Perhaps one of the most nefarious myths of World War II was that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin liberated the Jews from the Nazi evil and ended the Holocaust.
I call this a myth because based upon three works, not only was Stalin not the grand liberator some regard him as, but the opposite is true.
These books, Stalin’s Other War: Soviet Grand Strategy, 1939-1941 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) by Albert L. Weeks; The Dictators (WW Norton 2004) by Richard Overy; and WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, The Nazis and the West by Laurence Rees (Pantheon Books, 2008) prove that if not for Stalin, there could never have been a Holocaust during those years, or possibly ever.
Another irony: despite the hot rhetoric that Hitler and Stalin spewed against each other throughout the 1930s, Nazism and communism had more in common as governing ideologies than is believed. These totalitarian twins ruled much in the same fashion, and their murderous ways set a new standard in the history of cruelty.
Seventy years ago, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thus beginning the Second World War and the end of over three million Polish Jews. None of it could have happened if Stalin had not willed it.
The Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 enabled the Nazis to invade Poland and divide it with the Soviets, thus assuring a quiet eastern front so that Germany could better fight the western European powers of England and France. Without the guarantee of a neutral Soviet Union, the Nazis would have been unable to conquer Poland and liquidate the Polish Jews under their rule.
But not only were the Nazis enabled to start the Holocaust on the cusp of the Yamim Nora’im of 1939, they were assisted economically and militarily by their newfound Stalinist allies. These three books, published over the past decade, touch upon this little-known historical irony. Each cites specific information proving, in effect, that without Soviet assistance, a Holocaust would have remained a Hitlerian fantasy relegated to the “safe” pages of Mein Kampf.
Consider the following: According to Weeks, “In 1933-34 Lev Lebedev, a Communist Party Central Committee apparatchik in Moscow, visited Berlin on a secret mission to study Gestapo techniques. This was followed by transfer to the Germans of the table of organization used by the Soviet Commissariat of Internal Affairs [NKVD] for establishing Soviet labor camps as well the design for mobile, poison gas ‘liquidation wagons,’ invented in the USSR and used against recalcitrant peasants in Stalin’s collectivization drive.” This transfer of technology enabled the Nazis to deploy Einsatzgruppen units in the opening years of the Polish occupation, and later the Baltic states and Ukraine. Furthermore, the entire slave labor camp scheme came from those shared Soviet plans.
According to Weeks, Soviets also provided following food and materials to the Nazis during their occupation of Poland: “900,000 tons of phosphates; 100,000 tons of chrome ore; 500,000 tons of iron ore; and..... 1,000,000 tons of grain; 900,000 tons of mineral oil; 200,000 tons of cotton.” Other items included huge quantities of lumber, rubber, and other raw materials. Fancy that. This was no humanitarian mission, but a calculated effort to assist the Nazi war machine.
Overy, in his book, notes that a comprehensive trade treaty further supplemented the original military pact on February 11, 1940, involving the exchange of Soviet raw materials and food for German machinery and military equipment. These agreements further solidified Nazi rule in Poland, representing the immediate doom of over half the Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Rees’ volume not only reiterates the above, but explores in great detail the political dynamics that were played by these two former adversaries. In hindsight, this only further serves to warn us as to what our enemies are capable of doing in the guise of diplomacy.
Finally, may I suggest a reading of Kiddush Hashem: Jewish Religious and Cultural Life in Poland During the Holocaust, by Shimon Huberband, Hy”d (Yeshiva University Press, Ktav, 1987). This most sacred book details firsthand the perilous experiences of Polish Jewry during the first months of the Nazi invasion of their towns, homes and institutions. Translated from the original Yiddish, the accounts detail, in stages, the decimation of Polish Jewish life. The author’s comments, the observations of human suffering, the deprivation and the sacrifice to observe the mitzvos touch the heart of any sensitive Jew.
As a lesson from history, we can come to appreciate the liberties we enjoy in this blessed land. We can come to appreciate our true friends, and to be wary of those who wish us ill. We must guard ourselves from those who utter false platitudes disguised with eloquence and emotion, for among these are our true enemies.
A version of this column appeared in September 2009.