Was Stalin to Blame?

Does the history of World War II need to be rewritten? Was Pinhas Lavon a dove and Moshe Sharett a hawk? And a spot of trouble at The New York Times.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Mischa Shauli sat at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., completely beside himself. It had been years since the first time he heard about the existence of a document said to prove that Stalin, not Hitler, bore the main responsibility for World War II, and for years he had searched for it with all his skills as a professional detective. Shauli's last position was as Commander Shauli, Representative of the Israel Police in Russia. Previous to that he had been head of the police fraud investigation unit for the Southern District.

A few years ago Shauli read "Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War," by Bogdan Rozen. Rozen, who now lives in England, wrote it under the pseudonym of Viktor Suvorov. Shauli, impressed by the book, translated it into Hebrew and saw to its publication here.

From out of the sea of details, a coherent thesis emerges: Stalin dragged Hitler into war to force Europe into chaos and facilitate a communist revolution on the continent. According to Shauli, there is evidence to back up this theory, including a speech by Stalin himself as well as a report obtained by the U.S. Consulate in Prague. The report has been mentioned here and there over the years, but it has never been published, because no one knows where it is today.

Shauli, 59, believed that the definitive evidence was out there, hiding somewhere. He believed, and did not give up, repeatedly setting out to find it, going as far as Washington. No one is happier than he is today: The document is in his possession, and now the history of World War II may have to be rewritten: It was Stalin's fault.

The document, from October 1939, consists of three pages in English that purportedly reflect a dialogue in Moscow between a delegation from Czechoslovakia and a senior Soviet Foreign Ministry official. The Czechs tried to find out why the U.S.S.R. had signed the nonaggression treaty with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. A few days later the Germans invaded Poland, and World War II began.

The Soviet official, Alexandrov by name, explained to the Czech delegation that had the Soviet Union signed an agreement with the West, Hitler would not have dared to launch a war, and without that war there would have been no possibility of imposing communism in Europe. He also listed the benefits to the Soviet Union of the pact with Nazi Germany, and of the war.

The veracity of the document must be proved, and even if it turns out to be genuine, its significance is worthy of debate. Mischa Shauli is continuing his investigation. No, he said this week, he does not fear that shifting responsibility for the war from Hitler to Stalin "acquits" Hitler; he is responsible for other crimes.

Between Sharett and Lavon

The horrific proposals for military action in the Gaza Strip and along the Syrian border proposed by defense minister Pinhas Lavon and published in this space last week, on the basis of pages from the diary of prime minister Moshe Sharett that had been hidden, provoked numerous responses. Many of those who wrote sought to defend the image of Lavon as a hero of the dovish left. Some respondents mentioned Eyal Kafkafi's biography of Lavon ("Lavon: Anti-Messiah," Am Oved, in Hebrew, 1998). In the meantime, the Israel State Archives published a book on Sharett, and it became clear that the man who in the 1950s was known for his dovish policy began his public career as a man whom the Israeli right could embrace today.

Dr. Yossi Amitay, a historian of the Middle East who was active in Mapam (a precursor of the Meretz party) and is a former director of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, wrote about Lavon in the Hebrew Internet magazine Al Tzad Smol ("on the left side").

"Lavon went through several stages in his public career that affected his political behavior. When he started out he was a leader of Hapoel Ha'tzair, the 'dovish' wing of the Labor Movement and Mapai," Amitay related. "When he was appointed deputy defense minister, in 1953, he sought to ingratiate himself with the young, adventurous upper ranks of the Israel Defense Forces and approved horrific reprisal operations .... After he was thrown to the dogs and established the Min Hayesod ["from the foundations"] group, Lavon came back to himself, as it were, and expressed clearly dovish outlooks, along the lines of 'Suffering purifies man's sins.'"

With Sharett, the process apparently worked in reverse. This man from Israel's "Mayflower generation" has not yet been done justice in writing, and thus there is great value to be found in the heavy volume issued this week by the Israel State Archives, edited by Louise Fischer, as part of a series edited by Yemima Rosenthal.

There is much interest in the latest volume. It begins with remarks written by Sharett in 1914 to graduates of the Hebrew Gymnasia of Jaffa, in which he declared that the Arabs are "our mortal enemies." He compared them to Amalek and described the rivalry with them as a kind of fatal decree that cannot be changed, and that therefore there is no point in promising them friendship and peace.

In addition to perceptive comments on the tortured relationship between Lavon and the intimidating father figure of David Ben-Gurion, the book contained information that contributes to an understanding of the relationship between Sharett and Lavon. Lavon occasionally supports Sharett's positions, but generally posits opposing ones. The archive quotes, for example, a speech Lavon gave at Kibbutz Afikim in which he declared that the U.S. is Israel's enemy.

Sharett attributed to Lavon responsibility for the failed Israeli intelligence operation in Egypt, the "esek habish" (commonly known as the Lavon Affair), although he did not claim that it was Lavon who gave the order for the operation. He eventually found himself defending Lavon against Ben-Gurion in the affair. According to the state archives, Sharett feared that Lavon would commit suicide if he were found guilty of giving the order to carry out the operation in Egypt.

Time and again

The New York Times recently shared a problem with its readers: The newspaper is deluged with repeated letters from people who complained in the past, sometimes years earlier, about what they claimed were incorrect or unfair articles. It happens because the original article appears at the top of Internet search results from the paper's archives. With a single click it all starts again and many people are hurt once again. The paper's editors and various experts are at a loss for a solution. An existing article cannot be corrected, and it is impossible to review every article. Here's a free tip to the NYT: To every article that is on the Internet, add a general note saying that it was prepared in keeping with all professional principles, as well as an additional warning on any article about which a complaint was received following its re-publication on the Internet.



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