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The Danger Of 'Us Vs. Them'

German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (right) is welcomed by Adolf Hitler at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin after signing the pact in Moscow on August 23-24,1939. Was Stalin justified in signing the pact, complete with secret protocol?
German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (right) is welcomed by Adolf Hitler at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin after signing the pact in Moscow on August 23-24,1939. Was Stalin justified in signing the pact, complete with secret protocol?
The upcoming anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has once again sharpened the polemics around the events of 70 years ago.

In Russia -- including from official sources, such as the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) -- we are hearing statements justifying Stalin's foreign policy as necessary and forced upon him by the intrigues of the Western democracies, which had -- since the time of the Munich Agreement -- been trying to direct Hitler's aggression to the east.

The desire to defend the positions of one's country at all costs is completely understandable from the psychological point of view if you live within an "us vs. them" paradigm in which "us" must always be right.

In addition to psychology, there is another motive here: over the centuries the idea has developed that there are unchanging national-state interests that are independent of epochs and regimes.

The remarkable French diplomat Jules-Martin Cambon wrote just seven years after the Versailles peace agreement that ended World War I that King Philip II at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 was fighting for the exact same thing that General Joseph Joffre was fighting for in the First Battle of the Marne. That is, between the 13th century and the 20th, France's geopolitical situation had not changed much.

It would be interesting to conduct a little experiment. Say we described as objectively as possible some international conflict between abstract countries in which Country X acts in some ignoble way and find out the opinions of our elite about Country X. And then we would explain that Country X was really the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.

I think that the number of people holding to their original opinions would be very small. After all, we are now talking about our country, which simply must have the most serious reasons for acting one way and not another. The purpose of our historians is just to uncover those reasons.

Unfortunately, this view is no less popular in Europe today. The insistence on eternal, unchanging interests and the belief that one's own side is right in all that it does leads to centuries-long conflicts over disputed territories such as Alsace or Silesia. The era of nation-states has made such conflicts even more destructive than they were during the age of dynastic warfare. World War II proved that such conflicts are fraught with catastrophic consequences up to and including genocide.

Politically Incorrect Self-Justification

Justifying one's own mistakes and crimes means -- to say the least -- opening the door to repeating them. That's why Germany and France have embarked on a course of intense cooperation, forgetting about the issue of borders. Very few modern Britons or Frenchmen are ready to defend the capitulation to Hitler at Munich and the shameful betrayal of Czechoslovakia.

In some new democracies there have been attempts to "create" new heroes out of the pro-Nazi activists of the past -- people like Jozef Tiso in Slovakia and Ion Antonescu in Romania -- but these projects quickly came unraveled when it became obvious that they contradicted the European mainstream.

However, Russia has no visible prospects of entering the European Union, so it is free to justify Stalin without paying attention to the opinions of Strasbourg or Brussels. Incidentally, if a real European perspective suddenly opened up for Ukraine, then part of its political elite would have to abandon some of its current historical interpretations, just as Baltic state leaders can no longer show sympathy with the marches of Nazi veterans.

But it's impossible to exaggerate the importance of an honest discussion of the real reasons for Soviet actions at key moments -- such as the run-up to World War II. Such a discussion is important most of all for Russia itself, if it wants to be a part of European civilization in reality instead of just in words. And it is important in order to ensure that the dialogue with one's partners on historical matters does not devolve into a senseless shouting match.

Stalin Looks West

So, what was Stalin trying to get out of his talks with England and France in the summer of 1939, before the agreement with Hitler?

If you look carefully at the Soviet position during these three-way consultations -- both political and military talks were conducted throughout August 1939 -- then one thing becomes clear: Stalin needed the territorial additions toward the West that the Soviet Union shortly thereafter achieved. The difference was in who was the first to agree to sanction his expansionism -- British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, or Hitler.

Initially the Soviet dictator decided to try to reach an agreement with the former, which is understandable. For one thing, they had already shown themselves to be weak at Munich. For another, the Soviet government could not suddenly abandon the course toward better relations with the Western democracies that had been begun by the previous Soviet foreign minister, Maksim Litvinov.

In order to achieve his goal, Stalin insisted in his talks with England and France on as loose as possible a definition of the term "indirect aggression," which would have provided him with pretext for intervening in the affairs of the Baltic countries, Poland, and Romania.

On July 9, 1939, the Soviets offered the following formulation: "The term 'indirect aggression' refers to actions under which one of the above-named states agrees under the threat of force from another power or without such a threat and which leads to the use of the territory or forces of that state for aggression against it or against one of the parties to this agreement and consequently leads to the loss of independence by this state or the violation of its neutrality." Such a formulation would have given Stalin the opportunity to intervene in any of these states practically at will.

'Indirect Aggression'

To support this view, I would mention the events of June 1940 when Stalin used as a pretext for occupying the Baltic states the functioning of a "military" pact, the Baltic Entente, which had been created in 1934 and in reality presented no threat to the Soviet Union. One of the signs of the "aggressive intent" of this union, according to the Soviet Union, was the publication of its journal, "Revue Baltique."

The "above-mentioned countries" in the proposed agreement included Belgium, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The Soviet Union at that time had borders with six of those eight countries. Notice the absence of Lithuania on this list, which can be explained by the fact that the countries were giving territorial guarantees to Poland, which was locked in an unregulated border dispute with Vilnius.

During the military consultations of August 1939, on the eve of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet negotiators persuaded Britain and France to agree to the transit of Soviet forces through Poland and Romania in the event of "aggression."

It wasn't clear if that meant "direct" or "indirect" aggression and, if "indirect," then under what definition and by whose determination. But everyone knew that the answers to these questions depended on Stalin's will. England and France -- in the light of their abysmal relations with Germany -- were in no position to fight against the Soviet Union. Soviet actions were fully in line with its previously developed conception of exploiting the "contradictions between the imperialist powers."

Lawlessness For All Or None

At the last minute (in fact, even after Stalin had decided to open talks with Hitler), the French agreed to Stalin's terms, but the British did not. The fear of repeating the shame of Munich in the form of another pact with a dictator was too great.

The British instead tried to play one last card -- talking Hitler out of going to war, but without handing over Poland as they had Czechoslovakia. But they had nothing to offer Hitler. So it isn't surprising that after signing the pact with the Soviet Union, the Nazis shut off this channel. After this, the fate of the Soviet Union's neighbors was just a matter of time and their defense capabilities (Finland was able to maintain its independence).

The English writer G.K. Chesterton has a story in which Father Brown, while investigating a crime, tells several respectable people about how the son of a murdered man took his revenge on the murderer, a dangerous maniac. The priest's interlocutors quickly agreed that taking the law into one's own hands in this case was justified by the extraordinary circumstances.

Then Brown explains that the murdered maniac was a famous billionaire and a pillar of society. And when they tried to modify their position and condemn the avenger, Brown "shouted loudly, like a pistol shot." He said that whatever side they chose, they had be either lawlessness for all or one law for all.

Applying this logic to individual people is hard enough -- applying it to whole countries is even harder. There is always the temptation to "support one's own," while at the same time never forgetting to condemn the double standards of others.

Aleksei Makarkin is vice president of the Center for Political Technologies. The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared on "
Yezhednevny zhurnal," are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL