Moscow, Soviet Union · August 19, 1939

On this date in 1939 Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov presented to Adolf Hitler’s Mos­cow ambas­sa­dor a draft of a non­aggres­sion pact between the two powers. The draft con­tained essen­tially every­thing the Ger­man serial aggressor could have wished for because it opened the gates for crushing neigh­boring Poland and solving the pesky prob­lem of the “Polish Cor­ri­dor,” the strip of land that sep­a­rated East Prussia from the rest of Hitler’s Ger­many. For Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin, he viewed the pro­posed mutual diplo­matic under­standing as the stepping stone for restoring lost terri­tories in the west (Bela­rus and the Ukraine) that had been ceded to Poland in the Treaty of Riga (March 18, 1921), which ended the Polish-Soviet War. Stalin’s “gene­ros­ity,” as it were, came at a price: the non­aggres­sion pact could only come into force if the pact’s secret pro­to­col on future spheres of influ­ence between the two here­to­fore antag­o­nistic nations was signed at the same time. The secret pro­to­col divided Poland into spheres of in­flu­ence: Ger­man (west Poland) and Soviet (the “lost ter­ri­tories” in east­ern Poland). Poland’s neigh­bor to the north, Lithu­a­nia, fell into the Ger­man sphere of influ­ence because it was adja­cent to East Prussia (“EP” on the map below). Fin­land, the Bal­tic states of Lat­via and Esto­nia, and Bes­sa­rabia (which was part of Roma­nia), fell into the Soviet sphere. The ini­tial vivi­sec­tion of Cen­tral Europe had the poten­tial for “ter­ri­torial and poli­ti­cal rearrange­ments” as the two foxes re­arranged the hen ­house after the out­break of war in Europe. On August 20, Hitler agreed to Stalin’s demand and flew his foreign minis­ter, Joachim von Rib­ben­trop, to Mos­cow for the signing cere­mony. The Molo­tov-Ribben­trop Pact, signed in the late hours of August 23, 1939, pro­vided for the ami­cable and imme­di­ate divi­sion of the coun­try that lay between the two super­powers—the mecha­nics and pro­to­col of which were well known because Czarist Rus­sia and Prus­sia had pa­rti­tioned Poland three times before in the 18th cen­tury. Hitler un­leashed his forces on Poland on Septem­ber 1, 1939, and Stalin’s forces moved into Poland from the east on Septem­ber 17. On Septem­ber 27, 1939, after Soviet forces had reached the pre­de­fined Molo­tov-Rib­ben­trop border, Poland was erased from the map of Europe.

Acclaimed historian Roger Moorhouse recounts the events that not only led up the nefarious 1939 Nazi-Soviet non­aggression pact, which divided East Euro­pean states between two dictator­ships, 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. From being Stalin’s co-conspi­rator, Hitler did a classic con artist’s make­over. His stab-in-the-back inva­sion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 had the mis­for­tune of dooming his adven­turism in central and eastern Europe and has­tening the sorry end of his diabol­ical regime. And 50 years after their en­slave­ment by the Stalin’s Red Army, Esto­nians, Lithu­anians, Lat­vians, and Poles suc­ceeded in finally liber­ating them­selves by bringing down the Iron Curtain and accel­erating the demise of their tor­mentor’s Communist regime.—Norm Haskett

Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact, August 23, 1939

Polish satire of the Molotov-Rib­ben­trop pact, September 8, 1939English political cartoon after Soviet-German division of Poland, September 20, 1939

Left: “The Prussian Tribute in Moscow,” satirical car­toon of the August 1939 Molotov-Rib­ben­trop pact. Published in Warsaw’s Mucha weekly, Septem­ber 8, 1939.

Right: “Rendezvous,” a political cartoon published in the London tab­loid Evening Stan­dard, Septem­ber 20, 1939, shows the two ideo­logical ene­mies, Hitler and Stalin, greeting one another over the sprawled body of Poland in the man­ner of Henry Morton Stan­ley and Dr. David Living­ston greeting one another in Novem­ber 1871 in western Tanza­nia, Africa (“Dr. Living­ston, I presume?”), following the Ger­man and Soviet dic­ta­tors’ Septem­ber inva­sion of Poland. Hitler doffs his hat to Stalin, saying, “The scum of the earth, I believe?” To which Stalin replies, “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?”

Planned German-Soviet division of Central Europe, 1939Actual 1939–1940 German-Soviet territorial changes in Central Europe

Left: Planned division of Central Europe according to the August 1939 Molotov-Rib­ben­trop pact. The 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.

Right: Actual 1939–1940 territorial changes are depicted in this map. The yellow lines repre­sent the 1938 borders. The dashed black lines repre­sent the bor­ders of the Soviet states (SSR=Soviet Socialist Repub­lics) in 1940. Ger­man annex­a­tions are shown in light blue. Purple depicts Ger­man-occupied ter­ri­tories and states: Nor­way, cen­tral Poland, and west­ern Czechoslovakia.

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