#34 - JRL 2009-158 - JRL Home
Date: Tue, 25 Aug 2009
From: Andrei Liakhov <gaffriloff@yahoo.co.uk>
Subject: Molotov Ribentrop Pact

These days only the most lazy person does not comment on the anniversary of the document which continues to stir a great deal of controversy. Some call it a historic necessity, others a cynical agreement which sparkled WWII.

While there are grains of truth in both of these positions, the real place of the 1939 Soviet German Non Agression Pact in history will crystallise only when political historians (or history politicians, whichever one prefers) will stop using the Pact for their current political purposes. I am not trying to offer any "definitive" interpretation of the importance of the Pact, but am asking to look at it without the benefit of a hindsight and in the contest of the pre war knowledge and understanding of intentions and aspirations of other states which the major politicians had at the time of signing of the pact.

Firstly one has to consider what other states were doing at the time and what was known to Stalin of their actions and intentions. Here I would like to list the following facts: the Munich Accords of 1938, 1939 Non Agression Pacts with the Baltic States (7/06/39 if I am not mistaken) and Finland, Poland's refusal to allow transit of Soviet troops to help Czechoslovakia repel German annexation, high level British and French negotiations with Germany in the spring- summer of 1939 simultaneously with combined Anglo-French talks in Moscow.

Secondly one has to consider what Stalin knew from his intelligence briefings. He knew that the Anglo-French mission has no powers even to agree a text of the mutual assistance treaty with the USSR from the intercepts of the correspondence of the British military attache in Moscow. He also knew from the same source (corraborated by reports from Swedish and US sources, GRU Paris resident's reports were ignored as he got himself into Ezhov's gunsights by that time) that the Brits were very close to sign a mutual assistance treaty with Hitler. There also is a reference to these negotiations in Volume 1 of Churchill's "History of the Second World War" (London, 1947, p.167), when Churchill thought it necessary to remind Atllee of Labour's pre war blunders (it disappeared from the later editions though). Stalin also knew of Hitler's instruction to commence planning for the invasion of the USSR given on the 28 June 1939 (Ian Kershaw in his "Hitler" makes a reference to that fact. Several books on Canaris also make the point that Canaris leaked this information to the Soviets via Switzerland). Whitehall was, of course, perfectly in tune with what OKV was up to and knew details of the attack on Poland atr least in May 1939 (again, according to Churchill). The Poles, having been a close ally of Germany since 1934 and having participated (rather ruthlessly by all accounts) in the division of Czechoslovakia a year previously started to re-align themselves with France and Britain only when their intelligence established the existence of a German plan to attack Poland sometime in the spring of 1939. Stalin knew that from diplomatic intercepts and also he was aware of the German plan to attack Poland. Judging by his copy of Mein Kampf (which is still stored in the Politbureau archives together with other books from his library) Stalin was acutely aware that expansion of liebensraum to the East was one of the main purposes of Hitler's politics. Stalin also knew that Hitler always wanted an alliance with Britain. Such an alliance would have posed a great danger to the USSR at least in

A somewhat rhetoric question thus is what were the real choices of the USSR in the summer of 1939? It would seem that these boiled down to either ignoring German proposals and waiting to see what would happen or attempt to beat France and Britain to the pole by signing the Pact and thus at least attempting to exclude a possibility of the wide Anglo-French-German anti Soviet coalition. The truth of the matter (as it looks to a de-ideologised observer) is that a number of principal Soviet competitors were trying to secure various deals with Germany, the, at least, side effect of which would have been a united pan European anti-Soviet political (and possibly military) coalition with Hitler as its spearhead. This may not have been how the picture looked like from Whitehall or from Champs Elysee, but the totality of circumstances of 1938 and first half of 1939 certainly allowed Stalin to come to this conclusion (particularly as we have to consider his various paranoyas and ideological spectacles which gave a certain colour to his worldview).

Thus, at least to me the Pact is nothing other than a tool to achieve a certain tactical goal without changing the general vector of European politics of the period. If accessed from the point of view of the realpolitik of the period it seems to be a clever tactical move which prevented (from at least Stalin's point of view as we might be able to ascertain it) Britain and France from reaching their accords with Germany. Given the fact that Hitler gave the order to attack on 22 August (irrespective of the results of Ribentrop's mission to Moscow) the role of the Pact as the final encouragement for war is questionable at least.

The main point of this rather brief posting that both the whitewashing of the Pact and its demoniusation are wrong approaches and the place of the Pact in the pre war history should not be judged either with the benefit of the hindsight or from the point of view of a higher moral grounds as every state which was actively involved in the pre-war European politics was sucking up to Hitler. By a twist of fate Stalin managed to outmanouver others at a crucial junction, which may or may not have given him some extra few months of peace. (Given what we know now about the time line of preparation of Barbarossa I doubt that the Pact influenced the timing of attack in any meaningful way - even the delay from the 15 May to 22 June was caused by the need to move troops from Crete and Yugoslavia). And that seems to be the real nature of the 60 year old grudge against the Kremlin which managed to beat the Brits at their own game, albeit to its own detriment.

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