The Nazi’s attack on Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, is generally accepted as the beginning of the Second World War. Tens of millions were killed by the Hitler regime and Japanese militarists who worshipped racial supremacy and dreamt of world dominance. Of all the Allied nations, the Soviet people carried the heaviest burden of the fighting, destroying most of the Axis war machine and ultimately raising the Victory Banner over the Reichstag in Berlin.
But we should not forget that Sept. 1 was the last act of a drama that started long before 1939, with British and French attempts to appease Nazi Germany, in the vein hope of directing Hitler against the Soviet Union. The result was that it allowed the Nazis to rearm. Myopic politicians in London and Paris wrongly believed they would prevent Armageddon by making concessions to Berlin. Yet, in their geopolitical calculations, the Soviet Union was deliberately ignored. As Winston Churchill later summarized, “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.”
A choice did exist. Both the Soviet leadership and Churchill, who were ideological enemies, agreed that Adolf Hitler’s ambitions needed to be nipped in the bud. The West had its chance when, in 1936, Berlin moved troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. According to the post-war testimony of Wehrmacht Gen. Heinz Guderian, the Third Reich was not ready to fight, and if France had intervened, “we should have been sunk and Hitler would have fallen.”
The Soviet Union, for its part, had consistently suggested establishing a collective security system in Europe, including supporting the 1934 Eastern Pact, a proposed mutual-aid treaty between the U.S.S.R., France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that was intended to counter German aggression. The inability of the U.K. and France to act resulted in Hitler’s unhindered annexation of Austria in March 1938.
But the fatal blow to peace in Europe was delivered by the betrayal of Czechoslovakia in October 1938. Then-British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and French premier Édouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, allowing them to dismember Czechoslovakia, a democratic ally of the West. Prague was cynically excluded from the process by its “friends,” who decided Czechoslovakia’s fate, as people complained, “about us, without us.”
The U.S.S.R. was ready to help, but the Czech government did not dare accept military aid, as it was under pressure from London and Paris. Moreover, Poland took advantage of the situation, annexing the Czech part of Cieszyn Silesia and later refusing passage for the Red Army to push the Germans back.
Chamberlain’s boast of bringing “peace for our time” by ceding Austria and Czechoslovakia to Hitler proved to be dead wrong. Missing the last chance to avert war by negotiating a trilateral alliance with the U.S.S.R. in Moscow in the early August 1939, London and Paris solidified Soviet mistrust in their motives. The Kremlin came to the conclusion that the West had secretly colluded with Hitler to replay the Munich Agreement scenario, in the hopes of partitioning the Soviet Union between the Western powers and Nazi Germany.
To counter this potential threat and avoid the potential of facing a united anti-Soviet Europe, Moscow had to urgently seek a way out, in the face of imminent war.
The Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was the measure of last resort that should be judged in the real political and historical context of the prewar period. The hard facts are that the Nazis were prevented from taking over the Ukrainian and Belarusian regions of Poland, while thousands of Polish Jews were effectively saved from the Holocaust.
The future front line of German invasion was pushed far westwards. By Sept. 17, 1939, despite fierce resistance, the Germans crushed the Polish army and forced government officials to flee the country.
It is easy to point fingers and engage in name-calling, ignoring the realities of 1930s and making dishonest judgments, as some governments do in their short-sighted attempts to whitewash their country’s historical record.
After all, the Third Reich was defeated by the anti-Hitler coalition led by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. Had it been formed earlier, millions would have been saved.
Lessons of history should be carefully studied and never be rewritten or let be repeated. Lest we forget.
Alexander Darchiev is Russia’s ambassador to Canada.