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Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939


The Nazi-Soviet Pact is the name given to the Treaty of Non-Aggression signed by Ribbentrop for Germany and Molotov for the USSR on August 23,1939.

In August 1939, following the failure of attempts to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain and France for mutual assistance and military support to protect the USSR from an invasion by Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union abandoned its attempts to achieve collective security agreements, which was the basis of Maxim Maximovich Litvinov's foreign policy during the 1930s. Instead, Soviet leaders sought an accommodation with Germany. For German politicians, the dismissal of Litvinov and the appointment of Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov as commissar for foreign affairs on May 3, 1939, was a signal that the USSR was seeking a rapprochement. The traditional interpretation that Molotov was pro-German, and that his appointment was a direct preparation for the pact, has been called into question. It seems more likely that in appointing Molotov, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was prepared to seize any opportunity that presented itself to improve Soviet security.

Diplomatic contact with Germany on economic matters had been maintained during the negotiations with Great Britain and France, and in June and July of 1939, Molotov was not indifferent to initial German approaches for an improvement in political relations. On August 15, the German ambassador proposed that Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, should visit Moscow for direct negotiations with Stalin and Molotov, who in response suggested a non-aggression pact.

Ribbentrop flew to Moscow on August 23, and the Treaty of Nonaggression was signed in a few hours. By its terms the Soviet Union and Germany undertook not to attack each other either alone or in conjunction with other powers and to remain neutral if the other power became involved in a war with a third party. They further agreed not to participate in alliances aimed at the other state and to resolve disputes and conflicts by consultation and arbitration. With Hitler about to attack Poland, the usual provision in treaties of this nature, allowing one signatory to opt out if the other committed aggression against a third party, was missing. The agreement was for a tenyear period, and became active as soon as signed, rather than on ratification.

As significant as the treaty, and more notorious, was the Secret Additional Protocol that was attached to it, in which the signatories established their respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. It was agreed that "in the event of a territorial and political rearrangement" in the Baltic states, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia were in the USSR's sphere of influence and Lithuania in Germany's. Poland was divided along the rivers Narew, Vistula, and San, placing Ukrainian and Belorussian territories in the Soviet sphere of influence, together with a part of ethnic Poland in Warsaw and Lublin provinces. The question of the maintenance of an independent Poland and its frontiers was left open. In addition, Germany declared itself "disinterested" in Bessarabia.

The treaty denoted the USSR's retreat into neutrality when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and Great Britain and France declared war. Poland collapsed rapidly, but the USSR delayed until September 17 before invading eastern Poland, although victory was achieved within a week. From November 1939, the territory was incorporated in the USSR. Estonia and Latvia were forced to sign mutual assistance treaties with the USSR and to accept the establishment of Soviet military bases in September and October of 1939. Finnish resistance to Soviet proposals to improve the security of Leningrad through a mutual assistance treaty led to the SovietFinnish War (19391940). Lithuania was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence in a supplementary agreement signed on September 28, 1939, and signed a treaty of mutual assistance with the USSR in October. Romania ceded Bessarabia following a Soviet ultimatum in June 1940.

It is often argued that, in signing the treaty, Stalin, who always believed that Hitler would attack the USSR for lebensraum, was seeking time to prepare the Soviet Union for war, and hoped for a considerably longer period than he received, for Germany invaded during June of 1941. Considerable efforts were made to maintain friendly relations with Germany between 1939 and 1941, including a November 1940 visit by Molotov to Berlin for talks with Hitler and Ribbentrop.

The Secret Protocol undermined the socialist foundations of Soviet foreign policy. It called for the USSR to embark upon territorial expansion, even if this was to meet the threat to its security presented by Germany's conquest of Poland. This may explain why, for a long period, the Secret Protocol was known only from the German copy of the document: The Soviet Union denied its existence, a position that Molotov maintained until his death in 1986. The Soviet originals were published for the first time in 1993.

In all Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, during August 1987, during the glastnost era, demonstrations on the anniversary of the pact were evidence of resurgent nationalism. In early 1990 the states declared their independence, the first real challenge to the continued existence of the USSR.

See also: germany, relations with; molotov, vyacheslav mikhailovich; world war ii


Read, Anthony, and Fisher, David. (1988) The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin, and the NaziSoviet Pact, 19391941. New York: Norton.

Roberts, Geoffrey. (1989) The Unholy Alliance: Stalin's Pact with Hitler. London: I.B. Tauris.

Derek Watson

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