As Russian military convoys continue the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has chosen to rehabilitate the alliance between Hitler and Stalin that began World War II. Speaking before an audience of Russian historians at the Museum of Modern Russian History, Putin said: “The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression agreement with Germany. They say, ‘Oh, how bad.’ But what is so bad about it, if the Soviet Union did not want to fight? What is so bad?”
In fact, Stalin did want to fight. The August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin. It led directly to the German-Soviet invasion of Poland the following month that began World War II. In speaking of this agreement, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as good foreign policy, Putin has violated both a long Soviet taboo and revised his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral.” What might he have in mind? What is it about rapprochement with Nazi Germany that is so appealing just at the present moment?
The historical significance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact
could hardly be greater: it stands at the beginning of German and
Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and all of the succeeding tragedies
they brought, in Poland and elsewhere. Stalin entered the pact with
Hitler fully aware of his partner’s anti-Semitism, and indeed
accounting for it in his own diplomacy. On August 20, 1939, Hitler
asked Stalin for a meeting, and Stalin was more than happy to agree.
For five years the Soviet leader had been seeking an occasion to
destroy Poland. Stalin had prepared by firing his Jewish commissar for
foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov, replacing him with the Russian
Vyacheslav Molotov. The dismissal of Litvinov, according to Hitler, was
“decisive.” On August 23, Molotov negotiated the agreement with
Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in Moscow.
In Geneva, where Zionists were meeting at their world congress, the news came as a shock. Everyone present immediately understood that Hitler had been unleashed and that a war was coming, with especially dire implications for Jews. Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the General Zionists, closed the congress with the words: “Friends, I have only one wish: that we all remain alive.” This was no empty pathos. Less than two years later, the Holocaust began in precisely the part of Europe that was dealt with in the secret protocol of the pact. By 1945 almost all of the millions of Jews who lived in these regions would be dead. Stalin famously said that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an alliance “signed in blood.” Much of the blood shed in the lands concerned by the agreement would be that of Jewish civilians.
The Stalin-Hitler alliance had devastating consequences for Poland and the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In Poland, on September 17, 1939, Stalin joined his ally Hitler in a military attack, sending the Red Army to invade the country from the east. It met the allied Wehrmacht in the middle and organized a joint victory parade. The Soviet and German secret police promised each other to suppress any Polish resistance. Behind the lines the Soviet NKVD organized the mass deportation of about half a million Polish citizens to the Gulag. It also executed thousands of Polish officers, many of whom were fresh from combat against the Wehrmacht.
Ten months later, the Baltic states were also occupied by the
Red Army and annexed to the Soviet Union. These three small countries
lost tens of thousands of citizens to deportations, including most of
their elites. The Baltic states were declared by Soviet law never to
have existed, so that service to those states became a crime. The
Soviet idea that states can be declared to exist or not, now echoed in
Russian pronouncements about Ukraine, is deeply etched in the political
memory of Poland and the Baltic region today.
Because Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were attacked
by the Soviet Union while Stalin was Hitler’s ally, their current
leaders have also been particularly quick to see through other Russian
propaganda positions, for example the grotesque claim that Russia had
to invade Ukraine this year in order to protect Europe from fascism.
They remember not only the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but also the series
of economic agreements between the Nazis and the Soviets that followed
in 1940 and early 1941, and the sham elections and propaganda in the
Soviet zone that seemed to find an eery echo in the recent Russian
actions in occupied Ukraine.
In fact, Putin’s rehabilitation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact
follows other recent moves by Moscow to revive the idea of a division
of Eastern Europe between Russia and the West. In March the Russian
parliament proposed to the Polish foreign ministry that the two
countries divide the territory of Ukraine. No one in Warsaw took the
suggestion seriously. In his victory speech after the Russian
annexation of Crimea, Putin argued that the protection of ethnic
brethren was a legitimate reason to invade Ukraine. This was Nazi
Germany’s rationale for seizing Austria and part of Czechoslovakia in
1938 and the Soviet Union’s for attacking Poland in 1939. It is with
such historical references in mind that we must understand Putin’s
suggestion in the speech that Germany should sympathize with the
doctrine of changing borders. Any such support for this argument would
seem difficult to imagine in Germany, whose admirable position as a
major European power depends precisely upon European integration. Yet
important German statesmen such as Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt
have taken meaningful steps toward endorsing Moscow’s position by
questioning the legality of the Ukrainian state.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the
significance of President Putin’s position is limited to the fate of
Eastern Europe, important as that is. What is happening instead is an
attempt by the Kremlin to move from one account of Russia in World War
II to another -- a shift in national historical memory that would have
implications for all of Europe. Two versions of the commemoration of
the war were always available because the Soviet Union fought on both
sides of the war. In the first part of the war, from 1939 to 1941 the
Soviet Union was a German ally, fighting in the eastern theater and
supplying Germany with the minerals, oil, and food it needed to make
war against Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and
most importantly France and Britain.
After Hitler betrayed Stalin and the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Soviet Union was suddenly on the other side, and soon found itself in a grand alliance with Britain and the United States. For decades, official Soviet accounts of the war passed over the first part in silence and celebrated Soviet feats of arms in the second. In the international arena, if the Soviet Union wanted to present itself as a power that stood for peace, it had to deny that it was one of the powers that began the war. Soviet postwar propaganda, like Russian propaganda now, associated the West with fascism: this was one especially dramatic way of forgetting just who it was who fought on the same side as those fascists when the war began.
In view of the millions of Soviet citizens killed by the Germans after June 1941, and the undoubtedly decisive role that the Red Army played in the final defeat of the Wehrmacht, the commemoration of the struggle against the Nazis made perfect political sense. Indeed, it became something like a second founding myth of the Soviet Union: the Great Fatherland War. But in this telling of history, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had to be denied: not so much as a crime but as a blunder. After all, it allowed German troops to approach the Soviet Union well before the invasion, it aided Germany to become the European power that almost reached Moscow, and it created a false sense of complacency in the Soviet leadership. In spring 1941, despite more than one hundred intelligence warnings, Stalin refused to believe that Germany would invade The Soviet Union.
As today’s Russia fights a war of aggression in Eastern
Europe, the Kremlin seems increasingly ready to merge the traditional
Soviet self-image as the country that defeated the Nazi aggression with
Stalin’s own actions as a glorious aggressor. This implies a positive
evaluation of the 1939 alliance with Nazi Germany. There has been a
trial run for this sort of thing. Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet
Union presented Nazi Germany in its own internal propaganda as a
friendly state, ceased to criticize German policies, and began to
publish Nazi speeches. People at public rallies occasionally misspoke,
praising “Comrade Hitler” or calling for “the triumph of international
fascism.” Swastikas began to appear on buildings or even on posters of
Today, the positive emphasis on a war of aggression goes well with tendencies in the Russian media, where defiant declarations of Russian anti-fascism are increasingly submerged in rhetoric that may seem rather fascist. Jews are blamed for the Holocaust on national television; an intellectual close to the Kremlin praises Hitler as a statesman; Russian Nazis march on May Day; Nuremberg-style rallies where torches are carried in swastika formations are presented as anti-fascist; and a campaign against homosexuals is presented as a defense of true European civilization. In its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has called upon the members of local and European far right groups to support its actions and spread Moscow’s version of events.
In the recent “elections” staged in the Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as in the earlier faked referendum in occupied Crimea, European far-right politicians have come as “observers” to endorse the gains of Russia’s war. Far from being an eccentric stunt, the invitation of these “observers” reveals why the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is meaningful to Moscow today. Although Putin would certainly have been pleased if actual German or Polish political leaders were foolish enough to take the bait of agreeing to a new division of Europe, he seems satisfied for the moment with the people who have actually responded, in one way or another, to his appeal to destroy the existing European order: separatists across Europe (including the UK Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, calls Putin the world leader he most admires); anti-European right-wing populist parties (of which the most important is France’s National Front); as well as the far-right fringe, including neo-Nazis.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not only about territory in Eastern Europe but also about the entire European legal order. In making his alliance with Hitler, Stalin had a political logic. He imagined that in supporting the Nazi state as it began its total war he would turn the German armed forces to the west, away from the Soviet Union. In this way, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist world would be exposed, and Germany, France, and Britain would collapse simultaneously. In his own way, Putin is now attempting much the same thing. Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists. His allies on the far right are precisely the political forces that wish to bring an end to the current European order: the European Union.
It should go without saying that a return to the nation-state in Europe would be a catastrophe for all concerned, including, in the end, for Russia. But there is an important difference between Stalin in 1939 and Putin in 2014. One can at least credit Stalin for attempting to resolve a real problem: Hitler did indeed intend to destroy the Soviet Union. In allying with Hitler he compromised his ideology and made a strategic mistake, but he was certainly responding to a real threat. Putin, on the other hand, had no European enemy. Without any apparent cause, in 2013, for the first time, the Russia government designated the European Union as an adversary. In its media and indeed in official foreign policy pronouncements it has characterized the European Union as “decadent,” in the sense of about to disintegrate.
This change in policy toward Europe, accompanied by the creation of a rival Eurasian Union, was then followed by the Russian assault on Ukraine. The Kremlin has continuously presented its intervention in Ukraine as resistance to European aggression. This is all a bit strange. The Russian invasion of Ukraine precipitated a rupture with the West that, from the point of view of protecting Russia’s basic interests, makes absolutely no sense. This was Russia’s choice, and it hardly seems a masterpiece of strategic thinking. Now the Kremlin’s tortured search for a justification and precedent has led to the jettisoning of one of the basic moral foundations of postwar politics: the opposition to wars of aggression in Europe in general and the Nazi war of aggression in 1939 in particular.
As we recall the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, sixty-six years ago today, we might ask: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin?
In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people -- tens of millions, it was often claimed -- in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes -- quality versus quantity -- has set the ground rules for the politics of memory. Even historians of the Holocaust generally take for granted that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, thus placing themselves under greater pressure to stress the special character of the Holocaust, since this is what made the Nazi regime worse than the Stalinist one.
Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the difference between zero and one is an infinity. Though we have a harder time grasping this, the same is true for the difference between, say, 780,862 and 780,863 -- which happens to be the best estimate of the number of people murdered at Treblinka. Large numbers matter because they are an accumulation of small numbers: that is, precious individual lives. Today, after two decades of access to Eastern European archives, and thanks to the work of German, Russian, Israeli, and other scholars, we can resolve the question of numbers. The total number of noncombatants killed by the Germans -- about 11 million -- is roughly what we had thought. The total number of civilians killed by the Soviets, however, is considerably less than we had believed. We know now that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. That said, the issue of quality is more complex than was once thought. Mass murder in the Soviet Union sometimes involved motivations, especially national and ethnic ones, that can be disconcertingly close to Nazi motivations.
It turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit less. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933 [Holodomor], in which more than five million people starved.
Of those who starved, the 3.3 million or so inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine who died in 1932 and 1933 were victims of a deliberate killing policy related to nationality. In early 1930, Stalin had announced his intention to “liquidate” prosperous peasants (“kulaks”) as a class so that the state could control agriculture and use capital extracted from the countryside to build industry. Tens of thousands of people were shot by Soviet state police and hundreds of thousands deported. Those who remained lost their land and often went hungry as the state requisitioned food for export. The first victims of starvation were the nomads of Soviet Kazakhstan, where about 1.3 million people died. The famine spread to Soviet Russia and peaked in Soviet Ukraine. Stalin requisitioned grain in Soviet Ukraine knowing that such a policy would kill millions. Blaming Ukrainians for the failure of his own policy, he ordered a series of measures -- such as sealing the borders of that Soviet republic -- that ensured mass death.
In 1937, as his vision of modernization faltered, Stalin ordered the Great Terror. Because we now have the killing orders and the death quotas, inaccessible so long as the Soviet Union existed, we now know that the number of victims was not in the millions. We also know that, as in the early 1930s, the main victims were the peasants, many of them survivors of hunger and of concentration camps. The highest Soviet authorities ordered 386,798 people shot in the “Kulak Operation” of 1937–1938. The other major “enemies” during these years were people belonging to national minorities who could be associated with states bordering the Soviet Union: some 247,157 Soviet citizens were killed by the NKVD in ethnic shooting actions.
In the largest of these, the “Polish Operation” that began in August 1937, 111,091 people accused of espionage for Poland were shot. In all, 682,691 people were killed during the Great Terror, to which might be added a few hundred thousand more Soviet citizens shot in smaller actions. The total figure of civilians deliberately killed under Stalinism, around six million, is of course horribly high. But it is far lower than the estimates of twenty million or more made before we had access to Soviet sources. At the same time, we see that the motives of these killing actions were sometimes far more often national, or even ethnic, than we had assumed. Indeed it was Stalin, not Hitler, who initiated the first ethnic killing campaigns in interwar Europe.
Until World War II, Stalin’s regime was by far the more murderous of the two. Nazi Germany began to kill on the Soviet scale only after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the summer of 1939 and the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland that September. About 200,000 Polish civilians were killed between 1939 and 1941, with each regime responsible for about half of those deaths. This figure includes about 50,000 Polish citizens shot by German security police and soldiers in the fall of 1939, the 21,892 Polish citizens shot by the Soviet NKVD in the Katyn massacres of spring 1940, and the 9,817 Polish citizens [mostly of Ukrainian ethnic origin] shot in June 1941 in a hasty NKVD operation after Hitler betrayed Stalin and Germany attacked the USSR. Under cover of the war and the occupation of Poland, the Nazi regime also killed the handicapped and others deemed unfit in a large-scale “euthanasia” program that accounts for 200,000 deaths. It was this policy that brought asphyxiation by carbon monoxide to the fore as a killing technique.
Beyond the numbers killed remains the question of intent. Most of the Soviet killing took place in times of peace, and was related more or less distantly to an ideologically-informed vision of modernization. Germany bears the chief responsibility for the war, and killed civilians almost exclusively in connection with the practice of racial imperialism. Germany invaded the Soviet Union with elaborate colonization plans [in Ukraine]. Thirty million Soviet citizens [in Ukraine] were to starve, and tens of millions more were to be shot, deported, enslaved, or assimilated. Such plans, though unfulfilled, provided the rationale for the bloodiest occupation in the history of the world. The Germans placed Soviet prisoners of war in starvation camps, where 2.6 million perished from hunger and another half million (disproportionately Soviet Jews) were shot. A million Soviet citizens also starved during the siege of Leningrad. In “reprisals” for partisan action, the Germans killed about 700,000 civilians in grotesque mass executions, most of them Belarusians and Poles. At the war’s end the Soviets killed tens of thousands of people in their own “reprisals,” especially in the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine. Some 363,000 German soldiers died in Soviet captivity.
Hitler came to power with the intention of eliminating the Jews from Europe; the war in the east showed that this could be achieved by mass killing. Within weeks of the attack by Germany (and its Finnish, Romanian, Hungarian, Italian, and other allies) on the USSR, Germans, with local help, were exterminating entire Jewish communities. By December 1941, when it appears that Hitler communicated his wish that all Jews be murdered, perhaps a million Jews were already dead in the occupied Soviet Union. Most had been shot over pits, but thousands were asphyxiated in gas vans. From 1942, carbon monoxide was used at the death factories Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka to kill Polish and some other European Jews. As the Holocaust spread to the rest of occupied Europe, other Jews were gassed by hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Overall, the Germans, with much local assistance, deliberately murdered about 5.4 million Jews, roughly 2.6 million by shooting and 2.8 million by gassing (about a million at Auschwitz, 780,863 at Treblinka, 434,508 at Bełzec, about 180,000 at Sobibór, 150,000 at Chełmno, 59,000 at Majdanek, and many of the rest in gas vans in occupied Serbia and the occupied Soviet Union). A few hundred thousand more Jews died during deportations to ghettos or of hunger or disease in ghettos. Another 300,000 Jews were murdered by Germany’s ally Romania. Most Holocaust victims had been Polish or Soviet citizens before the war (3.2 million and 1 million respectively). The Germans also killed more than a hundred thousand Roma.
All in all, the Germans deliberately killed about 11 million noncombatants, a figure that rises to more than 12 million if foreseeable deaths from deportation, hunger, and sentences in concentration camps are included. For the Soviets during the Stalin period, the analogous figures are approximately six million and nine million. These figures are of course subject to revision, but it is very unlikely that the consensus will change again as radically as it has since the opening of Eastern European archives in the 1990s. Since the Germans killed chiefly in lands that later fell behind the Iron Curtain, access to Eastern European sources has been almost as important to our new understanding of Nazi Germany as it has been to research on the Soviet Union itself. (The Nazi regime killed approximately 165,000 German Jews.)
Apart from the inacessibilty of archives, why were our earlier assumptions so wrong? One explanation is the cold war. Our wartime and postwar European alliances, after all, required a certain amount of moral and thus historical flexibility. In 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union were military allies. By the end of 1941, after the Germans had attacked the Soviet Union and Japan the United States, Moscow in effect had traded Berlin for Washington. By 1949, the alliances had switched again, with the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany together in NATO, facing off against the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, including the smaller German Democratic Republic. During the cold war, it was sometimes hard for Americans to see clearly the particular evils of Nazis and Soviets. Hitler had brought about a Holocaust: but Germans were now our allies. Stalin too had killed millions of people: but the some of the worst episodes, taking place as they had before the war, had already been downplayed in wartime US propaganda, when we were on the same side.
We formed an alliance with Stalin right at the end of the most murderous years of Stalinism, and then allied with a West German state a few years after the Holocaust. It was perhaps not surprising that in this intellectual environment a certain compromise position about the evils of Hitler and Stalin -- that both, in effect, were worse -- emerged and became the conventional wisdom.
New understandings of numbers, of course, are only a part of any comparison, and in themselves pose new questions of both quantity and quality. How to count the battlefield casualties of World War II in Europe, not considered here? It was a war that Hitler wanted, and so German responsibility must predominate; but in the event it began with a German-Soviet alliance and a cooperative invasion of Poland in 1939. Somewhere near the Stalinist ledger must belong the thirty million or more Chinese starved during the Great Leap Forward, as Mao followed Stalin’s model of collectivization. The special quality of Nazi racism is not diluted by the historical observation that Stalin’s motivations were sometimes national or ethnic. The pool of evil simply grows deeper.
The most fundamental proximity of the two regimes, in my view, is not ideological but geographical. Given that the Nazis and the Stalinists tended to kill in the same places, in the lands between Berlin and Moscow, and given that they were, at different times, rivals, allies, and enemies, we must take seriously the possibility that some of the death and destruction wrought in the lands between was their mutual responsibility. What can we make of the fact, for example, that the lands that suffered most during the war were those occupied not once or twice but three times: by the Soviets in 1939, the Germans in 1941, and the Soviets again in 1944?
The Holocaust began when the Germans provoked pogroms in June and July 1941, in which some 24,000 Jews were killed, on territories in Poland annexed by the Soviets less than two years before. The Nazis planned to eliminate the Jews in any case, but the prior killings by the NKVD certainly made it easier for local gentiles to justify their own participation in such campaigns. As I have written in Bloodlands, where all of the major Nazi and Soviet atrocities are discussed, we see, even during the German-Soviet war, episodes of belligerent complicity in which one side killed more because provoked or in some sense aided by the other. Germans took so many Soviet prisoners of war in part because Stalin ordered his generals not to retreat. The Germans shot so many civilians in part because Soviet partisans deliberately provoked reprisals. The Germans shot more than a hundred thousand civilians in Warsaw in 1944 after the Soviets urged the locals to rise up and then declined to help them. In Stalin’s Gulag some 516,543 people died between 1941 and 1943, sentenced by the Soviets to labor, but deprived of food by the German invasion.
Were these people victims of Stalin or of Hitler? Or both?