09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering the Nazi-Soviet Pact After Seventy Years

The first annual European-wide commemoration of the "the victims of
Stalinism and Nazism" took place on August 23. The resolution to
hold this event was passed recently by the Parliamentary Assembly of
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a
fifty-six-nation body, which includes the United States and describes
itself as the world's largest regional security organization. The
date, August 23, 2009, was chosen not by chance: it happens to be the
seventieth anniversary of the Non-Aggression Treaty signed between the
Soviet Union and the Third Reich. Stalin and Hitler agreed to divide
Poland and to carve Europe into spheres of influence. The Second World War
began only days later.

The Assembly's resolution, which celebrates the "reunification" of
Europe encourages members to promote human rights and civil liberties
and to fight all forms of extremism. Special mention is made of the
uniqueness of the Holocaust and the need to combat anti-Semitism. The
320 lawmakers in the Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor with only
eight opposed and four abstentions.

The Russian representatives, however, were incensed. Alexander
Kozlovsky, head of their delegation called the resolution "a public
insult against all Russians." His ire was raised by what he regarded
as the insensitivity of "those who place Nazism and Stalinism on the
same level" and forget "that it is the Stalin-era Soviet Union that
made the biggest sacrifices and the biggest contribution to liberating
Europe from fascism." Konstantin Kosachyov, who leads the Russian
Duma's international affairs committee in Moscow, said the motion was
"nothing but an attempt to rewrite the history of World War II by
placing responsibility for its causes, course and results equally on
Hitler's Germany and the former Soviet Union." Many ordinary Russians
were also upset. A national poll on July 25-26 by the All-Russian
Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), found that most
respondents (59 percent) generally agree with Kozlovsky and Kosachyov, while a
minority (21 percent) think the aim is to pay tribute to the victims of all
totalitarian regimes.

What we have here is a battle over memory, complicated by politics and
imprecise language. It is misleading for the Assembly to use the term
Stalinism, which is a personalization of the Soviet regime during one
era, and then to compare it with Nazism, which was the ideology of
Hitler and the Third Reich. It would have been more accurate to
compare Nazism and Communism, as those terms signify the two ideologies and
systems of rule.

One Moscow newspaper maintains that the OSCE dared not mention
Communists and Nazis in the same sentence, much less equate them, for
fear of upsetting socialists across Europe. So there is not a whisper
about Communism, and nothing said of its many victims inside the
Soviet Union. Instead all sins are attributed to Stalin. Is there not
a need to face up to the cruel truth about Communist rule in Russia?
Nor should we forget that after 1945 Communist satellite regimes in
Eastern Europe routinely trampled civil and human rights under foot.

The Russians were quick to object to the Parliamentary Assembly's
resolution. Alas they are not yet ready to mention the Kremlin's
crimes committed over generations against their own people.

How many Soviet victims were there of the "Stalinist terror"? Between
1930 and 1941 around 20 million Soviets were "convicted," that is,
they suffered arrest, execution, or detention. The USSR census for
1939 counted 37,500,000 families, and four million single adults. Thus
in the 1930s alone the terror affected one or more members of every
second family. It killed more than two million in that decade, above
and beyond the millions who died in the man-made famine in Ukraine. I
would tentatively suggest that somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of
all Stalin's victims lived in the former Soviet Union.

There is no official Russian commemoration of these people, and not a
single trial of any of the perpetrators has been held. Perm-31 is the
only significant museum of the vast Gulag concentration camp system,
and it's located in the distant Urals. The Russian government still
looks intent on playing down Stalin's crimes and accentuating his
"positive accomplishments." However, while Russia is far from
recognizing the victims of official state policy between 1917 and
1991, it will not be so easy to bury the past.

The stark inward-looking quality of Stalin's terror comes across if we
compare it to Hitler's. Germans, including German Jews, murdered
through Hitler's terror represented less than 10 percent of all the
victims of Nazism. Approximately 150,000 of the six million murdered
Jews had been Germans. Their deaths took place in the East. At war's
end, an estimated 5 percent of all prisoners in the concentration
camps were German. Hitler focused largely on non-citizens, while the
Soviet Communists terrorized mainly (but not exclusively) their own
people. These horrendous statistics do not minimize Nazi terror or the
Holocaust one iota. Instead they suggest that Soviet and Nazi terror
had different goals and modus operandi. As cruel and evil as Stalin
was, he never created anything like Auschwitz or Treblinka.

Today the Russians are right to object that the OSCE's resolution
makes no mention of the crucial role the Soviet Union played in
stopping Hitler. We need to recall that 25.5 million Soviet citizens,
well over ten percent of the population in 1939, died in the Second
World War. More than half of these were civilians. It is true that
Stalin conspired to start the conflict with the Pact signed on August
23, 1939. His people had no part in that, but were informed through
filtered reports and propaganda. What they discovered to their dismay
in June 1941 was that Hitler's forces had launched a murderous
crusade. The Soviet peoples in all their diversity and multiplicity
rallied to the colors, often in spite of, not because of Communism and
Stalin. As President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were the
first to admit, without the Soviet peoples' will to carry on, Hitler would
have won.

We can well imagine what it would have meant if Hitler had emerged as
the conqueror of everything between the Urals and the English Channel.
He was preparing the next stage and in his mind already heading for
the United States. It is startling to recall that he counted in his
ranks some of the world's best rocket and atomic scientists.

Suffice it to say that it behooves us and all of Europe to remember
that the Red Army and the Soviet peoples saved us from such a fate.
The Russians today should be proud of what they did in the Second
World War and we should praise them to the heavens for it. But they
are wrong to think they have to defend Stalin and gloss over his
crimes inside the Soviet Union in order to construct a usable history.
They need to face up to the past and not wish it away.

On August 23, 1939 Stalin's agreement with Nazi Germany gave Hitler
the green light. That signal was important at the time and seventy
years later there is no reason for Russians to deny it. After all,
Stalin persecuted them relentlessly, making them pay in torrents of
blood as he pursued his dreams and delusions at home and abroad.

Robert Gellately's latest book is Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of
Social Catastrophe (Knopf and Vintage). He teaches history at Florida
State University.