The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact stunned the world when it was revealed at the end of August 1939. Stalin and Hitler, who had been denouncing each other throughout the 1930s, were now allies. Not only did their agreement, at a stroke, wipe out Poland and the Baltic states, it also meant Hitler could concentrate on his enemies to the West. Roger Moorhouse’s The Devils’ Alliance laid bare the cooperation between the two regimes, and in the current climate his account is as important as ever.
The Devils’ Alliance is an account of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. Within weeks of its signing the world was plunged into war, but as you write in your introduction, many today are not even aware of it. Was that why you wrote the book?
Well, I was often met with confused, furrowed brows when I told people what I was writing about back then, so I’m sure knowledge of the Pact is not what it might be! But, just to clarify, the book is about the 22-month German-Soviet strategic and economic relationship that is spawned by the Nazi-Soviet Pact – not just about the Pact itself, and it is that that I suggest people are woefully unaware of outside of Central Europe.
But, yes, that is broadly why I wrote it. I have the contrarian’s trait of wanting to write about the things that no-one else is writing about, so we have to factor that impulse in as well. But, beyond that, from my own studies and interest in Central European history, I knew very well how significant the Nazi-Soviet Pact was to that region, and in contrast how imperfectly it was understood – and how little it was discussed – in the Western narrative. So, that was a large part of why I wrote the book – an odd combination of cussedness and passion!
During the 1930s, the idea that Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany could form an alliance would have been unthinkable. What was in it for both parties?
Well, it’s a little complex, but to understand it we have to rethink somewhat how we view the USSR under Stalin. For Hitler, the Pact got him out of the strategic hole that he had dug for himself over Poland. The Poles were not going to cave in, like Czechoslovakia had in 1938, and the Western powers were no longer minded to appease Hitler and encourage compliance in Warsaw. So, Hitler’s sabre-rattling had (finally) provoked a robust response from his opponents, but – given his domestic politics – he could scarcely back down. Stalin gave him a way out of that impasse, by facilitating a comparatively risk-free invasion of Poland.
In return, Stalin got to present Hitler with a shopping list of demands, including the Baltic States, Finland, half of Poland, Bessarabia from Romania and a favourable economic relationship. We have to understand that the USSR was just as much of a revisionist power in this period as Germany was. Stalin’s motivation wasn’t defensive, as he said after 1941, he wasn’t “buying time”; he was merely aggressively pursuing Soviet interests; undermining the status quo and spreading communism. Just like Hitler, Stalin wanted to overturn the post-Versailles settlement. The Pact gave him the opportunity to do that; destroying Poland, restoring the territories that Russia had lost in 1917-18, and bringing war (the mother of revolution) back to Europe. In addition to all that, Stalin got an economic relationship which promised him the fruits of Germany’s technological progress in return for Soviet raw materials. For Stalin, then, it was win-win.
You’ve written that the pact should rank alongside 1956 (Hungary) and 1968 (Prague) as the most horrific events in communist history, but that it doesn’t because of post-war Soviet propaganda. Why was that propaganda drive so effective?
On one level, it had to be. After 1941, and then 1945, the USSR was profoundly embarrassed by its dalliance with Nazism, so a narrative had to be created that plausibly excused the Pact – that was the story about Stalin “buying time”, which is still occasionally aired today – while at the same time rubbishing reports of the existence of the Secret Protocol as a “falsification of history.” This worked well and for a long time: the Kremlin continued to publicly deny the existence of the Secret Protocol right up until 1989.
More than that, though, the propaganda was effective in the West for two primary reasons; firstly because there were large numbers of ordinary people who had bought into the wartime narrative of “Uncle Joe” and a benign USSR, a brave ally against Hitler, and were fundamentally unwilling to let that go by acknowledging that Stalin was no less cynical and murderous than his former ally.
And secondly, within that constituency there was a group of people on the left of Western politics who were willing to overlook Soviet brutality and malfeasance – and if necessary, lie in covering it up – due to their mistaken belief in some “greater good” being propagated by communism. The most egregious exponent of this thinking was the late Prof Eric Hobsbawm – himself an avowed communist – who managed to write a 600-page book about Europe in the age of Hitler and Stalin without ever mentioning the Nazi-Soviet Pact. There are none so blind…
The Devils’ Alliance describes the huge numbers of raw materials that were sent from east to west, with German industrial equipment heading in the other direction – perhaps another unknown element of the agreement. How important were those resources to Germany’s invasions of Poland and France?
The economic aspects of the relationship were crucial to both sides, at least in theory – Germany sought to insulate itself from an expected Allied blockade by its access to Soviet grain and oil, while the USSR wanted to kick-start a second industrial revolution based on German technology. To this end – there were three economics treaties signed between the two sides during the period of the Pact.
But – having said that – the amounts that were delivered rarely met those that were projected in the treaties. Both sides were extremely wary of one another, and Stalin was very good at “turning off the tap” whenever negotiations reached a tense point. So, the idea that Soviet oil fuelled the Wehrmacht’s tanks in the invasion of France, which one still hears occasionally, is not entirely correct. That oil really never flowed in the sort of volumes that would have made a significant material difference to the Germans, which is why Berlin got much more oil from Romania during the war than it ever did from the USSR. Of course, German frustration with those halting economic deliveries was one reason why Hitler opted to invade the USSR in the summer of 1941. He was opting to take by force what had been denied to him by negotiation.
There persists a view that communism is a more benign force than Nazism. ‘Simple and noble’ as stated by Tariq Ali. We have even seen political commentators proudly state their adherence to it. At the same time Nazism is quite rightly an anathema. Why is communism not in the same boat to some?
Put simply, though both the theory and practice of Nazism were thoroughly abhorrent, Communism – though no less abhorrent in practice – at least had the illusion of a benign idea behind it, moreover a highly seductive idea that appears to explain all human history. In addition, Western populations that have had no exposure to Communism have little idea of its grim realities.
My feelings on this are very much in tune with those common in Central Europe, which – having experienced the horrors of both Nazism and Communism – condemns them both in equal measure.
Russia takes a dim view of the EU’s Black Ribbon Day, which commemorates the date of the signing (23rd August) as a day of remembrance for the victims of Communism and Nazism. This date has increased in significance beyond former Warsaw Pact countries, but do you think we really are now more aware?
Awareness of this history is growing in the West, slowly, but we must remember that shifting a dominant historical narrative is akin to turning around a supertanker. It takes a long time and a lot of “nudging.” But I think it is shifting, not least because of the influence of Central Europe in Western institutions such as the EU and NATO, and the presence of Central European immigrants in Western societies.
Of course, Central Europe has been way ahead of the rest of us on this, for obvious reasons, but the penny is finally beginning to drop in the West regarding the Kremlin’s historic misdeeds and its strategic collaboration with Hitler. Indeed, one consequence of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be that all such exculpatory arguments will collapse entirely, given the clear contemporary evidence of Russian perfidy. Happily, then, I think that, if anything, that awareness will continue to grow and will accelerate.
The Devils’ Alliance was published in 2014, the year of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that began with Crimea. Now with the further invasion of 2022, what do you think the pact tells us today about Russian foreign policy?
Quite a lot in fact, not least that the Kremlin’s strategic thinking in 2022 has finally come around to the same brute logic that it espoused in 1939, namely that might is right and some nations do not have the right to exist. It was a bleak view even in 1939, but it is positively psychotic in 2022. Putin seems hell-bent on re-enacting one of the most odious chapters of Soviet history, and one which – he might recall – did not end well for the people of the USSR. Let us hope that he lives long enough to regret it.
If a revised edition were to be published today, would you change anything?
Not much. Some books don’t age especially well, usually because times change and history turns in an unfavourable direction, but I don’t think that is the case with this one. I think it still stands up very well, and there are only a few additions and amplifications that I would make thanks to material that has been published in the interim, for instance around the inter-war military collaboration between Moscow and Berlin. Current events, indeed, would appear to have made the book appear all the more urgent and significant – one could even say, essential reading!
Roger Moorhouse is an acclaimed and bestselling historian and author of The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939-41, which is highly recommended. You can hear a chat with Roger on the Nazi-Soviet pact on the Aspects of History Podcast.