Coalition of the Chilling
The Devils’ Alliance
by Roger Moorhouse
Basic Books, October 14, 2014
Roger Moorhouse carved his political history, The Devils’ Alliance, into a mountain of research on the drafting and consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This 1939 agreement between Russia and Germany, and its constant haggling and renegotiation, may be the tidiest point of entry for understanding the lead-up to (and inevitable end of) the Second World War.
The Devils’ Alliance is not a fast-paced or exciting military history. Instead it’s a dense and scholarly political history, concerned with the particulars of diplomacy, the movements of commodities in fulfillment of the relationship between these two powers, and an accounting of the personalities of individuals engaged in a web of negotiations around dividing up eastern Europe and southwestern Asia, in which Hitler and Stalin advanced their agendas to both collect lands they felt their nations had claim to, and to gain tactically useful seaports, resources, and transit ways. Its personalized and closely-sourced characterizations of the arrests, deportations, and executions that resulted from this map-drawing on both the Nazi and Soviet sides is extensive. The research behind its writing can safely be described as intimidating, with ten pages of bibliography and fully fifty pages of small-type indexed page references. That Moorhouse was able to distill all this research into a flowing narrative is an impressive act of craftsmanship. That he completed the task without including any editorial commentary, any openly joking asides (there are a few bone-dry ones, referring at one point to a “reset” with Russia), or any allusions to current events (given what’s going on in Ukraine, it must have been difficult to pass up), from the half-title to the last leaf, successfully confers the journalistic seriousness and academic deference onto the source material that this subject deserves.
This is very often a history of what emissaries and diplomats said in a room 75 years ago, which invariably involved a number of terrifyingly sad things that were about to unfold, so the reading is lugubrious. But even at 300 dense pages, it is about as compact as it could possibly be. Those readers who are willing to deploy patience to the task will be rewarded with a concrete and well-paced financial and interpersonal accounting of the Russo-German alliance that has not elsewhere been performed nearly as fully as Moorhouse has done here.
The text spends more time on Moscow than Berlin, by a stretch, and puts the lie to the notion that communist and Marxist ideals of liberation or equality for Russia’s own people was principal in Stalin’s aims. Pure Communism, as communicated from the Russian government and understood by its people at the time, was uninterested in empire or territorial expansion (and despised expansionism in principle, Western colonists in bulk, and specifically derided all other forms of governance, including and especially Nazism, in the papers every day). Stalin’s propagandists effused a principled stance of neutrality as Germany set about stomping all over their partition of Poland, and then greater eastern Europe, with the Russians publicly taking a (now predictable) stance of animosity mixed with indifference. In this book, though, any last notion of Stalin’s sentiment or ideals is burned black and flat to the ground:
This aspect of Soviet belligerence is more than just a curiosity. Post-war writing on the Nazi-Soviet Pact—such that there is—long tended to parrot the Kremlin’s postwar exculpatory line that Stalin was merely buying time by signing the pact, fending Hitler off while he could prepare Soviet defenses to meet an expected attack. This interpretation, still hawked by communist apologists to this day, does not tally with the evidence, however. As this book shows, Stalin was much more proactive and anti-Western in signing the pact than has conventionally been appreciated. His motivations were complex, of course, but on one level at least, he was seeking to exploit Nazi aggression to his own ends, to speed the fall of the West and capitalism’s long-awaited collapse. A willing or passive “neutral,” he was not.
The acrimony and contempt the Communists and Nazis held for one another has been well-documented elsewhere, so readers will understand that selling this agreement, which was unheralded by either government, led many to wonder what on earth was going on:
That sense of amazement would have been widespread on both sides. After all, the Nazis and the Soviets had spent most of the previous decade insulting one another. As an opposition politician in the later 1920s, Hitler had made political capital by portraying both communism and the Soviet Union as malevolent, alien forces threatening the German people and their way of life. He had persistently railed against Moscow, habitually referring to the “Jewish tyrants” and “bloodsuckers” in the Kremlin, and decrying Bolshevism as “an infamous crime against humanity” and an “infernal abortion.”
Suffice it to say, there were a few words passed that would have been difficult to take back, but the Nazi and Soviet governments quietly organized behind the scenes to arrange their as-yet uncontested first moves. Poland was right in the middle of it, cut in half without notice. What followed is hard to read, and one description of sudden Russian NKVD deportations is especially horrifying:
“In most cases, instructions were given on the procedure to follow—the time allowed for packing, for instance, or suggestions for what to take on the journey. [….] Even when instructions were given, for many of those affected the details were lost in a haze of fear and panic. As one peasant woman recalled, “He tells us to listen [to] what he will read and he read a decree that in half an hour we must be ready to leave, wagon will come. I immediately went blind and got to laugh terribly, NKVD man screams get dressed, I run around the room and laugh.” [….] One mother was so traumatized that her young son had to pack for her. When she arrived in rural Kazakhstan, she found that he had included his French dictionary, a recipe book, and some Christmas decorations.”
The British and the French went to great lengths in the months leading up to the war to swing Russia to their side. Stalin saw this attempt at treaty as a manipulation, intended to pit the West’s two greatest enemies against one another. More importantly, though, with only an alliance against Germany to offer, and not reclamation of the Balkans, nor the opportunity for Russia to modernize its army or increase its sphere of influence, the Western nations found themselves on unfortunate footing:
The Germans, however, had no such inhibitions and were happy to offer genuine territorial and strategic gains to the Soviets—at other people’s expense—to secure agreement. As Johnnie von Herwarth would confess after the war, “We were able to make a deal with the Soviets because we were able without any problems with German opinion to deliver the Baltic states and eastern Poland to Russia. This the British and the French, with their public opinions, were unable to do.
Hitler’s coming war was going to need resources, and he was elated to secure a pact with his neighbor to the east. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and supporting agreements, would provide Russian oil, minerals, and natural resources in exchange for German technology and materiel, along with the territorial agreements that are most familiar from the pact. Hitler badly wanted the agreement, but Russian leadership in this telling was much more ambivalent.
Stalin, meanwhile, had wasted little time reflecting on the niceties of the pact’s signing. Meeting his entourage the following day for a supper of freshly shot duck and “seeming very pleased with himself,” he mused on the new relationship with Hitler: “Of course, it’s all a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler’s up to. He thinks he’s outsmarted me but actually it’s I who have tricked him.” When presented to the Supreme Soviet on the last day of August, the pact was duly applauded, with Molotov echoing Hitler’s line criticizing the “ruling classes of Britain and France,” which, he claimed, had been keen to involve Nazi Germany and the USSR in conflict. In the coming war, he stated, the Soviet Union would maintain “absolute neutrality.”
The pact was only a piece of the wide-ranging agreement between the states. Details of territorial division and rates for trade were the subject of halting and tense conversation, before and throughout the two years in which Molotov-Ribbentrop was honored. By the middle of the book, the relationship, and this text, are both badly mired in the details.
On August 20, 1939, three days before the Nazi-Soviet pact, Berlin and Moscow finally signed a Commercial Agreement. The Soviet Union committed to supplying 180 million RM [Reichsmarks] of raw materials to Germany in return for a German commitment to provide 120 million RM of industrial goods. In addition, a credit line of 200 million RM was extended to Moscow, backed by the German government, with an effective interest rate of 4.5 percent over seven years, to be repaid in raw material shipments from 1946. Little wonder that Molotov would laud the treaty as better than “all previous agreements,” adding, “We have never had any equally advantageous economic agreement with Great Britain, France, or any other country.” In principle at least, the economic treaty with Nazi Germany was as good as it got.
The reader who wants more than this summary is in luck. The reader seeking more detail is actually in a great deal of luck. A dozen pages after this quote, Moorhouse is still relaying details of the back and forth:
It is a similar story with iron ore, essential for the creation of steel. The soviets supplied Germany with 750,000 tons of it under the terms of the Commercial Agreement of February 1940 [a later broadening of the 1939 agreement], a figure far larger than those stipulated for other ores, such as manganese, chrome, and copper, though it represented less than 3 percent of Soviet annual production.
The good fortune for everyone with additional questions on the matter will continue. What about the manganese, a reader may fairly wonder. Several pages later:
Another example is that of manganese, vital for the creation of steel alloys, which was one of the few commodities that Germany had already sourced from the USSR prior to the war. However, whereas Germany had paid 2.9 million RM for 60,000 tons of Soviet manganese in 1938, by 1940 the price for 65,000 tons had risen by 75 percent to 5.5 million RM. For communists, Stalin’s negotiators clearly demonstrated a sound understanding of the fundamental workings of capitalism.
There is a point behind all this accounting. The distrust between Russia and Germany soured even the most trivial details of their relationship. We’re presented with descriptions of how each exchange of raw materials from Russia and technology from the Germans was doomed to descend into paranoia, escalation, threats, and the abandonment of dialogue altogether. And this was followed in each case by the parties being forced back into this bad marriage by the economic and practical necessities of the political aims each side had already irretrievably committed themselves to. As relations later broke down (to say the least), an irony intervened. When the sides met in battle,
The same partial dependency ran the other way. The T-34s and KV heavy tanks that had given the Germans such a momentary fright in the summer of 1941 had rolled off production lines set up largely using imported German machinery—lathes, cranes, forges, and mills. That recent cooperation was perceptible in other aspects as well. As one historian has memorably expressed it, “German soldiers fed by Ukrainian grain, transported by Caucasus oil, and outfitted with boots made from rubber shipped via the Trans-Siberian railroad, fired their Donets-manganese-hardened steel weapons at their former allies. The Red Army hit back with artillery pieces and planes designed according to German specifications and produced by Ruhr Valley machines in factories that burned coal from the Saar.
From Moorhead’s book, the reader will accumulate a well-supported and sharply-reasoned sense that without the Russian / German agreements that preceded the war, neither alone would have been a tenth as successful at casting the world into such a conflict. We also start to understand the lack of emphasis on the Nazi-Soviet relationship as a part of the postwar description and understanding of World War II in Moorhead’s epilogue:
The prosecutors at Nuremberg knew very well that part of the defendants’ case would rest on the appeal of tu quoque: you did it too. It was an inadmissible defense—arguably more suited to the playground than a court of law—but it nonetheless had the potential to damage the Soviets, whose territorial expansions of 1939 and 1940, under the auspices of the pact, had violated many of the principles that the Western Allies now sought to apply to German actions. As one British Foreign Office advisor predicted, it was inevitable that the Nazi defendants would seek to “bring out as much Russian dirty linen as they can to mix with their own.” Consequently, given that the Allied prosecutors had no wish to discredit their Soviet ally, the item at the very top of that “laundry list,” the Nazi-Soviet Pact, was scarcely mentioned in the tribunal’s opening statements.
In 2014, the civilized world borders a Russia, with its “Ultranationalist” leader, that does bear some slight resemblance to the aggressive, paranoid, manipulating Stalin described in The Devils’ Alliance. It cannot be a complete coincidence that Moorhouse, a British historian who tweets frequently on events in Ukraine, has given us this history to read, at this moment.
Michael O’Donnell is a book reviewer and an editor of Open Letters Monthly.