The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, named after the former Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, officially the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and also known as the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact or Nazi-Soviet Pact, was a non-aggression pact signed between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union in Moscow in the late hours of 23 August 1939.
The pact’s publicly stated intentions were a guarantee of non-belligerence by each party towards the other and a commitment that neither party would ally itself to or aid an enemy of the other party. In addition to stipulations of non-aggression, the treaty included a secret protocol that divided territories of Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland into German and Soviet “spheres of influence”, anticipating potential “territorial and political rearrangements” of these countries. Thereafter, Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. After the Soviet–Japanese ceasefire agreement took effect on 16 September, Stalin ordered his own invasion of Poland on 17 September. Part of southeastern (Karelia) and Salla region in Finland were annexed by the Soviet Union after the Winter War. This was followed by Soviet annexations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Romania (Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, and the Hertza region). It was only in 1989 that the Soviet authorities admitted the existence of the secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A concern about ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians had been proffered as the reason for the Soviet invasion of Poland, rather than Soviet expansionism.
The pact remained in force until the German government broke it by invading the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.
Of the territories of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1940, the region around Białystok and a minor part of Galicia east of the San river around Przemyśl were the only ones returned to the Polish state at the end of World War II. Of all other territories annexed by the USSR in 1939–40, the ones detached from Finland (Karelia, Petsamo), Estonia (Ingrian area and Petseri County) and Latvia (Abrene) remained part of the Russian Federation, the successor state of the Soviet Union, after 1991. Northern Bukovina, Southern Bessarabia, and Hertza remain part of Ukraine.
After the war, von Ribbentrop was convicted of war crimes and executed. Molotov died aged 96 in 1986, five years before the USSR’s dissolution.
The existence of the secret protocol was denied by the Soviet government until 1989 when it was finally acknowledged and denounced.
Recent Russian historiography – perhaps taking its lead from the creation of a presidential commission to counter what it called falsifications of history to the detriment of Russian interests – has been inclined to defenses of the pact. This includes books by Andre Dyukov and one edited by N.A. Narochnitskaya that carries an approving foreword by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Vladimir Putin while condemning the pact as ‘immoral’ has also defended the pact as a “necessary evil”.
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The outcome of World War I was disastrous for both the German Reich and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. During the war, the Bolsheviks struggled for survival, and Vladimir Lenin recognized the independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Moreover, facing a German military advance, Lenin and Trotsky were forced to enter into the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ceded massive western Russian territories to the German Empire. After Germany’s collapse, a multinational Allied-led army intervened in the Russian Civil War – 1917–22.
On 16 April 1922, Germany and the Soviet Union entered the Treaty of Rapallo, pursuant to which they renounced territorial and financial claims against each other. Each party further pledged neutrality in the event of an attack against the other with the 1926 Treaty of Berlin. While trade between the two countries fell sharply after World War I, trade agreements signed in the mid-1920s helped to increase trade to 433 million Reichsmarks per year by 1927.
At the beginning of the 1930s, the Nazi Party’s rise to power increased tensions between Germany and the Soviet Union along with other countries with ethnic Slavs, who were considered “Untermenschen” (inferior) according to Nazi racial ideology. Moreover, the anti-Semitic Nazis associated ethnic Jews with both communism and financial capitalism, both of which they opposed. Nazi theory held that Slavs in the Soviet Union were being ruled by “Jewish Bolshevik” masters. In 1934, Hitler himself had spoken of an inescapable battle against both Pan-Slavism and Neo-Slavism, the victory in which would lead to “permanent mastery of the world”, though he stated that they would “walk part of the road with the Russians if that will help us.” The resulting manifestation of German anti-Bolshevism and an increase in Soviet foreign debts caused German-Soviet trade to dramatically decline. Imports of Soviet goods to Germany fell to 223 million Reichsmarks in 1934 as the more isolationist Stalinist regime asserted power and the abandonment of post–World War I Treaty of Versailles military controls decreased Germany’s reliance on Soviet imports.
In 1936, Germany and Fascist Italy supported Spanish Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, while the Soviets supported the partially socialist-led Second Spanish Republic. Thus the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war between Germany and the USSR. In 1936, Germany and Japan entered the Anti-Comintern Pact and were joined a year later by Italy.
Hitler’s fierce anti-Soviet rhetoric was one of the reasons why Britain and France decided that Soviet participation in the 1938 Munich Conference regarding Czechoslovakia would be both dangerous and useless. The Munich Agreement that followed marked a partial German annexation of Czechoslovakia in late 1938 followed by its complete dissolution in March 1939, which was part of the appeasement of Germany conducted by Chamberlain’s and Daladier’s cabinets. This policy immediately raised the question of whether the Soviet Union could avoid being next on Hitler’s list. The Soviet leadership believed that the West wanted to encourage German aggression in the East and that France and Britain might stay neutral in a war initiated by Germany, hoping that the warring states would wear each other out and put an end to both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
For Germany, because an autarkic economic approach or an alliance with Britain were impossible, closer relations with the Soviet Union to obtain raw materials became necessary, if not just for economic reasons alone. Moreover, an expected British blockade in the event of war would create massive shortages for Germany in a number of key raw materials. After the Munich agreement, the resulting increase in German military supply needs and Soviet demands for military machinery, talks between the two countries occurred from late 1938 to March 1939. The third Soviet Five Year Plan required new infusions of technology and industrial equipment. German war planners had estimated serious shortfalls of raw materials if Germany entered a war without Soviet supply.
On 31 March 1939, in response to Nazi Germany’s defiance of the Munich Agreement and occupation of Czechoslovakia, Great Britain pledged its support and that of France to guarantee the independence of Poland, Belgium, Romania, Greece, and Turkey. On 6 April, Poland and Britain agreed to formalize the guarantee as a military alliance, pending negotiations. On 28 April, Hitler denounced the 1934 German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact and the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement.
Starting in mid-March 1939, in attempts to contain Hitler’s expansionism, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France traded a flurry of suggestions and counter plans regarding a potential political and military agreement. Although informal consultations commenced in April, the main negotiations began only in May. At the same time, throughout early 1939, Germany had secretly hinted to Soviet diplomats that it could offer better terms for a political agreement than Britain and France.
The Soviet Union, which feared Western powers and the possibility of capitalist encirclements, had little faith either that war could be avoided, or faith in the Polish army, and wanted nothing less than an ironclad military alliance with France and Britain that would provide a guaranteed support for a two-pronged attack on Germany; thus, Stalin’s adherence to the collective security line was purely conditional. Britain and France believed that war could still be avoided and that the Soviet Union, weakened by the Great Purge, could not be a main military participant, a point that many military sources were at variance with, especially given the Soviet victories over the Japanese Kwantung Army on the Manchurian frontier. France was more anxious to find an agreement with the USSR than was Britain; as a continental power, it was more willing to make concessions and more fearful of the dangers of an agreement between the USSR and Germany. These contrasting attitudes partly explain why the USSR has often been charged with playing a double game in 1939: carrying on open negotiations for an alliance with Britain and France while secretly considering propositions from Germany.
By the end of May, drafts were formally presented. In mid-June, the main Tripartite negotiations started. The discussion was focused on potential guarantees to central and east European countries should a German aggression arise. The USSR proposed to consider that a political turn towards Germany by the Baltic states would constitute an “indirect aggression” towards the Soviet Union. Britain opposed such proposals because they feared the Soviets’ proposed language could justify a Soviet intervention in Finland and the Baltic states, or push those countries to seek closer relations with Germany. The discussion about a definition of “indirect aggression” became one of the sticking points between the parties, and by mid-July, the tripartite political negotiations effectively stalled, while the parties agreed to start negotiations on a military agreement, which the Soviets insisted must be entered into simultaneously with any political agreement. One day before the military negotiations began, the politburo of CPSU, pessimistically expecting that the coming negotiations were going nowhere, formally decided to consider German proposals seriously. The military negotiations began on August 12 in Moscow with British delegation headed by Sir Reginald Drax, a retired Admiral, French delegation headed by General Aimé Doumenc and a Soviet delegation headed by Kliment Voroshilov, the commissar of defense and Boris Shaposhnikov, chief of the general staff. Without written credentials, Drax was not authorized to guarantee anything to the Soviet Union and instructed by the British government to prolong the discussions as long as possible and avoid answering the question that whether Poland would agree to permit Soviet troops to enter the country if the Germans invaded. As the negotiations failed, a great opportunity to prevent the German aggression was probably lost.
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