The Beginning of World War II: are Stalin and Hitler Equal Offenders?

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Nearly 75 years after the end of World War II, a new world political crisis erupted. This is mainly due to an allegation made by Poland. They say that Stalin was equally responsible for starting World War II. The idea has also received considerable publicity in some Western media.

Russia, however, has responded by saying that Poland is distorting history. President Vladimir Putin has declared that it is unacceptable and inaccurate to equate the guilt of World War II with that of Hitler and Stalin.

He said; The Great Betrayal of Munich in 1938 enabled Germany to increase its power.

Nazi-Soviet agreement

The reason for blaming both for the War was the August 23rd of 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. The agreement, between foreign ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, allowed Germany to invade Poland without hindrance from the Soviet Union. Germany did it on September 1, 1939. Meanwhile, on September 17, Soviet troops arrived in eastern Poland under a secret agreement between them. Thus, part of Poland came under Soviet rule.

Thus, it seems that both Hitler and Stalin could be blamed for beginning the war and invading Poland. But many forget that Western democracies were the main reason for Germany’s strength under Hitler.

Sending troops to the Rhineland

After World War I, the Rhineland, from the Rhine to the French-German border, was declared a no-fire zone. Although there were indications in early 1936 that Hitler was planning to send troops to the Rhineland, little attention was paid. France was embroiled in internal political turmoil, which did not receive enough attention, and Britain was indifferent.

The deployment of troops to the Rhineland took place on March 7, 1936. This move caused controversy between Hitler and the German military leadership. Hitler firmly believed that France and Britain would do nothing about it. But the military leadership was hesitant. The German army chiefs knew that if France invaded the Rhineland, the Germans would have to flee as fast as possible. Germany had no plans for war with France. If France had taken such a step at that time, even Hitler’s political future would have been in jeopardy. But what they did was, as Hitler thought, waited. 

The problem facing France was twofold. On the one hand, political instability weakened the country. At the same time, the military was paralyzed by the defensive policy of French military tactics. It is clear that if the French had sent one strong force, the Germans would have had no choice but to retreat. Unfortunately, France was in a losing mood, waited for the war to come.

Until the Munich betrayal

Four months after the Rhineland conquest, the next European crisis erupted. Army forces of General Francisco Franco revolted against the Spanish Republic. Italy and Germany supported Franco, while the Soviet Union supported the Republicans. France, Britain, and the United States have stated their neutrality.

This neutrality helped the anti-democratic camp. It strengthened the fascist camp. Germany and Italy continued to support Franco. Second, the Republican Party became increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union. If France and Britain had supported the Spanish republics, neither of these consequences would have occurred.

Meanwhile, in March 1938, Austria was annexed by Germany. Democratic countries could not do anything. Hitler then targeted Czechoslovakia. It was originally from Sudetenland. In the German border with Czechoslovakia, Sudetenland had a large German population, and the Nazis in the area worked to create a crisis there. Hitler’s accusation was that the Czechoslovak government was persecuting the Germans.

A meeting of the European powers was organized to find a solution to this crisis created mainly by the Nazis themselves. It was attended by four countries: Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. The Soviet Union was not invited, and Czechoslovakia, the other side of the crisis, was not. The decision of this conference, which took place in Munich, Germany, in September 1938, was considered the great betrayal of Munich. The powers informed Czechoslovakia that Sudetenland should be ceded to Germany.

The ownership of Sudetenland benefited Germany in several ways. Most of the arms factories in Czechoslovakia were in this area. The coal industry was also predominant. Also, the mountain forts were in Sudetenland. These armories contributed significantly to the subsequent German war effort. Moreover, Czechoslovakia had no protection after the forts in Sudetenland became German. In March 1939, other parts of the country were invaded and occupied by Germany without any resistance.

Policies of the Soviet Union

Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet foreign minister, was a believer in collective security. His position was that all significant countries should unite and provide security against the Nazi German threat.

The Soviets had an apparent fear of the rise of Nazi German power. If a country like Poland and Romania came under German influence, the next target would be the Soviet Union. Hitler, in his book “My Battle” in the mid-1920s, also pointed out that Germany should expand to the east. Also, the Nazi party considered communism as its worst enemy.

Also, reaching a security agreement with the Soviet Union was essential for France, Britain, and Poland. If Germany invaded Poland in any way, Soviet support was essential to counter it. Poland’s end could have been reached when France and Britain in the West mobilized their forces to war. It was also difficult for Britain and France to provide direct support to Poland. This was due to the distance between those countries as well as the location of Germany between them.

Thus, working with the Soviet Union became essential. However, the Polish government did not agree because of its fierce anti-communist and anti-Russian sentiment in Poland.

Meanwhile, Britain and France were indifferent when the Soviet Union proposed a joint defense system. Litvinov suggested a similar proposal in April 1939, but both Britain and France were indifferent. Moreover, the Soviet Union’s participation rejected by Western powers to the decision-making conference in Munich also caused the displeasure of the Soviet.

France and Britain seemed to have forgotten that the Soviet Union was an essential factor in defending the small nations east of Germany. France, which had no backbone to prevent German troops from sending to the Rhineland, was just a daydream that attacks German to save Poland from the west.

After Munich’s betrayal, the Soviet Union and Germany seemed to be slowly, very slowly, getting closer to each other. At first, this happened as a discussion of trade relations.

On May 3, 1939, a small story appeared in Soviet newspapers. Accordingly, Litvinov had retired from the post of Foreign Minister. Although it is said that it happened at his request, Stalin’s decision was clear. Vyacheslav Molotov, a close associate of Stalin, was appointed to the post. Stalin needed another tactic, as Litvinov’s collective security had failed.

However, France and Britain recognized the need for Soviet security in Eastern Europe. But they were still indifferent to it. They sent several second-class officers by ship to the Soviet Union to discuss joint military tactics. The Soviet rulers saw this indifference well. Despite that, negotiations continued, but Poland’s refusal to accept Soviet aid went awry. Poland’s fear of the Communist Soviet government was not entirely unjustified, but they did not see the impending danger.

As France and Britain reacted indifferently to Soviet demands, the Soviet Union was moved to discuss Germany’s enthusiastic demands. Although France and Britain sent several second-level officials by ship, Germany did send its foreign minister to Moscow by air.

Stalin saw their urgency in Germany and its importance in signing an agreement with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union also needed a system of self-defense. Stalin willingly agreed to the German request, as Britain and France were not interested. It ended with the world-shaking Molotov-Reboundtrope agreement.

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