Published by Basic Books (2014)
Reviewed by Benjamin Bissell
2014 will be remembered as a year in which Eastern Europe suffered one of its greatest crises since the collapse of the Soviet Union: the still-unfolding, still-destabilizing situation in eastern Ukraine. Some observers have noted how similarly Russia’s moves in the region track the USSR’s previous patterns of engagement with its “satellite states,” suggesting that we could be in the midst of a “new Cold War.” Others, the Obama administration among them, agree that the conflict’s threat to continental security is on a level unseen in recent decades, but does not approach the machinations that the USSR and the USA plied against each other at the height of hostilities. A more subtle stream of thought has fixated on Russia’s alleged “hybrid war” against Kiev, where the Kremlin has shaped the conflict as “an aggressor whose moves are shrouded in deception.”
In light of this recent “hybrid war,” Roger Moorhouse’s latest book, “The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941,” could not be more timely. Stridently anti-Soviet, it urges readers to harken back to the insidious intrigues of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Hitler and Stalin on the cusp of World War II, an alliance that shocked both realists and ideologues worldwide when it was revealed. In this work, Moorhouse is largely successful in presenting and explaining the history of the pact and its implications on populations throughout the region. In addition, he offers new insights into the personal relationships between the main actors and how their summits decided the continent’s fate. Throughout the book, however, Moorhouse commits a repeated mistake: equating and conflating the nature of Nazi and Soviet crimes in the period. His tendency to do so detracts from the narrative and hamstrings his discussion of the USSR’s war crimes.
Moorhouse’s central justification for writing the book is what he believes is Western “ignorance” of the history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as well as its implications on the 75 million people that were affected. Others have pointed out that this assertion of neglect is not entirely accurate; Anthony Read’s and David Fisher’s book on the same subject, “The Deadly Embrace,” is the most notable counter-example. Yet even so, Moorhouse is not rehashing old, if relatively obscure, information. The apostrophe in “The Devils’ Alliance” reveals much about his theoretical priorities: he sets out to prove the point that both Stalin and Hitler undertook, and eventually abrogated, the unholy pact not out of ideological reasons, but for cold, aggressive, Machiavellian ones.
Moorhouse’s first target in the book is the sticky narrative that the USSR agreed to the pact for defensive reasons. The official Soviet argument for the pact, up until the regime’s collapse in 1991, was that it was meant to forestall a German invasion until the Red Army could modernize and challenge the Wehrmacht in battle. Yet Moorhouse makes clear that Stalin could have defensively allied with other powers that were just as repugnant ideologically to the Soviets as the Nazis were, such as the British. Moorhouse argues that while other considerations may have influenced Moscow, including its dislike of the United Kingdom, the prototypical “capitalist aggressor,” Stalin entered into an alliance with Germany because Hitler offered tangible territorial benefits. For the Kremlin, the lure of regaining the land it lost in the Brest-Litovsk Pact, regardless of it coming at the expense of Poland, the Baltic States and other countries, was too seductive to pass up.
Moorhouse further asserts that the primary motivations for Hitler’s cancellation of the pact and sudden launching of “Operation Barbarossa” were also practical, not ideological. Using Nazi governmental documents and internal communiques, he claims that Hitler was not bent on cancelling the pact until a few months before launching the invasion and that he carefully considered all of the consequences such an action would precipitate. Furthermore, Hitler initially underestimated the USSR as a threat, and believed there was a good chance it would collapse without much, if any, German intervention at all. For at least the first period of the war, he believed Britain remained the Reich’s real rival, and thus the top priority.
It follows that Moorhouse outlines a list of realpolitik reasons for the pact’s ignominious end, including, among others, 1) disappointment in Berlin concerning the two countries’ unrealized and capricious economic relationship, 2) missteps by Molotov in Berlin, 3) strategic miscalculations on the part of Stalin, and 4) Berlin’s eventual realization of the Kremlin’s irrepressible strategic objectives in Europe. In response to the common counterfactual to the “realpolitik” theory, namely that Soviet-German trade was reaching new heights right before the Reich’s assault, Moorhouse provides helpful background. The key, he argues, is contextualizing the late commercial volumes as a “carrot” amid a series of “sticks” Stalin had been using to frustrate the Germans and exact huge price increases for Soviet foodstuffs and oil. Rather than being a manifestation of Soviet-German friendship, he argues, the record trade totals before Barbarossa were symptomatic of the alliance’s instability. Moorhouse also highlights the International Danubian Commission, which opened in October 1940, as the time when Berlin fully woke up to Stalin’s naked geopolitical ambitions.
Finally, Moorhouse emphasizes the importance of viewing the pact as Stalin’s brainchild. Not only does this fact substantiate the idea that the pact’s genesis lay in realpolitik, but it also explains the USSR’s stunning losses in the first stage of the Eastern Front as a symptom of Stalin’s personal bias. Moorhouse provides a detailed outline of Stalin’s irrational insistence on Germany’s trustworthiness, even in the face of desperate, last-minute reports of German mobilization by his generals.
In addition to the above analyses, Moorhouse adds to the canon in other meaningful ways. First, his examination of the psychology of the main actors is eminently readable. In particular, his characterization of Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov as an insipid sycophant of Stalin’s (“Captain Stonearse”) is not just fascinating, but also buttresses his argument that the pact was unreservedly Stalin’s personal project. He also unveils new information about the atrocities committed by the Soviets in the Baltic countries and Poland, in addition to providing detailed strategic insights into the USSR’s disastrous, if ultimately successful, Winter War with Finland. One of the highest notes of the book is undoubtedly his rendering of the ideological hoops Communists worldwide had to jump through in the wake of Moscow’s agreement with the hated Fascists; his retelling of the internecine infighting among Britain’s Communist Party leadership is especially fascinating.
Yet one of the book’s primary aims - a thorough rendering of the scale and violence of Soviet crimes in areas occupied under the pact from 1939-1941 - is needlessly equalized with Nazi Germany’s atrocities during the same time period. He asserts that both the Soviets and the Nazis had “a remarkable symmetry” in their occupation policies and that the primary difference boiled down to a discrepancy between the two states over the criteria for extermination: class and ethnicity/race, respectively. In this, Moorhouse fails to consider that genocide is wholly and categorically separate from war crimes. While admitting himself that it would be “invidious to attempt any comparison of the Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes,” he goes on to do exactly that for the next two hundred pages. In addition, Moorhouse appears to downplay Nazi crimes towards the end of the book, where he explains that “anti-Soviet sentiment was as much a motivator” in some massacres of Jews by local populations in eastern Europe as “anti-Semitism.” This claim, perhaps true in part, neglects pre-existing anti-Semitism among these populations and the effects of the German propaganda machine as well as the Nazis’ own brutal example. Indeed, in one passage, Moorhouse characterizes a particularly heinous pogrom as continuing until “the German authorities put a stop to the slaughter.” Highlighting an instance where Nazi officials put a stop to any slaughter of Jews runs the risk of dangerously mischaracterizing the sinister and systematic actions of the Third Reich throughout its existence.
Moorhouse could be forgiven for the above criticism; while Hitler’s crimes are well-documented (not least by the Nazis themselves), public knowledge of Stalin’s crimes during the same period are less-studied and feature less empirical evidence of their existence. The latter is something Moorhouse himself struggles with, often relying as he does on ambiguous language and anecdotal evidence to illustrate the breadth of Soviet brutality; at one point, he characterizes Soviet treatment of refugees in their territory as “royally inhospitable.” Still, he deftly illuminates the USSR’s war crimes using statistics when available, whether in covering the well-known massacre of Polish officers at Katyn or the lesser-known crimes of the Soviet NKVD that wantonly killed thousands in the Baltics. Indeed, in giving a voice to the suffering of certain populations under Soviet control, he fills a gaping void in the West’s understanding of the conflict. Yet the USSR’s crimes, horrible on their own, need not be conflated with the Nazis’ to be understood or emphasized.
Still, “The Devils’ Alliance” is a worthwhile addition to the corpus of the era and recommended. Moorhouse’s work is not only well-written, but also focused and nuanced. He is more than willing to cast away popularly-held opinions that are dubious, despite them supporting his argument. (For instance, he admits that most NKVD-sponsored activity against the Baltic States before the USSR’s occupation was not premeditated, as well as that Germans were not dependent on Soviet raw metals or oil for their war effort.) While not a book to be read on its own, it provides nuance to the tangled mess of the Second World War.
(Benjamin Bissell is a National Security Intern at the Brookings Institution.)