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A Difficult Anniversary

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Most people would say that WWII started on Sept. 1, 1939, but for Russia, the Great Patriotic War began on June 22, 1941.  How Vladimir Putin handles this challenging 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland at a commemoration event in Gdansk will speak volumes about Russia’s transformation since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Though he has condemned the secret protocols, given the recent trend of official policy toward history, I think some salt is about to rubbed in some still open wounds.  Then again, some are predicting that Putin’s presence in Gdansk could be the beginning of a new chapter with Eastern Europe, even if that means having it both ways.  After all, Putin did sound very un-Putin in that Gazeta Wyborcza interview, remarking that “Today we understand that any form of agreement with the Nazi regime was unacceptable from the moral point of view and had no chance of being realised,” and that Russia understands “all too well the acute emotions of Poles in connection with Katyn.

Let’s hope that the Poles don’t spurn this entreaty with demands for outright groveling.  As for Russia, while one would certainly prefer to see more of this open attitude toward debate, dialogue, and discussion over events which happened 70 years ago for which they are not responsible, there exists some cacophony in the messaging we are hearing from Moscow, and the criticism is fierce (one message at home, and another abroad).  We think it would be a big mistake for any critic of the current leadership to simplify these complex events into a false black and white duality.

With that in mind, here goes one critique of Stalin’s decisions in those years from Shlomo Avineri.  I encourage commentators to leave links to contrasting Russian perspectives below.

For years the Soviets tried to claim that their alliance with Nazi Germany was a defensive act, intended to guarantee the Soviet Union a time out before a future German invasion and to give it strategic depth. These claims were recently repeated in Moscow. Therefore, how Putin addresses them in Gdansk is important. The Soviets also tried to justify their acts by invoking the 1938 Munich Accords, in which England and France agreed to the division and annexation of Czechoslovakia. If Western states could act that way, claimed the Soviets, who were they to complain about Moscow?

Such claims are based on a chain of deceptions and lies. 

The Munich Accords were a shameful mark on Britain and France, but as of the end of 1938, even the Chamberlain government understood Hitler was preparing for war and changed its strategy: Britain reinstated compulsory conscription, and implemented a broad rearmament, including the production of hundreds of tanks and planes and the development of radar technology. This is what enabled Britain to win the Battle of Britain. At the same time, in the spring of 1939, England and France gave Poland public guarantees they would come to its aid if Germany attacked.

Stalin knew all this, and more: The secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, discovered after the war, show it was not a defensive act. The secret protocols stated that the German Third Reich and the Soviet Union “would together consider Poland’s continued existence as an independent country.”

Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet Union did almost nothing to protect its western border, including the areas of Poland it had annexed, and that is why the 1941 Nazi attack destroyed the Soviet defenses. Until the day of the invasion, the Soviet Union continued to supply the Nazi war machine with raw materials while France and England fought for their lives. Stalin dismissed the repeated intelligence warnings that Hitler was planning to attack the Soviet Union. Not only that, the Soviets murdered thousands of captured Polish officers in the Katyn forest and handed the Gestapo dozens of German communist refugees, many of them Jewish, who had fled to the “socialist motherland.”