ON THE 80TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BEGINNING OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR (September 1, 2019)
80 years ago World War II began, which turned into the greatest tragedy for humankind, claiming tens of millions lives and affecting the fate of generations.
Today attempts are being made in a number of countries to revisit the reasons and results of World War II so as to equally blame both Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union for that global catastrophe, thus casting a shadow on modern Russia. This is why it is very important to rely on concrete facts and documents that narrate the complexity of the pre-war situation and reveal the true cause-and-effect relations that led the world to this tragic cataclysm.
Following the 1938 Munich Agreement, Europe faced a qualitatively new situation which was marked by the increasing international isolation of the Soviet Union. Moscow was alarmed by the possible emergence of a united anti-Soviet front (Great Britain and France singed non-aggression declarations with Hitler on September 30 and December 6, 1938, respectively). But even under these circumstances the Soviet government made every possible effort to establish a collective security system, the need for which became ever more obvious after the Nazis liquidated Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The USSR resolutely denounced the Third Reich’s actions, refused to accept the takeover of Czechoslovakia and made it a priority to reach an agreement with London and Paris.
In the summer and spring of 1939, Soviet-Polish relations acquired special significance. Moscow presumed that an agreement with London and Paris was only meaningful with Warsaw as a participant. Despite numerous attempts to persuade the Polish government, the extreme anti-Soviet attitude of the Polish leadership, who were ready to come to terms with any nation except the USSR, prevailed over reason. A 1937 directive adopted by Poland’s General Staff set “annihilation of anything Russian” as its final goal.
The trilateral British-French-Soviet talks went on until the second half of August 1939. The Soviet draft agreement called for immediate military aid in the case of an aggression, to which the British and French objected as they preferred that the Red Army “pull the chestnuts out of the fire” for them. The negotiations were dragged on with innumerable amendments, farfetched discussions on the notions of “indirect” and “direct” aggression, grounds for providing security guarantees etc., which ultimately led to their complete breakdown.
In view of the circumstances, in early August 1939, the Soviet leaders agreed to enter into talks with Germany. Thus a ground was laid for a complicated diplomatic combination whereby each party pursued its own interests. Germany was trying to avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union in view of its planned invasion of Poland, whereas the Soviet Union set the goal of preventing the rapprochement of Germany with the Western democracies on the basis of anti-Sovietism so as not to become the target of aggression.
Signing the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, a forced and extremely hard decision, was a stern necessity for the Soviet Union. Whereas the Munich agreement allowed the Nazis to tear an entire European country to pieces with its population, including the Jews who were to be completely exterminated, the August 23 treaty took large territories of Western Ukraine and Byelorussia out of the German sphere of influence, thus saving them from “the new order” and Holocaust.
The German occupation of Poland confirmed the validity of the decision made by the Soviet leadership. Great Britain and France left Poles to their fate, and still cherishing a hope of Germany’s confrontation with the USSR, opted for the so-called strange war that went on for over eight months thus considerably easing Hitler’s aggression against the countries of Europe and the Soviet Union.
On September 15, a truce was signed between the USSR and Japan, and on that very day the Byelorussian and Kiev military districts received a directive ordering them to make all their operational formations combat-ready. On September 17, the Red Army entered the Polish territory, with instructions not to advance beyond the Vilnius-Lomza-Bug line and not to use weapons against the Polish army unless it starts hostilities.
The Red Army’s march to Poland allowed the reunification of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peoples within the new USSR borders. Only the regions that had been occupied by Poland in 1920-1921 were taken over. In fact, the Soviet troops came to the Curzon Line, which in 1919 the Entente’s Supreme Council determined as the eastern border of Poland. The USSR was not at war with Poland, which had been admitted by the leadership of the Western nations and the Polish government in exile.
The Soviet government was concerned about the fact that German and Soviet armed forces met at the line of contact. It was evident that the war with Nazis cannot be avoided, especially following the loss of the “Polish buffer zone.” However, the Baltic states still performed their “buffer functions” and the Soviet Union was vitally interested in preserving their independence. This is why Moscow was not trying to “Sovietise” Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as it signed pacts of mutual assistance with them in autumn 1939. Moscow’s position only changed by the summer of 1940 after Nazis defeated the British-French troops and conquered the whole of Western Europe. The Baltic states were to be next in line, and the prospects were clear: either Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia join the USSR or become part of the Nazi Germany’s occupation zone.
Therefore, the Soviet Union faced the beginning of the war with strategically advantageous positions. It joined neither of the warring countries and pursued the policy of neutrality, using the existing situation to enhance its military-political and economic positions.
After Hitler came to power, the USSR for a long time remained the only country that tried to contain his aggressive intentions and insisted on uniting the efforts of European countries to preserve peace. Hitler based his state policy on the principles of racism and nationalism and planned mass extermination of Jews, Roma, Slavs and all “Untermenschen.” Therefore he viewed Soviet internationalism as an absolute evil and the Soviet Union was perceived as the main foe of the Third Reich.
One may have varying opinions on Soviet policy during the initial period of World War II, but it is impossible to deny the fact that it was the Soviet Union that routed Nazism, liberated Europe and saved European democracy.