Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to argue that World War II, and much of the suffering wrought by it, was the responsibility not just of Nazi Germany but of governments that went against it. He has made this argument before, but the most recent version delivered during Russia’s annual Victory Day celebration was the most comprehensive yet. He shifted the responsibility for Germany’s invasions and atrocities to other countries, and used that to minimize the Soviet Union’s responsibility for the war.
Previously, Putin had charged that the British and French agreement at Munich for German occupation of part of Czechoslovakia laid the groundwork for World War II, that U.S. trade with Germany before the war strengthened Germany, and that the Polish government caused the mass slaughter in Poland after its occupation by fleeing. All of this is designed to reduce the importance of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the Soviet invasion of Poland. It is in his telling no more consequential than many other events.
To be polemical for a moment, let me take each charge one at a time. The government did flee Poland as did governments of other countries after German occupation. Trying to create a government in exile was what many did. The idea that by leaving the country they were responsible for what happened is absurd. Poland was occupied by German and Soviet troops. The Germans rapidly began rounding up and executing any possible resistance, and the Soviets carried out the murder of thousands of Polish army officers they captured. The idea that the presence of Polish government officials in country would have stopped Hitler and Stalin in their tracks is self-evidently wrong.
The charge against the British and French has some weight. Neither were ready for war, militarily or politically. They hoped to avoid or at least delay it. They failed, and Europe paid the price. But there is a fundamental difference with the Hitler-Stalin pact. Stalin reached a treaty with Hitler over Poland. But unlike the British and the French, the Soviets seized (and still occupy) a large part of Poland. The Munich accord did not include a clause for cooperative invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia. The German-Russian agreement did.
The United States obviously traded with Germany. Its policy was to avert war. In retrospect this is unfortunate, but at the time there was no sign of the German occupation of Europe nor any indication of mass murder. If the United States had waged a conventional war against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Washington could be accused of selling grain to the Soviets beforehand, limiting the danger of famine. American trade was condemned by some at the time, but the amount of trade made little difference to the course of the war.
What mattered was the massive shipments by the Soviets of vital minerals after the joint invasion of Poland and to the moment when the Germans invaded Russia, when it is said that a Soviet trainload of vital contents moved west across the border, just as German troops moved east across it. The treaty between the Soviets and Germans included a massive trade agreement, which Stalin obeyed meticulously, hoping to pacify the Germans.
To move beyond the polemical, we need to understand German and Soviet strategy. During both world wars, Germany was filled with appetite and apprehension. It feared a simultaneous attack from France and Russia, knowing it could not survive a two-front war. In World War I, it attacked France while mounting a holding action in the east. Germany failed to defeat France, and the war there collapsed into static warfare that bled Germany dry.
The Germans were planning to use the same strategy in World War II, this time defeating France quickly. Their offer of a treaty to the Soviets to sacrifice Poland was meant to ensure that the eastern front would remain peaceful while France was defeated, even if the defeat took longer than hoped.
From Stalin’s point of view, the German expectation of a Franco-British force was an illusion. Stalin’s military thinking derived from World War I and the Russian Civil War, neither of which were mechanized. He did not understand the potential speed of armored warfare and the degree to which it rendered trench warfare impractical. So he expected that the Germans would dive into attritional warfare lasting for years. He expected not only part of Poland from the deal but the gift of time to build up his military forces, as well as a real opportunity to thrust west out of Poland and take Germany, while the Germans were being ground down in France.
Stalin’s plan went bad because tank warfare flanked the poorly thought out Maginot Line, and because France was exhausted by a war just 20 years earlier that had deeply demoralized the nation and its senior military. They expected to lose, and they did lose. And Stalin’s brilliant gambit became a nightmare as Germany shifted its forces east at stunning speed and, a year after the defeat of France, descended on an unprepared Russia.
To understand World War II in Europe, it is necessary to understand the incompetency of Stalin. He could not grasp the revolution in warfare and how it shifted risk. He could not grasp that France was incapable of resisting. And he could not comprehend that Hitler wanted the treaty in order to attack the Soviet Union before it had time to prepare for war. But then Hitler did not understand that Russia, in spite of Stalin, and despite the price it would pay, would crush the Germans. Regardless of Stalin’s failures, history played itself out.
In all of Putin’s claims, he appears to be trying to share moral responsibility. What he is really trying to do, I think, is rehabilitate Stalin. Stalin laid the groundwork for Hitler’s war plan. He was oblivious to military reality. When we look at Stalin, and if we think that one man is responsible for history, then Stalin was incompetent beyond belief. But if we turn the discussion away from Stalin’s miscalculations to fantasies about Poland, moral equivalencies with Munich, or U.S. pre-war trade with Germany, then Stalin is no worse than any other, and his failures can be hidden.
In my view, Russia is in trouble. Its economy moves with the price of oil, and its internal and external policies go with it. Russia has failed to modernize its economy after 30 years of quasi liberalism linked to a pseudo free market. In 1980, Yuri Andropov, then the head of the KGB, recognized that the Soviet experiment was failing. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, it finally did. Putin was a KGB officer at the time. He learned that liberalism was not the cure for Russia but a poison pill. He took control of Russia, constantly aware of the KGB experience that shaped him. As he looks at the failures of the Russian economy, the loss of his western buffer states, and Russia’s vulnerability, he must be as concerned as Andropov was.
But he has no faith in liberalization, hence the attention he pays to the other end of the spectrum: Stalinism. Looked at in this way, Putin wants to make an unhedged bet, and he knows that the bet must be made while he is still alive, since it is not clear who or what follows him. There are many Russians who see Stalin as a hero, and others who see him as a bungling idiot and a mass murderer. The president’s comments are likely directed toward a younger generation of Russians whose opinions aren’t yet fully formed. Putin could live with the memory of a killer, but the memory of an incompetent runs counter to everything.
Stalin’s greatest blunders came before the Battle of Moscow. So what happened before has to be recast. In rewriting the story of Stalin, Putin sets the stage for a Russian transformation. The tale need not be coherent because the central argument he will make does not depend on that. It has to say three things. The West caused World War II. Poland is responsible for the Katyn massacre, and Russia triumphed in the face of the incompetence, brutality and mendacity of others. And Stalin stood up and saved the Soviet Union, not in spite of his incompetence but from the duplicity of the rest of the world.