What problems were keeping the leaders and diplomats of the world’s great powers busy during the spring and summer of 1939?
- Hitler’s primary task was to neutralize the threat of the Soviet Union entering the war. Hoping that England and France would once again betray their ally – Poland, the Führer aimed to eliminate the Polish threat without the risk of a clash with the Russians. And afterward it would be possible to once again take a seat at the negotiating table with the British, but at that point able to insist on being treated as an equal.
- Stalin’s primary task was exactly the same – to neutralize the danger of a German attack on the Soviet Union. Stalin could of course enter into a treaty of alliance with France, Poland, and England. But we know that the leaders of the Western democracies would never have signed such a treaty. And that is exactly how it played out. Even when the inevitability of a German attack could no longer be ignored, Poland obediently followed London’s advice and refused to sign a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union. As a result, Stalin was left with no option other than an agreement with Hitler.
- The British and French diplomats continued with their primary task, which was to play Germany off against Russia. A slight adjustment was made to this plan, given the Führer’s recent behavior, but its essence remained entirely unchanged. It was decided to goad Hitler into attacking Poland, so that a Soviet-German conflict would automatically follow. However, Hitler was not an idiot. He remembered the First World War very well, and he would never have resolved to attack Poland and face the prospect of a fight on two fronts (against the Soviet Union on one hand, and against Britain and France on the other). For him to take such a step, he had to be convinced that neither London nor Paris would intercede for the Poles. In such a scenario, the British and French would remain on the war’s sidelines, and (in accordance with their old plans) enter the fray only after the Russians and Germans had bled each other dry.
Since now we understand the objectives of each player in this political game, we can properly evaluate their actions. On April 16, 1939, Stalin tried to propose to the Europeans that they all take collective action to stop Hitler. The head of the Soviet foreign ministry, Maxim Litvinov, told the British ambassador of his readiness to sign a tripartite pact of mutual assistance between Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. These were very specific proposals, which is precisely why they went almost completely unanswered.
On April 30, 1939, Hitler made a final attempt through unofficial channels to find common ground with his former British “friends,” warning them that he would otherwise be forced to negotiate with the Kremlin. However, the British scoffed at the very idea of a treaty between the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. They had a good reason for trying to place the most hard-core opponent of Communism in power in Germany.
During the 75 days in which “views were exchanged” between Soviet and Western diplomats, 16 days were used by the Soviet Union to draft her responses, while the Western powers wasted the remaining 59 with delays and foot-dragging. The British and French kept coming up with artificial difficulties that prevented the resolution of basic issues, although those hurdles could have been easily overcome with good will and sincere intentions on the part of England and France. And so they dawdled, playing for time.
Stalin was perfectly correct to surmise that there was virtually no chance that the British and French would play fair. Thus he reached the critical conclusion that he had no choice but to try to negotiate with Hitler. On May 3, 1939, Stalin gave Hitler his first signal – he replaced the current People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, the anglophile Maxim Litvinov, with Vyacheslav Molotov.
Hitler appreciated this “substitution.” Germany’s demands were clear and her actions demonstrated her deep desire to eliminate any threat from the East. And Hitler had a reason to hurry: he had set Aug. 26, 1939 as the date for his invasion of Poland. The Germans needed to get a German-Soviet treaty signed before that date. And the sooner the better. Therefore, Germany’s policy was very precise and specific in its objectives. The essence of the German proposals and approach to that situation is best illustrated by the text of the telegram sent by Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, to the German ambassador in Moscow, Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, on Aug. 14, 1939.
“I request that you call upon Herr Molotov personally and communicate to him the following: The ideological contradictions between National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union were in past years the sole reason why Germany and the USSR stood opposed to each other in two separate and hostile camps … The period of opposition in foreign policy can be brought to an end once and for all and the way lies open for a new sort of future for both countries … The living spaces of Germany and the USSR touch each other, but in their natural requirements they do not conflict … Germany has no aggressive intentions against the USSR. The Reich Government is of the opinion that there is no question between the Baltic and the Black Seas which cannot be settled to the complete satisfaction of both countries … It is the compelling interest of both countries to avoid for all future time the destruction of Germany and of the USSR, which would profit only the Western democracies. The crisis which has been produced in German-Polish relations by English policy, as well as English agitation for war and the attempts at an alliance which are bound up with that policy, make a speedy clarification of German-Russian relations desirable …”
What was going on in London and Paris during this German diplomatic activity? There, they too had decided to enter into an agreement with the Soviet Union, or more specifically – to again make a sham attempt to do so – again playing for time with one goal in mind: to prevent the Soviet Union and Germany from signing a non-aggression pact. After all, British intelligence knew perfectly well that Aug. 26 was the date set for the German attack on Poland. If Hitler and Stalin had not come to an agreement by then, it was highly likely that war would break out between them. So, the Western diplomats concentrated on “playing for time.”
On July 23, 1939, Lord Halifax informed the Soviet ambassador to Great Britain, Ivan Maisky, that His Majesty’s Government had agreed to begin negotiations. They used every means at their disposal to drag things out. For example, their delegation did not fly to Moscow, but traveled on a slow passenger freighter, a ship called the City of Exeter. That might seem a minor issue, but it bought them five or six days …
As a result the negotiations themselves did not begin until Aug. 11. The choice of members for the Western delegation is also telling. The Soviet Union sent officials from the highest military ranks: the Commissar for Defense, Kliment Voroshilov; the Chief of Staff, Boris Shaposhnikov; the Commander of the Navy, Nikolai Kuznetsov; and the Commander of the Air Force, Aleksandr Loktionov. But the British and French sent their “second-tier” generals. Nor was that an accident. And because the heads of their delegations had not been granted the authority to sign documents, that was even “more effective.” French General Aimé Doumenc had been given the right to “negotiate … on all questions regarding collaboration needed between the armed forces of the two countries,” but the British Admiral Reginald Drax had no written authority at all!
So why did he come? This was mentioned in paragraph no. 8 of his instructions: “Draw out the negotiations as long as possible.” Other paragraphs are also quite odd, “support the negotiations in the hope that they themselves will be a sufficient deterrent” and “strive to limit the overall wording as much as possible.”
When Western historians and political scientists launch into lengthy discussions about the responsibility of Stalin and the Soviet Union for the outbreak of the Second World War, they do not usually like to provide the facts. They are playing to the emotions of their readers and listeners. After all, everyone today is well aware of the Nazis’ atrocities and crimes. Thus the Soviet Union is looked down upon for entering into a non-aggression pact with such fiends. And since Hitler invaded Poland a week after signing this document, Germany is not the only country that can be accused of aggression. It’s pretty logical. If one discounts a few “insignificant” examples.
- Not only the Soviet Union, but also England, France, and even Poland herself all had their own “non-aggression pacts” with Nazi Germany. That is a normal practice in international relations.
- The German-Polish war would still have begun, even if the Soviet Union had not signed a treaty with Germany. And only a few weeks, later, in the fall of 1939, the USSR would inevitably have been caught up in it anyway – fighting with Japan began in the spring of that year after the Japanese attacked Mongolia.
If we discount the idle words of the masses and the moralizers who play fast and loose with the facts, we end up with the unvarnished truth. Stalin had no choice but to sign an agreement with Hitler in order to deflect aggression away from his own country.
After all, Hitler did not launch a war because of some document to which he was completely indifferent, but because of decades of carefully orchestrated financial, political, and diplomatic assistance, which resulted in not only the resurgence of a weakened Germany, but also in an unprecedented increase in her power. And of course it was not the USSR or Stalin that provided this assistance, but the Western powers and banking elite.
Stalin simply had no choice. But that was not true for the British and the French, whose delegation arrived in Moscow for talks long before Joachim von Ribbentrop. If they had truly wished to enter into a treaty with the Soviet Union, they could have done so.
Stalin accepted Berlin’s offer when he realized that there would be no treaty with Britain and France. German Ambassador von der Schulenburg proposed the future pact to Molotov on Aug. 19. On Aug. 21, 1939 at 5:00 pm, Commissar Molotov gave von der Schulenburg a letter from Stalin. It concluded with a phrase that took the entirety of the Anglo-American policy toward Hitler from the last few years and tossed it all overboard, “The Soviet Government has authorized me to inform you that it agrees to Herr von Ribbentrop’s arriving in Moscow on August 23 of this year.”
Poland was doomed. Britain and France had sentenced her to death, so that once they forced Hitler to launch a war, it would be steered in the necessary eastward direction. Little more than a year would pass before France herself would also suffer the charms of British policy, with all its deceit and treachery.
But before Hitler entered Paris, there was Warsaw…
ORIENTAL REVIEW publishes exclusive translations of the chapters from Nikolay Starikov’s documentary research ““Who Made Hitler Attack Stalin” (St.Petersburg, 2008). The original text was adapted for translation by ORIENTAL REVIEW.