THE GERMAN-SOVIET NON-AGGRESSION PACT OF 1939


Introduction
One of the many stories which circulate about Stalin is that, while the Soviet government was negotiating for a collective security pact with Britain and France directed against German aggressive expansion, he initiated the signing of a pact with Germany which precipitated the Second World War.

Of course, not everything that happened in the Soviet Union at this time was done with the approval of Stalin. In the case of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, however, we have the testimony of Stalin's closest collaborator, Vyacheslav Molotov, that:

The charge that this was a serious mistake on Stalin's part must, therefore, be examined seriously.

 The Reorientation of Soviet Foreign Policy

In his notorious book 'My Struggle', written in mid-1920s, the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler expressed frankly the foreign policy the Nazis intended to follow:

Thus, the coming to power of the Nazi government in Germany in January 1933 heralded a situation in Europe which clearly presented great danger to the Soviet Union -- and not, of course, to the Soviet Union alone.

The Marxist-Leninists in the leadership of the Soviet Union, concerned to defend the socialist state, responded to this new, more dangerous situation by reorientating Soviet foreign policy, by adopting a policy of striving for collective security with other states which had, objectively, an interest in maintaining the status quo in the international situation.

The Objective Basis of Collective Security

The objective basis of the Soviet policy of collective security was that the imperialist Powers of the world could be divided into two groups.
One group -- Germany, Italy and Japan had a relatively high productive power and relatively restricted markets and spheres of influence. As a result, these Powers had an urgent need to change the world to their advantage; they were relatively aggressive Powers.
Another group of imperialist Powers -- Britain, France and the United States -- had relatively large markets and spheres of influence and thus had objectively more need to keep the world as it was than to see it changed; they were relatively non-aggressive Powers.

Stalin, who argued that the Second World War had already begun, summed up this position to the 18th Congress of the CPSU in March 1939:

As a socialist state, a working people's state, the Soviet Union had the strongest interest of any state in the preservation of peace.

The Soviet government's policy in the 1930s, therefore, was to strive to form a collective security alliance with the European non-aggressive imperialist states, Britain and France -- a collective security alliance strong enough either to deter the aggressive imperialist states from launching war or to secure their speedy defeat.

The Soviet Government summed up this post-1933 foreign policy in 1948:

Appeasement

Although, as we have seen, Stalin maintained that the British and French imperialists had, objectively, an interest in joining the Soviet Union in such a collective security alliance, the governments of Britain and France, led respectively by Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, did not recognise this objective fact because of their detestation of socialism and the Soviet Union and their wish to see it destroyed.

As Stalin told the 18th Congress of the CPSU in March 1939:

British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax is on record as telling Hitler in November 1937 that Nevertheless, the Soviet Marxist-Leninists understood that this policy of 'appeasement' ran, objectively, counter to the interests of the British and French imperialists and counter to the interests of the British working people They therefore calculated that, if the Soviet government persisted in its efforts to form a collective security alliance with Britain and France, sooner or later the appeasers in Britain, which dominated France,. would be forced out of office by the more far-seeing representatives of British imperialism (such as Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden) in cooperation with the British working people.

(This, of course, actually occurred in 1940, but only after war had broken out in Europe).

 The Anglo-French-Soviet Negotiations

On 31 March 1939, without consulting the Soviet Union, the British government gave a unilateral guarantee to defend Poland against aggression.

The leader of the liberal Party, David Lloyd George, told the House of Commons:

The Anglo-French guarantee stimulated public pressure on the appeaser governments to at least make gestures in the direction of collective security.

So, on 15 April 1939 the British government made an approach to the Soviet government suggesting that it might like to issue a public declaration offering military assistance to any state bordering the Soviet Union which was subject to aggression if that state desired it.

Two days later, on 17 April the Soviet government replied that it would not consider a unilateral guarantee, which would put the Soviet Union in a position of inequality with the other Powers concerned. It proposed:
Firstly, a trilateral mutual assistance treaty by Britain, France and the Soviet Union against aggression;

 Secondly, the extension of guarantees to the Baltic States (Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania), on the grounds that failure to guarantee these states was an open invitation to Germany to expand eastwards through invasion of these states;

Thirdly, that the treaty must not be vague, but must detail the extent and forms of the military assistance to be rendered by the signatory Powers.

On 27 May the British and French governments replied to the Soviet proposals with the draft of a proposed tripartite pact. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain commented on the British draft in a letter to his sister at this time:

Vyacheslav Molotov, who had just taken over the post of People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs from Maksim Litvinov, rejected the draft on the grounds that it proposed in the event of hostilities not immediate mutual assistance, but merely consultation through the League of Nations.
On 2 June the Soviet government submitted to Britain and France a counter-draft making these joints.

The British and French governments responded by saying that Finland, Estonia and Latvia refused to be guaranteed.

The Soviet government continued to insist that a military convention be signed at the same time as the political treaty, in order that there might be no possibility of any hedging about the application of the latter. On 17 July Molotov stated that there was no point in continuing discussions on the political treaty until the military convention had been concluded.

On 23 July the British and French governments finally agreed to begin military discussions before the political treaty of alliance had been finalised, and a British naval officer with the quadruple-barreled name of Admiral Reginald Plunkett-Ernie-Erle-Drax was appointed to head the British delegation. No one, apparently, had informed the British government that the aeroplane had been invented, and the delegation left Tilbury by a slow boat to Leningrad, from where they proceeded by train to Moscow. When the delegation finally arrived in Moscow on 11 August, the Soviet side discovered that it had no powers to negotiate, only to 'hold talks'. Furthermore, the British delegation was officially instructed to:

Nevertheless, the military talks began in Moscow on 12 August.
On 15 August the leader of the Soviet delegation, People's Commissar for Defence
Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, told the delegates that unless Soviet troops were permitted to enter Polish territory it was physically impossible for the Soviet Union to assist Poland and it would be useless to continue discussions.
 
This point was never resolved before the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations were negotiations were adjourned indefinitely on 21 August -- after the Soviet government had decided to sign the non-aggression pact with Germany.

Warning Shots from Moscow

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I think it is fair to say 'that no diplomats are more expert in hypocritical double-dealing than British diplomats.

Nevertheless, the Soviet leaders were no fools and, as the negotiations for an Anglo-French-Soviet mutual security pact dragged on month after month, a number of warning shots were fired from Moscow.

On 11 March 1939 Joseph Davies, the former US Ambassador in Moscow, now posted to Brussels, wrote in his diary about Stalin's speech to the 18th Congress of the CPSU a few days before:

Then, on 3 May 1939 the resignation was announced of Maksim Litvinov as Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and his replacement by a close colleague of Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov. Although the Soviet government denied that this signified any change in Soviet foreign policy, it was significant that Litvinov’s name was particularly associated with collective security and he was known to be personally sympathetic to the West.

On 29 June the leading Soviet Marxist-Leninist Andrei Zhdanov published an article in 'Pravda' which, most unusually, revealed that there were differences in the leadership of the CPSU on whether the British and French governments were sincere in saying that they wished for a genuine treaty of mutual assistance:

A final warning shot was fired on 22 July, when it was officially announced that Soviet-German trade negotiations were taking place in Berlin.

The Soviet-German Negotiations

At the 18th Congress of the CPSU in March 1939, Stalin described the basis of Soviet foreign policy as follows:

On 17 April 1939, the Soviet Ambassador in Berlin, Aleksei Merekalov, had a conversation with the German State Secretary, Baron Ernst von Wiezsaecker, who asked him whether there was any prospect of the normalisation of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Ambassador's reply was in line with Soviet foreign policy: On 29 July the German Foreign Office instructed the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union, Count Fritz von der Schulenburg, to tell Molotov: On 14 August the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentropp, cabled Schulenburg, instructing him to call on the Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, and read him a communication: Schulenburg saw Molotov on 16 August and, as instructed, read to him Ribbentropp’s message. He reported to Berlin the same night that Molotov had heard Ribbentropp replied the same day, directing Schulenburg to see Molotov again and inform him that:
  On 17 August Molotov handed Schulenburg the Soviet government's written reply. The Note began by recalling Germany's policy of hostility to the Soviet Union in the past, and welcoming the prospect of an improvement in German-Soviet relations. It proposed a number of steps in this direction, beginning with a trade agreement and proceeding 'shortly thereafter' to the conclusion of a non-aggression pact.

On 18 August Ribbentropp sent a further urgent telegram to Schulenburg saying that the 'first stage' in the diplomatic process (the signing of the trade agreement) had been completed, and asking that Ribbentropp be permitted to make an 'immediate departure for Moscow', where he would:

On 19 August Schulenburg replied that Molotov had agreed that: On 20 August Hitler himself intervened with a personal letter to Stalin, saying that he accepted the draft of the non-aggression pact but pleaded that Ribbentropp should be received in Moscow Stalin replied to Hitler on 21 August, thanking him for his letter and saying: Ribbentropp and his delegation arrived in Moscow on 23 August, and the non-aggression pact was signed later the same day. Its text was almost identical with the Soviet draft which had been submitted to the Germans on 19 August. Neither party would attack the other, and should one party become the object of belligerent action by a third Power, the other party would render no support to this third Power.

Even more strongly criticised than the pact itself has been a 'Secret Additional Protocol' to the pact which laid down German and Soviet 'spheres of interest' in Europe.
 
But the term 'sphere of interest' does not necessarily have implications of imperialist domination. Where two states are likely to be affected by war but wish this not to involve them in mutual conflict, then the demarcation of spheres of interest is a legitimate and desirable act.

The 'secret additional protocol' declared:

In ordinary language, this meant that the German government promised that, when German troops invaded Poland, they would not attempt to advance beyond the 'Curzon Line', drawn by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, after the First World War as the ethnic boundary separating the Poles from the Ukrainians and Byelorussians. The area east of this line had been Soviet territiory which was seized from the Soviet Union following the Revolution.

Germany had thus agreed that it would raise no objection to the Soviet government taking whatever action it considered desirable east of this line.

 The Effect of the Non-Aggression Pact

Speaking to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union on 31 August, Molotov described the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact as:

Molotov accepted Zhdanov’s conclusion -- that the British and French had never been serious in their attitude to the negotiations: Molotov declared that the breakdown of the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations was only superficially the refusal of Poland or accept Soviet assistance, since: He stressed that it was not the Soviet government’s action in signing the pact which had disrupted the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations. On the contrary, the Soviet government had signed the pact only after the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations had been irrevocably sabotaged by the British and French governments: The same point was made by the Soviet People's Commissar for Defence, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, at a press conference on 27 August 1939: Furthermore, Molotov emphasised that the Soviet negotiations with Germany were on a completely different level to the Soviet negotiations with Britain and France: So that, as a result of the signing of the German-Soviet pact: Even such anti-Soviet writers as Edward Carr agree that the Soviet government’s decision to sign the non-aggression pact with Germany was an enforced second choice, which was taken only with extreme reluctance: Indeed, some Soviet leaders -- notably Maksim Litvinov, the former People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs -- urged that more time should be given for the British and French governments to be pressed by public opinion in their countries into serious negotiations for a pact of mutual assistance.

What precipitated the acceptance of the pressing German proposals for a rapprochement was the discovery by Soviet intelligence that the Chamberlain government was secretly negotiating for a military alliance with Germany, so threatening the Soviet Union with aggression from four Powers -- Britain, France, Germany and Italy -- combined. The British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, describes in an official report to Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, dated 29 August 1939, a conversation with Hitler and Ribbentropp:

The fact that both German and Soviet troops entered Poland has been used to equate Fascist Germany with the socialist Soviet Union. But, of course, a socialist state cannot be equated with an aggressive imperialist state. It has to be noted,
Firstly, that Soviet troops entered what had been Polish territory only on 17 September -- 16 days after the German invasion of Poland - when the Polish state had collapsed, as Molotov stressed to the Supreme Soviet on 31 October 1939: And the correspondents of the capitalist press agree with Soviet contemporary Soviet sources that the Red Army was welcomed as liberators by the Ukrainian and Byelorussian population concerned. Molotov reported: In the House of Commons on 20 September, Conservative MP Robert Boothby declared: It is outside the scope of today's seminar to discuss one of the most absurd of the anti-Stalin stories -- that Stalin trusted the Nazis to adhere to the pact and was completely taken by surprise when the German army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

Who can forget Stalin's prophetic words in 1931: 

Exactly ten years later, in 1941, came the German invasion. 

The test of the correctness or incorrectness of Stalin's policy is whether or not it strengthened or weakened the ability of the socialist Soviet Union to defend itself against the future aggression which its leaders knew was inevitable.

Even such virulent anti-Soviet writers as Edward Carr admit that the signing of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact enabled the Soviet Union to put itself in an incomparably stronger defensive position to meet the German invasion:

Questions Put By The Audience to The Speaker, And His Replies

Question 1:
It has been suggested that Litvinov was removed from his post simply because he was a Jew, and as such would have been regarded as unsuitable as a negotiator by the Germans. Is there any truth in this?
Reply:
In my opinion, no. We know that Stalin supported the replacement of Litvinov, and Stalin was known to be have been opposed not only to racism but to any concession to racism. Litvinov had, personally, been strongly associated with the policy of collective security and reliable sources testify to his conviction that, with more time, the British and French governments would sooner or later endorse this policy. As soon as the Soviet leaders began to give consideration to the possibility of a rapprochement with Germany, therefore, Litvinov ceased to be a reliable instrument of Soviet foreign policy.

Question 2:
Did Litvinov actually oppose the signing of the non-aggression pact?
Reply:
I have no concrete information as to whether he opposed it on principle, but he is known to have held the view that more time should be given to allow the Anglo-French representatives to see sense'. But he is on record later as declaring that it had been 'a mistake' resulting from Molotov's 'lack of understanding of the functioning of Western democracy'.

Question 3:
In one of Molotov 's speeches following the occupation of Eastern Poland, he referred to the Polish state as being the illegitimate child of Versailles and commented that, happily, it had disappeared. This has been interpreted as demonstrating that the Soviet Union always had territorial designs upon Poland. Was the Soviet position one of supporting the destruction of the Polish state?
Question 3a.
Does this mean that the Soviet Union was prepared to deny the aspirations of the Polish people to have their own state?
Reply:
There is no doubt that the Polish people constitute a nation, and Marxist-Leninists have always recognised the right of any nation to have its own independent state. The Polish state which existed in 1939, however, did not have its boundaries drawn on ethnic lines; it included, for example, millions of Ukrainians and Byelorussians and I feel sure that it was such facts which lay at the basis of Molotov 's statement. In other words it was not any Polish state, but that existing in 1939 which Molotov depicted as a monstrosity. However, that Polish Polish state was not destroyed by the Red Army, but by the German army; the Red Army's occupation of Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia began only after the Polish state had collapsed and ceased to exist. The Polish state was restored after the United Nations victory over Germany in 1945.

Question 4:
Was a protocol signed as part of the non-aggression pact which led to a line being drawn across Poland dividing the spheres of interest of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany? Is this the secret protocol referred to in the West and did such a protocol really exist? Was the dividing line the Curzon Line?
Reply:
The Anglo-American imperialists published the 'secret protocol' after the Second World War, claiming that it had been discovered in the captured archives of the German Foreign Office. I know that the late Soviet President, Andrei Gromyko, denounces the 'secret additional protocol' as a forgery in his memoirs, but he was a notorious revisionist and not a source I would place any reliance on. As far as I recall, the Soviet government of the time neither confirmed nor denied its authenticity. However, in the Soviet Information Bureau published in 1948, Falsifiers of History, no charge is made that the document is spurious, and this official pamphlet states:

It would seem that this cannot possibly refer to the treaty itself (which makes no mention of spheres of interest or frontiers), but only to the 'secret additional protocol'. As I said before, I do not accept the view that 'spheres of interest' between states are necessarily an phenomenon to be condemned. A socialist state may have its own spheres of interest which it sees as essential to its defence and, where these may conflict with the spheres of interest of other states, it seems to me correct to try to reach agreement with these other states, to map them out in order to maintain peaceful relations with these other states. On the evidence available to me at present, I believe the published 'secret protocol' to be genuine.
Yes, the dividing line 'ran along the old Curzon Line.



The above paper was read by Bill Bland at a seminar organised by the STALIN SOCIETY in London in February 1990.
Published by: The Stalin Society, Ilford, Essex.



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