BY MONA CHAREN
Thank God the VE Day ceremonies are past. The outpouring of mushyheadedness about the “contribution” of the old Soviet Union to winning World War II was becoming nauseating.
President Clinton, who is constantly regaling us with reports about how long he has studied certain matters and how hard he has worked, demonstrated in Moscow that modern history is not his strong suit.
In his Moscow speech, the president recalled the meeting of U.S. and Soviet troops at the Elbe River in Germany. “They exchanged photographs of wives, children, loved ones whose freedom they had defended, whose future they would secure…”
“I say to you, President Yeltsin, and to all the people of Russian and the other republics of the former Soviet Union, the Cold War obscured our ability to fully appreciate what your people had suffered, and how your extraordinary courage helped to hasten the victory we all celebrate today.”
All of the president’s just quoted words are wrong or off key.
Let’s begin with the notion that Russian soldiers in World War II were fighting for “freedom.” Hardly. So brutal was the Stalin regime (in almost every respect the moral equal of Hitler’s) that many Russians at first welcomed the invading Germans as liberators. The figure of 20 million Soviet losses in World War II was recalled often last week. What was not mentioned was that an additional 20 million Russians (and other nationalities) were murdered by Stalin himself during his long and bloody autocracy.
Indeed, Stalin made the start of World War II possible by signing the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in August 1939. Two weeks after Hitler invaded Poland, Stalin invaded Poland too, from the other direction. The two invaders were the greatest monsters of the 20th century. Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, after a visit to the Kremlin, described his Soviet allies well, saying, “it felt like being … among my Nazi friends.”
In the period after the signing of the Hitler/Stalin pact until Hitler invaded Russia in 1941., communist parties the world over (including the CPUSA) overnight reversed their anti-Nazi stance and warmly embraced peace with Germany, The Soviet Union cheerfully supplied the Hitler war machine with a million tons of grain, 900,000 tons of oil, iron ore, manganese and cotton.
Hitler had never intended the pact to be anything other than a stopgap. Not so Stalin. As Paul Johnson notes dryly in “Modern Times,” the man who trusted no one chose to trust Hitler. Despite numerous warnings both from his own spies and from the United States and Britain that Hitler was planning to attack Russia, Stalin refused to believe it or to take precautions.
When Operation Barbarosa was unleashed in June 1941, Stalin’s orders to Russian troops forbade them to return fire. Stalin then suffered some sort of nervous collapse and was not heard from for two weeks.
Ordinary Russian soldiers were trapped between two jaws. In front of them were the murderous and fanatical Nazis. Behind them were the SMERSH (“death to spies”) forces of Stalin, with orders to shoot anyone who attempted to retreat at any time. Even becoming a prisoner of war was considered by Stalin to be an act of treason. After the war ended more than 2 million Soviet prisoners of war were shot or sent to the Gulag at war’s end, and their families were subject to long prison terms as well (see Martin Malia, “The Soviet Tragedy”).
President Clinton urges that the Cold War “obscured our ability to appreciate what your people had suffered.” Nonsense. The Cold War was fought, and in part was worth fighting, exactly because we understood so well what suffering had been visited upon the Russian people by the two totalitarianisms of which they were victims. Yes, the ordinary Russian soldier helped to defeat Hitler. But the Second World War, the worst war in human history, might have been avoided but for the treachery and evil of Joseph Stalin. What Stalin had tried to obtain through a bargain with Hitler (“influence” throughout Eastern Europe) he later took by force and subversion. That was what the Cold War was about.
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