Staunton, September 17 – Seventy-four years ago today, Stalin, on the basis of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, invaded and occupied Poland. Twelve days later, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a Treaty on Friendship and the Border between the USSR and Germany over the dismembered body of Poland.
Even as agreement is reportedly close on the treatment of Stalin in the unified history textbook Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered, it is worth recalling that the history of World War II was more complicated than that book is likely to suggest and that Stalin’s role as Hitler’s ally was far more evil than most Russians are willing to admit even today.
Indeed, as a typical article in the Moscow media today shows, Russian writers are prepared to engage in the most complicated contortions in order to try to justify the unjustifiable and to whitewash what was one of the great crimes of the 20th century, one that not only helped trigger World War II but also led to Soviet occupation of half of Europe for almost 50 years.
On the Russian Orthodox nationalist site today, Ruskline.ru, Andrey Ivanov says that what Stalin did in occupying Poland was “completely necessary for the security of Russia against the Nazi threat,” a view many now share but that at a minimum requires clarification (ruskline.ru/news_rl/2013/09/17/eto_bylo_sovershenno_neobhodimo_dlya_bezopasnosti_rossii_protiv_nacistskoj_ugrozy/).
The historian’s own timeline only underscores this need: He writes that “on September 17, 1939, the Red Army began a military operation for the liberation of the territory of western Ukraine and western Belarus which earlier had been seized by Poland as a result of the Soviet-Polish war of 1920.”
Ivanov acknowledges that there are continuing disputes about this event, with some viewing it as “a liberation campaign of the Russian army,” and others seeing it as “the aggression of the communist state,” a contrast and disjunction that are more revealing than he perhaps intends.
On September 17, he continues, the Polish ambassador in Moscow was “handed a note” which said that as a result of the German invasion, “the Polish state and its government functions had ceased to exist” and consequently “all agreements earlier concluded between the USSR and Poland” had as well.
Moreover, this note, discussed by Ivanov only in the passive voice, said that “the Soviet authorities could not be indifferent to the fate of the Ukrainian and Belarusian population living under the oppression of Poland” and that the Red Army “had been given an order to cross the Polish border and ‘take under its defense the life and property of the population of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine.’”
Poland’s situation was truly desperate. England and France had declared war on Germany but had not yet put armies in the field. The United States remained neutral, Germany forces continued to advance, and the Warsaw government was forced to evacuate and, according to Ivanov, “the liquidation of its independence became an inevitability.”
Moscow apparently was concerned by only one thing: “Despite the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,” Berlin appeared to be ready to go beyond the line demarcating German and Soviet spheres of influence by encouraging Hungary and Lithuania to think about acquiring lands in the east.
Despite all that, Ivanov continues, Stalin was reluctant to intervene in Poland, rejecting a German appeal for him to do so and then presenting the German invasion as an action that required the Soviet Union to take “measures for the defense of the country,” as the Moscow media put it on September 10.
A week later “when it became obvious that the defeat of Poland was an accomplished fact,” the Red Army moved into Poland. There was “practically no resistance,” the Russian historian says, and “the local Ukrainian, Belarusian and Jewish population in a majority of cases” welcomed that force as “a liberator.”
By September 19, Soviet forces joined up with German ones near Lvov and a demarcation line was established. Ten days later, the two dictatorships signed “a friendship treaty” which also contained a secret protocol calling for the transfer of populations, ethnic Germans out of the Soviet zone and ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians out of the German.
As a result of the Soviet campaign, the USSR acquired 196,000 square kilometers of additional territory and approximately 13 million additional people. This “rapid success,” Ivanov says, had “negative consequences” later. As Stalin noted in1940, the Soviet military “did not immediately understand that the war in Poland was not a war but a military parade.”