Molotov–von Ribbentrop Pact

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated



On 23 August 1939 a nonaggression pact was signed between representatives of the Soviet Union and Germany committing both states to renounce violence against the other. A secret protocol was attached dividing parts of eastern Europe into spheres of interest for each of the two parties. The pact remained in force until 22 June 1941, when German armed forces attacked the Soviet Union without a formal declaration of war.

The background to the pact was closely linked with the collapse of the European balance of power in the second half of the 1930s. The revival of German military and economic power in the 1930s with the appointment of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as chancellor in 1933 led to the redrawing of the political map of central Europe following German expansion into Austria (March 1938) and Czechoslovakia (October 1938, March 1939). By 1939 Britain and France were linked in a common cause to contain further German expansion. This presented the Soviet Union with a difficult choice, either to join the capitalist west to restrain Hitler and risk all-out European war, or to reach agreement with Germany and thus avoid war altogether. In May 1939 Soviet officials began exploratory discussion with German diplomats about the prospects for both economic and political agreements. While it is certain that Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) had not yet made up his mind which foreign policy option to take, the willingness of the German side to engage in negotiations began the process that resulted in the pact.

German interest in a pact with its chief ideological enemy stemmed from calculations of strategic interest. Hitler wanted to avoid any prospect of a major two-front war, and the German economy, facing heavy demands for the military buildup, needed additional raw materials and foodstuffs. Hitler's decision taken in April to launch war against Poland in late August 1939 made an agreement with the Soviet Union imperative. On 2 August the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893–1946), proposed a nonaggression pact and possible spheres of influence. On 19 August the first of a number of extensive trade agreements was signed. Hitler faced an ever tightening timetable for his war against Poland scheduled for a week later. On 21 August he wrote personally to Stalin asking him to accept an envoy to sign a political agreement. Stalin accepted and von Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow on 22 August. Terms were drawn up during the night: a formal commitment to nonaggression and a secret supplementary document assigning Finland, eastern Poland, Estonia, and Latvia to a possible Soviet sphere-of-interest. The pact was officially signed early in the morning of 23 August.

The consequences were profound. Hitler, on hearing the news, assumed that the western powers would now abandon Poland, or at the least make mere gestures of disapproval. Attack was postponed from 26 August to 1 September, and a further agreement was made with the Soviet Union on 28 August clarifying the impending partition of Poland. Britain and France did not back down from their commitment to support Poland, arguing that the Soviet Union would have been a dangerous ally, and on 3 September declared war on Germany. The political outlook in Moscow was to accept the pact as part of a general revision of the European order and to hope that Germany, Britain, and France would fight a long slogging match leaving the two sides so weakened that the Soviet Union would be the political beneficiary. For communists outside the Soviet Union the pact came as a profound shock; some broke with Moscow, but most accepted that the real enemy was imperialist Britain. In the Soviet Union and Germany much of the party and public was unhappy and confused by the agreement but had to accept what was seen as the most expedient solution.

Further agreements followed on the pact and the joint occupation of Polish territory, completed when Soviet forces entered Poland on 17 September. A Treaty of Friendship and Borders was signed between von Ribbentrop and the Soviet foreign commissar Vyacheslav Molotov (1890–1986) on 28 September, which formalized the terms of the earlier secret protocol, with the important change that Lithuania was now assigned to the Soviet sphere while Germany was allowed more of central Poland. Between 29 September and 10 October the three Baltic states were forced to reach "mutual assistance" pacts with the Soviet Union and in June 1940 they were formally incorporated into the Soviet state. Finland, also assigned to the Soviet sphere, was attacked in November 1939 but succeeded in defending its borders sufficiently to reach an armistice with only minor territorial concessions.

Soviet-German collaboration suited Hitler while the war in the west was being fought, but he informed his close circle in late 1939 that this was only a breathing space before the great war of imperial conquest in the east. Soviet leaders thought that Germany would be mired in war for a long time, and even after French defeat in June 1940 assumed that Hitler would never attack the Soviet Union until the British Empire had been defeated as well. Molotov visited Berlin on 12 November 1940 in the hope that a second pact might be concluded giving the Soviet Union further concessions in eastern Europe. Hitler refused, and ordered final preparations for war. Stalin remained convinced, unlike many of his colleagues and the military leadership, that the nonaggression pact would remain intact in 1941, and made no extensive preparations against a possible German attack. On the morning of 22 June 1941 almost three million German and allied soldiers attacked the Soviet Union across a broad front and ended the pact. After the war the Soviet leadership never acknowledged the existence of the secret Soviet-German agreement.

See alsoGermany; Soviet Union; World War II.


Bloch, Michael. Ribbentrop. London, 1992. Standard biography in English.

Gorodetsky, Gabriel. Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia. New Haven, Conn., 1999. Essential on aftermath of pact.

Nekrich, Alexander. Pariahs, Partners, Predators: German-Soviet Relations, 1922–1941. Edited and translated by Gregory L. Freeze; with a foreword by Adam B. Ulam. New York, 1997.

Pons, Silvio. Stalin and the Inevitable War, 1936–1941. London, 2002. Based on use of new Soviet sources.

Roberts, Geoffrey. "The Soviet Decision for a Pact with Nazi Germany." Soviet Studies 44 (1992): 67–87.

——. The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War. London, 1995. Basic text on Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s.

Richard Overy