Posts Tagged ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop pact’

Ben MacIntyre: Agent Sonya

December 4, 2022

     Most of us of a certain age have a vague picture of the espionage that was an integral part of the Cold War years and much earlier; this is the first time I’ve read a detailed account of any of it, and the stories of some of the people who were involved in it, although quite a few of the names had been familiar to me. It was fascinating to read an in-depth account, and to reflect on the implications of what went on. It’s a workmanlike piece of writing; the facts and the biography are what matters, not the style. There are some minor carelessnesses in historical and geographical detail, but not many.

The innate sexism of MI5/MI6, the idea that a ‘housewife’ could not possibly be up to no good, allowed the heroine to get aways with a lot; there’s a certain amount of almost comic silliness in the behaviour of British intelligence (!) at the time as we read about their investigations and interrogations.

Ursula/Sonya is clearly a character of her times, and looking back from our perspective now, it’s rather hard to see why someone would undergo the great rigours of training in espionage and sabotage and take on board all the risks, dangers and penalties of the role. We are taken through her decision to become involved, her recruitment, her work in China during the Civil War, in Europe in the run-up to the Second World War, in Switzerland during that war, her flight to England and her involvement in the passing of many secrets, including research on the atomic bomb to her paymasters in the USSR.

I found thinking about the issues involved in this espionage history quite interesting. I felt that the author seemed to gloss over Sonya’s naivete, even wilful blindness at various times, for instance her response to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, and also her reaction to the disappearance of so many of her connections during the Stalinist purges. At one level, being so embroiled already, one might argue she didn’t have much option other than to stick with the side that was paying her. Equally, I could understand her decision to move to the DDR in the late forties when she was about to be rumbled. There was clearly a sense of idealism at play: there should be a level playing field, and why were researches and developments not being shared with an all? Idealism too, now vanished, that there was an alternative, however flawed, to capitalism, in construction in a large and important country.

More than this, however, I found myself actually admiring and respecting the efforts, the risks and the decisions taken by those whose actions evened the odds, if you like, during the Second World War and the Cold War; it was clear quite early on that the West was positioning itself for maximum advantage once the ‘Allies’ had defeated the Nazis, and actually, contemplating the outcome of another war when the Soviets did not have the ‘equality’ of nuclear weapons, was pretty horrifying. What sort of a world might we have been living in now? And I’m appalled at myself for almost accepting the balance of terror here. But for many years I realise that I actually did feel ‘safer’ during the Cold War than I have done since…

Urszula Muskus: The Long Bridge

July 20, 2020

51zCItVj88L._AC_UY218_     The generation of Polish exiles from after the Second World War has virtually died off now, the people and their sad stories largely forgotten. I’m only aware of it because of my origins, and there is no way to sensitively phrase the idea that my father had an ‘easier’ time than many of his fellow-countryfolk – only two years in a Stalinist concentration camp, hundreds of miles of trekking, avoiding starvation and disease eventually to reach Britain via Persia and South Africa. Then never going home or seeing his parents again… Some of his comrades did return after the war, lured by homesickness and propaganda. They disappeared.

Too few of the Poles who suffered when their country was wiped from the map in September 1939 after a secret agreement by two international thugs (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) have consigned their stories to print so that the memories of those days and their aftermath may be preserved. I have slowly amassed a small collection of these over the years, and Urszula Muskus’ story is one of the more remarkable of these.

For starters, it’s a woman’s story and there are fewer of these, and in many ways women, with their children, had a harder time than their menfolk who were mostly soldiers and in some vague and notional way treated as POWs by Stalin’s henchmen, or else were intellectuals and so quickly murdered. Most of the ordinary footsoldiers eventually found their way to Britain, then to battle at Monte Cassino, Normandy or Arnhem. Mothers, wives and children seem to have been dispersed much more widely across the vastnesses of the Soviet Union; their journeys to some kind of freedom were so much longer and more difficult; I am still discovering new routes that they took… And being civilians, as well as technically Soviet citizens, made their lives harder.

Urszula Muskus was carted off into imprisonment with her family; although she did not find out until much later, her husband was shot soon after because he had been involved in Poland’s war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Briefly she was involved with the formation of General Anders’ army in 1942 before being spirited away by the secret police and sentenced to ten years hard labour for ‘espionage’. Having served out her sentence she was then sent into internal exile until an eventual amnesty allowed her to leave…sixteen years of her life taken away, her children growing up away from her.

What impresses most is the measured, factual tone of her narrative, and her innate good will: nothing seems to throw her, although of course the account is written with many years of hindsight and reflection. She retains her sensitivity to the beauties of nature – and there are many in the depths of Kazakhstan, where she spent most of her time – despite the privations, clearly seeking and managing to derive spiritual comfort and support from them. Through a litany of personal tragedies – separation from her husband and children being only the beginning – her strength of character comes across very powerfully, as does the utter inhumanity and perversion of Stalin’s gulag system. And there are many kind and like-minded people of all nationalities she encounters, sharing her life with briefly until they are separated again at the whim of the authorities. In her summative comments and reflections on her experiences in the closing chapters there is no bitterness at what she has had to endure; life goes on in a new place, and she is at last reunited with her children who have long been in England.

One of the reasons so many of these stories have vanished into history is the understandable unwillingness of so many to recall and recount what they went through: my father let small details and general facts be known, but little more. What he and his Polish comrades used to talk about among themselves in Polish I never knew, and he wouldn’t say. But I think it’s really important that these stories not be forgotten, and books like this preserve them.

Timothy Snyder: Black Earth

June 29, 2019


I’ve admired Timothy Snyder’s previous books, The Reconstruction of Nations and Bloodlands, because I’ve comes across nothing else in English that deals so clearly and in so much detail with the history of my father’s part of the world during his lifetime; I was immediately interested when this, his most recent book, came out, but was also warned off by reviews which didn’t like his links between Hitler, ecology and what was happening in the contemporary world.

I was instantly uncertain when reading this late twentieth century term in connection with Hitler and the Holocaust, but it’s clear Snyder has studied and analysed Hitler’s Mein Kampf in great depth, which not many do, and which is the source of his ideas about the struggles between races, for domination and survival. There were times when I did feel Snyder was striving too hard to fit all of 1930s history and politics into his own neat theory.

Snyder’s analysis of inter-war Polish politics and its relations with Germany, together with his explanations of why, ultimately they didn’t become allies in a war against the Soviet Union, are very useful, and we see how in the end Poland, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany all misunderstood each other, and misread each other’s intentions. Poland wanted to sort its Jewish problem through mass emigration to Palestine, and spent time and money training Zionists for their armed struggle against the British who had the mandate; Poland suffered from mass unemployment, and felt it had too many Jews (over 3 million). Jews were regarded as human beings whose presence in the country was economically and politically undesirable. What is so well treated is the complexity of all the issues, including the question of Polish anti-semitism. Equally Snyder is clear about Hitler deliberately provoking crises hoping to embroil Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in a war, as well as the Soviet Union fomenting tension along its border with Poland.

Where Snyder’s analysis seems to make most sense, and the greatest contribution – at least to this non-historian’s understanding – to analysis of events in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is in his exploration of the gradual way in which Jews were made stateless, ie without any formal protection in law, and how vast tracts of nations were made lawless zones, in which anything became possible. Once again Snyder makes it evident how the West never really understood the Nazis’ intentions and behaviour towards Eastern Europe and its populations, imagining those lands’ experience of war and occupation as being similar to their own, which was never true.

Soviet occupation of the borderlands in 1939-40, consequent on the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, made the Nazis’ work in 1941-42 much easier: Soviet occupation and chaos followed by Nazi occupation and chaos in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland was crucial in facilitating the wholesale massacre of civilians.

Snyder also unpicks different kinds of anti-semitism in different parts of occupied Europe, the differing ways in which the Nazis encouraged and took advantage of it, and the different ways in which the extermination of the Jews was carried out in different countries. In the West we are not usually aware of the fact that most of Europe’s Jews had already been killed before the extermination facilities at Auschwitz were opened; the focus on Auschwitz has allowed Germans to claim that they didn’t know what went on, whereas any German on service in Eastern Europe could not have been ignorant of mass shootings in hundreds if not thousands of locations.

There is also a very interesting chapter of individual stories which reflect how complex relations were between Jews and non-Jews at all levels during the war, and examine why some helped Jews and others did not. Again, Snyder challenges simplistic Western commentary on Polish anti-semitism: not that there was none, for indeed there was, but that many complex factors lay behind people’s behaviour.

After the war there was collusion between the new Soviet-backed regimes and many of those who had in various ways collaborated with the Nazis; in Poland the Holocaust laid the foundations for the new Soviet settlement and transformation of a now Jew-less society.

I am not a historian and so I cannot comment on Snyder’s analysis and how it fits in or doesn’t with what others have written, but for me he does explore issues carefully, sensitively, in detail, makes connections where they haven’t been made before, and provokes further reflection. As I mentioned at the start, I did find his overall thesis somewhat forced; nevertheless he makes the important point that we don’t necessarily now live in a more secure or saner world from which the spectres and horrors of the past have been banished, and indicates where some future dangers may lie. For me, this is the mark of a good historian.

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