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On Molotov-Ribbentrop, Different Wikipedias Tell Different Stories


It is the Internet age's reference of first resort -- the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Millions of people every day turn to it to get “just the facts” on everything from beekeeping to the battle of Austerlitz and beyond.

But on controversial topics like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, getting “just the facts” isn’t so easy. A look at the Russian-language entry on the agreement and the English-language version shows how big a difference a few words can make and how changes of emphasis can shade one’s interpretation of key points.

For instance, the English version, as it appears on August 20, describes the secret protocol to the agreement as dividing “Eastern and Central Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, anticipating potential ‘territorial and political rearrangements’ of these countries. Thereafter, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded their respective portions of Poland.”

The Russian version, however, has a distinctly different flavor: “The agreement had an additional secret protocol on the limits of the sphere of German interests in Eastern Europe in the event of ‘territorial and political rearrangements.’ On September 1, 1939, Germany occupied Poland and on September 17, 1939, the USSR included in its composition the western oblasts of Ukraine and Belarus that had earlier been administered by Poland, and later the countries of the Eastern region of the Baltic Sea as well.”

The two texts also offer different spins on the diplomatic preludes to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The English version soft-pedals the consequences of the West’s policy of appeasing Hitler, and Stalin’s concerns that the West would welcome a war between Germany and the Soviet Union:

“Hitler’s fierce anti-Soviet rhetoric was one of the reasons why the UK and France decided that Soviet participation in the 1938 Munich Conference regarding Czechoslovakia would be both dangerous and useless. The Munich Agreement that followed marked the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1938 through a partial German annexation in 1938, which is seen as part of an appeasement of Germany. Thereafter, some Soviet concern existed about the possibility that France and Britain might stay neutral in a war initiated by Germany, hoping that the warring states would wear each other out and put an end to both the Soviet Union and Germany.”

The Russian version highlights the official Soviet policy of collective security and criticizes Western engagement with Germany:

“On May 2, 1935, the USSR concluded a mutual-assistance pact with France, and another one was signed with Czechoslovakia on May 16. For their part, Germany and Japan in November 1936 signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, which was aimed against the USSR. In 1937, Italy joined that agreement. The USSR provided military aid to the republican government of Spain, where Germany and Italy were actively supporting the putsch of General Franco. In March 1938, Germany carried out the Anschluss with Austria and began making territorial claims against Czechoslovakia. England and France at that time were conducting a policy of 'appeasement,' which gave de facto encouragement to Germany’s revanche. The investment of Western companies in Germany -- particularly in its heavy industry -- was expanded.”

The Russian version also implicitly criticizes the countries of Eastern Europe for their unwillingness to respond positively to Soviet collective-security proposals:

“The governments of the Eastern European countries regarded the USSR with deep mistrust. In March 1939, after the German occupation of Lithuania’s Klaipeda region, the USSR made diplomatic steps toward Latvia and Estonia, but they were met coldly. In May, despite worsening relations with Germany, the Polish Foreign Ministry announced that Poland did not want to become entangled in any agreements with the USSR."

-- Robert Coalson

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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