The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939. It has been called a major factor in the outbreak of World War II, and determined the fate of the Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Western Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Moldavians.
As a result of this pact, these nations were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Despite the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, the pact still determines many geopolitical realities in modern Europe.
According to the non-aggression pact, the Soviet Union and Germany pledged to “refrain from any violence, any aggressive action, and any attack against each other, either individually or together with other states.” Moreover, the two sides promised not to support coalitions of other countries that may take action against the parties to the agreement. This was the death of the idea of “collective security” in Europe. It became impossible to curtail actions of the aggressor (which Nazi Germany would later become) by concerted effort of peace-loving countries.
The pact was signed by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop. The pact was supplemented with secret additional protocol, which delimitated the Soviet and German spheres of influence in Eastern Europe in the event of “territorial rearrangement.” This rearrangement was not long in coming. The pact was ratified by the USSR Supreme Soviet within a week of its signing. The deputies were not told about the secret additional protocol, which were never ratified. On the day after the pact’s ratification, September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland
In full accordance with the secret protocol, the original of which was found in the archives of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee in the mid-1990s, German troops did not invade Poland’s eastern regions, populated predominantly by Byelorussians and Ukrainians, or the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Subsequently, Soviet troops entered these territories. On September 17, 1939, Soviet troops marched into Poland’s eastern regions.
Relying on left-wing political forces in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, from 1939 to 1940 the Stalinist leadership established control over these countries. As a result of an armed conflict with Finland, which was also listed in the protocol as part of the sphere of Soviet interests, the USSR annexed part of Karelia and areas adjacent to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) from that country.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1940-1945) wrote in his memoirs that the signing of the pact between Berlin and Moscow meant a failure of British and French diplomacy. These countries failed either to direct Nazi aggression against the USSR, or turn the Soviet Union into their ally before the outbreak of World War II. Although the Soviet Union gained two years of peace and considerable additional territories along its Western borders, it did not benefit from the pact unequivocally. As a result of the pact, Germany avoided a war on two fronts from 1939 to 1944, routed Poland, France and several small European countries one after another, and had an army with two years of combat experience at its disposal for attacking the USSR in 1941. Many historians believe that Nazi Germany benefited more from the pact. (Sovetskaya istoriographiya, RGGU Publishers, 1992).
The pact’s political assessment
The main text of the non-aggression pact was an about face in Soviet ideology, which had previously strongly denounced Nazism. However, it did not go beyond the established practice of international relations on the eve of World War II. Poland, for instance, also signed a similar pact with Germany in 1934. Other countries signed or tried to sign such pacts as well. But the secret protocol to the pact was undoubtedly contrary to international law.
On August 28, 1939, the sides signed an explanation to the additional secret protocol, which delimitated spheres of influence “in the event of the territorial and political rearrangement of regions that are part of the Polish state.” The Soviet sphere of influence included Poland’s territory to the east of the Pissa, Narew, Bug, Vistula, and San rivers. This line approximately coincided with the so-called Curzon Line, which was supposed to delineate Poland’s eastern border after World War I. Apart from Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia, the Soviet negotiators expressed interest in Bessarabia, which had been lost in 1919. They received a satisfactory answer from the German side to the effect that Germany was “totally uninterested politically in these regions.” Subsequently, this territory became part of the Moldavian SSR in the USSR. (For more details, consult the book “1939: uroki istorii,” Institute of World History at the USSR Academy of Sciences, 1990, p. 452).
The provisions of the secret protocol, drafted by the Stalinist leadership together with Hitler’s associates, were obviously illegal. This is why both Stalin and Hitler preferred to conceal this document both from the world public, and, with the exception of very narrow circles within the government, their own people and authorities. The existence of the protocol was concealed in the USSR up to 1989, until a special commission on the political and legal evaluation of the pact, set up by the Congress of Soviet People’s Deputies, presented the congress with evidence of the pact’s existence. Having received this evidence, in its resolution on December 24, 1989, the congress denounced the secret protocol, emphasizing that together with other Soviet-German documents, this protocol “had become invalid since Germany’s attack on the USSR, that is, since June 22, 1941.”
While recognizing the immorality of this secret agreement between Stalin and Hitler, it’s impossible to consider the pact and its protocols outside the context of the then military and political situation in Europe. According to Stalin’s plan, the pact was supposed to become a response to the policy of appeasing Hitler, which Britain and France had been conducting for several years with the aim of setting the two totalitarian regimes at loggerheads, and turning Nazi aggression primarily against the USSR.
By 1939, Germany had returned and had remilitarized the Rhine region, had fully reequipped its army in violation of the Versailles Treaty, had annexed Austria, and had established control over Czechoslovakia. After Hitler, the latter’s territory was claimed by Hungary and Poland and they received parts of Czechoslovakia’s territory. This was largely the result of the policy of the Western powers. On September 29, 1938, the prime ministers of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy signed an agreement in Munich on the partitioning of Czechoslovakia, which was called in Soviet history the “Munich conspiracy.”
On March 22, 1939, the Wehrmacht troops occupied the Lithuanian port of Klajpeda (its German name was Memel), and before long Hitler endorsed a plan for Poland’s occupation. Therefore, the frequent attributions that World War II was triggered exclusively by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, do not conform to reality. Sooner or later, Hitler would have attacked Poland even without the pact. During 1933-1941, the majority of European countries were trying to come to terms with Nazi Germany, thereby encouraging Hitler’s seizure of other territories. All the great European powers, such as Britain, France, and the USSR, were holding talks with Hitler until August 23, 1939. (For more details about the talks in Moscow in the summer of 1939, consult the book “1939: lessons of history,” pp. 298-308).
By mid-August, the multipartite talks entered a decisive phase. Each side was pursuing its own goals. By August 19, the the Anglo-French-Soviet talks deadlocked. The Soviet government agreed to receive German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Moscow on August 26-27. In a personal message to Stalin, Hitler asked him to agree to Ribbentrop’s arrival on August 22 or August 23 at the latest. Moscow agreed, and the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed 14 hours after Ribbentrop’s arrival. http://www.rian.ru/society/20080505/106556830.html
Moral assessment of the pact
Immediately after its signing, the pact evoked criticism from many participants in the international communist movement, and representatives of other left-wing parties. Unaware of the existence of secret protocols, they viewed the pact as a conspiracy with Nazism, the worst form of imperialist reaction. The agreement was unthinkable for the proponents of left-wing ideology. Many scholars even believe that the pact started the crisis of the communist movement by aggravating Stalin’s mistrust of foreign communist parties, and contributing to his decision to disband the Communist International in 1943.
After the war, realizing that the pact was undermining his reputation as the world’s number one fighter against Nazism, Staling did all he could to justify it in Soviet and world historiography. This task was made more complicated when the Americans, who had captured Germany’s west, found German documentation, leading them to assume that the pact might have been supplemented with secret protocols.
Therefore, a “historic document,” entitled “Falsifiers of History” was drafted in 1948 with Stalin’s participation (many scholars believe that Stalin was its author). Its provisions laid the foundations for the official interpretation of the events of 1939-1941, which remained immutable until the late 1980s.
The essence of this “document” came down to the explanation that the pact was a “brilliant” step by the Soviet leaders, which allowed them to exploit the “inter-imperialistic contradictions” between bourgeois Western democracies and Nazi Germany. Without its signing, the USSR would have ostensibly become a victim of the “crusade” of the capitalist countries against the worlds first socialist state.
The provisions of this “document” could not have been questioned in the Soviet Union even after Stalin’s death. In Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev’s times, Stalin’s name in text books for schools and colleges was increasingly replaced with the words “the national leadership” or “Soviet diplomacy.” (Source-Soviet Historiography, RGGU Publishers, 1992).
This approach existed until Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s when the participants of the first Congress of USSR People’s Deputies demanded disclosure of the circumstances surrounding the signing of the pact, which largely contributed to the incorporation of a number of regions into the Soviet Union.
On December 24, 1989, the Congress of the USSR People’s Deputies, which was the supreme body of state authority in the USSR at that time, adopted a resolution “On the Political and Legal Assessment of the Soviet-German Non-aggression Treaty of 1939.” The resolution officially denounced the secret protocols as the “act of personal power,” which in no way reflected the “will of the Soviet people who are not responsible for this conspiracy.” It emphasized that “Stalin and Molotov conducted talks on the secret protocol with Germany while keeping it from the Soviet people, the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), and the entire party, the Supreme Soviet, and the Soviet government.”
The consequences of this “conspiracy” are still being felt to this day, poisoning relations between Russia and the nations affected by the protocols. The Baltic countries see these events as a prelude to the “annexation” of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Based on these events, their politicians make far-reaching conclusions about relations with today’s Russia, and the status of ethnic Russians in their countries. The latter are characterized as “occupiers” or “colonizers.”
In Poland, the secret protocols are used to justify the efforts to put Nazi Germany on the same moral plane with the Stalinist regime. In this context, some politicians are discrediting the memory of Soviet soldiers, and even express regret that Poland and Nazi Germany did not set up a coalition for a joint attack against the USSR. This supposition is morally unacceptable if only because none of the 600,000 Soviet soldiers, who sacrificed their lives for Poland’s liberation from the Nazis, knew anything about the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.