Joseph Stalin cracks a smile. The dictator’s cold eyes even appear to twinkle. Next to him, the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, beams with smug satisfaction. That night, Stalin will toast Hitler’s health. The world will tremble.
On August 23rd, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union stunned the world by announcing a nonaggression pact. That pact contained economic assistance as well as secret protocols to divide up Eastern Europe. Within two weeks, the bloodiest conflict in human history had begun.
Given the Western fascination with WWII, the scant attention the Nazi-Soviet pact has received is remarkable. The pact challenges the popular narrative of a righteous Grand Alliance against Nazi tyranny. Additionally, Soviet apologists and Russian nationalists continue to defend the pact as a savvy defensive strategy. However, the Nazi-Soviet alliance played a central role in the outbreak of WWII and the escalation of atrocities that followed.
1. On the Precipice
In March of 1939, Hitler’s troops seized the remaining Czech lands in the former Czechoslovakia. The creation of this new German protectorate forced the Western democracies of Britain and France to confront the Nazi menace. Less than six months earlier, Hitler had piously declared that Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region was “the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe.” After yielding to Hitler, Britain and France recognized that they had been deceived.
Although British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had long advocated appeasement, after the destruction of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain condemned Hitler as “the blackest devil [he] had ever met.” In 1939: Countdown to War, Richard Overy describes how the fall of Czechoslovakia marked a turning point in British policy towards the Reich. Britain accelerated rearmament and drew a firm line against further German expansion. That line was the Polish border, now threatened by Germany. In late March, Britain and France signed a mutual protection pact with Poland.
Poland had only recently drawn Hitler’s venom. He had previously seen it as a useful bulwark against Russian Bolshevism. He had even sent Ribbentrop to negotiate an anti-Communist alliance with the Poles. However, those plans foundered when the Poles refused to cede the city of Danzig (now Gdansk) and the nearby territory to Germany. As in Czechoslovakia, Hitler decried the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Germans in Poland and cast himself as their protector. Once again, his outrageous claims were baseless. Poland’s unique misfortune had little to do with ethnicities and everything to do with geography, sandwiched as it was between powerful, hungry neighbors.
Poland’s other large neighbor was the Soviet Union. In 1920, the Soviets had attempted to export their global revolution to Poland. In a bloody struggle, the Red Army was stopped at the outskirts of Warsaw by heroic Polish defenders. However, the Soviet Union still harbored designs on Poland and other Eastern lands that had once been part of the Tsarist Empire. In the 1930s, suspicion between the Poles and Soviets had complicated plans to forge a common front against Nazism. The Soviets also deeply distrusted the Western Powers, viewing them as ideological cousins of Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, the Soviets and the West sought a policy of collective security to neutralize the Third Reich. British and French capitulation over Czechoslovakia only increased Soviet skepticism in their value as allies.
2. Devils Bargain
Although Hitler had made his name as an ardent anti-Communist, he was an opportunist at heart. Allied together, the Western Powers and the Soviet Union could stymie Germany’s territorial ambitions. If Hitler could gain Stalin’s support, he believed the Western Powers would back down on Poland as they had on Czechoslovakia.
Unlike Britain and France, Hitler had no issue offering Stalin territory in Eastern Poland and the Baltics. Collaboration would also have mutual economic benefits as Germany could provide the USSR with modern technology while the USSR could supply Germany with vital resources. Finally, a Nazi-Soviet alliance would empower both regimes to ignore Western protests while pursuing their ambitions. In the summer of 1939, these pragmatic considerations overrode philosophical differences.
The reconciliation between former archenemies stunned political observers. In a single stroke, the Nazi-Soviet pact had reset the global order. Propaganda outlets in both states worked feverishly to wash away years of ideological mudslinging. The Nazi press quickly replaced articles denouncing Jewish Bolshevism with pieces extolling aspects of Russian culture. In the Soviet Union, when Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow, he was greeted by Nazi flags, recently rescued from the set of an anti-Fascist propaganda film. The Kremlin telegraphed the changed party line to Communist Parties worldwide, where many reacted with utter bewilderment. While many Communist sympathizers ultimately adopted the new position, the about-face deeply tarnished Communism’s reputation.
3. Between the Beasts
In late August 1939, Nazi war planning was complete. Hitler briefed his generals on the impending attack on Poland: “close your hearts to pity. Act brutally.” The German Army would heed his command.
On the morning of September 1st, German troops poured across the Polish border. Within an hour, the National Socialist leader of Danzig declared reunification with the Reich. Events then proceeded at a torrid pace as Poland became the first nation to experience the blitzkrieg. Although the Poles fought bravely, they were no match for the stronger and faster German forces. Within days, the Polish Army was in headlong retreat. On September 19th, Hitler triumphantly declared in Danzig: “Poland will never rise again…that is guaranteed not only by Germany but also guaranteed by Russia.”
Two days earlier, the Soviets had moved into Eastern Poland. Soviet foreign minister Molotov announced that “the Polish Government has disintegrated” and the USSR needed to protect Ukrainians and Belarusians. This shabby pretense unleashed the Red Army on the already overwhelmed Polish forces, rendering their situation hopeless. Before invading, the Soviets had aided the German advance by allowing the Luftwaffe to use Soviet radio towers. Once the Soviets entered Poland, they quickly coordinated zones of occupation with the Nazis. Historian Roger Morehouse describes a particularly chilling example of collaboration in his excellent book The Devil’s Alliance. In the Polish city of Brest, the Germans and Soviets held a joint military parade as the Nazis “returned” the city to the Soviets. German commander Heinz Guderian reviewed the troops, while his Soviet counterpart Semyon Krivoshein invited German reporters to Moscow after the war.
For the Poles, there was little to celebrate. The occupiers implemented violently repressive regimes. Both invaders viewed the destruction of the Polish intelligentsia as key to Poland’s permanent subjugation. The Gestapo and their Soviet NKVD counterparts met multiple times during 1939 and 1940, sharing files and handing over political enemies. They also strategized about eliminating Polish resistance and the fate of Polish POWs. Following these conferences, both occupied zones experienced horrific atrocities. In April and May of 1940, the Soviets murdered around 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest. Nearly simultaneously, the Nazis carried out the AB-Aktion, a series of ruthless massacres targeting Polish leaders. The AB-Aktionfollowed the earlier Intelligenzaktion, which had killed nearly 100,000 Polish teachers, doctors, priests, and other professionals.
As Poland drowned in blood, Hitler looked West. Unlike Germany in WWI, by Spring 1940, Hitler could focus his full energy on defeating France. His friendship with the Soviet Union removed the longstanding nightmare of a full two-front war, which had been central to Germany’s WWI planning. Hitler was able to deploy over 3 million troops in the May invasion of France and the Low Countries. The Nazi-Soviet pact also provided the Reich’s war machine with vital raw materials. Additionally, Soviet trade helped Germany circumvent the British blockade, which had crippled Germany in WWI. The extent to which Stalin’s friendship enabled Hitler’s stunning victories in 1940 is hard to determine, but unquestionably, a hostile Soviet Union would have impacted Hitler’s military calculus.
Stalin drove a hard bargain. He had demanded the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, among his other claims. Hitler obliged by signing the death warrants of these small nations. The Soviets moved quickly. In 1939, they forced their Baltic neighbors to sign mutual assistance pacts, which allowed Red Army troops into each republic. As Moorehouse explains, the Soviets then hoped that Communist agitators would stir up proletarian revolutions. When these revolutions failed to materialize, the Soviets tightened the screws, issuing ultimatums to the Baltic nations. These ultimatums amounted to a full Soviet takeover of the government. The new Soviet puppet regimes then requested annexation into the USSR. Once incorporated, the NKVD began a series of brutal deportations. In June of 1940 alone, over 100,000 Baltic civilians were deported from their homeland. As they had in Poland, Soviet authorities sought to obliterate national identity and civil society, destroying the states’ fundamental institutions.
4. An Endless Slaughter
On June 22nd, 1941, the Nazi-Soviet pact abruptly ended when German forces invaded the USSR. Although Stalin had suspected that Hitler would betray him, he believed that their agreement would survive for longer. As a result, Soviet forces were woefully unprepared for the German onslaught. On the first day of the invasion, the Luftwaffe destroyed nearly 2000 Soviet aircraft. By early July, the Germans had conquered nearly all Baltic and Polish lands in the Soviet sphere of influence. Within five months, the Nazis had captured over 2 million Soviet POWs and approached the outskirts of Moscow.
Nazi leadership considered the invasion a racial war of annihilation. The Western Soviet Union would be depopulated through enslavement and starvation to make way for new German settlers. The atrocious treatment of Soviet POWs reflected a broader Nazi vision for the native peoples. Of the 5 million Soviet POWs, over half were deliberately starved to death or murdered, while the survivors were sent to the Reich as slaves.
While many ethnic groups suffered immensely under the Nazis, the treatment of the Jews stands unsurpassed as a monument to the human capacity for evil. After the invasion of the USSR, the wholesale slaughter of Jews commenced. German troops and special units, Einsatzgruppen, systematically rounded up and shot Eastern European Jews. By the end of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered nearly 1 million Jews. In December of that year, Himmler noted that he had discussed the Eastern Jews with Hitler, remarking in his diary: “to be annihilated as partisans.” More formal guidance for the genocide came with the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when the Nazi regime formalized the Final Solution to the Jewish question.
September 1941 witnessed the massacre of Kiev’s Jews at Babi Yar. In a two-day period, over 33,000 Jews were murdered by German forces and local Ukrainian collaborators. Occupying Germans in the Baltics urged local partisans to murder their Jewish neighbors. In lands formerly occupied by the Soviets, Nazi propaganda effectively linked the Jews to the hated Soviet system. In Black Earth, historian Timothy Snyder argues that local people blamed the Jews to absolve themselves of the shame and humiliation of the occupation. He also asserts that the destruction of states and their institutions made the Holocaust possible. Indeed, the destruction of the Jews took place in Eastern lands where Soviet and later Nazi occupation had destroyed the existing state. It is telling that Western European Jews and German Jews were first deported to the East before they were murdered. Within the unprotected environment of Eastern Europe, the Nazis were able to enact their most extreme racial policies.
5. The Politics of Memory
With Germany’s defeat in 1945, the Soviet Union reasserted control over areas it had claimed under the Nazi-Soviet pact. The Baltic states remained members of the USSR and deportations resumed after WWII. Poland and other Eastern states did not regain true independence, instead becoming Soviet satellites. The Kremlin dutifully applied a revisionist lens to the Nazi-Soviet pact. An aggressive, cynical land grab was transformed into a brilliant defensive maneuver to buy the USSR time to prepare for an inevitable Nazi attack. The alliance was only necessary because the West had spurned Soviet pleas for a unified anti-Nazi front. As Snyder has written, false narratives are still parroted by Russian propagandists today.
During the war, the West was loath to discuss the pact as the Soviets had become a valuable ally against Hitler. After the war, the Nazi-Soviet alliance did not fit the popular story of the triumph of liberty over totalitarianism. Thus, the Hitler-Stalin pact was allowed to fade from public memory.
Our collective ignorance regarding the Nazi-Soviet pact is particularly unfortunate. Not only does that ignorance allow revisionists to thrive, but it also limits our understanding of WWII. The Nazi-Soviet pact helped spark the conflict by removing a major impediment to Hitler’s conquest of Poland. Once the war began, the pact allowed the Germans by to focus on a single front and mitigate the impacts of the British blockade. The Soviet and Nazi authorities destroyed the states they occupied, creating the chaotic conditions that made the mass murder of the Jews easier. Revisiting the Nazi-Soviet pact does not mean equating the crimes of the Nazis and Soviets, but rather more deeply understanding the development of the Holocaust.
Eighty years ago, two dictators agreed to divide up Eastern Europe. Their agreement would change the lives of millions. While scholars have written about the ideological differences between their regimes, the Nazi-Soviet pact also revealed essential similarities between Hitler and Stalin. Both men were deeply cynical opportunists with the fundamental conviction that might makes right. That impulse is nothing more than a formula for brutality.