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The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact And The Slippery Slope Of Big Power Politics

  • Ahto Lobjakas

German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop (left), Joseph Stalin (center), and his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (right), in the Kremlin on August 23, 1939.

German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop (left), Joseph Stalin (center), and his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov (right), in the Kremlin on August 23, 1939.

On August 24, 1939, the British writer Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary (I'm quoting from memory): "Russia and Germany have signed a cooperation pact. War now inevitable. Went for a stroll.'"

Waugh here unwittingly offers a distillation of the sentiments the victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact -- above all the Balts and Poles -- would resent with an obsessive intensity for the next 70 years. Above all, his diary entry exemplifies the insularity and indifference which has, as a rule, imbued the Western European response in particular to that chapter in the continent's history.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gave Germany a free hand to attack Western Europe without having to fear a war on two fronts. In return, its secret protocol consigned Finland, Estonia, Latvia, the Romanian territory of Bessarabia, and a little later Lithuania, to the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. Poland was partitioned between Germany and the USSR. As a result of the pact, the Soviet Union won back the territory lost by tsarist Russia after World War I.

Measured against the mortal threat posed by Germany, the independence and territorial integrity of the Baltic states and Poland were of minimal significance to the man in the street in Britain or France at the time.

And little has changed since. While the moral evaluation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has never really been in doubt, its practical ramifications have been ambiguous enough to have prevented an unambiguous political reckoning -- which, from the victims' point of view, would have needed to translate into an unequivocal and universal condemnation of the Soviet Union (as long as it existed), or, later, pressure on Russia to atone in some fashion for the crimes of its legal precursor.

Travesty Of Justice

From an Eastern European standpoint, this state of affairs constitutes an intolerable iniquity, a travesty of justice which retains an immense contemporary relevance. The pact effectively condemned the citizens of the Baltic countries, Moldova, and later Poland (after the defeat of Germany) to 50 years of servitude on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

But more relevantly, Russia is seen as posing a continued threat to the independence of Poland and the Baltic states. (Moldova, with its insistence on independence from Romania, remains a special case.) Just as these countries hold fast to a narrative of independence based on historical precedent, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the fallout from it will continue to be an important link in another, contrary chain of historical legitimation.

What the victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact want -- beyond severing that other chain of legitimation by means of extracting from the West an unequivocal condemnation of the Soviet Union for its part in the pact, and of the Russian Federation for not disowning it -- is less clear. Certainly, no one wants to revert to the borders of 1939.

Finland (which is an exception in having fought a war with the Soviet Union and maintaining its independence), Estonia, and Latvia have reconciled themselves to the loss of some of their territory to Russia. The Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, was part of Poland before the Soviet Union ceded it to the Baltic country in 1939. Poland itself was compensated after World War II with former German territory for its losses in the east. Estonia and Latvia have for all practical intents and purposes reconciled themselves to the permanent presence of large Russian minorities, built up during the years of Soviet occupation.

Deeper Neurosis

Poland has attempted to use the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact -- and the ensuing attack by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939 -- as an argument in a competition with Germany for influence within the European Union, arguing, albeit unsuccessfully, that Berlin owes it consideration for the resulting population losses.

But there exists among the victims of the pact a deeper, if less tangible, neurosis, for want of a better word, which goes beyond Russia, Germany, or questions of historical guilt. It has to do with a desire to be recognized as equal and permanent entities under the international system as it has evolved since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which enshrined the principle of nation-state sovereignty.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its consequences seem to say not all sovereignty is equal, and in some instances it may be reversible. What the Baltic countries in particular want is for the international community to atone for the violation and denial, as epitomized by the Molotov- Ribbentrop pact, of their fundamental right to sovereign existence.

Of course the Balts are not alone in this, even if their shared experience of being subsumed into the Soviet Union was the most acute. All the countries behind the Iron Curtain suffered from a diminution of their statehood. Most, if not all, therefore seek to outlaw, at least notionally, the agents responsible for what happened to them. Above all, they have pushed for communism to be designated as a criminal or evil ideology by the EU and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But Eastern Europeans have also brought an undercurrent into the EU and NATO which Russia has correctly, if entirely self-servingly, identified as directed against itself. For the foreseeable future, Russia remains the only conceivable threat to the independence of its neighbors in Eastern Europe.

Grounded In Self-Interest

Equally, for the foreseeable future, Eastern Europeans are likely to be denied the satisfaction of a full, definitive, and unequivocal Western condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and everything it has come to stand for.

First, and most importantly, as the Waugh quote above already suggested, political and historical perception is always grounded in self-interest. While there was, and is, sympathy for the predicament of Poland and the Baltic states, Nazi Germany posed an existential threat to Western Europe in 1939. Whatever the Soviet Union's wrongdoings or faults, its contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany remains a higher order of good in Western Europe.

Crucially, Germany itself owes what it sees as an absolute debt to the Soviet Union for ridding it of Nazism. The crimes of Hitler are subject to no qualification. Paradoxically, this has led to a tendency in Germany to look down on and belittle current Eastern European fears. When in 2006 Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski compared the Russian-German Nord Stream gas pipeline project to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, most German observers reacted with what can only be described as sanctimonious horror.

Also, much of Western Europe went through a left-wing phase in the aftermath of World War II. Communist parties came close to winning elections in France and Italy in the 1970s. In theory, communism was always a Western, humanist creed, while Nazism was not.

To be sure, Eastern Europe did not help its cause in the 1930s when much of it succumbed to authoritarianism. What was lost in 1939 was not invariably democracy, but the agency neutrally implied by statehood. Sovereign states have no morality, as Aldous Huxley observed in 1936 in his prescient "Eyeless In Gaza."

Neither does it help that many Eastern Europeans still tend to display a rather selective approach to historical calamity. The mass killings of Armenians under the Ottomans, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide are only half-heartedly acknowledged as formative tragedies in modern human history.

Even Munich in 1938, when a European country was first sold out by the continent's big powers, and Yalta in 1945, which laid the de facto groundwork for post-World War II political divisions in Europe, do not rankle quite as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact does. Witness the "Baltic chain" of August 23, 1989, when an unprecedented 1 million Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians linked hands.

Yet, in the final analysis, the West ignores Eastern Europe's worries at its own peril. Munich, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and Yalta were steps on the slippery slope of power politics. And the fact that the idea and practice of liberty survived cannot guarantee the same will not happen again.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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