IT’S a busy time for commemorations. Earlier this month, Australians reflected on the start of World War I a century ago. Early next month, on September 3 in fact, it will be time to reflect on the decision of Britain’s prime minister Neville Chamberlain to declare war on Germany following that nation’s invasion of Poland.
As Australia’s prime minister Robert Menzies said correctly in 1939, Britain’s declaration of war meant that Australia was also at war. This reflected Australia’s status at the time as a dominion of the British Empire.
Adolf Hitler, from his Munich base, welcomed the start of hostilities in 1914. As leader of Nazi Germany from 1933, Hitler was responsible for the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. But he had much assistance from an unusual, albeit temporary, ally.
There is a strong case for dating the start of World War II from August 23, 1939 — almost two weeks earlier than the traditionally accepted date. It was 75 years ago today that Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed an accord between Germany and the Soviet Union. The men were the foreign ministers of their respective nations. Communist dictator Joseph Stalin was present at the signing, which took place in Moscow.
At the time, the line out of Berlin and Moscow presented the Nazi-Soviet deal as a “non-aggression pact”. It was nothing of the kind. On August 23, 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed to a pact of aggression that divided eastern Europe between the Nazi totalitarian regime in Berlin and the communist totalitarian regime in Moscow. Almost immediately after the signing ceremony Germany invaded Poland from the west while the Soviet Union invaded from the east.
Hitler was able to order the invasion of Poland because he knew that in late August 1939 all would be quiet on Germany’s eastern front. That’s why it makes sense to regard today as the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II. Without the Nazi-Soviet pact, hostilities between the Allies and Germany would almost certainly not have begun on September 3, 1939.
Today there is much to support the view that the period between August 1914 and May 1945 was “the German wars”. It’s just that Hitler’s genocidal dictatorship was dramatically worse than the imperial German regime presided over by Kaiser Wilhelm II until his demise in 1918.
On June 13, writing on the ABC’s website The Drum, Matthew Dal Santo began his piece by declaring: “It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge — especially for Barack Obama — but without Russian autocracy between 1914 and 1917 or Soviet totalitarianism between 1941 and 1945, there would have been no victory for democracy at all” in 1945.
The Drum, part of the conservative-free zone that is the ABC, is edited by leftist Chip Rolley.
Dal Santo’s inaugural sentence has since been deleted from The Drum’s website.
Little wonder. It was a historically confused attempt to criticise the US President and British Prime Minister David Cameron for not being sufficiently nice to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy in June. Putin was a one-time communist party functionary in the Soviet regime.
Dal Santo failed to mention that it was Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks who took Russia out of the war against imperial Germany in 1917.
He also failed to mention the Nazi- Soviet pact, referring vaguely instead to “Stalin’s early collaboration with Hitler”, or to state unambiguously that Stalin and the Bolsheviks kept the Soviet Union out of the first two years of World War II.
As Patrick Bishop wrote in the current issue of Standpoint magazine, when reviewing Roger Moorhouse’s recently published The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941, at the D-Day commemoration in June Putin represented “a nation that spent nearly a third of the war allied to the Nazis”. Dal Santo overlooked this crucial fact.
The Nazi-Soviet pact is little remembered today. This is primarily due to the fact, following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin played an important role in Hitler’s defeat — which was consummated when the Red Army occupied Berlin in May 1945.
It’s also partly due to the fact the Left, which has dominated intellectual life in the West in recent decades, does not want to talk about the war between August 1939 and June 1941.
This was a time when Stalin did everything in his power to facilitate Nazi Germany’s conquest of western Europe, including Britain. In the West, members and fellow travellers of the communist party — on instruction from Moscow — did what they could to subvert the war effort. They included William and Freda Brown, the parents of Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, and more besides.
In Australia in recent times, new light has been shed on this period due to the publication of Hal GP Colebatch’s Australia’s Secret War and Anne Henderson’sMenzies at War.
Colebatch and Henderson also document that, while Menzies committed the Second Australian Imperial Force to join the Allied war effort against Hitler, the Labor Party opposed the dispatch of Australian forces to Europe and North Africa. In part this reflected Labor’s isolationism at the time, in part it also reflected the influence of the Communist Party within the trade union movement and, through it, the ALP.
Menzies’ decision to commit the Australian Defence Force to war three-quarters of a century ago was courageous. Britain stood virtually alone except for its dominions. The US was neutral until late 1941 and the Soviet Union helped to supply Nazi Germany’s war effort until mid-1941. A German conquest of Britain in 1940 or 1941 would have led to the fall of democracy in Australia.
Yet the Left has been almost silent on the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Professor Stuart Macintyre, a one- time member of the Communist Party, does not mention it in hisOxford History of Australia and there is only a passing and misleading reference in hisA Concise History of Australia. Left-wing historian David Day does not refer to the Nazi-Soviet Pact in his Menzies & Churchill at War, which conveniently begins on the first day of September 1939.
Yet the fact remains that when Australia went to war in 1939 its initial enemy was both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — due to a certain event in Moscow 75 years ago today.