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The Nazi-Soviet Pact: the peace treaty that led to war.

Seventy-four years ago today, on August 23, 1939, the world was stunned by one of the most surprising foreign policy developments in modern history: the announcement that a treaty of nonaggression had been concluded between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, who were ideological arch-enemies. The Nazi-Soviet Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, after the representatives who signed it) was certainly a surprise when it was announced, but it had been in the works for longer than most people realize. On that sultry August afternoon, though, knowing observers of foreign and military affairs understood its real significance: the Second World War was about to begin.

The terms of the treaty were fairly simple–at least the terms the world knew about. Germany and the USSR pledged mutual nonaggression and peace for a period of 10 years. There was, however, a secret protocol, whereby the dictators Hitler and Stalin agreed to split up most of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) between them. The most important division was a line drawn through the center of Poland, with each country taking about half. Neither Germany nor the USSR much liked the idea of an independent Poland, which was thrust upon them after World War I by the Treaty of Versailles. The Nazi-Soviet Pact intended to ensure that the Poles would never have control of their own destiny.

Surprising as it was, the deal had a kind of logic to it. If Hitler was going to take over Poland–which was clear in the summer of 1939 that he desperately wanted–he had to make sure that his arch-enemy Stalin wouldn’t come in against him. On the other side of the table, Stalin needed the deal to buy time to arm himself against Hitler, who he was shrewdly certain would eventually attack him. Neither dictator had any expectation of keeping the treaty for very long. Hitler’s aim, as described in Mein Kampf in the 1920s, made a German attack on Russia inevitable. Some historians, such as Edvard Radzinsky, maintain that Stalin was planning to attack Hitler before Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941.

One thing was certain: the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact lit the final fuse that led to the outbreak of World War II. Hitler’s troops were already on the move at the time he sent Ribbentrop to Moscow. Barely more than a week later, on September 1, 1939, they crossed the border and invaded Poland. Great Britain, pledged to defend Poland, had no choice but to declare war. Within ten days after the pact was signed, the Second World War was on.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Bloomfield

    It was a trifle more complicated than all this. In the 1930s the Soviet Union finally was able to get diplomatic recognition in the West, such as in Washington, D.C., and as a member of the League of Nations. The representative at the League, Maxim Litvinov, was a Jewish Russia diplomat, and he was openly questioning and hostile to activities by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (both of whom followed Imperial Japan in walking out of the League). Stalin was not a friend of the Jews, but he was fully in accord with Litvinov’s point of view about the Nazis. Then came two events that marked a slow turn in Soviet diplomacy. The Spanish Civil War was a testing ground for the German and Italian war machines, and for Stalin – supporting the national government, especially it’s Communist wing. Because all three were involved in Spain, the Western democracies refused to get pulled in to support the Nationalists with Stalin. In 1938, the Munich Crisis occurred. Czechoslovakia had built up a first rate air force, and Stalin openly was willing to support the Czech government, But when he made overtures to Britain and France to join with him in guaranteeing Czech freedom, they refused. After the Munich Conferences, Stalin had to re-evaluate his foreign policy. In 1938-39 he actually decides that to buy time needed for the Soviet Union he has to guarantee peace with Nazi Germany for at least a while (the final treaty said ten years, but Stalin hoped to be ready by 1945 – don’t forget his army high command had been decimated in the purge trials of the 1930s). Hitler too was seeking this because he learned the secret Bismarck had pointed out in the 19th Century: Germany can win a war against a single enemy or on a single frontier, but would be in grave danger fighting on two opposite fronts. Bismarck succeeded while in power in mollifying the Russians while opposed first against Austrian and then against France. In World War I the Germans had the two front war nightmare, but due to attrition on the Western Front was able to concentrate on the eastern front and forced a successful (momentarily) treaty of peace from Bolshevik Russia at Brest – Litovsk. But the arrival of Americans removed the advantage of this success for the Germans. Hitler was determined to avoid a repetition of 1914-1918 again, and pressed for the non-aggression pact.

    His foreign secretary Joachim von Ribbentrop had formerly been Ambassador to Great Britain, and was sore about the negative reactions he found by many of the leaders of that country to him and Nazi Germany. Von Ribbentrop willingly negotiated the agreement with his opposite number, Molotov of the Soviet Union. In the capitals of Great Britain and France this was not being noted – all that was noted was the outspoken mutual distaste of the Nazis and the Communists. As a result, the impact of the non-aggression pact surprised both governments, which felt it was not ever likely and that the hostility of the two countries would help prevent any threats by Germany towards Poland.

    The secret clause about the division of Eastern Europe is true – as far as it went. Germany was not committed to any activity against Finland, which Stalin (at this point) felt should also be reconquered with the three Baltic states. German hostility to this became apparent in December 1939 when “the Winter War” between Finland under Marshal Mannerheim, and the Soviet Union broke out. Germany sent supplies to Mannerheim. Ironically, Britain and the U.S. also supported Mannerheim (who until he settled things with Stalin in 1944 was embarrassed that he led the only Democracy that was allied to Nazi Germany).

    What was also important in the pact was that Germany and Russia agreed to various trade items being exchanged. Russian wheat and food stuffs went to Germany (which needed them for her armies and people). German farm equipment and military items went to Russia. However, after 1940 the Germans became later and later in delivering these items to Russia (although the Russians apparently kept up their half of the bargain until the invasion in 1941.

    One of the ironies of the non-aggression pact that barely is noted today was the weird concept of von Ribbentrop versus that of Hitler. Hitler saw the treaty as a stop-gap until he was finished in western Europe, and then could turn his attention to Russia. Blitzkrieg success in the spring and early summer of 1940, especially the fall of France, seemed to speed up the timetable for the Russian advance. But von Ribbentrop had (incredible as this may sound) a different viewpoint. I mentioned that he was furious at the “pig-headedness” of the British in not accepting his attempts at an alliance between them and the Nazis. in 1940 von Ribbentrop strenuously tried to convince Hitler to not desert the non-aggression pact!! He came to the conclusion that Nazi Germany, by the series of alliances with Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and Imperial Japan, had created an omnipotent trading block that could bring down the British Empire to it’s knees, and possibly make deep inroads into the Western Hemisphere as well against the United States. Hitler was stunned and surprised that his foreign minister had so totally lost it regarding the non-aggression pact. Der Fuhrer had actually always hoped for a negotiated peace treaty with the British Empire, and indeed (in 1942) regretted being at war with Britain when he heard the Japanese had won Malaysia and Singapore in such a humiliating way. He said he’d have sent men and material to assist the British against Japan if he and Britain had not been at war. If he felt that way about Japan, which would prove to be his strongest ally in World War II, how could he have approved of a trading block with Stalin’s Soviet Union?! Von Ribbentrop eventually realized the idea was dead in the water with his leader, and dropped it.

    Stalin did put the two years to good use – he moved heavy industries and military industries beyond the Ural Mountains, and beyond Nazi military reach. It proved a vitally wise move. The ten year pact lasted about eighteen months or so.

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