World War II was one of the most catastrophic periods in human history, marked by unprecedented violence, genocide, and destruction. Yet, while the war's narrative is dominated by the Axis and western Allied powers, the role of the Soviet Union, particularly under Joseph Stalin, in indirectly supporting Nazi Germany's campaign of terror and conquest, often goes underreported. Drawing on several historical excerpts, this article will unpack the Soviet Union's involvement in Nazi war efforts and their failure to protect or inform their Jewish population of impending atrocities.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed in the early hours of August 24, 1939, in a surreal ceremony where swastikas fluttered alongside the hammer and sickle. The swastika flags purportedly came from a movie studio, where they had been used for anti-Nazi propaganda films. The ten-year non-aggression pact between the USSR and Germany was accompanied by a secret protocol outlining the spheres of influence for each power in Eastern Europe, including the partition of Poland and the granting of the Baltic States and Bessarabia to the Soviets.
Stalin made a closing toast, stating, "I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink to his health." The toast was ironic considering the hostile stance the USSR had previously maintained towards Nazi Germany. Stalin’s first gift after the pact was awarding Germany around 600 German Communists, most of whom were Jews. He had them extradited to the Gestapo in Brest-Litovsk, a symbolic location steeped in historical implications. Among the extradited was Hans David, a gifted composer, who later perished in the gas chambers of Majdanek, a fate shared by many others. This process of handing over Jewish and/or communist prisoners to the Nazis persisted beyond 1939.
Margarete Buber-Neumann, a former communist turned staunch anti-communist, was one such individual transferred from Soviet imprisonment to the hands of the Gestapo in 1940. Surviving the brutal conditions of both a Soviet prison and a Nazi concentration camp, Buber-Neumann later penned the memoir "Under Two Dictators," detailing the harsh realities of life under the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler.
In the initial stages of World War II, after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany embarked on a diplomatic relationship that allowed for territorial expansion and political maneuvering. The two totalitarian socialist regimes formed an uneasy partnership characterized by economic cooperation, information withholding, and non-aggression. This alliance's impact on the Jewish population, particularly in the Soviet-occupied zone of Poland, was severe and catastrophic.
The ideological calculus of Stalin's foreign policy became apparent in his anticipation of the imminent German attack on Poland. Recognizing the inevitability of British and French intervention, Stalin saw a unique opportunity to advance the cause of communism. From his perspective, a protracted conflict between capitalist powers presented an ideal scenario, sowing discord and creating opportunities for the spread of Soviet influence.
Stalin was explicit in his machinations, expressing that the USSR, the Land of the Toilers, would stand to gain from a drawn-out war that would weaken both the Reich and the Anglo-French bloc. Fearing a swift conclusion to the war, Stalin stressed the importance of aiding Germany to ensure a long and costly conflict. Despite the ongoing tensions with Japan in the Far East, Stalin envisioned the USSR's eventual entry into the European theater at a time most advantageous to Soviet interests. The Soviet leader's strategic vision underlined a ruthless pragmatism and an uncompromising commitment to the communist cause.
The mass deportation of approximately one million Polish refugees initiated by Lavrentiy Beria's NKVD in February 1940, half of whom were Jews, highlights the first disturbing aspect of the Soviet-Nazi collaboration. The deportees, categorized under various labels such as 'The Jewish National Counterrevolution' were sent to Siberia under horrendous conditions that led to many deaths en route. Notably, many Jewish leaders and activists were among the arrested, including Menachem Begin, a young Zionist leader, and Henryk Ehrlich and Viktor Alter, founders of the Polish Bund, Poland's largest Jewish party. This mass deportation represented the “chief administrative method of Sovietization.”
At the same time, the Soviet authorities kept the Jewish population uninformed about the ongoing Nazi atrocities just across the border, maintaining a deliberate silence that enabled the Holocaust. As part of the non-aggression pact, Soviet organs did not report the genocidal massacres conducted by the Nazis between 1939 and 1941. Those aforementioned anti-Nazi films were no longer being produced. Soviet newspapers like Pravda scarcely even used the word “fascist” from 1939 to 1941. This silence continued even after the Nazis broke the pact and invaded the USSR, a move that precipitated the extermination of 1.5 million Jews in White Russia and Ukraine. In essence, Stalin's silence and inaction allowed the Holocaust to unfold without any meaningful resistance or counteraction.
Moreover, Soviet complicity contributed to the normalization of Nazi violence. Jewish victims of mass executions were routinely referred to as "Poles" or "Ukrainians" in Soviet media, obscuring the specific anti-Semitic nature of the Nazi pogroms. The Soviet population, despite constant indoctrination, was not educated about Nazi anti-Semitism or their genocide plan, fostering ignorance that ultimately led to widespread collaboration against Jewish populations.
In tandem with these policies, the Soviet Union also provided economic support to Nazi Germany, which was instrumental in facilitating Hitler's war of conquest. The importance of this assistance cannot be underestimated as the USSR supplied significant quantities of food and raw materials to the Nazis. For instance, during the invasion of France and the Low Countries, the USSR supplied the Reich with 163,000 tons of petroleum and 243,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat in May and June of 1940 alone. As German demand increased during critical battles, such as at Dunkirk, Soviet oil deliveries surged to meet the needs, effectively fueling Hitler's conquest of Western Europe.
Publicly, the Soviet Union even supported the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. The French Communist Party was instructed not to resist the Germans, leading to a wave of defections and further weakening France's ability to withstand the German onslaught. Despite internal dissension and resistance, the Soviets continued to propagate defeatist slogans, actively undermining the war effort against the Nazis.
In today's discourse, there is a tendency among Soviet apologists to laud the USSR as the singular force that ultimately toppled the Nazi regime in 1945. This, of course, ignores the critical support that came from the US via Lend-Lease. Even Stalin admitted “Without the machines we received through Lend-Lease, we would have lost the war." While the sacrifices made by millions of Soviet soldiers should not be forgotten or swept under the rug, it is vital for us to simultaneously illuminate the darker corners of this past.
We should resist the call to ignore the sobering reality of the Soviet Union's complicity. One cannot forget that the initial alliance forged between Stalin and Hitler was rooted not in necessity but sprouted from the soil of Stalin's socialist ideology. Such was the poison entwined within this political tapestry that, had Hitler not invaded the USSR in 1941, or had he chosen to altogether forgo this path, the Soviet Union might have continued to stand in silence and support. Their eyes turned away, they could have remained an observer and accomplice as the monstrous Nazi regime crept across Europe.
As we peer into the past, a shadow of sorrow is cast, an echo of lament for the once voiceless victims, resonating with a plea that history might not repeat its darkest hours. Our duty to memory requires us to hold these bitter truths close and learn from them if we are to honor the legacies of those who suffered and died under the shadow of totalitarian regimes.