Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.-e-reviews 2 (2012), 3 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Mark Edele


Michail I. Mel’tjuchov: 17 sentjabrja 1939. Sovetsko-pol’skie konflikty 1918–1939. [17. September 1939. Sowjetisch-polnische Konflikte 19181939.] Moskva: Veče, 2009. 621 S., Abb., Tab. = Voennye tainy XX veka. ISBN: 978-5-9533-4085-4.

M. I. Mel’tiukhov’s study of Soviet-Polish relations between 1918 and 1939 is part of the quest to find a usable Russian past under the rubble of Soviet history. The argument is framed by a sweeping theory of international relations: In the middle of Eastern Europe, we are told early on, runs a climate border, which prompted the division of the continent into “Western” and “Russian” civilizations. It is in the nature of civilizations and of states to expand, leaving each contestant with the choice of gobbling up the neighbours or perishing itself (p. 3).

Despite the many question marks connected to this kind of historical philosophising, this framework would, in principle, allow a position outside or above the front-lines; but in practice the author’s sympathies are strictly on the Soviet side. The “White Cause” is unmasked as “a form of foreign enslavement of the country” (p. 109), despite its officers toasting the victory of Soviet arms (p. 98). The Poles are cheerfully committing atrocity upon atrocity in the war of 1919–20, exterminating Soviet POWs in a “purposeful genocide” (p. 128), while certifying the Red Army a clean bill of war conduct (p. 107). There is only one mention of potentially outrageous conduct of Lenin’s troops, and this one is merely an allegation, immediately countered with evidence of Polish bestiality (p. 75).

Part two of the book comprises a long and detailed sequence of the various diplomatic moves and counter moves in the 1920s and 1930s, and part three a detailed operational history of the 1939 campaign. The diplomatic narrative is meant to show that the Soviet side was defensive and the Polish opponent aggressive. The Hitler-Stalin pact is read in this context as just another attempt to secure against the intrigues of the outside world. Mel’tiukhov denies that the secret protocol divided up Poland – the phrases were too vague, he claims, and nobody could have known that war with Poland was imminent (pp. 534 f). Probably aware of the flimsiness of this defence, he suddenly switches registers, moving back to his grand theory of international relations: Of course, he writes, the Soviets were defending “their interests” at times against those of others, but such “is the axiom of foreign policy strategy of any government” (p. 535). Earlier, Mel’tiukhov cites official statements that the “Second Imperialist War” had already begun, that it would lead to the fall of Capitalism and the dawn of Revolution everywhere (pp. 224 f). This theory stood in the tradition of Lenin’s fusion of war, revolution, and civil war, which made world war, properly manipulated by the revolutionaries, a birth pang of the new world. It implied the kind of brinkmanship Stalin engaged in with the pact with Germany, designed to keep the Soviets out of war until the imperialists had bloodied themselves so much, that the Red Army could reap the rewards. This strategy, explained by Stalin on 7 September 1939 to the Komintern leadership (pp. 337 f), was not the normal policy of a normal state; and insofar as it was defensive, this was defensiveness with an aggressive prong.

The Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 was, Mel’tiukhov admits, judicially speaking an act of aggression – but nevertheless entirely justified, both morally and politically: A “revanche” for the 1921 Treaty of Riga, it just recovered what had been lost to “Polish aggression” (p. 542); as such, it not only restored “historical justice” but also improved the Soviet Union’s strategic position (p. 544). Citing N. M. Karamzin on an earlier division of Poland, Mel’tiukhov concludes: “[W]e [just] took what was ours” (p. 542). He even declares the invasion not part of the Second World War at all, but rather a “peace-keeping operation” (p. 544). This label translates the official Soviet justification for the attack (p. 363) into contemporary terminology, hiding the destructiveness of the military operation: According to Mel’tiukhov’s own data, 3,477 Soviets and 23,500 Poles were killed, wounded, or missing in action, a ratio of nearly 1:7 (p. 540).

Mel’tiukhov makes much of the simple fact that the Stalinist occupiers of Poland in 1939–41 were not racists, but class warriors. True, but if this essential difference to the Nazis excuses the occupation regime is another matter altogether. Mel’tiukhov demands that historians be “more objective” than the victims of the time (p. 551) – by which he means to relativize all and everything the Soviets did on formerly Polish territory by contrasting it with Nazi practice. The deportation of 292,513 people in 1939–40 should be seen as a necessary operation to relieve national tensions and, anyway, deportation “is not the same as execution, isn’t it?” (pp. 551 f). Reports on the mood of the population, where those who greeted the Red Army are called “the population” and those who did not “fascists” and “reactionary elements” are mobilized to show that the majority wanted to become Soviets and hence no annexation took place (pp. 502–520); the “elections” to legitimate the Soviet takeover are cited to the same end (p. 519; pp. 548 f).

Mel’tiukhov gives selective evidence of Soviet crimes in the occupied territories. A very good chapter on illegal conduct during the fighting itself – execution of POWs, rape, random killings, looting – shows the military leadership struggle with both ranks and commanders taking the law into their own hands. Other cases, where the political leadership was clearly implicated, are a harder nut to crack. Some he simply passes over in silence, such as the mass shootings of prison inmates in 1941. The mass executions of 1940 – now symbolized by the name Katyn, one of the killing sites – proved impossible to ignore. Mel’tiukhov calls this event a “war crime” (p. 553), but immediately declares it a reaction to the prior crimes of the Polish side, in particular the mass dying of Soviet POWs in 1919–21 (p. 553).

Nevertheless, Mel’tiukhov is right: We need to put what happened from 1939 into the context of the experience of the bloody years 1914–21. We cannot understand what happened in the Second World War and after without paying attention to this horizon of experience of many of the key actors involved, including ordinary citizens. It is also true, and worth pointing out, that the Soviets were not the only ones interested in expanding their sphere of influence and pushing their borders outward. The notion that you either grow or perish, while an awful simplification as an analytical theory, did in fact animate many decision makers. It clearly resonated with Polish politicians, who after all had experienced in the past that they had to be either strong or a part of the Russian empire; likewise, it made perfect sense to Lenin’s men, including Stalin, who had made a revolution on the premise that it would spread in a war-turned-civil-war to the rest of the world. The “Second Imperialist War” seemed like a new chance to move history in the direction it by right and theory should have already taken after 1917. To understand this logic means to comprehend much of what happened in Eastern Europe in the inter-war and war years. That Mel’tiukhov identifies strongly with one of the sides seriously imperils his analysis, in the process reanimating this bloody, traumatic and aggressive past as part of the present Russian national consciousness. The analytical frame itself, however, if freed from these politics of history, remains useful for rethinking the Second World War in the East as part of this region’s age of violence.

Mark Edele, Crawley, Western Australia

Zitierweise: Mark Edele über: Michail I. Mel’tjuchov: 17 sentjabrja 1939. Sovetsko-pol’skie konflikty 1918–1939. [17. September 1939. Sowjetisch-polnische Konflikte 1918–1939.] Moskva: Veče, 2009. 621 S., Abb., Tab. = Voennye tainy XX veka. ISBN: 978-5-9533-4085-4, http://www.oei-dokumente.de/JGO/erev/Edele_Meltjuchov_17_sentjabrja_1939.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

© 2012 by Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien in Regensburg and Mark Edele. All rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact redaktion@osteuropa-institut.de

Die digitalen Rezensionen von „Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. jgo.e-reviews“ werden nach den gleichen strengen Regeln begutachtet und redigiert wie die Rezensionen, die in den Heften abgedruckt werden.

Digital book reviews published in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas. jgo.e-reviews are submitted to the same quality control and copy-editing procedure as the reviews published in print.