On September 1, 2019, the world marked a tragic date: 80 years since the day when Nazi troops crossed the border of Poland. This is how World War II, which claimed tens of millions of lives, began.

Sergei Ivanov, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Military Historical Society and Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport, talks about Soviet-German relations before 22 June 1941, and why it is wrong to talk about the Soviet Union’s responsibility in unleashing WWII.

Ahead of the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, some people in the West resumed allegations about the start of the war, saying that the Soviet Union was responsible for it on a par with Nazi Germany, because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allegedly gave Hitler the green light. What would you say to this?

Sergei Ivanov: The Western commentators you have mentioned forget the background for the Soviet-German agreement signed in 1939.

They forget about the event that predates that agreement, that is, the Munich Betrayal, when Britain and France allowed Hitler to take over the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in September 1938. In mid-March 1939, Nazi Germany occupied the whole of Czechia, turning Slovakia into a puppet state without any trace of resistance on the part of the Western powers.

At that time, the Soviet Union was the only European power that did not dirty its hands in collusion with Hitler.

But what was Moscow to do in that situation? It needed to protect its national and state interests and stop Hitler’s eastward aggression, which Britain and France anticipated so eagerly. Moscow knew that Hitler’s next victims would be Poland and the Baltics.

It meant that German troops would stand on the Soviet border in direct proximity to Leningrad [now St. Petersburg], Minsk, Kiev and Odessa, the vital political, industrial and cultural centres of the Soviet Union. Moscow did everything in its power to create an anti-Hitler coalition, but its idea fell on deaf ears in London and Paris.

The Soviet-German Pact of 1939 was a response to the Munich Betrayal. Moscow would not have signed any non-aggression pact with Hitler if not for the Munich Betrayal.

When he decided to sign the pact on August 23, Joseph Stalin must have realized that Hitler’s attack on Poland was inevitable. For example, his speech at the August 19 meeting of the Politburo and the Comintern Executive Committee is often quoted, where he said: “If we accept the well-known German proposal…, it will, undoubtedly, attack Poland, and the United Kingdom and France will inevitably enter the war”.

Sergei Ivanov: First, Stalin’s speech you have quoted was concocted by the French security services in the late autumn of 1939. The Politburo’s declassified archives show clearly that there was no such meeting on 19 August.

Second, one should not follow the traditions of the “personality cult” and think of Stalin as a superman who knew everything in advance. Judging by archive sources, the Kremlin believed that the situation would follow the Munich scenario: The United Kingdom and France would force Poland to cede the Danzig Corridor to Hitler, and there would be no war.

Many Soviet intelligence reports contained these conjectures. Diplomats thought likewise. Here is what Soviet Ambassador to Great Britain Ivan Maisky wrote in his diary at the time: “A new Munich-type deal is in the air […] The 1938 scenario may repeat itself if Hitler displays even minimal amenability”.

Different scenarios were possible in August 1939. This is why the wording of a secret protocol to the Soviet-German pact is so vague: “In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement …” Stalin tried not to assume any binding obligations to Hitler. In effect, by signing the pact with Germany, the Soviet Union only pledged not to attack Germany for a period of ten years. That is all.

The USSR is reproached for becoming an ‘ally’ of Germany after signing the pact of 23 August 1939. Usually references are made to the so-called liberation campaign of the Red Army on 17 September and the title of the Soviet-German Boundary and Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939. What do you think about this?

Sergei Ivanov: In reality, on 17 September, the Red Army indeed launched a liberation campaign in Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia. Remember that in 1921 Poland seized these territories from Russia that was ravaged by civil war. For Poland at the time, Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia were actually colonies were they conducted policies of polonization, closure of national school, accompanied by the way with shocking manifestations of anti-Semitism. It is no accident that after the start of the Red Army’s operation on 17 September, Ukrainians and Byelorussians began to flee from the Polish army en masse.

Or take the fate of the Vilnius region and the city of Vilnius. Poland annexed this territory by force from young independent Lithuania back in the 1920s. After 17 September 1939 this region found itself under the control of the Red Army. The USSR returned it and the city of Vilnius to Lithuania — fairly bourgeois, though not quite democratic at that time.

As for Soviet-German relations, they did not establish any alliance following the August and September agreements. By moving its borders westward, the Soviet Union removed the front of the future war from the country’s vital centres by 300 and more kilometers, thereby curbing Germany’s appetites in its advance to the east.

Winston Churchill, for one, understood the anti-German character of the Soviet action on 17 September. Speaking on the radio on 1 October 1939 he said: “But that the Russian Armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace. At any rate the line is there, and an Eastern Front has been created which Nazi Germany does not dare assail.”

In this sense, everything happening between the USSR and Germany was just a temporary truce before the decisive battle. The more intelligent and far-sighted people at the time understood this.

Did the Soviet Union become a participant of WWII in 1939?

Sergei Ivanov: No. The Soviet Union remained a neutral state and continued to be one until 22 June 1941. Its neutrality, officially declared on 17 September, was recognized by Great Britain, France and the United States. When the Soviet Union sent in troops to Poland, neither France nor Great Britain and not even Poland deemed it an act of war.

It is sometimes said that, since Stalin carried on trade with Hitler and supplied commodities to Germany while at war, the Soviet Union cannot be considered neutral. It is a typical example of applying double standards to those events. Between 1939 and 1941, before Pearl Harbor, the United States supplied weapons to Great Britain. Does it mean it lost its neutral status? No. Sweden provided strategic materials to Germany throughout the war. Does anybody question Sweden’s neutrality in WWII? Moreover, Sweden did not lose its neutral status, even when Hitler’s troops were allowed to transit its territory.

National ideology in the Baltic states hinges on the argument that in 1939–1940 those countries were occupied by the Soviet Union that brought with it repression, deportation, forced collectivization and other unpopular Sovietizing measures. The same claim is made about Western Ukraine, Western Byelorussia and Bessarabia. What do you think about this?

Sergei Ivanov: Occupation implies subjugation and using violence against the population. True, there was repression in those territories [along with other regions of the Soviet Union].

The reality of Stalinism alienated many people from the Soviet regime. But it was hardly a majority. Residents of the Baltic states, Western Ukraine, Western Byelorussia and Bessarabia became Soviet citizens, with all the attendant rights and obligations.

The poorest people and the middle class were given a lot by the Soviet government – for instance, land that in the past belonged only to those who had special privileges, mainly Poles.

The ‘new citizens’ integrated with all groups of Soviet society, including the administrative and creative elite. Is that what you would call an occupation? Compare it to the German occupation of other countries or the regimes imposed by England and France on their colonies and protectorates.

What can you say about the version supported by a number of historians today, including in Russia, that the Red Army was preparing a strike against Germany in the summer of 1941, but Hitler forestalled Stalin? After all, a large group of Soviet troops was being concentrated on the western borders of the Soviet Union, while its defences were inadequate, as the Wehrmacht offensive showed later?

Sergei Ivanov: This is just another fake. And quite an old one – this so-called version was initially voiced by the Minister of Propaganda of the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, immediately after the attack on the Soviet Union.

This Nazi lie has long been exposed by Russian and Western historians. Read The Icebreaker Myth by Gabriel Gorodetsky. Without going into details, I would cite just one figure: the Soviet Union in early 1941 spent a third of all cement produced in the country to build its new lines of defence on the new western border (the so-called Molotov line).

If we were going to attack, we would have spent these resources on something else.

Today in Russia, we are recalling all the dates associated with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of various countries in Eastern Europe. But it is argued in a number of European countries that it was not liberation, but a new occupation, only by a communist regime.

Sergei Ivanov: In this regard, I can only ask one question: What would have happened to such countries as Poland, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, occupied in 1939-1941, or to the countries that fell under complete dependence on Hitler if Soviet soldiers had not come to liberate them?

How much longer would have the genocide of the local population continued, killing civilians – children, old people, women? Would it have even been possible to talk about any European values if one million Soviet soldiers had not given their lives there fighting the Nazi plague?

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