By Sławomir Dębski

The Russian president’s only version of history is the Soviet one. He knows no other, as it seems everything he has read is based on Stalin’s historical doctrine.

Ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the outbreak of the Second World War last year and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and end of the war this year, the Russian Federation has been waging an intensive propaganda campaign regarding the causes and the course of the war in 1939–41. Its objectives are firstly to blur the Soviet Union and Stalin’s shared responsibility for the start of the war, and secondly to provide a retrospective legitimation for the methods the Soviet dictator used to enslave and plunder the territories of several European nations.

The generalissimus of this campaign has been President Vladimir Putin, who on 20 December, at an informal summit of the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a group of former Soviet republics, gave an unprecedented “history lecture” on the causes of the start of the Second World War. Over the next few days, he referred to various themes from this speech on five further occasions.

Putin’s reason for giving this disquisition was the European Parliament (EP) resolution from 19 September 2019, which recalled the common knowledge that “the Second World War, the most devastating war in Europe’s history, was caused by the notorious Nazi-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression of 23 August 1939, also called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and its secret protocols, which allowed two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest to divide Europe into two zones of influence”.

There was nothing new in the EP’s stance. In 2009 it designated 23 August the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. The initiative was supported by the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly, and on this basis it is also marked in the United States and Canada. The new EP resolution called upon the European Commission and Council to hold commemorations at European level. But might it also have alerted Putin to the fact that the Kremlin propaganda machine and Russian diplomacy had proved ineffective, and that Europe today is defined by memory of the crimes of both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union?

Stalin’s dogma is Putin’s dogma

In 1948, Stalin responded to the American publication of a collection of documents on Soviet-German cooperation in 1939–41 based on seized Third Reich archives by personally editing a propaganda pamphlet called Falsificators of History (An Historical Note). The book taught its readers that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was “a wise and far-sighted act of Soviet foreign policy” which “to an enormous extent predetermined the favourable outcome of the Second World War for the Soviet Union and for all the freedom-loving peoples” (from the English edition: Washington, DC, 1948).

It was here that for the first time we saw the argument that the reason for the outbreak of war was the Western powers’ betrayal in Czechoslovakia during the Munich crisis, and that the objective of their policy was to direct Hitler’s aggression eastwards, against the peaceful Soviet Union. Stalin’s pamphlet was the basis of textbooks and school curricula, newspaper columns, and press and propaganda templates in the USSR and its satellite states.

Decades of propaganda stamped this version of events in the minds of millions of citizens of the Soviet Union, where it still lives on. In Putin’s mind too. He knows no other – after all, he has not read anything apart from accounts based on Stalin’s historical dogma. And it is this version that he has now decided to adopt and endorse for application throughout the CIS, as his own, Putinian dogma.

A “senseless” war against Hitler

In The Falsificators of History, Stalin continued the arguments developed when collaborating with Hitler and in the joint aggression against Poland. He blamed democratic states – France and Great Britain – for the outbreak of war. In a special letter to the editors of Pravda, published on 30 November 1939, he explained that it was not the Third Reich that had attacked France and Britain, but rather the opposite.

The letter clarified the message of Vyacheslav Molotov, the people’s minister for foreign affairs, who on 31 October 1939 boasted to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR of the joint aggression of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, which led to the “rout of Poland and the disintegration of the Polish state”, saying that “all that was needed was an initial attack of the German army and, after that, the attack of the Soviet [army], in order to leave nothing of this monstrous bastard of the Treaty of Versailles”.

Molotov also announced that there was “no justification” for the struggle against Nazism, because “the ideology of Hitlerism, like any other ideological system, can be accepted or rejected – that is a matter of one’s political views. But everyone can see that an ideology cannot be destroyed by force. Thus it is not only senseless, it is criminal to wage such a war as a war for ‘the destruction of Hitlerism’, under the false flag of a struggle for democracy”.

This idea was not a new one for the Soviets. As early as 1934, at the 17th Congress of the CPSU, Stalin signalled his readiness to work with Hitler to topple the Versailles order. “Of course we are far from enthusiastic about the fascist regime in Germany. But fascism is beside the point, if only because fascism in Italy, for example, has not kept the USSR from establishing the best of relations with that country. Nor is it a question of any change in our attitude towards the Versailles Treaty. It is not for us, who have experienced the shame of the Brest peace, to sing the praises of the Versailles Treaty.” Lenin too had earlier launched tirades against the Versailles Treaty.

By seeking to shift the blame for the start of the war onto the Versailles Treaty and its advocates – especially France and Britain, but also Poland – Putin is not only alluding to Stalin’s policy aiming to overturn the Versailles order, but also legitimising Hitler and his criticism of the treaty. It is worth remembering that Hitler’s arguments regarding the disaster that the Versailles Treaty had visited upon Germany, and which was the cause of the outbreak of war, were rejected and condemned by the Nuremberg Tribunal as criminal, and the Soviet Union was a signatory to this verdict.

In the Polish foreign ministry’s declaration of 21 December 2019, therefore, it was rightly noted that some of the Russian president’s statements could be in contravention of Russia’s obligations to international law. Putin is not a commentator, but the head of a state conducting territorial annexations. The historical revisionism present in his declarations could easily turn into political revisionism. The aggressions of Hitler and Stalin in the 20th century provide ample evidence of this.

A suppressed memorandum

To emphasise his point in his lecture for the CIS leaders, Putin brandished documents given to him from the archives. All those he cited turned out to be well known to historiography. Among them was a memorandum from a conversation the Polish ambassador to Berlin, Józef Lipski, held with Hitler from 20 September 1938. In his report, Lipski noted a sarcastic comment on the monument to Hitler in Warsaw that he had made while talking to the Führer about his new ideas for Jewish emigration from Europe. Putin seized upon this comment to launch a shameful attack on the diplomat and accuse him of antisemitism.

A separate article would be needed to discuss this affair, but in the context of the USSR’s policy regarding the Holocaust and Stalin’s failure to take any action to stop it, it is highly nefarious. In 1944, as the Red Army waited on the banks of the Vistula River for the rubble of Warsaw to burn out, the Germans were “unburdening” themselves of the Litzmannstadt ghetto (Łódź) by gassing more than 70,000 people.

Putin’s lecture would certainly have been more interesting for historians if he had brought something that they do not know to light, such as a memorandum from the conversation of the people’s commissar for foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov, with the German ambassador Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenberg from 22 August 1938. Historians only know what happened from the German memorandum, published several decades ago in a collection of German diplomatic documents (Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik).

Unfortunately, in the series of publications of Soviet diplomatic documents (Dokumenty Vneshney Politiki SSSR), in volume XXII, concerning 1938 and published in 1977, the Soviet record of the conversation is missing. There is no mention of Litvinov informing Schulenburg – as we read in the German memorandum – that the Soviet Union bore no responsibility for the formation of the Czechoslovakian state, that it had taken no part in the Versailles Conference, and that if Germany were still a democratic state, the USSR’s position on German demands would have to be completely different. As it was, “the Soviets always supported nations’ right to self-determination”.

This was a clear signal that Moscow was ready to abandon its “aid” to Czechoslovakia for certain price. It is a pity that the Russian president did not choose to fill this gap in our knowledge, especially as German diplomacy interpreted the discussion in question as the Soviets sounding out Hitler’s readiness to work together to overturn the Versailles system.

Manipulating Daladier

Something that Putin did devote much time to was the report of the Soviet plenipotentiary in Paris, Yakov Surits, from 25 May 1938, from his discussion with French prime minister Édouard Daladier, who presented Poland’s position towards France, the USSR and Czechoslovakia, purportedly based on his previous conversation with the Polish ambassador to Paris, Juliusz Łukasiewicz.

The French prime minister supposedly asked the ambassador several questions, including whether Poland would allow the Soviet army passage to help Czechoslovakia, or at least permit the Soviet air force to fly over, and finally whether Poland would come to France’s aid if it were attacked by Germany in response to fulfilling its commitments as an ally to Czechoslovakia. According to Surits, Daladier informed him that Łukaszewicz’s answer to all three questions was in the negative. Daladier had thus communicated that France did not trust Poland’s loyalty, and not only was uncertain that it would come to France’s aid, but also whether it would not attack Czechoslovakia from behind.

“So what does this mean?” concluded Putin in St Petersburg. “It means the Soviet Union was ready to help Czechoslovakia, which Nazi Germany was going to rob. But the agreement between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia stated that the Soviet Union would do this only if France fulfilled its obligations to Czechoslovakia. France linked its aid to Czechoslovakia to support from Poland. But Poland refused to provide it.”

The whole affair is rather grotesque, and could be used in a university methodology course as an overview of the errors that novice history student might make when studying documents. Firstly, after taking office on 10 April 1938, Daladier did not actually talk to Juliusz Łukasiewicz at all. But the Polish ambassador did meet the French foreign affairs minister, Georges-Étienne Bonnet, twice in this period.

Secondly, on 1 May, France’s diplomatic head asked the Polish ambassador for an explanation of Warsaw’s position and understanding of its obligations to France regarding the Czechoslovakia crisis. The Polish foreign affairs minister Józef Beck dictated the relevant document on 24 May, and not until 26 May did Łukasiewicz communicate the Polish government’s position to Bonnet. So Daladier could not have given Surits an account of the Polish stance a day earlier, as it had not yet been relayed to France. He might have speculated on the subject, of course.

Shoddy work from the Kremlin’s “experts”

Poland’s position confirmed its readiness to fulfil its obligations to France if the latter decided on a military defence of the Versailles system. Beck therefore confirmed the Polish stance communicated to France on 7 March 1936, when Germany entered the Rhineland. He also gave the order to inform the French that Poland was not bound by any alliances either with Czechoslovakia or with the USSR, with which it was tied only by a non-aggression pact from 1932. As well as that the wider armed conflict over Czechoslovakia would create a new situation and demand a renewed definition of Poland’s policy.

So the Polish position in May 1938 differed from the claims in Surits’s report, and Putin’s conclusions are simply false. It is also worth adding that in late May/early June 1938 there was no possibility of Hitler seeking to end the Sudetenland crisis by force, nor was there any consideration of Czechoslovakia ceding the area to Germany. Putin may not be guilty so much of historical manipulation as of making a basic methodological mistake: he trusted a Soviet report, teeming with errors, without comparing it with other sources. So either his speech was prepared in a hurry, or there is a lack of competent people in his entourage.

Regarding the Sudeten Germans, from 1937 Poland took the position that should any changes in the legal situation of Germans in Czechoslovakia come about, the Polish minority, mostly in the Zaolzie area, should get the same rights. Yet Poland declared it would not make any initiative of its own in this respect. All the countries engaged in finding a solution to the problem of the Sudeten Germans agreed with this stance, and the government in Prague accepted it too.

Settling on this formula meant that in September 1938, when it was agreed in Munich that Czechoslovakia’s borders would be changed and the Sudetenland annexed to Germany, this paved the way to territorial changes with regard to Cieszyn Silesia and to acceding to Hungary’s territorial demands (southern Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia).

The results of the Great Purge

In September 1938, manoeuvring between France and Germany, Poland fell into a trap. By threatening war, Hitler forced concessions from France and Britain, which in turn forced them upon the Czechoslovakian government. Poland stuck to the formula of equal rights for all, and thus drifted along with Hitler’s policy. Warsaw was not strengthened by its participation in the changes to Czechoslovakia’s borders. On the contrary – it brought new threats in the form of talks with Hitler on a comprehensive solution to the Polish-German problems, as Warsaw found itself politically isolated after occupying Zaolzie. But the Soviet Union was also isolated, and painfully aware of its lack of international credibility.

The Czechoslovakia crisis coincided with the Great Purge in the Soviet Union, which resulted in the repression of several hundred thousand citizens and the shooting of tens of thousands of Red Army officers. In 1938, therefore, nobody believed that the USSR had the military potential to allow it to help Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovakian president, Edvard Beneš, concluded that the purges meant that “the Red Army is no longer capable of effective action in the West”. General Ernst-August Köstring, the German military attaché in Moscow, thought that it had “lost its operational capabilities”, while his deputy, Colonel Hans Krebs, said that “Russia will need 20 years for its officer corps to reach the previous level”.

After the war, Marshal Georgy Zhukov expressed the view that “the repressions of the 1930s gave rise to our withdrawal in 1941”, while Marshal Ivan Bagramyan, who by some miracle had survived the wave of repressions, recalled: “When I think back to Stalin’s brutal lawlessness, mass repressions including in our armed forces, the annihilation of the cohort of illustrious heroes of the Civil War […] I have only one feeling towards Stalin – a feeling of condemnation”.

Munich encumbers everyone

If it is said today that beneath every railway sleeper in Russia there lie human remains, and every family lost somebody during Stalin’s repressions, one must remember that this was the same Stalin who offered “help” to Czechoslovakia, and whose army no neighbour wanted to let into its territory. This was why the Latvian deputy prime minister, General Jānis Balodis, said of the Munich agreement in 1939 that his country could not allow the Soviet army to pass through as “we would not be able to get rid of them”. The Estonian foreign minister Karl Selter, meanwhile, said that “a month of Soviet occupation is worse than four years of German occupation”.

The elites of all the Soviet Union’s neighbours agreed. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the fate of Poland and the Baltic states after the Second World War showed how right they were. The Soviet Union was seen as a barbaric state throughout most of Europe. How else could one describe a country whose authorities condemned millions of their own citizens to famine, forced labour camps, or to being shot?

This was why Poland, in common with most other countries, thought that the USSR’s involvement in European security affairs could lead to new threats. Not only because until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Hitler proclaimed that communism was his mortal enemy and exploited France’s ratification of the French-Soviet alliance in 1936 as a pretext for militarisation of the Rhineland, but also because the USSR was not the same actor of international relations as other states. It was an aggressive, bloodthirsty and totalitarian despotic state striving for expansion and the enslavement of the largest possible number of nations.

The Munich conference is a fruitful subject for historical manipulations, as to interpret it one needs detailed knowledge. Furthermore, it has amassed a plethora of myths and political analogies. It has become something of a political byword symbolising appeasement of aggressors or delayed action to halt them. Manipulations of this event are all the easier as none of the states involved in it has any reason to be proud of its policy towards Hitler and his claims to Czechoslovakia. This also goes for Poland, of course, and in this context it is worth remembering President Lech Kaczyński’s words from his speech at Westerplatte in 2009: “Poland’s participation in the reduction of territory of Czechoslovakia was not only a mistake – it was a sin, and Poland can admit as much.”

The world is still waiting for similar words from the Russian leader. I already know that they will go down well in the history of humanity.

This article was first published in Polish by Gazeta Wyborcza. Translation into English by Ben Koschalka.

Main image credit: (under CC BY 4.0)

Sławomir Dębski is a political scientist and historian. He is the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs and former director of the Polish-Russian Centre for Dialogue and Understanding, as well as a former member of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters.

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