This pact between Hitler and Stalin paved the way for WWII

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World. As an American, I've always been curious about the details of how my family ended up here. For me, on my mother's side of the family, anyway, and for many of you, our American story began with the violent upheavals of World War 2. And, yes, history is a series of connected events, but that process of displacement and flight from the war could be said to have started 75 years ago this week, and it's a part of history that many don't remember. August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a secret pact to carve up Eastern Europe. What? Yeah, I know, I though the Soviet Union was always on the side of the Allies. Right after that secret pact, Germany invaded Poland, triggering World War 2. Historian Roger Moorhouse has a new book on this little known chapter of history, "The Devil's Alliance," and he joins us from London. So, back on that question, Mr. Moorhouse, I thought the Soviets were on our side against Germany. Roger Moorhouse: That's a common misconception. We have a very enduring image, an idea, of, you know, the overarching story of World War 2 as one of the Grand Alliance, is of the British, the Americans, and good old Uncle Joe Stalin, all as allies together in defeating Nazi Germany. And that's certainly true from 1941 onwards, from Hitler's attack on Stalin in June 41, but prior to that, as you say, is a very underknown, I would suggest, fact that Stalin was actually, to all intents and purposes, an ally of Hitler's. Werman: Right. So what were the terms of this deal, this pact that was signed this coming Saturday, now 75 years ago? Moorhouse: Well, I should probably just correct your introduction. The pact itself wasn't secret. The pact was publicized at the time. It was a massive shock to the outside world, not least to a generation of Nazis and Communists, who had spent the previous ten years or so insulting each other. What was most unusual, and was secret, was the secret protocol that accompanied that pact. And that secret protocol contained, as you suggested earlier on, the details of what would happen, who would get what, in the great divy-up of Eastern Europe, in the event of, as the texts put it, in the event, the texts put it rather coyly, in the event of a territorial rearrangement. And that, of course, is code for war. So as soon as the war starts on the first of September, 1939, the Germans obviously invade Poland from the west. That's the story that we all know. What's much less well known is that the Soviets invaded Poland from the east 17 days later, on the 17th of September. And the two invading nations occupy and divide Poland between them. And that's the opening act of that relationship between them. Werman: So this deal was critical for Hitler, I mean, to be able to invade Poland, and it really kind of shows how World War 2 could have taken a completely different course, or maybe never have happened at all. Is that too much to say? Moorhouse: I think some sort of general conflagration was inevitable by this point. Hitler was increasingly bold, increasingly aggressive. Something monumental was going to happen with Hitler. He wasn't going to go quietly. It's just the manner in which it was going to happen. And actually, this, the Nazi-Soviet pact as the sort of kickoff for World War 2, is actually almost the most surprising scenario that anyone could have imagined. That's how you have to view it from the perspective of August 1939. The world was absolutely dumbstruck by this deal. Werman: When did Stalin wake up and realize that he probably should not have signed that pact? Moorhouse: I argue that he actually didn't, really. The traditional interpretation of Soviet intentions was that for Stalin it was purely defensive, that he was holding Hitler off, buying Hitler's quiescence, so that he had time to rearm to better face what we would see as the inevitable attack. Now that's really, I think, reading history backwards. It's also the narrative that Stalin gave us after 1941. It's rather fictitious. I think Soviet thinking is actually much more aggressive than we traditionally understand. Werman: I started this interview by talking about the displacement of people. How soon did that start after the pact was signed? Moorhouse: That starts very, very quickly. Obviously, Poland is invaded from the west, as I said, on the first of September by the Germans. That sets off massive amounts of refugees. The Soviets invade on the 17th of September. That sets off another wave of refugees in the east. When Poland is finally subdued by the two sides, which is in early October, there's a sort of brief settling down, and then you have the occupation regimes are set up in both areas. They are accompanied by some general sifting of the population on both sides. Actually, the regimes have very, very similar ways of dealing with the population. There's a general sifting-through to find people who might be oppositional. After that, there's a sort of a, much more of a class action, if you like, where they pick up entire classes of people who have actually done nothing, but are deemed to be guilty by dint of who or what they are. Werman: And that process was basically arresting people and executing them? Moorhouse: Exactly. Executing them or, well, the Soviets tended to prefer, as did the Germans in the initial phase, was deportation. The Soviets deported at least a million people from eastern Poland to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and other places, during that two year period of occupation, from Poland alone. And the Germans, you know, very similar figures if not greater. So they both tended to deport rather than outright murder in that opening phase. But there's an awful lot of murdering going on, as well. Werman: We've gone through this whole interview without actually naming the pact. It was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact after the two foreign ministers who signed it, and we've actually been hearing a lot about Molotov cocktails in these riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Is there a connection... Moorhouse: Indeed. Werman: this Molotov? What is it? Moorhouse: Indeed. The connection is part of the story. As I said, the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, also invaded, or occupied the Baltic States and the remaining province of Bessarabia in 1940. That was all a deal done with Hitler in 1939. Another part of that expansion was to try and push the Finnish border back, and that resulted in a very short but very nasty war in the winter of 1939 to 40 which is known as the Winter War. During the Winter War, the gallant Finns, who had very little in the way of armor and howitzers and the rest of it, took on the might of the Red Army in the snow in minus 30 degrees. It's an absolutely fascinating story that I would urge your listeners to read up on, themselves. But one of the aspects that the Finns were very good at was improvisation. And their famous weapon that they developed at that time was the petrol bomb. And they christened it a Molotov cocktail because the propaganda that was coming from the Kremlin, from Molotov's own lips, was that Russian, or Soviet, aggression was not actually military in nature, it was humanitarian. And they said that the troops were just coming in and the aircraft were dropping food parcels to the Finns. This is an absolute fiction, but this is what the Soviets were saying. So, ironically, the Finns christened their petrol bombs "Molotov cocktails" as a drink to go with the food parcels. So that's where your Molotov cocktail comes from. Werman: Well, listeners can read about that fascinating episode in your book, "The Devil's Alliance," which will be on sale here, in the U.S., in October. Historian Roger Moorhouse, thanks for speaking with us. Moorhouse: Thank you.