In Moscow on August 23, 1939, a momentous diplomatic reversal occurred: the Soviet and Nazi German foreign ministers, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed a non-aggression pact in which they established a ten-year truce between the Soviet Union and the Nazi Reich.
In a “secret additional protocol,” they also divvied up Eastern Europe into respective spheres of influence. The Nazis would get Lithuania and Western Poland; the Soviets would get Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Eastern Poland, and Bessarabia. A week later, the Nazi invasion of Poland commenced, beginning World War II.
When the most horrible conflict in history was finished, captured Nazi documents revealed the secret text of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. But the Soviet Union argued that the agreement had been purely tactical—the necessary consequence of the West’s appeasement on the Nazis—and flatly denied the veracity of the secret protocols. For all of the Soviet Union’s puppet communist regimes, including Poland’s, this was the party line.
In building its empire on a falsehood, the Soviet Union guaranteed that it could not last forever. The truth has a strange way of making its way to the surface, as indeed it did in Central and Eastern Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, Poland played an important role in re-establishing the history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Poland had several advantages in this respect. For one, Poles in Poland had relatively close contact with the sizable Polish émigré community in the West and access to their publications and ideas. Polish historians were likewise cosmopolitan in outlook and proficient in Western languages. Finally, nearly all Polish families had been affected by Soviet crimes—like the massacre of over 20,000 Polish prisoners-of-war at Katyn. This created a widespread anti-Soviet attitude and led to the strength of the Polish dissident underground.
At the end of April 1946, Stefan Kurowski, a Polish jurist who had led the Polish delegation at the Nuremberg Trials, had passed on information about the secret protocols to Leon Chajn, a Polish communist functionary in charge of the communist-allied Democratic Party. The Polish government-in-exile in London had a copy of the protocols in the same year. In 1948, the Polish foreign ministry—not yet fully under the thumb of the Soviets—published a translation of Raymond J. Sontag and James Stuart Beddie’s Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941, the US State Department-released document collection that was the first publication to include the full text of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Even as late as 1949 books published in Poland could mention the Pact. But soon Soviet power overshadowed the country and forbade all mention of the Pact’s secret protocols.
After de-Stalinization in 1956 and the ascendancy of a more nationalistic communist faction in Poland, censorship eased a bit. Memoirs of the war years began to be published; exile literature could be discussed and cited. Published works began working around the edges of the history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Maria Turlejska, a Marxist historian and professor, referenced Ribbentrop’s interest in establishing spheres of interest in a publication in 1962; discussed a “secret protocol” in 1966; and had one of her books withdrawn from circulation in 1972 for blaming the Soviet Union for the Cold War. Historian Robert Moczulski’s The Polish War was removed from circulation in the same year for its comments on the Soviet role in WWII. Meanwhile, a vigorous underground press was publishing hundreds of books a year.
The Polish communist government began to push the subject as well. In the early 1960s, a planned joint Polish-Soviet compilation of documents relating to WWII was nixed after the Poles demanded the inclusion of documents detailing the pre-history of the “non-aggression pact.” Even Poland’s communist leader, Władysław Gomułka, referenced prewar territorial agreements in a 1962 speech—albeit in the context of territorial claims of his own.
By the 1980s, communism in the Soviet bloc was creaking under the pressures of popular discontent and mobilization, in Poland most notably in the form of the trade union Solidarity. Mikhail Gorbachev, the communist leader of the Soviet Union, inaugurated a new era of glasnost, or “openness,” and called for the filling of “blank spots” in history. With popular pressure at his back, Poland’s communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski arranged with Gorbachev to form a joint Polish-Soviet historical commission to investigate matters of joint interest.
From the beginning the Polish side saw this commission as much more important than the Soviets did. The Soviets hoped that superficial changes in party-imposed history would obviate certain irritants in their “fraternal” domination of the socialist bloc. The Polish communist regime, on the other hand, was desperately trying to salvage its legitimacy by showing that it could stick up for the Polish nation. In addition, issues like the history of the Katyn massacre were important to all Poles—those in the regime and those in opposition. When the Soviets resisted discussing Katyn, the Polish communist regime even went so far as to release a public opinion poll showing that majorities of Poles knew about the massacre and blamed the USSR for it.
But the very existence of the commission resulted in an ever-widening discussion of the past, including topics that were not at all welcome to the communist leadership. Both in Poland and in the Soviet Union, truly free discussion—of history, current affairs, politics, and social problems—helped bring about the collapse of communism.
Today, in Poland and in the Baltic Republics, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is a major orientation point in the historiography and public memory of World War II. In fact, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia embracing a neo-Soviet justification of the “tactical necessity” of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it’s still a live diplomatic issue.
Nowadays, the people of Central and Eastern Europe are rightly aware of how the Pact enabled World War II and its attendant crimes and ultimately subjected them to four decades of communist domination. But the story of how that history came to light also demonstrates the role played by a persistent search for historical truth in the reestablishment of their political freedom.