The Misconception of the Twentieth Century
By Bryan Caplan
Even many people with little sympathy for the Soviet Union admire its “heroic” role in World War II. What all too few people realize is that for the first twenty-two months of World War II, the Nazis and the Soviets were allies. Under the auspices of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin partitioned the countries that lay between them, beginning with Poland. Here’s a nice map showing the original Nazi-Soviet deal, and its subsequent revision:
After they fell out with their Nazi allies, of course, the Soviets claimed they had just been protecting themselves from the future German invasion, but that’s nonsense. World War II might not even have started if Hitler didn’t have Stalin’s help. And if Stalin was expecting an invasion, he wouldn’t have ignored all the evidence that Hitler was about to invade.
For Hitler, no doubt, the Pact was just a marriage of convenience: He stabbed his ally in the back as soon as he had a chance. But many Nazis saw things differently. Here’s a fascinating passage I came across in Nazism, 1919-1945, vol. 4, from the daily German press conference of 2/2/1940:
[T]he German public must not now be given the impression, through a description of Russian domestic life, that we want to achieve an ideological merger and that we are more or less adopting and imitating Bolshevik terminology. There is an undoubted danger that such a merger will occur because our struggle against England and France is, after all, also directed against the plutocratic system and, as a result, certain Socialist conceptions have to be discussed quite often. But one must distinguish this propaganda and keep it clearly separate from the Bolshevik terminology. The reference in some newspapers to the German state as the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ state must not be repeated.
Methinks they dost protest too much!
While in alliance with the Nazis, the Soviets claimed, as usual, to be “liberating” the countries they invaded. The reality was quite different. Most shockingly, during Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, almost two million Poles were deported to Siberia. Hitler’s double-cross was the only reason the Polish deportees didn’t all die in Soviet slave labor camps; in his desperation, Stalin allowed many to leave the Soviet Union via Persia to fight for the West.
The upshot is that there are many witnesses to the Soviets’ atrocities toward the Poles. Lately a lot of them – and their surviving relatives – have been contacting me. They’re known as the Kresy Siberia Group, and make it their goal to educate the world about what really happened to them.
It’s a tale that deserves to be heard for its own sake. But to understand what happened to Poland between 1939 and 1941 also puts all of twentieth century history in perspective. The Big Story of the century wasn’t a left-versus-right struggle, or a struggle of moderation versus extremism. It was a struggle of cosmetically different totalitarian socialisms to enslave the world. They fought freer countries to subjugate them; they fought each other out of lust for power. I’m still amazed that things didn’t turn out far worse.