Accuracy in Media

On August 6 the Heritage Foundation convened a panel to discuss the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact partitioning Europe between the agents of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Held on the 70th anniversary of its signing, the talk also featured several alarming observations about the parallels between the time when the pact was signed and the present day relations between Russia and Germany.

The portions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which were made public at the time provided, among other things, that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would “obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other Powers,” would abstain from lending their support to a “belligerent action by a third Power,” and would settle disputes “exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions.” However, an unpublished second portion of the pact went further, detailing which boundaries the two respective powers could not pass in expanding their power.

“In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilna area is recognized by each party,” the pact stated.

This territorial section was, however, unknown until after the war due to the single provision of section IV that “This protocol shall be treated by both parties as strictly secret.”

Moderator and historian Lee Edwards opened the Heritage discussion by quoting at length from conservative historian Paul Johnson and from the signers of the pact itself. Quoting Nazi ambassador Joachim Ribbentrop, Edwards said that the feeling of camaraderie between the Nazi and Soviet attendees “felt like being among old party comrades…a community of aims, methods, and above all, morals.” Yet Edwards had less flattering words for the figures involved, saying that they “resembled nothing so much as a congregation of rival gangsters who had fought each other before and might do so again, but were essentially in the same racket.”

“Al Capone was a piker compared to Adolf Hitler,” Edwards argued. “[And] the deleterious impact of the Nazi-Soviet pact continues to this day.”

Sven Mikser, a member of the Estonian Parliament, spoke about the pact, as well as the Western allied forces’ misunderstanding of the relationship between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. “Just as Ribbentrop’s signature on the pact served the world-conquering designs, Molotov’s signature was intended to further the Soviet goal of world communist revolution,” Mikser said. “The Soviets were not unconditionally on the side of the good.”

Such an observation was by no means obvious during the aftermath of the pact. Lincoln Steffens, an American columnist, remarked of the Soviet Union in 1933 that he had “seen the future and it work[ed].”

More ominous yet, according to Mikser, was the enduring legacy of the pact. “That this policy-which was driven by idealism-should have survived through the decades, was not obvious, nor was it inevitable,” Mikser said. “It is ironic that while the non-aggression part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not honored, the clauses that divided Eastern Europe between the two of them were honored.”

One such example of how this clause was “honored,” Mikser said, was the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to leave Eastern Europe independent, but instead to “liberate” it. This “liberation,” however, meant something quite different, according to Mikser. “[The Soviet Union’s] objectives and policies in what it considered its sphere of privileged interest and influence were expansionist. What Soviet historiographers called liberation…actually meant conquest,” he said.

This sort of deceptive rhetoric and cynical policy-making, Mikser asserted, was a powerful argument not just for vilifying the Soviet Union, but also for studying it and understanding it. “Ideologies which have, in the past, produced hatred and suffering, must be studied and must be remembered,” Mikser said. “Naziism and the Holocaust must not be forgotten, and neither must the horrors of communism.”

Mikser’s observation had previously been made in 1954 by scholar and former Communist Louis Budenz, who wrote in his book The Techniques of Communism that Communist organizers both inside and outside of the Soviet Union used intentionally obfuscating language to mask their purposes. “Without a mastery of this Communist phraseology, it is most difficult if not impossible to analyze Communist actions in the nation or community. Unless this peculiar language and the methods of employing it can be understood, there is no key to Communist directives,” Budenz wrote.

Dr. Michael Szporer, of the University of Maryland, discussed some of the parallels between contemporary Russian-German relations and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact during the Heritage presentation. “The tremendous parallel between what happened during the Molotov Ribbentrop pact and what’s happening now…is very interesting to me,” Szporer said. “I think it’s more dangerous than we think.”

Szporer also took some time to lay to rest the idea that Poland might have been sympathetic to Nazi aggressors. “This whole question of Poland as a kind of thorn in Russia’s side sympathizing with Nazi Germany is humorous to a lot of Poles when one considers that very few Poles actually collaborated,” Szporer said. He also attributed a lot of the confusion over the subject to a public relations campaign of “historical regressions” by the Russian Government toward Eastern European states.

“The historical regressions, I think, should be seen as part of a wider campaign to ratchet up pressure on Russia’s weakening neighbors,” Szporer said.

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