A Putrid Pact between Devils
Comrades and Kameraden: Molotov (seated) signs the agreement with Ribbentrop (standing behind him) while Stalin (second from right) looks on
Seventy-five years ago this summer, a deal was struck that took the world's breath away. Even in the dirty-dealing climate of the time, the Nazi-Soviet pact was a shocker. Hitler and Stalin, who had spent years reviling each other, were now apparently the best of friends. The grotesquery was summed up in a brilliant Low cartoon in the Evening Standard of September 20, 1939 showing the two leaders greeting each other over a prostrate corpse. "The scum of the earth, I believe?" says the Führer. "The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume," responds the Vozhd.
Even then Low knew the story was not going to end well. A few weeks later he scored another direct hit depicting the pair striding along shoulder to shoulder, each with a pistol behind his back over the caption: "Someone is taking Someone for a Walk".
The agreement was an act of supreme cynicism perpetrated by two of the most perfidious creatures to stain history. Given the magnitude of its consequences it is remarkable that it does not loom larger in our historical consciousness.
When Vladimir Putin stands alongside world leaders at next year's 70th-anniversary VE Day celebrations, few will reflect that he is representing a nation that spent nearly a third of the war allied to the Nazis. The Russians will not be in any hurry to remind anyone. Ever since Hitler broke the pact by the brutal expedient of launching Operation Barbarossa, the Russians have been engaged in a massive historical damage limitation exercise. Too big to airbrush from the record, the episode has been contorted to fit a narrative that places Stalin on the side of the Second World War angels. The basic text is that the non-aggression agreement signed by German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov in Moscow late on August 23, 1939 was an act of desperate pragmatism, designed to buy time for the USSR, which had been left high and dry by Britain and France.
Putin trotted out the Soviet-era tu quoque defence when visiting Warsaw in 2009. In an open letter to the Poles he wrote: "There are reasons to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact but France and Britain signed an agreement with Hitler the year before [at Munich] . . . destroying all hopes for the creation of a joint front to struggle against fascism." There was no question of an apology.
Roger Moorhouse's excellent book provides a ton of ammunition with which to demolish this version of events. Despite the innate faithlessness of the partners, there was nothing lukewarm about the initial embrace. The official photograph shows the faux aristo Ribbentrop and Molotov, known as Comrade Stonearse for his ability to endure interminable committee meetings, signing the fateful document while Stalin stands behind beaming approval. Shortly beforehand he had drunk Hitler's health.
The pact was ostensibly an understanding that each would not attack the other nor ally with its enemies with a trade deal attached. It was the green light Hitler needed to start his war and eight days later the Panzers were in Poland. Seventeen days after that, the Red Army invaded from the East, in accordance with a secret protocol of the pact that divided territories in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Romania into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence.