Russian president Vladimir Putin is saying that Britain and France are responsible for allowing the Nazis to run roughshod around Europe before the war, while saying there was nothing wrong with the USSR's pact with Hitler. It's a pathetic attempt by Putin to abuse history in a way that asserts his authoritarian rule.

These comments are bound to stoke anger across Europe. As reported by The Telegraph, Putin made the remarks in Moscow while meeting with young historians. He told them that Western historians are trying to downplay the 1939 Munich Agreement in which France and Britain — led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain — appeased Adolf Hitler by caving to his occupation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland.

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"Chamberlain came, waved a piece of paper and said, 'I've brought you peace' when he returned to London after the talks," said Putin on Wednesday. "To which Churchill, I think, said somewhere to a small group of people, 'That's it, now war is inevitable'. Because compromise with an aggressor in the form of Hitlerite Germany was clearly leading to a large-scale future military conflict, and some people understood that."

At the same time, Putin claimed that Stalin's agreement with Hitler — the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — was perfectly fine.

"Serious research must show that those were the foreign policy methods then," he is quoted as saying, adding: "The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany. People say: 'Ach, that's bad.' But what's bad about that if the Soviet Union didn't want to fight, what's bad about it?"

Plenty of Blame to Go Around

This is so infuriating I don't even know where to start.

First, most Western historians don't contest the assertion that Britain and France were guilty of appeasing Hitler. There's no conspiracy by historians to "hush" this assessment. If anything, Western historians since A. J. P. Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War have largely supported this view.

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Putin's claim that the Munich Agreement precluded Russia from creating an anti-fascist front with the Allies is as disingenuous as it is inaccurate. Given just how fearful Western Europe was of Nazi Germany, a united front would have been entertained given the dire circumstances.

Second, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a non-aggression treaty, can be interpreted as its own kind of appeasement policy. It basically said to Hitler, "Go ahead and do whatever you want — we won't get in your way." Had Stalin refused to sign the non-aggression treaty, it's unlikely that Germany would have invaded Poland. Or if it did, the Soviets could have declared war on Germany just like the Allies had done, changing the strategic parameters and dynamics of the conflict in a profound way.

But even worse than this de facto appeasement, the Pact can be construed as strategic prelude to the ensuing attack on Poland. A crucial aspect of the Pact that Putin conveniently failed to mention was the secret clause agreeing to the partition of Poland (a clause that wouldn't be made public to the Russian people until 1989). The Soviets were well aware that Nazi Germany was going to invade Poland, and that by letting it do so unhindered, the Soviet Union would get the Eastern portions of its former territory in return. After the invasion, more than 20,000 arrested and captured Poles were executed by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn massacre in 1940. The Nazis then embarked on an extermination campaign that would lead to the deaths of three million Jews in Poland alone.

Thirdly, Putin's comments that the Soviet Union "didn't want to fight" is obviously bullshit of the highest order. He's conveniently forgetting the USSR's unprovoked invasion of Finland in late 1939, not to mention the eagerness with which Stalin went to war against Poland during the joint invasion with the Nazis a few months earlier. What's more, some historians speculate that Stalin agreed to the Pact as a way to buy time before launching his own invasion against Germany some time around 1948-50 (though this is unsubstantiated).

Fourthly, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also served as a trick. Hitler made no bones that his ultimate foe was the Soviet Union. The non-aggression treaty allowed Nazi Germany to occupy the Western side of Poland, and to buy Hitler some time before launching Operation Barbarossa against the USSR — a surprise attack that left Stalin completely dumbfounded.

But Putin doesn't really doesn't care about the facts. As noted in The Telegraph article, "Critics say Mr Putin and his administration are increasingly mobilising historical events as a means of bolstering his authoritarian rule."

[ Telegraph ]

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