From Non-Aggression Treaty to War: Documenting Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-41: Geoffrey Roberts Explains the Fateful Sequence of Events from the Nazi-Soviet Pact to Hitler's Invasion of the USSR. (Key Text)

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The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 23 August 1939 was one of the most stunning and dramatic events in diplomatic history. According to Winston Churchill, `the sinister news broke upon the world like an explosion'. The Berlin-based American journalist William Shirer could `scarcely believe it'. Adding to the aura of the occasion was a dramatic newsreel of German foreign minister Ribbentrop's sudden flight to Moscow to seal the deal.

There were two reasons why the Nazi-Soviet pact seemed so amazing, unexpected and dramatic. First, there was the very public antagonism between Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. Hitler, after all, was a fanatical anti-communist who harboured dreams of eastward expansion to secure German lebensraum (living space) in Russia. Before 1933 the Soviet Union had enjoyed a co-operative relationship with Germany, but all that changed when Hitler came to power. From then on the Soviets were unceasing in their efforts to forge anti-German alliances and a grand anti-Hitler coalition. Second, the Nazi-Soviet pact abruptly ended negotiations between Britain, France and the Soviet Union for a triple alliance. Since April 1939 Moscow had been discussing with London and Paris the terms of a three-power alliance directed against Germany. Indeed, August saw the arrival in Moscow of an Anglo-French military delegation to hammer out its details. A few days later, however, the Soviets withdrew from the talks and signed an agreement with Germany.

One of the great debates in modern diplomatic history centres on why Stalin chose to abandon the triple alliance negotiations and do a deal with Hitler. Until recently the most common view was that Stalin's preference all along was an arrangement with Hitler and it was only a matter of time and circumstance until he got one. The alternative view -- based on the latest evidence from the Soviet archives -- is that the turn in Soviet foreign policy was a last-minute manoeuvre inspired by a loss of faith in the sincerity of the British and French negotiators and by fears that the USSR was being trapped into a war with Germany that the Anglo-French did not want to fight themselves.

Hitler's motives and calculations, however, are more obvious and historians agree that he wanted to avoid a two-front war. He was planning to attack Poland and did not want to risk taking on the Russians as well as the British and French, who in April 1939 had pledged to support the Poles in the event of a German attack. The German-Soviet non-aggression treaty protected Hitler's eastern flank. Under the terms of the treaty both sides pledged neutrality and non-aggression in the event of war -- a highly significant public commitment on the very eve of the outbreak of a major war in Europe.

By signing the pact Stalin was able to keep the USSR out of the war. But, as Document 1, shows there was a price for Soviet neutrality. Attached to the public non-aggression treaty was a secret agreement which specified an eastern limit of Germany's expansion into Poland and carved up the Baltic States into German and Soviet spheres of influence.

A.J.R Taylor was fond of pointing out that events now in the past were once in the future. On 23 August 1939 a German-Polish war was virtually certain, but its outcome was not -- hence the somewhat circumspect language of clause two of the secret agreement.

Germany invaded on 1st September and defeated Poland rapidly and easily. The British and French declared war in support of Poland but undertook no offensive action. In those circumstances it made sense for the Soviet Union to make its own move against Poland (some historians argue that this is what Stalin had intended all along). On 17 September the Red Army invaded and occupied Eastern Poland. The public excuse was that the Polish state had collapsed and that the USSR was only re-occupying Ukrainian and Belorussian lands invaded by Poland at the time of the Russian civil war. …