Myths and the truth
Every textbook will tell you that Soviet and Western Ukraine were reunited in September 1939. Some will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Those who respect the Act Zluky (Declaration of Reunion) signed on Jan. 22, 1919, will ignore it. Yet both events did take place and have the same import. This warrants certain questions. First, who used the earlier event for political purposes, how many times, and under what circumstances? Second, when did Western Ukraine actually reunite with the Ukrainian SSR? These questions were ignored in Soviet and post-Soviet historiography.
Answers to these questions are found in a series of articles by The Day’s regular contributor Dr. Stanislav Kulchytsky.
Let us go back to the late 1930s. A new generation had appeared on the historical arena, along with different political figures. The situation in Europe was reminiscent of that in the summer of 1914. The only difference was that there were three, rather than two, opposing centers. Under the circumstances the alignment of forces could change unpredictably.
In October 1936, Germany and Italy signed a cooperation protocol. Thus emerged the Berlin-Rome Axis. A month later, Germany and Japan made an anti-Comintern pact to form a military coalition of aggressive countries, the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo triangle.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin was completing its “revolution from upstairs,” allowing the Bolshevik leaders to freely make use of the resources of a giant country. Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). Short Course gives an answer to the question of how to go about using these resources: “in order to destroy the danger of capitalist intervention, the capitalist encirclement would have to be destroyed.” Addressing a meeting of party activists of the Kyiv Special Military District, Lev Mekhlis, head of the Political Directorate of the Workers and Peasants’ Red Army, stressed what was to be read between the lines in [Stalin’s] textbook: “If the spearhead of the second imperialistic war turns against the world’s first socialist country, it will be our duty to transfer military operations to the enemy’s territory in carrying out our international duty, and thus to add to the number of Soviet republics all over the world.”
Germany finished preparations for war ahead of other countries. France and Great Britain were lagging behind the way they did back in 1914. They were maneuvering, trying to channel Nazi aggression toward the USSR. In September 1938, Stalin was not invited to Munich where the Western countries granted Hitler’s requirements with regard to Czechoslovakia, in return for his guarantees of lasting peace. Hitler swallowed up Czechoslovakia like he did Austria previously. This, however, was not enough and he turned his attention to Poland.
Starting in March 1939, talks were held in Moscow with British and French officials, concerning the setting up of a system of collective security against the aggressor country. However, the leaders of the democratic countries were afraid that the Soviet side would not honor its commitments. Stalin, for his part, felt isolated after Munich. Addressing the 18th Congress of the VKP(b) on March 10, 1939, he declared that the Soviet Union would not “allow our country to be drawn into conflicts by warmongers who are accustomed to have others pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them…” His “chestnut” speech attracted Berlin’s attention, as did the retirement of Foreign Minister Maksim Litvinov (known for championing contacts with the UK and France). He was succeeded by Vyacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.
On April 3, Hitler approved the directive called Operation Fall Weiss that envisaged invasion and occupation of Poland. On March 31, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared in the House of Commons that his country and France would help Poland in every way, should this country fall prey to aggression. In other words, an attack on Poland threatened war in Europe. However, the directive of Operation Fall Weiss reads: “The political leadership sees its task in an isolated solution to the Polish issue as much as possible, i.e., limiting the warfare exclusively to the Polish territory.”
Considering the relations between the United States and Great Britain and between Japan and Germany, as well as the fact that Britain was an empire with territories on all continents, a war in Europe would automatically become a world war. Hitler had to secure his rear in the East, the more so that the occupation of Poland meant having a frontier between the Third Reich and the USSR. Not surprisingly, he decided to take advantage of Stalin’s desire to “add to the number of Soviet republics all over the world.”
On the initiative of German diplomats, Germany and the USSR started talks to step up economic relations. On May 20, the new Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov spoke with the German Ambassador Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg in Moscow, noting that the economic talks required a political basis in order to be successful. The German side assumed a wait-and-see attitude, fearing the Soviet side was trying to take advantage of their preparedness to reach an understanding in order to blackmail the UK and France that were holding talks in Moscow.
On June 5, Schulenburg reported to Berlin that Molotov was suggesting a political dialog. Even after that — and perhaps precisely in view of this — the German side kept stalling the process until on July 29 Ernst von Weizsaecker, Secretary of State in the Auswartiges Amt (Foreign Ministry), instructed Schulenburg to convey the following message to Molotov: “Regardless of the course the Polish issue takes — be it peaceful, as we wish it to be, or otherwise, implying the use of force — we are prepared to guarantee the Soviet interests and reach an understanding with the government of Moscow.”
On August 1, the German Foreign Ministry was advised of the Kremlin’s positive attitude to such an agreement. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop met in Berlin with Soviet Charge d’Affaires Georgii Astakhov and said, “We could agree on all problems relating to the territory from the Black to the Baltic Sea without any complications.”
The talks between Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939 have day-by-day and hour-by-hour historical accounts. On August 23 Ribbentrop appeared in Moscow. Late that evening the Soviet-German nonaggression treaty was signed and made public the following day. Attached to the treaty was a secret protocol, which became known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, that divided the spheres of mutual interests.
Article I of the Secret Additional Protocol dealt with the Baltic States: “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.”
Article II determined Poland’s delimitation: “In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San.” In other words, the greater part of Poland at the time was placed in the USSR’s sphere of interests. Praga Poludnie, Warsaw’s borough on the eastern bank of the Vistula, was also included in the Soviet sphere.
Article III read: “With regard to Southeastern Europe attention is called by the Soviet side to its interest in Bessarabia. The German side declares its complete political disinteredness in these areas.”
LIBERATION MISSION CONCEPT
Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Bound by a treaty, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. The Second World War was now a fact.
On the date of proclaiming war Ribbentrop conveyed a message to Molotov via the German ambassador, to the effect that the Polish army would be destroyed in several weeks’ time, whereupon what units would remain in the Soviet sphere of interests would have to be finished off. The ambassador was instructed to find out whether the Soviet Union was in a position to send troops to these areas. On September 5 Molotov replied that it was necessary to start taking concrete measures, but the time was not ripe as yet.
Literary sources are dominated by the assumption that Stalin was waiting for the Polish government to surrender or flee abroad. This assumption directly followed from the reason Molotov related to the Polish Ambassador W. Grzibowski on September 17, when Red Army units entered Polish territory, saying that the Polish state and its government had actually ceased to exist. That was precisely the reason why an official note stressed later that the Soviet leadership had ordered troops to cross the border and place under their protection the life and property of the residents of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. In a radio broadcast of his speech, which was immediately published by the press, Molotov informed that the Red Army had crossed the border to lend a helping hand to its Ukrainian and Belarusian brothers in Poland.
In the 1930s the USSR took an active part in the talks aimed at joining efforts to repel the aggressor. Addressing a disarmament conference in February 1933, Litvinov declared, on behalf of the Soviet government, that an armed aggression against any country without declaring war on it cannot be justified by its domestic situation, possible threat to the life and property of foreigners, denial of its state organization on this basis, and so on.
Viewed from this angle, the Red Army’s “liberation mission” was doubtlessly an act of aggression. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians and Belarusians whose land was engulfed by the war greeted the Red Army men who were supposed to protect their life and property. This was a natural response from the populace, and it served as a moral justification of the acts of Stalin’s government. Now it was possible to proclaim the annexation to the Soviet Union of territories mostly inhabited by Ukrainians and Belarusians as a reunion of brotherly peoples.
Now we need to ascertain the reason behind the reunion concept and precisely when it emerged. It should be remembered that this concept forced Stalin to abandon part of the Polish territories (the Lublin voivodeship and part of the Warsaw voivodeship) obtained on Aug. 23, 1939 under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
An answer as to the reason is obvious. It suffices to recall what happened between August 23 and September 17. On September 3, the war between Germany and Poland suddenly turned into a world war. Under the circumstances Red Army units crossing the Vistula would have turned Stalin into Hitler’s ally.
Hitler and Stalin realized that an attack on Poland could lead to a world war, but the passive reaction of the democratic European countries to the Anschluss and the annexation of Czechoslovakia gave them reason to expect Great Britain and France to adopt a similar view of the German invasion of Poland. On August 25, the House of Commons ratified the Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland, made on April 6 and providing for military aid: “Article 1. Should one of the Contracting Parties become engaged in hostilities with a European Power in consequence of aggression by the latter against that Contracting Party, the other Contracting Party will at once give the Contracting Party engaged in hostilities all the support and assistance in its power.”
Ribbentrop, however, wrote in his memoirs that Hitler did not expect England to get involved and start the war because of Poland at the time. Hitler’s and Stalin’s assumptions had on objective footing. Both dictators knew that neither Great Britain nor France was prepared for hostilities. In fact, neither started them, yet the war began.
An answer as to the timeframe is found in a resolution of the Politburo of the CC VKP(b) passed in the first half of September. On September 6 it was decided to prepare a military operation to be carried out in Poland. This resolution had a clause instructing the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs to put together and systematize data on Poland and submit it to Andrei Zhdanov on a top priority basis. The information these documents contained made it clear that Zhdanov took a special interest in the voivodeships where the Poles made up the minority of the population. So the need for this kind of data emerged on September 6.
The date of September 6 can be verified using other data. At the start of WW II the Comintern leadership adopted a favorable attitude toward statements made by communist parties that condemned Nazi Germany’s aggression. In a number of countries the local communist parties began to form military units to aid Poland, but on September 7 Stalin summoned Georgi Dimitrov, General Secretary of the Comintern, and explained that Poland was a fascist state that was oppressing the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and other ethnic minorities; that the Kremlin was making a sharp turn in its foreign policy: “War is going on between two groups of capitalist countries...for the division of the world, for domination of the entire world. We are not against their tearing one another to pieces and weakening one another… the liquidisation of this government under present conditions would mean one fascist government less. It wouldn’t be so bad if as a result of the destruction of Poland we extended the socialist system to new territories and populations.” The next day the Comintern’s executive committee sent out a circular to the communist parties. It read that international proletariat can under no circumstances defend fascist Poland that had rejected help from the Soviet Union and was oppressing other ethnic groups.
Berlin had to be advised of the decision made on September 6. Molotov summoned the courage to do so on September 10. He notified the German ambassador that Red Army units would enter Poland because it was necessary to protect the brotherly Ukrainians and Belarusians against the war. Molotov explained that this motivation was necessary for the Soviet Union to be able to explain this invasion to the masses, lest they regard it as an act of aggression.
Schulenburg referred to this message from Molotov as a top priority and top secret one. He must have hoped that Hitler would be able to talk Stalin out of masking his invasion of Poland as a “liberation mission,” for it was underscoring Germany’s aggression. Hitler, however, remained silent for quite some time. Possibly, he was not sure about the kind of response he should display. The Wehrmacht was already fighting Europe’s most powerful French army. A British expeditionary corps was being prepared to join the hostilities on the continent. The United States, with their inexhaustible manpower and materiel resources, was expected to get involved at a later point. Under the circumstances antagonizing the USSR made no sense.
On September 14, Pravda carried an editorial entitled “On Inner Reasons Behind Poland’s Defeat” (prepared by Zhdanov). It stressed that that the fiasco of the Polish army was caused not only by the Wehrmacht’s manpower, materiel superiority, and better organization or by the absence of aid from Great Britain and France, but largely due to the differences within the Polish state, considering its multiethnic structure and the fact that ethnic minorities had been suppressed there.