Soviet Policy Leading up To WWII
On August 23, 1939, Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop applied their signatures to a Non-Aggression Pact that would, at a crucial moment in world history, determine the course of events which would shape World War II. Brokered between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin on the eve of the war’s total outbreak, the pact came as a shock to the world and represented the terrifying threat of a unity between two totalitarian imperial powers. And in retrospect, it is often described as an event which demonstrated the rising power of Germany and the declining mettle of Russia. But a careful examination of this pact and the consequences of the agreement, both during the course the war and thereafter, shows that in fact this was a compact that was mutually beneficial. Though Germany and Russia would come into military conflict with one another only two years after the inception of the agreement, these two years would figure substantially into the form and outcome of the war. In elucidating its pertinence to the war, one can also find pragmatic defense for Stalin’s decision, even so far as to contend that the Pact would be central in the growth of the Soviet sphere of influence following the war.
The agreement itself represented a serious shift in Russian-German relations, but the pre-history of the war factored heavily into many of the conditions which instigated its commencement. In addition to the economic realities which faced a defeated German public after World War I, diplomatic isolation and disadvantage had created a deep resentment amongst the people. The reality of its relationship with its neighbors had become one of impractical imbalance.
By the 1930’s, the European continent had been devastated by economic depression. The Versailles Treaty would gradually achieve recognition as a major factor in the instability which, following the First World War, would be economic, political and social.
In an effort to roll back the implications of the Versailles Treaty, the European powers began a process of submission to Hitler’s will which, in addition to undoing the imbalances provoked in the 1919 peace contract, also created a state of unchecked power-growth for the Germans under Hitler. (Roberts, 14) The Versailles Treaty’s outsized levying of war reparations upon Germany for its singular role of aggression in World War I caused such economic despair there as to stimulate the collapse of the Weimar Republic altogether in 1933. (HMM, 1) This not only incited the empowerment of Hitler’s Third Reich, but began the process by which Germany attempted to actively regain all that it had surrendered in the treaty and beyond. Due to their clear part in instigating this process, as well as their mutual desire to avoid conflict at high cost, Britain and France consented to much of Hitler’s ‘reunification’ agenda.
It was under this circumstance that Britain and France allowed Germany to begin rearmament in 1935, a process which would almost guarantee an eventual transition into hostilities in Eastern Europe. From the outset, European appeasement was juxtaposed by staunch bellicosity between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Though neither the Europeans nor the Russians were interested in provoking Hitler to war, Stalin’s position on German rearmament was one of explicit renunciation. This was in no small way a condition incited by the fact that both ideologically and politically, Hitler “was a fanatical anti-communist who harboured dreams of eastward expansion to secure German lebensraum (living space) in Russia.” (Roberts, 14) Such antagonism would become gradually more threatening beyond the form of simple public rhetoric as German rearmament transitioned into genuine territorial expansion.
Its annexation of Austria in March of 1938 marked two very crucial points of inflection which would accelerate the cataclysmic encounter of conflicting interests. First and foremost, this act of occupation demonstrated that German Nationalism was a movement aimed at reclaiming its imperialist identity and holdings. But this was not a revelation at the time, as the collective public opinion had in Europe come to acknowledge the failures of the Versailles Treaty. That Germany would seek to re-establish its prewar borders did not strike all parties as fully outside the realm of its entitlement. This sentiment, though, would lead to the true revelation of Austria’s occupation, which was that the European powers were at this juncture unwilling to intervene with the fulfillment of Hitler’s ambitions.
Both Hitler and Stalin read this message loud and clear. After a long duration of negotiations with the French and British for the formation of a triple alliance against Hitler, Stalin witnessed here an unwillingness of Europe to intervene with German ambitions. (Roberts, 16) If it failed in this atmosphere to stake its claims, Russia would be threatened by a German expansion which Europe was not willing to check. Certainly, Hitler’s unfettered support of fascism in the Spanish Civil War reinforced Russia’s assumptions and ultimately caused it to assume German victory would be inevitable.(HMM, 1) Thus, the signature to its agreement in 1939 was a matter of diplomatic practicality rather than ideological preference for Stalin.
France and Britain’s appeasement went so far as to sign over entitlement of the border regions of Czechoslovakian territory to the Nazis in 1938. By 1939 this would unfold into a full-fledged and illegally partitioned occupation to which Russia, France and Britain collectively balked but enabled. (HMM, 1) It did cause Britain and France to declare an official response of military intervention to an attempted expansion of this invasion into Poland.
However, the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement in August made inevitable the September 1st German invasion of Poland. The nature of the agreement in the context of its Polish invasion appears most to benefit Hitler, who used Russia’s assurance of Non-Aggression in the same way that it had used Poland’s to expand its regional interests. The nature of the agreement would indicate that in fact, though, Russia had much to gain by signing on. “Attached to the public non-aggression treaty was a secret agreement which specified an eastern limit of Germany’s expansion into Poland and carved up the Baltic States into German and Soviet spheres of influence.” (Roberts, 15)
In 1934, Hitler had joined a pact of non-aggression with Poland, a preemptive effort at preventing a Polish alliance with its French rival. Though it was a strategically informed compact, it did require some German capitulation, particularly clashing with what would develop into a focus on national pride and strength. The agreement with Poland had not been “popular with many Germans who supported Hitler but resented the fact that Poland had received the former German provinces of West Prussia, Poznan, and Upper Silesia under the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.” (HMM, 1) This would form the basis for Poland’s complicity in a rising Nazi influence though, becoming one of the first neighbors to contractually submit to Hitler’s ambitions by promising to withhold military intervention. So when Hitler invaded in 1939, Germany set a precedent for its adherence to its Non-Aggression contracts.
The Soviet Union would not be the second party to make non-aggression this concession but, in fact, would follow both France and Britain into policies of Nazi appeasement. This contrasts a favored impression of the Soviet Union, and Stalin in particular, as having demonstrated both weakness and naivete in its resignation to a pact that would soon be easily recognizable as an act of deception. Constructed essentially to enable itself an assurance of Russian non-intervention so that it could invade Poland, the treaty would prove itself to be an act of continental provocation. With the joint French-British declaration that the integrity of Poland’s borders would be protected from Nazi expansion, Hitler faced certain military opposition from the European powers. Removing the Soviet Union from contention, if only temporarily, would prove the jump that Hitler needed to segue from Polish occupation to European invasion and eventually, to Russian invasion.
And in addition to the clear image which this presented of a Soviet Union which was not prepared to face the Third Reich in armed engagement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact seemed to signal a nefariously dangerous alliance of unchecked and parallel imperial ambitions. If one is to accept the characterizations which emerged from the Western powers, certainly this was a negative alignment to the perspective of the world community. “According to Winston Churchill, ‘the sinister news broke upon the world like an explosion’. (Roberts, 14) This characterization, though, belies a long-standing indication of its own unwillingness to stand up to Nazi aggression, a policy which had only shifted four months prior with its assurance to protect Poland. It is thus that it can be said that Britain and France helped to encourage Russia toward its pact.
There is, therefore, a case to be made that the Soviets had justifiable incentive to in avoid direct aggression with Germany. The conditions which faced Russia in the space of time between the Versailles Treaty and the initiation of hostilities in 1939 were not ideal. The Bolshevik Revolution had changed the face of the imperialist power, removing from its grasp many of its previously held territories amongst the Baltic States.
The explanation that the Non-Aggression Pact was an agreement in which Hitler ultimately exploited Stalin may not necessarily be accurate. There is even the supposition that Stalin was deeply hurt on a personal level by Hitler’s betrayal. But in reality, the Pact was sufficient to prevent the Soviet Union and Germany from coming into conflict until almost a full two years later. These were two years during which Hitler needed to focus his efforts on facing the British and French while strengthening Germany’s key alliances with Japan and Italy.
Likewise, the Soviets benefited in the intervening time both by reaching gradual armistice with the Japanese and by enjoying the full extent of the Pact’s guarantees to unchecked Soviet reclamation of the Baltic States, and its share of Poland. Though “Nazi Germany occupied the remainder of Poland when it invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941,” the Soviet foothold in Poland would beget its postwar occupation. (HMM, 1) As opposed to the 6-year occupation enjoyed by the Nazis there, Poland would fall under Soviet control for the next five decades.
More importantly though is the evidence that would stack up during this two-year period of Non-Aggression, that the Soviets genuinely anticipated German victory in the war and sought in no way to intervene there with. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was quickly followed by Russia’s invasion of its contracted half of Poland, with the two nations returning to negotiations even before the month of September had ended. Here, they signed a second Non-Aggression Pact which demarcated spheres of control in Poland along a natural border and articulated a contract with more long-term implications. (Roberts, 15) For two years, this compact was sufficient in keeping both powers in balance in the region.
An in fact, Stalin was so convinced of the eventuality of Nazi victory that Russia actively participated in non-militant support of Hitler’s ambition, aiding the Third Reich with natural resources, economic support and a promise of non-intervention in its European growth. This was a promise which Hitler needed in order to begin the German invasion of Western Europe. The Pact functioned to institute such a promise, with Stalin essentially consenting to entitle Germany its imperial ambitions in return for Hitler’s restraint in obstructing Soviet expansion. Essentially, this is an indication that Germany and Russia sought to gain equivalent goals in their Pact with one another.
Thus, “in response to Hitler’s stunning defeat of France in June 1940, Stalin moved to consolidate the Soviet position in the Baltic. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were invaded, occupied and then formally incorporated as territories of the U.S.S.R. A significant Soviet military build up in the region also began to take shape.” (Roberts, 18)
To Stalin, this was merely a fulfillment of the promises which Hitler had ceded in the Pact. Moreover, his confidence that Germany would soon achieve the full scope of its military ambitions in Europe caused Stalin to erroneously predict the end of the war. This was sufficient imperative for Russia to begin the process of claiming its spoils for supporting the winning side.
The conception that Russia had entered the original Pact at a point of weakness might more accurately be described as a moment of opportunity for the reviving imperialist nation, now under communist leadership. Just as Germany saw its territorial expansion as an entitlement to the re-establishment of historical boundaries, the Soviet Union targeted the aforementioned Baltic States, as well as Poland, Rumania and Finland in an attempt to re-establish authoritarian ties which also had historical precedent. (Roberts, 19).
This would prove a miscalculation on the part of Stalin, at least insofar as it concerned his relationship with Hitler. In 1940, its enablement of the German invasion of France began a period of negotiation, in which Hitler offered the Soviet Union terms of agreement for a four-way pact between the Axis Powers and Russia. (Roberts, 19) The agreement failed to satisfy Russia though, as it limited its entitlement to expansion in the Baltic and Balkan states. The limitation was not an accident though. Even as Stalin assumed that the two nations had developed mutual but non-intervening spheres of imperial influence, Hitler had grown intensely wary of what an expanded Soviet Union represented.
In particular, the Soviet aims in Rumania, a nation rich in natural resources such as oil and timber, caused Hitler enough concern to re-focus the ideological message which pertained to the Russians. (Roberts, 19) The anti-Bolshevik sentiment which had previously been a key aspect of Nazi jargon once again began to return in late 1940 to German public discourse. The threat of a Jewish/Communist conspiracy emerging from the expanding Soviet borders began to surface in Nazi propaganda, signaling a return to the public image campaign against the U.S.S.R.
When the two nations signed the pact in 1939, Russia and Germany entered into an agreement which instructed that “should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties over problems of one kind or another, both parties shall settle these disputes or conflicts exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions.” (Halsall, 1) In June of 1941, the agreement would be breached and dismantled by Hitler’s ultimate decision to turn its hostilities directly on Russia. Stalin’s reliance upon the Non-Aggression Pact for its stake in the spoils of a war which it had yet to fully engage would prove just the opportunity that Hitler needed to surprise Moscow. Indeed, Stalin would continue to seek its expansion without provoking Hitler.
This would show Stalin to be somewhat naive as historians and critics have contended. In one regard, it can be assessed that by attempting for so long to extend its policy of Non-Aggression with a clearly belligerent partner, Stalin provided a major advantage to Hitler’s blitzkrieg style war as the Third Reich partnered with Rumania and pushed its tanks across the Russian border. The Russian army took dramatic losses during the first year of this conflict, with its lack of readiness functioning as an extension of Stalin’s general unpreparedness for Hitler’s betrayal. The Nazis made great advances through the Soviet Union, and likewise forced a reversal of nearly every gain that the U.S.S.R. had made during two years of expansion. The Baltic States quickly fell under the sway of Nazi ambition even as Hitler advanced to Leningrad and Moscow. (Roberts, 20)
However, even as it began to face the reality of a long and costly struggle with German, Stalin would stand behind his agreement to the Non-Aggression Pact “on grounds that it had given the U.S.S.R. time to prepare for war with Germany. The Soviet Union did gain a respite in which to prepare for war. In June 1941 Stalin gambled that he could extend this respite, perhaps into 1942.” (Roberts, 20) Within the short-term context of the war itself, it can be assessed that Stalin was wrong in his wager. But it may perhaps be fair to assess that history bears Stalin out in the long run.
The German invasion of Russia would prove to be the bigger of miscalculations than Stalin’s trust of Hitler. All evidence suggests that had Hitler been willing to compromise with Stalin, the two nations may have been partners in dividing the spoils of World War II. Certainly, every overture made by the Soviets between 1939 and 1941 would indicate that Stalin wished for such an outcome. Instead, Hitler saw the Soviets as a direct threat to the Third Reich’s ultimate goal of imperial continental dominance and, believing his deception would be sufficient to defeat Russia with its guard down, attempted an enormous feat. Germany would fail in its goal, and suffer defeats in Russia which would significantly turn the tide of war against Hitler, constituting the first retractions of German borders since the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
Halsall, P. trans. (1997). Modern History Sourcebook: The Molotov-Ribbentrop
Pact, 1939. Modern History Sourcebook. Online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1939pact.html>
Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2005). Invasion of Poland, Fall 1939. Holocaust Encyclopedia. Online at http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?ModuleId=10005070>
Roberts, G. (2001). From Non-Aggression Treaty to War: Documenting Nazi Soviet Relations, 1939-41 Geoffrey Roberts Explains the Fateful Sequence of Events from the Nazi-Soviet Pact to Hitler’s Invasion of the U.S.S.R. History