deliberately excluded any possibility of joining the Pact. Such position definitely shaped the Fuehrer's intention to unleash a war against the USSR. And already in December, putting aside the warnings of his strategists about the disastrous danger of having a two-front war, Hitler approved Operation Barbarossa. He did this with the knowledge that the Soviet Union was the major force that opposed him in Europe and that the upcoming battle in the East would decide the outcome of the world war. And he had no doubts as to the swiftness and success of the Moscow campaign.

And here I would like to highlight the following: Western countries, as a matter of fact, agreed at that time with the Soviet actions and recognised the Soviet Union's intention to ensure its national security. Indeed, back on October 1, 1939 Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty back then, in his speech on the radio said, “Russia has pursued a cold policy of self-interest… But that the Russian Armies should stand on this line [meaning the new Western border] was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace.” On October 4, 1939, speaking in the House of Lords, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax said, “…it should be recalled that the Soviet government's actions were to move the border essentially to the line recommended at the Versailles Conference by Lord Curzon… I only cite historical facts and believe they are indisputable.” Prominent British politician and statesman David Lloyd George emphasised, “The Russian Armies occupied the territories that are not Polish and that were forcibly seized by Poland after World War I … It would be an act of criminal insanity to put the Russian advancement on a par with the German one.”

In informal communications with Soviet plenipotentiary representative Ivan Maisky, British high-ranking politicians and diplomats spoke even more openly. On October 17, 1939, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs R. A. Butler confided to him that the British government circles believed there could be no question of returning Western Ukraine and Belorussia to Poland. According to him, if it had been possible to create an ethnographic Poland of a modest size with a guarantee not only of the USSR and Germany, but also of Britain and France, the British government would have considered itself quite satisfied. On October 27, 1939, Neville Chamberlain's senior advisor Horace Wilson said that Poland had to be restored as an independent state on its ethnographic basis, but without Western Ukraine and Belorussia.

It is worth noting that in the course of these conversations the possibilities for improving British-Soviet relations were also explored. These contacts to a large extent laid the foundation for future alliance and Anti-Hitler coalition. Winston Churchill stood out among responsible and far-sighted politicians and, despite his infamous dislike for the USSR, had been in favour of cooperating with the Soviets even before. Back in May 1939, he said in the House of Commons, “We shall be in mortal danger if we fail to create a Grand Alliance against aggression. The worst folly… would be to… drive away any natural cooperation with Soviet Russia…” And after the start of hostilities in Europe, at his meeting with Ivan Maisky on October 6, 1939 he confided that there were no serious contradictions between the UK and the USSR and, therefore, there was no reason for strained or unsatisfactory relations. He also mentioned that the British government was eager to develop trade relations and willing to discuss any other measures that might improve the relationships.

World War II did not happen overnight, nor did it start unexpectedly or all of a sudden. And German aggression against Poland was not out of nowhere. It was the result of a number of tendencies and factors in the world politics of that time. All pre-war events fell into place to form one fatal chain. But, undoubtedly, the main factors that predetermined the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind were state egoism, cowardice, appeasement of the aggressor who was gaining strength, and unwillingness of political elites to search for compromise.

Therefore, it is unfair to claim that the two-day visit to Moscow of Nazi Foreign Minister J. Ribbentrop was the main reason for the start of World War II. All the leading countries are to a certain extent responsible for its outbreak. Each of them made fatal mistakes, arrogantly believing that they could outsmart others, secure unilateral advantages for themselves or stay away from the impending global catastrophe. And this short-sightedness, the refusal to create a collective security system cost millions of lives and tremendous losses.

Saying this, I by no means intend to take on the role of a judge, to accuse or acquit anyone, let alone initiate a new round of international information confrontation in the historical field that could set countries and peoples at loggerheads. I believe that it is academics with a wide representation of respected scholars from different countries of the world who should search for a balanced assessment of what happened. We all need the truth and objectivity. On my part, I have always encouraged my colleagues to build a calm, open and trust-based dialogue, to look at the common past in a self-critical and unbiased manner. Such an approach will make it possible not to repeat the mistakes committed back then and to ensure peaceful and successful development for years to come.

(The writer is the President of Russia)

To be continued


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