8th May 2020
Soviet troops liberate Berlin
The commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War are taking place in the face of the international COVID-19 pandemic, which requires co-operation between nations in order to achieve victory.
The defeat of Nazism required just such levels of co-operation but took many years, many betrayals and many political twists before it came about.
The First World War had concluded with the defeat of German imperialism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the spoils being divided largely between the British Empire, the French and the emerging United States. However, an unintended consequence of a war to divide the spoils amongst imperialist powers was the 1917 revolution in Russia, from which emerged the establishment of the Soviet Union and the presence of a force on the international political stage committed to peace.
The Wars of Intervention by the armies of fourteen nations launched in 1918, aimed at defeating the Bolshevik revolution, failed and by the 1920’s the world had to recognise that a new world order had been established.
It was an order that Britain, France and the United States were not comfortable with, as it constrained their opportunities for expansion, and it was an order which they were determined to subvert at the earliest opportunity.
The need to rapidly industrialise and bring a peasant nation, so long oppressed by the Tsars, into the 20th century was the key objective of Soviet domestic policy. Foreign policy was guided by the maxim of non-interference in the affairs of other states and recognition of the need for peaceful co-existence between states.
Such an approach to international affairs was unknown in the world, the previous periods in history having been dominated by the conquest and suppression of indigenous people, while stripping their lands of resources and enriching the conquering nation. The British Empire was an example par excellence of this approach. An Empire upon which the sun never set and the blood never dried.
The end of the First World War did not settle the inter-imperialist rivalries which had brought it about. If anything, it served to exacerbate them. The sun was beginning to set upon the British Empire with the growing demands for independence in its colonies and the growing power of the United States as a global force.
Japanese imperialism had designs in South East Asia, not least on China, and was beginning to challenge US influence in the region. German imperialism, straight-jacketed by the Versailles Treaty, was beginning to find a route out through the rise of fascism and the populist demagogue, Adolf Hitler. Italy had its own version in the form of Benito Mussolini.
While the British and US ruling establishments could not bring themselves to openly associate with the policies of the far right they certainly saw an opportunity. The amount of effort which went into appeasing Hitler in particular, was for the express purpose of seeing the Nazi armies face Eastwards and attack the Soviet Union on its Western flank.
As a potential back up, much effort also went into persuading the Japanese to look to the Eastern flank of the Soviet Union and take its designs on China right through to the Soviet Far East.
In Spain in 1936 Britain and the United States looked the other way, adopting a policy of non-intervention, while the fascist troops of Germany and Italy took the side of Franco, in what is widely regarded as the Spanish Civil War but was truly a war of fascist aggression. Some aid from the Soviet Union did get through to the Spanish Republic, much was stopped by land at the border with France and by sea.
A free hand in Spain and victory for the puppet Franco in 1939, secured Hitler’s rearguard in Southern Europe. The selling out of Austria and Czechoslovakia by the Western powers, forced to surrender to Hitler without firing a shot, virtually gave Germany the green light to advance further. Poland was in Hitler’s sights.
Throughout the 1930’s the Soviet Union had been pursuing a foreign policy of seeking to head off Nazi aggression and to form a European anti-fascist alliance with Britain and France. The Soviet Union and France had signed a non-aggression pact in 1932; the Soviet Union was pressing for this to be one of mutual assistance in the event of an attack on either nation by an outside aggressor.
Moreover, the Soviet desire was for such a pact to include a range of countries threatened with Nazi aggression, including Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and Finland. Given the alliance of France and Britain as it stood, an attack on any of the nations by Nazi Germany would have brought all into conflict.
Such an alliance, through a combination of political manoeuvrings and a desire to appease Germany amongst some in French ruling circles, did not come about. It was opposed by both Britain and the United States, of whom US historian, Foster Rhea Dulles, said that the US, “hoped that if war broke out in Europe, it might somehow be channelled into a crusade against Communism and accomplish the purposes which Allied intervention had failed to achieve in 1918.”
Hitler’s hatred of Communism was no less vehement than that of the United States or Britain and there can be no doubt of his desire to access the vast land and resources of the Soviet Union. However, the policy of appeasement by the Western European powers was giving Hitler free rein to build his army, navy and air force as well as gain territory.
The Western powers being determined that Hitler attack the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union finding itself without any allies against such aggression, was left with only one option, a non-aggression treaty with Germany. Moreover, Nazi generals feared war with the Soviet Union more than war with the West. They recognised that an alliance of Western powers with the Soviet Union could thwart their plans, with the chief of the General Staff of Germany’s Land Forces, Halder, stating,
“It’s hard to swallow a pact between the British and the Russians…on the other hand, it’s the only thing that will stop Hitler now.”
Hitler himself declared that, without an alliance of the Western powers with the Soviet Union,
“I can smash Poland without any danger of a conflict with the West.”
The Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact effectively gave the Soviet Union more time to build its forces for the inevitable attack, it was not a question of if the Nazis would invade, only a question of when.
Western diplomacy through its combination of appeasing Hitler and failing to build an alliance with the Soviet Union, in the hope that Hitler would turn his attention East, had failed abjectly. Millions were to pay the price.
France capitulated to German forces in a matter of months and British forces were forced into a humiliating retreat from Dunkirk. By June 1941 Hitler did invade the Soviet Union. Estimates vary but at least 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in World War 2.
The defeat of the Nazi forces at Stalingrad, fought out over many months from July 1942 – February 1943, turned the tide in the Second World War. What was by now an alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, against the fascist forces of Germany, Italy and Japan, was gaining the upper hand. There was still a long way to go and it was not until the 8th May 1945 that the Red Army reached Berlin and the liberation of Europe could truly begin.
Revisionist historians in the West inevitably play down the role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism. It never fitted the anti-Soviet Cold War narrative and does not sit with the ongoing Western anti-Russian sentiment today.
Amid all of the nationalism, xenophobia and jingoism that surrounds such anniversaries in the UK today, it is as well to remember that there is an alternative narrative to the one played out on the BBC and in the national press.
It is one that recognises that it is only unity between people’s across the world that can result in the defeat of a common enemy. It is one that recognises that only a policy aimed at peace between nations is a truly internationalist position. It is one that recognises the superiority of socialism over capitalism as a solution to the needs of the people of the world. On the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe these are very much lessons for today.