On the night of August 22-23, 1939, in Moscow, leaders of two of the most evil totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century – the Third German Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Officially a “non-aggression” pact, the Hitler-Stalin agreement was a Machiavellian partition of Poland and Central and Eastern Europe (i.e. the Intermarium) between the Germans and the Soviets, the former claiming western-central Poland and Lithuania, and the latter seizing eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and a slice of eastern Romania (Bessarabia). The two sides swapped central Poland for Lithuania a month later, after destroying Poland. Stalin thus gave Hitler – who was uneasy about the prospect of a two-front war – the “green light” to invade Poland and thereby launch the Second World War.
What resulted was a de facto alliance of almost two-years that helped both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks achieve many of their aggressive and blood-thirsty aims. Of course, this Machiavellian arrangement collapsed when one party (the Germans) attacked the other (the Soviets) on June 22, 1941, but – as British historian Roger Moorhouse emphasizes in his most-aptly-titled Devils’ Alliance – the destructive effects of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact were by no means voided and reversed: the extermination of the Polish and Baltic elites and the defeat of France remained faits accomplis, and the Soviets continued to claim the lands they had gobbled up under the “devils’ alliance.” Unfortunately, few in the West appreciate the pact’s significance.
It was precisely to correct this gaping discrepancy that Moorhouse wrote The Devils’ Alliance, publishing his monograph during the 75th anniversary of the German-Soviet partition of the Intermarium. As the author points out: “Except in Poland and the Baltic states, the pact is simply not part of our collective narrative of World War II. (…) Our ignorance of the subject is surprising. (…) the pact remains largely unknown—passed over often in a single paragraph, dismissed as a dubious anomaly, a footnote to a wider history. It is instructive, for example, that almost all of the recent popular histories of World War II published in Britain give it scant attention.”
This dearth of intellectual curiosity about Intermarium history, Moorhouse points out, is compounded by the dishonesty of Soviet apologists, leftists, and liberals in Western academia, for whom the pact is a quite inconvenient topic. After all, why give ammunition to the “right”? Why discuss an event that by its very nature lays bare and emphasizes the numerous similarities between the twin totalitarian ideologies of Marxist-Leninist internationalist socialism and German national socialism? God forbid the young generation of college students – which the academic left has so long been attempting to mold into its “citizens of the world” (“liberated” from national identity, patriotism, tradition, and other “reactionary” values) – realize that classist communism was no less evil and murderous than racist Nazism and that both were radical left-wing ideologies!
And if no other choice remains but to broach the embarrassing topic – which saw so many communists shilling for Stalin’s alliance with Hitler against the Western democracies – the Soviet apologist spin-doctors have ready-made talking points: Stalin had no choice but to sign a pact with Hitler because the British and the French, who had cynically sold Czechoslovakia to the Germans at Munich, were prejudiced towards the Soviets and uncooperative (read: unwilling to satisfy all their imperialist-territorial claims) and because the “nationalist” Poles and Balts were unhelpful and reluctant to surrender their independence to Moscow. In fact, this reviewer was personally present during a lecture at one of the DC area’s most prestigious universities when, during the Q&A session, one of the Russian historians commented that Stalin was more or less compelled to make a deal with Hitler because the Anglo-French refused to coerce the Poles and Balts into allowing the Red Army to enter their territories (it is amazing that such a seasoned professional did not recognize that this would have amounted to Soviet occupation under the guise of “fighting the Germans,” or perhaps he simply didn’t care …).
The problem is, as Moorhouse skillfully demonstrates, that these trite talking points were issued by the Soviet propaganda machine decades ago. Moreover, as The Devils’ Alliance shows throughout, it was Stalin, not Hitler, who considered himself the stronger party with more leverage at his disposal. In other words, the Soviet devil believed that the German devil needed the Soviet Union more than he needed the Germans. The Bolshevik dictator was also convinced that he could cunningly utilize trade and the delivery of Soviet natural resources as either a carrot or a stick to manipulate German behavior, but Hitler’s personality was much more volatile to be Stalin’s Pavlovian dog.
Stalin hoped that the Germans and the Anglo-French would exhaust and bleed one another white in a First-World-War-style war of attrition, allowing the Soviets to take advantage of European weakness to throw in their weight at the very end and thereby spread communism westward, a plan which Moscow had failed to achieve in 1920 due to the Red Army’s defeat at the gates of Warsaw by the Poles. Having played with fire for almost two years, the Soviets would suffer serious burns after June 22, 1941. They were no innocent victims, however, but merely exemplars of the proverb, which serves as the title of Moorhouse’s concluding chapter, that there is “no honor among thieves.”
The British historian devotes considerable attention to the tragedy of the Poles, Balts, Jews, and other Intermarium peoples who were the main victims of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and the subsequent partition of the region. He reminds his readers that, whatever the differences between the two totalitarian regimes, both the German national socialists and the Soviet internationalist socialists pursued the genocidal goals of decapitating the nations they had subjugated by exterminating their national elites. Although, he does not mention that the Soviets began to slaughter their Poles already during the late 1930s during the so-called “Polish Operation” of the NKVD. Nevertheless, his juxtaposition of the Nazi and Bolshevik occupation policies in their respective partition zones of Poland underscores just how similar the two revolutionary systems were in practice.
In addition, the book contains many interesting historical facts that are generally not very well-known. For instance, Moorhouse argues that while Stalin was delivering strategic natural resources to the Germans, in exchange for military and engineering technology, these resources did not fuel the Wehrmacht’s victorious campaign against France and the Low Countries in May – June 1940, for German oil reserves were still sufficient at that point. Readers also learn that in early 1940, the Anglo-French, hoping to deplete the supplies of Soviet oil flowing to the Germans, planned air strikes against the USSR’s vital Baku Oil Fields from French air fields in Syria. Although this bombing campaign never actually materialized, awareness of the plans did temporarily compel Moscow to become more conciliatory towards the British. There are many other similar nuggets in The Devils’ Alliance.
Like any other historical study, the book has its shortcomings. For instance, Moorhouse fails to embed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in a larger historical-geopolitical context of German-Russian collaboration against Poland and the nations of the Intermarium. One must go back in history to, at the very least, the late eighteenth century, when the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians partitioned the large Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The instigators of the first partition (1772) had been the Prussians – whose king, Frederick II, cynically referred to the cannibalizing of Poland as a “mystical communion in the body of Poland – but Catherine II of Russia (a German-born princess) grabbed the largest chunk of the Commonwealth. During much of the nineteenth century, attempts to suffocate Polish aspirations for independence often served as a glue binding the two Germanic empires and the Muscovite tsardom to each other. After the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the Bolsheviks collaborated eagerly with the hopes of overturning the Versailles order and destroying Poland. Following the implosion of the Soviet Union and the “end” of the Cold War, Berlin and Moscow once again forged a “strategic partnership” aiming to turn the Intermarium nations into a joint German-Russian sphere of influence, as exemplified by the Nordstream Pipeline running directly from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea (thereby bypassing the nations in between), which the Poles dubbed the “Ribbentrop-Molotov Pipeline.” The Hitler-Stalin Pact was part of a long geopolitical tradition.
Finally, Moorhouse would have done well to mention the place of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in the historical politics of Putin’s post-Soviet Russia, whose post-KGB regime has – quite disturbingly – defended the treaty in much the same way as it has whitewashed and defended the invasion of Finland in late 1939 and all other acts of Stalinist aggression and empire-building. One might also note many parallels between the Kremlin’s claim that it invaded eastern Poland on September 17, 1939 to “protect” the “fraternal” Eastern Slavic Ukrainian and Belarusyn nations and Moscow’s current utilization of the “[Russian] minority protection” pretext to justify the current undeclared invasion of Ukraine.
In general, however, Roger Moorhouse’s Devils’ Alliance is an excellent book on a very important subject and we recommend it to English-language readers with confidence.
Pawel Styrna is a PhD candidate in Russian history at American University. He has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and an MA in Statecraft and International Affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.