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The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939–1941

By Roger Moorhouse. Basic Books, 2014. 382 pp. $29.99.

 It’s easy to argue with Roger Moor- house’s contention that historians have ignored the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. “Except in Poland and the Baltic states,” he writes, “the pact is simply not part of our collective narrative of World War II.” Moorhouse’s own 11-page bibliography suggests he’s exaggerating the point: the agreement between Hitler and Stalin to dismember central Europe, brief as it was, has often been named as a turning point in the war. His real dispute is with the conventional portrayal of Stalin’s role in the pact as essentially expedient and defensive. Not so, says Moorhouse.

The author’s greatest strength is to see history as the interaction between individual human beings. At the center of the devils’ alliance, of course, stand Hitler and Stalin, each assuming that he had bested the other. Of the two, Stalin has been less well understood; Moorhouse is right that we’ve shortchanged Stalin’s aggressive role in pursuing a deal with the Führer, just as Westerners have often ignored the undeniable moral equivalence between the regimes the two leaders created and ruled.

The pact perfectly reflected Stalin’s personality: duplicitous, cold-blooded, bound to end in betrayal. He could save himself from the consequences of his own bad judgment only through relentless, indeed mind-boggling, acts of personal and institutional brutality. The human cost of the pact during its 20-month life— the impressment of 1.5 million Poles into Soviet slave labor camps, just for starters—Stalin saw as merely strategic, another opportunity to maintain and reinforce a buffer between his empire and Hitler’s.

One beneficiary of Stalin’s brutality was his own ace diplomat, Vyacheslav Molotov, who, Moorhouse tells us, first proved himself to his boss by overseeing the genocidal collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture. Yet when Molotov warned of Hitler’s coming Soviet invasion in 1941, Stalin totally ignored him because, Moorhouse writes, he was so heavily invested in the pact that he had desired and designed.

When the betrayal came, Stalin quickly buried his original intentions. The enemy he embraced as a friend was an enemy again. He publicly congratulated himself on slyly deploying the pact to secure “peace for a year and a half and the opportunity of preparing [Soviet] forces to repulse fascist Germany.” He was rewriting history into a version that many Western historians went on to echo for decades. We can thank Roger Moorhouse for setting the record straight in this thrilling book, which will likely stand as the authoritative text on its subject, neglected or not.

—Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

Originally published in the June 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.