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Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, sometimes called the Hitler-Stalin pact, was a non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939 by the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.


The European balance of power established at the end of World War I eroded step by step from the Abyssinia crisis (1935) to the Munich Agreement (1938). The dissolution of Czechoslovakia signalled increasing instability as Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union aspired to regain territories lost in the aftermath of World War I. Furthermore, the Soviet Union encouraged conflict between capitalist countries also in order to enhance the spread of Communism.

Seen from a Soviet perspective, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was a much needed response to the deterioration in the European security situation in the latter half of the 1930s as Nazi-Germany, aligned with Fascist Italy in the Axis Powers, aimed to reverse the disadvantageous Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

Britain and France, notional guarantors of the territorial status quo, stood by until Germany's March 1939 destruction of Czechoslovakia, maintaining a policy of "non-intervention" while Germany and Italy supported the victorious rightist rebels in their destruction of the democratic Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

For its part, the Soviet Union was not interested in maintaining a status quo which it also saw as disadvantageous to its interests, deriving as it did from the period of Soviet weakness immediately following the 1917 October Revolution and Russian Civil War. Soviet leaders adopted the position that conflict between what they characterised as rival imperialist countries was not only an inevitable consequence of Capitalism but would enhance conditions for the spread of Communism.

During 1938 the Soviet government offered to defend Czechoslovakia in the event of German invasion, but the Czech government was persuaded by Britain and France to give in to Germany's territorial demands, despite a Franco-Czechoslovak alliance dating back to 1924. This reinforced a Soviet impression of actual dis-interest from the side of the west in opposing growing fascism, already exemplified by the events of the Spanish Civil War.

Franco-British negotiations with the Soviet Union

Negotiations between the Soviet Union and France/Britain for a military alliance against Germany stalled, mainly due to mutual suspicions. The Soviet Union sought guarantees for support against German aggression and recognition of the right of the Soviet Union to interfere against "a change of policy favourable to an aggressor" in the countries along the western Soviet border. Although none of the affected countries had formally asked for protection by the Soviet Union, the Soviets announced "guarantees for the independence of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Greece".

The British and French feared that this would allow Soviet intervention in neighbouring countries' internal affairs also in the absence of an immediate external German threat.

With Germany now demanding territorial concessions from Poland in the face of Polish opposition, the threat of war was increasing. But although telegrams were exchanged as early as April, the military missions sent (by boat) by the western powers did not arrive in Moscow until August 11.

A more fundamental sticking-point was the question of Poland, lying mid-way between Germany and the Soviet Union: The Polish government feared rightly that the Soviet government sought to annex the former Russian provinces incorporated in Poland in 1920 - areas characterised by the Soviets as irredenta ("Western Ukraine" and "Western Belarus") on the grounds of the ethnic identity between their majority populations and those of the two westernmost Soviet republics.

The Polish government therefore refused to allow the Soviet military to enter Poland as an ally in advance of war - a situation that left the Soviets without any possibility of confronting the Germans before Poland was invaded.

Three weeks into August, the negotiations ground to a halt with each side doubting the other's motives, the Soviets suspecting that they were being led into a conflict limited to themselves and Germany.

German negotiations with the Soviet Union

Soviet's First Secretary Joseph Stalin had already in April opened for negotiations and improved relations with Germany by replacing the Jewish Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov with Molotov.

The Jewish and pro-Western Litvinov was not suited to lead the Soviet Union towards agreement with Nazi-Germany, widely perceived as an advocate of an alliance with the Western democracies against the Fascist powers, as he was. By then, Stalin possibly approved instead of Molotov's program to to provoke a war between Germany and the Western countries. In any case, approaching the Nazis would buy the Red Army valuable time to prepare for a maybe unevitable war with Germany.

Concluding a German-Soviet trade agreement, Molotov on August 19 proposed also an additional protocol "covering the points in which the High Contracting Parties are interested in the field of foreign policy".

The pact was announced as a non-aggression pact, but in a secret appendix Eastern Europe was divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Bessarabia were apportioned to the Soviet sphere. Poland was to be partitioned in the event of its "political rearrangement", the areas east of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San going to the Soviet Union while Germany would occupy the west.


On September 1, barely a week after the pact had been signed, the partition of Poland commenced with Germany's invasion. The Soviet Union invaded from the east on September 17 (see also: Partitions of Poland).

The pact caused consternation in the west, both among governments which had most feared such an outcome, and even more so to supporters of communism, many of whom found Soviet dealings with their Nazi ideological enemy incomprehensible. A famous cartoon by David Low from the London Evening Standard of 20 September 1939 has Hitler and Stalin bowing to each other over the corpse of Poland, with Hitler saying "The scum of the Earth, I believe?" and Stalin saying "The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?".

On September 28th 1939, the three Baltic States were given no choice but to sign a so-called Pact of defence and mutual assistance, which permitted the Soviet Union to station troops in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The same day a supplementary German-Soviet protocol had transferred most of Lithuania from the envisaged German to the Soviet sphere of interest

Finland resisted similar claims, and was invaded by the Soviet Union on November 30. After more than three months of heavy fighting and losses in the ensuing Winter War, the Soviet Union gave up its intended occupation of Finland, in exchange for approximately 10% of Finland's territory, most of which was still held by the Finnish army.


In June 1940, after the Wehrmacht's swift victories and occupation of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, it was time for Bessarabia and the three Baltic states to suffer occupation, and soon annexation, by the Soviet Union. On June 28th 1940 Soviet Union asked in an ultimatum to Romania for Bessarabia and northen part of Bukovina. Without its traditional allies,UK and France, Romania give in.

On the occupied territories the Soviets started a campaign of terror, in much similar to the Nazi terror in the East. Millions of people were deported to work camps in the far north.

By early 1941, the German and Soviet empires shared a common border running through what is now Lithuania and Poland. Thereafter German-Soviet relations began to cool and the clash between Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union seemed increasingly unavoidable.

Germany ended the pact of August 1939 by invading the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in what was called Operation Barbarossa. The territories gained by the Soviets due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were lost in a matter of weeks. Germany's attack was followed by a preventive attack on Finland on June 26, commencing the so called Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union.

The extent to which the Soviets' earlier territorial acquisitions may have contributed to preventing a German conquest of the Soviet Union remains a factor in evaluating the pact. Soviet propaganda pointed out, that the Soviets' earlier territorial acquisitions may have contributed to preventing a German conquest of the Soviet Union. Others say, that Poland and Baltic countries played important barrier between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and only destroying the barrier by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact let the war to begin.

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