Russia tries to normalise Ribbentrop-Molotov

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The other day the world (mostly Eastern Europe and a few history buffs) remembered to 80th anniversary of the signing in Moscow of the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the accompanying secret protocols on cooperation in dividing between them “the bloodlands” in the middle.  Not surprisingly, the state legatee of one of the original signatories is getting quite defensive about it:

Offering a unique insight into one of the most controversial political deals in history, Russia has displayed the original text of a pact between Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, including the deal’s condemned “secret protocol.”…

Russia’s new exhibition is seen as an attempt to normalize a pact it says it had no option but to strike, because attempts to work with the West had failed…

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the BBC reports, said at the new exhibition’s opening that Russia was forced to deal with Hitler to cover its own back.

“Naively calculating that the war would pass them by, the Western powers played a double game. They tried to steer Hitler’s aggression eastwards. In those conditions, the USSR had to safeguard its own national security by itself,” Lavrov said.

In the Molotov-Ribbentrop display at the State Archives in Moscow, space is also set aside for the controversial Munich agreement of September 1938, the Guardian reports. After Munich, British leader Neville Chamberlain was condemned for Nazi appeasement.

You could see the theme being slowly unfolded in the run up the anniversary through social media:

Including this, much reposted by Russian Twitteratti:

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The message is loud and clear: don’t single out Russia (or the Soviet Union) because you all cosied up to Hitler just as bad.

There are, however, a few reasons why the Ribbentrop-Molotov (or the Molotov-Ribbentrop, as Russians seem to prefer it) pact stands out:

1. While the shameful Western appeasement of Hitler, culminating in the infamy of Munich, allowed the Reich to bloodlessly dismember the sovereign and democratic Czechoslovakia, neither Great Britain nor France participated in or benefited from Germany’s cannibalism of this “faraway country of which we know little”. The difference is that while the West remains ashamed of Munich (a name which quickly become synonymous with a craven sell-out), a few years back, Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medinsky called the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact “a great achievement of Soviet diplomacy”.

2. Unlike all the other agreements signed with Germany during the 1930s, it was the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact that green-lit the armed German aggression and led to the outbreak of the deadliest war in human history. It’s difficult to blame Germany’s neighbours or countries threatened by the Soviet Union (like Poland, Romania and the Baltic states) for trying to stay on Germany’s good side. It was naive and in any case it didn’t work in the end, as they all later found out to their detriment and downfall. Soviet Union, on the other hand, not only climbed into bed with Nazi Germany but it fully and enthusiastically consummated this marriage of convenience.

3. Unlike other agreements cited above, thanks to the “secret protocols” attached to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the Soviet Union was both a co-aggressor in and a co-beneficiary of the start of World War Two. Stalin has relatively bloodlessly acquired the by-then (mid-September) almost defenseless eastern Poland (subsequently incorporated into Belarussian and Ukrainian Soviet Republics; these historically Polish areas remain today parts of Belarus and Ukraine), Bessarabia from Romania (incorporated into the Moldovan Soviet Republic), the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as being given a free hand in the invasion of Finland, a country which otherwise might have counted on German friendship and support. All these aggressive territorial gains were the consequence of the Ribbentrop-Molotov division of Eastern Europe between the Reich and the Soviet Union into the respective spheres of interest, soon confirmed as the “facts on the ground” by Wehrmacht and Red Army.

4. While Britain and France, their empires and their allies, fought Germany for almost two years after September 1939, first through the period of the “phony war”, then through the Blitzkrieg in the West and the Battle of Britain, the Soviet Union remained a de facto Nazi ally, continuing to cooperate in security matters and supplying Germany with food and raw materials. Grain trains were still rolling west across the border with the Reich as Wehrmacht was launching Operation Barbarossa in the morning of 22 June 1941. During the period of Nazi-Soviet cooperation, Germany conquered Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia and Greece.  Soviet exports helped to feed and build up the German war machine before it was unleashed against the West in 1940; German troops surging into the Low Countries walked on their stomachs (to borrow from Napoleon) full of bread baked from Russian wheat or were carried on the tanks and trucks made with Russian coal and ores. Never forget that for Russia, World War Two – or the Great Patriotic War as it is called there – begins only in June 1941, not September 1939, as it does it all Western history books.

5. It’s true that the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was partly defensive in nature as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, aiming to postpone the inevitable armed clash between the two rival totalitarianisms and in the meantime give Russia some essential breathing space to build up its army and strategic reserves (the top leadership of the Soviet armed forces was decapitated by Stalin during the purges in 1937-8, leaving them even more unprepared to face Germany than would have otherwise been the case). But as I pointed out above, it was also offensive and directly benefited Stalin’s territorial ambitions while it lasted. In some ways, the legacy of the pact lives on in the shape of Poland’s post-war borders, which have nothing to do with its thousand-year history. This is the real #TruthAboutWWII and this is why the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact remains singled out in the infamy of the interwar European democracy.

While Ribbentrop was condemned to death at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and executed by hanging in 1946, Molotov lived in a relatively peaceful though retirement until 1986, remaining until the end an unrepentant Stalinist and an apologist for the pact he co-signed on behalf of his master. He would be rejoicing today that his diplomatic legacy is being rehabilitated by Russia’s post-communist rulers. As for the rest of us, let us never forget the lessons of history nor let us ever stop judging others by how they see the shameful past.

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