The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (left) and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (in light jacket), leave their meeting at Bad Godesberg, on Sept. 23, 1938. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/cc)

In honor of the 80th anniversary earlier this month of the start of WWII, I am posting this excerpt from the chapter about WWII of my forthcoming book. I will be posting a status update on this project within the coming weeks. – Natylie

By 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt and some of his advisers had recognized the serious threat to world peace that Hitler’s Germany posed.  They also realized why Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Nazis, though FDR made a personal last-minute appeal to Stalin not to (Butler 2015).

Stalin was well aware of Hitler’s anti-Slavic views as reflected in Mein Kampf and subsequent speeches by the German leader.  Along with Jews, Slavs were considered sub-human.  Shortly after taking power in Germany, Hitler’s Nazi party implemented an anti-Soviet propaganda campaign and physically attacked Soviet diplomatic personnel and trade representatives in Germany (Carley 2019). 

Stalin hoped to establish trade with the U.S. in order to obtain materials that might be useful in the event of war with Germany.

But however sympathetic FDR might have been on the matter, he faced domestic obstacles that included strong isolationist sentiment and possible accusations of being a communist sympathizer.

The desire of the Bolshevik leadership for trade and cordial relations with the U.S. to balance out anti-Russian dynamics in Europe and in the Pacific started with Lenin as early as 1919, despite Wilson’s sending U.S. troops to assist the counterrevolutionary cause.  Lenin still advocated for such a policy in 1921 (Butler 2015).  After his death in 1924, Stalin proceeded to seek official recognition of the Soviet government and only succeeded after Roosevelt took office in 1933.

After Hitler had taken Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the Sudetenland, Stalin vigorously sought a security pact with Britain and France to counter any potential German aggression.  But Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain continually rebuffed such offers.  The fact that the British (Sykes 2017) and French elites tended to be fearful of communism and even sympathetic to fascism as a bulwark against it didn’t help matters (Carley 2016).  Britain, in particular, actually enabled the early stages of Germany’s aggression at several key points. 

When in 1936 Hitler marched into the Rhineland – a neutral territory established by the Versailles Treaty as a buffer between Germany and France – Britain made it clear that it would not assist France in repelling the German invasion.  Hitler admitted that Germany would have had to retreat if the French would have fought them in the Rhineland (Freeman 2019).  Britain again declined to help the French defend the Sudetenland as France was obligated to do by treaty with Czechoslovakia.  The Soviet Union was intentionally left out of the infamous Munich conference later in the year where Czechoslovakia was divided up (Freeman 2019).

In terms of the Soviets being able to defend border countries, it was also a problem that the Polish leadership would not agree to Soviet troops on its soil even in the event of a German invasion (Butler 2015).

Finally, at the end of July of 1939, diplomats from France and Britain were sent to the Soviet Union, but Chamberlain had them placed on a slow freighter instead of quicker transport that was available.  Upon arrival, a further delay occurred when it was realized that the British diplomat did not have documents authorizing him to officially negotiate.  When Soviet officials were finally told that Britain had minimal divisions available for potential military operations, the Soviets concluded that Britain was not acting in good faith (Butler 2015; Carley 2016).

It is believed by some historians that the British leadership didn’t foresee any potential for a pact between Germany and the Soviet Union and felt that the approaching autumn/winter weather would preclude any possibility of a German attack.  Thus, the mere appearance of negotiations between Britain and the Soviet Union were thought to be a sufficient deterrent (Butler 2015).  Other historians say that the British leadership was hoping that Germany would eventually destroy the Soviet Union and its communist experiment (Freeman 2019).  

Meanwhile, FDR saw the decision of Britain and France to not ally with the Soviet Union to counter Germany as a grave miscalculation and thought a war was inevitable.  Consequently, he “quietly” signed orders creating military infrastructure that could be utilized for action in the future. He also attempted to persuade key senators to repeal the American Neutrality Act so as to allow transfer of weapons to vulnerable European nations based on diplomatic information from Belgium that such a move would make Hitler think twice about further aggression. But he was unsuccessful in those efforts.

Sensing the futility of his attempts to ally with Britain and France, Stalin fired the pro-British Maxim Litvinov as Foreign Minister and appointed Molotov who was more sympathetic to Germany.  Stalin also knew that as the Soviet official who was by far the closest to him, he would get more detailed reports of negotiations from Molotov. Talks on trade with Germany were eventually begun and those on political issues soon followed (Butler 2015).

When Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Germany on August 24, 1939, he believed that he was buying time to prepare for any invasion.  He clung to the delusion that Germany would seek to take out Britain first and Hitler intentionally gave that impression (Butler 2015; Carley 2016).

References:

  1. Butler, Susan.  Roosevelt & Stalin:  Portrait of a Partnership.  Alfred A. Knopf.  New York, NY. 2015.
  2. Just Trudeau Needs a History Lesson” by Michael Jabara Carley.  Voltaire.net.  9/1/19.
  3. How British High Society Fell in Love with the Nazis” by Tom Sykes.  The Daily Beast.  4/14/17.
  4. History as Propaganda:  Why the USSR Did Not Win World War II:  Part I” by Michael Jabara Carley.  Strategic Culture Foundation.  3/19/16[(Title Intentionally Ironic].
  5. History as Propaganda:  Why the USSR Did Not Win World War II:  Part II” by Michael Jabara Carley.  Strategic Culture Foundation.  3/20/16[Title Intentionally Ironic].
  6. Re-Reflections on the Start of World War II” by Robert Freeman.  Common Dreams.  9/1/19.

2 thoughts on “The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact”

  1. Natylie,

    I’m sorry to say that this is not readable. It is merely a series of one-sentence references to other people’s work. I doubt that you will find a publisher, which is too bad, because knowledge of the SU and Russia is so limited.

    Your newsletters continue to be very interesting.

    Deena

  2. It’s a very important piece of history every American should know.
    Besides, I have two points to make here:
    1. After having sensed that the British and the French were not interested in persuading the Polish to allow the Soviets to defend both the Soviets and the Poles at the German-Polish borders, It would have been stupid for Stalin not to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler, since it would at least allow the Soviet Army to defend its country in the middle of Poland, rather than at the Polish-Belarusian borders after the inevitable German invasion.
    2. In the Spring/Summer of 1939, the Soviet Army was in fact fighting an intense and critical battle, —the battle of Khalkhin Gol, with the Japanese Kanton Army at the Mongolian-Manchurian borders. Stalin, for sure, did not want to fight a two-front war with two signatory countries of the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact aimed at his country. It was important for the ultimate security of USSR to at least secure the western front of the anti-communism war.

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