The German-Soviet Pact – Bitter Fruit of the Munich Agreement

In favour of the “cold war”, the consensual narrative of the “great anti-fascist alliance” (1941-1945) collapses like a house of cards. The allies of the day are no longer so, and a new narrative supplants the older one in both camps. For the Western world – now lined up behind the star-spangled banner – the coalition of democracies against Hitler’s hydra is giving way to the coalition of democracies against the Communist hydra. Obliterating the colossal effort accomplished by the USSR to defeat the Third Reich, the dominant discourse in the West is to inflict on Stalin a real reductio ad hitlerum. The titanic fight between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, in summary, would have given rise to an optical illusion: like the tree hiding the forest, their military confrontation would have masked the connivance between the two tyrannies of the century.

Hannah Arendt has played a decisive role in this interpretation of contemporary history. For the German philosopher, totalitarianism is a double-faced phenomenon: Nazism and Stalinism. Totalitarian parties have a rigid ideology and a sectarian structure. The power of the leader is absolute, and the community welded together by an unreserved faith in its superhuman virtues. The suppression of the public space and the reign of the police arbitrary, finally, sign the dissolution of the society in the State and the State in the party. But for Hannah Arendt, the totalitarian system is above all an instrument by which totalitarian ideology claims to realise the laws of nature (Nazism) or fulfil the promises of history (Stalinism). With modern totalitarianism, ideology is the logic of an idea: it makes itself strong enough to give meaning to events, it provides an unfailing explanation. Transforming classes into masses, the totalitarian state exercises unlimited control over society. Absorbing all human activities to give them the unequivocal meaning required by ideology, for Arendt totalitarianism is a system that transcends its particular incarnations.

This definition, however, has the inconvenience of ignoring the concrete differences between Nazism and Stalinism. Not to mention ideology itself (the mystique of the Aryan race against socialism in one country), the recourse to violence does not borrow the same justifications in Moscow and Berlin. The totalitarian system described by Hannah Arendt resembles the bed of Procrustes, in which one wants to bring in a reality that surpasses it. The powerlessness of the model to account for reality is blatant when Hannah Arendt attributes to the totalitarian system an aggressive foreign policy, openly dedicated to the conquest of the world. “Like a foreign conqueror, the totalitarian dictator considers the natural and industrial wealth of each country, including his own, as a source of plunder and a means of preparing the next stage of aggressive expansion”.¹ Conquest and plunder, however, are not exclusive to “totalitarian regimes”. By describing these things as an intrinsic property of the totalitarian system, which also correspond to the constant practice of democratic regimes, Hannah Arendt is engaged in a sleight of hand. And if conquest and plunder are totalitarian practices, why does it not infer the totalitarian character of Western democracies?

Despite this flagrant contradiction, the myth of “totalitarian twins” has provided an inexhaustible repertoire for the West to rewrite history. It made it possible to draw a line on the reality of a world conflict in which 90% of German losses are caused on the Eastern front, and where the victories of Zhukov, hard-won, defeated Hitler’s war machine. No matter how many Soviet people sacrificed themselves, no matter the success of the Red Army, since their leader – Stalin – is a bloodthirsty executioner who is hardly better than his Nazi counterpart. This interpretation of events by the western doxa is perfectly illustrated by Hannah Arendt, again, when she wrote in 1966 that “contrary to some postwar legends, Hitler never intended to defend the West against Bolshevism, but was always ready to ally with the Reds for the destruction of the West, even at the height of the fight against the Soviet Union”.²

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One would look for any evidence to support this claim in vain, but whatever. The materiality of the facts has to cede place in front of this theater of ideological shadows. Nazism and Stalinism representing “two variants of the same model”, they could not really engage themselves in a fight to the death. In order to show that the real divide is not between Nazism and Stalinism, but between totalitarianism (double-sided) and liberal democracy, an attempt is being made to remove from history everything that could refute the interpretation. Thus Hitler is supposed to be Stalin’s natural ally, but on the eve of Operation Barbarossa (June 1941), Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels writes in his diary: “Bolshevism has lived enough. We thus assume before history our authentic duty. Against such an undertaking Churchill himself or Roosevelt have not that much objection. Perhaps we will succeed in convincing the German episcopate of both denominations to bless this war as a war desired by God”. And then, if Hitler planned to “ally himself with the Reds”, how to explain the extreme brutality of the war led by the Nazis against the USSR, which contrasts with their attitude, much more respectful of the customs of war, on the Western front?

It is because Hitler does not intend to install in France the grand millennial Reich, which will instead be at home in the vast spaces available in the East. Future German colonisation of what he calls the “Russian desert” occupies his imagination. This colonialist and slave-making utopia derives from an absolute contempt for the Slavs, a racism so radical that it legitimises any violence, killing, or famine against these “new redskins”, if to use the expression used by Hitler himself. Having passed unnoticed by mainstream historiography, this reference to the Amerindians in Hitler’s speech is revealing. It stresses the closeness between the racist ideology of liberal democracies and that of the National Socialist dictatorship. “It is no coincidence that the key term of the Third Reich’s eugenic and racial program, Untermensch, is nothing else but a translation of the United States ‘Under Man’, the neologism coined by Lothrop Stoddard, an author celebrated both in the US and in Germany, and consecrated by the tributes of both US presidents (Harding and Hoover) and the Führer of the Third Reich, who was received personally by the former with all honours,” recalls Domenico Losurdo.³

If one bases the thesis of the twinhood of totalitarian regimes concerning the use of terror, as Hannah Arendt does, what is to be deduced from the use of terror under the colonial regime imposed by the Europeans on people of colour? From the Amerindians liquidated in the 16th century to the African, Asian, and Oceanian populations enslaved or exterminated by the whites in the name of civilisation, the Nazi enterprise of liquidating “inferior races” had serious antecedents. “It is too convenient to put the infamies of Nazism on Hitler’s exclusive account by omitting the fact that he has undertaken and radicalised two central elements of his theory in regard to a world that pre-dated him: the celebration of the white race and the West, now called to extend their domination even in Eastern Europe; the reading of the Bolshevik revolution as a Judeo-Bolshevik plot which, by stimulating the revolt of the colonial peoples and undermining the natural hierarchy of the races, and more generally, by infecting as a pathogenic agent the organism of society, constitutes a frightening threat to civilisation, which must be tackled by all means, including the final solution”.

This is why the Nazi war against the USSR was immediately a total war, a war of extermination (Vernichtungskrieg). Against the “new redskins”, the Führer’s directives to his invading troops immediately have a political overtone: the political commissars – a fortiori if they are Jewish – will be immediately executed, according to the famous Kommissarbefehl (an order against the commissioners) of June 6th 1941. It is not only the Red Army, but the entire Soviet regime that had to be destroyed. A determination fuelled by the Nazi conception of a “Judeo-Bolshevik state” whose destruction necessitated the extermination of Jewish cadres governing the Soviet state. The Nazi racist ideology also defines the Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union as an inferior race of Untermenschen – subhuman. On March 30th 1941 Hitler announced to his generals: “The war against Russia is this type of war that cannot be waged in a chivalrous way: it is a fight between different ideologies and races, and it can only be waged with unprecedented levels of violence, without pity or respite”.

But the thesis of an alliance between Hitler and Stalin against the democracies, of course, finds its main argument in the signing of the German-Soviet pact of August 23rd 1939. Because this unexpected event had the effect of a thunderclap. It brutally tarnished the image of the “fatherland of socialism”, which had made “anti-fascism” the rallying sign of all the progressive forces called to ward off the Hitlerian threat. If the pact gave free rein to German expansionism in the West, how can it be explained that Stalin changed course so brutally, even to incur the reproach of having betrayed the cause of antifascism and to provoke a stir in his own camp? For the dominant historiography inspired by Hannah Arendt, the totalitarian twinhood between the two tyrannies would have favoured this monstrous alliance. In short, systemic proximity would explain strategic connivance. But that is not what is revealed by the examination of the facts.

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In reality, during the three years preceding the August 23rd 1939 pact, Stalin stubbornly tries to negotiate an anti-Hitler alliance with the French and the British. For the USSR, a triple alliance with France and Great Britain means above all a military coordination to lead the common fight against Germany. So the Kremlin insists on a precise demand: the Franco-British must ensure that Poland and Romania allow the passage of the Red Army on their territory, once the war with Germany has started. But Poland and Romania – two anti-Semitic and anti-communist right-wing dictatorships – both fear the Soviet intervention and the German invasion and are not disposed to granting the right of passage to the Red Army. Favoured by London’s “appeasement policy” towards Berlin, this refusal has the effect of reducing the triple alliance to a political front without a military wing, condemning it to failure.

Indeed, Stalin is hardly more confident in the intentions of the Germans than in those of the Franco-British. He knows about the program of expansion in the East advocated by the author of Mein Kampf and the ideology kneaded with racial hatred that justifies these plans for conquest. Undertaken by the Stalinist regime in favour of accelerated industrialisation, the rearmament effort of the USSR in the 1930s also bears witness to this lucidity in the face of rising dangers. But negotiations with Paris and London dragged on for months, and the dilatory approach of the West finally convinced the master of the Kremlin that he could not count on them. Persuaded that the Germans will attack Poland whatever it costs, and seeing that the Westerners have mortgaged the chances of a triple alliance, Stalin ends up responding to the advances of Berlin. In front of the Supreme Soviet, Molotov justified the pact by insisting that it was the consequence, not the cause, of the failure of the negotiations for the triple alliance. From the Soviet point of view, the pact is nothing more than an alternative, for a lack of anything better, to a coalition with Paris and London.

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On the Western side, the policy of “appeasement” nullified the USSR’s proposals for an anti-fascist alliance in favour of a conciliatory attitude to the Reich’s claims. A calculated passivity, this cop out in the face of Germany’s revanchist expansionism aimed to direct Nazi aggression towards the USSR, designated as the enemy to be defeated by the National Socialist ideology. This policy reached its peak during the agreements signed in Munich by France, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy on September 30th 1938. Czechoslovakia is delivered with its hands and feet bound to Adolf Hitler, who shares the remains of this unfortunate country with Poland and Hungary. The Soviet Union, for its part, is trying to prevent this disaster. It calls in vain for the coordination of the Soviet, French, and Czechoslovak forces and for referral to the General Assembly of the League of Nations. Between September 21st and 23rd 1938, the Red Army mobilised military forces in Ukraine and Belarus. In the absence of a common border between the USSR and Czechoslovakia, Moscow sought the agreement of Warsaw and Bucharest to cross their territory. Romania seems ready to accept, but the Polish refusal seals the fate of Czechoslovakia. Indignant with the Munich Agreement, Soviet diplomacy denounces a “capitulation that will have incalculable consequences”.

The Pact of August 23rd 1939 is the last episode of the game of Go that characterises international relations in the last years of the pre-war period. Whether with the triple alliance – aborted – or with the German-Soviet pact, Stalin tries to distance the spectre of war while knowing that it is unavoidable. “In truth, being far from waging a war leading to a revolution, Stalin feared nothing more than a new great military conflict. The war offered opportunities, but it also exposed to great danger. Although the First World War led to the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was followed by a civil war in which the enemies of the Communists were on the verge of killing Bolshevism in the bud. Among the opponents of the Bolsheviks during the civil war were the great capitalist powers – Great Britain, France and the United States – who helped the anti-communist forces in Russia and imposed an economic and political blockade to contain the contagion of Bolshevism,” stresses Geoffrey Roberts.

If Stalin plays the German card in August 1939, it is because the attempts of understanding with the Westerners have failed because of the latter’s fault. After the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by Western “democracies” in Munich in September 1938, he knows how strong the temptation of a line “Rather Hitler than Stalin” is in Europe. After his offers of an alliance in the spring of 1939 stumbled on the refusal of Poland, which seizes a piece of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he takes note of the impossibility of agreement with Paris and London, and he temporarily returns to the Franco-British the German threat they intended to send against the USSR. It is impossible, therefore, to understand the thunderclap of August 23rd 1939 without linking it to the defensive character of Soviet foreign policy. If Stalin signed the pact, it is to delay the due date of the war on Soviet soil. And this is mainly because the Munich Agreement left him no choice.

1. Hannah Arendt, Le système totalitaire, Seuil, 1972, p. 147.

2. Hannah Arendt, Op. Cit., p. 243.

3. Domenico Losurdo, Staline, Histoire et critique d’une légende noire, Aden, 2011, p. 442.

4. Domenico Losurdo, Op. Cit., p. 469.

5. Geoffrey Roberts, Les guerres de Staline, Delga, 2011, p. 25.

Bruno Guigue
Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard

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