It is commonly understood that World War Two was an almost inevitable continuation of the Great War. Many point to Versailles – that portion of the final treaties dictated in Paris by the Allies and dealing with Germany. Hitler certainly used Versailles as a rallying cry. But the seeds were sown not merely by this dictated, so-called “treaty.”
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
Before getting to the unfathomable history of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, Snyder sets the stage with a brief examination of the birthing of both Hitler and Stalin – two men not born in a vacuum, but products of events and activities that came before and during their respective rises to power.
Reflecting on the aftermath of the Great War:
The war broke the old land empires of Europe, while inspiring dreams of new ones….It showed that millions of men would obey orders to fight and die, for causes abstract and distant, in the name of homelands that were already ceasing to be or only come into being.
World War One was a drastic break for Europe – Jacques Barzun marks it as the “blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction.” FJP Veale traces the beginning of the return to barbarism in Europe to some aspects of the Napoleonic Wars and the introduction into Europe of American barbarity honed in Lincoln’s destruction of the South and subsequent treatment of American Indian populations in the West. However, it is the Great War that he sees as a decisive turning point: “Seen in perspective it is now clear that the First World War was an unqualified disaster for the White Race.”
Returning to Snyder:
More than a million Armenians were killed by Ottoman authorities. Germans and Jews were deported by the Russian Empire. Bulgarians, Greeks, and Turks were exchanged among national states after the war.
While not living in perfect peace, it should be remembered that integrated societies built Europe over the course of centuries. Armenians, Arabs, Jews and Greeks lived within the Ottoman Empire, with the worst atrocities occurring only during the last years of that dying empire. Germans and Jews lived throughout Central and Eastern Europe, contributing significantly to the culture and technology in every region. World War One shattered this multi-cultural world, and cemented the dangerous idea of nation-state.
Just as important, the war shattered an integrated global economy. No adult European alive in 1914 would ever see the restoration of comparable free trade; most European adults alive in 1914 would not enjoy comparable levels of prosperity during the rest of their lives.
For those who believe the activity associated with war is stimulative to the economy, the last paragraph should be read again. Instead, the war was good for the revolutionaries, offering an environment conducive to further radical transformations – communist utopias, fascist efficiencies, and democratic gods.
The first to succumb was the Russian Empire, with the liberal revolution of February giving way to the communist revolution of November – thanks to the Germans and a railroad car brought from Switzerland, with a cargo – both human and gold – intended to distract the Russians from the war on Germany’s east.
Russia lost significant territory at the end of the conflict: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland all became independent republics at the end of the war. This was viewed by the communists as little more than a short term defeat – continued war would eventually bring these lands under the communist fold, something Stalin apparently intended with his maneuvers against Germany and the West in the run-up to the Second World War.
Of these new republics, Poland was the most significant. It was the largest, and for the first time in more than a century it separated Germany from Russia – it was an impediment to the designs of its neighbors both east and west. Poland could come into existence because the three powers that consumed it at the end of the eighteenth century – the German, Hapsburg, and Russian Empires – all ceased to exist by the end of the Great War.
The reinvigorated Poland didn’t sit still:
In 1919 and 1920, the Poles and the Bolsheviks fought a war for the borderlands between Poland and Russia that was decisive for the European order. The Red Army had moved into Ukraine and Belarus as the Germans had withdrawn, but these gains were not acknowledged by the Polish leadership.
Józef Piłsudski, the post-war Polish leader, had visions of restoring Poland to its prior glory – every nationalist claims as legitimate their national borders in existence at the height of national history. Poland advanced, the Soviets countered – securing Ukraine – and advanced into Poland. Lenin saw Warsaw and thereafter Berlin soon to come under the flag of the revolution. The Polish army stopped this dream in Warsaw in August 1920.
Poland countered and pushed again into Belarus and Ukraine – with Stalin a political officer of the defeated Red Army. Eventually these territories were divided between Poland and the Bolsheviks. Jews, Ukrainians, and Belarusians separated by a border not previously existent in the lifetimes of the current inhabitants. Finally, in March 1921, a treaty between Poland and the Bolsheviks, signed in Riga, brought this war to a close.
Meanwhile, Germany birthed its own communists: “They would take their instructions from the Communist International, established by Lenin in 1919.” But it wasn’t just the communists in Germany that found common ground with the Soviets:
Once the fighting in Europe had ceased, the German government quickly found common ground with the Soviet Union. After all, both Berlin and Moscow wanted to change the European order at the expense of Poland.
The two governments signed the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922, “restoring diplomatic relations, easing trade, and inaugurating secret military cooperation.” Viktor Suvorov covers this extensive cooperation between the Soviets and the German Fascists in his book The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II. It should be kept in mind that Hitler was, after all, a National Socialist.
Versailles has been extensively discussed by many sources. Whatever one believes about the weight of reparations, etc., it is clear that Hitler effectively used this treaty to drum up support within the German people. The weight of the reparations and the reality that self-determination was a meaningless term for the ten million or so Germans living outside the borders of Germany: both were used to generate internal support. Hitler certainly knew how to rouse the masses.
Meanwhile, deprived of lands in the west by Poland, Lenin turned inward to build some form of socialist state. Despite losing the only elections they held (and thereafter calling no others), with an army insufficient to advance to the west but sufficient to defeat all internal rivals, with a secret service (the Cheka) killing thousands of internal threats – Lenin built his state. Stalin eventually consolidated this power.
The stage was set – the ground was made fertile for both Hitler and Stalin. Each took advantage of the opportunity. And each saw the fertile lands between Berlin and Moscow as an integral part of their respective visions.
During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.
It began with the famines….