1939: From Appeasement to War

1939: From Appeasement to War

The Munich Agreement spurred the Nazis on.[1] The public promises of peace and declarations of non-aggression with regard to England on September 30, 1938, and France on December 6, 1938, only served to mask Hitler’s true intentions. Just three weeks after Munich on October 21, 1938, the Führer ordered his military commanders to prepare for partitioning Czechoslovakia and occupying the Memel Territory that had been separated from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and then seized by Lithuania.[2]

The Soviet Union viewed the Munich Agreement as an act of betrayal and as a prime example of its isolation. Munich dealt a mortal blow to the policy of collective security in Europe. As with General Franco’s revolt in Spain, Western politicians believed that a compromise with Hitler was preferable to a pact with Moscow.

Scholars still argue about who was the initiator of improved relations between Fascist Germany and the Soviet Union, who had been fierce ideological and political opponents up until then. One often points to Stalin’s accountability report to the XVIII Congress of the Soviet Communist Party on March 10, 1939. However, in the speech the Soviet leader only expressed his opinion about the policy of non-interference: “Or take Germany, for example. They ceded Austria to it, despite commitments to protect its independence, ceded the Sudetenland, and left Czechoslovakia to its fate, violating absolutely all commitments, and then began to spread vociferous lies in the press about the ‘weakness of the Russian army’, the ‘disintegration of Russian aviation’, and the ‘turmoil’ in the Soviet Union, egging the Germans farther east, promising them easy prey, and constantly repeating, ‘Just begin a war with the Bolsheviks, and everything will go just fine.’ Isn’t this the abetment and encouragement of aggression?” Stalin concluded by saying, “This big and dangerous political game may deal a major blow to the supporters of the non-aggression policy.”

On March 15, 1939, the Wehrmacht entered Czechoslovakia, establishing the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia on its territory. A day earlier, under major pressure from Berlin, Slovakian leaders declared “independence” and asked for German “protection”. At the same time, Hungary annexed Subcarpathian Rus (Transcarpathian Ukraine) with German approval after conducting a brief military operation against the Slovaks, who were also aspiring to lay hands on the territory.

The new conquests were explained by German Ambassador to Moscow Schulenburg in his note of March 16 as follows: the Führer was “concerned” about the situation in Czechoslovakia and so agreed to receive Czechoslovak President Hácha. After speaking with Hitler, the latter “willingly entrusted the fate of the Czech people and country into the hands of the German Führer. The Führer gave his consent, saying that he would take the Czech people under the wing of the German state.”[3] Soviet People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Litvinov sent a reply note on March 18 that the Soviet government could not accept the annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Third Reich as being “legitimate and conform to international law”.[4]

After the end of World War II, one learned about the immense pressure that had been put on Czech leaders in the night of March 14–15. Hácha even lost consciousness, and Hitler’s personal doctor had to bring him to his senses by giving him a special injection.

Five days later, the same thing happened to Lithuanian Foreign Minister Urbšys. He was “persuaded” to send plenipotentiary representatives to Berlin on March 22 in order to draw up an agreement about the transfer of Memel (Klaipeda) and its surrounding territory to Germany. The Lithuanians did so without delay.[5] The very next day (March 23), Hitler arrived on the cruiser Deutschland escorted by a squadron in Memel. At the same day he spoke before the local German community.

On March 23, Germany signed an agreement on protection and guarantees to Slovakia and an economic treaty with Romania for the deliveries of strategically important petroleum and other raw materials to the Reich.

The liquidation of the Czechoslovak state and the growing power of Germany troubled the French and British governments and public opinion. Even the supporters of Chamberlain and Daladier began calling for harsher measures against Berlin. The last ten days of March were marked by debates in the British parliament about further steps to take. Moscow proposed organizing a conference between the USSR, Great Britain, France, Poland, Romania and Turkey for discussing the situation. What reply should Britain give? With whom should it ally and on what conditions? The reciprocal British proposal of signing an Anglo-Franco-Soviet-Polish declaration on engaging in consultations in the event of aggression did not solve the problem. Moreover, Warsaw did not want to cooperate with Moscow, as Soviet-Polish relations showed all too well.

Today, some people continue to assert that Western allies proceeded from humanitarian ideals and had no intention of directing German aggression eastwards, while their anti-Communism was founded on high moral and religious sentiments.

On March 26, 1939, immediately after the final destruction of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain wrote to his sister, “I must confess to the most profound mistrust of Russia. I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives which seem to me to have little connection with our idea of liberty and to be concerned only with getting every one else by the ears. Moreover, she is both hated and suspected by many of the smaller states, notably by Poland, Rumania and Finland so that our close association with her might easily cost the sympathy of those who would much more effectively help us is we can get them on our side.”[6]

This position was shared by many in the British establishment. It was founded on the profound conviction that the involvement of the USSR in European affairs would let Communism into Europe. Some Conservatives viewed the Nazis as fighters against Bolshevism and did not consider Fascism to be an absolute evil. They did not conceal their views, which the Kremlin knew all too well. No surprise, that any information about contacts between democratic countries and Fascist Germany, even if it was not confirmed, made Moscow very anxious.

Chamberlain got the upper hand in the debate. By March 27, the British cabinet had decided that the coalition would be centred on Poland. The Soviet Union was not fitting for this role. At the same time, the British Foreign Policy Committee made an important proviso by saying that Russia should be retained as an ally.[7] Such a strategy had a major drawback: there were no naive dupes in the Kremlin.

Because the British leadership had staked on Poland, it had to take concrete steps to show its intentions. The opportunity soon presented itself. As far back as October 1938, German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop had made a series of proposals to Poland: annexing Danzig (Gdansk) to the Third Reich, building an extraterritorial highway and railway through the “Polish Corridor”, and making Poland a member of the Anti-Comintern Pact. With the consent of Poland Berlin would guarantee the new German-Polish borders and agree to prolong the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1934 by another 25 years. The Poles did not yield, however: the Polish government ordered a partial mobilization on March 23, 1939, and declared on March 28 that any change in the status quo of Danzig would be viewed as an act of aggression.

Under these circumstances, Chamberlain made a speech in parliament on March 31, followed by a radio broadcast in which he mentioned British guarantees of independence to Poland. At the same time, he made the proviso that the British were ready to assist in regulating the German-Polish conflict.

The news about Britain’s guarantees to Poland infuriated the Führer. They dashed his hopes for “regulating the Danzig issue” and for using Poland, which Germany had allowed to annex the Cieszyn region of Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1938, as an ally in the struggle against Bolshevism. On April 1, Berlin threatened to annul the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 unless London ceased its policy of “encircling Germany”. On April 3, Hitler ordered his military commanders to prepare a plan for invading Poland, which was approved seven days later. The German diplomatic strategy changed, too: it now strove to isolate Poland as much as possible by putting pressure simultaneously on France and on Britain to make them renounce their guarantees. At the same time, Germany was intent on preventing the USSR from participating in a possible war on the side of the Poles and the Western allies.

Britain did its best to encourage Poland. On April 4–6, Polish Foreign Minister J. Beck paid a visit to London, in the course of which many impressive declarations were made – in particular, about the preparation of a mutual assistance pact. Polish leaders were euphoric. They got the impression that a powerful barrier was being built against all attempts to violate their country’s territorial integrity and independence. However, few people thought about how Great Britain would fulfil its commitments. There were some realists who said that such guarantees could work only if the Red Army participated – a view held by the prominent British military expert Liddell Hart, among others. The archival materials at our disposal today show that the British had, in fact, no intention of defending Poland and envisaged no measures of military assistance to Poles. At cabinet and parliamentary meetings in April 1939, Chamberlain said repeatedly that guarantees were made not to protect individual countries from Germany but to prevent German supremacy over Continental Europe, which would increase Germany’s power and its threat to British security.[8] At the same time, the British Prime Minister supported Beck’s anti-Soviet policy, saying that Russia was “a very unreliable friend with very little capacity for active assistance but with an enormous irritative power on others”.[9] On April 13, 1939, the Foreign Office telegraphed its ambassadors that Her Majesty’s government had “no intention of concluding a bilateral agreement of mutual assistance with the Soviet government”.[10]

No pact, no agreement, nor commitments.  How did Western powers intend to retain the Soviet Union as an ally? This remains a mystery to this day, as the steps they took were more prone to alienate the Kremlin than to attract it. British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and his French counterpart Bonnet tried to convince Moscow of providing unilateral guarantees along the lines of Britain and France by declaring that it would support Poland, Romania and the Baltic states in the event of war. Another acceptable scenario for the British was “Soviet benevolent neutrality” in which the USSR would not engage in any military action on foreign territory but only supply arms and raw materials to victims of German aggression. After the experience of the Spanish Civil War and the fate of Czechoslovakia, the Kremlin viewed such proposals with caution. When reading cipher telegrams, ambassadors’ reports and various memoranda, Stalin often simply wrote the word boltovnya (‘idle talk’). Somewhat more diplomatically, Litvinov told the French and British ambassadors in Moscow that the Soviet leaders were tired of empty promises. Soviet Plenipotentiary Representative in Great Britain I. Maisky put it even simpler to Halifax, “The Soviet government believes in actions, not words.”

Rejecting the idea of unilateral guarantees, Litvinov combined all the proposals into one and, on April 15, sent Stalin a memorandum supporting a trilateral alliance between France, Great Britain and the USSR.[11] Its key elements included mutual assistance in the event of aggression; support for states that bordered upon the USSR; the immediate signature of an agreement on concrete forms of mutual assistance; and the commitment of all sides not to sign separate peace treaties. After getting approval of the “instance” Litvinov handed an eight-item list of Soviet proposals to the British ambassador on April 17,[12] provoking a diplomatic struggle.

To discuss foreign policy, a special meeting was convened on April 21 in Stalin’s office in the Kremlin. No minutes were kept during the event. Its participants included Politburo members Voroshilov, Molotov, Mikoyan and Kaganovich; People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Litvinov; his deputy Potemkin; plenipotentiary representatives Maisky and Merekalov, who had specially come from London and Berlin; and Krapiventsev,  Counsellor at the Embassy of the USSR in Paris. Some scholars, citing Merekalov’s unpublished notebooks, accord major importance to this meeting, claiming that the decisions of realigning Soviet foreign policy on Germany and dismissing Litvinov from his post as People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs were made at this time. Nevertheless, this assertion seems doubtful. In his notebooks, Merekalov describes his visionary answer to Stalin’s question about Hitler’s future policy, saying that the latter would occupy Poland and then rout France and attack the USSR. However, the ambassador probably inserted these “prophesies” after the events. For example, he did not recall that Litvinov had taken part in the meeting (“he was not invited”), although Litvinov and Merekalov had left Stalin’s office together.[13] It also noteworthy that the latter was seldom invited to take part in talks with high-placed German officials after April 21. These negotiations were usually conducted by the chargé d’affaires ad interim Astakhov. Maisky’s diaries contain a concise transcript of a conversation about foreign policy issues that most likely took place on April 21. There, only talks with Western allies were discussed, and no reference was made to Germany at all.[14] It is also difficult to imagine that Stalin would have spoken about Litvinov’s dismissal in the presence of the latter’s subordinates.

Litvinov was fired on May 3, 1939. Stalin received him for 35 minutes in his Kremlin office. Stalin personally dictated a telegram to Soviet plenipotentiary representatives abroad, in which he explained the reasons for the change: “In view of the serious conflict between Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars Comrade Molotov and People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Comrade Litvinov that was due to Comrade Litvinov’s disloyal attitude to the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, Comrade Litvinov asked the Central Committee to dismiss him from the post of People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs.  The CC VKP(b) acceded to the request of Comrade Litvinov and removed him from the functions of  the People’s Commissar.  Comrade Molotov has been appointed as the new People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs while retaining his post of Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.”[15] Outside observers connected Litvinov’s dismissal with the abandonment by the Soviet leadership of the policy of collective security. Most German newspapers viewed the decision as marking “the end of the Soviet policy of allying with Western capitalist powers”. However, there is no documentary evidence showing that the Kremlin had a concrete plan of action at this time and that it had already decided with whom it should ally and how.

In April 1939, US President Roosevelt decided to make his own contribution to European security. As one knows, in September 1938 Roosevelt had exchanged letters with Hitler, in which he largely supported the Munich Agreement. In a telegram of April 15 to Hitler and Mussolini, Roosevelt proposed that they commit themselves not to attack 31 European and Asian states (a list of countries followed). After reading the text, Mussolini decided that the US president “had a screw loose”. The Nazis acted more subtly. In just a few days, German diplomats contacted most of the countries on the list (mostly their neighbours) and asked them to answer two questions: did they really think that Germany posed a threat to them and had they asked Roosevelt to make such an inquiry on their behalf? One can easily imagine the reply. On April 28, Hitler delivered a big speech in the Reichstag in which he ironized about the US president’s overtures. The Führer also took advantage of the occasion to criticize the Poles and the British and denounce the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement.

In contrast to his preceding speeches, Hitler did not say a word about the Soviet Union. This was clearly no coincidence. Unfortunately, many government documents of the Third Reich were destroyed during the war. Historians often have to reconstruct events on the basis of very scant evidence. Moreover, no written documents existed in many cases, as important decisions were often made orally. There are reasons to believe that, in late April or early May 1939, Hitler’s government began to take systematic steps to improve German-Soviet relations by using major information channels (from intelligence and diplomacy to business and the press) rather than just sending isolated signals.

Many scholars consider that the starting point was the meeting between Plenipotentiary Representative Merekalov and State Secretary at the German Foreign Office von Weizsäcker on April 17 in Berlin. According to the German transcript, the Soviet representative unambiguously voiced the desire to improve political relations between the two countries. However, the Soviet transcript does not contain any phrases of the sort.[16] Merekalov had not received any instructions to discuss political issues, either.

The subsequent events had a lot more importance. Immediately after the Führer’s speech in the Reichstag, the anti-Soviet propaganda campaign was called off. As it was the Führer’s wont, a delicate mission was entrusted to German Ambassador to Turkey and former Vice-Chancellor von Papen. On May 5, during a protocol visit connected to his recent appointment and arrival in Ankara, he met with Soviet envoy Terentyev and, abandoning diplomatic formalities, told him that “he didn’t see any issues that might hinder a rapprochement between Germany and the USSR or create irresolvable differences between the two states” and that “one should put ideology aside and return to the good old Bismarck times of friendship”.[17] It is noteworthy that Terentyev did not assign a lot of importance to these remarks in his first report to Moscow, receiving a rebuke from the new People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov: “… You adopted the wrong tone. You should have been as polite with him as with the French and other ambassadors, hearing him out instead of turning away from him. That is how a Soviet plenipotentiary representative should act.”[18] Three days later (May 9), Terentyev paid von Papen a return visit. In his detailed telegram to Moscow, he depicted the behaviour of the German ambassador in a positive light.[19] It is noteworthy that all high-placed German officials would repeat von Papen’s remarks almost word for word in subsequent months.

On May 10, Hitler received in his residence Berghof  Hilger, an advisor at the German embassy in Moscow whom he had been summoned to Germany. The latter told Hitler, Colonel General Keitel, Ribbentrop, and Head of the Eastern European Section of the Economic Policy Division at the German Foreign Ministry Schnurre about the situation in Moscow and argued for the need to cooperate with the USSR. The ambassador Schulenburg arrived in Berlin the next day. During the week that the ambassador spent in the German capital, Ribbentrop and his associates drew up the main arguments that were subsequently used by the Nazis to justify their rapprochement with their sworn political enemy. They stressed that the Soviet Union had become a different country. Stalin was “building a national state” in which Communism no longer played a major role. The new Soviet patriotism was based on traditional values that were largely borrowed from the tsarist past. The Communist International “did not have much importance anymore”. Hence, ideological differences did not hinder good neighbour relations. Schulenburg was instructed to propose “extremely carefully” the resumption of trade talks to Molotov and see the reaction of the Soviet People’s Commissar.

The April and May signals from Germany piqued the Kremlin’s interest yet did not lead to any significant changes. During Molotov’s meeting with Schulenburg on May 20, the People’s Commissar was not particularly friendly, saying that he had got the impression that Germany was “playing games” instead of engaging in serious economic talks. The Soviet Union had no interest in such talks. To be successful, the economic talks needed to have the “corresponding political foundations”.[20] Some scholars interpret Molotov’s phrase as referring to ideological shifts or even a future pact. In reality, this was an old idea. The fact was that many initiatives on concluding trade, economic and financial agreements between Capitalist countries and the USSR had failed in the past. In view of this negative experience, Soviet diplomats came to the conclusion that economic deals should be founded on political agreements.

For the German side, such a turn in the talks on commerce and credits was unexpected. For a few days, the Germans were at a loss about what to do next. Ribbentrop had the impression that the Soviet Union might reject the talks altogether. He asked the Italians to put pressure on the Japanese to guarantee the safety of Soviet interests in the Far East. Tokyo blankly refused, however. For two days, high-placed German officials wondered whether Molotov was against the talks or looking favourably upon them. They decided to act through Weizsäcker. The Führer gave his approval, and, during a well-planned meeting with the Soviet chargé d’affaires Astakhov on May 30, the State Secretary theatrically put his pencil and notebook aside and proposed that they speak “informally”. This was followed by “purely personal” statements about the need to normalize relations that had already been communicated to Moscow through other channels. The only difference was that Weizsäcker used Hitler’s favourite phrase, “Our shop has a lot of goods. Take whatever you want.” On June 10, Astakhov’s detailed report lay on Stalin’s desk.[21] However, Moscow once again took its time reacting. For the Germans, an answer of sorts was the lack of harsh criticism against Germany in Molotov’s speech before the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on May 31. However, this was clearly insufficient. On June 17, while on a mission to Berlin, Schulenburg insisted on meeting with Astakhov. He began by voicing his desire that the Soviet Union be more forthcoming with raw material deliveries. Then he asked for clarifications about what was meant by “political foundations” and finished by directly stating that the time had come for a radical change in relations, repeating the phrase about the “shop with a lot of goods”. Schulenburg made the significant remark that “goods can also include political benefits”.[22] Nevertheless, the Soviet leadership continued to be reticent.

Moscow’s wariness and prevarication irritated Hitler, and on June 29 he ordered that the talks be suspended. Scholars often portray this decision as a diplomatic victory for the Führer, saying that the Russians became compliant for fear of a rupture. However, as Politburo documents show, it was the Germans who compromised. The Soviet side insisted on increasing the tenor of the loan (to 7 years) and lowering its interest rate (to 4.5%), as well as approving all the items on the list of ordered military goods. Stalin agreed to increase the volume of Soviet deliveries, and, in return, Hitler accepted almost all of the demands. On July 14, the trade agreement was approved by a decision of the Politburo, which was personally revised by Stalin.[23] On July 22, TASS reported that the talks had restarted. The same day, Weizsäcker officially empowered Schulenburg to resume the suspended negotiations. Thus, Berlin and Moscow had not reached any definite agreement by the end of July.

In May – July, the Soviet leadership was preoccupied with talks about pacts with France and Great Britain. After becoming People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Molotov immediately reassured the British and French ambassadors that Soviet foreign policy would not change, adding the proviso “unless something changes in the international situation or the positions of other powers”.[24] Just as Litvinov, Molotov was opposed to unilateral guarantees. Soviet diplomats disagreed on this matter, however. Soviet Plenipotentiary Representative to France Surits and First Deputy People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Potemkin believed that the French and British proposal could be taken as a starting point. Maisky rejected the proposal, as it did not call for mutual guarantees. After giving the matter some thought, Stalin and Molotov approved on May 14 an aide-mémoire that set out the government’s position for Soviet negotiators.[25] It stressed the principle of equal rights and mutual assistance without unilateral guarantees as well as the necessity of concluding a military pact between allies.

However, this did not suit Chamberlain, who continued to mistrust the Russians and did not want to sign a binding agreement with “the Soviets”. He made a new proposal of simply promulgating a declaration of intent without any commitments on the British side while submitting concrete European security problems to the League of Nations.

Moscow did not like Chamberlain’s idea. On May 27, Molotov gave the French and British ambassadors a “cold shower”.[26] He accused them of taking no interest in creating an effective alliance against the aggressors and of wanting only to talk, not act. The head of the Soviet government criticized the League of Nations mechanism of mutual assistance: suppose, the Soviet Union became a victim of aggression, while “the representative of Bolivia, say, would start a discussion in the Council [of the League of Nations] about whether an act of aggression against the USSR had really taken place and whether one should provide assistance to the USSR. In the meantime, the aggressor would continue to bomb Soviet territory. The Soviet government cannot accept the replacement of effective assistance to a victim by idle talk about the matter.”[27] Halifax was essentially forced to repudiate Chamberlain’s “brilliant idea” by saying that the reference to the League of Nations was only meant to reassure British public opinion.

The question of an alliance also ran up the problem of guarantees to the Baltic states in the event of German attack, on which the USSR insisted and to which the British objected. To break the deadlock in the negotiations, former Foreign Secretary Eden proposed going to Moscow, while former Prime Minister Lloyd George, to Chamberlain’s horror, suggested that the delegation be headed by his opponent Churchill. As to Molotov, he asked Maisky to let Halifax know that “the USSR would welcome his visit”.[28] However, the British cabinet in general and Chamberlain in particular had no intention of entrusting this mission to people who were capable of reaching an agreement. On June 14, Head of the Foreign Office Central Department W. Strang arrived in Moscow with clear instructions to defend the British position.

On June 29, the newspaper article “British and French Governments Oppose an Equal Agreement with the USSR” by Politburo member Zhdanov was published in Pravda with Stalin’s approval. It criticized Western diplomats and asked why the Western allies could be so swift in concluding a pact or giving guarantees to someone they wanted to yet dragged their feet in talks with Moscow. The answer, according to the article, was that the French and British governments did not want to sign an agreement based on mutual responsibility and equal commitments. They wanted to accuse the Soviet Union of the failure of the talks in order to justify a new pact with the aggressors.

The article had an effect, and on July 1 the Western powers agreed to give guarantees to the Baltic states, proposing that the list of guaranteed countries be included in a secret protocol.[29] However, there remained the problem of defining “indirect aggression” and the question of the military alliance. According to one version, the notion of “indirect aggression” was intentionally invented by the Soviet side in order to draw out the talks. However, this term was first coined by the British in April 1939.[30]

In July, the talks once again came to a standstill. Everyone understood that something had to be done. French Ambassador to Moscow P.-E. Naggiar proposed signing an agreement with the USSR without including the British and French provisos. However, the British were not about to back down. Halifax said at a meeting of the Foreign Policy Committee that “we must not forget of the effect this may cause on Mister Hitler’s thoughts to see our willingness to kneel in front of the Russians in search of their support. Hitler already has a rather low opinion of Russia and our actions may only reinforce his opinion of us as a weak and soft people.” At the same time, Chamberlain wrote to his sister, “If we do end up signing this agreement, then I assume many, and first of all myself, will agree that this cannot be viewed as any big victory. I rank the Russians’ capabilities precisely as low when compared to how high I rank the Germans. I think that they may fail us at our most crucial moments, even the negotiations themselves have already confused some of our friends. I am a proponent of a much harder approach when dealing with them on any matter…”[31]

The mistrust was mutual. On July 17, Molotov informed the Soviet plenipotentiary representatives in London and Paris that “only swindlers and conmen, whom the French and British negotiators have shown themselves to be all this time, can pretend that our demand to sign political and military agreements simultaneously is something new in the talks. Moreover, they have launched a canard in the press that we are insisting on concluding a preliminary military agreement, i.e., before the political agreement is signed. It only remains unclear what these petty merchants are hoping to achieve by engaging in such stupid ploys in the talks. All these endless negotiations will apparently come to nothing, and we’ll simply have to tell them to go to hell. Then they’ll have to take the consequences.”[32]

Unable to reach a compromise on a political agreement, the British and the French agreed to send military delegations to Moscow, where they arrived on August 11. The Soviet leadership took the talks seriously. In contrast to the Western allies, whose missions were headed by First and Principal Aide-de-Camp of the British Royal Navy R. Drax and member of the French Supreme War Council J. Doumenc, the Soviet delegation included the highest-ranking military officers: People’s Commissar of Defence K. Voroshilov, the Chief of the General Staff, his deputy, and the commanders of the navy and air force. Transcripts of all the meetings were made, and copies were sent daily to Stalin and Molotov.

Scholars often speak about the French government’s flexibility and readiness to compromise. However, such a view is not altogether convincing – in particular, in view of French Foreign Minister Bonnet’s remark at the time that “the best policy with regard to the Soviets is not creating the impression that we really need them”. Until the spring of 1939, the French General Staff spoke out repeatedly against military talks with the Soviet Union.

Even before Munich, the French political and military leadership began following in the wake of British policy. France only made an impression of taking an active stance and striving to create an alliance with the Soviet Union. On July 13, the French military attaché in Moscow General Palace sent a secret report to Daladier, who was simultaneously prime minister and minister of war, in which he wrote that “… the only way to overcome the wariness and mistrust that have arisen during the talks is to draft the precise terms of the agreement”: ready to send up to 100 divisions against the Germans, the Russians ask to let them pass through the Polish Corridor, and so “one must urgently enter into contact with the Soviet General Staff and prepare the Poles … to accept our proposals”. He further warned, “… if we aren’t able to reach an agreement quickly, we’ll see that the USSR will first adopt an isolationist attitude, taking a neutral wait-and-see stance, and then sign an agreement with Germany involving the partition of Poland and the Baltic states”.[33] There were quite a few far-sighted people in France who, like Palace, were in favour of establishing constructive relations with the USSR. However, they did not hold top government posts. Moscow was irate about Bonnet’s lies and hypocrisy on several occasions and had good reasons for not trusting Daladier, either. Unfortunately, these were the politicians that headed the French government, and much of French society supported their policies.

The Polish leadership had a stance of its own that was based on the principle of “equal distance”, i.e., not entering into a union either with Russia or with Germany. This was done in order to keep these potential opponents at a distance and to give no motif for mutual discontent and aggression. Warsaw believed that an alliance with France and Great Britain would be the best guarantee of the country’s independence.

An important element of the Polish strategy was its Russophobia and Sovietophobia. Many remarks by Polish leaders became known only after the end of World War II and the opening of Western archives. Pilsudski’s successor Marshal Rydz-Smigly told the French ambassador in Warsaw in May 1938, “If the German remains an adversary, he is not less a European and an homme d’ordre… The Russian is a barbarian, an Asiatic, a corrupt and poisonous element, with which any contact is perilous and any compromise lethal.”[34] A year later (in May 1939), Foreign Minister J. Beck said during a visit of the papal nuncio to Poland, “If the British guarantee to Poland is a means of preventing war, then a union with Russia would a means of starting war.”[35]

The Polish leadership was categorically opposed to letting the Red Army pass through its territory, fearing a social and ethnic explosion in its eastern districts that were primarily populated by Ukrainians and Belorussians. At the same time, Warsaw was still hoping for some reason that “the Soviets had nowhere else to go” and that destroying Poland was not in their interests.

There was a certain logic to this stance. Taken together, the military potential of France, Great Britain and Poland was not inferior to that of Germany. However, Warsaw’s allies had no intention of providing military assistance to Poland, of which the latter was unaware.

British and French military leaders had no illusions about the fighting capacity of their main eastern ally - the Polish army. In late April – early May, representatives of the general staffs of Western armies examined Poland’s chances in detail during a meeting in London and came to the disappointing conclusion that “a collapse would occur at a very early stage of the war”. It is all the more surprising that on May 17, after talks in Paris with Polish Minister of Military Affairs T. Kasprzycki, the latter was assured by French Chief of General Staff M. Gamelin and French Commander in Chief A. Georges that, in the event of German attack on Poland, “the French army would cross the border and attack the Germans”. Still, they reminded the Poles that “in September 1938, the general situation and the measures taken by France accorded a lot more opportunity than now for taking action against Germany”.[36] It later turned out than no offensive operations had been envisaged. The French were planning to fight a defensive war, while waiting for the right moment to attack. All the same, the Polish military officers returned to Warsaw with good tidings of future “assistance” promised by their ally.

In the summer of 1939, the Poles asked the British for a loan in the amount of 60–65 million pounds (slightly less than 4 billion pounds in today’s prices) over a period of 40 years. A third of this loan they wanted in gold. London frowned upon the idea. The Treasury asked the Cabinet to let Warsaw know that “there was no money for the Poles”. British experts carefully calculated that, given its debts and GDP, Poland could repay at most 22 million pounds without running the risk of a default. Yet this amount was not provided, either. After drawn-out debates, London proposed a maximum amount of 10 million pounds for purchasing British military goods. To give part of the loan in cash, the British demanded from Poland that the exchange rate of the zloty be reduced. Such stinginess was not to the Poles’ taste. Nor did they appreciate London’s insistence on controlling the way the money was spent. As a result, they broke off the talks, withdrawing their request for British financial assistance.

Despite the Western allies’ guarantees, no official pact was signed by Poland and Great Britain for a long time. The sides exchanged memoranda, yet Beck was in no hurry, as he believed that such an agreement should not be connected with the Anglo-Franco-Soviet talks. Only on August 2, after relations with Germany had grown very tense, Beck asked for the resumption of the talks. The pact was drafted in London on August 25 as an agreement on mutual assistance with a secret protocol.

Up to the end of July most discussions between German and Soviet officials centred on a trade and credit agreement. Other matters were examined very generally at best. Now, the Germans insisted on discussing political problems and were so outspoken that the Soviet chargé d’affaires ad interim in Berlin G. Astakhov asked Moscow for instructions on “how to behave in such a situation”.[37] Schnurre, Hilger, Schulenburg, Weizsäcker and others kept voicing the same ideas. They came with transcripts of past conversations, showed these transcripts, and kept repeating: “We’re ready to negotiate. We must negotiate. Tell us what you want.” Moreover, they did not conceal the fact that they had received “direct instructions from above”, pointing to Ribbentrop, who “was closely acquainted with the Führer’s thoughts”.[38] The cautiousness of the Soviet side and its reluctance to discuss political issues in greater detail irritated the Germans, especially in view of the parallel Anglo-Franco-Soviet talks and the upcoming visit of an Allied military delegation to Moscow. The turning point evidently took place on August 2, when Ribbentrop invited Astakhov and frankly told him that Germany would be ready to reach an agreement “on all issues regarding territories between the Black and Baltic Seas”, that Danzig would become German, and that Germany would “raze Poland to the ground” in “a week or ten days”.[39] Understanding that Astakhov would immediately inform Moscow, Ribbentrop asked for absolute confidentiality. These are precisely the words that Stalin underlined in Astakhov’s report.[40]

On August 3, the head of the German delegation Schnurre proposed for the first time that the sides sign a secret political protocol. On August 5, he asked Moscow to give its reaction to this proposal. On August 7, Molotov replied with a refusal. On August 10, the Germans decided to show their cards. Schnurre told Astakhov that the war would possibly begin with Poland and that “the German government would like to know what the reaction of the Soviet government would be”. Moreover, he made it clear that signing an agreement with Britain and France “would be a poor prelude” to Soviet-German talks.[41] Schnurre said that the German government was ready to do everything to avoid threatening or damaging Soviet interests, “yet it wanted to know what these interests were”. Two days later, Berlin received a brief reply from Molotov: “We are interested in the objects on the list. Talks about them require preparations and several intermediary stages … from a trade and credit agreement to other issues. We prefer to discuss these matters in Moscow.”[42] When they were drafting this answer, the Soviet leadership already knew about the ranks of the British and French military negotiators sent to Moscow and about the fact that the British had no mandate for taking decisions at all. From this moment on, euphemisms were put aside, Soviet-German contacts entered an active phase, and opinions were exchanged in a very candid manner. To undermine Moscow’s talks with the West and to obtain a promise of Soviet non-interference in a possible conflict with Poland, the Germans showed readiness to compromise.

On August 18, Ribbentrop submitted a draft agreement with four lines. When Schulenburg read this text to Molotov on August 19, the latter stressed the importance of using existing model agreements and of specifying the contents of the protocol. Two hours later, after discussing the matter with Stalin, Molotov submitted a Soviet version of the draft agreement, which was subsequently taken as the basis.

No minutes of the Soviet-German talks were found; they may have not been existed at all. We lack information about the discussions and draft versions of the secret protocol. However, it essentially corresponded to what Berlin called the lack of unresolvable issues “between the Black and Baltic Seas” and largely took Soviet interests into account.

As one knows, on August 21 Hitler personally wrote to “Herr Stalin” with a request to receive Ribbentrop “on Tuesday, August 22, yet no later than on Wednesday, August 23” in order to discuss and sign a non-aggression pact and a “supplementary protocol”. When the German ambassador delivered this letter in the morning, he added that if “the Soviet government wants to add something to the protocol … it will be done”. Schulenburg vividly evoked the urgency of the demand: “Ribbentrop is waiting in Berlin on tenterhooks.”[43] Stalin replied without delay. Molotov, Voroshilov, Mikoyan and Kaganovich spent the whole afternoon from about 2 to 8 p.m. in his Kremlin office. The Soviet leader personally edited the draft TASS communiqué about the signature of a trade and credit agreement and the planned signature of a non-aggression pact with Germany. At 5 p.m., Molotov received Schulenburg and gave him Stalin’s reply to Hitler’s letter.

A unique document is preserved in the Russian archives: the German version of the non-aggression pact. Stalin made corrections to its Russian translation, which were incorporated into the final version of the document. The Soviet leader changed the proposed German duration of the pact from five to ten years and crossed out a paragraph stipulating that the pact was valid only if a special protocol was signed at the same time.[44]

As one knows, military talks between the Western allies and the USSR had led to nothing. An insurmountable obstacle was Poland’s refusal to let Red Army troops pass through its territory. As documents of the French Ministry of Armed Forces show, the French military attaché in Warsaw Musse tried to convince the Poles to agree to the Soviet demand. On August 18, he told Polish Chief of General Staff W. Stachiewicz that “the Russians are intent to provide effective, real and direct assistance to the coalition; they don’t want to be allies of a second sort who would merely supply the combatants. In addition, they want to fight on Poland’s side, no matter how the war begins. Their proposal of cooperation would be valid in all cases in which Poland is at war with Germany.”[45] Musse’s arguments did not convince Stachiewicz. The next day (August 19), Musse and the British military attaché E. Sword made another visit to the Polish Chief of General Staff. The latter once again spoke about the impossibility of trusting Moscow, adding, “We are representatives of three respectable countries, and we trust each other’s commitments; things are totally different with the Russians.” In the evening, Beck met with the French ambassador and confirmed Warsaw’s point of view: “The Polish government agrees with the Marshal [Rydz-Smigly] and supports his position that he doesn’t want to sign any military agreement with the USSR and … refuses to participate in any discussion on the use of Polish territory by foreign troops.” After obtaining information about Ribbentrop’s visit to Moscow, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked Noël to make another attempt to convince Beck. At 12:15 p.m. on August 23, Beck finally gave in while reaffirming his profound aversion to letting Soviet troops enter Polish territory. He agreed to the following wording: “We share the conviction that, in the event of joint action against German aggression, cooperation between Poland and the USSR is not excluded on technical conditions that must still be formulated.”[46] French and British military officials hoped that this glib consent would allow the continuation of the Moscow talks. However, the latter no longer interested the Kremlin, which had already made a choice.

On September 23, a month after the collapse of the talks, Voroshilov had an informal conversation with the French military attaché General Palace in which he laid bare his mind about the August negotiations: “You put us in a stupid position”; “we sincerely wanted to reach an agreement with you”; “we couldn’t stand by and watch the Germans rout the Polish army”; “you didn’t want to come to an understanding and didn’t give us any hope”. At a loss for words, Palace only kept repeating that the French had wanted to come to an agreement, too.[47]

In the face of the approaching European crisis, different people made attempts to reconcile Germany and Great Britain. As a rule, they were right-wing politicians, businessmen, military officers, secret service agents, journalists, etc. Scholars call such activities “amateur diplomacy”, although the term borrowed from British official documents.

The Nazis took advantage of these informal contacts to augment tension and create an atmosphere of ambiguity and uncertainty. Hitler skilfully promoted the illusion of alternative diplomacy in which private contacts with high-placed Nazi officials could purportedly give results. For example, on July 17, 1939, Voltat, an economic adviser to Goering on the Four Year Plan, came to London to attend a whaling conference. In the past, he had already discussed with British Conservative politicians the possibility of “developing relations”. On July 19, he met with Chamberlain’s principal adviser Wilson. They discussed the prerequisites for cooperation. To Chamberlain’s profound discontent, the conference head Minister Hudson (who had made a fruitless visit to Moscow in late March) made a rash personal initiative and then told the press about it. A scandal broke out. It turned out that the Prime Minister had not informed his own Foreign Office about the talks with Voltat.

Subsequently, German Press Chief Dietrich invited Chamberlain’s personal friend and media magnate Lord Kemsley to Germany. Hitler received Kemsley on July 27 and, in response to the question of what steps could be taken to improve mutual understanding, proposed that each side set their demands out in writing. London liked the idea. In total secrecy, Chamberlain, Halifax and Wilson drafted a letter to the Führer. When he got the message, Dietrich first pretended that he didn’t understand English very well and then voiced his doubts about the Führer’s invitation to the sides to set their positions out in writing. On August 17, Dietrich related the Führer’s reply to the disappointed Kemsley: “Until trust is re-established, no talks are possible.”[48]

The best-known activities were perhaps the efforts of the Swedish businessman Dahlerus, who was married to a wealthy German lady and had commercial interests in Germany. The Swede tried to organize contacts between Goering and the British leadership. On August 6–8, Dahlerus met with Goering to discuss the idea of holding a conference to search for peaceful ways of resolving the conflict. Dahlerus had the impression that Goering took an interest in his proposals. Then the Swedish businessman tried to get a positive reaction from the British side. However, no concrete answer had arrived from London by the evening of August 25. This was partly due to the parliamentary recess at the time. Halifax had stayed at his Yorkshire estate until August 19, Chamberlain had been away fishing in Scotland and returned to London only on August 21, and Minister for Coordination of Defence E. Chatfield was in Cannes. In the evening of August 25, Halifax met with Dahlerus, who proposed that the minister write a letter to Goering about Britain’s desire for peace. Dahlerus returned with this letter to Berlin and was received by the Führer on August 27. Hitler put on a real show, telling his interlocutor that he had been trying to improve relations with London all the time, yet in vain. According to Dahlerus, the Führer told him to return to London and convince the British leadership of the need to sign an agreement.

The very next day, the Swedish businessman spoke with Chamberlain and Halifax. They gave him a personal message in which they set out London’s minimum requirements. The latter coincided on the whole with the proposals that the British government had already sent to Hitler through British Ambassador in Berlin Henderson. In the evening of August 29, Hitler met with the British ambassador and gave him his reply. It became immediately apparent that no agreement was possible. The Germans wanted to annex Danzig and demanded that the Polish government sign an immediate agreement to this effect. Hitler also surprised the British by insisting on the need to involve the Soviet Union in the discussion of Polish matters. Dahlerus’ efforts led to nothing. The Nazi leaders had apparently used him to create an illusion of their readiness to compromise.

In the final days of August, contradictory information flooded European capitals. Everyone was waiting for war yet hoped that it could still be avoided. As before, several people made attempts to reconcile Hitler and his opponents. While publicly declaring Poland’s resoluteness, Beck instructed Polish diplomats to establish secret contacts in an attempt to reach an agreement. On August 27, Lubomirski, an adviser to the Polish Embassy in Berlin, and the Consul General approached Ribbentrop’s adviser Kleist to ask him to act as an intermediary in talks between the two countries. They said that Beck needed time to convince his countrymen yet nevertheless “felt that he could come to an acceptable agreement with the Germans”.[49] Beck’s only condition was that the “meeting” did not take place in Berlin. He did not want to join the ranks of state leaders that had ignominiously abandoned their national interests while in the German capital. Beck proposed a border town or even a railway car. Warsaw’s initiative was quite symbolic, yet it no longer interested the Nazis. Hitler did not need concessions: he wanted all of Poland, and he ordered the invasion to begin in the early morning of September 1, 1939.

The German secret services had prepared provocations along the border ahead of time in order to accuse the Poles of aggression and get a pretext for making a response. According to the SS scenario that was launched in the evening of August 31 with the code phrase “Grandmother died”, the Poles purportedly attacked a radio station, a customs station, and a small forestry enterprise. The “Poles” were rebuffed, and the returning German policemen showed the results of “Polish barbarity” to the whole world. To make things look more convincing, six concentration camp prisoners in Polish uniforms were shot dead at the customs station. A German corpse was left there, too. These were the first victims of World War II. The details of this provocation came to light during the Nuremberg Trials.

War began at 4:45 a.m. on September 1, 1939. According to “Plan Weiss”, the 3rd and 4th armies of Army Group North commanded by Colonel General von Bock were deployed in Pomerania and East Prussia. Their first task was to occupy the Polish Corridor and advance east of the Vistula in the direction of Warsaw. The 8th, 10th and 14th armies of German Army Group South commanded by Colonel  General von Rundstedt and Slovak military units were concentrated in Silesia and Slovakia. They moved towards Lodz, Cracow, Warsaw and then southeast Poland.

The Germans won border skirmishes and broke enemy lines in many places. On September 11, they approached Warsaw from the east. A few days earlier on September 8, the 4th Wehrmacht  tank division had already reached the capital’s western suburbs. The German divisions attacking from the north occupied Brest on September 15 and Bialystok on September 16. At the same time, the southern divisions reached the line Sambir – Lvov – Volodymyr-Volynsky – Zamosc and approached Lublin from the southwest. The main Polish forces were destroyed or surrounded, and the political and military leadership was forced to retreat, losing communications with many military units. The first to leave Warsaw was President Moscicki, followed by members of the government and, in the night of September 7, Polish Commander-in-Chief Marshal Rydz-Smigly. The general headquarters were first moved to Brest on September 6 and then to Volodymyr-Volynsky on September 10, Mlyniv (near Dubno) on September 13 and Kolomya on September 15. Poland’s striving to pull its remaining forces southeast towards the Romanian border to create a new line of defence while waiting for a possible attack by the Western allies against Germany turned out to be impossible after September 17. Polish leaders asked Paris for asylum and began talks with the Romanian government to allow their transit to France.

The German attack against Poland took France and Great Britain unawares. Many politicians in the two countries believed that they had been so resolute that the Germans would never start a war. When news of the attack was confirmed, they considered declaring war on Germany. The French tried to put off the decision by citing their constitution that required convening the council of ministers and then parliament had before issuing an ultimatum or a declaration of war. In contrast, the majority of the British cabinet refused to procrastinate any longer and demanded giving an immediate ultimatum to the Nazis and, if they refused, declaring war. Chamberlain tried to support the idea of Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano, who had called the day before and proposed that one should declare an armistice, followed by a conference on revising the Treaty of Versailles. Ciano added that the French supported the idea and that Hitler liked it, too, and “promised to think about it”. In actual fact, the Führer was buying time in an attempt to gain a decisive advantage in Poland. British cabinet members did not support the Italian idea. Chamberlain was forced to issue an ultimatum, which the British ambassador in Berlin handed to Ribbentrop at 9 a.m. on September 3. After receiving no answer, the British Prime Minister declared war on Germany, which met with nationwide approval. The French did the same a few hours later.

After the declaration of war, despite the Poles’ insistent requests to launch an offensive, the French army mostly stayed under the cover of the Maginot line. The French military command only launched local attacks of limited significance. The best-known operation took place in the district of Saarbrucken, where a few French divisions crossed the border for the first time in the night of September 7. However, on September 12, the troops were ordered to stop advancing “on account of the rapid development of events in Poland”. The same day, the first session of the Anglo-French Supreme War Council at Abbeville approved the immediate cessation of the offensive. This marked the start of the so-called “Phoney War”, during which virtually no military action took place on land. Unsurprisingly, this war ended with the German invasion and defeat of France in May 1940.

While German troops could have occupied Poland on their own, Hitler wanted to make the country’s destruction appear to be a joint German-Soviet action. Pressure was constantly put on Moscow. In reply to the German inquiry, Molotov wrote on September 5 that the Soviet government “will take concrete steps” at the appropriate time yet “this moment has not arrived” and “haste will only make things worse and encourage the enemy to rally”.[50] The same day, the Soviet government refused to send arms to Poland to avoid getting embroiled in the war.[51]

At 2 a.m. on September 17, Stalin and Molotov received German Ambassador Schulenburg and told him that the Red Army would cross the Polish border at 6 a.m. An hour and fifteen minutes later, a note of the Soviet government was handed to Polish Ambassador in Moscow Grzybowski. It stated, in particular, that “the Polish state and its government have ceased to exist to all intents and purposes. Hence all agreements signed by the USSR and Poland are now invalid. Left to its own devices and devoid of leadership, Poland has become a territory of chance and unforeseen events that can pose a threat to the USSR. Thus, having respected neutrality up until now, the government can no longer take a neutral attitude to these facts.” The note expressed concern with the state of the Ukrainian and Belorussian population of Poland and continued, “in view of these circumstances, the Soviet government has instructed the Red Army Command to send troops across the border and take the life and property of the inhabitants of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia under its protection.”[52] The Polish ambassador refused to accept the note, saying that “this would be incompatible with the dignity of the Polish government”. As a result, while Grzybowski was in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, the note was delivered to the Polish Embassy.

The Soviet army group had over 630,000 men, almost 5,000 pieces of artillery, over 4,000 tanks and over 3,000 planes. The Belorussian and Ukrainian Front Commands were established under the direction of Commanding Officer of the Army 2nd rank Kovalev and Commanding Officer of the Army 1st rank Timoshenko.

The Soviet intrusion caught the Poles by surprise. On September 17, the Polish leadership issued the following order: “No military action is to be taken against the Soviets unless they try to disarm our units. The instructions for Warsaw and Modlin of resisting German attack remain unchanged. Units approached by Soviet troops must negotiate with them to secure permission for the garrisons to reach Romania or Hungary.”

Meeting with no major resistance on the Belorussian front, Soviet troops occupied Lida, Slonim and Pruzhany. Vilnius was taken by force. On September 20, the Red Army took Vawkavysk, Kobryn, and Luninets. By evening, Soviet divisions had reached Grodno, where fighting broke out with Polish soldiers and militiamen and continued on the following day. In the night of September 22, the Polish defenders retreated from the city. The same day, Soviet troops received Bialystok and Brest from the Germans and entered Suwalki on September 23.

In Western Ukraine, the Red Army occupied Lutsk, Rivne, Dubno, Sarny, Kovel, and Volodymyr-Volynsky without encountering any resistance. After taking Tarnopil, the 6th army moved towards Lvov, which had already been surrounded by German units from the north, west and south. In the evening of September 20, German troops were ordered to withdraw from Lvov. In the night of September 21, Soviet troops took up positions for an attack that was scheduled for 2 p.m. the next day. However, the Poles proposed holding negotiations, and the attack was postponed by 24 hours. At 8 a.m. on September 22, the commander of the Polish garrison agreed to surrender the town. In the south, Soviet troops reached the Romanian and Hungarian borders.

On September 20, Hitler drew a “line of demarcation” behind which German troops were to be stationed: Uzhok Pass — Khyriv — Przemyśl — river San — river Vistula — river Narew — river Pissa — German border. In a conversation with Schulenburg, Molotov declared that Moscow objected to the line passing from Przemyśl to the river San, as this would mean a loss of Ukrainian territory, and proposed that it run along the upper reaches of the river San instead. In exchange, the Soviet government was “ready to yield Suwalki and its surroundings together with the railway but not Augustow”. The Germans ultimately agreed to this proposal. The border was definitively established by the German–Soviet Frontier Treaty that was signed during Ribbentrop’s second visit to Moscow on September 28.

The German-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, and the outbreak of World War II was the inevitable result of “appeasement” and Western diplomacy. London, Paris and Washington (the US knew a lot about German-Soviet contacts, as one of the employees of the German Embassy in Moscow held anti-Fascist views and cooperated with the Americans) did not believe that the Nazis and the Communists could come to an agreement. Their calculations were largely based on the political axiom that the Soviet Union and the Third Reich were irreconcilable opponents. This explains the profound shock that the signature of the pact on August 23 evoked in the Western capitals. The shock was followed by indignation and even offense at the “Kremlin’s treachery”.

Scholars often accuse the Soviet leadership of “double dealing”. On the one hand, it engaged in talks with the French and British; on the other, it established contacts with Germany. The events of 1939 have been described as the Kremlin stabbing its prospective allies in the back by accepting the Nazis’ proposal of cooperation. In reality, it was the Western partners that were intending to deceive Moscow. The arrival of the French and British military missions and the drawn-out talks with them were a litmus test for the Soviet leadership. The issue of whether the French and the British wanted to reach an agreement with the USSR on counteracting German aggression is open to question. However, a much more important aspect that proved decisive for the Soviet leadership was the Western allies’ refusal to provide military assistance to the USSR in the event of war with Germany. Meanwhile, Hitler made Stalin an offer he couldn’t refuse.

From the standpoint of the Soviet leadership, the pact had incontestable advantages: the USSR would remain outside of the war for an indefinite period of time; the West would be embroiled in a war in Poland and then possibly in a long war with Germany; the West could no longer hold separate talks with Germany; the USSR would expand its sphere of influence and enjoy guaranteed support from Germany in this domain; Germany would agree to broad commercial and economic cooperation, giving the Soviet Union access to German military technologies; and the situation in the Far East would stabilize. Japan could no longer undertake military action against the USSR in view of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact.

The latter consideration played a decisive role. Heavy fighting had been taking place for months at Khalkhin Gol, where a Soviet-Mongol counteroffensive against the Japanese began on August 20. The expectation that a treaty with Germany would have an impact on the Land of the Rising Sun and make it abandon further plans of military aggression turned out to be right. After the news of the German-Soviet pact reached Tokyo, a real political crisis broke out. The Japanese found the behaviour of their close ally “offensive” and a violation of the secret provisions of the Anti-Comintern Pact that required its members to consult each other before engaging in such talks. The Japanese government sent an official note of protest to Berlin. At Ribbentrop’s insistence, Weizsäcker refused to accept it. On August 28, the Japanese cabinet resigned.

Ideological considerations also played a major role. The Bolsheviks believed that any big war would provoke political crisis and foment revolution in the Capitalist world. Late in the evening of September 7, Stalin accompanied by Molotov and Zhdanov received Comintern directors Dimitrov and Manuilsky. In his diary, Dimitrov wrote about the Soviet leader’s explanations concerning the German-Soviet Pact and Germany’s attack on Poland: “The war is being fought by two groups of Capitalist countries (rich and poor with respect to colonies, raw materials, etc.) for carving up and controlling the world! It’s just fine for us if they fight and weaken each other. It’d be great if Germany undermines the positions of the richest Capitalist countries (especially Britain).”[53] In other words, the mutual weakening of Capitalist countries benefitted the international proletariat. Stalin explained the situation to his bewildered Communist comrades in Marxist-Leninist terms.

Hitler experienced similar problems. Several days before Stalin’s conversation, the Führer gathered his gauleiters and NSDAP Reichstag deputies and told them that the pact with the Soviet Union had been “misunderstood by many party members”. He stressed that his attitude towards the USSR had not changed. “This is a pact with Satan in order to eliminate the devil”; “all means are fair against the Soviets, including such a pact”.[54]

As we can see, the leaders’ explanations showed their mutual hatred and mistrust. The material and territorial advantages that the pact brought them did not eliminate their irreconcilable ideological differences. A future clash between the Nazis and the Communists was inevitable. Just over a year and half remained until Germany’s invasion on the USSR.


A. Artizov, D.Sc. in History

S. Kudryashov, C.Sc. in History


English translation D. Dynin


[1] The prehistory and consequences of the Munich Agreement are described in the joint historical-documentary project of the Federal Archival Agency of Russia, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Russian Historical Society Myunkhen-38. Na poroge katastrofy [Munich-38: On the Threshold of Catastrophe], Moscow, 2018.

[2] Generalfeldmarschall Keitel, Erinnerung, Briefe, Dokumente des Chefs OKW, Göttingen, 1961, pp. 195–196.

[3] Note of the German Embassy in the USSR to the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs of March 16, 1939 (Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation [AVPRF], coll. 06, ser. 1, box 7, fold. 62, ff. 10–11).

[4] AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1, box 7, fold. 62, ff. 14–16.

[5] Cf. the telegram from the Soviet chargé d’affaires ad interim in Lithuania N. Pozdnyakov to the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs of March 2, 1939.

[6] University of Birmingham (BU). Neville Chamberlain Papers (NC). 18/1/1091.

[7] The National Archives (Kew). FPC Minutes. Cab 27/624.

[8] Cited after M. Carley, 1939, Moscow, 2005, pp. 173–174. See also A. D. Stedman, Alternatives to Appeasement: Neville Chamberlain and Hitler’s Germany, London, 2015, pp. 148–152; R. Self, Neville Chamberlain: A Biography, New York, 2016, pp. 258–270.

[9] BU. NC18/1/1093.

[10] R. A. Parker, Chamberlain and Appeasement: British Policy and the Coming of the Second World War, London, 1993, pp. 222–223.

[11] AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1, box 2, fold. 11, ff. 218–219.

[12] AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1а, box 25, fold. 4, ff. 27–28.

[13] Na priyeme u Stalina. Tetradi (zhurnaly) zapisey lits, prinyatykh I. V. Stalinym (1924–1953 gg.) [Received by Stalin: Notebooks (Minutes) of People Received by Joseph Stalin (1924–1953)], Moscow, 2008, p. 257.

[14] Maisky’s diary contains the following laconic entry: “I saw different people and participated in different meetings relating to the Anglo-Franco-Soviet talks…” (AVPRF, coll. 017а, ser. 1, box 2, fold. 6, ff. 107–108).

[15] AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 313, fold. 2154, f. 45.

[16] Cf. AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1, box 7, fold. 65, ff. 69–71.

[17] AVPRF, coll. 011, ser. 4, box 31, fold. 166, ff. 247–249, 255–257.

[18] Archive of the President of the Russian Federation [APRF], coll. 3, ser. 64, fold. 673, f. 3; coll. 059, ser. 1, box 294, fold. 2029, f. 103.

[19] AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 293, fold. 2028, ff. 10–11.

[20] AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1а, box 26, fold. 1, ff. 1–3.

[21] Vestnik Arkhiva Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii. SSSR – Germaniya. 1933. 1941 [Herald of the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation. USSR – Germany. 1933. 1941], Moscow, 2009, pp. 180–182. See also AVPRF, coll. 011, ser. 4, box 27, fold. 59, ff. 105–110.

[22] AVPRF, coll. 011, ser. 4, box 27, fold. 59, ff. 123–127.

[23] Vestnik Arkhiva Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii. SSSR – Germaniya. 1933. 1941 [Herald of the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation. USSR – Germany. 1933. 1941], Moscow, 2009, p. 185.

[24] Cf. the transcript of the conversation between Molotov and Seeds of May 8, 1939 (AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1а, box 25, fold. 8, ff. 6–8).

[25] AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1а, box 26, fold. 18, ff. 119–120.

[26] Cf. the transcript of the conversation between Molotov, Seeds and Payart of May 27, 1939 (AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1, box 1, fold. 2, ff. 41–47).

[27] AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1, box 1, fold. 2, f. 43.

[28] Telegram from Molotov to Soviet Plenipotentiary Representative in Great Britain Maisky of June 10, 1939 (AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 3091, fold. 2079, ff. 186–187).

[29] AVPRF, coll. 06, ser. 1а, box 26, fold. 16, ff. 54–55.

[30] Cf. the communiqué on the talks between Polish Foreign Minister J. Beck and British Prime Minister N. Chamberlain in London on April 4–6, 1939 (God krizisa. 1938–1939: Dokumenty i materialy: V 2 t. T. 1. 29 sentyabrya 1938 g. — 31 maya 1939 g. [The Year of Crisis 1938–1939: Documents and Materials. In 2 vols. Vol. 1: September 29, 1938 – May 31, 1939], Moscow, 1990, p. 361).

[32] AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 313, fold. 2154, f. 147.

[33] Russian State Military Archive [RGVA], coll. 198k, ser. 2, fold. 466, ff. 44–50.

[34] Documents diplomatiques français, 2e série, Paris, Vol. IX, pp. 973–979.

[35] D. C. Watt, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938–1939, New York, 1989, p. 389.

[36] RGVA, coll. 198k, ser. 2, fold. 296, ff. 176–186.

[37] AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 294, fold. 2036, f. 151.

[38] See, for example, the transcript of the conversation between Astakhov and Schnurre of July 26, 1939 (AVPRF, coll. 0911, ser. 4, box 27, fold. 59, ff. 191–195).

[39] AVPRF, coll. 0745, ser. 14, box 32, fold. 3, ff. 27–30.

[40] Vestnik Arkhiva Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii. SSSR – Germaniya. 1933. 1941 [Herald of the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation. USSR – Germany. 1933. 1941], Moscow, 2009, pp. 194–197.

[41] AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 294, fold. 2036, ff. 174–175.

[42] Vestnik Arkhiva Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii. SSSR – Germaniya. 1933. 1941 [Herald of the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation. USSR – Germany. 1933. 1941], Moscow, 2009, p. 202. See also AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 295, fold. 2038, f. 105.

[43] Vestnik Arkhiva Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii. SSSR – Germaniya. 1933. 1941 [Herald of the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation. USSR – Germany. 1933. 1941], Moscow, 2009, pp. 206–207.

[44] Ibid., pp. 209–214.

[45] RGVA, coll. 198к, ser. 2, fold. 292, ff. 148–166.

[46] Ibid.

[47] RGVA, coll. 33987, ser. 3а, fold. 1242, ff. 89–92.

[48] S. Aster, 1939: The Making of the Second World War, London, 1973, pp. 254–255.

[49] P. Kleist, Zwischen Hitler und Stalin, 1939–1945, Aufzeichnungen, Bonn, 1950, pp. 75–76; D. C. Watt, op. cit., pp. 511–512.

[50] AVPRF, coll. 0745, ser. 14, box 32, fold. 3, f. 56.

[51] Cf. the transcript of the conversation between Molotov and Polish Ambassador Grzybowski (AVPRF, coll. 011, ser. 4, box 24, fold. 5, f. 29).

[52] AVPRF, coll. 059, ser. 1, box 313, fold. 2155, ff. 49–51.

[53] Russian State Archive of Social and Political History [RGASPI], coll. 495, ser. 195, fold. 1, part VII, f. 54.

[54] The meeting took place on August 28, 1939. Cited after G. Ueberschär, “Die Entwicklung der deutsch-sowjetischen Beziehungen von 1939 bis 1941 und Hitlers Entschluß zum Überfall auf die UdSSR” in G. R. Ueberscär and L. A. Bezymenskij, eds., Der deutsche Angriff auf die Sowjetunion 1941. Die Kontroverse um die Präventivkriegsthese, Darmstadt, 1998, p. 8.

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