Remembering the Nazi-Soviet Pact After Seventy Years

by Robert Gellately Robert Gellately is the Earl Ray Beck Professor of History at Florida State University and recently was the Bertelsmann Visiting Professor of Twentieth Century Jewish Politics and History at Oxford University. He is the author of The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933-1945 and Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. He was born in St. John's, Newfoundland and lives in Tallahassee, Florida. 25.08.2009

The first annual European-wide commemoration of the "the victims of Stalinism and Nazism" took place on August 23. The resolution to hold this event was passed recently by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a fifty-six-nation body, which includes the United States and describes itself as the world's largest regional security organization. The date, August 23, 2009, was chosen not by chance: it happens to be the seventieth anniversary of the Non-Aggression Treaty signed between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. Stalin and Hitler agreed to divide Poland and to carve Europe into spheres of influence. The Second World War began only days later.
The Assembly's resolution, which celebrates the "reunification" of Europe encourages members to promote human rights and civil liberties and to fight all forms of extremism. Special mention is made of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the need to combat anti-Semitism. The 320 lawmakers in the Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor with only eight opposed and four abstentions.

The Russian representatives, however, were incensed. Alexander Kozlovsky, head of their delegation called the resolution "a public insult against all Russians." His ire was raised by what he regarded as the insensitivity of "those who place Nazism and Stalinism on the same level" and forget "that it is the Stalin-era Soviet Union that made the biggest sacrifices and the biggest contribution to liberating Europe from fascism." Konstantin Kosachyov, who leads the Russian Duma's international affairs committee in Moscow, said the motion was "nothing but an attempt to rewrite the history of World War II by placing responsibility for its causes, course and results equally on Hitler's Germany and the former Soviet Union." Many ordinary Russians were also upset. A national poll on July 25-26 by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), found that most respondents (59 percent) generally agree with Kozlovsky and Kosachyov, while a minority (21 percent) think the aim is to pay tribute to the victims of all totalitarian regimes.

What we have here is a battle over memory, complicated by politics and imprecise language. It is misleading for the Assembly to use the term Stalinism, which is a personalization of the Soviet regime during one era, and then to compare it with Nazism, which was the ideology of Hitler and the Third Reich. It would have been more accurate to compare Nazism and Communism, as those terms signify the two ideologies and systems of rule.

One Moscow newspaper maintains that the OSCE dared not mention Communists and Nazis in the same sentence, much less equate them, for fear of upsetting socialists across Europe. So there is not a whisper about Communism, and nothing said of its many victims inside the Soviet Union. Instead all sins are attributed to Stalin. Is there not a need to face up to the cruel truth about Communist rule in Russia? Nor should we forget that after 1945 Communist satellite regimes in Eastern Europe routinely trampled civil and human rights under foot.

The Russians were quick to object to the Parliamentary Assembly's resolution. Alas they are not yet ready to mention the Kremlin's crimes committed over generations against their own people.

How many Soviet victims were there of the "Stalinist terror"? Between 1930 and 1941 around 20 million Soviets were "convicted," that is, they suffered arrest, execution, or detention. The USSR census for 1939 counted 37,500,000 families, and four million single adults. Thus in the 1930s alone the terror affected one or more members of every second family. It killed more than two million in that decade, above and beyond the millions who died in the man-made famine in Ukraine. I would tentatively suggest that somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of all Stalin's victims lived in the former Soviet Union.

There is no official Russian commemoration of these people, and not a single trial of any of the perpetrators has been held. Perm-31 is the only significant museum of the vast Gulag concentration camp system, and it's located in the distant Urals. The Russian government still looks intent on playing down Stalin's crimes and accentuating his "positive accomplishments." However, while Russia is far from recognizing the victims of official state policy between 1917 and 1991, it will not be so easy to bury the past.

The stark inward-looking quality of Stalin's terror comes across if we compare it to Hitler's. Germans, including German Jews, murdered through Hitler's terror represented less than 10 percent of all the victims of Nazism. Approximately 150,000 of the six million murdered Jews had been Germans. Their deaths took place in the East. At war's end, an estimated 5 percent of all prisoners in the concentration camps were German. Hitler focused largely on non-citizens, while the Soviet Communists terrorized mainly (but not exclusively) their own people. These horrendous statistics do not minimize Nazi terror or the Holocaust one iota. Instead they suggest that Soviet and Nazi terror had different goals and modus operandi. As cruel and evil as Stalin was, he never created anything like Auschwitz or Treblinka.

Today the Russians are right to object that the OSCE's resolution makes no mention of the crucial role the Soviet Union played in stopping Hitler. We need to recall that 25.5 million Soviet citizens, well over ten percent of the population in 1939, died in the Second World War. More than half of these were civilians. It is true that Stalin conspired to start the conflict with the Pact signed on August 23, 1939. His people had no part in that, but were informed through filtered reports and propaganda. What they discovered to their dismay in June 1941 was that Hitler's forces had launched a murderous crusade. The Soviet peoples in all their diversity and multiplicity rallied to the colors, often in spite of, not because of Communism and Stalin. As President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were the first to admit, without the Soviet peoples' will to carry on, Hitler would have won.

We can well imagine what it would have meant if Hitler had emerged as the conqueror of everything between the Urals and the English Channel. He was preparing the next stage and in his mind already heading for the United States. It is startling to recall that he counted in his ranks some of the world's best rocket and atomic scientists.

Suffice it to say that it behooves us and all of Europe to remember that the Red Army and the Soviet peoples saved us from such a fate. The Russians today should be proud of what they did in the Second World War and we should praise them to the heavens for it. But they are wrong to think they have to defend Stalin and gloss over his crimes inside the Soviet Union in order to construct a usable history. They need to face up to the past and not wish it away.

On August 23, 1939 Stalin's agreement with Nazi Germany gave Hitler the green light. That signal was important at the time and seventy years later there is no reason for Russians to deny it. After all, Stalin persecuted them relentlessly, making them pay in torrents of blood as he pursued his dreams and delusions at home and abroad.

First published on the Huffington Post.

Robert Gellately's latest book "Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe"  (Knopf and Vintage) is available on Amazon - click here.

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