It happened today - August 23, 2015

Rendez-vous Oh boy. Today was a bad one. At least it was in 1939, when August 23 saw the unveiling of the “Nazi-Soviet Pact”.

It is hard to recapture the shock this non-aggression treaty caused at the time, because we are used to thinking of both philosophies as “totalitarian” and sharing many loathsome features that democracies lack. In the famous metaphor, right and left may seem to be at opposite ends of the ruler with self-government in the middle, but if you bend the ruler far enough you find that the extremes meet.

They certainly did on August 23; it was the prelude to Hitler launching a European war in which he and Stalin carved up Poland and then Stalin grabbed Finland while Hitler went after France and Britain. (As Churchill later noted, it took unmitigated gall for Stalin and Molotov to nag endlessly about a second front once Hitler turned on them, since they had been instrumental in allowing the Nazi dictator to conquer France. But then Stalin had unmitigated gall, among many other worse extreme qualities.)

The immediate shock of the Pact was strategic rather than intellectual. The more alert politicians and citizens of the democracies had felt that if war came, as seemed increasingly probable, it would be very like World War I, slow and static and bloody, with Germany held back by the task of fighting on two broad fronts. Nazis and Bolsheviks were, after all, sworn enemies, seeing Western nations primarily as potential assets in their mortal conflict.

When Stalin suddenly eliminated the Eastern front problem for Hitler, it didn’t just leave British and French strategy in a state of conspicuous and ruinous disarray for which no solution was found before the spring of 1940 with disastrous consequences, bad as that was. It also revealed the shallowness of citizens and “statesmen” alike in their evaluation of the true nature of the Nazi, and Bolshevik, menace.

Even Churchill fumbles early on to take the true measure of the Nazis, calling them “gangsters” and other insults that, while unmistakably hostile, do not begin to plumb the metaphysical depths of their depravity and hostility to all that is good, normal or part of the Western tradition. There is a love of death in totalitarian movements that goes right to the core.

It was not until George Orwell’s 1948 masterpiece Nineteen Eighty Four that people began to think they understood how and why it was that Stalin should have found Hitler easier to deal with and predict than the Western partners he was forced to work with after Hitler turned on him.

It is now three quarters of a century since that awful shock in the late summer of 1939 that unleashed the horrors of World War II. But it makes me uneasy, as I survey the various loathsome regimes and movements around the globe that hate Western civilization and compete with one another to do it more harm and denounce it more savagely.

They often have as little in common on the surface as Nazism and Bolshevism. But they might well suddenly unite to try to do us in. If they do, I fear we will be as unprepared strategically and intellectually as our forebears were in August 1939.