“WWII started long before Germany’s attack on Poland” – historian
As the 65th anniversary of Victory Day approaches, historian Yaroslav Butakov tells RT to what extent did the national self-interest fueled the horrors of the conflict.
RT: It is common to view the start of WWII as Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939, but military conflicts were going on in other parts of the world, too, before that. So, how legitimate is the date?
Yaroslav Butakov: Hitler’s attack on Poland was far from being the first aggressive act of Nazi Germany in Europe. A year before that, Czechoslovakia had been captured, with the approval and signing of a relevant agreement by the leaders of the Western powers of Great Britain and France. Large-scale warfare in East Asia began with Japan’s attack on China in July 1937, where considerably more people were involved than in Europe in 1939, if we take into account how many people lived in Japan and China. Besides, a number of great powers found themselves indirectly engaged in the conflict, in one way or another. During that period, the USSR and the US, although without any agreement, but due to their strategic interests, lent assistance to China.
Thus, what date shall we consider the start of the war? In the Far East it is Japan’s attack on China, while the start of the Second World War – in Europe – began with Germany’s expansion, from the capture of Austria in March 1938. British Prime Minister Churchill wrote later that the only country which protested against the Anschluss of Austria was the Soviet Union.
RT: Some historians now suggest the war started with Hitler’s Pact with Stalin. What was the reasoning for Stalin to go ahead with the Pact?
YB: None other than Winston Churchill himself explains Stalin’s thinking. He wrote absolutely frankly, if I may summarize him as saying that at that time, that the Soviet Union was acting rather realistically, although quite cynically. The Russians well remembered their losses in WWI, so for them it was extremely important to move their borders as further to the West as possible.
A war with Germany was inevitable – that was something the Soviet leadership had always been aware of, if we consider Hitler’s Mein Kampf as proclaiming an advance eastwards and capturing living space in the East being the main objective. So it was only a matter of trying to defer the war. And the question was what strategic conditions were there to deal with war.
Besides, let’s pay attention to the fact that as a result of the Soviet-German treaty of 1939, the Soviet Union did not annex a square foot of Polish territory. Or, rather, in 1939, a part of Polish territory was indeed annexed – Bialystok, but after 1945 it was returned to Poland.
RT: Did the Soviet Union have any expansionist interest at that time?
YB: I believe the Soviet Union did not have any expansionist aspirations, in traditional Western terms – to obtain territories to be used for exploitation and profits, territories to be treated as colonies.
The Soviet Union needed to provide for its geopolitical security, to have its borders less vulnerable. Eventually, the Soviet Union gained the territories – except Poland and Finland – the Russian Empire used to have, before 1914.
RT: Before it was attacked by Germany, Poland refused to allow Soviet troops to march through its territory to prevent the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Do you think Poland lost a chance to stop Hitler right then?
YB: Absolutely. Absolutely. Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia let the German troops practically surround Poland from three sides. After Czechoslovakia was occupied, it was as if Poland was inviting attack.
Hitler’s troops won the ideal position for an attack against Poland and its eventual defeat, which means Poland had lost its chance. It took part in the Munich Appeasement as it used the opportunity to annex a part of Czechoslovakian territory. However, in pursuing this little advantage, Poland missed something more important. I mean the country’s leadership of that time.
RT: Was the UK policy of appeasement and reluctance to ally with the Soviet Union in part due to the fact that the UK Government at that time was very anti-Communist?
YB: When Nazi Germany began to rise and transform into a potential threat, many British leaders hoped that Germany’s drive could immediately be channeled eastwards, which later proved wrong. Eastwards I mean to Poland, Czechoslovakia and further to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile the West would stay out of it, and after Germany had swallowed the East and had become weaker, the West could even attack Germany.
What actually happened disproved all these calculations. They were proved wrong. England and France finally realized that in the spring of 1940 – although before that time, the General Staffs in England and France had been working out plans to attack the USSR.
RT: Operation Unthinkable – was that another point at which the Allies came close to becoming adversaries?
YB: In summer 1945, after the war with Germany ended – yes. Not long ago those secret plans were revealed – now declassified. Again, it was a private initiative of Churchill or maybe someone else in the British leadership. At that period, the United States, being aware of the plan, did not back it as the US considered it unnecessary and pernicious. Churchill’s plan was reckless and was apparently not aimed at actual implementation – and he might well have realised that. It just could not have been taken as a command.
This plan was made just in case, so to speak – should any unpredictable complications with the Soviet Union emerge – provided that the US would also want to talk to the Soviet Union from a position of strength. Then this Operation Unthinkable would have been put into operation.
One way or another, in summer of 1945, the spirit of co-operation between the allies, at least until a certain test, was still there.
RT: The UK was slow, you say, to open the Second Front, but it was engaged in military action in the Middle East. How was that supposed to help the Allies in Europe?
YB: The main purpose of Britain’s policy was to preserve and even increase the sphere of its immediate influence in Europe and particularly in Eastern Europe, after the Second World War. So Churchill was long insisting that the Second Front be opened in the Balkans – for British troops to disembark there, occupy Greece, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, and move through Hungary, perhaps even to Germany. The main idea was to not allow Soviet troops there.
During the war this strategy proved not to work, because Britain, without the support of the US and the USSR could not have defeated Germany on its own.
What’s more, the US elite considered that after the war, the USSR and the US would sensibly divide spheres of influence between themselves, thus to provide peace all over the world. The mood was that this war would be the last one.
After this war, the USSR and the US, with two powers more – Great Britain and China as the main police forces in the world, would provide peace all over the world.
RT: Is there any particular point of which it is possible to say the Cold War has its origin?
YB: The main point is that the US, as it obtained a monopoly for nuclear weapons, found itself not up to the mark, as it did not realize its responsibility for the world around it. With a nuclear bomb, it could strike any enemy in the world and remain invincible. Therefore it could speak with the Soviet Union, not from a position of co-operation, but of strength.
In other words, the date of the July 15, 1945, when the first nuclear bomb was tested in Los Alamos became a turning point. The first instance of nuclear blackmailing of the Soviet Union was in spring 1946, when the question of withdrawing allied forces from Iran emerged. Iran had been preemptively occupied by the Soviet Union and Great Britain during the war, so as not to let Iran be transformed into a springboard for forces allied with Germany.
It was agreed that in nine months after the war ended in Europe troops would leave Iran. In March 1946, Great Britain announced it was withdrawing its troops and categorically demanded that the Soviet Union did the same.
Iran asked the British troops to stay, but did not ask the Soviet Union the same. The Soviet Union began to linger, after which the United States sent a warning message to it saying that, should it continue to do so, the US would carry out a nuclear strike. Baku was among the immediate targets. So, the Soviet Union had to comply, as the Iranian question was not that significant. It was still March 1946.
RT: Who gained the most from the war?
YB: The main country that gained from the war was the United States of America. US territory had not been invaded. During the war the US economy grew dynamically while most of the other countries suffered, with their economies being in decline.
Due to the destruction of such independent political forces as Germany, Japan and Italy, and due to the weakening of Great Britain and France, the United States of America remained the only leader of the whole capitalist world.
Objectively speaking, it had worse consequences for the Soviet Union. Whereas before WWII, the USSR could manoeuvre between various groups of capitalist states in its foreign policy – which it proved very precisely in 1939 – after the war the USSR found itself face to face with the capitalist world united under US leadership.
RT: Rewriting and falsifying the history of WWII is not uncommon. So, who benefits from that?
YB: Russia’s current international status is 100% based on the victory in WWII. The fact that the Russian Federation is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, with a right of veto and has nuclear weapons is only due to the fact that the Russian Federation is a legal successor of the USSR – which has won this status exactly due to the victory in WWII.
Consequently, in order to try to overthrow Russia from its current status and try to degrade the international status of modern Russia, it is very important for our geopolitical adversaries to question the legitimacy of all the actions of the USSR during the Second World War and present the Soviet Union as if was the same aggressor as Nazi Germany.
This is done so as to undermine the current status of modern Russia – those remnants of the great power which still remain.