On the night of August 20, 1939, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler reached out to a bitter foe with a desperate plea. Time was running short on preparations for his planned invasion of Poland on September 1, and Hitler needed the Soviet Union to stay out of his war. In a telegrammed letter rushed to Joseph Stalin, Hitler asked the Soviet dictator to arrange for a meeting between German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, as soon as possible. For months, the USSR had been in negotiations with Britain and France, who had pledged to defend Poland if Germany invaded, to form a three-way alliance against Nazi aggression. Germany and the USSR, however, had signed an economic agreement the day before. Now Hitler wanted a political pact as well, an idea Molotov said he “warmly welcomed.” With battle preparation plans on hold as the European powers considered forming a united front against Germany, Hitler could not hide his urgency. “The tension between Germany and Poland has become intolerable,” he warned Stalin. “A crisis may arise any day.”
Stalin’s response finally arrived 27 hours later: Send Ribbentrop to Moscow.
On August 23, 1939, Ribbentrop arrived with written orders in hand from Hitler to make the deal. Such a diplomatic foray would have been unthinkable only months before. The Nazis and Soviets had been mortal enemies on the opposite sides of the ideological spectrum who used hatred of one another to fuel their political purges and murderous regimes. Now, however, Realpolitik trumped ideology. After the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia earlier in the year in violation of the Munich Agreement, Stalin questioned the resolve of the British and French to fight the Nazis. The Soviets, meanwhile, found a peace deal with the Germans attractive given that they were already engaged in a fierce battle on their eastern front with the Japanese and the Red Army was still weakened from Stalin’s purge of its top commanders in 1937 and 1938.
So sudden was the thaw between the strange bedfellows that the five swastika flags rushed to the airport to greet Ribbentrop upon his arrival had to be taken from Soviet movie studios producing anti-Nazi propaganda films. Once seated at the negotiating table inside the Kremlin, the German foreign minister proposed a lofty preamble about the countries’ warm relations, but even a totalitarian dictator knew that the truth could only be bent to a certain degree before it snapped. “The Soviet government could not suddenly present to the public assurances of friendship after they had been covered with pails of manure by the Nazi government for six years,” Stalin said, according to William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”
While Soviet negotiations with the British and French had dragged on for months, it took mere hours to hammer out a deal with the Germans. The meeting “began and ended briskly, just to show how businesslike these dictators are,” the New York Times editorialized. Officially called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact but also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the nonaggression agreement was simple and straightforward. Both countries pledged for 10 years “to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other powers.”
As a large framed photograph of Vladimir Lenin gazed down sternly upon the smoke-filled room, Ribbentrop and Molotov affixed their signatures to the agreement. A smiling Stalin was as bubbly as the Crimean sparkling wine that he raised in a spontaneous toast to Hitler. “I know how much the German nation loves its Fuhrer,” he said. “I should therefore like to drink to his heath.”
The agreement took effect the moment pen touched paper, an unusual diplomatic clause that reflected just how rushed Hitler felt. Ribbentrop phoned an anxious Hitler at his mountain retreat in Bavaria with the news. “That will hit like a bombshell,” said an ecstatic Hitler, who could now invade Poland without fear of a Soviet intervention and a two-front war that had doomed German in World War I.
“The sinister news broke upon the world like an explosion,” Winston Churchill later wrote. And that was just the news the world knew about, for in addition to the non-aggression pact, the Nazis and Soviets entered into a secret protocol that only came to light after the conclusion of World War II. The two countries took a carving knife to Poland with the Germans taking the larger western slice. The Soviets were given a free hand in Bessarabia in southeast Europe and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Finland, while Lithuania fell into the German sphere of influence.
Before Ribbentrop left the Kremlin, Stalin pulled him aside. “The Soviet Government take the new pact very seriously,” the dictator said, and he could guarantee on his “word of honor that the Soviet Union would not betray its partner.” Stalin must have wondered if Hitler felt the same, given the chancellor’s willingness to agree to all Soviet demands as well as his serial habit of breaking treaties.
“Our pact means that the greatest European powers have agreed to eliminate the threat of war and to live in peace,” Molotov told the Supreme Soviet before it unanimously ratified the pact on the evening of August 31. Hours later, more than a million German troops crossed the border with Poland. World War II had begun. Within weeks, the Soviets occupied eastern Poland under the guise of protecting its residents from the Germans. Months later, Stalin’s troops marched into the Baltics and Bessarabia.
Before the signing of the non-aggression pact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned Stalin that “it was as certain as that the night followed the day that as soon as Hitler had conquered France he would turn on Russia and it would be the Soviets’ turn next.” The words proved prescient when on June 22, 1941, Hitler unilaterally broke his deal with Stalin and launched the largest surprise attack in the history of warfare.
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Two weeks ago, I wrote that the ripping of children away from their parents at the US border, and their consignment to child prison camps thousands of miles away, was a lightning flash revealing the cruelty and rank racism of Trumpism.
This week, the Helsinki press conference was a lightning-flash revealing the Trumpist efforts to create a world-wide Fascist International. The Trump-Putin alliance is today’s equivalent of the “Hitler-Stalin Pact.”
These two attacks are intertwined. They are both attacks on the Spirit. The anti-Spirit cruelty that tore babies from their parents is the same arrogance that seeks to shut up a critical press and send whistle-blowers and reporters to prison, the same cruelty that seeks to deny families health insurance and food stamps and raises tariffs that threaten the livelihood of farmers.
Not only do they spring from the same root, they strengthen each other. Perverting our elections makes it easier to outlaw all abortions. Giving enormous tax breaks to the hyperwealthy makes it easier for them to buy elections.
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee.
One anti-Spirit despot and one would-be anti-Spirit fascist are giving aid to each other to strengthen their ability to exert despotic control over their own peoples and over nearby nations in Eastern Europe or Central America.
Trump’s attacks on the democratically elected conservative governments of Britain and Germany, his joyful support of British racists and German neo-fascists as well as of Putin make that clear. Add in his close alliance with Netanyahu, the Saudi Crown Prince, other increasingly successful fascist parties in democratic Europe, and actual fascist governments in Eastern Europe.
Are Putin and the Russian state “enemies” of the United States?
We are faced with the weird situation in which all US intelligence and law-enforcement agencies report that Russia, by making massive secret illegal efforts to control a US Presidential election, has acted precisely like what the Constitution calls an “enemy.” But the President & Congress won’t define the situation that way because they benefit from it.
Putin is the enemy of the American people, but not the enemy of the step-by-step Trumpist putsch. He is its facilitator.
And in Helsinki Mr. Trump did not just evade the question of Russian interference in US elections, but gave that enemy aid and comfort, adhering closely to it. A lot more than two witnesses watched the whole action.
So does that mean the President of the United States committed treason in plain sight?
As a scholar of US history, I have been unwilling to fling around the word “treason.” It is the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”
The Constitution tries to prevent “treason” from slopping over into sedition and dissent, as British kings had the habit of doing. So I think we should be careful about the word.
And – being as careful as possible – I think what Trump did in Helsinki was treason. Not treason to the present government of the United States, but treason to the Constitution, to the American people, and the future of democracy in America.
What shall we do?
Much of the US Left wants to focus on the bread-and-butter questions stirring fear and anger in those who responded to their sense they have become the Forgotten Americans by voting for Trump. Perhaps they will change their minds.
But part of the US Left sees doing that as contradictory to focusing on the “Russia Question.”
In my view, a serious mistake.
Why? Because Trump’s various efforts at subjugation are profoundly interconnected. His contemptuous actions toward Muslims, Blacks, Latinx, gays, women, refugees, labor unions, the poor, the farmers who voted for him, the Earth, the free press, the FBI, AND the election system all pursue the same goal – a monopoly of power.
Trump is gambling for despotic power in the USA and is glad to have had and keep having Putin’s support toward that result. In exchange, he helps Putin by encouraging fascist parties and movements in France, Germany, and Britain, etc.
I know that some progressives say, “The US tried & often succeeded in buying, faking, colluding in other countries’ elections.” Therefore – evidently, therefore — we can’t complain if somebody does it to us. I don’t agree.
Progressives since the US interventions against popular democratic movements in Greece, Iran, and Guatemala in the ‘40s / ‘50s have been opposing those interventions as destructive of democracy. Why would we shut up when another “Great Power” does the same anti-democratic stuff? Doesn’t that also hurt the US poor, Muslims, Latinx, etc etc etc — and give Trump & his white supremacists more power?
Some progressives – including some amazing leaders whom I enormously respect – are saying that elections should be protected on their own (from super-floods of money, from gerrymandering, from voter suppression), without focusing on Russia.
And they have urged new approaches to peacemaking with Russia. – They seem to be ignoring the malign impact of Russian intrusion in US and other elections on exactly the marginalized people they are worried about. Pressure against Russian interference with elections is not the same as war.
Our demand should be for moving toward democracy in both countries, not accepting either’s imperial designs whether directed toward each other or Latin America or the European Union. We should be demanding that instead of pushing Europe to spend more on death — as Trump did — , we and the Europeans should be pressing Trump & Putin to spend less on war and instead meet needs for schools, free colleges, sewers, bridges, clean water, pure air.
The pocketbook issues that move the poor and working poor most sharply and these “democracy” issues need to be connected over and over — not surgically separated.
They should be connected at not only the political but also the spiritual level.
There are only three remedies: impeachment, elections, and street resistance. The first clearly depends on the second and the second is intertwined with the third. They are all connected.
The Shalom Center is undertaking to strengthen these connections with our campaign to Share Sukkot: Grow the Vote. More about that in the next few days.
Before I leave you for now, let me add: Trump is trying to copper his bet on despotism by appointing to the Supreme Court a judge who has already said we should not “burden” a President even with a criminal investigation, let alone a civil lawsuit or a subpoena. This means the American people would not be able to insist the President be truthfully accountable. Destination: Despotism. What can we do? — Look below the graphic!
I urge you: Call 1202-224-3121. Ask for your Senators, regardless of party. If you are living in DC and have no Senator, ask for Sen Collins of Maine and then Sen. Murkowski of Alaska. Urge them strongly to vote No, Against on confirming Kavanagh. Call back every day. One day, mention the constitutional right to abortion. Another, the legal requirement to protect our Earth, not burn it. Another, the need to keep millions on health insurance. Each time, the need to insist the nominee answer specific questions.
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee.
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Seventy-five years ago, on 23 August 1939, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia stunned the world by announcing that they had concluded a non-aggression pact, committing themselves not to aid each other’s enemies or to engage in hostile acts against one another. Stalin knew the pact would not be popular. “For many years now,” he said, “we have been pouring buckets of shit on each other’s heads, and our propaganda boys could not do enough in that direction. And now, all of a sudden, are we to make our peoples believe that all is forgotten and forgiven? Things don’t work that fast.” Many western European communists, disgusted at this turn of events, left the party at this point in what was probably the largest exodus of members before the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The front garden of Nazi party headquarters in Munich was quickly filled with party badges and insignia thrown there by party members appalled at the thought of an alliance with the communist enemy they had spent their lives fighting against.
The shock would have been all the greater had people been aware of the secret clauses of the pact, with subsequent addenda, in which the two states agreed to partition Poland between them – Germany taking the larger part – while Hitler conceded that the independent Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Finland and parts of Romania would fall into the Soviet sphere of influence. Just over a week later, Hitler invaded Poland, his armies brushing aside the brave but ill-equipped Polish army, while shortly afterwards the Red Army marched into the eastern part of the country. In 1940, Stalin’s troops marched into the Baltic states. His attack on Finland was initially repulsed in the “Winter War”, but numbers told in the end, and an uneasy peace was reached, marked by Soviet annexations of Finnish territory in the east of the country. Further south, the Soviets seized Bessarabia and northern Bukovina from the Romanians.
These events are hardly “largely unknown”, as Roger Moorhouse claims in his new book, nor are they “dismissed as a dubious anomaly” in the standard histories of the second world war. They were a crucial feature of the runup to the outbreak of the war, and they entered literature as part of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where a sudden switch of alliances causes the hero Winston Smith to work overtime as he carries out the task assigned to him of rewriting the newspapers to make it look as if the new alliance had always been in existence.
And alliance indeed it was. For Hitler, the pact provided a guarantee that he could invade first Poland, then France and most of the rest of western Europe, without having to worry about any threat from the east. For Stalin, it allowed a breathing space in which to build up armed forces that had been severely damaged by the purges of the previous years, as his botched invasion of Finland showed. It also gave him the chance to expand the Soviet Union to include parts of the old Russian empire of pre-revolutionary times. Moorhouse is right, therefore, to insist that for Stalin the pact was not merely defensive, though he goes too far when he claims it was a golden opportunity for the Soviet leader “to set the world-historical forces” of revolution in motion. After a decade of “socialism in one country”, he was not going to do that.
The pact eventually extended to the economic sphere, with Germany providing military equipment in exchange for raw materials such as oil, grain, iron and phosphates. Moorhouse sensibly discounts claims that these made a decisive economic difference to Germany or provided the Soviet Union with a crucial military advantage, though the statistics he quotes of German arms and equipment reaching Soviet factories are impressive, and Soviet deliveries of oil to the fuel-starved Germans were not without their effect. Shockingly, Stalin also handed back a substantial number of German communists who had taken refuge in the Soviet Union after the Nazi seizure of power; some of them, arrested during the purges, were taken directly from the Soviet Gulag to a German concentration camp.
Moorhouse tells a good story and, though it has been told before, notably in Anthony Read and David Fisher’s The Deadly Embrace (1988), he is able to add interesting new details. His account of the negotiation and signing of the pact, finalised by Ribbentrop and Molotov, two men who had become foreign ministers of their respective countries through fawning sycophancy towards their respective leaders, is masterly.
Yet for all its virtues this is a deeply problematic book. Page after page is devoted to a detailed description of the horrors inflicted by Stalin and his minions on the territories the pact allowed him to occupy, with mass arrests and deportatations, shootings, torture and expropriation. The shooting of thousands of Polish army officers by the Soviet secret police in Katyn Forest and elsewhere has been well known for decades, like the brutal deportation of over a million Poles to Siberia and Central Asia, but much of the material provided by Moorhouse on the Baltic states is relatively new and makes sobering reading.
None of this, however, is balanced by any comparable treatment of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Poland following their occupation of the western part of the country: the expropriation of Polish farms and businesses, the mass confiscation and looting of private property, the deportation of more than a million young Poles to work as slaves in Germany, the brutal displacement of Polish populations, the massacres of Poles carried out by the Germans, and the confinement of the majority of Poland’s 3 million Jews in overcrowded, insanitary and deadly ghettoes in the major cities in the Nazi zone, where they were dying in large numbers within a few months.
If the pact allowed Stalin to visit his murderous policies on the Baltic states, it also permitted Hitler to do the same with the much larger and more heavily populated countries he invaded in western Europe at the same time, and even more so in the areas of southern Europe he conquered early in 1941. Yet the expropriation of Jews, the mass deportation of Alsatian Jews to camps in France, the massacres and atrocities committed by the Germans and their allies in Yugoslavia and the starvation of Greece receive barely a mention in this book, although they happened while the pact was still in force. The unbalanced treatment extends even to the period after the pact ended, in June 1941: Moorhouse devotes considerable attention to the Soviet attempt to cover up the Katyn massacre, but fails to mention the deliberate killing of Red Army troops taken prisoner by the Germans.
The book ends by praising the European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, instituted by the EU in 2009 at the behest of the Baltic states, and held every year on 23 August, the anniversary of the signing of the pact. It is written very much in the spirit of the founding declaration of this “Black Ribbon Day”, whose 19 points focus almost exclusively on Soviet atrocities while sparing barely a thought for Nazi ones. This goes even further than merely equating the two regimes, as the declaration purports to do. In both the book and the declaration, Stalinism comes out as being far worse than nazism.
This reflects the post-communist mood in the Baltic states, where SS veterans are hailed as “freedom fighters” against the Russians and are allowed to parade unhindered through the streets of Tallinn. In this view, the war fought by the western allies against Nazi Germany was a gigantic mistake; all it achieved was the enslavement of eastern Europe under the Soviet yoke. Yet, in the end, brutal and murderous though Stalinism was, Nazism visited even greater horrors on humanity with its policies of the genocidal elimination of the “inferior” and the “Jewish world enemy”. The Nazi “General Plan for the East”, conceived already in 1940, envisaged the extermination of 85% of the population of Estonia and 50% of the populations of Latvia and Lithuania. The Red Army might not have liberated these countries in 1945, but it certainly rescued them. Readers of this thoroughly biased and one-sided account of the Nazi-Soviet pact will have to look for these basic facts elsewhere.
• To order The Devils’ Alliance for £18.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.
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