On the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II

To get an unbiased picture of the true causes and culprits of the bloodiest conflict in human history, Russia's ambassador to Israel takes a closer look at the period following the Munich Agreement.

THE MUNICH agreement paved the way for the Second World War (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE MUNICH agreement paved the way for the Second World War
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II is approaching. Today one can regrettably notice how a politicized propaganda campaign sharing equal responsibility for this global catastrophe between both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union is gaining momentum. Its ultimate goal is to slander modern Russia, and doubt the legitimacy of its role in international affairs as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
In order to get an unbiased picture of the true causes and culprits of the bloodiest conflict in human history, I suggest taking a closer look at the period which followed the Munich Agreement on the division of Czechoslovakia, signed by Great Britain, Germany, Italy and France on September 29-30, 1938.
The Munich Agreement marked the climax of the policy of appeasement of Hitler conducted by London and Paris in the 1930s, while increasing the international isolation of the USSR, particularly taking into account all non-aggression pacts signed by both Great Britain and France with Nazi Germany (September 30 and December 6, 1938). Nevertheless, the Soviet government was eager to establish a collective security system in Europe along with the British and French in order to retaliate against Nazi Germany.
Up until the second half of August 1939, trilateral Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations were held. The draft agreement proposed by the USSR required immediate military assistance to be provided by Great Britain and France in case of a Nazi attack. However, London and Paris followed their own way. Negotiations were being delayed by endless amendments and farfetched discussions regarding the definition of “indirect” and “direct” German aggression. The breakdown of talks was the eventual result.
Now, 80 years later, one can come to an unambiguous conclusion: These were British and French approaches toward negotiations – considered as a pressure tool to achieve yet another compromise with Germany – which led to such a failure.
The disastrous outcome was also caused by secret Anglo-German contacts, of which the USSR was aware while receiving detailed intelligence information. Britain offered Hitler an agreement at the expense of Poland. On August 22-23, 1939, Hermann Göring was planning to visit London.
The final breakdown of trilateral negotiations was fueled by the Polish factor. Moscow proceeded from the assumption that collective security arrangements in Europe could only make sense if Warsaw was part of them. Soviet representatives tried to convince their allies of this – and especially during the visit of deputy People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs VP Potemkin to Poland on May 10 –  however, to no avail.
THE ANTI-SOVIET and even Russophobic attitude of the Polish ruling circles, who were ready to negotiate with any country except the Soviet Union, played its role. This is even despite the fact that the existence of an independent Polish state – which severed the USSR from Nazi Germany and therefore excluded direct German aggression – could have been the best option for Moscow. Eventually, the shortsighted position of Warsaw predetermined the development of events according to the well-known scenario.
Under the existing circumstances in early August, the Soviet leadership agreed to begin negotiations with Germany. The Nonaggression Pact between Germany and the USSR turned out to be a stern necessity for the Soviet Union. This decision was made only when the futility of trilateral negotiations with the British and French was fully revealed, and the possibility of rapprochement in London and Paris with Berlin on an anti-Soviet basis became increasingly real.
It is also necessary to take into account the Japanese factor. Military tension in relations between Moscow and Tokyo persisted. The USSR could not afford to wage war on two fronts: in the East with Japan and in the West with Germany.
Whereas the Munich Agreement of 1938 made it possible to slaughter a whole country in Europe – Czechoslovakia, and its population, including Jews, who were subject to mass executions – the Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact of August 23, 1939, on the contrary, removed vast areas of modern Ukraine and Belarus from the German sphere of influence.
On September 17, 1939, the Red Army entered Polish territory and was instructed not to use weapons against the Polish Army until any military actions took place. During the Polish campaign, only the areas occupied by Poland in 1920-21 as a result of the Soviet-Polish war were captured.
In the aftermath of the events of September 1939, the famous British statesman D. Lloyd George emphasized the following: “The USSR captured territories that were not Polish, but were occupied by Poland after the First World War... It would be madness to put Russian advancement on a par with the advancement of Germany.” Not less significant is the statement of Winston Churchill: “In favor of the Soviets, it must be said that it was vital for the Soviet Union to push the initial positions of the German armies as far as possible to the West so that the Russians would gain time and be able to gather forces from all over their colossal empire... If their policy was prudent coldly, then at that moment it was highly realistic.”
I believe that any event of the past should be considered in the context of a particular era. After Hitler came to rule, the USSR remained the only power for a long period of time that insisted on uniting the efforts of European countries in order to maintain peace. For Hitler – who used the principles of Nazism as the basis of his state policy and planned the extermination of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs – Soviet internationalism seemed to be an absolute evil, and the Soviet Union was perceived as the main enemy of the Third Reich.
The writer is the Russian ambassador to Israel.