August may be the silly season in Britain but it teems with tragic anniversaries on the Continent. Both World Wars could be said to have started in this month. Those anniversaries do, at least, receive attention. Other dates are easily forgotten in a rush to expunge unpleasant and embarrassing memories of the past and developments of the present.
Two days ago we remembered the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague on August 21, 1968. A tragic event, it did, ultimately turn out to be more hopeful than anyone could imagine on that and in the subsequent dark days. The crushing of the Prague spring was the beginning of the end for the Communist system, though few would have realized that at the time. It was also the time when even the greatest optimists had to acknowledge that Communism could not be reformed from inside. It was a question of waiting for those Western leaders who would unquestioningly take the evil empire on and defeat it.
Yesterday’s anniversary is more tragic, for it marked the beginning of a fifty-year catastrophe for Eastern and Central Europe, whose shadow still haunts many. On August 23, 1939 a pact was signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop on behalf of their respective totalitarian state. It is known variously as the Molotov-Riobbentrop Pact, the Nazi-Soviet Pact or, even the Hitler-Stalin Pact, though those two never met.
The Pact was one of non-aggression but it had important secret annexes, which allowed for a division of territory between the two countries. The Baltic States, Bessarabia, now Moldova, western Ukraine and, eventually eastern Poland went to the Soviet Union. Other parts to Germany.
When a couple of weeks later Germany attacked Poland, the retreating Polish army rolled straight into the waiting arms of the Soviet secret police. The Soviet army invaded eastern Poland and helped to destroy that country. Many of those imprisoned by the MVD never reappeared. We have all heard of Katyn where Polish officers were rounded up and shot. There were two other such camps. The aim was to destroy the bourgeois and intellectual classes. To that end, people were also rounded up in towns and villages, imprisoned, deported, murdered.
The same happened in the Baltic States, in Bessarabia, in Western Ukraine and would have happened in Finland if the Red Army had won the Winter War of 1940. In 1941, when the German troops massed on what was then the Soviet border, somewhat to the west of the 1939 Soviet border, trains that should have been bringing Red Army troops westwards, were being used to transport a very different human cargo eastward into Siberia.
It is calculated that in the two onslaughts, one in 1940 and the other in 1944 when the three Baltic countries were re-conquered, about one third of their population was deported. Few returned. On top of that, a partisan war went on in the Baltic States and in Western Ukraine for about ten years after the official ending of the Second World War.
In fact, the national spirit of these countries was never broken and it is worth remembering that the Soviet system, immeasurably more ruthless and single-minded than the EU foundered on irrepressible nationalism.
An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Europe by the former Estonian Prime Minister, Mart Laar, deals with these events and their effect on his and all surrounding countries. It also mentions an interesting fact: Russia has never acknowledged responsibility or apologized, in the way everyone is supposed to apologize, for any of the horrors.
President Putin had not been invited to the recent commemoration of the Warsaw uprising because of the Russian refusal to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s role in the suppression of the uprising. The Red Army stopped on the other side of the Vistula and, instead of assisting, waited till the city of Warsaw was destroyed and the courageous people who had risen, murdered. Then they moved in, took Warsaw and installed their own government.
It would be, as Mr Laar points out, to Russia’s benefit to face up to the demons of the past as Germany has done. There can be no true progress towards freedom and democracy in that country until it does so. But the shadow is there over all the countries. News comes that one Estonian town has put up a memorial to those who had been killed while fighting Red Army. There were many like that in all those countries. Caught between two evils, persecuted on both sides, they had to make decisions. The West can barely understand the desperation. It can barely understand the importance of the Pact.
Still, there is a happier anniversary coming. August 31 is the day commemorated by the Balts as the true ending of the Second World War. It was then, in 1994, that the remnants of the Russian army finally left their countries.