Molotov (left), Ribbentrop (in black) and Stalin
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, also known as the Hitler-Stalin pact or Nazi-Soviet pact, was a non-aggression treaty between Germany and Russia, or more precisely between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. It was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, by the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. The non-aggression treaty lasted until Operation Barbarossa of June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
In a secret appendix to the pact, the border states Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania were divided in spheres of interest of the parties, that within a year would injure their sovereignty.
In 1918, by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the new Bolshevik Russian state accepted the loss of sovereignty and influence over Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine (and parts of Armenia and Georgia) as a concession to the Central Powers. In accordance with the Mitteleuropa-policy, they were designated to become satellite states to, or parts of, the German Empire with dukes and kings related to the German emperor. As a consequence of the German defeat in the autumn of 1918, and not without active support from the democratic victors of the World War, most of them became democratic republics, but also proxies for France and Britain against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. With the exception of the Ukraine, all of these countries also became independent and fully sovereign — however, in many cases, independence was followed by civil wars related to the Russian. In the 1920s, fear of Russia and of Communism motivated attempts to foster political cooperation and defense treaties between these so called border states.
The European balance of power established at the end of World War I was eroded step by step from the Abyssinia crisis (1935) to the Munich Agreement (1938). The dissolution of Czechoslovakia signaled increasing instability, as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and other countries (such as, for example, Hungary and Bulgaria) aspired to regain territories lost in the aftermath of World War I.
The western democracies, Britain and France, notional guarantors of the territorial status quo, stood by until the March 1939 destruction of Czechoslovakia, maintaining a policy of "non-intervention" while the anti-democratic governments of Germany and Italy supported the victorious right-wing rebels in their destruction of the democratic Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
For the Soviet Union, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was a much-needed response to the deterioration of the European security situation in the latter half of the 1930s, as Nazi Germany, aligned with Fascist Italy in the Axis Powers, aimed to reverse the disadvantageous Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
For its part, the Soviet Union was not interested in maintaining a status quo, which it saw as disadvantageous to its interests, deriving as it did from the period of Soviet weakness immediately following the 1917 October Revolution and Russian Civil War. Soviet leaders adopted the position that conflict between what they characterized as rival imperialist countries was not only an inevitable consequence of capitalism, but would also enhance conditions for the spread of Communism.
During 1938, the Soviet Union (as well as France) offered to abide by their defensive military alliance with Czechoslovakia in the event of German invasion, but the Czechoslovakian Agrarian Party was so strongly opposed to Soviet troops entering the country that they threatened a civil war might result if they did. The 1935 agreement between the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and France stipulated that Soviet aid could only come to Czechoslovakia if France came to their aid as well.
The reticence of the western democracies to form an anti-fascist alliance with the USSR, and France and Britain's pact with Hitler signed at Munich, was indicative of a lack of interest from the side of the West to oppose the growing fascist movement, already exemplified by the events of the Spanish Civil War.
Franco-British negotiations with the Soviet Union
Negotiations between the Soviet Union and France/Britain for a military alliance against Germany stalled, mainly due to mutual suspicions. The Soviet Union sought guarantees for support against German aggression and recognition of the right of the Soviet Union to interfere against "a change of policy favorable to an aggressor" in the countries along the western Soviet border. Although none of the affected countries had formally asked for protection by the Soviet Union, it nevertheless announced "guarantees for the independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Greece" (the so-called "sanitary cordon" erected around Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union).
The British and French feared that this would allow Soviet intervention in neighboring countries' internal affairs even in the absence of an immediate external German threat.
However, with the Third Reich now demanding territorial concessions from Poland in the face of Polish opposition, the threat of war was increasing. But although telegrams were exchanged between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union as early as April 1939, the military missions sent by the Western Powers (with a slow transport vessel) did not arrive in Moscow until August 11, and were given no authority to sign a treaty.
The fundamental sticking-point was the question of Poland, lying mid-way between Germany and Russia; The Polish government rightly feared that the Soviet government sought to annex the former Russian provinces incorporated in Poland in 1920 — areas characterized by the Kremlin as irredenta ("Western Ukraine" and "Western Belarus"), since they were inhabited by ethnically Ukrainian and Belarusian majorities, respectively.
Therefore, the Polish government refused to allow the Soviet military to enter its territory and establish military bases in preparation for the now-inevitable war with Germany — a situation that allegedly left the Red Army without any possibility of confronting the Germans before Poland was invaded. On the other hand, the Polish government also refused to ally with Nazi Germany in their plans to conquer the Soviet Union.
Three weeks into August, the negotiations ground to a halt with each side doubting the other's motives, and the Kremlin suspecting that they were being led into a conflict limited to Russia and Germany.
The Munich Agreement and Soviet foreign policy
Defenders of the Soviet position argue that the Soviet Union entered the non-aggression pact after the September 1938 Munich Agreement had made it evident that the western democracies were pursuing a policy of Censored page and were not interested in joining the Soviet Union in an anti-fascist alliance promoted through their popular front tactic. Additionally, defenders of the Soviet position argue it was necessary to enter into a non-aggression pact to buy time since the Soviet Union was not in a position to fight a war in 1939, and needed at least three years to prepare. In addition, the possibility that France and England would stay neutral in such a war, hoping that the warring states would wear each other out and put an end to both the Soviet Union and the Nazis, was apparent.
Biographers of Stalin point out that he believed the British rejected his proposal of an anti-fascist alliance because they were plotting with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, and that the western democracies were expecting the Third Reich to attack "Communist Russia" and were hoping that the Nazi forces would wipe out the Soviet Union — or that both countries would fight each other to the point of exhaustion and then collapse. These suspicions were reinforced when Chamberlain and Hitler met for the Munich Agreement.
Critics of Stalin, however, claim that one reason why the Soviet Union was not in a position to fight a war was Stalin's Great Purge of 1936 to 1938 which, among other things, eliminated much of the military's most experienced leadership. They also point out that when German forces finally did attack the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Red Army was completely unprepared for the assault, despite multiple advanced warnings from foreign as well as from Soviet intelligence. Critics also question Stalin’s determination to oppose Germany’s growing military aggressiveness, since the Soviet Union began commercial and military cooperation with Germany in 1936 and grew these relationships until the German invasion began. After the British and French declaration of war on Germany, these economic relationships allowed Germany to circumvent its naval blockade.
On May 3, 1939, the Soviet Secretary General Joseph Stalin replaced the Jewish Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov with Molotov, thereby opening for negotiations with Nazi Germany. Litvinov had been associated with the previous policy of creating an anti-fascist coalition, and was considered pro-Western by the standards of the Kremlin.
During the last two weeks of August 1939, Soviet-Japanese Border War reached its peak.
After concluding a German-Soviet trade agreement (establishing economic ties between the two states), Molotov proposed an additional protocol on August 19, "covering the points in which the High Contracting Parties are interested in the field of foreign policy". This was a direct reflection of Stalin's speech on Aug 19, 1939, where he asserted that a great war between the western powers was necessary for the spread of World Revolution.
There was a secret appendix to the pact, according to which the buffer states of Northern and Eastern Europe were divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence. In the North, Finland, Estonia and Latvia were apportioned to the Soviet sphere. Poland was to be partitioned in the event of its "political rearrangement"—the areas east of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San going to the Soviet Union while the Germans would occupy the west. Lithuania, adjacent to East-Prussia, would be in the German sphere of influence. In the South, the Soviet Union's interest and German disinterest in Bessarabia, a part of Romania, were acknowledged.
The existence of a secret appendix was first speculated in Baltic intelligence organizations only few days after the signing of the pact, and speculations grew stronger when Soviet negotiators referred to its content during negotiations of military bases. The German original was presumably destroyed in the bombings, but its microfilmed copy was included in the archive of German Foreign Office documents Karl von Loesch, civil servant in Foreign Office, gave to British Lt. Col. R.C. Thomson in May 1945. The Soviet Union denied the existence of the secret protocols until 1988, when politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev admitted the existence of the protocols, although the document itself was declassified only after the Soviet collapse in 1992.
Soviet representatives and propaganda went to great lengths to minimize the importance of the fact that they had opposed and fought against the Nazis in various ways for the past 10 years. However, they never went as far as to take a pro-German stance; the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non-aggression treaty, not a pact of alliance. Still, it is said that upon signing the pact, Molotov tried to reassure the Germans of his good intentions by commenting to journalists that "fascism is a matter of taste".
The extent to which the Soviet Union's earlier territorial acquisitions may have contributed to preventing its fall (and thus a Nazi victory in the war) remains a factor in evaluating the Pact. Soviet sources pointed out that the German advance eventually stopped just a few kilometers away from Moscow, so the role of the extra territory might have been crucial in such a close call. Others say that Poland and the Baltic countries played the important role of a barrier of buffer states between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a precondition not only for Germany's invasion of Western Europe, but also for the Third Reich's invasion of the Soviet Union.
On September 1, barely a week after the pact had been signed, the partition of Poland commenced with the German invasion. The Soviet Union invaded from the east on September 17, practically concluding a fourth partition of Poland.
The pact caused great shock in the West, among governments which had most feared such an outcome, and even more so among the communists themselves, many of whom found these Soviet dealings with their Nazi enemy incomprehensible. A famous cartoon by David Low from the London Evening Standard of 20 September 1939 has Hitler and Stalin bowing to each other over the corpse of Poland, with Hitler saying "The scum of the Earth, I believe?" and Stalin replying "The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?".
On September 28th 1939, the three Baltic States were given no choice but to sign a so-called Pact of defence and mutual assistance, which permitted the Soviet Union to station troops in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The same day a supplementary German-Soviet protocol had transferred most of Lithuania from the envisaged German sphere to the Soviet sphere of interest.
Finland resisted similar claims, and was invaded by the Soviet Union on November 30. After more than three months of heavy fighting and losses in the ensuing Winter War, the Soviet Union gave up its intended occupation of Finland in exchange for approximately 10% of Finland's territory, most of which was still held by the Finnish army.
On June 15–17, 1940, after the Wehrmacht's swift occupation of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and the defeat of France, it was time for the three Baltic states to be occupied, and soon annexed, by the Soviet Union.
Finally, on June 26, four days after France accepted its defeat against the Third Reich, the Soviet Union requested in an ultimatum, Bessarabia, Bukovina and the Hertza region from Romania. Announced about this Soviet move, Ribbentrop had stressed on June 25 in his reply to the Soviet leaders, the strong German "economic interests" (oil industry and agriculture being nominated) in Romania, ensuring that Romanian territory wouldn't be transformed into a battlefield. Ribbentrop claimed that this unexpected German interest rose from his concern over the "faith" and "future" of what he pretended to be "those 100,000 ethnic Germans of Bessarabia". In fact, Bessarabia had a large concentration of Jewish population and no significant German community. The Soviet Union tended to consider Bessarabia's Jews as Ukrainians. Later, in the period of 1941-1942, when Bessarabia and Bukovina were re-annexed by Romania with German support, those Jews were deported by the Romanian military authorithies onto the then-occupied Ukrainian territory. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Jews died, as a direct consequence of these deportations.
With France no longer in position to be the guarantor of status quo in Eastern Europe, and the Third Reich pushing Romania to make concessions to the Soviet Union, the Romanian government gave in, following Italy's counsel and Vichy France's recent example.
In the month of August 1940, the fear of the Soviet Union, in conjunction with German support for the territorial demands of Romania's neighbours, and the Romanian government's own miscalculations, resulted in more territorial losses for Romania. The second Vienna Award, orchestrated mainly by Ribbentrop, created a competition between Romania and Hungary for Germany's favour concerning Transylvania. In the end, the territory ceded to Hungary also had a large Jewish community, which suffered deportation by the Hungarian government to Germany in 1944.
By September 1940, Romania's economic and military resources were fully dedicated to German interests in the East.
The Soviet-occupied territories were reorganized into republics of the Soviet Union. In addition, the local population was often purged of anti-Soviet or potentially anti-Soviet elements, and hundreds of thousands were deported to far Asian regions and to Gulag work camps. Later, these territories were in the front line of the war, and also suffered from the Nazi terror behind the eastern front.
By early 1941, the German and Soviet occupation zones shared a common border running through what is now Lithuania and Poland. Nazi–Soviet relations began to cool again, and the signs of a clash between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army began to show in German propaganda — a clash that was not without appeal to the populations in occupied Western Europe, where the anti-Bolshevism from the times of the Russian revolutions and the Russian Civil War twenty years before had not quite faded. By appearing as the unifying leader of the West against the East, Hitler hoped for boosted popularity at home and abroad, and an impetus for peace with Britain.
The Third Reich ended the pact of August 1939 by invading the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, together with Romania, and thus opening an Eastern Front that would ultimately lead to the defeat of Germany. After the launch of the German invasion, the territories gained by the Soviet Union due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were lost in a matter of weeks, and (for example) the Baltic countries ended up as German protectorates. The German attack was followed by a Soviet pre-emptive attack on Finland on June 25, starting the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union.
The alternate terms Hitler-Stalin Pact and Nazi-Soviet Pact
The most established term for the treaty is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This term is, for example, used on more web pages than any other name. However, in the English speaking world, the term Nazi-Soviet Pact has always been popular, and has seemingly gained increasing popularity over time. This term is particularly widely used in journalism and school books on history.
However, in some contexts, the term Hitler-Stalin Pact is more common and sometimes dominant:
- Translations from German and Dutch.
- Some textbooks on history.
- In works aiming at a less condemning or more neutral view of Russia and the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, a usage sometimes denounced by critics as propagandist.
The term Stalin-Hitler Pact can likewise be found in works by authors whose views were colored by anti-Communism and the Cold War.
- Text of the pact http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1939pact.html
- Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-1941 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/nazsov/nazsov.htm
- Stalin's speech on August 19, 1939 http://home.swipnet.se/nordling/Stalinspeech.html
Last updated: 02-10-2005 23:36:01
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55