Sergei Ivanov, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Russian Military Historical Society and Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport, talks with TASS about Soviet-German relations before 22 June 1941, and why it is wrong to talk about the Soviet Union’s responsibility in unleashing WWII.
Your news conference on 4 July was devoted to the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. Ahead of this date, some people in the West resumed allegations about the start of the war, saying that the Soviet Union was responsible for it on a par with Nazi Germany, because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allegedly gave Hitler the green light. What would you say to this?
Sergei Ivanov: The Western commentators you have mentioned forget the background for the Soviet-German agreement signed in 1939.
They forget about the event that predates that agreement, that is, the Munich Betrayal, when Britain and France allowed Hitler to take over the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in September 1938. In mid-March 1939, Nazi Germany occupied the whole of Czechia, turning Slovakia into a puppet state without any trace of resistance on the part of the Western powers.
At that time, the Soviet Union was the only European power that did not dirty its hands in collusion with Hitler.
But what was Moscow to do in that situation? It needed to protect its national and state interests and stop Hitler’s eastward aggression, which Britain and France anticipated so eagerly. Moscow knew that Hitler’s next victims would be Poland and the Baltics.
It meant that German troops would stand on the Soviet border in direct proximity to Leningrad [now St. Petersburg], Minsk, Kiev and Odessa, the vital political, industrial and cultural centres of the Soviet Union. Moscow did everything in its power to create an anti-Hitler coalition, but its idea fell on deaf ears in London and Paris.
The Soviet-German Pact of 1939 was a response to the Munich Betrayal. Moscow would not have signed any non-aggression pact with Hitler if not for the Munich Betrayal.
When he decided to sign the pact on August 23, Joseph Stalin must have realized that Hitler’s attack on Poland was inevitable. For example, his speech at the August 19 meeting of the Politburo and the Comintern Executive Committee is often quoted, where he said: “If we accept the well-known German proposal…, it will, undoubtedly, attack Poland, and the United Kingdom and France will inevitably enter the war”.
Sergei Ivanov: First, Stalin’s speech you have quoted is a fake; it was concocted by the French security services in the late autumn of 1939.
The Politburo’s declassified archives show clearly that there was no such meeting on 19 August. You can read an article by Russian expert Sergei Sluch, published in the academic journal Otechestvennaya Istoriya (National History) and detailing the origin of this fake document and its legalization.
Second, one should not follow the traditions of the “personality cult” and think of Stalin as a superman who knew everything in advance.
At that time, judging by archive sources, the Kremlin believed that the situation would follow the Munich scenario: The United Kingdom and France would force Poland to cede the Danzig Corridor to Hitler, and there would be no war.
Many Soviet intelligence reports contained these conjectures. Diplomats thought likewise. Here is what Soviet Ambassador to Great Britain Ivan Maisky wrote in his diary at the time: “A new Munich-type deal is in the air […] The 1938 scenario may repeat itself if Hitler displays even minimal amenability”.
Now, 80 years later we know that Hitler did not display amenability, and Polish leaders behaved in the same resolute manner. According to Winston Churchill’s memoirs, they proudly and arrogantly rejected all German claims.
Different scenarios were possible in August 1939. This is why the wording of a secret protocol to the Soviet-German pact is so vague: “In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement …” Stalin tried not to assume any binding obligations to Hitler. In effect, by signing the pact with Germany, the Soviet Union only pledged not to attack Germany for a period of ten years. That is all.
Did the Soviet Union face a real threat from Germany in 1939? Was the Wehrmacht prepared for a war against the Soviet Union at that time?
Sergei Ivanov: Everything is relative. The Wehrmacht was being upgraded at a breathtaking pace. And what was the Red Army’s state in 1939? As the war against Finland showed, the Red Army was not prepared to fight the Wehrmacht.
It was necessary to modernize the Red Army and to equip it with new weapons. Repressions decimated the ranks of its officers. The Red Army got more and more conscripts, and this underscored the need for more officers. Military schools had to train them. New tank and aircraft models were still on the drawing board.
As for the direct threat of Hitler attacking the Soviet Union, one thing is beyond doubt: Any responsible state leader had no choice but to take into account this possibility, even if a non-aggression pact had been signed.
Hitler could abrogate the pact anytime, just like he had abrogated many other agreements that had been signed on behalf of Germany, and just like he had broken many of his promises and assurances. After defeating Poland, Hitler could deploy his forces either to the West or to the East.
A new Munich-style deal directed against the Soviet Union and involving the United Kingdom, France and Germany could not be ruled out. The Kremlin had every reason to fear such a scenario.
Poland became the first country to be victimized by an aggressor during World War II. Why was Moscow so dismissive of Warsaw, which could have joined forces with the USSR against the Nazi threat? It is common knowledge that Molotov called Poland an ugly offspring of the Treaty of Versailles.
Sergei Ivanov: You need in-depth knowledge of pre-war history: The animosity between Moscow and Warsaw was mutual. Apart from the dire legacy of the Soviet-Polish War of 1920-1921, Poland conducted active anti-Soviet propaganda and staged provocations on Soviet borders throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Poland was among the first countries to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1934. Soviet intelligence operatives reported that Poland was even contemplating plans for a joint Polish-German invasion of the Soviet Union.
And what did Poland do right after the Munich Agreement was signed?
Churchill called Poland a hyena, when it grabbed a piece of Czechoslovakia’s sovereign territory, namely, the Tesin Silesia region, thus becoming an accomplice in the partition of Czechoslovakia. What could Moscow think about Warsaw’s position after such developments?
The animosity of the Polish state and its ruling elite towards the Soviet Union did a disservice to the Polish nation when it faced Nazi German aggression. It appears that Warsaw ought to learn a lesson from those events and to base its policies on pragmatic calculations, rather than ambitions and grudges, be they real or imaginary.
The USSR is reproached for becoming an 'ally' of Germany after signing the pact of 23 August 1939. Usually references are made to the so-called liberation campaign of the Red Army on 17 September and the title of the Soviet-German Boundary and Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939. What do you think about this?
Sergei Ivanov: In reality, on 17 September, the Red Army indeed launched a liberation campaign in Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia.
Remember that in 1921 Poland seized these territories from a Russia ravaged by civil war. At that time Poland was trying to occupy as many lands as possible under the pretext of “fighting Bolshevism” and, probably, restore “the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from one sea to the other.”
For Poland at the time, Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia were actually colonies. And the Polish state treated Ukrainians and Byelorussians accordingly — like cattle. Look at the documents depicting life for Ukrainians and Byelorussians under Polish domination: humiliation, closure of national schools, polonization… And, by the way, shocking manifestations of anti-Semitism. It is no accident that after the start of the Red Army’s operation on 17 September, Ukrainians and Byelorussians began to flee from the Polish army en masse.
Or take the fate of the Vilnius region and the city of Vilnius. Poland annexed this territory by force from young independent Lithuania back in the 1920s.
After 17 September 1939 this region found itself under the control of the Red Army. The USSR returned it and the city of Vilnius to Lithuania — fairly bourgeois, though not quite democratic at that time.
As for Soviet-German relations, they did not establish any alliance following the August and September agreements. By moving its borders westward, the Soviet Union removed the front of the future war from the country’s vital centres by 300 and more kilometers, thereby curbing Germany’s appetites in its advance to the east.
Winston Churchill, for one, understood the anti-German character of the Soviet action on 17 September. Speaking on the radio on 1 October 1939 he said: “But that the Russian Armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace. At any rate the line is there, and an Eastern Front has been created which Nazi Germany does not dare assail.”
In this sense, everything happening between the USSR and Germany was just a temporary truce before the decisive battle. The more intelligent and far-sighted people at the time understood this.
The addition of the word “friendship” to the title of the September 28 treaty was a mistake, a very unfortunate and awkward act by Stalin and his entourage.
This shouldn’t have been done. I think this rhetorical device was supposed to demonstrate to Berlin our willingness to observe the agreements. Ultimately, it was supposed to delay “Hitler’s turn to the east” as long as possible. In reality it was clear that friendship was out of question.
The joint parade of Soviet and German troops in Brest on 22 September 1939 is also cited as 'evidence' of allied relations between the USSR and the Third Reich.
Sergei Ivanov: There was no parade in reality, just a military ceremony to mark the city’s transfer from one state to another with minimal diplomatic fanfare. Incidentally, contrary to widespread myths, this was the only event of its kind.
German troops left the city and lowered their flag; Soviet troops came in and raised their flag. This wasn’t a solemn or symbolic ceremony.
Initially, the city of Brest and the Brest Fortress had been occupied by the Germans on 14 September and 17 September, respectively. However, under the Soviet-German agreements Brest was included in the Soviet sphere of interest.
By exerting pressure through diplomatic channels, the USSR managed to come to an agreement with the Germans on the transfer of the whole of Brest with its fortifications. This was an unqualified win — we received a valuable defensive frontier and border line of rivers. The German brass were upset about having to give Brest back.
The ceremony as such was described by Commander of the 29th tank brigade Semyon Krivoshein [participant in the notorious “parade” on the Soviet side].
He said Germans were offered to leave the city in march formation, while Soviet troops entered it, also in formation. Although bands played military music during such events, they were strictly military rituals without any political or symbolic significance.
In the late 1990s, the public learned about the agreement between the NKVD and the Gestapo on countering the 'Jewish threat'. Wasn’t this an alliance?
Sergei Ivanov: This is a fake.
Historians immediately exposed as a crude fake and hoax the repeatedly published “General Agreement” that was allegedly concluded as early as November 1938.
What about the actual instances of military cooperation between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, such as the use of a radio beacon station in Minsk by German aviation, harboring German ships in northern Soviet ports and schools for German troops on Soviet territory?
Sergei Ivanov: Military experts claim that the radio beacon in Minsk was mainly required to prevent Luftwaffe planes from entering our territory and bombing our troops [even if by mistake]. It is normal.
As for sheltering German ships in Soviet harbors, think about it: Could the Soviet Union as a neutral state give away or destroy German ships? If that had happened the Soviet Union would have effectively entered into conflict with Germany.
Hitler would have considered that as support for the other belligerent, England, and acted accordingly against the Soviet Union. Of course, this was exactly what London was hoping for – to drive a wedge between Hitler and Stalin and watch the war from the outside because London was not bound by any treaties of alliance or obligations to Stalin.
There were indeed military schools for Germans on Soviet territory [tank, aviation and chemical weapon schools] – but only for the troops of the democratic Weimar Republic. After the Nazis came to power that cooperation was quickly wound down.
By the way, it was not the Germans who learned from our tank crews and pilots. On the contrary, our personnel who worked with Germans in those schools in the 1920s gained much more experience and knowledge.
After signing treaties with Germany in August and September 1939, the Soviet Union closely cooperated with Germany in economic affairs. From a moral standpoint, was it justified to supply strategic materials to an aggressor?
Sergei Ivanov: I don’t think moral judgments are applicable here. Moreover, the scale of Soviet supplies and their value to Hitler is exaggerated. At any rate, you need to consider what we received in return.
The Soviet Union did supply various commodities to Germany. However, for instance, Soviet iron ore had such low iron content that the Germans had to send it to enrichment plants. At the same time, there was no use for that type of ore in our country without the necessary equipment and technology.
In return, the Soviet Union received machinery, technology and equipment – on credit, it should be noted. Our specialists would go to German plants to learn about manufacturing new equipment. The Germans had to allow us to do that, even if reluctantly.
The Soviet Union purchased several models of new German planes, tanks, weapons, etc. All that was to the advantage of our defence industry and in the long run provided a foundation for achieving military and technical superiority over the Nazis during the war. After all, Great Britain, France and the United States made sure to restrict Soviet access to the latest technology.
This being said, both London and Washington, especially after France’s resounding defeat in 1940, knew very well that sooner or later Hitler would invade the Soviet Union, which would ally with the Western powers.
Did the Soviet Union become a participant of WWII in 1939?
Sergei Ivanov: No. The Soviet Union remained a neutral state and continued to be one until 22 June 1941. Its neutrality, officially declared on 17 September, was recognized by Great Britain, France and the United States. When the Soviet Union sent in troops to Poland, neither France nor Great Britain and not even Poland deemed it an act of war.
It is sometimes said that, since Stalin carried on trade with Hitler and supplied commodities to Germany while at war, the Soviet Union cannot be considered neutral. It is a typical example of applying double standards to those events. Between 1939 and 1941, before Pearl Harbor, the United States supplied weapons to Great Britain. Does it mean it lost its neutral status?
No. Sweden provided strategic materials to Germany throughout the war. Does anybody question Sweden’s neutrality in WWII? Moreover, Sweden did not lose its neutral status, even when Hitler’s troops were allowed to transit its territory.
National ideology in the Baltic states hinges on the argument that in 1939–1940 those countries were occupied by the Soviet Union that brought with it repression, deportation, forced collectivization and other unpopular Sovietizing measures. The same claim is made about Western Ukraine, Western Byelorussia and Bessarabia. What do you think about this?
Sergei Ivanov: Occupation implies subjugation and using violence against the population. True, there was repression in those territories [along with other regions of the Soviet Union].
The reality of Stalinism alienated many people from the Soviet regime. But it was hardly a majority. Residents of the Baltic states, Western Ukraine, Western Byelorussia and Bessarabia became Soviet citizens, with all the attendant rights and obligations.
The poorest people and the middle class were given a lot by the Soviet government – for instance, land that in the past belonged only to those who had special privileges, mainly Poles.
The 'new citizens' integrated with all groups of Soviet society, including the administrative and creative elite. Is that what you would call an occupation? Compare it to the German occupation of other countries or the regimes imposed by England and France on their colonies and protectorates.
The Soviet attack on Finland in 1939 is described as either an attempt to occupy it or create a puppet 'democracy' dependent on Moscow. But the victory in the Winter War for which the Red Army paid such a high price in blood eventually backfired on the Soviet Union. Finland rallied with Hitler against the Soviet Union, determined to regain what it had lost, did it not?
Sergei Ivanov: The Soviet-Finnish war of 1939–1940 was not the first or the second: During the Civil War in Russia and immediately after it, the newly independent Finland tried to seize Eastern Karelia, and during the 1920s – 1930s Finland was generally hostile towards the Soviet Union.
Under the secret protocol to the treaty of 23 August 1939, Finland was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence. But this did not mean that the Soviet Union had initially wanted to implant its regime there or to occupy the country.
This is evidenced by the talks between the Finnish and Soviet leadership shortly before the Winter War. In exchange for the Karelian Isthmus, Finland was offered a territory in Eastern Karelia, a stretch twice the size of the isthmus.
Stalin insisted on this because he considered it vital for the Soviet Union to move the border away from Leningrad, which at the time ran only 32 km from the city. The Finns would not make any concessions. For the Soviet Union, the so-called Winter War was a fight for the security of the country’s second most important city.
Officials in the Kremlin feared not so much an attack from Finland itself, but that its territory could be used for an offensive by the troops of one of the states hostile to the Soviet Union – Germany, or maybe another one of the so-called Western democracies.
That war was difficult. But it led to a peace that preserved Finland’s independence and gave security to Leningrad.
The fact that Finland subsequently joined the war on Hitler’s side was primarily due to the Finnish leadership’s plans to create, with Hitler’s help, the so-called Greater Finland, which would include both Soviet Karelia and the Kola Peninsula with Murmansk and other territories stretching up to the Urals.
It is characteristic that, contrary to the myths, the Finnish troops in 1941 did not stop at the old border, but advanced far ahead, occupying (and immediately renaming) Petrozavodsk and crossing the Svir River.
As for the Finnish troops’ behavior on Soviet territory in 1941–1944, you can read relevant documents. In the occupied Petrozavodsk alone, six concentration camps were created for Soviet civilians.
About a third of our prisoners of war died in Finnish captivity from intolerable conditions of detention, hunger, cold and torture by their guards.
What can you say about the version supported by a number of historians today, including in Russia, that the Red Army was preparing a strike against Germany in the summer of 1941, but Hitler forestalled Stalin? After all, a large group of Soviet troops was being concentrated on the western borders of the Soviet Union, while its defences were inadequate, as the Wehrmacht offensive showed later?
Sergei Ivanov: This is just another fake. And quite an old one – this so-called version was initially voiced by the Minister of Propaganda of the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, immediately after the attack on the Soviet Union.
This Nazi lie has long been exposed by Russian and Western historians. Read The Icebreaker Myth by Gabriel Gorodetsky. Without going into details, I would cite just one figure: the Soviet Union in early 1941 spent a third of all cement produced in the country to build its new lines of defence on the new western border (the so-called Molotov line).
If we were going to attack, we would have spent these resources on something else.
Today in Russia, we are recalling all the dates associated with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of various countries in Eastern Europe. But it is argued in a number of European countries that it was not liberation, but a new occupation, only by a communist regime.
Sergei Ivanov: In this regard, I can only ask one question: What would have happened to such countries as Poland, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, occupied in 1939-1941, or to the countries that fell under complete dependence on Hitler if Soviet soldiers had not come to liberate them?
How much longer would have the genocide of the local population continued, killing civilians – children, old people, women? Would it have even been possible to talk about any European values if one million Soviet soldiers had not given their lives there fighting the Nazi plague?
Views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of Sergei Ivanov and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.