An orgy of remembrance took place all across Europe this last weekend as the continent’s increasingly passive and pacific countries celebrated the very war-like achievements of their grandfathers in tossing the regime of Adolph Hitler and all it stood for on the ash heap of history. Even France, where 2.5 million men of its armed forces never fired a shot in anger before their cowardly government surrendered thus leaving the British to face the Nazi onslaught alone, celebrated the end of World War II, confident in the knowledge that no one would bring up uncomfortable truths like their collaboration with Hitler or the myths surrounding the small minority of citizens who were actually involved in the resistance.
Where the French are concerned, some things are just better left unsaid lest Gallic huffiness spoil a good party.
Even George Bush was silent about the duplicitous French whose wartime actions as “ally” included armed resistance to the American landings in North Africa, handing tens of thousands of European Jews who had taken refuge in “unoccupied” France over to the tender mercies of the Nazi death merchants, and saddling the western world for a generation after the war with the prickly personality and insufferable haughtiness of Charles De Gaulle.
While the President may be faulted for his selective memory where the French are concerned, he should receive the thanks and admiration from all of us for being the only world leader to recall one of the immediate and proximate causes of the war; the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed a scant 2 days before the outbreak of Hitler’s unprovoked attack on Poland.
The fact that Bush spoke of this agreement in Latvia, one of the Baltic states that both Hitler and Stalin coveted is significant in that he connected the brutality of Hitler with the perfidy of Stalin and the Soviet Union in a way that’s rarely been done by an American President:
But in his speech, Mr. Bush indirectly acknowledged that the United States and Britain shared some blame for the annexation of the Baltics, noting that the 1945 Yalta agreement, in which Europe was carved up by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, was in an “unjust tradition” of earlier treaties like the Munich and Molotov-Ribbentrop pacts.
“Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable,” Mr. Bush said. “Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.”
And Bush recalled the spirit of defiance of the Baltic states following Stalin’s occupation for their own “protection” following the Nazi-Soviet Pact:
The Baltic states had no role in starting World War II. The battle came here because of a secret pact between dictators. And when the war came, many in this region showed their courage. After a puppet government ordered the Latvian fleet to return to port, sailors on eight freighters chose to remain at sea under the flag of free Latvia, assisting the United States Merchant Marine in carrying supplies across the Atlantic. A newspaper in the state of South Carolina described the Latvian crew this way: “They all have beards and dressed so differently… They are … exhausted, but full of fighting spirit.”
By the end of the war, six of the Latvian ships had been sunk, and more than half the sailors had been lost. Nearly all of the survivors settled in America, and became citizens we were proud to call our own. One American town renamed a street Ciltvaira—to honor a sunken ship that sailed under a free Latvian flag. My country has always been thankful for Latvia’s friendship, and Latvia will always have the friendship of America.
Curiously, this acknowledgment went unnoticed in the press who instead played up Bush’s “apology” for US inaction after Yalta to halt the spread of communism across eastern Europe.
The sad history of Batlic occupation is a direct result of Stalin’s greed and Hitler’s warped vision for Germany. Small German minorities in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia allowed Hitler to cast a covetous eye toward the prosperous little countries while Stalin, ever the expansionist, had similar designs to incorporate them into his growing empire. But Hitler had a strategic problem of the first magnitude. Before he could gobble up the Baltics, he had to make sure his rear was secure. That meant a final showdown with France and Britain, the only two military powers that could challenge him in the west.
The problem arose because Stalin was nominally committed to come to the aid of France if she went to war with Germany. And Hitler’s plan to invade and occupy Poland would most surely trigger a response from France, goaded on by Britain. So Hitler needed to somehow separate Stalin from the west. He was fully prepared to invade Poland regardless of anything Stalin did, but realized a two front war would be as disastrous for him as it had been for the Kaiser.
Hitler scheduled the invasion of Poland to begin on August 26, 1939. But less than 24 hours before the Nazi blitzkrieg began to roll, Hitler evidently got cold feet. He recalled some of his forward units who had already moved up to the German-Polish frontier and delayed the strike for 72 hours.
The reason was Stalin. The Soviet Union was, as usual, in horrible shape economically. And on the 25th, German Foreign Minister Johann Von Ribbentrop had begun negotiations that promised Stalin not only gigantic deliveries of raw materials like coal and copper, but also grain, fodder, and meat stuffs for his perpetually starving country. All Stalin had to do was sit on the sidelines while Hitler dealt with, in order, the Poles, the French, and the British.
Stalin, a shameless opportunist and as two American Presidents could attest, a canny and tough negotiator, realized he had Hitler over a barrel and went for the gold. How about settling all of our differences? Poland, the Baltics, and the mutual defense pact with France could all be on the table.
Thus, in one of the most cynical deals in modern history, Hitler and Stalin carved up eastern Europe between them. For the third time in 500 years, Russia and Germany partitioned Poland with Hitler getting the prize port of Danzig as well as the bulk of Polish industrial production. Stalin, whose forces invaded Poland on September 22 with the excuse of protecting ethnic Russians in “a country that no longer existed,” got western Poland’s vast agricultural holdings as well as what he thought was a 1000 mile buffer between himself and Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
In addition, Hitler recognized Stalin’s “sphere of influence” in the Baltics and Finland while Stalin promised to do nothing to to fulfill his mutual defense obligations with France. Both dictators got exactly what they wanted. And both should be held equally responsible for the carnage and slaughter that followed. The treaty of “Friendship and Non-Aggression” was signed on August 29. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1.
There are some who argue that the Nazi-Soviet Pact was Stalin’s response to the Munich Agreement signed 2 years earlier where Britain and France colluded in the partition of Czechoslovakia, leaving the Soviet dictator to believe that both western democracies wanted Stalin to be the one to bear the brunt of stopping Hitler. He was right of course. But that doesn’t lessen Stalin’s culpability one whit. The fact is there was no reason for Stalin to insist on the partition of Poland nor the occupation of the Baltic States by Soviet troops. The last was pure greed on Stalin’s part. And his country was to pay for his greed and shortsightedness with the loss of more than 20 million Russians.
There was no mention of all of this in Moscow yesterday while Putin basked in the reflected glow of dozens of world leaders watching Russian troops carrying the old Hammer and Sickle flag while modern jets screamed overhead as a reminder of more recent Soviet military achievements. Until Russia comes to terms with its part in starting World War II instead of celebrating its role in ending it, the legacy and true meaning of that conflict will never be understood and the wrong lessons will be drawn from it.
This may be what Putin is after. Russian revanchism would complicate matters immensely both for the United States and the recently freed Baltic states. As they turn to the west, the question uppermost in their minds must be will we once again become the pawns in the deadly games played by big powers?
Hopefully George Bush’s speech eased some of those concerns.
Cross Posted at Blogger News Network