Today, August 23, marks the 78th anniversary of the Pact signed in Moscow between German Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov, with Stalin in attendance. The Pact had dramatic consequences for Central and Eastern Europe and some analysts perceive it as the real date on which the Second World War began.
Others, such as Russian president Vladimir Putin, regard the Pact as a temporary measure to ensure Soviet security, taken under duress after the Western powers abandoned the USSR and refused to form a partnership against Hitler.
While the Pact’s Secret Protocols resulted in the annexation of the Baltic States and parts of Romania by the USSR, they also transformed ethnic territories of Ukraine and Belarus within Poland into enlarged Soviet republics. The borders of the two republics today, as independent states, are largely based on the agreement reached between the two dictators, Stalin and Hitler.
The contemporary Russian government regards the condemnation of the Pact as an aggressive move by Stalin as ‘historical revisionism’ and has made such opinions an offense subject to criminal proceedings or fines. The official version is that Germany invaded Poland, which quickly collapsed, and the Red Army stepped in to protect ‘fraternal’ Ukrainians and Belarusians (the Jewish population, a majority in most towns of eastern Poland, is rarely mentioned) sixteen days later. It was thus an act of liberation rather than an occupation conducted jointly with the Nazis.
What is the reality?
Prior to September 17, 1939, Soviet planes dropped leaflets over the towns and villages of eastern Poland announcing the fall of the Polish state and encouraging residents to form local action committees to prepare for the arrival of Soviet troops. On the ground, NKVD agents arrived prior to the Soviet army.
Locals then witnessed the arrival of a decrepit looking army with troops on emaciated horses seeking to take advantage of local goods and a cheap exchange rate. Still the local welcome seems to have been either friendly or passive. The reasons for the lack of coordination between the two invasions seems obvious. Until September 16, the Red Army was still fighting Japanese forces in the Far East and Stalin did not want to commit them to war on two fronts simultaneously.
Polish rule had not been popular among the rural population, comprised mainly of Ukrainian and Belarusian peasant farmers. Polish officials or colonists had grabbed the best land and imposed a harsh rule. In order to progress in their careers, locals usually assimilated with the Polish population, became Roman Catholics, or joined parties prepared to cooperate with the authorities. In the 1920s, many had joined the illegal Communist Party but it became victim to the Purges and in the summer of 1938, the Comintern officially dissolved it on the grounds that supporters of Trotsky and foreign agents had penetrated it.
As a result, local Communist forces on the eve of the Soviet arrival were negligible. The initial take over promptly organized Soviet-style elections and rounded up Polish officials. The elections included Red Army soldiers as candidates as well as eastern Ukrainians and eastern Belarusians who became candidates for so-called People’s Assemblies held in Bialystok (Western Belarus) and Lviv (Western Ukraine). The annexation was rapid and a token attempt to display a democratic route to Soviet power.
On October 22, 1939, a parade was held in the city of Brest, now on the western border of the expanded Belarusian Soviet republic, and the site of an infamous treaty (Brest-Litovsk) in March 1918, when Soviet Russia had pulled out of the First World War. The parade comprised the two conquering armies: the German Wehrmacht and the Red Army, which marched together in celebration of the defeat of Poland. It is an event that the current Russian leadership refuses to acknowledge and symbolic of the perception at that time of the results of the Pact.
Following the parade, General Heinz Guderians’s 19th Panzer Corps withdrew from the city, which was then taken over by S.M. Krivoshein’s 29th Tank Brigade, as agreed in the Pact. Brest would later be the scene of the much heralded and exaggerated defense of the Brest Fortress in June and early July 1941.
Subsequently, Soviet rule resorted to the Stalinist fashion, with early attempts at collectivization of farms, dismantlement of the Polish education system, and by the spring of 1940 arrests and deportation of undesirables from the Ukrainians and Belarusian population as well as Poles. For many Jews, however, Soviet rule, however harsh, was preferable to life under Nazi-occupied Poland.
The question arises why, if the occupation was a temporary phenomenon carried out under the threat of war, did Stalin resort to such organized and long-term measures? He also deployed a large group of the army in the new border regions, abandoning the fortifications further east of the so-called Stalin Line, which now lay closer to the center of Ukraine and Belarus.
There have been protracted debates about the reasons for what seems in perspective a highly rash move, but one may be that the new borders were seen as something more than temporary. War might still come but the alliance with Hitler also could serve for several years until the Soviets were more prepared for an attack. This line of thought is supported by the rapid Soviet military build-up that followed over the next twenty months.
Stalin was also vindictive and recalled the defeat of the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1920, a decisive event in limiting the impact of the Russian Revolution. Also, a Soviet ‘guarantee’ of the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia had been undermined by Poland’s refusal to allow Soviet troops to cross its territory.
Lastly, Poland was not a defeated state on September 17, 1939. It collapsed after the Battle of Kock with the Germans on October 6. Though defeat was almost certain on the date of the Soviet invasion, it might have been averted had the Soviets defended rather than crushed the remnants of the Polish army. But Stalin had made his choice, and his ally in the fall of 1939 was Hitler’s Germany, not the Western democracies and, least of all, the despised ‘bourgeois fascist’ Polish state.