On the afternoon of 23 August 1939, in one of the most surprising events in the history of diplomacy, the Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived at the Kremlin for discussions with Vyacheslav Molotov, his Soviet counterpart. A few hours later, in the early hours of the following morning, they signed a non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
The agreement seemed almost inexplicable at the time. The reaction of Hans Bernhard, an SS officer, was typical: ‘We couldn’t make sense of it… in German propaganda for years it had been made clear that the Bolsheviks were our main enemy.’ Bernhard was right, of course. Indeed, just two years earlier, at the 1937 Nuremberg rally, Hitler had said that the leaders of the Soviet Union were ‘an uncivilized Jewish-Bolshevik international guild of criminals,’ and that the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest danger for the culture and civilization of mankind which has ever threatened it since the collapse of the states of the ancient world.'i
It had been purely pragmatic principles that had changed Hitler’s mind and had led him to agree to conclude a deal with this ‘international guild of criminals’. Hitler intended to invade Poland within a few days and he knew that the British and French had agreed to protect the Poles. So an alliance with Stalin protected him from a two-front war. The deal Ribbentrop struck with the Soviets on 24 August was the result of swift negotiations which had been progressed after trade talks between the two countries had begun in Berlin just a few months before. ‘The fact that Mr Ribbentrop acted at a tempo of 650 kilometers an hour called forth the Soviet government’s sincere admiration,’ said Molotov in September 1939. ‘His energy and his strength of will were a pledge to the firmness of the friendly relations that had been created with the Germans.’ii
Molotov must have been especially grateful for the speed of Ribbentrop’s diplomatic actions when he considered the behaviour of the Soviet Union’s only other credible suitor – Great Britain. In contrast to Ribbentrop’s ‘650 kilometers an hour’, the British had been deliberately slow in their negotiations with the Soviets over a potential diplomatic agreement.
The British, as the Soviets knew, had been pursuing a policy of appeasement towards the Germans during the 1930s. Only after it became clear that Hitler’s aggression could not be stopped by diplomatic discussion – crucially, after the German entry into Prague in March 1939 – did the British realise that they might need the Soviets as an ally against the Nazis.
The British mission to Moscow in the summer of 1939 was led by an obscure Admiral with the impressive name of Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax. He and his team had been sent to Moscow via boat and train rather than air, and once in the Soviet capital had obfuscated on key details of any agreement. The Admiral had been told by both the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, that his tactic in case of any problems in the negotiations should be to keep stalling until October, when the British believed the increasingly harsh weather conditions in Poland would make it less likely that the Nazis would invade.iii
The reason that the British government asked Sir Reginald to play for time, rather than conclude a meaningful agreement with the Soviets, was to a large extent to do with British dealings with one other country – Poland. The British knew that the Soviets would demand access to Polish territory in order to confront the Germans as a condition of any kind of military agreement. But this was something the Poles would be extremely reluctant to accept. So any treaty that tied the Soviets into the forthcoming war on the Allied side would be next to impossible to negotiate.
Even if the Poles could somehow have been made to accept Soviet troops on their soil – which seemed unlikely in the extreme – it was also hard to see why Stalin would agree to any deal with Britain. The Soviet leader had explicitly said at the 18th Party Congress in Moscow on 10 March 1939 that the Soviet Union would not be ‘drawn into conflict by warmongers who are accustomed to have others pull their chestnuts out of the fire for them.’iv In essence, Stalin could not see any advantage to the Soviet Union to be on the side of the Allies in any war against the Nazis.
But he could see enormous advantages in an arrangement with Hitler that kept the Soviet Union out of the war. Not least because in a secret protocol to the non-aggression pact the Soviets and the Nazis agreed which countries in Eastern Europe would fall into each others’ ‘sphere of influence’. They even agreed a demarcation line across Poland with the Nazis claiming the western half, and the Soviets the eastern half. But both Ribbentrop and Molotov were careful not to explicitly talk of gaining all this territory by military conquest. At the minute the euphemistic phrase ‘spheres of influence’ sufficed for them both to come to an understanding.
Once the non-aggression pact – together with its secret protocol – had been signed, Molotov and Stalin partied with the Nazi delegation. The irony of a diplomatic arrangement with the Nazis seemed to amuse the Soviet leader. ‘Let’s drink to the new anti-Comminternist’ he said, ‘Stalin!’v But Stalin also, with apparent sincerity, drank a toast to ‘Adolf Hitler’ and promised Ribbentrop that ‘I assure you that the Soviet Union takes this pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its new partner.’vi
Of course, neither Stalin nor Hitler were naïve people – quite the reverse. And both must have known that this pact represented nothing more than an expedient act. Stalin, in particular, must have thought himself immensely clever. Here, he had in one diplomatic coup excluded the Soviet Union from the war and, potentially, expanded his country’s borders at little or no expense. Moreover, the Nazis would now be occupied fighting in Western Europe for the foreseeable future. France, surely, would prove to be a formidable opponent for the Germans. In this judgment, as in so many of his assumptions about the Nazis, Stalin was to prove catastrophically wrong.
i Quoted in Max Domarus, Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations, Vol. 2, 1935-1938, I.B.Tauris, 1992
ii Quoted in Ingeborg Fleischhauer, ‘Dokumenatation. Der deutsch-sowjetische Grenz-und Freundschaftsvertrag vom 28. September 1939. Die deutschen Aufzeichnungen ueber die Verhandlungen zwischen Stalin, Molotov and Ribbentrop in Moskau’, Vierteljahreshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte, Sonderdruck aus Heft 3/1991
iii See Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: The Life of Lord Halifax, Phoenix Press, 1997, p. 166
iv Quoted in Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. Stalin, The Nazis and The West, BBC Books, 2009, p. 13
v Ibid., p. 19
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