02 september / 2019

Did the Soviet-Nazi Pact really trigger the WWII?

As the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War approaches, a politically motivated propaganda campaign is gaining momentum. Its aim is to impose the responsibility for this global catastrophe upon Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union alike, and at the same time to cast a shadow over modem Russia.

The details are twisted, the events of the past are misinterpreted. First of all, this refers to the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Treaty of August 23, 1939 (Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact), and its secret protocol outlining the spheres of interest of the USSR and Germany in Eastern Europe, which, allegedly, was the root cause of the war as it gave the “green light” to Hitler’s attack on Poland. The facts and documents, however, display the complexity of the pre-war situation and reveal the true circumstances that led the world to a tragic cataclysm.

After the Munich Agreement of September 29-30, 1938, a qualitatively new situation was created in Europe, which was characterized by the strengthening of international isolation of the Soviet Union. As the UK and France signed their respective non-aggression agreements with Hitler on September 30 and December 6, 1938, the prospect of a united anti-Soviet front became a major concern for Moscow.

Even so, the Soviet government did not lose hope for the formation of a collective security system, the urgent need for which became even more evident after the elimination of the Czechoslovak state by the Nazis in March 1939. The USSR strongly condemned the aggressive actions of the Third Reich, refusing to recognize the occupation of Czechoslovakia and considering it a priority to reach an agreement with London and Paris to ensure the security of Poland, which was going to be the next victim of the Nazi aggression.

The best option for Moscow was to preserve the Polish state that separated the USSR fr om Germany and excluded direct German aggression against the Soviet Union. However, the repeated Soviet attempts to convince Warsaw to enter into a collective

security agreement were futile due to strong anti-Russian sentiment of the Polish ruling circles and their assumption that England and France would assist them sufficiently against Germany even without Moscow.

The tripartite Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations nonetheless continued until the second half of August 1939. The Soviet draft agreement provided for immediate military assistance in case of aggression, which did not suit the British and French, who preferred a scenario wh ere the Red Army would “pull their chestnuts out of the fire”. Negotiations were hindered by endless amendments, far-fetched discussions on the concepts of “indirect” and “direct” aggression, grounds for providing security guarantees, etc. Moreover, the level of delegations sent by Great Britain and France to Moscow was insufficient to sign any substantial documents. At the same time, the Soviet intelligence became aware of parallel secret Anglo-German negotiations and a proposed visit to London by a high-level Nazi delegation, scheduled for August 22-23.

Such developments forced the Soviet leaders to intensify their own talks with Nazi Germany. This was a complex diplomatic combination in which each side pursued its own interests. Berlin sought to avoid a clash with the Soviet Union in connection with the planned invasion of Poland, and for Moscow the main goal was to prevent the rapprochement between Germany and Western democracies on an anti-Soviet basis and ultimately not to become the object of aggression itself.

The conclusion of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Treaty became a grave necessity for the Soviet Union, a forced and extremely difficult decision, taken within a very short time frame. As the Red Army was at the very same time engaging the Japanese forces at Khalkhin Gol, it became apparent that the USSR could not afford a war on two fronts.

By signing the Pact and the secret protocol, the Soviet leadership pursued the following objectives: a) to keep the USSR out of the war; b) to ruin the Anglo-German deal that was about to happen; c) to preserve the freedom of military, strategic and political maneuver; and d) not to allow the Nazis to occupy the entire territory of

Poland, which would significantly worsen the military and strategic position of the USSR. The intentions of the USSR were purely defensive, which testifies against the assumption that its actions anyhow triggered the Second World War.

The Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 proved the correctness of the decision made by the Soviet leadership. The UK and France abandoned the Poles to their fate and, without losing hope of confrontation between Germany and the USSR, opted for the so-called strange war, which was conducted for more than eight months, greatly facilitating Hitler’s further aggression against Europe and the Soviet Union.

On September 15, a truce was concluded between the USSR and Japan and on the same day, the Belorussian and Kiev military districts received a directive for combat readiness. On September 17, the Red Army entered the territory of Poland with instructions against bombing and shelling cities and towns or engaging the Polish army unless provoked. It was strictly forbidden to violate the borders of neighboring states - Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. The Polish commander-in-chief, Edward Rydz-Śmigły, while still in the territory of Poland, ordered not to enter into hostilities with the units of the Red Army.

It is important to emphasize that the USSR was not in a state of war with Poland, and this fact was recognized by the Western countries and the Polish government in exile. Neither London nor Paris considered the USSR intervention as “aggression”. The British and French assumed that the Soviet-German agreements would not last long, especially when the armed forces of the two countries had reached the line of contact.

The Polish campaign of the Red Army ensured the reunification of the Ukrainian and Belorussian peoples in the new borders of the USSR. The Soviet troops ultimately came to the “Curzon Line”, which was recognized by the Western Allies as an appropriate borderline between Russia and Poland in 1919. Only the parts of Russia occupied by Poland in 1920-1921 were regained.

While the Munich Agreement gave the entire European country and its population, including the Jews who were to be slaughtered, to the Nazis, the agreement on August 23 removed from the German sphere of influence vast areas of Western Ukraine and Belorussia, freeing them from the “new order” and Holocaust.

The signing of the Soviet-German Treaty was an exceptional measure in exceptional circumstances, the only alternative to the new Munich collusion, this time at the expense of the USSR. The temporary nature of “friendship” between Stalin and Hitler was obvious to both leaders. For the Führer, who had put the principles of racism and nationalism at the heart of his state policy, the internationalist Soviet Union continued to be the ultimate enemy. The German attack on the USSR finally took place on June 22, 1941 - the day that actually started the Second World War for Russia.

Whatever the assessment of Soviet policy at the beginning of the Second World War, it was the Soviet Union that ultimately defeated Nazism, liberated Europe and saved European democracy from destruction.

Nikita Buturlin

First Secretary of the Russian Embassy