Munich, Germany · June 17, 1940

On this date in 1940 Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, drawing on pro­vi­sions of the sec­ret pro­to­col in the August 1939 Molotov-Rib­ben­trop Non­aggression Pact with his Nazi ally, ordered an attack on the Baltic state of Lat­via. (The 1939 pro­to­col had already returned divi­dends to the two con­spira­tor nations, allowing them to divide Poland between them­selves within a month of the Soviet and Ger­man foreign minis­ters signing the pact named after them.) The next day, June 18, 1940, an offi­cial repre­sen­ta­tive of Stalin’s arrived in the Lat­vian capi­tal, Riga, to assume the reins of power. The in­cor­por­a­tion of Lat­via and the other two Baltic states, Lithu­a­nia and Esto­nia, into the Soviet Union was com­pleted in early August 1940.

On the other side of the European conti­nent, Adolf Hitler, Sta­lin’s co-con­spi­rator, ordered the sus­pen­sion of hos­tili­ties in France on this date, June 17, 1940, and the new French pre­mier, Marshal Philippe Pétain, took to the nation’s air­waves, in­forming his fellow coun­try­men that nego­ti­a­tions for an armis­tice were in pro­gress. The news was met with enthu­si­asm in the ranks of the Royal Ital­ian Army (Regio Esercito) and in Italy, which had declared war on France and Great Britain just the week before. The hos­til­ities were over; it was time to grab the “spoils” was how Italian strong­man Benito Mus­so­lini saw it. (An Ital­ian skir­mish with French defense forces on June 21 was designed to drive the point home.) Ever the oppor­tun­ist, Il Duce (Italian, “the leader”), board a train to Munich to confer with Axis part­ner Hitler, gene­rated a shopping list of mate­riel and terri­tories he wanted for his country under the terms of the gen­er­al armis­tice; for example, ships, air­craft, the island of Cor­sica, Tunisia in North Africa, etc.

On June 18 Musso­lini and Hitler drew lines on a large mili­tary map of France that iden­ti­fied their future zones of occu­pa­tion. They also agreed to sepa­rate armis­tice com­mis­sions: Hitler did not want his junior partner’s pre­sence near the north­ern French city of Com­piègne to in­trude on the spec­tac­ular pro­gram he had choreo­graphed for the French sur­render—the armis­tice was to be signed in the same rail­way car in which the World War I Allied supreme com­mander, French Marshal Ferdi­nand Foch, had dic­tated peace terms to repre­sen­ta­tives of Kaiser Wil­helm II in 1918. Hitler and Germany had waited 22 years for this triumphant moment.

Acclaimed historian Roger Moorhouse recounts the events that not only led up the nefarious August 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. 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 enslave­ment by the 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 with Secret Protocol, Moscow, August 23–24, 1939

Molotov signing Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact, August 23–24, 1939Stalin-Ribbentrop handshake, August 24, 1939

Left: Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German-Soviet Non­aggression Pact. Imme­diately behind him is Ger­man Foreign Minis­ter Joachim von Ribben­trop and, to the Ger­man’s left, is Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The Kremlin, Moscow, August 24, 1939.

Right: Stalin congratulates Ribbentrop with a warm handshake following the signing ceremony.

Below: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non­aggression Pact con­tained a secret pro­to­col (Geheimes Zusatz­pro­tokoll) that was revealed only after Ger­many’s defeat in 1945. Under its terms Roma­nia, Poland, Lithu­a­nia, Lat­via, Esto­nia, and Fin­land were to be divided into Ger­man and Soviet “spheres of in­flu­ence.” Fin­land, Esto­nia, and Lat­via were assigned to the Soviet sphere. Poland was to be parti­tioned after Hitler’s in­va­sion of that coun­try, which came on Septem­ber 1, 1939. Thus, the western half of Poland was occu­pied by Germany and the east­ern half of Poland came under Soviet occu­pa­tion, parti­tioned after the war between Byelo­rus­sian Soviet Socialist Republic (today’s inde­pen­dent Belarus) and Ukrai­nian Soviet Socialist Republic (today’s inde­pen­dent Ukraine). A second se­cret pro­to­col assigned the major­ity of Lithu­ania, which bordered on Ger­many’s East Prussia, to the Soviet Union.

Two-page secret protocol


Molotov-Ribbentrop: The Pact That Changed Europe’s Borders