Remembering the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Authoritarian regimes are brutal and untrustworthy. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, an agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in effect from 1939 to 1941, shows how dangerous the schemes of authoritarians can be to people who live within their reach. The Pact helped Hitler launch the racial war he sought, helped Stalin launch his own expansionist wars, and ultimately ended in a betrayal that cost millions of human lives.

Joseph Stalin’s ideological framework and strategic objectives shaped the Pact. Stalin was an opportunistic expansionist who acted as if his regime was the global leader of true revolution. In Stalin’s view, if capitalists and fascists fought each other their position against the USSR would be weakened. Yet Stalin’s goal was not merely to stay out of the coming war, but to gain from it at the earliest opportunity. Soviet planners believed that gaining territory held by Poland would benefit the USSR’s defensive capabilities and help eliminate Polish nationalism. Stalin would make greater territorial demands in the late 1930s.

Adolf Hitler saw the Soviet Union as a special enemy. He spoke of Soviet Bolshevism as an ideological foe, associated with Jews, that National Socialism must annihilate. Goebbels would later call the pact with the Soviets “a stain on our shield.” A pact between the two countries could only come about with both leaders exercising the most cynical opportunism, and Stalin exercising undue confidence in his ability to deal with Hitler.

Events of the late 1930s drove the unlikely allies together. Stalin needed time to rebuild the Red Army after the devastating purges of the late 1930s. He also grew more distrustful of Britain and France as they continually failed to respond forcefully to the acts of Hitler and Mussolini.

The Munich Agreement of September 1938, in which Britain and France agreed to let Hitler take the Sudetenland — and with it an advantageous position for occupying all of Czechoslovakia — convinced Stalin more than ever to not rely on the western allies. When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain refused to consult Stalin during the negotiations the Soviet dictator’s distrust was affirmed. He believed that he should deal with Germany to divide Europe into spheres of influence. Like the western allies, he gravely miscalculated Hitler’s intentions and hunger for war.

In the spring of 1939, the USSR sent diplomatic correspondence to Nazi Germany encouraging friendlier relations. In launching the new diplomatic line, Stalin began a purge of the diplomatic corps, with a focus on Jewish staff. Maxim Litvinov, the Foreign Commissar, was sacked and replaced with Vyacheslav Molotov. Diplomatic staff were arrested and sometimes murdered. Stalin saw Jewish leaders as an obstacle to rapprochement with Hitler and gave the order to “Clean out the ‘synagogue.’” As Stalin made moves for German cooperation, he also negotiated a potential alliance with Britain and France. The latter efforts were unlikely to bear fruit. The diplomatic teams sent to the Soviet Union were unimpressive, and Stalin would not back down from his demand that Soviet armed forces be given freedom of movement through Poland and Romania in the event of hostilities.

As it turns out, Hitler and Stalin had more to offer each other. An agreement would allow Hitler to start the war that he wanted without facing the Soviet Union — at first. Stalin believed that German power would be weakened by war as Soviet forces were rebuilt. Both leaders saw an opportunity to subdue Poland, and Stalin also wanted lands from the Baltic States and additional territory held by Romania.

Negotiations took place in the summer of 1939, concluding with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop leading a delegation to Moscow to meet with Molotov and Stalin. The friendly conference was briefly interrupted when Ribbentrop contacted Hitler to ask him about territorial demands Stalin had made, which Hitler quickly approved. On August 23, 1939, the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, or Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was signed. It contained openly-published articles promising peaceful relations between the two countries as well as secret protocols describing the spheres of influence that would be established in Eastern Europe, a set of guidelines for aggression.

On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland. Hitler’s war had begun.

Nazi-Communist cooperation was strong in the beginning of the war and the ideological foes became military allies. In Revolution from Abroad, Jan T. Gross describes how the Soviets agreed to broadcast the word “Minsk” over radio from the Minsk Broadcasting Station, which assisted German warplanes with navigation. The Soviets notified the Germans on the eve of their September 17 invasion of Poland, sharing a draft of a note they would send the Polish ambassador. The note was revised according to German requests. Germany and the USSR would hold more discussions to redraw spheres of influence and coordinate occupation troop movements. In a speech he made in October, Molotov boasted, “One swift blow to Poland, first by the German Army and then by the Red Army, and nothing was left of this ugly offspring of the Versailles Treaty.”

The consequences of German-Soviet cooperation were terrible for the people who became targets of the occupying regimes. The Soviets murdered over 20,000 Polish officers and others seen as potential leaders, and deported hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews to remote areas of the USSR, where they often lived in desperate conditions. On the German side of the line, Hitler’s race war had begun in earnest. German troops indiscriminately shot civilians, executed prisoners of war en masse, and forced Jews into overcrowded and undersupplied ghettos. Jews were robbed and murdered with no legal consequences. Plans to forcibly resettle the captured Polish lands according to Nazi racial ideology were disrupted only by the later invasion of the Soviet Union.

In the east, Stalin continued his expansionist moves. He launched a disastrous invasion of Finland in the winter of 1939-1940, further weakening the Red Army while creating a sure enemy. Showing what a treaty with the Soviet Union meant for people living near its borders, the Soviets pressured Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into signing treaties, then soon occupied them with Red Army forces. By the following summer, the USSR had annexed the three Baltic States and began deporting thousands of people to Siberia.

In the west, Hitler attacked Germany’s neighbors, capturing France by June 1940. His pact with Stalin ensured Germany would be well-supplied for its war effort, as the Soviets supplied precious grain, oil, and mineral ore, and acted as a conduit for other trade, including rubber.

Between the signing of the Pact and the invasion of the USSR, Communist party organizations controlled by Moscow supported the Nazi war effort. David Wingeate Pike shows that after the fall of France in 1940, French Communists acting on their own initiative did indeed commit acts of sabotage and anti- Nazi propaganda, but the leadership of the Communist Party of France did not support resistance. The Party newspaper declared, “Friendly conversations between Parisian workers and German soldiers increase by leaps and bounds. We are delighted. Let us get to know one another.” The party later claimed they were talking about efforts to indoctrinate and demoralize German soldiers, but it is difficult to read the passage as anything other than celebrating collaboration with the brutal war machine of Nazi Germany.

Hitler believed that National Socialist Germany would have to attack their ultimate foe, the Bolshevik Soviet Union, at some point in time, in a war which promised to be an existential struggle in which no mercy could be given to racial enemies. He also wanted to bring Soviet resources under German control and show the British that the USSR could not come to their aid. Despite the obvious danger of a war on two fronts, Hitler wanted to attack while the Soviets looked to be weak.

Stalin also expected to go to war with Germany, but generally believed that Hitler would not attack at the time he did, despite volumes of evidence available to Stalin that said otherwise. By the end of 1940, Stalin was preparing for war with Germany, yet he believed the military was not ready and hoped to delay war through diplomacy and appeasement. With war imminent, political favoritism still generally won over military experience and technical expertise in the Soviet Union, and a series of denunciations and purges added to the chaos.

By the spring of 1941, Stalin’s spies had even revealed to him the date of the planned German invasion. Yet Stalin acted as if Hitler must be a rational statesman who would not start a war on two fronts while the division of Eastern Europe was working well for both occupiers. In the months leading up to war, Stalin wavered nervously, relying on wishful thinking and the fearful obedience of his deputies. Despite his belief that war was going to happen, Stalin refused to believe the clear evidence that it was imminent, scolding generals Timoshenko and Zhukov within two weeks of the invasion for pointing out the mounting evidence from intelligence sources.

As war drew closer, even after multiple German deserters warned the Soviets of an imminent attack, Stalin said the Germans were trying to provoke them, not preparing to invade. He swiftly ordered the execution of a German Communist who left his unit to warn of the attack, accusing him of spreading “disinformation.” On the eve of the invasion, trains carried goods from the Soviet Union to Germany.

On the morning of June 22, 1941, the war machine of Nazi Germany and its allies opened a massive assault on the Soviet Union. Even with reports of numerous attacks, Stalin persisted in believing that the attacks might be a provocation by German officers, not the work of Hitler himself, until the German ambassador read an official message declaring war.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was brought to an end as bombs fell on cities, Germans and their allies waged indiscriminate war against people in their path, pogroms were encouraged, and the Nazis enacted a racial war of bullets, starvation, and finally poison gas. The killing centers the Nazis established on territory taken from Poland became epicenters of mass murder, in a genocidal campaign that would kill six million Jewish people. In their most optimistic fantasies, the Nazis expected to kill tens of millions more people in Eastern Europe and subject millions more to deportation or servitude. The Soviet people fought bravely, brutally, and heroically against this onslaught and took on a key role in the Allies’ victory over fascism. The brutality and recklessness of Hitler and Stalin cost millions of people their lives.

Stalin’s expansionist urges were mainly strengthened by the war. In 1939 he had wanted Poland wiped off the map, but by the end of the war he had in mind a Communist Poland with a puppet government. In 1944, the underground Polish Home Army launched the Warsaw Uprising to liberate the city from its German occupiers. Soviet troops, already in Poland, did not assist them. Though Soviet forces were exhausted after a long advance, this does not account for the failure to effectively aid the Polish insurgents with supplies, nor can it account for the obstacles Stalin placed on supply airlifts by Britain and the United States. The Polish Home Army did not answer to Stalin or to the Soviet-controlled “Polish Committee of National Liberation” he wanted to install in power, so Stalin preferred they fight alone.

The Nazis rampaged through Warsaw, routinely committing war crimes as they killed tens of thousands of people and levelled the city in a brutal campaign.

To avoid feeding nationalist myth-making, it should be pointed out that the many heroic acts of resistance by Polish people against the German occupation do not erase the fact that there were also Poles who collaborated with the Nazis’ race war by attacking their Jewish neighbors. It should also be pointed out that among the Soviet troops who defeated fascists in Eastern Europe, there were many who committed war crimes, including mass rapes of women in captured territory.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a deal between two dictators who expected to fight each other and wanted to delay the big fight so they could pursue more immediate objectives. Its own articles foretold of brutal occupations and its end was in a war of brutality on a scale that could only be pursued when at least one side sees the enemy as less than fully human.

The history of the Pact can act as a lens to consider the dangers of authoritarianism and the necessity of effective opposition. The brutality of fascism and the danger of those who admire the biggest fascist criminals should be obvious, but it should still be stated. It is also important to question people on the left who support right-wing authoritarians like Putin and Assad in their war-making, and to be wary of those who make party politics and personality cults into obstacles for work against fascism and authoritarian politics. It is good to question those who ignore or excuse the evils of Stalin, and question those who say that the history of appeasement has no lessons for the struggles against today’s authoritarian nationalists and their fascist kin. When authoritarians would divide the world into zones of control where they have free reign to accomplish their goals as brutally as they wish, people of conscience around the world must act.

Further Reading: 

  1. Antony Beevor. The Second World War. Little, Brown, and Company, 2012.
  2. Saul Friedlander, Orna Kenan. Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945, Harper, 2009. (Goebbels quoted on page 200).
  3. Jan T. Gross. Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia. Princeton University Press, 2002. (Molotov quoted on page 12).
  4. “Killing Centers in Occupied Poland, 1942.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  5. Mark Mazower. Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe. Penguin, 2008.
  6. David Wingeate Pike, “Between the Junes: The French Communist from the Collapse of France to the Invasion of Russia.” Journal of Contemporary History (SAGE, London, Newbury Park and New Delhi), Vol.28 (1993), 465-485. (Communist newspaper quoted on page 470).
  7. Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. (“Clean out the ‘synagogue’ quote on page 304).
  8. Anthony Read and David Fisher. The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939-1941. W.W. Norton, 1988.
  9. Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddie, Eds. Nazi-Soviet Relations: 1939-1941. US Department of State, 1948.
  10. “World War II: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (August 23, 1939).” Jewish Virtual Library.
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