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This week in history: Hitler and Stalin sign the non-aggression pact

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Joseph Stalin poses in the Kremlin in Moscow in 1932, for photographer James Abbe. Stage and screen stars asked for James Abbe by name when they wanted their portraits taken.  Abbe also photographed the major European leaders of the 1920s and '30s, from S

Joseph Stalin poses in the Kremlin in Moscow in 1932, for photographer James Abbe. Stage and screen stars asked for James Abbe by name when they wanted their portraits taken. Abbe also photographed the major European leaders of the 1920s and ‘30s, from Stalin to Mussolini to Hitler, and pioneered the photo essay before there was a LIFE magazine. Yet, the once-famous, self-described “tramp photographer” who considered Newport News his hometown is largely forgotten today. Brooks Johnson, curator of photography at The Chrysler Museum of Art, is trying to change that with “James Abbe: Photographer,” the first American retrospective of Abbe’s works. The exhibit opened in June and runs through Nov. 5 at the museum in Norfolk, about 15 miles from NewportNews. (AP Photo/Chrysler Museum, James Abbe)


On Aug. 23, 1939, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The agreement freed Hitler to begin World War II in Europe and lasted for nearly two years.

The late 1930s saw Hitler bloodlessly incorporating Germany's neighbors into the Reich. In March of 1938, the German army marched unopposed into Austria, greeted by throngs of cheering Austrians delighted at the prospect of unification. In September, however, Hitler had demanded that the Czech Sudetenland, an area with a significant ethnic German minority, also be incorporated into the Reich.

Czechoslovakia opposed this annexation and turned to its allies, Britain and France, for help. With memories of the first World War at the forefront of their minds, British and French leaders met with Hitler in Munich, Germany. There, they agreed to recommend that Czechoslovakia hand over the Sudetenland, and stated firmly that they would not honor their treaty commitments to Czechoslovakia if it chose to fight the Germans. Without the support of their allies, the Czechs gave in to Hitler's demands.

The British policy of appeasing Hitler rested partially on the notion that the victors of World War I had indeed been too harsh on Germany, and Britain must be gracious and allow Germany to regain territories taken from it under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The British also felt that Hitler was sincere in his desire to protect the rights of ethnic Germans throughout Europe. Though grossly exaggerated by Hitler and the Nazis, the German minority in the Sudetenland had experienced oppression at the hands of the Czechs.

With this attitude, the British were willing to sell out the Czechs in order to avoid a new war with Germany. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, believed that he had achieved a master diplomatic coup when Hitler stated that after the Sudetenland he would have no more territorial demands in Europe. He was wrong.

In March of 1939, only six months after the agreement at Munich, Hitler marched his army into the rest of the Czechoslovakia. Here, Hitler showed his true intentions. The Czechs and the Slovaks were not ethnically German; thus, his previous line about protecting the rights of German minorities was proved false. The move revealed Hitler for what he was: a power-mad demagogue intent on dominating Europe. British and French attitudes began to change.

When only a short time later Hitler insisted that the Polish Corridor — the strip land that gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea and cut German East Prussia off from Germany proper — be returned to Germany, the British and French drew a line in the sand. The two Western powers agreed to guarantee Poland's borders. Disbelieving the willingness of Britain and France to go to war, Hitler remarked, “Our enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich.”

Yet there was one big wild card that remained in Hitler's calculations: What would the Soviet Union do in the event of a German invasion of Poland? Poland lay right between Germany and the USSR. How would the Soviets feel about a new common border that stretched for hundreds of miles?

Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union represented two different and entirely antithetical political systems: fascism and communism. While in practice both regimes shared many similarities — mass propaganda, secret police, concentration camps — there were significant differences. The Nazis were dedicated to building a racial utopia; the Soviets sought to create one by eliminating class differences.

In the years before the Nazis took power, the German communist party proved a powerful rival. When Hitler became chancellor, the first group he targeted was German communists, who became the first inmates in German concentration camps. Likewise, Stalin believed the Nazis represented an extreme form of capitalism, one that was bent on destroying the USSR. A frequent insult and accusation in the Soviet Union was the word “fascist.”

Realizing that the Soviets might be the key to stopping Hitler, the British and French sent delegations to Moscow to create some kind of a military alliance with Stalin, in the hopes of deterring Hitler from going to war over Poland. Hitler, too, realizing the urgency of his plans, sought to reach some kind of an accommodation with Stalin.

In their book “The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939-1941,” Anthony Read and David Fisher wrote: “In Stalin's view, the urgency lay entirely with the other parties. It was the Germans who wanted to be free to attack Poland, and the Allies who had given her their guarantees. The Marxist approach to such a situation is quite clear: One must always try to keep two options open, and delay until the last possible moment the choice between them. In that way, the maximum advantage can be wrung from any negotiations. … Whoever could offer the best deal for the Soviet Union would win.”

Problems plagued the British and French negotiators from the beginning, some of their own making. For example, the decision to send the delegations by slow boat rather than fast aircraft offended the Soviets, who feared that the Western powers were merely using the threat of an alliance to rein in Hitler, rather than attempting to reach an actual agreement. The Soviets themselves demanded certain language in the treaties which, interpreted in a certain light, gave the USSR the right to invade its smaller neutral neighbors. This was unacceptable to the British and French.

Additionally, the Poles themselves proved problematic. Warsaw absolutely forbade the Soviet military from entering Poland's borders, even in the event of war with Germany. For most Poles, the memories of the 1919-1920 Soviet invasion were still fresh memories. The Poles didn't want to stand up to the Germans only to be dominated by the Soviets.

When the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet urged the Polish ambassador Juliusz Lukasiewicz to allow Soviet troops in Poland in the event of war, the ambassador replied, “Would you French allow the Germans into Alsace-Lorraine?”

When British and French representatives brought up the issue of the necessity of Soviet involvement to Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz, the Polish officer said, “With the Germans we risk losing our freedom. With the Russians, we lose our soul.”

As negotiations between the Soviets, British and French dragged on over the summer, Stalin also instructed his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, to see what the Germans were offering. In contrast to the dithering Western powers, the Germans seemed genuinely interested in a deal, political as well as economic. In exchange for Soviet grain and raw materials, the Germans were prepared to give the Soviets plans to power plants, industrial works and even battleships, as well as help in building them.

Perhaps the most important thing the Germans offered was their willingness to split Poland down the middle with the Soviets, as well as turning a blind eye to Soviet invasions of the Baltic States, Finland and regions of Romania. Where the British and French were opposed to any enlargement of the Soviet Union at the expense of free peoples, the Germans offered a green light.

On Aug. 23, Hitler's foreign minister, the vain and incompetent Joachim von Ribbentrop, arrived in Moscow to conclude a deal. In his book “Stalin: Breaker of Nations,” biographer Robert Conquest wrote:

“The pact was signed and announced that evening, though the secret protocols on the division of the loot were not referred to. … Stalin assured Ribbentrop on his personal honor that the Soviet Union would faithfully observe the pact. He even added, if rather unconvincingly, that if Germany were forced to her knees he would send a hundred divisions to the Rhine to help her. And at the reception following the brief negotiations, he stood and proposed a toast: 'I know how much the German people love its Führer. I would therefore like to drink to his health.' ”

Read and Fisher note that one daring German diplomat poured himself a drink from Stalin's personal flask, only to find that it was filled with water.

The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact stunned the world as two seemingly implacable enemies appeared to kiss and make up. The British and French, for all of their problems, nevertheless negotiating in good faith, had been taken completely by surprise. Around the world, communists from many nations left the party in disgust over Stalin's new relationship with Hitler.

With his eastern flank now secure and still skeptical that the Western powers would actually go to war, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, just days after the deal was concluded. Despite their inability to reach an agreement with the Soviets, the British and French declared war on Germany two days later. The invasion of Poland marked the beginning of the second World War.

The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, sometimes known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact after the two principal authors, lasted until June 1941. Despite massive shipments of Soviet goods every day, Hitler decided to betray Stalin with the largest military invasion in history: Operation Barbarossa. The Germans would never gain as much material in Russia through military conquest as they had through diplomacy, and many consider Hitler's abandonment of the pact his worst mistake of the war.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com