Yesterday we remembered the 77th anniversary of the most cynical political event of the 20th century, the pact between Hitler and Stalin, which partitioned the Eastern Europe and greenlit the Second World War. Otherwise known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, it was a marriage of convenience between two ideologies that despised each other, yet in many ways were so similar, not least in their choice of enemies.
To call German Nazism and Soviet communism the far-right and far-right obscures their similarities, while to describes them as national (race-based) socialism and international (class-based) socialism obscures their differences. Both were totalitarian societies, celebrating and worshipping the state and the collective and denigrating the individual. Both despised democracy, liberalism and personal freedoms. If Soviet socialism was of a state ownership variety, the German one was of a mixed economy. While both imperialist in nature, communism was an universalist creed, while Nazism a particularist one. Communism was a bastard offspring of the Enlightenment; Nazism a reaction against it.
The pact itself was merely an armed truce between two powers planning to annihilate the other, but not just yet. Neither party felt strong enough and ready to take on the other, so in the meantime a mutual benefit was to be had from a naked and violent land grab. Both hated Poland for their own particular reasons, but in addition to going halfsies on â€œthe bastard child of Versaillesâ€, Stalin also got the Baltics and parts of Romania as a bonus. It was a good deal, except for its victims.
When the pact was made public, it astounded â€“ and terrified – the world. It also fractured the communist movements in the West. Some left in disgust and disillusionment, while the majority – the true believers – proved their loyalty to the party by making a swift intellectual 180. It is only vaguely recalled in our collective historical memory nowadays that for almost the first two years of the Second World War, the Soviet Union was one of the aggressors, first against Poland, then against the Baltic states, finally against Finland. It is hardly remembered at all that until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in mid-1941, Western communist parties tacitly collaborated with the Nazis against their own countries. Thus the French communist party, for example, called for resistance to invasion not when the first bombs fell on France but when they fell on the Soviet Union a year later.
While Ribbentrop (the â€œvonâ€ was a self-invention) was hung at Nuremberg, Molotov proved to be a great survivor, proving that nothing succeeds like success â€“ for example, winning the war that one started. He died peacefully, at the ripe old age of 96, totally unrepentant for his bloody Stalinist past, just as Gorbachev was introducing perestroika and glasnost (which actually allowed the Soviet Union to finally acknowledge and then, in its death throes, condemn the secret protocols of the pact, which allowed for the partition of Poland and absorption of independent Baltic states into the Soviet Union).
So while Molotov might have outlived Ribbentrop by some four decades, at least theyâ€™re finally back together again, shaking hands in hell. Poland is one and independent again, as are the Baltic States. Neither Nazism nor communism are with us any more, though sadly some of their ideas and instincts are with us still, and Russia is once again led by a man whoâ€™s making threatening noises at the Ribbentrop-Molotov victims. Fortunately, this time there are no takers from the West.