Owning Up to Stalin's Mistakes

It will be a very important sign for Russia's future policies if Putin has the courage and honesty to admit that Stalin made a tragic mistake in 1939.

Tomorrow, September 1, will mark 70 years since the Nazi invasion of Poland and the start of World War II. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has invited heads of state from all over the world to a ceremony tomorrow in Gdansk, where the German invasion began.

Benjamin Netanyahu was also invited, and for some reason is not hurrying to accept, a puzzling matter in its own right. However, international attention will be focused on two other figures: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Merkel's presence will signify the historic conciliation between Germany and Poland, and the fact that a democratic Germany accepts its historical responsibility for the acts of aggression and atrocities of the Third Reich. As for Putin and Russia, the matter is more complicated.

Moscow does not view September 1, 1939 as the date the war started. As far as Russia is concerned, the Great Patriotic War started on June 22, 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Sepember 1 remains a problematic date for the Russians, as the agreement signed in Moscow only a week earlier, on August 23, 1939, between Nazi Germany's foreign minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, was what made the Nazi invasion of Poland possible. The pact, which shocked the world, guaranteed Hitler that if he invaded Poland, he would be greeted with sympathetic Soviet neutrality. In the wake of the Germans, the Soviets also invaded Poland and annexed its eastern parts, bringing about the end of Poland's independence.

For years the Soviets tried to claim that their alliance with Nazi Germany was a defensive act, intended to guarantee the Soviet Union a time out before a future German invasion and to give it strategic depth. These claims were recently repeated in Moscow. Therefore, how Putin addresses them in Gdansk is important. The Soviets also tried to justify their acts by invoking the 1938 Munich Accords, in which England and France agreed to the division and annexation of Czechoslovakia. If Western states could act that way, claimed the Soviets, who were they to complain about Moscow?

Such claims are based on a chain of deceptions and lies. The Munich Accords were a shameful mark on Britain and France, but as of the end of 1938, even the Chamberlain government understood Hitler was preparing for war and changed its strategy: Britain reinstated compulsory conscription, and implemented a broad rearmament, including the production of hundreds of tanks and planes and the development of radar technology. This is what enabled Britain to win the Battle of Britain. At the same time, in the spring of 1939, England and France gave Poland public guarantees they would come to its aid if Germany attacked.

Stalin knew all this, and more: The secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, discovered after the war, show it was not a defensive act. The secret protocols stated that the German Third Reich and the Soviet Union "would together consider Poland's continued existence as an independent country."

Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet Union did almost nothing to protect its western border, including the areas of Poland it had annexed, and that is why the 1941 Nazi attack destroyed the Soviet defenses. Until the day of the invasion, the Soviet Union continued to supply the Nazi war machine with raw materials while France and England fought for their lives. Stalin dismissed the repeated intelligence warnings that Hitler was planning to attack the Soviet Union. Not only that, the Soviets murdered thousands of captured Polish officers in the Katyn forest and handed the Gestapo dozens of German communist refugees, many of them Jewish, who had fled to the "socialist motherland."

True, looking back, it is easy to accuse statesmen of mistakes and failures. But the difference between the West and Russia is that in the West, everyone recognizes that Chamberlain's policy of appeasement was a failure.

It will be a very important sign for Russia's future policies if Putin has the courage and honesty to admit that Stalin made a tragic mistake in 1939, one that cost tens of millions of Soviet lives after Hitler violated the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact - just as he violated every other agreement he made.