“For many years now we have been pouring buckets of shit on each other’s heads, and our propaganda boys could not do enough in that direction. And now, all of a sudden, are we to make our peoples believe all is forgiven? Things don’t work that fast”.
Josef Stalin, 24 August 1939
Alphen, Netherlands, 23 August 2019. Eighty-years ago today the bloody fate of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans was sealed with the stroke of a pen. The signing of the Treaty of non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov, came as a shock to the world. Even Germany’s Axis partner Japan, which had been in conflict with Moscow, was taken completely by surprise by the announcement. A British delegation was at sea en route to Moscow in the vain hope that Britain, France and the Soviet Union could conclude an anti-Hitlerian Tripartite Military Pact. With the signing of what became known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, war in Europe became inevitable.
The Pact also marked the final and definitive end of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, with its provision that all secret treaties were to be banned. Indeed, Hitler stated, “Poland will never rise again in the form of the Versailles Treaty. That is guaranteed not only by Germany…but also Russia”. The secret protocol was an exercise Machtpolitik at its most cynical and enshrined the idea of great power spheres of influence in Europe. Under the protocol, which was confirmed by the September 1939 German-Soviet Frontier Treaty, the Baltic States were to be fully occupied by Soviet forces, together with parts of Finland. Poland was to be divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, whilst Soviet border was extended to include parts of Poland.
Why the Pact?
The Pact emerged in the aftermath of Hitler’s March 1939 occupation of Prague, and in direct contravention of the September 1938 “peace in our time” Munich Agreement with Neville Chamberlain’s Britain. With the collapse of Munich, war between Germany, Britain and France became nigh on inevitable. Britain and France sought to surround Germany and force it to confront the prospect of a renewed zweifrontenskrieg (two-front war) that it had faced in World War One. In spite of London’s profound distaste for the Soviet regime it began putting out diplomatic feelers to Moscow. The Pact destroyed any such hopes. On August 25, 1939 Britain signed a Mutual Defence Pact with Poland. This came as a shock to Hitler, who postponed his planned August 26 invasion.
Perhaps the most significant reason why Stalin supported the Pact was the state of the Red Army. In 1938 he had conducted a bloody purge of the senior ranks of the Red Army and decimated its leadership. The consequences of Stalin's actions were demonstrated by the superb fighting abilities of the Finns during the so-called Winter War of 1939-40. The Finns inflicted what later Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev claimed were up to one million casualties on a poorly-led and equipped Red Army. Stalin knew a future war between Bolshevism and Nazism was inevitable, but in 1939 the Soviet Union was in no fit state to fight it.
Implementing the Pact
On 1 September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and, in spite of heroic Polish resistance, made steady progress. Stalin waited until 17 September to be sure Hitler halted his forces at the agreed demarcation line stipulated by the secret protocol before ordering the Red Army to seize the Baltic States and parts of Poland. On 22 September 1939, the Red Army and the Wehrmacht even held a joint victory parade in the seized Polish fortress town of Brest-Litovsk.
The consequences for Poles and the peoples of the Baltic States was terrifying. Hitler had secured what he regarded as Lebensraum (living space) and began the forced removal of people he regarded as untermenschen (under-people) and the resettlement of Germans. It also led to the deportation and murder of millions of Jews. After a series of conferences between the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, and their Soviet counterparts, the NKVD, hard interrogations began of some 300,000 Polish prisoners of war. On March 5 1940, at Katyn, the Soviets executed 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectuals in an effort to decapitate any opposition to their rule on the grounds that they were ‘counter-revolutionaries’. It was not until the 1980s that then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted the massacre and apologised. President Putin has called Katyn a ‘necessary evil’.
The Pact today
The Pact still leaves its bloody fingerprint on Europe. Parts of Poland (and even Romania) seized under the terms of the Pact now form parts of Belarus and Ukraine. Moreover, it was not just World War Two that began on 23 August, 1939, it also led to the Soviet occupation of much of Central and Eastern Europe and the Cold War. It was not until 1991 that the ugly blanket of oppression laid down by the Pact was finally thrown off by the heroic actions of Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and others.
To hear contemporary Russian leaders talk again of ‘spheres of influence’ and ‘buffer zones’ is to hear the language of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. It is also the language of secret protocols to treaties, of a Europe governed by power, diktat and fear. It was to stop that ever happening again that both the EU and NATO were created. The mission is not yet done.
The Pact collapsed on June 22 1941, with the commencement of Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, which actually took Stalin by surprise. Stalin immediately switched sides and sought the support of the Western Allies. Churchill described the 1941 Anglo-Soviet Agreement as a necessary ‘deal with the devil’. He went on, “If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable mention of the devil in the House of Commons”.