Accessibility links

Breaking News

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Still Divides Europe

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German–Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German–Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.
BRUSSELS -- The organizers' intentions were plain enough.

Called "Europe 70 years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact," and sponsored by the Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the conference was organized to discuss the fates of those countries -- together with Poland, Romania and Finland -- that were stripped of their national statehood and relegated to the status of pawns in the designs of Europe's two great powers in 1939.

Images of swastikas superimposed over Soviet red stars on a large screen in the conference hall reflected the Baltic governments' views.

They, together with Poland, have waged a long campaign to persuade the rest of Europe that the Soviet Union bears equal responsibility with Nazi Germany for the ills that befell the continent as a result of World War II. One of conference's achievements was to demonstrate how distant that goal remains.

But the accepted wisdom that Germany bears sole blame appears well-entrenched, above all in Germany itself.

Historian Egbert Jahn of the University of Mannheimset argued that the results of the 1945 Yalta conference -- in which the United States and Britain acquiesced to Soviet demands to divide post-war Europe -- didn't stem directly from the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact.

Yalta, Jahn said, reflected the fact that the Red Army already occupied much of the territory that would later become the Soviet Bloc.

"[Critics see] the Yalta regulation of post-war [Europe] as a [betrayal] of the principle[s] of internal law, freedom, and democracy by the Western powers, suggesting that there had been an alternative political choice. But it is difficult to find a realistic counterfactual scenario," Jahn said.

"The Soviet Union had not only carried the main burden of the world war since 1941, its troops [also] occupied large parts of Central [and] Eastern Europe, and Germany."

Jahn adds that there was "no realistic way" of forcing out the Red Army and preventing the Soviet Union from assuming control over the territory.

Jahn also said the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact wasn't the main reason behind the outbreak of WWII. And while he deplored the obscurity that still surrounds the role of the Soviet Union, which invaded Poland on September 17 in 1939 and annexed the Baltic states in 1940, he maintained Germany was the "driving force."

The Nazi-Soviet pact was a "tactical alliance" that was not meant to last by either side, Jahn said. For Germany, he said, it was a way of buying time to put its expansionist ambitions into practice.

Neo-Soviet Doctrine

French historians, for their part, largely argued that Germany and the Soviet Union shared the blame. Stephane Courtois, of the French National Center of Scientific Research, said there can be "no real reunification of Europe until there is reconciliation -- which must include acknowledging the mistakes of the past" by all sides.

The immediate aim of the Baltic States and Poland is to secure an admission of Soviet guilt from its legal successor Russia. First under Vladimir Putin and now under President Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow has instead sought to rehabilitate Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Sorbonne University's Francoise Thom said Moscow acts according to a "neo-Soviet" doctrine that seeks to exonerate Moscow from all blame. Russia portrays the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a "defensive" move necessitated by the Western powers' appeasement policy in 1938:

"The neo-Soviet interpretation of the [1938] Munich accord [says] that with this accord, the imperialists formed a common front against the Soviet Union -- it is a thesis of Lenin that the imperialists have a tendency to unite along the lines of class interest," Thom said.

"I don't really need to remind [you] that the politics of Munich are explained, above all, by the profound pacifism [of the Western powers].

Western European politicians, especially in private, generally support attempts to take the Russians to task for Soviet crimes. Hans-Gert Poettering, a conservative German politician and former European Parliament, said both Nazism and communism were equally inhuman forms of totalitarianism.

"Both totalitarian ideologies destroyed the dignity of men, the dignity of human beings. They were evil by nature," Poettering said, adding that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and "inhuman and cynical" agreement that "only two like-minded and immoral regimes can arrange."

Che Guevara T-shirts

Eastern European attacks on the Nazi-Soviet pact and its consequences often fail to distinguish between the culpability of communism as an ideology and the crimes committed by communist regimes. Estonia's ex-prime minister Mart Laar left no doubt about his conviction that the root of communist evil lies in the ideology.

Responding to a question on the causes of widespread Western "amnesia" over Soviet crimes, Laar said people in the West simply know too little history.

He said that while Nazi memorabilia is "out of fashion" in Europe, the display of communist symbols remains acceptable in most countries. Very few people, he said, know communism is responsible for vastly greater innocent deaths than Nazism.

"This all reminds us that we are only in the beginning. Because for me, actually, the end of the work will really be when people will not wear Che Guevara T-shirts because [they] know that he was a communist murderer," Laar said.

Spanish panelist Carlos Closa Montero of the National Research Center made clear that wouldn’t be easy.

Labeling Che Guevara a criminal wouldn't go down well in Spain, he said. He said Che remains a left-wing hero in Spain, where many still applaud the Soviet intervention in the bloody 1930s civil war on the side of the Republican government against a German-supported insurgency led by General Francisco Franco. He went on to rule the country as a dictator until the 1970s.

The conference showed persistent differences in interpreting historical events on top of divergent political agendas within the European Union -- especially toward Russia -- mean it's unlikely there will be any EU-wide measures to formally recognize communist crimes any time soon.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.