Moscow, Soviet Union August 23, 1939

At least since April 1939 Adolf Hitler was deter­mined to end the exis­tence of Poland, a country of just over 35 mil­lion people lying on Germany’s eastern border. But con­quering that nation was fraught with danger because Poland shared a border with the Soviet Union, Hitler’s long-time bogey­man. The Fuehrer and his propa­ganda minister Joseph Goeb­bels had spent their careers denouncing the “Jewish-Bol­shevik” regime in Moscow, going to far as to create an anti-Soviet alli­ance, the Anti-Comin­tern Pact, in the mid-Thirties, which even­tually grew to over a dozen states in Europe and Asia (Japan and its vassal states on the Chinese main­land). Now what to do should Nazi Germany wish to neu­tralize the pros­pect of the Soviet Union being threatened by Germany’s destruction of its western neighbor?

It began that April 1939 when Hitler and the German news media suddenly ceased their anti-Soviet rhetoric. In May the German ambas­sador to the Krem­lin was instructed to put out feelers for a pos­sible German-Soviet polit­i­cal rapproche­ment. Earlier that month Joseph Stalin had dis­missed his pro-Western Jewish foreign minister and replaced him with a long-time loyalist, Vyacheslav Molotov, in the process removing what the Nazis saw as an impedi­ment to improving rela­tions. The scene brightened further when, at the start of August, German and Soviet trade offi­cials agreed that the interests of the two antag­o­nistic nations could and should be harmo­nized. A compre­hen­sive trade deal was struck in the early hours of August 20: Germany would gain access to Soviet agricul­tural produce and oil, and in return the Soviet Union would have access to modern machin­ery and mili­tary equip­ment. Con­vinced that Hitler was serious about improving bilateral rela­tions, Stalin agreed to receive German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribben­trop in Moscow to entertain a second historic agreement.

That agreement was the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggres­sion Pact drafted late on this date, August 23, 1939, by the countries’ foreign ministers and signed in the early hours of the 24th. The 10‑year pact assured that the two rivals would hence­forth “desist from any act of vio­lence, any aggres­sive action, and any attack on each other.” In truth, though, the short, seven-article non­aggres­sion pact was window dressing for a secret proto­col to rearrange the “terri­torial and polit­i­cal” integ­rity of states lying between them, from Fin­land in the north, through the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithu­ania) and Poland, to Romania in the south (see map below). The pact removed a night­mare shared by Hitler and the opera­tions staff of his Wehr­macht (armed forces). Hitler could swoop down on Poland as he’d long intended absent now the threat of Soviet push­back, and Stalin was liber­ated by the demise of the Anti-Comin­tern Pact, which both their foreign ministers had eviscerated by initialing the secret protocol.

Poland was doomed, notwithstanding an Anglo-Polish mili­tary pact—the Agree­ment of Mutual Assis­tance between the United King­dom and Poland—entered into on August 26, 1939. The mutual assis­tance agree­ment was a British pledge to pro­vide mili­tary aid to Poland were it attacked by Germany. The Nazi-Soviet and Anglo-Polish pacts, signed within days of each other, predict­ably set in motion the engines of a Euro­pean war, which started on Septem­ber 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland from the east, and on Septem­ber 17, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the west.

Acclaimed British historian Roger Moorhouse recounts the events that not only led up the nefarious 1939 Molotov-Ribben­trop Non­aggres­sion Pact, which divided Poland and other East Euro­pean states between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but took on a curious after­life in The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin. Though it lasted less than two years, the “pact from hell” is rich in ironies, as Moor­house’s authori­ta­tive account explains. The duplic­i­tous Hitler, after part­nering with Soviet despot Joseph Stalin in creating, then occupying their respec­tive “spheres of interest” in 1939 and 1940, changed his pre­da­tor’s spots to ambush, in cold blood, the Soviet Union in 1941. Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa had the nasty mis­for­tune of dooming Hitler’s adven­turism in Central and Eastern Europe and has­tening the sorry end of his diabol­ical regime. And 50 years after their repres­sion and enslave­ment by Stalin’s Red Army, Poles, Esto­nians, Lat­vians, and Lithu­anians suc­ceeded in finally liber­ating them­selves by bringing down the Com­munist Iron Curtain and accel­erating the demise of their tor­mentor’s regime.—Norm Haskett

Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact, August 23, 1939

Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact: Molotov signing Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, August 23, 1939Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact: Molotov, Ribbentrop handshake, August 23, 1939

Left: On August 24, 1939, Soviet newspapers carried accounts of the non-secret portions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non­aggres­sion Pact, including a front-page picture of Molotov signing the treaty as Ribben­trop and Stalin, all smiles, looked on. The news reports were met with wide­spread incre­dulity by Western govern­ments and media, as well as by people inside Germany and the Soviet Union. Hadn’t the countries been sworn enemies? In Asia, Japan’s cabinet resigned over Hitler’s cozying up to that coun­try’s long­time enemy in the midst of a fierce border war taking place in the steppes of Mon­golia (Khal­khyn Gol/­Nomon­han Incident, May 11 to Septem­ber 15, 1939), which resulted in a Soviet-Mongolian victory over Japanese expansionists.

Right: Molotov would live to regret his part in the Nazi-Soviet Non­aggres­sion Pact. Almost 22 months later, on June 22, 1941, Hitler launched Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa, intending to utterly destroy his treaty partner in the largest land invasion in history: sweeping across a 1,000‑mile front, three million Germans were hell-bent on annihi­lating the Red Army and capturing the country’s principle cities and oil fields west of the Ural Mountains. It came close to happening.

Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact: Planned and Actual German-Soviet division of Central Europe, 1939–1940

Above: The left panel in this map of Central Europe depicts the planned division of the region according to the August 1939 Molotov-Rib­ben­trop Non­aggres­sion Pact. Yellow lines repre­sent the planned borders. The Soviet Union and the Soviet spheres of influ­ence are in red and tan, respec­tively. Germany and the German sphere of influence are in shades of blue. The right panel depicts the actual 1939–1940 territorial changes. Yellow lines repre­sent the 1938 borders. The dashed black lines repre­sent the bor­ders of the enlarged Soviet states (SSR=Soviet Socialist Repub­lic) in 1940. German annex­a­tions are shown in light blue. Purple depicts Ger­man-occupied territories and states: Norway, the General Govern­ment in Cen­tral Poland, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in Western Czechoslovakia.

British Historian Roger Moorhouse on the Impact of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Its Secret Protocols