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 nations, Lithu­a­nia and Estonia, into the constel­la­tion of Soviet socialist repub­lics was com­pleted in early August 1940, made all the easier after each of the Baltics had been coerced into signing mutual assis­tance treaties the pre­vious Septem­ber and Octo­ber that allowed the stationing of large Red Army garrisons in their countries.

On the other side of the 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 coun­try­men that nego­ti­a­tions for an armis­tice were in pro­gress. On June 18, William Shirer, the Berlin corre­spon­dent for the Amer­i­can CBS radio net­work, stood in Paris’ famed Place de la Con­corde listening to the announce­ment of France’s surren­der over loud­speakers. Across from the Place de la Con­corde on the oppo­site bank of the Seine the French Chamber of Deputies flew a giant swastika flag in place of the Tricolore.

The news of France’s surrender 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”), on 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. To show­case France’s humili­ation to visi­tors and resi­dents of the Nazi capi­tal, Hitler exhibited the Com­piègne rail­way car at the foot of the steps to Berlin’s famous Altes Museum on Museum Island (Museuminsel).

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 crime boss Premier 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 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 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non­aggres­sion Pact (aka German-Soviet Non­aggres­sion Pact) in Moscow’s Kremlin in the wee hours of August 24, 1939. Imme­diately behind him is German Foreign Minis­ter Joachim von Ribben­trop and, to the German’s left, is Soviet head of state Joseph Stalin. Largely seen as Stalin’s brain­child, the pact marked the first time the Soviet dicta­tor had been per­son­ally involved in for­mu­lating and nego­ti­ating foreign policy. As ten­sions between the two signa­tory nations boiled over in the first half of 1941—in April there were over 80 recorded German vio­la­tions of Soviet air­space and reportedly as many as 122 German divi­sions just over the Soviets’ western border at the end of May—Stalin found it diffi­cult to dis­avow the agree­ment until Hitler’s June 22 betrayal, Operation Barbarossa, forced his hands.

Right: Stalin congratulates von Ribbentrop with a warm handshake following the signing ceremony. In 1936 Hitler named von Ribben­trop ambas­sador to Great Britain, whom his hosts soon nick­named “Herr von Bricken­drop” due to his clumsy diplo­macy at the Court of St. James. Nazi Germany’s arch-priest of National Socialism, Alfred Rosen­berg, confided in his diary that Ribben­trop was a “joke of world history” for mis­handling affairs in London, “put[ting] every­body’s nose out of joint.” Two years later, in Febru­ary 1938, Hitler elevated Ribben­trop to head the German foreign minis­try on Wilhelm­strasse, where Ribben­trop became just as despised by Berlin’s diplo­matic com­munity as he was by England’s for his arro­gance and igno­rance. Even Hitler’s inti­mates looked askance at their foreign minister. Luftwaffe chief Her­mann Goering alleged Ribben­trop had only one genuine friend, and that was Hitler. “Is von Ribben­trop a clown or an idiot?” he wondered aloud. Never­the­less, Hitler employed Ribben­trop for the length of the war, per­haps most noto­ri­ously at the start when the foreign minister con­cluded the German-Soviet Non­aggression Pact days before Hitler’s Wehr­macht (armed forces) stormed over Poland’s borders to launch the most lethal con­flict of the twen­tieth century. Rosen­berg experi­enced a fore­boding sense for what had tran­spired in Moscow: “I have the feeling that this Moscow pact will eventually have dire consequences for National Socialism.”

Below: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact con­tained a secret codicil (Geheimes Zusatz­pro­tokoll) that was revealed only after Germany’s defeat in 1945. Under its terms 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, as was the Roman­ian pro­vince of Bessa­rabia. 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 as war booty between Byelo­rus­sian Soviet Socialist Republic (today’s inde­pen­dent Belarus) and Ukrai­nian Soviet Socialist Republic (today’s inde­pen­dent Ukraine). A second secret pro­to­col, dated Septem­ber 28, 1939, assigned the major­ity of Lithuania, which bordered on Germany’s East Prussia, to the Soviet Union.

Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact: Two-page secret protocol


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