Why didn’t Britain or France declare war on the USSR?

11/29/2012 • Ask Mr. History

Dear Mr. History,

Why didn’t France and/or Great Britain declare war on the Soviet Union on September 17, 1939, when the USSR invaded Poland and/or when the Soviets invaded Finland on November 30, 1939? Also, why are the Soviets looked at today more as Allies, versus Axis? Italy was an Axis nation, then switched to being an Allied one but is still deemed an Axis today.

Steve Bagdon

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Dear Mr. Bagdon,  

In response to your first question, the British and French were not stupid. Germany had violated the Munich Pact by invading Poland and was enemy enough to have to fight. The French had already invaded Russia and even taken Moscow in 1812. How’d that work out by the end of the year? Both countries condemned the Soviet Union for invading Finland (you may note that Germany did not support the Finns at that time), but limited their aid to under-the-table weapons deliveries (e.g., Gloster Gladiators, which also came from Sweden in the form of a volunteer squadron). The priority, however, was still dealing with Germany and that proved more than enough, as France humiliatingly found out in June 1940.  

Italy is historically regarded as an Axis power because it was one as of June 10, 1940, when it invaded France and declared war on Britain. Technically you might call co-belligerent Italy as much of an Allied power as you would Romania and Bulgaria—after they switched sides in August and September 1944, respectively. In Italy’s case, though, things were complicated by the rescue of Benito Mussolini and the establishment of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana in Turin, keeping northern Italy fighting alongside the Germans. Any Italians taken prisoner prior to September 8, 1943, were still regarded as POWs, though they were treated with more lassitude than their German and Japanese colleagues. (I interviewed an Italian fighter pilot incarcerated at Camp Shanks, N.Y., who was invited to join a friend who had obtained a pass to visit some American relatives in Pelham for Thanksgiving dinner—and met his future wife there).  

The Soviet Union’s Allied status as of June 22, 1941 was accepted with few illusions in the West, either in regard to why it had made its August 1939 non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler (to buy time to prepare for the inevitable confrontation), or to how many values they shared. (As Winston Churchill put it, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.")  



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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