Nazi-Soviet Pact Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Nazi-Soviet Pact freed Adolf Hitler from the immediate possibility of a two-front war, allowing him to attack Poland and trigger the beginning of World War II hostilities.

Summary of Event

The signing of a treaty of nonaggression between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia in August, 1939, surprised most European observers, who believed that a rapprochement between the diametrically opposed dictatorships was impossible. Relations between the Soviet Union and Germany had declined substantially since 1933, when the National Socialist regime under Adolf Hitler had assumed power in Germany. Before 1933, Hitler had frequently denounced Bolshevism; in his political autobiography, Mein Kampf (1925-1926; English translation, 1939), he had stressed the need for Germany to acquire living space (Lebensraum) in Eastern Europe at the expense of the Soviet Union. Hitler’s genuine interest in Eastern Europe was demonstrated in January, 1934, when he signed a nonaggression treaty with Poland, which had traditionally been Russia’s enemy. [kw]Nazi-Soviet Pact (Aug. 23-24, 1939)[Nazi Soviet Pact (Aug. 23 24, 1939)] [kw]Soviet Pact, Nazi- (Aug. 23-24, 1939) [kw]Pact, Nazi-Soviet (Aug. 23-24, 1939)[Pact, Nazi Soviet (Aug. 23 24, 1939)] Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)[Nazi Soviet Pact] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939)[Molotov Ribbentrop Pact] [g]Germany;Aug. 23-24, 1939: Nazi-Soviet Pact[10060] [g]Poland;Aug. 23-24, 1939: Nazi-Soviet Pact[10060] [g]Russia;Aug. 23-24, 1939: Nazi-Soviet Pact[10060] [c]World War II;Aug. 23-24, 1939: Nazi-Soviet Pact[10060] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 23-24, 1939: Nazi-Soviet Pact[10060] [c]Military history;Aug. 23-24, 1939: Nazi-Soviet Pact[10060] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 23-24, 1939: Nazi-Soviet Pact[10060] Chamberlain, Neville Daladier, Édouard Hitler, Adolf Hitler, Adolf;Nazi-Soviet Pact Litvinov, Maksim Maksimovich Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Ribbentrop, Joachim von Stalin, Joseph

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin viewed this pact as a potential threat to Russia’s security, and he concluded that sooner or later Hitler would start a war somewhere in Europe. Beginning with a successful bid for membership in the League of Nations in September, 1934, Stalin and his foreign minister Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov became the leading champions of “collective security,” the concert of European governments against Hitler, and the “Popular Front,” the cooperative effort of European moderate leftists and Communist Parties against fascism. During Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia (which began in 1940), the Soviet Union made a staunch defense of the covenant only to find this an irritant rather than an aid in warming up to the West. When the Popular Front coalition in republican Spain came under assault, the Soviets provided critical military supplies while the Western forces avoided participating in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

The activities of the world revolutionary Communist International, or Comintern, Comintern which was supported and sustained by Moscow, were now sharply curtailed. In May, 1935, the Soviet government took major steps to encircle Germany by concluding pacts of mutual assistance with France and Czechoslovakia; the agreement with the latter, however, was to bind the Soviet Union only if France made the first move toward extending aid to the Czechs in the event of a German attack. Hitler used these treaties as an excuse to occupy the Rhineland in 1936, and in the fall of that year he countered them by signing an agreement with Italy and the Anti-Comintern Pact Anti-Comintern Pact (1936)[Anticomintern Pact] with Japan; the pact was directed against the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, the Stalinist purge trials and the execution of numerous army officers did nothing to strengthen Western confidence in the Soviet Union as a viable military ally against Hitler. By 1937, the attitude toward the Soviet military posture contributed to the genesis of the appeasement policy in the French and British governments, led at that time by Édouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, respectively. The fruit of this policy was Hitler’s bloodless conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia during 1938 and 1939. The Soviets were prepared to come to Czechoslovakia’s defense in 1938, but Western appeasement doomed such a move. As a result, in 1939 Stalin was driven to accept a policy of “Fortress Russia.” In response, the collective security coalition collapsed, and Stalin set about reexamining all available options in the conduct of his foreign affairs.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov signs the Nazi-Soviet agreement while Joachim von Ribbentrop (left) and Joseph Stalin (right) stand behind him.

(NARA)

Stalin’s subsequent exercise of one of these options—namely, the conclusion of a nonaggression pact with Germany—was the result of the last prewar crisis involving Nazi demands on Poland. Shortly after the Nazi occupation of Prague in mid-March, 1939, the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, submitted a series of demands to Poland that were categorically refused. Although he was furious, Hitler could not undertake an immediate solution of the Polish question for a number of reasons. First, in the light of Anglo-French promises to aid the Poles if attacked by Germany (made in late March and early April, 1939), Hitler appeared to suspect that the Western powers might fight back if he attacked Poland. Second, both Hitler and the Western powers were uncertain about the role that the Soviet Union might play in the event of a German attack on Poland. If the Soviet Union joined the Western powers in an alliance, Hitler would be caught in a two-front war. If he could engage the Soviets in a pact of nonaggression, however, Hitler might be able to force Great Britain and France to back down, as they had in the past. If this pattern were not repeated, Hitler reasoned, he would at least be in a better position to dispose of a military thrust from the West. Hitler also delayed aggression because he had to draft extensive military plans that would provide the operational details for both the invasion of Poland and the defense of the Reich from an attack by the Western powers.

On April 3, Hitler ordered his military commanders to draw up such plans; those for the Polish campaign, known by the code name Operation White, were to be ready by September 1, 1939, the scheduled date of their implementation. By the end of April of 1939, Hitler was beginning to give serious consideration to rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Stalin, too, was anxious to prevent his country from becoming isolated if Hitler invaded Poland. Because the Soviet leader was still uncommitted regarding the Polish question, however, the diplomacy surrounding it assumed the character of a contest between the Western powers and the German Reich for the prize of Russia’s favor. From mid-April to mid-August, 1939, the British and French governments made several clumsy attempts to negotiate a common defense against Hitler’s designs on Poland. Neither Chamberlain nor Daladier relished the idea of negotiating with the hated Bolsheviks. Consequently, they carried on talks with the Soviet Union at a slow pace through second-rank officials. When they finally dispatched a joint Anglo-French military mission to Moscow in the critical days of August, it traveled by boat rather than by airplane.

Apart from these problems, a Soviet-Western pact foundered almost immediately on traditional Russo-Polish animosity. Russian leaders insisted that a Soviet-Polish military agreement would have to be arranged before the Soviet Union would conclude any pact with Great Britain and France. Poland, however, adamantly rejected any such agreement with the Soviet Union. The prospects for accord between the West and the Soviet Union were not promising.

During the often-overlooked British and German talks, Neville Chamberlain clearly expressed his preference for appeasing Hitler rather than forming a grand alliance with the Soviet Union. Chamberlain’s proposals to the Third Reich were quite generous. They included an enormous loan to Germany and settlement of colonial problems as well as the Polish crisis on terms favorable to Hitler. In addition, the British offered Germany an Anglo-German condominium over Europe, and all Hitler had to do was promise that he would not invade Poland. For the moment, however, Hitler preferred the destruction of Poland in a short, local war to another Munich Agreement.

The Anglo-French-Russian negotiations, carried on with considerable publicity, were closely watched by the German Foreign Office. By the end of April, Berlin had decided to explore the possibilities of a Russo-German rapprochement to which the Soviet ambassador had alluded earlier in the month. In his April 28 speech before the Reichstag, Hitler formally renounced Germany’s nonaggression pact with Poland. Surprisingly, his address was devoid of his usual invective against Bolshevism and the Soviet Union.

Initially, Stalin pursued a cautious policy designed to avoid Soviet isolation in an increasingly dangerous international environment. By early 1939, however, increasing Soviet economic and military strength gave him sufficient confidence to take the diplomatic offensive. Stalin believed that Germany was far weaker than the Western powers and would be more likely to meet his demands. In response to Germany’s apparent interest in better relations, on May 3 the Soviet Union announced the dismissal of Litvinov, a pro-Western Jew with a British wife, as Soviet commissar for foreign affairs. He was replaced by Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, a determined negotiator who was Stalin’s oldest and closest associate. Although the two dictatorships negotiated in an atmosphere of deep distrust, the Russo-German talks made steady progress in contrast to the negotiations between the Soviet Union and the other Western powers. Finally, at the end of July, Molotov used his negotiators to indicate the Soviet Union’s willingness to enter into a commercial treaty with Germany that would be followed later by a political agreement.

By this time, however, Germany was desperate for a political pact, as the planned date for the invasion of Poland was only a month away. The Soviet-German trade talks were more than a mere preliminary to the pact. Because economically strapped Germany needed Soviet-supplied raw materials, Soviet negotiators extracted German agreement to deliver Germany’s most up-to-date weapons and vast quantities of strategic goods. Now the arch appeaser, Stalin gained additional time to build up the Red Army by buying off Hitler with fresh trade deals. The signing of a commercial agreement on August 19 only served to intensify the impatience of Hitler and Ribbentrop for an immediate political arrangement with the Soviet Union.

Apparently, Stalin wanted to be sure that Germany would become embroiled in war with the West over Poland. He was fearful that Great Britain might back down on its support to Poland, thus containing Hitler’s aggression in Eastern Europe to the Soviet frontier. Therefore, in trying to attain an essential goal of Soviet foreign policy—namely, the escape from isolation—Stalin had to take the risk that he might actually deepen his country’s isolation. When he decided that Great Britain would fight, when his mistrust of the West outweighed his suspicion of the Nazis, and when he became convinced that there were real advantages to be gained from a bargain with Hitler, then and only then did Stalin approve the signing of the nonaggression pact so desperately sought by his German counterparts.

Stalin decided to go ahead, and Ribbentrop was received in Moscow on August 23. As signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov early on August 24, the treaty contained a mutual promise of neutrality and nonaggression. A “Secret Additional Protocol” attached to the treaty divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of interest. Poland was to be partitioned between the two powers, Germany was allowed influence over Lithuania, and the Soviet Union was given a free hand in Estonia, Latvia, and Finland. The Soviet Union also declared its interest in Romania’s Bessarabia.

Significance

The Nazi-Soviet Pact had several important results. The immediate effect was to precipitate World War II. Assured of Russian neutrality, Hitler launched his invasion of Poland as originally planned on September 1; the British and French declared war on Germany two days later when Hitler failed to respond to their demand for immediate withdrawal from Poland. Meanwhile, Stalin gained at least temporary immunity from German attack, and he proceeded to build up Soviet armed forces. The sphere of interest granted to Stalin in Eastern Europe appeared to provide him with a strong forward defensive zone against possible German attack.

Russia attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, after the Finns refused to grant territorial and naval base concessions. Led by Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the Finns resisted with astonishing strength, annihilating five Soviet divisions. However, a Soviet offensive in February, 1940, succeeded, and Stalin then dictated peace terms that were more severe than the original Soviet demands. Russo-Finnish War (1939-1940)[Russofinnish War] He later absorbed the Baltic states, including Lithuania, which Hitler conceded to him in a readjustment of their pact. Simultaneously in the Far East, the Nazi-Soviet Pact enabled Stalin to relieve the pressure that Japan had been exerting on the Soviet Union’s Asian frontier since the outbreak of an undeclared Russo-Japanese war in 1938. Nominally an ally of Nazi Germany, Japan terminated the conflict in April, 1939, and signed a mutual agreement on September 15, 1939.

Intermediately, however, the alliance nearly proved disastrous for Stalin. Hitler got the better of the pact because he was able to conquer most of Europe and turn on the Soviet Union at a time of his choosing. Stalin assumed that he was dealing with Hitler from a position of unassailable strength, and so he was able to secure the favorable revision of the secret protocol of the Soviet-Nazi pact on several occasions. Stalin was preparing to do so again in late 1940; he thought that Hitler could not do without the Soviet Union’s political and economic support in Germany’s continuing war with Great Britain and that this dependence would increase with time. Refusing to believe mounting evidence that Hitler was preparing to attack, Stalin was genuinely shocked by Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s World War II invasion of the Soviet Union). For Hitler, Stalin’s misplaced trust in him almost spelled a German victory over Russia in 1941 and 1942. Viewed in wider perspective, however, the Nazi-Soviet Pact added considerably to Hitler’s overconfident attitude toward Russia. The ultimate failure of Hitler’s military campaign against Russia and his loss of the war brought about an extension of Soviet influence into central Europe that existed into the 1990’s.

Many historians have considered the Nazi-Soviet Pact’s possible ramifications. How would the course of World War II have changed if Hitler had maintained the pact against Britain before the United States launched its all-out intervention? Britain might have surrendered. Even after Barbarossa began, the possibility of a Nazi-Soviet truce on the eastern front would have stiffened considerably German resistance against Allied forces. A negotiated armistice to World War II could have occurred in Europe because British intelligence learned that Heinrich Himmler made overtures to an interested Stalin about a Russian front truce. Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)[Nazi Soviet Pact] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prewar period Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939)[Molotov Ribbentrop Pact]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Rev. ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. A detailed account, from the German vantage point, of how the development of the Polish crisis led to the Nazi-Soviet accord in August, 1939.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr, E. H. German-Soviet Relations Between the Two Wars, 1919-1939. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. Contains a discussion of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchill, Winston S. The Gathering Storm. Vol. 1 in The Second World War. 1948. Reprint. Tampa, Fla.: Mariner Books, 1986. Chapters 20 and 21 trace the course of the Polish crisis and the rapprochement between Germany and Russia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haslam, Jonathan. The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security in Europe, 1933-39. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Haslam defends the sincerity of Soviet attempts to ensure collective security.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. The second volume of Kershaw’s acclaimed biography of Hitler (the first was Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris). Accords Ribbentrop a central role in establishing an alternative foreign policy that found favor with Hitler.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Read, Anthony, and David Fisher. The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939-1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. A skillful correlation of concurrent sets of secret negotiations that outline the British and German talks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rossi, Angelo. The Russo-German Alliance, August 1939-June 1941. Translated by John and Micheline Cullen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1951. This study deals with the uneasy relations between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia after the negotiation of their nonaggression pact in August, 1939.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Ballantine, 1991. Classic work is still one of the most readable and informative histories of the Third Reich. Although Shirer’s research has been superseded in some respects, this remains one of the best introductions to the Nazi era, especially given that the author witnessed many of Hitler’s actions while serving as a foreign correspondent in Berlin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulam, Adam B. Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-67. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968. Ulam’s study offers a controversial evaluation of the diplomatic background of the Nazi-Soviet Pact from the Russian vantage point.

Germany and Japan Sign the Anti-Comintern Pact

The Anschluss

Kristallnacht

Germany Invades Poland

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