Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Second World War begins

There is a very reasonable school of historical thought, which says that the two world wars as well as the various outbursts of unpleasantness of varying magnitude and violence in between constitute, in reality, one war, a second Thirty Years’ War that took place world-wide.

After all, runs the argument, neither the Hundred Years’ War nor the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century involved constant fighting for all the 114 and 30 years in question; there were periods of relative peace; there were fighting sides dropping out or changing allegiance; there were localized wars that can be described as civil wars.

There is, in my opinion, a good deal to be said for that theory and it may well be that historians of the future will not be blinded by our obsessions. However, the period of vicious fighting and civilian destruction we call World War II needs to be examined and remembered separately. We are too close to it to be able to see it as part of any wider picture.

September 1, 1939, seventy years ago, the war started officially with the German invasion of Poland. Parliament hastily passed the National Service Bill and on September 3, 1939 Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Canada, whose contribution was as great as that of the other Dominions and of the Empire, declared war on September 10. Let us never forget that when Britain was supposedly standing alone, it had the support of the Empire and of the Dominions. The Indian Army alone increased to 2.5 million during the war and they were all volunteers. 30 Victoria Crosses were won by Indian soldiers.

But I digress. There will be many seventieth anniversaries in the next few months and years. Let us look at the beginning. Let us note that there is at least one country that is once again refusing even to look at what happened in that fateful year.

Yesterday’s Guardian carried a piece by Luke Harding that discussed the reasonably well known news item of President Medvedev announcing that neither the Soviet Union nor Stalin were responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War and to suggest otherwise would be to deny the Soviet achievements in liberating Europe that have somehow become Russian achievements.

At this point it is worth having a look at the curious way in which Putin’s and Medvedev’s Russia has become the descendants of the Soviet Union, according to official propaganda analysis.

The Soviet Union was more than just a multinational state in which several members felt that they were being oppressed. Various members of those nationalities became part of the Soviet elite or just of the Soviet experiment and it is fair to say that many of the horrors were Soviet in nature, put into place by people of differing nationalities.

On the other hand, the same is true for the courage displayed by the Soviet army and for the suffering experienced by that army and the people of the country. Much of that suffering was imposed by Stalin’s government; much of the courage was displayed despite Stalin’s leadership.

Then, of course there are various problems: the behaviour of the Red Army and of the GRU and NKVD that followed it in the “liberated” parts of the Soviet Union itself and in other countries; the fate of many returning Soviet soldiers, particularly the Chechens, Tatars and Ingushi but others, too; the fate of returning POWS, often handed back by the Western allies despite their clear reluctance to go home. It is a dizzyingly complicated pattern and countries that were involved do not necessarily draw rational conclusions. Least of all, I am sorry to say, Russia or, at least, its leadership that is intent on whipping up fear and loathing towards all western countries among the Russian people. Sometimes I think they are succeeding, sometimes I am not so sure. The Russians are well experienced in double-think.

To sum up briefly, the official Russian view is that the bad aspects of the Soviet Union – mass murder, labour camps, torture chambers, destruction of the economy, invasion of other countries – probably did not happen but if they did, they were most definitely not Russia’s fault, because it was all done by the Soviet Union and many non-Russians were involved. Very true. I frequently make that point myself to people who ignorantly substitute Russia for the USSR.

However, runs the version, even if some of those accusations are true and even if there were many non-Russians involved in the horrors, it is wrong for anybody else to mention them because that casts aspersions on the heroism of the Russian army that liberated Europe or some part of it, anyway.

This rather odd collection of attitudes prevents any kind of understanding of the Second World War (the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia, and it did not begin till 1941 so what is everybody going on about) in the country. It also lies behind President Medvedev’s odd comments.

Stalin, he maintained, had no choice but to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact or, at any rate, instruct Molotov to do so. The West had let him down; the West had let everyone down; Poland was the Nazis’ ally in dismembering Czechoslovakia, so what are they complaining about.

This conveniently ignores that the Nazi-Soviet Pact had those pesky secret protocols that divided Eastern Europe between the two giants, the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, the treatment of Polish and Baltic civilians by the Soviet authorities and the help the USSR gave Germany right up to June 22, 1941. Without that help it is unlikely that Germany could have fought the Battle of Britain or harassed British shipping to the extent it did.

In fact, if we consider World War II a separate event from all the other bits and pieces that had been going on in Europe and the rest of the world since 1918, the start of it was on August 23, 1939, when Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed a pact that guaranteed Hitler’s rear and divided up the countries between the two totalitarians.

The rest followed from that inexorably.

UPDATE: Der Spiegel gives an account of the commemoration of the beginning of World War II in Gdansk, adding quotes from other newspapers. Chancellor Merkel spoke well and movingly; President Kaczynski wanted more from the Russians and President Prime Minister Putin did not actually say that it was all Poland's fault. He did not actually acknowledge Soviet involvement either but the German newspapers seem quite happy with the fact that he did not deny it in so many words.


  1. "the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 1917" ??

    "August 23, 1919, when Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed a pact" ???

    Dates a bit off aren't they?

  2. It seems to me that everything the leaders of both russia and the ussr say is only what they want you to hear, they are expert at propaganda, dont forget the communist movement was huge in Britain in the 30s, it had a strangle hold on France, to the point the aircraft industry was rendered useless and had been world class and the French army was riddled with it, without the communists Hitler would have faced (or probably would have chosen not to) a higher caliber of enemy and equiptment. Personaly, and this is my opinion only, despite Hitlers manifest failures and faults he delayed the onset of communism for over 60 years, there was an article by a Mr Hitchens recently asking if Churchill was wrong to lead us against Hitlers Germany, this is something I wondered myself, all that loss, and now the Uk is being broken up, britain is ruled by unelected dictators in Europe, at least under the Nazis we would not be overrun by undesireables. Te propaganda power is displayed by the fact that the epithet "nazi" is an insult whereas "commie" is not, and "fascist" is remembered by the methods of power grab and keep not its policial principle , unlike "communist" which is seen as a noble cause and not its despicable ways.These are dangerous times and maybe the war has been raging since 1914 and is still going strong, our children are being fed propaganda, freedom is becoming scarce, I have run away as there is no place for me in England, the USA is fighting communists in the Whithouse, congress and the senate, conservatives are hard to find, liberals have followed the dodo and states are talking about cedeing from the union. It will be good to focus on WW2 and remind populations of what fighting for freedom is.

  3. Just back from visit to Italy, I note that some 50% of the population there believes Mussolini not so bad a chap but in fact a rather nice guy. Not sure of the percentage I just used. I was told that. But I was able to buy with ease posters and stickers with depictions of the guy who made the trains run on time.

  4. I am Pole living in UK. Thank you for this article showing right proportions. And although many Poles think that UK was not fair offering deal to Poland (march 1939), deal which could not help us (UK had no possibility to do much in that time) I think that UK was rather fair during war.
    But when I hear such accusations like Mediediev's I start to wonder why we fought that war, what for? We lost about 6 million of citizens, another 2-3 million lost polish citizenship to the soviet's without their consent and never returned to Poland. We lost 20% of our territory and most of our better educated people. Why? Because we did not pact with Hitler. Look at the position of other countries as Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria. These were Hitler's allies! Maybe we should do the same?
    By the way you are right about 23 of August 1939 (I think 1919 is typo). First date of invasion of Poland was set by Hitler on that day. But Poland made secret mobilisation in March and on 15 of August and Hitler had to postpone invasion to 1 of September to end of mobilisation of infantry divisions.

    Thank you once again for this article

  5. There's a symmetry between the USSR and Britain.

    In both cases a discreditable event (Munich/ Nazi Soviet Pact) occurred some time before hostilities commenced. Apologists (Tories/ Communists) explain that the pause was used to prepare for the foreseen war and that had the parties chosen war at the earlier time (1938/1939) then they would have been ill prepared.

  6. Dates have now been (silently) edited. Please, could we have some names to the Guest postings, particularly if they are criticisms of my effort.

    Tomasz, thank you for your comment. No, I don't think Poland did wrong but I do think you are a little too apt to sweep all countries that behaved otherwise into one big basket. There were many problems in Slovakia and Hungary as well, both being somewhat reluctant allies of Hitler.

    TDK, there is no symmetry there at all. In 1938 Britain could not have fought, particularly not for a piece of disputed land a long way off. No territory was taken by Britain. There was no support from the Dominions and only lukewarm support from France. Rearmament was progressing but slowly because of obstruction from the Labour Party and the unions. Nevertheless, the period of peace was used to bring at least the RAF up to a reasonably standard. And, finally, many Tories opposed the Agreement.

    When it came to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, it was a definite agreement to divide the land between the two countries as well as a non-aggression pact. No Communist opposed it anywhere - those who did in the West found themselves being non-Communist. It was not then nor has it been since seen as shameful in the Soviet Union or by those who know about it in Russia. And finally, the time was not used by Stalin to rearm but to impose his rule on the countries the USSR had absorbed.

  7. On an aspect you mentioned earlier.

    I think I never before noticed such a fierce discussion in German media about the blame question. It doesn't lean to some blaming the UK or the USSR instead of Germany but it's a strange mixture of discussing hardcore revisionists and defensive articles which emphasize the leading role of Germany.

  8. Typo: "constitution, in reality" in 1st para should be "constitute, in reality".

    I'm a layperson, but it seems pretty clear to me that politics and outrageously reality-distorting propaganda go hand in hand. That Russian (and, for 70 years, Soviet) politics excel in this dark art is sad, for real people are always the ones who suffer by it and Russia has an awful lot of people (and an impact on many more beyond its borders).

  9. Helen,

    I understand position of those countries. Every situation was different. But I do not tell about problems, tensions, etc. in those countries - I tell about political decision. And I do not blame them for that, those countries were not spiritus movens of history of IIWW.
    But I also remember that Slovak army invaded Poland on 1/09/1939, and remember that significant number of Polish soldiers flew to France and UK through Hungary and Romania.
    I only wondered what would be better for Poland - being ally to Aliants or to Axis. And now, when we know what was the truth, Russian accesations are very painfull. And serious because they are backed by premier and president of Russian Federation.

    For full picture about Ribentrop-Molotov pact I reccomend to read diplomatic correspondence between Gernany and Soviet Russia in years 1938 - 1941. Very interesting lecture.