by Roger Moorhouse
New York: Basic Books, 2014. Pp. 416.
Illus., maps, notes, index. $29.99. ISBN: 0465030750
The Enigmatic Nazi-Soviet Alliance
On his return from Moscow in August 1939, Hitler asked von Ribbentrop about Stalin’s earlobes: were they “ingrown and Jewish or separate and Aryan?” The anti-Semitic obsession of the German dictator had reached new heights just as the war was about to begin, a war that he would soon call a “war of annihilation” in 1941 as he was getting ready to assault the Soviet Union. The absurdity of such a question also reminds us about the doubts raised about Hitler’s sanity.
But no such madness appears in Roger Moorhouse’s account of Stalin during the period of the Nazi Soviet Non-Aggression pact. The Soviet dictator appears calm and determined to sign off on the best deal he could get after rejecting the vague offers made by the Anglo-French military negotiators. The USSR came out the winner in the short term without firing a shot, as Stalin swallowed up lands that had belonged to the Tsars back into the Russian fold. The concessions agreed to by Lenin and Trotsky at the treaty of Brest Litovsk in 1918 to save the tottering October Revolution were the price of survival. But Stalin’s regime was accompanied by wholesale brutality.
The unnatural alliance was captured in the famous cartoon by David Low where the two dictators are bowing to one another: “The scum of the earth, I believe?” asks Hitler to which Stalin replies: “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?” The question is answered in TheDevil’s Alliance: Hitler wanted to avoid repeating 1914, and have to fight a two front war should France and Great Britain go to war over Poland. Stalin wanted to extend the borders of the USSR and make friends with Hitler as much as possible. The economic advantages of the treaty were excellent for both Germany and Russia.
As soon as France was defeated in June 1940, with restraints eliminated, the Soviets annexed the Baltic States and Eastern Poland, as well as Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina from Romania. Moorhouse gives detailed descriptions of the forced migrations imposed by the Soviets on the Baltic States and Poland, where tens of thousands were herded into unheated boxcars and shipped off into the Siberian wilderness. The selection was not racial or religious as in the Nazi ideology but social: aristocrats, bourgeois, entrepreneurs, members of religious orders, army officers, intellectuals and government employees were arrested. Anyone who could be a logical opponent to the forced Sovietization of their country had to go. Thousands died in the process.
Nazi Germany would not be outdone and in the wake of military operations began shooting civilians, especially Jews, in Poland. Large ghettos were quickly established in the main cities where Polish Jews were forced to live in horrible conditions before being exterminated in the death camps later on. This part of the early “cleansing” of the Eastern European areas remains largely untouched by historians and is brought to light in The Devil’s Alliance, much to the author’s credit.
The consequences of the pact linger on to this day: throughout the war both Roosevelt and Churchill were constantly fearful that the Soviet Union might make a deal with Hitler. The examples very much on their minds were Brest Litovsk and the Non-Aggression pact of 1939. They were ready to give into the Russians at almost any cost to keep them in the war and later try to have them cooperate in the UN. But the main fear that lingers on today with Putin’s Russia is felt by the Baltics and the Poles as they remember the Soviet occupation and the high price they paid to survive.
The Devil’s Alliance
brings it all vividly to the surface and is a great read.
Robert Miller is the publisher of
, and the executive director of the New York Military Affairs Symposium,
His previous reviews include Castro's Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy,and Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam