Putin’s New Nostalgia

10.11.2014

Pacte_germano-soviétique_(Chancel)_2As Russian military convoys continue the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has chosen to rehabilitate the alliance between Hitler and Stalin that began World War II. Speaking before an audience of Russian historians at the Museum of Modern Russian History, Putin said: “The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression agreement with Germany. They say, ‘Oh, how bad.’ But what is so bad about it, if the Soviet Union did not want to fight? What is so bad?”

In fact, Stalin did want to fight. The August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin. It led directly to the German-Soviet invasion of Poland the following month that began World War II. In speaking of this agreement, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as good foreign policy, Putin has violated both a long Soviet taboo and revised his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral.” What might he have in mind? What it is about rapprochement with Nazi Germany that is so appealing just at the present moment?

The historical significance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact could hardly be greater: it stands at the beginning of German and Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and all of the succeeding tragedies they brought, in Poland and elsewhere. Stalin entered the pact with Hitler fully aware of his partner’s anti-Semitism, and indeed accounting for it in his own diplomacy. On August 20, 1939, Hitler asked Stalin for a meeting, and Stalin was more than happy to agree. For five years the Soviet leader had been seeking an occasion to destroy Poland. Stalin had prepared by firing his Jewish commissar for foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov, replacing him with the Russian Vyacheslav Molotov. The dismissal of Litvinov, according to Hitler, was “decisive.” On August 23, Molotov negotiated the agreement with Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in Moscow.

In Geneva, where Zionists were meeting at their world congress, the news came as a shock. Everyone present immediately understood that Hitler had been unleashed and that a war was coming, with especially dire implications for Jews. Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the General Zionists, closed the congress with the words: “Friends, I have only one wish: that we all remain alive.” This was no empty pathos. Less than two years later, the Holocaust began in precisely the part of Europe that was dealt with in the secret protocol of the pact. By 1945 almost all of the millions of Jews who lived in these regions would be dead. Stalin famously said that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an alliance “signed in blood.” Much of the blood shed in the lands concerned by the agreement would be that of Jewish civilians.

The Stalin-Hitler alliance had devastating consequences for Poland and the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In Poland, on September 17, 1939, Stalin joined his ally Hitler in a military attack, sending the Red Army to invade the country from the east. It met the allied Wehrmacht in the middle and organized a joint victory parade. The Soviet and German secret police promised each other to suppress any Polish resistance. Behind the lines the Soviet NKVD organized the mass deportation of about half a million Polish citizens to the Gulag. It also executed thousands of Polish officers, many of whom were fresh from combat against the Wehrmacht.

Ten months later, the Baltic states were also occupied by the Red Army and annexed to the Soviet Union. These three small countries lost tens of thousands of citizens to deportations, including most of their elites. The Baltic states were declared by Soviet law never to have existed, so that service to those states became a crime. The Soviet idea that states can be declared to exist or not, now echoed in Russian pronouncements about Ukraine, is deeply etched in the political memory of Poland and the Baltic region today.

Because Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were attacked by the Soviet Union while Stalin was Hitler’s ally, their current leaders have also been particularly quick to see through other Russian propaganda positions, for example the grotesque claim that Russia had to invade Ukraine this year in order to protect Europe from fascism. They remember not only the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but also the series of economic agreements between the Nazis and the Soviets that followed in 1940 and early 1941, and the sham elections and propaganda in the Soviet zone that seemed to find an eery echo in the recent Russian actions in occupied Ukraine.

In fact, Putin’s rehabilitation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact follows other recent moves by Moscow to revive the idea of a division of Eastern Europe between Russia and the West. In March the Russian parliament proposed to the Polish foreign ministry that the two countries divide the territory of Ukraine. No one in Warsaw took the suggestion seriously. In his victory speech after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Putin argued that the protection of ethnic brethren was a legitimate reason to invade Ukraine. This was Nazi Germany’s rationale for seizing Austria and part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the Soviet Union’s for attacking Poland in 1939. It is with such historical references in mind that we must understand Putin’s suggestion in the speech that Germany should sympathize with the doctrine of changing borders. Any such support for this argument would seem difficult to imagine in Germany, whose admirable position as a major European power depends precisely upon European integration. Yet important German statesmen such as Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt have taken meaningful steps toward endorsing Moscow’s position by questioning the legality of the Ukrainian state.

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the significance of President Putin’s position is limited to the fate of Eastern Europe, important as that is. What is happening instead is an attempt by the Kremlin to move from one account of Russia in World War II to another—a shift in national historical memory that would have implications for all of Europe. Two versions of the commemoration of the war were always available because the Soviet Union fought on both sides of the war. In the first part of the war, from 1939 to 1941 the Soviet Union was a German ally, fighting in the eastern theater and supplying Germany with the minerals, oil, and food it needed to make war against Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and most importantly France and Britain.

After Hitler betrayed Stalin and the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Soviet Union was suddenly on the other side, and soon found itself in a grand alliance with Britain and the United States. For decades, official Soviet accounts of the war passed over the first part in silence and celebrated Soviet feats of arms in the second. In the international arena, if the Soviet Union wanted to present itself as a power that stood for peace, it had to deny that it was one of the powers that began the war. Soviet postwar propaganda, like Russian propaganda now, associated the West with fascism: this was one especially dramatic way of forgetting just who it was who fought on the same side as those fascists when the war began.

In view of the millions of Soviet citizens killed by the Germans after June 1941, and the undoubtedly decisive role that the Red Army played in the final defeat of the Wehrmacht, the commemoration of the struggle against the Nazis made perfect political sense. Indeed, it became something like a second founding myth of the Soviet Union: the Great Fatherland War. But in this telling of history, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had to be denied: not so much as a crime but as a blunder. After all, it allowed German troops to approach the Soviet Union well before the invasion, it aided Germany to become the European power that almost reached Moscow, and it created a false sense of complacency in the Soviet leadership. In spring 1941, despite more than one hundred intelligence warnings, Stalin refused to believe that Germany would invade The Soviet Union.

As today’s Russia fights a war of aggression in Eastern Europe, the Kremlin seems increasingly ready to merge the traditional Soviet self-image as the country that defeated the Nazi aggression with Stalin’s own actions as a glorious aggressor. This implies a positive evaluation of the 1939 alliance with Nazi Germany. There has been a trial run for this sort of thing. Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet Union presented Nazi Germany in its own internal propaganda as a friendly state, ceased to criticize German policies, and began to publish Nazi speeches. People at public rallies occasionally misspoke, praising “Comrade Hitler” or calling for “the triumph of international fascism.” Swastikas began to appear on buildings or even on posters of Soviet leaders.

Today, the positive emphasis on a war of aggression goes well with tendencies in the Russian media, where defiant declarations of Russian anti-fascism are increasingly submerged in rhetoric that may seem rather fascist. Jews are blamed for the Holocaust on national television; an intellectual close to the Kremlin praises Hitler as a statesman; Russian Nazis march on May Day; Nuremberg-style rallies where torches are carried in swastika formations are presented as anti-fascist; and a campaign against homosexuals is presented as a defense of true European civilization. In its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has called upon the members of local and European far right groups to support its actions and spread Moscow’s version of events.

In the recent “elections” staged in the Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as in the earlier faked referendum in occupied Crimea, European far-right politicians have come as “observers” to endorse the gains of Russia’s war. Far from being an eccentric stunt, the invitation of these “observers” reveals why the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is meaningful to Moscow today. Although Putin would certainly have been pleased if actual German or Polish political leaders were foolish enough to take the bait of agreeing to a new division of Europe, he seems satisfied for the moment with the people who have actually responded, in one way or another, to his appeal to destroy the existing European order: separatists across Europe (including the UK Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, calls Putin the world leader he most admires); anti-European right-wing populist parties (of which the most important is France’s National Front); as well as the far-right fringe, including neo-Nazis.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not only about territory in Eastern Europe but also about the entire European legal order. In making his alliance with Hitler, Stalin had a political logic. He imagined that in supporting the Nazi state as it began its total war he would turn the German armed forces to the west, away from the Soviet Union. In this way, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist world would be exposed, and Germany, France, and Britain would collapse simultaneously. In his own way, Putin is now attempting much the same thing. Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists. His allies on the far right are precisely the political forces that wish to bring an end to the current European order: the European Union.

It should go without saying that a return to the nation-state in Europe would be a catastrophe for all concerned, including, in the end, for Russia. But there is an important difference between Stalin in 1939 and Putin in 2014. One can at least credit Stalin for attempting to resolve a real problem: Hitler did indeed intend to destroy the Soviet Union. In allying with Hitler he compromised his ideology and made a strategic mistake, but he was certainly responding to a real threat. Putin, on the other hand, had no European enemy. Without any apparent cause, in 2013, for the first time, the Russia government designated the European Union as an adversary. In its media and indeed in official foreign policy pronouncements it has characterized the European Union as “decadent,” in the sense of about to disintegrate.

This change in policy toward Europe, accompanied by the creation of a rival Eurasian Union, was then followed by the Russian assault on Ukraine. The Kremlin has continuously presented its intervention in Ukraine as resistance to European aggression. This is all a bit strange. The Russian invasion of Ukraine precipitated a rupture with the West that, from the point of view of protecting Russia’s basic interests, makes absolutely no sense. This was Russia’s choice, and it hardly seems a masterpiece of strategic thinking. Now the Kremlin’s tortured search for a justification and precedent has led to the jettisoning of one of the basic moral foundations of postwar politics: the opposition to wars of aggression in Europe in general and the Nazi war of aggression in 1939 in particular.

Timothy Snyder is Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University and IWM Permanent Fellow.

First published in The New York Review of Books, November 10, 2014.

© Author / The New York Review of Books

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    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabic

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    Visiting Fellow, Ukraine in European Dialogue
    (January 2016 – December 2017)
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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