Moscow, Soviet Union August 3, 1940

Early on the morning of August 24, 1939, Soviet People’s Com­mis­sar on Foreign Affairs, Vyache­slav Molotov, and his German counter­part, Joachim von Ribben­trop, affixed their signa­tures to the German-Soviet Non­aggres­sion Pact, also known as the Molotov-Ribben­trop Pact. As German dicta­tor Adolf Hitler viewed it, the pact was a “stra­tegic neces­sity” that secured Nazi Germany’s eastern frontier against any future hostile atten­tions the Soviet Union might direct west­ward; it also provided the green light Hitler needed to launch his war of aggression against neighboring Poland.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact con­tained a secret proto­col “in the event of a terri­torial and polit­i­cal rearrange­ment” of the states sand­wiched between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Under its terms Poland; the three Baltic states of Lithu­a­nia, Lat­via, and Esto­nia; and Fin­land were to be divided into Soviet and German “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. A second secret pro­to­col, dated Septem­ber 28, 1939, assigned the major­ity of Lithu­a­nia, which bordered on Germany’s East Prussia, to the Soviet Union.

Poland’s military defeat and occupation in Septem­ber 1939 made it possi­ble for the Soviet Union to impose “mutual assis­tance treaties” on Estonia (Septem­ber 28, 1939), Latvia (Octo­ber 5, 1939) and Lithu­ania (Octo­ber 10, 1939). Soviet armed forces estab­lished army, air force, and naval bases (closed-off mili­tary zones) in each Baltic state—troop numbers always exceeding treaty limits—in effect making them Soviet protectorates.

The next summer a wave of Soviet diplo­matic and mili­tary provo­ca­tions unsettled the demo­cratic govern­ments in all three states; their govern­ments were replaced by Moscow-friendly ones after parlia­mentary elec­tions in which only Soviet-approved candi­dates were per­mitted to run. Voter turn­out and elec­toral results were pre­dict­able and even ludi­crous: com­pul­sory turn­out varied from a low of 92.8 per­cent in Estonia to a high of 99.2 per­cent in Lith­u­a­nia. Indeed, in one Lith­u­a­nian pre­cinct voter turn­out reached 122 per­cent. After the mari­o­nettes of the new “people’s parlia­ments” were installed, they peti­tioned the Supreme Soviet in Moscow to allow their sover­eign states to become Soviet republics. Lith­u­a­nia became a Soviet Socialist Republic on this date, August 3, 1940, Latvia on August 5, 1940, and Estonia the next day, August 6.

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

German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact with Secret Protocol, Moscow, August 23–24, 1939

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

Left: Soviet Premier and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (1890–1986) signs the German-Soviet Non­aggre­ssion Pact, dated August 23, 1939, in Moscow’s Kremlin in the wee hours of August 24. Imme­diately behind him is German Foreign Minis­ter Joachim von Ribben­trop (1893–1946) and, to the German’s left, is Soviet General Secre­tary Joseph Stalin (1878–1953). Although the treaty is formally known by the names of its two signa­tories, it was largely Stalin’s brain­child and marked the first time the Soviet dicta­tor had been per­son­ally involved in formulating and negotiating foreign policy.

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 where, in the words of Alfred Rosen­berg, Nazi Germany’s arch-priest of National Socialism, he “put 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. 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’s Kremlin: “I have the feeling that this Moscow pact will eventually have dire consequences for National Socialism.” Eventually it did.

Below: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact had an insep­a­rable com­po­nent, a secret proto­col (Geheimes Zusatz­pro­tokoll) that sur­faced in the archives of West Germany’s Foreign Office several years after Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945. His­to­rians some­times refer to the non­aggres­sion pact as a “pact of aggres­sion,” which Germany debuted on Septem­ber 1, 1939, and the Soviet Union 17 days later. It destroyed the existing system of bilat­eral and multi­lateral non­aggres­sion treaties from the 1920s and ’30s that the smaller Euro­pean states had with their more power­ful neighbors. Latvia, for instance, had a mutual non­aggres­sion pact with Moscow dating to February 1932 and one with Germany signed in Berlin of June 7, 1939. Estonia’s non­aggres­sion pact with Germany was signed in Berlin on the same day as Latvia’s.

Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact: Two-page secret protocol


Why Germany and the Soviet Union Signed the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Pact: Sets Stage for World War II in Europe

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