On August 1939 23 Nazi Germany and Soviet Union shocked the world by signing a mutual non-aggression pact. The majority of historians sees this as starting point for war. Many speculate if this would not happen; then there would be no war. Nevertheless this event was crucial for the history of the 20th century. It caused German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the erasing of Baltic states independence and start of bloody worldwide conflict. This article will take a detailed look why this pact was signed and who holds most responsibility for its signing.
The interwar period can be separated in two periods. First period between 1918-1929 was a time of economic boom in most Western countries. The victorious sides of the First World war hopped for restoration of prewar economic greatness however the breakdown that started in 1929 hindered these hopes. The second period after 1929 that led to 1939 was a time of economic and political crisis in Europe. The crisis was also diplomatic because the rise of anti-democratic powers disrupted the Versailles world order that was established in 1919 by the USA, Great Britain and France.
The interwar period was a time of major change in economic and political poles. Before the war Great Britain was the worlds financial leader and banker. After the war USA started to play major role in the world economy. In the many decades US diplomacy was based on Monroe Doctrine the dominance in the American continent. The US president Woodrow Wilson was first who paved the way for US economic empire, the use of Monroe Doctrine in all parts of the world. US used its economic strength to take an important part in European trade and left behind Great Britain in race for economical greatness. Great Britain took heavy burden in the First World war. The high costs caused economic slowdown and therefore British leaders did not want any new international troubles in Europe that could cause even bitterer harm to the British empire economy. The empire still had large possessions in Africa and Asia and they wanted to avoid war at all costs to keep the empire’s stability. France suffered large-scale casualties in world war so France also they also desired stability in world affairs especially in affairs with Germany. This means that both victorious sides of the First World war was not ready for new conflict and tried to avoid it.
But that was not the case of two European powers Germany and Soviet Union. Germany did not enjoy much of economic boom and the crisis was even deeper that caused the rise of radical powers. In the early thirties Germany was a battleground between Communists and National socialists. Nazi ideology was based on revenge and a revision of the Versailles treaty. Soviet Union also suffered heavy losses after the civil war. Soviet leadership wanted to restore the past greatness of the Russian Empire. In order to do this Soviet leader Joseph Stalin issued “socialism in sole state doctrine”. That meant that the Soviet Union will refrain from hopes of quick world revolution and will rebuild its economy and will prepare for new war. Soviet leaders saw new international conflict inevitable. In the interwar period enormous efforts were done to industrialize war-torn country and collectivization of rural lands. Soviet people were gathered under iron fist control to make large masses ready for a new war. Stalin led massive repressions in the state apparatus to get completely loyal government that will suit his every need.
This all led to breakdown of Versailles system. First massive blow to the system was the Japanese invasion in China that showed that the League of Nations and Western powers cannot stop aggressive country using diplomacy. The new Nazi government and Fascist Italy used this for their aggressive interests. In 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) again nothing cannot stop them. This encouraged Hitler to re-militarize district of Rhine. It was a venture since France could easily stop German army. German soldiers had been told if French would respond fire then they must retreat. But France did nothing. This meant that Germany had broken all past treaties and France lost its position in Europe. Hitler now was ready for more ventures.
Germany and Italy became allies. Great Britain and France started mutual cooperation. Both countries showed no interest in annexation of Austria by Germany. In 1937 when the crisis of Czechoslovakia started both countries instead of helping Czechoslovakia was ready give its territories to Germany. Clearly both old empires did not want to involve themselves in war for troubles of Eastern Europe. This lead to Munich agreement when without any assent of Czechoslovakia it was stripped of its territories to favor of Germany. The British hoped that this will be the fundamental approach in British-German relations and will make a compromise in all matters in Eastern Europe. In reality this meant that British ”appeasement” policy has reached its apogee and Versailles system has been completely destroyed. Hitler had fulfilled his first goal.
After Hitler had annexed all Czechoslovakia he wanted do the same with Poland. Poland got large territories inhabited by German ethnic minority. The port of Danzig and Polish Corridor was the key interest of Hitler. Hitler hoped to make a deal with Poland so they would fulfill his demands peacefully and became a protectorate of Germany. Before Hitler had successfully signed non-aggression pact with Poland. But Poland was not willing to cooperate. Poland viewed itself as a major power. They even prepared for invasion in the Soviet Union at one time. The Polish stubbornness was an insult to Hitler. Previously he could force Austrians and Czechoslovakians to surrender without force. Hitler now wanted to resolve the Polish question with arms.
Poles asked for British support. Clearly British could not send any forces to Poland in case of invasion. France was not ready for war either. But Soviet Union had all chances to stop Hitlers intentions both diplomatically and militarily. So now the both sides started to gamble to sign deal with Soviets. If the Soviets would sign pact with British then Hitler would be encircled and would risk two front war. If Stalin would agree with Hitler that the last could have a free hand on Poland. This situation now made Soviet Union the arbiter of the Polish crisis.
Soviets played a double game with the Germans and British. While Soviet newspapers stated that the only way to stop the war would be an agreement with Britain and France, the Soviets made secret talks with Germans. Britain and France tried to sign agreement with Soviets in the summer of 1939. But Soviet demands halted the talks. Soviets asked for guarantees for the Baltic states and Poland in the event of aggression. Such demands were turned down by Baltic States and Poland since it would mean the entry of Soviet troops in their land. They did not trust the soviet intentions. On the other hand Germans would not mind the Soviet influence in Baltic Region. The Western Allies feared to give too much power to Soviets so they also showed mistrust of Soviet intentions.
In August the Western Soviet talks went to halt. In August 19 in Politburo meeting Stalin analyzed the present situation. If the Soviets signed deal with British the war against Poland would be halted. Hitler would have to look for compromise. However this will be dangerous and disadvantageous for Soviet interests. Instead he recommended to sign deal with Germany, so the invasion in Poland will occur and Britain and France will declare war on Germany. In this situation Soviet Union could have a chance to choose the time of its own entry into the war, have a free hand on Baltic States and Eastern Europe. This speech leaked into the French press instantly. Stalin denied that he had said something like that. Most Russian and Western historians also deny the fact of this speech but there is proof that this speech may happen. Even if this speech was a falsification it showed the real situation of August 1939.
On this same day Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov contacted the German ambassador Schulenburg. He said that direct talks with German and Soviet foreign ministers is possible. He presented Soviet view of possible agreement and demanded that additional secret protocols must be added. On August 21 Hitler sent a letter to Stalin were he agreed to Soviet demands and proposed the signing on August 22 because war with Poland is heading ever closer. Stalin replayed that agreement must happen on August 23. This showed who was the real master of the pact. Even when German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was preparing for flight to Moscow, the Soviets did not halt the talks with Western allies. Interesting fact is that early before the agreement Stalin removed the first foreign minister Maxim Litvinov simply because he was a Jew. Nazi Germany could have a resentment signing deal with a Jew.
In August 23 Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow by airplane. When British and French tried to sign deal with Soviets they traveled by ship and instead of sending their foreign ministers they sent low rank diplomats. The real pact was signed on the night of August 24. Ribbentrop and Stalin had a disagreement on Latvia because the Germans wanted one half of Latvia the Courland and Semmigallia. Stalin wanted the valuable ports of Ventspils and Liepaja for himself so he resisted signing anything until his demand was fulfilled. Ribbentrop telephoned Hitler and Stalin’s demands was met. Soviet Union got in their sphere of interest the whole Finland, Estonia, Latvia a large part of Poland and Bessarabia (Romanian possession present day Moldova). After the signing the pact Germans guests and Stalin had a celebration with alcoholic drinks. Stalin promised not to betray Germany. When celebration moved to more humble surroundings Ribbentrop when entered the room gave the Nazi salute to Stalin “Hail Hitler!”. Everyone was confused but Stalin gave quintet in return. When Ribbentrop left the scene Stalin apparently said “I think we have tricked him!”. Ribbentrop left Moscow barely moving on his two feet because his new Soviet friends were better drinkers than him.
Hitler wanted to invade Poland on August 25 but on the same day Poles and British signed an agreement and he ordered the invasion to stop. Some German formations already crossed the border but were forced to draw back. The next few days Hitler followed the talks with British and Poles and came to conclusion that the British won’t help the Poles in case of war. Hitler had no intentions of fighting with Great Britain; he believed in peaceful co-existence between two states. While Hitler could have free hand in Central Europe, Britain could keep its possessions in Africa and Asia. It was written in his Mein Kamph that Germany has no desire to fight against the British. He may potentially plan to go to war against France to revenge the defeat of 1918. In so Hitler hoped that war on Poland would be localized.
His illusions went to stray when France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Stalin clearly had been right in his conclusions on August 19. Soviet Union invaded in Poland on September 17 but got no sanctions from the British. He attacked Finland in winter of 1939 but officially Soviet Union entered the war only in 1941. Stalin’s plan on setting war in Europe was successful. However, Stalin could not choose his own time on entry in the war because Hitler finally guessed his intentions and surprised him on June 22 1941. But that is a another story.
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