The Soviet Union armed, fed and encouraged an expansionist Nazi Germany — only to ultimately become its worst victim
May 08, 2021
The National Post
Saturday marks the 76th anniversary of VE Day, the day when the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany inaugurated peace throughout the Second World War’s European theatre.
While Westerners tend to see the war through the lens of events such as D-Day or the Battle of Britain, it was a conflict largely won by the Soviet Union. An incredible eight out of 10 German war casualties occurred on the Eastern Front. As German chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2015 “the Red Army played the decisive role in liberating Germany.”
For this, the Soviet Union paid dearly: An estimated ten million military dead (approx. 50% Ukrainian), more than every other Allied nation combined. On average, every 24 days the Soviet Union saw enough men killed to equal the entire wartime losses of the United Kingdom (383,700). If you were a Soviet male born in 1923, there was a 70 per cent chance you never lived to see Victory on Europe Day.
Victory over fascism remains the USSR’s signature achievement — and the triumph is often used to justify the worst repressions of the Soviet state. In the words of the Marxist British historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the victory over Hitler’s Germany was essentially won, and could only have been won, by the Red Army.”
What these boosters ignore is how the world’s first communist state was also instrumental to ensuring that a devastating global conflict broke out in the first place. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were obviously the principal architects of the Second World War, but below find the lesser-known story of how the march to global war was encouraged, abetted and supplied by the USSR.
A Nazi-Soviet conspiracy directly sparked the war
The first shots of the Second World War were a direct result of a Soviet diplomat meeting a Nazi diplomat, shaking his hand, and telling Hitler’s Germany to do whatever they wanted with Western Europe.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – so named for the foreign ministers of each dictatorship – had an immediate effect on European peace. Within eight days of its signing, German bombs began to rain down on Warsaw.
Officially called the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet government would long assert that the pact was nothing more than a benign neutrality agreement, a necessary alliance in the face of perfidious French and English unwillingness to join with Moscow in an anti-fascist bloc. In truth, Molotov-Ribbentrop was two dictatorships dividing up the world map to their own ends.
In the late 1980s, the Soviet policy of Glasnost (openness) would finally reveal that Molotov-Ribbentrop had included secret protocols carving up Poland as well as giving the Soviet Union free reign to annex the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. As Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev revealed in a 1989 column in Pravda, Stalin and Hitler were indeed guilty of “collusion” in 1939.
With his eastern flank secured, the pact unleashed Hitler to steamroll first Poland, then Norway, and then finally France, Belgium and everything in between. Similarly, the Soviet Union also exploited the new peace agreement to unleash hell on its neighbours: After seizing Eastern Poland and the Baltic States, the Red Army attacked Japanese forces in Mongolia and staged an all-out unprovoked invasion of Finland.
Hitler’s subjugation of Western Europe was powered in part by Soviet resources
It’s telling that when Anglo-French commanders drew up plans for one of the first strategic bombing operations of the war, their target wasn’t German factories or even German military installations: It was oil refineries in the Soviet Union.
Operation Pike was a plan to attack Soviet oil production facilities in what is now modern-day Azerbaijan. The idea wasn’t just to kneecap the ongoing Soviet assault on its Baltic and Finnish neighbours, but to deny petroleum to the Nazis.
After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was inked, Nazi and Soviet diplomats then turned to drafting a comprehensive trade agreement between the two countries: Nazi Germany would ship manufactured goods east, while the Soviet Union sent raw materials west. The result was what historians have called a “not inconsiderable” Soviet lifeline to the German war machine: Wood, phosphates, mineral ores, cotton and 1.3 million tonnes of grains and cereals.
While the First World War had been won in part thanks to a crippling blockade imposed on Imperial Germany, as the Allies geared up for war in 1939 they faced a Germany fed, fuelled and clothed by Soviet suppliers. Nazi Germany even had a direct link to the Pacific Ocean via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The Soviets had nurtured clandestine trade relationships with Germany long before Hitler came to power. After the First World War, Germany was severely limited in its military production by the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. To get around it, German leaders simply struck a deal with Moscow to rearm using secret military bases and even armaments factories built on Soviet soil. By the time the Nazis took control in 1933, they inherited a German Military Industrial Complex that had been supercharged by Soviet collusion.
Soviet imports may not have been overly critical to supplying the Wehrmacht in 1940. The Soviet Union was never able to supply more than 4.5 million barrels of oil to the Third Reich (for context, the Canadian oil sands produce three million barrels per day). But it’s difficult to overstate the lingering German trauma of the shortages that had accompanied the end of the First World War; by fitting Germany to a Soviet lifeline, Hitler was able to overcome one of his country’s principle fears of entering new war. “By the summer of 1940, the Soviet Union had become the most important supplier of raw materials to the German Reich,” wrote the German historian Heinrich Schwendemann in 1995.
Ultimately, the consequences of trade with Hitler would be felt most sharply by the Soviets themselves, who saw their eventual Nazi invaders disproportionately supplied by Soviet goods. “Over and over on the eastern front, the same ironic scene was played out. German soldiers fed by Ukrainian grain, transported by Caucasus oil, and outfitted with boots made from rubber shipped via the Trans–Siberian railroad fired their Donetz–manganese–hardened steel weapons at their former allies,” wrote Edward E. Ericson in a 1999 history of Soviet-Nazi trade.
Trade ties between the two dictatorships would continue right up to the bitter end. In the spring of 1941, as millions of German troops began marching east for their genocidal invasion of the Soviet Union, many reported passing trains of Soviet grain going the other direction.
Stalin openly pined for a devastating world war, just one that wouldn’t involve him
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Vladimir Lenin looked out at a Europe strewn with destruction and saw reason for joy. The catastrophe would topple empires, destabilize treasured institutions and sow misery in the masses: All prime ingredients for Marxist revolution. As Lenin wrote to fellow Marxists in 1915, their job was to “turn the imperialist war into civil war.”
And he was sort of correct: Without the utterly destabilizing effects of the First World War on Imperial Russia, Lenin would probably have lived out his life as an embittered Swiss pamphleteer rather than becoming the all-powerful dictator of the world’s largest empire.
For similar reasons, Joseph Stalin was also encouraged by the prospect of the planet once again descending into apocalyptic conflict. As the historian Timothy Snyder wrote in his 2010 book Bloodlands, Stalin’s goal in 1939 was “destroy the enemies by their own hands and remain strong to the end of the war.”
The Soviet dictator assumed that a second world war would look very similar to the first: Germany, England and France all mired in years of devastating trench warfare. At war’s end, it didn’t matter who won; the “capitalist” powers would be so ruined by conflict that, just like 1917 Russia, they would be ripe for communist takeover.
“Our goal is that Germany should carry out the war as long as possible so that England and France grow weary and become exhausted to such a degree that they are no longer in a position to put down a Sovietized Germany,” Stalin reportedly said in a secret 1939 speech to the Soviet Politburo.
It’s a controversial theory – most notably because Hitler himself justified Operation Barbarossa as a “pre-emptive” war against a Soviet threat to the West. It’s dubious that Stalin ever planned his own unprompted invasion of Germany, but over the years a trickle of Soviet defectors and Comintern bureaucrats have reported firsthand accounts of the Moscow inner circle seeing renewed world war as tool to fire the flames of revolution.
“A Russian diplomat in London later remarked indiscreetly that, while most of the world weighed Allied and German casualties against each other, Stalin added the two together to compile an assessment of his own balance of advantage,” wrote the historian Max Hastings in Inferno.
The plan backfired when the war instead turned to one of lightning German victories. The Soviet Union officially congratulated Hitler on his 1940 defeat of France. Behind the scenes, however, Stalin was livid. After the fall of France, future Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev wrote in his memoirs that “Stalin was in a great agitation, very nervous. He cursed the French, cursed the English, (asking) ‘How come they allowed Hitler to thrash them?’”
But while Stalin may not have foreseen the extent of the Nazi terrors that would strike his own country, his basic strategic calculus was ultimately correct: A war-battered planet did indeed become ripe for communist takeover.
The world of 1945 saw Soviet tendrils extended everywhere from Korea to the heart of Germany itself, and transformed Russia from an underdog European power into one of two contenders for global hegemony.