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Currently I am reading WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West, which became a BBC series that PBS broadcast several years ago.  It masterfully tells how America and Britain managed their wartime alliance with the Soviets, who had entered WWII initially as a Nazi ally in 1939.  The book opens with a boozy Kremlin banquet, where Stalin had concluded a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler, which divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, while ceding the Baltic republics to the Soviets.  The Soviet dictator toasted Hitler, who was awaiting word of the treaty back at his Alpine retreat, while the Nazi foreign minister toasted his Communist former enemy and now friend.

A week later Germany blitzkrieged into Poland, and the Soviets invaded from the east shortly later.  Britain and France declared war on Germany, starting 6 years of European conflict consuming tens of millions of lives.

In April President Obama posthumously honored Polish freedom fighter Jan Karski with a Presidential Freedom Award.  I knew Karski as a college teacher in the 1980’s.  He had been a young Polish army officer in 1939, at first resisting the German invaders, later surrendering to Soviet invaders.  He escaped from a frozen Soviet prison camp and served the Polish regime in exile as a courier to the Polish underground.  Forty years later in the classroom he incredibly recalled sneaking into a Nazi concentration camp to observe the Holocaust, of capture by and escape from the Gestapo thanks to a brave Catholic priest, of personally meeting President Roosevelt in the White House.  Later in the war Karski met British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who told him that much of eastern Poland would be ceded to the Soviets. Karski naturally was horrified and eventually moved to America. His adventures and sufferings encapsulate WWII Behind Closed Doors.

Much of the book is about President Roosevelt’s and Prime Minister Churchill’s management of Stalin, their dictator ally, and vice versa.  Hitler would murder about 11 million, excluding war deaths, during his 12 year reign.  Across 25 years, Stalin murdered several times that number.  Morally he was almost inextinguishable from Hitler.  But America and Britain could not win without Russian manpower.  Particularly sticky was the 1940 Katyn Massacre, when Stalin ordered over 20,000 captured Polish leaders shot.  The mass murders began, as they often did, with Stalin quickly signing a succinct memo.  The Western Allies were forced to ignore the evidence of Stalin’s crimes lest they disrupt the alliance.

The Western-Soviet ended of course with the division of Europe between the democratic West and the totalitarian Soviet bloc across a 45 year Cold War.  But the alternative to WWII Western alliance with the Soviets would have been an entire Europe under Nazism, a nasty alternative. In our brutal fallen world, even high minded statesmen often must make such choices.   FDR and Churchill drank and joked with Stalin because their duties to their own peoples required it.

Thank God those horrors are mostly behind us.  The 20th Century was the most murderous in history, with more people killed in genocides by their own governments, mostly Communist and Nazi, than directly by war.  Today in our own relative security and prosperity, we complain over a slight stock market dip or government programs that fail to increase at a sufficiently fast clip.  But in truth, most people across history have lived closely with brutality, war and poverty.  The Left, especially the Religious Left, loves to complain that America’s defense spending exceeds the rest of the world’s combined military expenditure.  Praise God that America does spend so much to preserve us from what we experienced in the last century.  Also remember that current U.S. military spending, as a percentage of our wealth, is lower than since before WWII.

Much of the 20th Century’s nightmare began with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which created the first modern totalitarian dictatorship, later inspiring Hitler and so many other tyrants.  The Bolsheviks asserted state power over every human activity, above all religion.  Thousands of Russian Orthodox priests were murdered.  Yet northern Methodist Bishop Edgar Blake attended a Bolshevik conference in 1923 to create a new “Living Church” to support the revolution and squash the Russian Orthodox.  The bishop even pledged $50,000 from American Methodism for the new puppet church.  As recounted in my new book Methodism & Politics in the 20th Century, Blake admitted the Soviets had killed thousands of priests but insisted:  “If the Soviet government dealt harshly with certain ecclesiastics it justified itself on the ground that it was fighting for its life.”

Symptomatic of the church in the 20th century, Methodism’s bishops responded to Blake’s pro-Bolshevik stance by carefully saying almost nothing.  It foreshadowed nearly a century of mostly silence from Methodism and much of Mainline Protestantism about tyranny and persecution in the world.  My own involvement in Methodist reform began when I learned as a college student of church support for Marxist revolution in Central America and elsewhere in the 1980’s amid silence about religious persecution.

At the recent United Methodist General Conference, there was “repentance” over mistreatment of American indigenous tribes centuries ago.  But there should be repentance for more recent church support of far more murderous ideologies and regimes.  And the lessons of the last century, so capably illustrated in WWII Behind Closed Doors, should warn our churches today, including evangelicals, against utopian fantasies about global peace.