A Pact with Satan to Drive out the Devil
August 1939–June 1941
Historians have been prone to link together Adolf Hitler, Germany’s Führer, and Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s communist tsar, as the twentieth century’s ‘terrible twins’ of evil. But to pair them as two identical monsters is far too simplistic; they were as different as they were similar.
Stalin’s original Georgian name was Dzhugashvili. He changed it to Stalin in 1912. The name derives from the Russian for steel (stal), thus ‘Man of Steel’. He also had the nickname ‘Koba’, which he picked up in his youth after a Robin Hood character in the 1882 novel Patricide by Alexander Kazbegi. Stalin purported to be an ideological Marxist, philosophically determined to create a truly egalitarian society, even if he had to murder hundreds of thousands of his own people to achieve his socialist Utopia. He was not the first so inclined, nor would he be the last.
Conversely, Hitler was totally committed to theories, often melded together as Social Darwinism, which espouse the idea that, throughout history, races have struggled with other races in a survival battle that will ultimately produce a ‘master race’. In particular, Hitler was convinced that this human struggle had reached a pinnacle of evolution and that his Germanic peoples were the Herrenvolk (‘master race’), the high point of human progress, and that their destiny was to conquer the world. Through ruthless opportunism, Stalin quickly rose from rural poverty in Georgia to supreme leadership of the Soviet Kremlin.
Once in power, he used the formidable apparatus of a police state to liquidate millions of opponents, including any who stood in theway of communist purity. Millions more died in famines, and huge numbers were transported to forced labour camps – the gulags – from which many never emerged.
Hitler’s rise to power was equally rapid. He was also utterly ruthless in dealing with opponents, but it was his racial fanaticism – his loathing of Jews, Slavs and many others he regarded as inferior – that made him uniquely evil, even when compared with Stalin. Hitler referred to those he despised as ‘vermin’; he regarded them as ‘infestations’ that had to be eliminated without mercy. So virulent was his loathing and so potent was his oratory that his views permeated German society, swelling into a plague of hatred that distorted civilised life like nothing before or since. These ‘terrible twins’, two malevolent leaders of such monstrous proportions, were preparing to confront one another in a military campaign that would produce the bloodiest war in history.
Strangely, the background to this most gruesome of wars was an extraordinary expression of peace, even if an entirely amoral one. In August 1939, despite their ideological differences, strategic pragmatism, as it often does, led to a remarkable deal between Hitler and Stalin. It was best described as ‘a pact with Satan to drive out the Devil’, uniting them in a macabre display of mock friendship.
The countdown to the Second World War had begun in March 1936, when German troops rolled into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised by the Versailles Treaty at the end of the Great War. Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s ally, had already sent his troops into Ethiopia, and in the summer of 1937 Japan’s army was on the march in China. Fascist militarism was rampant across the globe.
In March 1938, Hitler strode into Austria, an Anschluss (‘connection’) that united the German-speaking country of his birth with the German ‘Fatherland’. Six months later, at the end of September, still plagued by bitter memories of the Great War, France and Britain allowed Hitler to occupy the Sudetenland, a German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia.
The poet Hannah Senesh was living in Budapest, Hungary, when Hitler occupied the Sudetenland. She was just seventeen and still at school.
‘September 1938, Budapest
We’re living through incredibly tense days. The question is: will there be war? The entire world is united in fearful suspense. The Devil take the Sudeten Germans and all the other Germans, along with the Führer. Why is it necessary to ruin the world, turn it topsy-turvy, when everything could be so pleasant? Or is that impossible? Is it contrary to the nature of man?’
Senesh kept her diary throughout the war. A passionate Zionist, she fled to Palestine in 1939, while her homeland, Hungary, was the first country to join the Axis powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – in June 1941. She was recruited by Britain’s Special Operations Executive and in March 1944 parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist anti-Nazi forces in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz. She was arrested at the Hungarian border by the Hungarian police, who found her British military transmitter. She was imprisoned, stripped, tied to a chair, then whipped and clubbed for three days. She lost several teeth as a result of the beating.
Transferred to a Budapest prison, she was repeatedly interrogated and tortured, but only revealed her name and refused to provide the transmitter code, even when her mother was also arrested. They threatened to kill her mother if she did not cooperate, but still she refused.
She kept a diary until her last day. One of the entries reads: ‘In the month of July, I shall be twenty-three. I played a number in a game. The dice have rolled. I have lost.’
Senesh was executed by firing squad on 7 November 1944.
Hitler’s annexation of the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and his triumphant entry into Prague were further steps in a dominoes cascade of aggression that few wanted to acknowledge was happening. War was all but inevitable.
It was clear that Hitler’s next planned conquest would be his neighbour Poland. To thwart him, on 31 March, France and Britain promised to guarantee Poland’s security and independence. However, Hitler was ahead of the game. Even though he had called the Soviet Union ‘the greatest danger for the culture and civilisation of mankind which has ever threatened it since the collapse of the . . . ancient world’, his greater ambition compelled him, for the time being, to put to one side his virulent hostility towards communism in order to secure his eastern border.
Through the spring and summer of 1939, Hitler berated the Polish government in Warsaw, demanding that Germany be allowed to reclaim the port of Danzig, a former German city internationalised by the Treaty of Versailles. He also claimed that ethnic Germans living in Western Poland were being mistreated and demanded they be liberated.
However, despite Stalin’s purges of his military elites in 1937 and 1938, which had seriously weakened his forces, Hitler and his generals were wary of a scenario that would repeat the nightmare of the Great War – a conflict on two fronts, where Germany and its allies fought Russian troops in the east and French and British troops in the west.
To avoid such an alarming outcome, in August 1939, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, flew from Berlin to Moscow. He was soon inside the Kremlin’s towering walls, face-to face with Stalin and Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who had been working with Ribbentrop to negotiate an agreement.
Ribbentrop carried a proposal from Hitler, suggesting that both countries commit to a non-aggression pact that would last a hundred years; Stalin replied that ten years would be enough! He just needed time to continue the build-up of his armed forces in readiness for the future conflict with Germany that he knew was inevitable.
The proposal contained a secret protocol, which, in colloquial parlance, was a territorial ‘stitch-up’. It specified the spheres of influence in Eastern Europe that both parties would accept. Germany would occupy Western Poland, including Warsaw, while the Soviet Union would acquire the eastern half of Poland, along with the Baltic States.
The protocol was startlingly blunt.
1. 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 interest of Germany and the USSR. In this respect, the interests in the Vilna [Vilnius] area are recognised by each party.
2. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the area belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of influence of Germany and the USSR shall be bounded approximately by the rivers Narew, Vistula and San.
3. With regard to South-Eastern Europe, attention is called by the Soviet side to its interests in Bessarabia [between Moldova and Ukraine]. The German side declares its complete political disinterest in these areas.
4. This protocol shall be treated by both parties as strictly secret.
Satan had bought himself the time he needed to expand his armed forces, while the Devil had secured his eastern border until such time as he was ready to launch his mighty onslaught eastwards.
Sergo Beria, the son of Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD from 1938, wrote an account of his father’s life, which was published in English in 2000. A teenager at the outbreak of war, Sergo was close to his father and privy to the machinations of life in the Kremlin. Although much of the book attempts to bolster the claim that his father, ‘Stalin’s Butcher’, was not the evil apparatchik condemned by history, it does offer a unique view of the intrigues, jealousies and plots that typified life inside the Soviet Politburo (the executive committee of the communist regime) during the war.
The younger Beria offers us an insight into Stalin’s manoeuvring around the non-aggression pact with Germany, amidst the power politics operating in Europe at the time:
‘Down to the last moment my father tried to persuade Stalin not to sign the German–Soviet Pact. The Germans were negotiating with Britain through Sweden, and with us. When Stalin concluded that the British and French were deceiving us, he wound up the whole business in 48 hours, without consulting the Politburo. The Politburo was far from unanimously enthusiastic, but Stalin explained that war with Germany was inevitable and that this pact was only provisional. It was necessary to win time and to make sure that the USSR would not have to face Hitler alone.’
Valentin Berezhkov, Stalin’s interpreter in both German and English, wrote about his time with Stalin in detail in his 1994 memoir, At Stalin’s Side. In it, he confirms the Machiavellian nature of Satan’s pact with the Devil: ‘Stalin was reasoning, Germany’s readiness to sign the pact clearly showed that its government had decided to attack not the East, but the West. This conflict could turn out to be quite protracted, which would enable the Soviet Union to stay out of it until Stalin concluded it was time to get involved. In terms of that time and place, this was a logical way of thinking. Every country that was potentially a target for Nazi aggression was reasoning roughly along the same lines.’
Soviet General Georgy Zhukov, who would soon become a key player in the war to come, dismissed Britain and France’s diplomacy in 1939 as both naive and cowardly: ‘While bombs had not yet begun to explode in their own home, the class interests of the long-standing allies in the struggle against the first socialist state boiled down to one and the same thing – they kept bowing to Hitler.’
He later quoted Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s leading general, speaking at his war crimes trial at Nuremburg in 1945: ‘If we did not collapse already in 1939 that was due to the fact that during the Polish Campaign, the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against 23 German divisions.’
Dawid Sierakowiak, a fourteen-year-old son of a Jewish family in Łódź, Poland, saw the events of 1939 very differently. With thousands of his fellow Poles, he was one of the first of millions who stood in the way of the terror to come: ‘Terrible, interesting, strange news! The Germans are concluding a non-aggression pact with the Soviets! What a turnabout! What a capitulation of Nazi ideology! The Soviets apparently do not want to interfere in European politics . . . Mobilisation! We don’t know if this is the real thing or not, but nearly every recruit is mobilising. Many of our neighbours have already gone . . . There’s not the least hint of defeatism. There are tens of thousands of volunteers . . . old Jews, young women, Hasidic Jews, all citizens (except Germans) are rushing to volunteer. The bloody Hun will not pass!’
Still believing, somewhat naively, that France and Great Britain would not meet their treaty obligations to Poland, and knowing he had nothing to fear from the Soviet Army, Hitler ordered his troops to strike eastwards into Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. The catastrophe that was the Second World War had begun. Sierakowiak witnessed the German invasion.
‘Friday 1st September: The German army has crossed the border in several places. Things are boiling around the world. We are waiting for France and England to join the war, maybe even the United States. Meanwhile, we’re repelling German attacks quite well. I shall go to bed half-dressed.’
Sierakowiak’s optimism soon evaporated. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) overwhelmed Polish forces in the west.
‘September 6th: Oh God, what’s going on! Panic, departures en masse, defeatism. The city, abandoned by its institutions and the police, awaits the imminent arrival of the German army in terror. People are running nervously from place to place, anxiously carrying around their worn-out possessions. There is crying and lamenting in the streets. Reservists and recruits are running away. Following them are women carrying bundles on their backs, filled with clothes, bedding and food. Even small children are running.
September 12th: Jews are being seized, beaten and robbed. The store where my father works was robbed as the local Germans freely indulge their whims. People speak about the way Jews are treated at work. Some are treated decently but others are sadistically abused. Some Jews were ordered to stop working, to remove their clothes and stand and face the wall, at which point they said they would be shot. Shots were fired in their direction, and although nobody was killed, it was repeated several times.’
Stalin’s invasion of Poland from the east began on 17 September. Caught in a vice between two hugely powerful aggressors, Poland fell in just thirty-five days.
Sierakowiak kept his diary until August 1943, when he died of tuberculosis in the Łódź Ghetto. His last entry reads: ‘I so very much want to live and survive.’ His sister died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
For the rest of 1939 and into 1940, both Germany and the Soviet Union used their pact to consolidate their positions. In Britain and France, the period became known as the ‘Phoney War’, during which, from their perspective, little of military consequence appeared to be happening. But it was far from ‘phoney’ elsewhere.
At the end of November, the Red Army invaded Finland, opening what became known as the ‘Winter War’. The conflict continued until the middle of March 1940, when a peace treaty was signed – the Moscow Peace Treaty – in which Finland conceded 11 per cent of its territory and over 30 per cent of its economic resources. Hostilities would later reignite as part of the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, when Finnish forces invaded Soviet-occupied Finnish territory.
The Phoney War came to a dramatic end in the spring of 1940, when German forces struck in Western Europe. Norway and Denmark were invaded on 9 April, and on 10 May the Wehrmacht rolled into the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Hitler outflanked the Maginot Line, France’s elaborate defensive fortifications, by attacking north of it, through the heavily forested and difficult terrain of the Ardennes.
The Dutch Army surrendered on 14 May, the Belgians on the 28th. By 9 June, Norway had fallen. On the 14th, German soldiers were marching along Paris’s Champs-Élysées in triumph. Marshal Pétain’s Vichy France was declared on 22 June and on the following day, Adolf Hitler strutted around the tourist sites of Paris as a conquering hero. As he did so, he may well have been imagining that his next pompous swagger would be across the cobblestones of Moscow’s Red Square.
As Western Europe was falling under Nazi control, one of the worst atrocities of the war was taking place in the east. After the Red Army had annexed Eastern Poland, the NKVD took thousands of prisoners, many of them Polish soldiers, but it also rounded up hundreds of intellectuals, clergymen, landowners – and any others it disliked. On 5 March 1940, following a recommendation to Stalin from Beria, a document was signed ordering the execution of 25,700 Polish ‘nationalists and counter-revolutionaries’.
The executions were mainly carried out in the Katyn Forest, which is now in the Russian Federation, twelve miles west of Smolensk. The death toll by firing squad was at least 22,000. A mass grave of 3,000 Polish officers was discovered in 1942, during the German occupation of the area. When Germany announced the gruesome find and accused the Soviet Union of the crime, the Kremlin denied it. Soviet deceit was compounded when the area of Katyn was liberated by the Red Army, in 1943, and it ‘rediscovered’ the atrocity. The Kremlin at once laid the blame at the door of the retreating Wehrmacht.
Despite much speculation, denials and counter-denials, this remained the official position until the 1990s, when future Russian President Boris Yeltsin released top-secret files to Polish President, Lech Walesa. The documents finally revealed that the massacre had been an NKVD crime.
All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks).
March 5, 1940
Resolution of March 5, 1940
144. The matter from the NKVD USSR.
I. Instruct the NKVD USSR:
1) the cases of 14,700 people remaining in the prisoner of-war camps – former Polish Army officers, government officials, landowners, policemen, intelligence agents, military policemen, settlers and jailers,
2) and also the cases of arrested and remaining in prisons in the western districts of Ukraine and Belorussia people in the number of 11,000 – members of various counterrevolutionary spy and sabotage organizations, former landowners, factory owners, former Polish Army officers, government officials and fugitives – to be considered in a special manner with the obligatory sentence of capital punishment – shooting.
II. The consideration of the cases to be carried out without the convicts being summoned and without revealing the charges; with no statements concerning the conclusion of the investigation and the bills of indictment given to them. To be carried out in the following manner:
a) people remaining in the prisoner-of-war camps – on the basis of information provided by the Directorate of Prisoner-of-War Affairs NKVD USSR, b) people arrested – on the basis of case information provided by the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR and NKVD of the Belorussian SSR.
III. The responsibility for consideration of the cases and the passing of the resolution to be laid on a troika that consists of C. C. Merkulov, Kobulov and Bashtakov (Head, 1st Special Division of the NKVD USSR).
The Secretary of the CC
Stalin had signed the order, but there were many more with blood on their hands. Included in the documents was Beria’s death warrant.