80th Anniversary of a Poisonous Partnership: Hitler and Stalin

The pact signed by foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop in Moscow 80 years ago this month was a diplomatic revolution. This unexpected move was also a step that led to the worst bloodletting of the 20th century, an event that shaped our world. The alliance of Josef Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich didn’t even last two years. To the surprise of Stalin, it turned out that dictators could not be trusted.

The two great tyrants were similar in their disdain for common notions of humanity, and they were willing to kill millions. They imposed extraordinary suffering on vast numbers of people in the service of their ideologies. At the same time, Stalin and Hitler were very different human beings with very different political agendas.

Overweening Ambitions

A desire for war was an essential component of the Nazi worldview. The Nazis believed that only in a life-and-death struggle could the “German race” demonstrate its racial superiority. They wanted to remake the map of Europe. They wanted to take revenge for their perceived humiliation at Versailles, with the signing of the treaty that ended the First World War. And above all, they wanted to acquire limitless Lebensraum for the German people. Ultimately Nazi goals were limitless and therefore self-defeating. Caution, for Hitler and for his comrades, was a sign of inferiority. As they saw it, the superior race would demonstrate its superiority through a willingness to accept monumental risks.

What Stalin aimed for was, by using the most violent methods, to remake Soviet society and in the process transform humanity. He was at the same time a paranoiac who saw dangers everywhere. He well remembered the experience of the 1914-1918 war. It was the Great War that had led to the collapse of Russia’s ancien regime and allowed the Bolsheviks ultimately to come to power. In this new crisis, would the people who had suffered so much as a consequence of his murderous policies in service of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” come to the defense of the Stalinist system? Or might they overthrow it?

The 1939-1941 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact represented two dictators divvying up weaker countries between them. Poland was their primary target, and they agreed to split it. The pact came into existence because Hitler was determined to destroy Poland as a first step toward world conquest and at the same time to avoid a two-front war, at least for as long as he could. Stalin feared that the Germans, after the destruction of Poland, might not stop at the Soviet border—and therefore he was glad to have a non-aggression pact.

It was not the most stable of agreements. By 1941, on Stalin’s instructions, the Red Army command drew up a plan that had disastrous consequences. Instead of preparing a defense in-depth, which given the strategic circumstances would have made the most sense, the bulk of Soviet forces were deployed along the new western borders of Russia as set by the pact. The army was supposed to advance into the territory of the enemy and fight there. Why? Stalin feared that if the fighting were to take place within Soviet territory, the population might receive the foreign armies as liberators. He had deep fears—and in this case they were not altogether irrational—about the loyalty of the Russian people to the USSR.

The Warning the British Should Have Delivered

From the early 1930s on, the aggressive plans of Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia sent diplomatic activities into overdrive. Contemporaries had no way to predict what kind of alliances would be formed. How to resist? How to take advantage of opportunities offered by the breaking down of a two decade-old geopolitical status quo since Versailles?

When we attempt to evaluate the diplomacy of the competing powers, we may pose the question: Whose goals came closest to realization? Clearly British diplomacy failed. (French diplomacy at this point could be regarded as dependent on British decisions.) British goals were to salvage the status quo by restraining Hitler and at the same time avoid being involved in military conflict. Neither would be achieved.

At the time of Hitler’s decision to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1936, the German military was not able to put up a serious resistance. The Allies, by not showing determination when the balance of military force was definitely on their side, missed their greatest opportunity. Britain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich that year gave Hitler the conviction that the Allies would not fight and convinced Stalin that the British could not be trusted.

Stalin came to believe that the Allies wanted to channel Hitler’s aggression eastward, in the direction of the Soviet Union. As it became increasingly evident that Hitler could not be easily restrained, and that his goals were limitless, the second British goal should have been to indicate to Hitler that he would have to fight a war on two fronts—in other words, that Britain was prepared to ally itself if need be with the Soviet Union.

The government of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, however, never took the possibility of an alliance with Russia very seriously. For perfectly understandable reasons, Chamberlain and his fellow policymakers loathed Stalin and his regime. From their point of view, the communists might have posed an even greater threat to everything Britain stood for than the Nazis did. Furthermore, British leaders vastly underestimated potential Soviet military strength. They concluded that the devastation of the purges of the Soviet officer corps in 1937 had severely weakened the Red Army.

The Soviet Union just did not seem to be a worthwhile ally for Britain. The way the British handled negotiations demonstrated their lack of interest. Famously they sent their diplomats on a slow boat to the Soviet Union, and these were emissaries of such low rank that they were not in a position to sign a meaningful agreement. The purpose of having talks at all was to demonstrate to the Germans the possibility of a united front and thereby frighten them away from attacking Poland. The real consequence was that it strengthened the Soviet position vis-à-vis Germany when the meaningful talks (Russian-German) took place.

Poland the Obvious Next Target of the Third Reich

It is impossible to establish when the Kremlin first entertained the idea of finding a modus vivendi with Hitler. Very likely it was long before the 1938 Munich agreement. In any event, following Munich, Soviet determination to come to terms with him became much stronger.

Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov’s removal in May 1939 and Molotov’s appointment as his replacement were steps in this direction. Not only was Litvinov Jewish, but he came to be associated in the public mind with the policy of collective security. He had an English wife and had stood for closer relations with the West, Britain in particular. He was not the person to carry out the new policy. By contrast, Molotov was something of an Anglophobe. He was also an admirer of Germany, if not of Hitler himself. The removal of Litvinov was meant as a signal to Hitler.

There was yet another factor that favored a Russian policy of accommodation with the Third Reich. In the Far East, the Soviet Union was threatened with involvement in a war with Japan. Japanese aggression in China—especially their creation of a puppet state in Manchukuo—called for an energetic Soviet response. In May 1939, serious fighting broke out on the Mongolian border. The Red Army gave a good account of itself, and thereby discouraged Japanese aggression against the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the danger of having to fight attackers on two fronts was real.

What a diplomatic present it was to the USSR when, in the spring of 1939, the Wehrmacht destroyed the remnants of Czechoslovakia. When Hitler started to make threatening noises concerning Poland and the Polish treatment of Germans in Danzig, it became obvious that concessions would not satisfy Hitler and that the next victim was to be Poland. With the appeasement policy a failure, the British now moved to guarantee Polish borders, announcing that in the case of German attack on Poland, the British would declare war.

From the Soviet point of view this was a marvelous development, for it meant there was no longer any danger of facing the Nazis alone. Again, the British might have improved their position by making their commitment conditional on Soviet support; but they did not do so. Soviet negotiations with England and France ultimately broke down because the Western allies could not guarantee that Romania and Poland would allow Soviet troops to pass through their territory. At the same time the Russians let the Germans know, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that they were ready to improve relations. By negotiating with the Germans, they improved their bargaining positions vis-à-vis the Western powers, and by negotiating with the British and the French they made Hitler understand that he faced the danger of a two-front war.

It seems that the Soviet leadership, up to the last minute, avoided choosing one side or the other and simply kept its options open.

The diplomatic game, which in the previous months had moved at a slow pace, from the middle of August 1939 became hectic. The German war plans called for an invasion of Poland on August 26. The Soviets knew about this in advance. The Germans needed to conclude an agreement before hostilities commenced, because they did not want to embark on a war against Poland without first knowing Soviet intentions. Thus it was that, on August 23, Hitler’s foreign minister traveled to Moscow to see Foreign Minister Molotov.

Negotiations for this momentous diplomatic revolution had to take place remarkably quickly. Stalin offered a toast to the health of the Führer, “beloved by the German people.” Ribbentrop would later report to Hitler that in Moscow he felt at home, it was like being among comrades. (Vladimir Lenin might have concluded a treaty similar to this one, but he would have never offered a toast to Hitler.)

The chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War II was set in motion: German troops crossed the Polish border on September 1 and, two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany.

Hitler had wanted this war; Stalin, by contrast, was looking for the stance that would pose the least danger to the stability of his rule. (The Soviet leader was even more aware of the unpreparedness of the Red Army in 1939 than were foreign  observers.) He had been assuming for a long time that the Allied nations and Germany were going to resume the armed conflict that ended with Versailles—and he hoped that in the process they would deliver great blows to one another very much to the USSR’s advantage. It did not turn out as Stalin expected—the French Army would collapse within a short time in the spring of 1940—but his expectations were not illogical.

The Efficiency of Autocracy

After the August 23 signing of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, it seemed to contemporary observers that something incredible had happened: Fascism and the regime that styled itself the world’s great antagonist of fascism had just made friends, and the latter had scored a diplomatic coup.

There were several reasons for the success of the Soviet Union’s diplomacy. Most important perhaps was the work of the superb Soviet intelligence network. From Berlin, from London, and from Tokyo, Stalin had advance information about the plans of the great powers. No other power possessed a similar intelligence network. Those who worked for Soviet interests almost always did so out of ideological zeal. Communists made the best spies.

Furthermore, Soviet diplomacy operated without the pressure of public opinion. Nikita Khrushchev, dictating his memoirs in the 1960s, would say that he as a member of the Politburo in 1939 and as such at the very apex of the hierarchy, learned about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by reading Pravda a day after the agreement was signed. It is evident that the circle that made Soviet foreign policy at the time was very small. In Nazi Germany, the situation was not very different. Khrushchev’s comment illustrates for us how nimbly Soviet and German foreign policymakers could act as compared to the democracies, whose leaders had to be concerned about the role of public opinion as they were making their decisions.

A famous cartoon by David Low that appeared in a British journal on September 20, 1939 depicted the two dictators shaking hands, with Hitler saying, “The scum of the earth, I believe?” and Stalin responding, “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?” When you are an autocrat, being massively inconsistent in what you stand for (or what you stand against) poses no problem.

The heretofore most vociferous anti-fascist power, Russia, blithely changed its tune. Soviet propagandists could carry out in one day a 180-degree turn in their message. The great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein understood that the anti-German film he had just made, Aleksander Nevskii (1939), would be taken off the screens. On the other hand, he would now gain the opportunity to stage Richard Wagner at the Bolshoi opera house.

The Secret Protocol

Contrary to the impression Soviet diplomats wanted to create, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was more than a non-aggression agreement: Germany and the Soviet Union became de facto allies. A secret protocol was attached that, as mentioned, delineated the future spheres of influence of the two powers. The Soviet Union was to have free hand in Bessarabia, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and that part of Poland that had ethnically mixed population. Next month the dividing line was readjusted. The USSR gave up some territories in Poland and acquired Lithuania. Soviet propaganda, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, denied this document’s existence for as long as the Soviet Union lasted.

The economic collaboration between the two powers favored the Germans. They received from the Soviet Union scarce raw materials, such as oil, tin, and bauxite. In addition, they received grain from the Ukraine. The Soviet Union asked for armaments but ultimately not many were delivered.

That it was more than a non-aggression pact is also seen in the fact that, while it was in force, the international communist movement became an agent of Nazi propaganda. In turn, German planes over enemy territory dropped communist pamphlets, denouncing the war as imperialist, and blamed the Allies. Molotov branded the British and the French as war criminals for continuing the struggle “under the false flag of democracy.” Understandably for many communists throughout Western Europe and North America, the pact seemed, as it indeed was, a betrayal.

The period of the Soviet-German alliance, August 23, 1939 to June 22, 1941, was a time of disaster for those millions of Europeans who now came under occupation. The Soviets and the Nazis introduced the kind of rule that was to be expected on the basis of their ideologies and their past behavior. The Baltic states lost their freedom from foreign rule that they had  enjoyed only for about 20 years. The newly acquired Polish territories were absorbed in the Belorussian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. The Soviet system with all its horrors was extended to their peoples.


“Class struggle” meant the arrest or deportation of people who had played significant political or economic roles in the old regimes. Ironically, Jews who had disproportionate roles in the industrial and commercial elites were more likely to be exiled to Siberia than their fellow countrymen. When the German Army invaded these territories, they were fortunate: they were more likely to survive than those who had not been sent to Siberia.

The incorporation of the Baltic states went easily. However, the demand that the Finns give up some strategically important territory was resisted. The ensuing Winter War between Russia and Finland (November 1939 to March 1940) was a disaster for the Soviet Union. The poor performance of the Red Army made Hitler believe that the Soviet Union could easily be defeated.

The most spectacular war crime committed by Soviet authorities—which they blamed on the Wehrmacht—was the shooting to death of approximately 22,000 Polish officers and civil servants. The decision to kill was made at the highest level of the Soviet government. Presumably the reasoning was that the elimination of a Polish elite would make it easier to establish Soviet rule in the newly incorporated territories.

There was much similarity between German and Soviet attitudes toward the conquered peoples. To the extent that one could talk about coherent German war aims, the Germans wanted to reduce Poles to be slaves of German people who would come to the occupied territories. In order to bring this about, the Nazis arrested and killed about 60,000 Polish intellectuals, priests, officers, lawyers, and professors. During the first months of occupation, the Nazis killed more Christian Poles than Jewish Poles. Interestingly, although Germans killed more Poles than did the Soviets, Nazi atrocities did not make as lasting impression on Poles as did the Katyn massacre, which was not in fact the Germans’ handiwork.

The 22 months of alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union caused enormous suffering for the people who lived in the “bloodlands,” as Timothy Snyder called the region that now came under foreign occupation. However, a greater bloodletting was just about to commence when, in violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, unexpectedly for Stalin, the German Army crossed the Soviet frontiers on June 22, 1941.