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East/West: Analysis From Washington: A Declaration That Didn't Happen

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Sixty years ago today, the Soviet Union invaded -- but Britain and France did not declare war on the USSR -- even though two weeks earlier they had done just that when Germany violated the Polish sovereignty they were pledged to defend.

At that time, Berlin and Moscow were allies, and the two dictators -- Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler -- had agreed to divide up Eastern Europe in general and Poland in particular on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop accords.

But despite their alliance, the Western democracies treated Stalin's move into eastern Poland far differently than they did Hitler's, a distinction that reflects the geopolitical calculations of the time and one that continues to affect the thinking of many governments and analysts around the world.

Because Hitler later turned on Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and because then Stalin became an ally of the West, most historians have tended to ignore the decision of London and Paris not to react to the Soviet participation in this century's dismemberment of Poland.

Those historians who have looked into the matter have explained this decision on the calculations of leaders who still hoped to draw Moscow into an anti-Hitler coalition, efforts that had been suspended only a month earlier when Stalin decided to ally himself with Hitler.

And these same researchers have also noted the widespread influence of pro-Soviet groups within the elites of these and other Western countries, groups that in many cases explained away what Stalin had done by arguing that Britain and France had forced Stalin into a corner.

Whatever the exact historical explanation turns out to have been -- and assigning weights to the various factors involved is both difficult and in dispute -- the decision of the British and French not to declare war highlights three aspects of the international system even as it exists now.

First, it suggests for most major powers geopolitical calculations are likely to prove stronger than ideology or even treaty commitments.

Under the terms of their agreements with Warsaw, London and Paris were committed to defend the sovereignty of Poland, not simply against German aggression but against aggression by anyone.

But once Germany had effectively extinguished the existence of an independent Poland, the British and French governments looked at Soviet actions against what remained and decided that they need not follow the letter or the spirit of their earlier undertakings.

That is not something unique in the history of international affairs, and it is thus a useful reminder of the dangers that may lie ahead for those who put their faith in agreements of whatever kind.

Second, the British and French non-declaration calls attention to the role that domestic elites can play in defining the ideological prisms through which individuals and governments consider the activities of other states -- even to the point of overriding solemn undertakings by the state itself.

One need not be a conspiracy theorist to see that the large, pro-Soviet groups in both Britain and France during the 1930s had conditioned the people and the governments there to view the Soviet Union in a particular way.

On September 3, no one in either Western capital suggested that Hitler had been "forced" into attacking Poland. But two weeks later, many were saying that Stalin had "no choice" either because of what Hitler had already done or because of what the West had failed to do.

And that distinction reflected the efforts of both pro-Soviet and anti-Nazi groups to involve Moscow in the anti-Hitler coalition. Moreover, it was in no way lessened when communists in both countries shifted into a complete and total defense of the Hitler-Stalin alliance.

And third, it calls attention to the willingness of many to judge the same actions by Hitler and Stalin and the systems they created in very different ways.

No textbook in either Western countries or even in Russia fails to denounce Hitler's invasion of Poland. But few say anything about -- or at least anything critical of -- Stalin's analogous action only two weeks later.

And that distinction continues in the willingness of some to judge other actions -- including mass murder -- by these two systems in very different ways and even to insist that others do the same.

The great Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelshtam once observed that "happy is that country where the despicable will at least be despised." She did not suggest that the same action done by one individual group is somehow less despicable when it is done by another.

But in the international system, as well as in many other venues where power is involved, Mandelshtam's view is regularly ignored -- a fact of life that was confirmed in 1939 when Britain and France failed to act.

And it is also one that has been confirmed with regularity by other powers in the years since then.