Sunday, August 23, 2015

76 years on

Everyone has his favorite start date for the Second World War. The Chinese like July 7, 1937, when the “incident” at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing began a struggle that would last more than eight years. American like December 7, 1941, when U.S. territory first came under fire. Most European countries go for September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, causing Britain and France to declare war on Germany. And the Russians, for reasons of their own, believe that the “Great Patriotic War” began June 22, 1941, when Germany and its allies crashed into the lands occupied by the Soviet Union.

My date of choice is August 23, 1939. That was the occasion of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact, which essentially divided Europe into a western half for Germany to rule, and an eastern half for the Soviet Union.

Left-leaning historians like to claim that it wasn’t Franklin Roosevelt, and certainly not Winston Churchill, who defeated Hitler. No: Joseph Stalin and his prodigal spilling of Russian blood did the trick. There is of course some truth to this, but it rather overlooks the fact that without Stalin, there might never have been a Second World War, but only a series of regional conflicts that didn’t amount to much beyond the borders of the countries involved, much like the wars that have afflicted us since 1945.

Over the next year, Hitler invaded and occupied France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, and half of Poland. Stalin invaded and occupied the other half of Poland, plus Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and a substantial piece of Finland (which Russia still holds today). Russia sent food, oil, and minerals to Germany, in exchange for German locomotives and advanced technology. Would Hitler have dared move west without that support, and without a guarantee that Stalin would stay out of the fight? It seems very, very unlikely.

Even more unlikely is the notion that Hitler would have dared move east, as long as the French and British armies were intact. Or that, if an uneasy peace still pertained in Europe, Japan would have dared attack British, Dutch, and American possessions in the Pacific.

No, it all comes down to that monstrous agreement, 76 years ago today. That piece of paper, with its secret annexes, caused the deaths of sixty million human beings, and thrice that number crippled, raped, widowed, orphaned, and dispossessed.

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