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Stalin and the Nazi pact

LAURENCE REES: Why did Stalin make the deal with the Nazis in the Summer of 1939?

ROBERT SERVICE: Well, it’s often assumed that Stalin was a fool to sign the Nazi Soviet Pact, but he didn’t see things that way. He thought there was no geopolitical alternative to a deal with Hitler because he couldn’t get a deal with anybody else. He expected there to be war in Europe and he thought it might well involve the Soviet Union, but it might not have to. In those circumstances he wanted to get the best deal he possibly could, so when the Germans came saying that they would trade with him, and that they would sign a non-aggression treaty and he saw the chance of getting even more than that out of them, including military technology, it made sense for him to sign this pact, even though it went against the grain of the whole ideology of the Soviet state.

LAURENCE REES: Did he think that it would be a long lasting deal?

ROBERT SERVICE: I think he, to start with, thought it would be, and that he didn’t have quite so much to fear about the deal as later became obvious. The reason for this was that like everybody else in Europe, apart from Hitler himself, he assumed that if a European war occurred it would be a long lasting, protracted affair in which case the Soviet Union would remain on the sidelines. Now, Stalin was not alone in thinking this, but for him it was a catastrophic error of judgement because in fact the Nazi military machine was much more powerful and successful than he had bargained for, so it conquered more of Europe more quickly than Stalin had anticipated.

LAURENCE REES: But was there anything that Stalin could have done which would have put off Hitler going into Poland?

ROBERT SERVICE: Stalin thought he had no choice but to sign the non-aggression treaty with the Germans because the British and the French were so lame in what they were offering as a counter-treaty to the one that Hitler was offering. So from a geopolitical point of view if the Soviet Union wanted to avoid being quickly attacked by the Third Reich it had to sign that treaty.

LAURENCE REES: And then the Nazis and the Soviets go much further than a simple pact of non-aggression; they Soviets actually offer the Nazis military assistance in various ways. So is this really not a 'pact' but an 'alliance'?

ROBERT SERVICE: I think that if we talk to Russians today they are likely to be mortally offended if we describe this treaty as the beginning of an alliance, but actually that was practically what it was, because it involved all sorts of military facilitations between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, including allowing the German fleet to use Soviet waters. It, in return, gave Stalin military technology beyond his wildest dreams and it also carved up East Central Europe between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. In every way this was an active alliance, short only of Soviet soldiers fighting on the side of the Third Reich in its campaigns in Europe. It’s for that reason that the Soviet part in the war is always called the great patriotic war and is dated to 1941. But in reality the USSR was taking part in the Second World War from 1939 like everybody else, only it was taking part in the war on the side of the Third Reich.

LAURENCE REES: And one of the most shocking things in that context was the extent to which the Nazis and the Soviets carved up Poland together. What’s that telling us about the nature of both of these regimes?

ROBERT SERVICE: There is a community of totalitarianism between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, and the people who are carrying out the orders of Stalin and Hitler behave in a remarkably similar way. There is a comparison to be made between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, so it’s no surprise that people working on either side found blood brothers on the other side, and when they met they behaved in a jolly fashion. There was no sign allowed in the official Soviet media of any unease about carving up Eastern Europe and East Central Europe between the two states; it was celebrated in Pravda as a glorious victory for Sovietisation. And that’s exactly what it was, because these huge chunks of territory which were whole countries, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Eastern Poland, they were countries, and they were Sovietised. They were turned into Soviet republics in the case of the first three, and the whole of their social and political and economic order was transformed by a very, very bloody campaign of repression.