World War II was the mightiest struggle humankind has ever seen. It killed more people, cost more money, damaged more property, affected more people, and caused more far-reaching changes in nearly every country than any other war in history. The number of people killed, wounded, or missing between September 1939 and September 1945 can never be calculated, but it is estimated that more than 55 million people perished.
More than 50 countries took part in the war, and the whole world felt its effects. Men fought in almost every part of the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Chief battlegrounds included Asia, Europe, North Africa, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea.
War officially began on September 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland. Germany then crushed six countries in three months — Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and France — and proceeded to conquer Yugoslavia and Greece.
Japan’s plans for expansion in the Far East led it to attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941, bringing the United States into the war. By early 1942, all major countries of the world were involved in the most destructive war in history.
World War II would go down in the history books as bringing about the downfall of Western Europe as the center of world power, leading to the rise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), setting up conditions leading to the Cold War, and opening up the nuclear age.
French philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted in his book that certain historic events are “over-remembered” while others are “under-remembered.” The World War II story of the Soviet-Nazi friendship, and the ensuing fate of non-Germanic Central Europe, certainly fall into the second category.
Before Joseph Stalin allied the Soviet Union with the United States and Great Britain, he offered help to Hitler and the Nazis much more than the rest of the world knew at the time. But when Hitler turned on Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, in desperation the Soviet leader looked to the West for help. Although British prime minister Winston Churchill and U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt despised Communism, they also valued anyone who fought against the Nazis.
Joseph Stalin and Nazi foreign minister Ribbentrop
shake hands after concluding the Nazi-Soviet
Non-Aggression Pact, August 1939
The Soviet-Nazi friendship was the immediate cause of World War II. Without Soviet Russia’s approval and participation, Adolf Hitler would not have attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. This friendship was sealed by the Stalin-Hitler Treaty of Aug. 23, 1939. The secret clauses of the Treaty divided the countries between Germany and Russia among the two powers. In September 1939, both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia entered World War II on the same side. Only Hitler’s insatiable desire for more conquest ended the two years of cooperation during which Stalin supplied Hitler with war commodities and even began restructuring the railway system in Central Europe so the goods could more easily flow to Nazi Germany.
On August 23, 1939 Nazi Germany Foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop flew to Moscow on a special mission from Adolf Hitler.
Adolf Hitler confers with Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop
In less than two weeks, Hitler planned to invade Poland, but with Britain and France guaranteeing Polish independence, he needed to ensure that the Soviet Union would not side with the West in the war. Officially, the Nazis hated Communists, but Hitler now needed to work out a deal with the supreme leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin .
Ribbentrop met with Stalin and the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and negotiated a pact that would change the lives of millions of people and reshape the boundaries of much of eastern Europe. In the public section of the final document they signed, they agreed that the two countries would not go to war with each other or support any country at war with the other. They also agreed to increase trade between their countries. But the document also had secret clauses that gave each country “spheres of influence” , or future control, over distinct sections of eastern Europe.
Soviet foreign minister Molotov signs the
Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact
Stalin demanded control over territories that had been controlled by czarist Russia and lost in World War I, including the entire state of Latvia. As for Poland, the river Vistula would divide the country, with Germany claiming the western territory and the USSR occupying the eastern portion. The agreement was set to last 10 years.
The non-aggression pact, signed on August 24 by the two foreign ministers, became known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Eight days later, on September 1, 1939, Germany launched a massive attack on Poland from the west with 1,500 tanks, 1,500 airplanes, and 1,500,000 men. On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany; Britain proceeded to bomb some German naval bases but took little other direct action. On September 17, more than 600,000 Red Army troops invaded Poland from the east and headed toward the agreed-upon demarcation line. Within days, the Red Army occupied half of Poland.
Signature page of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact,
Near the end of the month, Ribbentrop made a second trip to the Soviet Union to meet with Stalin and Molotov again. The men discussed securing their empires in eastern Europe. At this meeting, Stalin strongly pledged his country’s support for Germany, something he never admitted after becoming allied with the West in 1941.
On Sept. 30, 1939, the official Soviet newspaper Pravdaeditorialized that “the German-Soviet friendship is now established forever. … Both parties hope that England and France will stop their absolutely pointless war against Germany. … Should England and France fail to do so, Germany and the Soviet Union will take the appropriate steps.”
Hitler’s speeches were extensively quoted in the Soviet press in 1939, 1940 and 1941 (until June 22), and the commentaries were favorable. On Sept. 2, 1939, Pravda featured Hitler’s Reichstag speech that held Poles rather than Germans had started the war. On Oct. 7, the paper quoted another Reichstag speech in which Hitler said the Polish state had no right to exist and was built “on the bones and blood of Germans and Russians.” Neither the Germans nor the Russians failed to “pay back” for the alleged Polish trespasses: Jointly, they killed some 6 million Polish citizens.
On March 3, 1940, in Pravda Ia. Viktorov wrote the war “was concocted by the English and French imperialists who want to maintain their status in Europe.”
In London, the British government had no intention of declaring war on the Soviet Union, having already declared war on Germany. On September 20, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the House of Commons, “What we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success.”
The United States provided more good news for Stalin. Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt despised the Nazis and the Communist Soviet Union, he had to answer to the American public who wanted to stay out of another European War at any cost. The United States declared its neutrality.
With little to fear from the West, the Soviets happily collaborated with the Nazis. Together they built a new border between them in the place where Poland had once been, and the German Gestapo and Soviet secret police, the NKVD, held meetings to see how they could best cooperate.
“If, against all expectation, Germany finds itself in a difficult situation then she can be sure that the Soviet people will come to Germany’s aid and will not allow Germany to be strangled. The Soviet Union wants to see a strong Germany and we will not allow Germany to be thrown to the ground.” Joseph Stalin 1939
This went on for two years. But political “reptiles” seldom keep their word, and Hitler was the first to break the Soviet-Nazi Friendship Treaty. On June 22, 1941, he invaded the Soviet Union — or rather, he invaded Poland for the second time, the part of Poland forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union in 1939.
Soviet foreign minister Molotov (L)
meets with Adolf Hitler (R)
It is from this point on that Americans remember World War II. Six months later the United States entered the war.
Now the entire world (except for Japan, Italy and a few more countries) stood up against Nazi Germany. German defeat was inevitable and, when it happened, our parents and grandparents cheered.
Hitler deserved his fate. But in the joy after, Nazi Germany’s most prominent friend, Stalin’s Russia, was forgotten and replaced by Uncle Joe’s Russia, a k a the West’s ally.
Stalin’s Russia, however much it ultimately contributed to the war effort, remained a predatory state bent on enslaving other states. In 1945, just as the celebrations of the war’s end were at their peak, Josef Stalin’s poisonous grip on Central and Eastern Europe tightened, and remained tight even after he died in 1953. This grip was released only in spring 1989 when Solidarity was relegalized and semi-free elections were held in Poland. The Berlin Wall fell in November. Fifty years, two generations, tens of millions of wasted lives.
This is one of Stalin’s gulags
On May 9, 2005, the “new Russia’s” President Vladimir Putin pulled out all the stops in celebrating Stalin’s victory. Cities throughout Russia have demanded erection of new monuments to Stalin. Jonas Bernstein of Russia Reform Monitor reported in April 2005 that among such cities is Oryol where the city fathers declared Stalin’s butchery of Russian and foreign citizens has never been proven.
While the death of the Nazi regime is just cause for celebration, it befits us to remember that for more than 200 million people, not counting the Russians themselves, the murderous grip of the Soviet Russian military continued for 50 long years.
Not only were the lives of the two generations of Central Europeans wasted, hundreds of thousands perished in the Gulag or in the jails of Soviet-occupied countries through the 1940s and 1950s, while the West built its prosperity.
Even after the exposure of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, people continued fighting and dying to get rid their countries of the Russian army, to mention only the East German rising in 1954, the Hungarian rising in 1956, the Czech rising in 1968, and the risings of workers in Poland in 1970 and 1976, all the way to Solidarity. Unlike postwar Germany, the Russian Federation, which declared itself the Soviet Union’s successor, has refused to symbolically apologize to neighboring countries for entering World War II on the Nazi side, for putting down the risings in countries it occupied in World War II, for damages and destruction done over a half-century of Soviet colonialism.
The world leaders rushed to Moscow to celebrate the May 9 Russian victory. Such trips are of course politically expedient. Russia has a lot of natural gas, some oil and thousands of nuclear warheads. Political expediency is therefore the game of the day. But it should be noted that Russia celebrated Victory Day without a drop of apology or remorse for Stalin or for 50 years of military violence in Central and Eastern Europe.