The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939 – 1941
© 2014 Roger Moorhouse
On August 23rd, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world by entering into a nonaggression pact. They were not merely neighbors and rival powers ruled by domineering men who loathed one another: their respective ideologies viewed the other as the chief menace to civilization. Yet now, the fists which shook in anger were now extended in friendship, and Europe seemed doomed. Within weeks of the pact’s signing, German and Soviet armies had both swept into Poland, igniting the Second World War. The Devils’ Alliance is an admirable history of a marriage of convenience, recording why it happened, its effect on the beginning of the war its reception among the party faithful and a horrified Europe, and the breakup that saved civilization. The Devils’ Alliance exposes the cynicism of the agreement, and the very nature of the totalitarian state.
Since its creation at the end of the Great War, the Soviet Union had been a European pariah, with a special enmity existing between it and the Nazi state after it came to power. The party line of Nazism was expressly anti-Soviet, viewing Bolshevism as a conspiracy; fears of communist takeovers were very life of National Socialism, birthing it and giving it strength. The Soviets were no less contemptuous of the counterrevolutionary Nazis, scoffing at their worship of nation and race. Ultimately, however, each had more in common where it mattered than not. They were the continental outlaws who rejected the political and economic systems of free Europe; both were totalitarian regimes in which the State reigned supreme, with every institution which might have softened or sapped its control either broken or rendered subservient. To regard Nazism and Communism as opposites on a left-right spectrum is inaccurate, for both supported state command of the economy: they merely disagreed on who should be in control. Each man, Hitler and Stalin, had ambition, and for a time found his ‘enemy’ an ally to pursue them with. One hand washed the other. Between them, Russia and Germany divided eastern Europe, each invading Poland in turn, and each seizing a third of Scandinavia. Russia needed help continuing to industrialize; Germany needed raw materials. The fact that each state had more in common than not is born out by their identical treatment of the Polish, with shootings and deportations fleeing the arrival of the conquests. Poles fleeing from Nazi occupation passed their countrymen fleeing from Soviet occupation, each wondering if the other was not crazy.
“The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?”
The same reaction could be had from communists and Nazi sympathizers the world over. Overnight, Stalin and Hitler’s seemingly impulsive decision to play nice translated into movies in both countries being pulled for demonizing the other; for years the party faithful had been schooled in the evils of the other, and now they were instructed and propagandized to regard the other as a brother-in-arms against western liberalism. Some, sheepishly followed, like the American communist party answering to Moscow; other fellow travelers began experiencing cognitive dissonance. How could the ideals of the party — Nazi or Communist — be taken seriously if it made concordance with the adversary so easily? No doubt Moscow’s turnabout demands influenced George Orwell: Eurasia has always been at peace with Eastasia? The communists ranks in particular would be thinned in Britain and France as people reacted to the absurdity. Once the tree of diplomacy had stopped producing fruit, of course, Hitler would have Barbarossa hew it down. Successive chats failed to convince the Soviets to stop looking at the Balkans so hungrily, and to go bother British India instead, and since the west had by and large been reduced as a threat, who was left to destroy but the Bolshevik menace? Enter the panzers rolling into the Soviet Union fueled by Russian oil, attacking tanks produced with German industrial expertise. The world breathed a sigh of relief, from a Britain who was no longer the sole object of Nazi malice, to Germany’s fellow Axis members who found Joe and Adolf a very odd couple. Ultimately, the divorce made in heaven would lead to the downfall of Hitler’s regime, as a rebuffed Joe had to pitch woo with the Allies instead.
Juvenile history books may count the Soviet Union among the Allies, but the postwar conflict between the west and Stalin was not a tragic falling-out between brothers. When Britain stood alone, the Nazi knife at her neck, “Uncle Joe” yawned and admired his new takings. Nazism and Bolshevism were houses alike in infamy, both responsible for murder at industrial proportions in the millions, and both intent on spreading the gospel of death throughout the world. They were gangsters who agreed to stop shooting one another long enough to take care of their mutual enemies, but happily human malice is a two-edged sword, and evil ever self-destructs. Devils’ Alliance is an utterly fascinating history of realpolitik, which extends not only to the two titular monsters but to the Allies as well. It would have been easy for Churchill to be contemptuous of the Soviet plea for help, and when he urged Parliament to send such relief in resources as it could afford, he did so not to expand Britain’s own power, but in recognition that Hitler waged war not just on Stalin and his army, but on the innocent Russian populace, whose livelihood and lives would be destroyed by the battle between the beasts. The Devils’ Alliance is an excellent take on one of the most dangerous periods in European history. and stir readers to reflect on how much contemporary politics is driven not by idealism, but the pure lust for greater power. How many devilish alliances have been crafted between the west and the warren of woeful powers in the middle east?