Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Milne

More Milne

I used to go to school with someone who claimed to be a communist.  He wore a ‘worker’s’ cap, didn’t wash very often and called everyone comrade.  I’d assumed this was just a phase and that he’d grow out of it.  A glance at Seumas Milne’s career ought to have disabused me of that notion.  He’s written another piece defending the Soviet Union, and attacking those who say that it was an aggressor in the Second World War.

In his introduction to this week's Guardian history of the war, the neoconservative historian Niall Ferguson declared that Stalin was "as much an aggressor as Hitler". Last month, the ostensibly more liberal Orlando Figes went further, insisting the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was "the licence for the Holocaust".

Given that the Soviet Union played the decisive military role in Hitler's defeat at the cost of 25 million dead, it's scarcely surprising that Russians are outraged by such accusations. When the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev last week denounced attempts to draw parallels between the role of the Nazis and the Soviet Union as a "cynical lie", he wasn't just speaking for his government, but the whole country – and a good deal of the rest of the world besides.

Of course the Soviet Union was an aggressor in 1939.  After the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union invaded Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – retaining them within the Soviet Empire until the collapse of communism 50 years later, as well as invading Poland without a declaration of war and in conjunction with the Nazis.  The two sides even held a joint victory parade.  The USSR tried to invade Finland as well, but was repulsed.

There's no doubt that the pact of August 1939 was a shocking act of realpolitik by the state that had led the campaign against fascism since before the Spanish civil war. You can argue about how Stalin used it to buy time, his delusions about delaying the Nazi onslaught, or whether the Soviet occupation of the mainly Ukrainian and Byelorussian parts of Poland was, as Churchill maintained at the time, "necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace".

Balls.  You can’t argue that Stalin used it to buy time, because he showed no interest in doing so, instead believing that he had bought off Hitler and was thus free to act in the Baltic States.  And implying that the Soviet invasion and partition of Poland was legitimate because it included land that had previously been Russian is pretty grisly – especially given that it was the partitions of Poland in the 18th and 19th centuries that had made the territory Russian in the first place.  It was the cynical act of a blood-stained totalitarian monster.

But to claim that without the pact there would have been no war is simply absurd – and, in the words of the historian Mark Mazower, "too tainted by present day political concerns to be taken seriously". Hitler had given the order to attack and occupy Poland much earlier. As fellow historian Geoff Roberts puts it, the pact was an "instrument of defence, not aggression"

And no-one has claimed that.  Only that the Soviet Union was one of the four aggressor nations in the Second World War: in chronological order Japan, Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union.  Equally, it is not the pact with Germany that was the act of aggression, but the invasions of five European countries.  Does Milne really not believe that invading a country is not an aggressive act?

That was a good deal less true of the previous year's Munich agreement, in which British and French politicians dismembered Czechoslovakia at the Nazi dictator's pleasure. The one pact that could conceivably have prevented war, a collective security alliance with the Soviet Union, was in effect blocked by the appeaser Chamberlain and an authoritarian Polish government that refused to allow Soviet troops on Polish soil.

Yes, the Allies could conceivably have prevented the war at Munich.  But the fact that they didn’t was not because they were aggressively seeking their own territorial ends in Eastern Europe, it was that they were desperately trying to avoid war.  And I wonder why on earth the paranoid Poles didn’t want Soviet troops on Polish soil.  A fear that they might not leave for fifty years perhaps?

The Second World War in Europe was largely a fight to the death between two vile totalitarian ideologies.  Soviet Russia under Uncle Joe was every bit as blood-stained and hideous as Nazi Germany under Onkel Adi. Oh, and my communist friend?  He’s now a junior research fellow in Russian history, specializing in the history of the CCCP.  Once they get you, there’s no going back…


Blogger Recusant said...

What can you expect from a Wykehamist and scion of the establishment? I think he sees the world in the same way as the Cambridge communists of the '30's.

12:34 pm  
Blogger tory boys never grow up said...

This is just silly - you appear to be countering one silly analysis with an even sillier one.

First of all Russia's motives in the Molotov Ribbentrop pact were not entirely defensive (although there were elements of wanting to buy some time for Russia) - it was as you point out used for a degree of aggresive score settling, you need to bear in mind the actaul and perceived role played by many of the victims during the Civil War less than 20 years before.

And there is no doubting the vileness of Stalinist and Bolshevist ideology - but there is legimate point that you cannot equate the two regimes. They were different in their different ways - and differnt lessons have to be learned.

And of course the main point you miss is that it Stalin or Stalinist ideology that actually fought against fascism - but the Russian people. And they did so out of decent motives, with enormous sacrifice (on a scale which is really difficult for most European nations apart from the Poles to comprehend), and despite have suffered at the hands of their own tyrants both before and after their Revolution. And we should thank them for doing so - since without them it is very likely that Hitler would have won the war and we would not have enjoyed much of the freedom of the past 60 years. But then you come along with your silly remark "The Second World War in Europe was largely a fight to the death between two vile totalitarian ideologies" and otehrs try to insult their efforts of the Russian people further by equating their efforts with those of the Nazis.

While you will find may Russians who will share your views about the Stalinism - but I very much doubt you will find any (apart from a few on the very nutty neo nazi fringe) who would share your view about their efforts in the Second World War.

The respect in Russia for the sacrifice they made in the War is immense and evident to anyone who has ever been there and has contact with Russians - and it really has little to do with political ideology - even though many like to try and argue that it is - in this regard you appear to doing the same as Stalin, Putin and others - altough in your case it is for different political ends.

There are plentyt of people writing Russian history from all sorts of political perspectives - and none of them argue from your angle I'm afraid.

10:34 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

What? Milne is saying that to claim that the Soviet Union was an aggressor nation in 1939 is an insult to the nation that did more than any other to defeat Hitler. I am saying that this is arrant nonsense. Soviet Russia did indeed do more than any other nation to defeat Nazi Germany, but it was also and undeniably an aggressor nation in 1939.

You are ignoring the entire history of the war prior to Barbarossa. What happened following the German invasion is only tangentially relevant to Soviet motives beforehand.

As for it being the Russian people that fought against Hitler, it's really not relevant to the point I was making but fine. It presumably also was not Stalin but the Russian people that invaded and occupied Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Eastern Poland, and tried to do the same to Finland.

I know that many on the left don't like this, but Stalinist Russia was no better, and in some ways worse, than Hitlerite Germany. More died in the Gulag and in the engineered famine in the Ukraine than did in the Holocaust. Of course the two regimes were different in many ways, but it is their similarities that are more interesting.

Equally, the argument that the USSR was an aggressor nation in 1939, and that it was an equally vile dictatorship to Nazi Germany is an entirely mainstream historical point of view - that was rather what Milne was complaining about.

8:45 pm  

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