The Nazi-Soviet Pact, signed during early morning hours on August 24, 1939, formed the historical gateway between the Great Depression and World War II. Ostensibly a mere nonaggression treaty between Germany and the USSR, the agreement contained an unpublished protocol that gave independent Poland a death sentence by carving up Eastern Europe. In the United States, the entente placed a permanent cloud over the Communist Party's leadership of the anticapitalist left.
The Pact had roots in appeasement of Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler by European democracies. Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938 went uncontested. Later that year, Great Britain and France ignored Soviet Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov's call for collective action to protect Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, a border region with a sizable German-speaking minority. On September 30, in a conference at Munich, Germany, the two Western powers surrendered the region to Hitler in exchange for a promise to maintain peace. From that point on, he sought to seize Poland, certain that Britain and France would not fight a major war to defend that nation. The Munich Pact caused Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin to consider a treaty with Germany. For the next year, the British and French made no serious effort toward any accord with Moscow to contain the Nazis, causing Stalin to suspect they wanted Hitler to attack the USSR. Germany's need for raw materials, plus Stalin's anger at the democracies, led to a Russo-German trade agreement in August 1939. At that point, Soviet Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov proposed a nonaggression pact.
The concord was written by four persons: Hitler in Berlin, and his Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Stalin, and Molotov in Moscow. They drafted the document in haste. Germany was planning an early invasion of Poland, and Stalin gleefully exploited Hitler's impatience to exact territorial concessions. The text, therefore, contained unusually straightforward language. A preamble cited a 1926 neutrality agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union as historical precedent. Seven articles followed. The first article abjured aggression, each nation upon the other, whether severally or jointly with other powers. The second clause provided that if an outsider attacked either, the signatories would not lend support. This gave Hitler carte blanche to address "provocations" by Germany's eastern neighbor. The third section promised an open channel of communication between Russia and the Reich. The fourth provided that neither would join any grouping of powers aimed directly or indirectly at the other—blatantly ignoring Germany's Anti-Comintern Pact with Italy and Japan against the USSR. Article five affirmed that disputes would be settled by arbitration commissions. A sixth gave the agreement a ten-year life, with an automatic five-year extension, if neither side objected. The final clause put the Nazi-Soviet Pact in force immediately upon signature by Ribbentrop, Molotov, and Stalin, thereby hastening the attack on Poland.
The secret protocol partitioned Poland, also handing the USSR Belorussian and Ukrainian lands lost in her 1920 war with the Poles. In addition, the unpublished portion ceded to Stalin the Romanian province of Bessarabia, as well as Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Subsequent negotiations brought Lithuania under Russian rule as well.
One can scarcely overstate the Nazi-Soviet Pact's historical significance. World War II erupted just days after its signing, when Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war on Germany. The conflict killed eighty million people. It destroyed fascist governments in Italy, Germany, and far-off Japan. It left the European continent in rubble, and fatally undermined European colonialism everywhere. The ultimate victory by the Soviet Union, which was foolishly attacked by Germany—her 669-day ally—on June 22, 1941, marked the rise of a new Russian empire that lasted until 1989.
In the United States, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and blind support of it by the American Communist Party (CPUSA), ended the Popular Front against fascism. For nearly six years, leftists of various stripes had put aside differences to resist the spread of Hitlerism. The CPUSA had become the largest anticapitalist party, with influence ranging far beyond a membership that never surpassed 100,000. The Pact belied the CPUSA's claim to leadership of democratic, progressive forces. Support for the USSR's treaty with Nazi Germany raised the question of where the party's primary loyalty lay. It put Communists under the same type of expanded federal surveillance that domestic fascist groups faced. It also prompted a miniature red scare and cemented ideological foundations that Senator Joseph McCarthy and other political opportunists built upon a decade later. Paradoxically, the war that devastated so much of the world ended America's Great Depression and brought unprecedented prosperity thereafter.
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James G. Ryan