Despite being ideological arch-enemies, dictators from Nazi Germany and the USSR formed an alliance and divided Eastern Europe among themselves in August 1939. The trauma still persists in Poland and the Baltic countries.
The pact of 23 August 1939 between the dictators of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was a cynical calculation, and at first, it worked for both sides. Adolf Hitler ensured Soviet neutrality for a planned invasion of Poland. Since this would bring the country’s guaranteeing powers, the United Kingdom and France, into play, the Nazi leader initially avoided a two-front war.
Thus, he wanted to neutralize a possible British maritime blockade, which in World War I had ended with the German defeat. Stalin, for his part, believed that the Nazi Reich would be involved in a long conflict with the Western powers. In the long run, however, he considered a war against the Germans inevitable and wanted to take a break to bolster his arsenal. The agreement between the dictators was also known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, in reference to the foreign ministers of the two totalitarian regimes.
However, the decisive point was not in the official agreement, but in the supplementary secret act, which divided, between the two signatory ideological arch-enemies, the entire region into zones of influence, in the case of “territorial-political reconfigurations”. Thus, for example, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, and Romanian Bessarabia fell to the USSR as “spheres of interest”, while the western part of Poland was left to the Reich.
On September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht attacked Poland. Two weeks later, the Red Army entered from the east, gradually occupying the remaining territories defined in the agreement as part of the Soviet sphere of influence. The division of all of Eastern Europe was completed in the first two weeks of World War II, with German and Soviet military, secret services, and administrative officials working in close cooperation.
Poland disappeared for the second time from the map. The Baltic states, which had gained their independence after the end of World War I in 1919, were transformed into Soviet republics. Bessarabia was annexed to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine.
For the inhabitants of both sides of the dividing line, years of suffering began: Hitler imposed his territorial and racial ideology on the occupied zones, having millions killed; while in the Soviet part vast sections of the population were expelled, numerous members of the former elites murdered or deported to forced labor camps.
The pact between Hitler and Stalin lasted less than two years. In June 1941, after having subjugated half of Western Europe, the Nazi dictator felt strong enough to attack his alliance partner. It was a decisive self-overestimation: already the following winter, the table began to turn, from a military point of view. For the peoples of the “spheres of interest”, however, this meant more years of conflict, with misery, expulsions, and millions of deaths.
The agreement had consequences beyond the end of the war: as the USRR belonged to the winning forces, the Western Allies could not prevent “the territories assigned to the Soviet Union in the Hitler-Stalin pact from remaining with it after the end of World War II”. explains historian Jörg Ganzenmüller. Only in the early 1990s did the Baltic states, for example, regain their independence.
For many years after the war ended, the pact fell into oblivion. In the East, it had been declared taboo during the Cold War. The Federal Republic of Germany did not play a very significant role in postwar historical processing. Only after the fall of communism in Europe in 1989 did the memory of the Hitler-Stalin agreement return to public debate.
However, the wounds are not healed – on the contrary. Ten years ago, as the 70th anniversary of the pact was recalled, Russian President Vladimir Putin described it as immoral in a “Letter to the Poles”. But that admission has long since lost substance: a few months after the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, Putin defended the deal as a necessary step from the point of view of the time.
In 2019, the head of the Kremlin remains aloof from the celebrations of the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. In contemporary Russia, Josef Stalin is basically rehabilitated: in a recent poll, 70% of Russians consulted spoke positively about the role of the dictator for the country.
Thus, in Poland and the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, fear is growing again of being victims of a policy in which Germany and Russia unite at their expense. Symbolic of this fear is the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, linking Russia directly with Germany across the Baltic Sea, bypassing the intermediate countries. Poland recently won over the United States as an ally in this fight because, at least on that point, it doesn’t feel taken seriously enough by its neighbor.
For historian Ganzenmüller, the fear is exaggerated, and “no historical analogies can be drawn”, since “Poland and the Baltic countries are much closer to Germany than Russia” – as their joint affiliation to both the European Union and Russia already proves. to NATO.
“Still, German foreign policy occasionally pursues foreign interests too unscrupulously, it fails to consider these existing fears, thus causing misunderstandings.” That’s why the historian advises Berlin to pay more attention to these old fears.
Source: with DW