Article "The Munich sell-off and World War II: lessons learned?" by Russian historian Natalia Narochnitskaya (published on 22 August 2019 on Euractiv)

Submitted on Sat, 08/31/2019 - 18:40

On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II outbreak we would like to draw our readers' attention to the article by Doctor of Historical Sciences Natalia Narochnitskaya “The Munich sell-off and World War II: lessons learned?”, published on Euractiv on 22 August 2019.

Natalia Alekseevna Narochnitskaya is a historian, Doctor of Historical Sciences, author of a range of fundamental works on Russian history and international relations, including “The Great Wars of the XXth century” book published in five European languages. President of the Foundation for Historical Outlook, member of the Civic Chamber of Russia. 

The Munich sell-off and World War II: lessons learned?

The Second World War became a turning point in the 20th century history. Even today historians and political scientists can hardly agree on those events. In recent years debates went far beyond scientific discussions and today one has to debunk historic fakes, as it is fashionable to call them now, and the mere logic followed by Western experts in their studies of events and records of 1930s and 1940s.

Today, regretfully, some in Europe, whose liberty, dignity and peace were upheld by the Soviet army at a price of enormous losses, call the Soviet Union “a totalitarian monster worse than the Nazi Reich”. This is pure falsification of history. And some media, in defiance of all kinds of scientific approach, goes as far as to promote a thesis that Nazism and communism are equivalent. That would have astonished not only Western political scientists but also politicians of the Cold War times who rightfully believed those ideologies to be antipodes. Should the current trend continue, one can easily assume that in a few decades Western history textbooks will state that democratic US and Britain fought on one side, and two totalitarian regimes were on the other.

Contrary to the principle of historicism, they have recently started to declare Soviet-German Non-Aggression Agreement of 23 August 1939 signed by the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov and Reichsminister of Foreign Affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop as virtually the primary cause of the war. Meanwhile, the Munich sell-off and Western powers’ policy of appeasing the aggressor and re-orienting Hitler’s expansionist plans from the West to the East of Europe are deliberately and fully silenced.

The Munich Agreement signed on 29-30 September 1938 by Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy actually gave the green light to alter European borders. This is the moment to be considered as the beginning of Hitler’s conquests. Following the collusion of so-called “Western democracies” with Nazi Germany Hitler issued an ultimatum to the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia, deployed occupational troops in plain sight of the whole world, seized first the Sudetenland only to divide the country entirely afterwards. However, Western historiography refuses to interpret these events as the beginning of the Second World War as such acknowledgement would have meant placing on London and Paris responsibility for this unlawful act. This is the reason why Czechoslovakia is not considered a victim of Hitler’s aggression to the same extent as Poland.

In fact, unlike European historians, Russian ones gave adequate assessment of Poland’s role in these evens long ago. Acting now as an innocent victim of the carve-up between two predators – Hitler and Stalin – Poland actually took advantage of the situation following the Munich sell-off to claim its rights to Czechoslovakia’s Cieszyn Silesia, thereby de facto becoming Hitler’s accomplice in the division of this Eastern European state. Berlin believed that an alliance with Poland would enable making its rapacious acts lawful. And Warsaw, led by illusions (Poland had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler back in 1934), did not want to realise that this partnership was of tactical and temporally character. A return of Danzig (today’s city of Gdansk, Poland) with its German-majority population was Germany’s next target.

Documents from archives dating back to April 1939 disclose in detail the essence of German Fall Weiss, the so-called White Plan, elaborated to defeat Poland in a blitzkrieg. The operation was settled to start on 1 September 1939. Poland’s defeat and conquest was planned not only to solve the Danzig issue and unite territories of two Reich’s parts (East Prussia being an enclave then) but also as an important stage in fight for global dominance. It means that back then the Nazis intended to deprive the Poles of their statehood. According to the Generalplan Ost, a policy of genocide and plundering their resources for the sake of Germany was awaiting the population of Poland and the major part of Eastern Europe. Therefore, the thesis that it was allegedly the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that resulted in attack on Poland is absolutely anti-historical.

A rhetoric question arises: how can it be that no one managed to stop Hitler when he was developing such far-reaching plans? The British and the French were aware of Nazi’s intentions but did not undertake a thing to prevent the looming catastrophe. At that time, in spring 1939, the Soviet Union, in its turn, was engaged in negotiations on establishing a collective security system with London and Paris, not with Berlin (a project of so-called Anglo-Franco-Soviet treaty of mutual assistance). However, London and Paris were deliberately procrastinating talks with Moscow. The USSR’s hopes to create a coalition with the West against German aggression were ruined.

The Munich sell-off derailed the system of alliances with East European states initiated by France, the Franco-Soviet-Czechoslovak agreements and the Franco-Polish Alliance, put an end to the Petite Entente that never managed to materialise. The League of Nations actually faded into oblivion without ever becoming a guarantor of stability in post-Versailles Europe. It all resulted in a geopolitical cul-de-sac for the USSR.

The Soviet leadership being perfectly aware that the development of the events in 1938-1939 was ultimately driven against the USSR, that the European powers were colluding on a common denominator of hostility towards Moscow, of ideological character first and foremost, came to believe that a delay could make Germany’s aggression irreversible and instant. As Soviet troops, assisting their Mongolian allies, were fighting heavy battles with the Japanese in the area of the Khalkhin Gol river, Hitler’s further advance eastward was fraught with the Wehrmacht appearing in the immediate vicinity of the most important Soviet political and economic centres – Leningrad, Minsk, Kiev, Odessa. The USSR would have to fight on two fronts. Taking this into account Moscow was forced to conclude the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1939.

Subsequent deployment of Soviet troops in Polish territory was meant not only to return Western Ukraine and Western Belarus seized by the Poles in 1921, but also to pull the battleline of the forthcoming war hundreds of kilometres away from vital regions of the USSR.

Was such a development of events and their outcome completely unexpected for Western states as they are trying to portray it now? By no means. Talking to the British Ambassador in Moscow William Seeds, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov and his successor Vyacheslav Molotov repeatedly expressed their disappointment with London’s policy whose failure in Munich allowed the USSR to consider itself free from any obligation. After the Munich sell-off the West also realised that the USSR had no other way to protect itself.

Was there still a chance to change the course of events at that point of time? In my opinion, there was. Germany could have been stopped by a Moscow-promoted widest comprehensive international agreement, solid in terms of mutual commitments, providing guaranties to countries surrounding the Reich along all its borders and to strategic points of Europe. Moscow’s proposals on such an agreement were flatly rejected. The prospect of German invasion was looming ahead with Western countries spectating extermination of the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, we all know what it led to. Millions of people dead, millions of destinies crushed, borders changed and sovereign states existing no longer. Short-sightedness and Russophobia of Western politicians of that time paved the way to an enormous tragedy that should not be forgotten.