Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Signed August 24, 1939

By Eidelman, Tamara | Russian Life, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Signed August 24, 1939


Eidelman, Tamara, Russian Life


BY THE SPRING OF 1939, world war appeared inevitable. Hitler had occupied Austria and annexed the Sudetenland, a province of Czechoslovakia, and soon thereafter he captured the rest of the country. All you had to do was look at a map of Europe to see that Poland would be next. Given these circumstances, the prime ministers of England and France decided to investigate the possibility of an alliance with the USSR, something that would have restored a balance of power in Europe, albeit a shaky one.

Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) was a leader of Britain's Conservative Party. In 1937 he became Prime Minister, and in 1938 he signed the Munich Agreement with Germany, giving Hitler the Sudetenland. After returning to London he proudly proclaimed that he had brought "peace for our time." Less than a year after he pronounced these words, World War II broke out. Chamberlain was already severely ill, and he stepped down on May 10,1940, after Hitler invaded France. He died shortly thereafter.

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Edouard Daladier (1884-1970) became Prime Minister of France in 1938. Together with Chamberlain, he conducted a policy toward Hitler that sought to "appease the aggressor." He joined Chamberlain in signing the Munich Agreement. His government did not come to the aid of Czechoslovakia after the German invasion. In March 1940, he stepped down. When the Germans occupied France, he fled to French Morocco, where he was captured and tried by the Vichy government. He was later deported to Germany, and spent the remainder of the war in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

For some time, the Soviet Union had been urging western countries to create a collective security system to protect one another through non-aggression and mutual assistance treaties, in order to help prevent a new war. The main propagandist of this idea and the "face" of Soviet foreign policy at the time was the diplomat Maxim Litvinov, a man who did not fit the stereotype of the boorish Bolshevik. Rather well educated and fluent in English (he was even married to an Englishwoman), Litvinov delivered marvelous speeches at the League of Nations, was seen as an implacable foe of German Fascism, and became a sort of symbol of a "civilized" Soviet Union.

Maxim Litvinov (1876-1951), born Meyer Genokh (Max) Moiseyevich Wallach, was an active member of the Bolshevik Party. Before the revolution he spent time in Western Europe, where he arranged "covers" for various party machinations. He purchased arms abroad and exchanged currency that had been robbed from banks by his party comrades. After the revolution he became a diplomat. In 1930 he was appointed People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs. In May 1939 he was forced into retirement and for some time was essentially under house arrest. During the war he served as Soviet ambassador to the United States. By 1946 his career was over. Legend has it that he slept with a pistol under his pillow, preferring to commit suicide than fall into the hands of interrogators. Another story has him advising American diplomats staying at his dacha to be tougher with Stalin. This conversation was tape recorded, but Stalin was supposedly afraid that arresting Litvinov might cause an international incident. As the story goes, Stalin thought it would be expedient to get rid of him some other way. There are various accounts of Litvinov's death, including versions involving a car "accident," but most historians believe he died of natural causes. Today, among his grandchildren are several prominent human rights activists.

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In May 1939, just as an Anglo-French mission was setting out for the USSR to conduct negotiations, it was reported that the anti-Nazi Litvinov had been removed as People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs and replaced with the pro-German Molotov. The negotiations never got off the ground.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov (1890-1986), one of Stalin's closest comrades-in-arms, was incredibly devoted to him. …

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