Dividing the world

This is my review of The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 by Roger Moorhouse.

This readable and informative analysis of the infamous 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact covers an aspect often confined to a few paragraphs in a history of the Second World War. In upsetting "the ideological clarity of the bipolar world of communist versus fascist", this Pact dismayed many in both camps, justified to communists by the specious argument that: "Soviet leaders had a responsibility to the working class of the world to defend the USSR and could, if necessary, for this reason make an alliance with the devil himself".

On one hand, mistrustful of imperial Britain and the US, Stalin felt more comfortable with an agreement that would leave Europe to exhaust itself through conflict at little cost to the USSR. He also saw a chance to regain and occupy eastern Europe – parts of Poland, the Baltic States, Finland and Bessarabia (from Romania), sanctioned by the secret protocol which his henchman Molotov signed with the Germans, but always denied.

On the other hand, the Pact gave Hitler the confidence to fight on a single front in 1940, sweeping through the Low Countries, France and Norway, humiliating Britain in the process. The map showing Europe largely under Axis control or neutral in June 1941 reminds us of how scaring it must have been to be living in the UK at this time.

By then, the stage was set for Operation Barbarossa, since the unnatural alliance had fractured under Hitler's fears over the long-term Soviet designs on Europe, and his hubristic underestimate of the risks involved in overextending his forces in the throes of a Russian winter. Moorhouse points out the irony of the German troops' advance into Russia, fed by Soviet grain, tanks fuelled by Soviet oil, boots made of rubber transported on Soviet trains, weapons made from Soviet manganese-hardened-steel as a result of the mutually beneficial trade under the Pact. In turn, the surprisingly effective Russian tanks had been manufactured with machine tools imported from Germany.

Moorhouse shows how there was little to choose between the two powers as regards their callous and brutal resettlement policies for those judged to have unacceptable views or the wrong ethnic origin. He cites the two trainloads of Polish refugees travelling opposite ways on the Nazi-Soviet frontier, "each group astonished that the other was fleeing into the zone they were trying to escape". He also reminds us how, until Gorbachev's regime, discussion of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was taboo, the new histories of the 1960s covering it only briefly with "the expected omissions, evasions and justifications".

Moorhouse has chosen to omit concluding references to the Germans' defeat in Russia after the carnage of their initial blitzkrieg, and to the new alliance formed by Stalin with the UK and USA. Neither is there an attempt to speculate on the course which events might have taken if this alliance had been formed earlier, instead of a pact with the Germans.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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