The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, sometimes called the Hitler-Stalin 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 German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
The European balance of power established at the end of World War I eroded step by step from the Abyssinia crisis (1935) to the Munich Agreement (1938). The dissolution of Czechoslovakia signalled increasing instability as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union aspired to regain territories lost in the aftermath of World War I. Furthermore, the Soviet Union encouraged conflict between capitalist countries also in order to enhance the spread of Communism.
Seen from a Soviet perspective, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was a much needed response to the deterioration in 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.
Britain and France, notional guarantors of the territorial status quo, stood by until Germany's March 1939 destruction of Czechoslovakia, maintaining a policy of "non-intervention" while Germany and Italy supported the victorious rightist rebels in their destruction of the democratic Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.
For its part, the Soviet Union was not interested in maintaining a status quo which it also 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 characterised as rival imperialist countries was not only an inevitable consequence of Capitalism but would enhance conditions for the spread of Communism.
During 1938 the Soviets as well as France offered to abide by its 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 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 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 favourable 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, SSSR announced "guarantees for the independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Greece".
The British and French feared that this would allow Soviet intervention in neighbouring countries' internal affairs also in the absence of an immediate external German threat.
With Germany now demanding territorial concessions from Poland in the face of Polish opposition, the threat of war was increasing. But although telegrams were exchanged as early as April, the military missions sent (by boat) by the western powers did not arrive in Moscow until August 11.
A more fundamental sticking-point was the question of Poland, lying mid-way between Germany and the Soviet Union: The Polish government feared rightly that the Soviet government sought to annex the former Russian provinces incorporated in Poland in 1920 - areas characterised by the Kremlin as irredenta ("Western Ukraine" and "Western Belarus") on the grounds of the ethnic identity between their majority populations and those of the two westernmost Soviet republics.
The Polish government therefore refused to allow the Soviet military to enter and establish military bases on the area of Poland in advance of war - a situation that allegedly left the Red Army without any possibility of confronting the Germans before Poland was invaded. On the other hand, Polish government refused to ally with Germany in their plans to conquer Soviet Union.
Three weeks into August, the negotiations ground to a halt with each side doubting the other's motives, 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 USSR entered the non-aggression pact after the September 1938 Munich Agreement made it evident that the western democracies were pursuing a policy of appeasement and were not interested in joining the USSR in an anti-Nazi alliance which Communists had attempted to promote through their popular front tactic. Biographers of Stalin point out that he believed the British rejected his proposal of an antifascist alliance because they were plotting with Germany against the Soviet Union and that the western democracies were expecting Germany to attack the USSR and were hoping that the Nazis 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 re-enforced when Chamberlain and Hitler met and produced the Munich Deal. On May 3, 1939, Stalin replaced Maxim Litvinov as foreign minister with Molotov. Litvinov had been associated with the previous policy of creating an antifascist coalition.
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 in 1939 to fight a war and needed at least three years to prepare. Critics of Stalin point out that one reason 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 Germany finally did attack the USSR on June 22, 1941 Stalin was shocked that the Nazis had broken the treaty and was unprepared for combat.
German negotiations with the Soviet Union
Soviet's Secretary General Joseph Stalin had prepared for negotiations with the Germans by replacing the Jewish Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov with Molotov.
After concluding a German-Soviet trade agreement, Molotov on August 19 proposed an additional protocol "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.
The pact was announced as a non-aggression pact, but in a secret appendix Eastern Europe was divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Bessarabia 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 Germany would occupy the west.
Upon signing the pact, Molotov commented to journalists after the signing that "fascism is a matter of taste".
On September 1, barely a week after the pact had been signed, the partition of Poland commenced with Germany's invasion. The Soviet Union invaded from the east on September 17, practically concluding a fourth partition of Poland.
The pact caused consternation in the West, both among governments which had most feared such an outcome, and even more so to supporters of communism, many of whom found Soviet dealings with their Nazi ideological 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 saying "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 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.
In June 1940, after the Wehrmacht's swift victories and occupation of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, it was time for Bessarabia and the three Baltic states to suffer occupation, and soon annexation, by the Soviet Union. On June 26 Soviet Union requested, in an ultimatum, Bessarabia and the northern part of Bukovina from Romania. Without its traditional allies, UK and France, Romania was forced by Germany and Italy to give in.
On the Soviet-occupied territories, a campaign of terror was commenced, in much similar to the Nazi terror behind the eastern front. Millions of people were deported to Gulag work camps in the far north.
By early 1941, the Nazi and Soviet empires-in-being shared a common border running through what is now Lithuania and Poland. Thereafter, Nazi-Soviet relations began to cool and the clash between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army seemed increasingly unavoidable.
Germany ended the pact of August 1939 by invading the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in what was called Operation Barbarossa. The territories gained by the Soviet Union due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were lost in a matter of weeks. Germany's attack was followed by a pre-emptive attack on Finland on June 26, commencing the so called Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union.
The extent to which the Soviet Union's earlier territorial acquisitions may have contributed to preventing a conquest remains a factor in evaluating the pact. Soviet propaganda pointed out, that the earlier territorial acquisitions may have contributed to preventing total conquest of the Soviet Union. Others say, that Poland and the Baltic countries played the important role of a barrier 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 ("Operation Barbarossa").
The alternate terms Hitler-Stalin Pact and Nazi-Soviet Pact
The most established term for the treaty is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It 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, neutral, or more understanding view of Russia and the post-stalinist Soviet Union, a usage by critics denounced as propagandist or exaggerated political correctness.