- - Thursday, October 30, 2014

By Roger Moorhouse
Basic Books, $29.99, 382 pages, illustrated

From a 21st-century perspective, the alliance that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin concluded in August 1939 ushering in World War II makes perfect sense: two totalitarian monsters who had so much in common paving the way for Nazi Germany to fight democratic Britain and France — and in a secret addendum, carving up hefty chunks of Eastern Europe into “spheres of influence” for each to dominate and assimilate.

In fact, it makes more sense than the uncomfortable coupling of the USSR and its democratic allies after Hitler turned on his recently embraced fellow dictator after less than two years. At the time, though, the news that German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had flown to Moscow to sign the pact with his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, was one of history’s great surprise coups. If anyone had a sense of humor, they might well have omitted playing the anthems “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” and “The Internationale” in favor of what the British bands played at the Battle of Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Writing his vivid, well-researched and gripping account of this bombshell event and its terrible consequences, British historian Roger Moorhouse found that almost no one he spoke to even knew about the Nazi-Soviet Pact, perhaps because it has been glossed over in too many historical accounts of a war otherwise minutely dissected, “dismissed as a dubious anomaly, a footnote to the wider history.” With a determined passion evident throughout his revealing book, he writes early on that “[e]xcept in Poland and the Baltic states, the pact is simply not part of our collective narrative. It is my firm conviction that it really should be.”

Of course, what made this diplomatic volte-face such an amazing turn of events was that up to the very day before it was concluded, each country had regarded each other as public enemy No. 1. Hitler had risen to power largely by railing against Bolshevism and had consolidated his hold and attracted followers at home and abroad on account of that rabid anti-communism. The Soviets had demonized Hitler “as a lunatic, an ‘idiot,’ or a man ‘possessed by a demon’” in its domestic and foreign propaganda. The two nations had just been engaged in a savage fight — part proxy, but also directly through “volunteers” — in the recently concluded Spanish Civil War. When trying to tone down Ribbentrop’s flights of rhetorical amity between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Stalin told him, with characteristic pungency, “For many years now, we have been pouring buckets of [excrement] on each other’s heads, and our propaganda boys could not do enough in that direction.” However, now it was time for the eponymous devils’ alliance, a triumph of realpolitik at its most rebarbative and destructive.

Mr. Moorhouse is adept at showing all aspects of this sorry business, from the details of personal interplay on the ground and contemporary reactions, to the cruel and fatal consequences for so many, including, but by no means limited to, the Jews caught in those deadly pincers. We see diehard supporters of the Soviet Union like Britain’s Beatrice Webb indulging in intellectual contortions trying to reconcile her loyalty to it with her abhorrence of Hitler and sympathy for the “grim fate of the Poles,” but even she has to conclude sadly that “her beloved USSR has squandered its ‘moral prestige.’”

Details of the bouts of torment, torture and forced deportation by Nazis and Soviets alike show just how similar they were in their demonic ruthlessness. Swapping lists of “enemies” between the two secret police forces, NKVD and Gestapo, had fatal consequences for all too many. If history justly judges the Nazis winners of the dubious distinction of European champions at genocide, there is a stunning example in these pages of the sheer audacity of communist doctrine. When Menachem Begin found himself a prisoner of the Soviets accused of being a British agent, he was “asked by his interrogator if he knew the section of the Soviet law code under which he was charged Begin was confused. ‘But how can it apply to what I did in Poland?’ the NKVD officer replied, ‘Section 58 applies to everyone in the world. Do you hear? In the whole world. It is only a question of when he will get to us, or we to him.’”

Fortunately, this breathtaking example of arrogantly wrongheaded “historical determinism” was eventually overtaken by the more powerful historical imperative of democracy, but not before a terrible time of suffering. Mr. Moorhouse’s book is a valuable reminder of this most shameful event at the worn-out end of the 1930s, a low point even in what the disillusioned ex-communist poet W.H. Auden rightly termed “a low, dishonest decade.”

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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