NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 23, 1939)

Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact
Figure 1.--These boys from Poland or the Baltics receive classroom instruction in weapons handling during the 1930s. After the British and French abandoned the Czechs to Hitler and the NAZISs (September 1938), the small, militarily weak countries of Eastern and Central Europe from Finland south to Greece without any means of defending themselves. The result was the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact in which the two totalitarian powers cynically divided up the region (August 1939). Withinin a few day of signing the pact, both countries invaded Poland, the first step in carving out their new empire (September 1939). .

NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of thesigning, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Britain and France declared war September 3. Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantaies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britainand France opposedthe war effort. The Communst Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.

Munich (October 1938)

The next target was Czecheslovakia which had beeen created by the Versailles Peace Treaty. After the Anchluss, Hitler began to escalate his tirades against Czecheslovakia, claiming that the erhnic Germans in the Sudetenland were being mistreated. The NAZI rearmament program, the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anchluss with Austria came as a shock to Czecheslovakia. Even more so, the lack of response from Britain and France. The Czechs who had defensive alliance with France were prepared to fight. Even with the Anchluss, many Europeans chose to see the NAZI actions as domestic German matters. This changed with Hitler's next target--Czecheslovakia. Hitler in 1938 demanded the Sudetenland in Czecheslovakia which had a minority German population. Neville Chamberlin, the British Prime Miniister mused how terrible it was that war should be threatened by a "... quarel in a far away country by people of which we know little." A prominent member of the British parliament displayed even more ignoramce when he told the press, "Why should we bother with those gypsies in the Balkans?", meaning the Czechs who were of course not located in the Balkans. In the end, The British and French gave in at talks held in Munich. Chamberlain flew back to London and stepping off the plane waved the agreement signed ny Herr Hitler which he assured the waiting repoters guaranteed "Peace in our time." Churchill was apauled. Most British anf French people were releaved. One European leader, Soviet Marshall Stalin, who was not at the conference drew the conclusion that the British and French could not be trusted as potential allies against Hitler and that they were trying to engineer a conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union.

War Planning

Hitler in Mein Kampf spellsout his view that Germany needed Lebensraum in the East. That mean the Soviet Union. Most Germans did not want the titanic war ht would have involved. Most did support efforts o etrieve th land lost as a result of World War I and the Versailles Peace Treaty. As a result of the Anschluss and the Munich Agreement, much of this was accomplished. Hitler had pledged at Munich that the Dudetenland wa to be Germany's last territorial demands. Prime-Minister Chmberland brought back Herr Hitler' signature and showed it to the newsreels as he steped out of the airplane. Only a few months later, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to seize the remains of Czecheslovakia--Bohemia and Moravia (March 1939). The British and French protested, but took no action. Hitler quickly passed on to other plans. He did not realize that in tearing up the Munish AZccords after only 6 months, it meant that the British and French would no longer negotiate with him as it was cklear that his assurances had no value. Bohemia an Moravia was an area that had never been German and had no significnt German minority. The last major area lost in World War I was the Polish Corridor. Hitler was determined to destoy te Polish state. He hoped to do so without war with Britain and France. His objective was the East. He was determined to avoid a two-front war which had been the primary reason for defeat in World War I. So despite his hatred of Bolshivism and the Russians, before launching the invasion of Poland, he had to come to terms with eiter the Soviets or the Allies (Britain and France). After Munich, any further agreement with Britain and France was impossible. This left only the Soviets.

Press Assessments

After the Germans seized Czechoslovakia (March 1939), it was clear that Hitler meant war. The press speculated about what was to come. CBS correspondent William Shirer spoke German and was perhaps the best informed American journalist about Hitler and the NAZIs. In a broascast he discussed the secret negotiations underway. He knew a great deal, but he was wrong asbpout the Soviets, "There is one reason which would seem to rule out the possibility of an alignment between German and Soviet Russia. It's this: Hitler's goal is the occupation and annexation of a vast part of Russia. How are you going to play ball with a man who covets your house and intends to settle in it if he can, even if he has to hit you over the head with his bat? And moreover says so. Because he does in Mein Kampf, that Nazi bible which we all have to go to to divine what the Fuhrer may have in his mind next. Hitler in Mem Kampf says very plainly that Germany will only be a great nation when it acquires a much larger territory in Europe. From where is that territory to come? Hitler very obligingly gives us the answer. It is: From Russia. A second reason is that if Hitler were to make a deal with Russia, the Japanese alliance, or whatever you call their present understanding, falls through automatically. Now the strange tie-up between Japan and Germany is not so strange as it seems, if we look into it for a moment. It's - valuable to Germany first as a part of a general threat to Britain and France - and to a lesser extent, the U.S. - in the East. Secondly, if and when Russia is to be conquered, it confronts Russia with a war on two greatly distant fronts, thus making Germany's job of conquering European Russia much easier. This second point is also the reason for Tokyo's friendship with Berlin - that is, if Japan is to get the Russian maritime provinces as well as Mongolia and a big slice of Siberia, Germany's military effort on the Western Front is absolutely necessary. Unless Japan ruins itself as a Great Power in China, and thus can no longer threaten the three Democracies in the Far East, there is little evidence that Hitler will ditch Tokyo. Along the path that he has apparently chosen, it is too valuable an ally." [Shirer]

Soviet Negotiations with the Allies

At the time of the signing, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. He was convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. It was the Soviets who had initiated these talks. Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litinov presented a proposal for a three-power defensive military alliance (the USSR, France, and Britain) (April 17). This would be a pledge to go to war if the other was attacked as well as to defend Poland, Romania, and Greece (with the British had extended guarantees). The British showed no urgency when they received the Soviet initiative. They consulted the other countries and then gave the Soviets a tentative and uncommital respmse (May 8). Stalin fired Litinov even before this, apparently uphappy with the lack of response from the Allies (May 3). Stalin appointed Molotov (May 3). Stalin rejected the British proposal when it arrived as unequal (May 11). Stalin felt with some validity that the proposed British pact demanded more of the Sv's than Britain and France. (Given the Allied response to the invasion of Poland, he was probably right.) Molotov responded to the Allies with a suggsted joint immediate mutual defense pact and guarantees for the Baltics and Balkans. Molotov invited Foreign Secretary Halifax to Moscow to discuss this. Eden would have also been effctive. Instead Chamberlain sent William Strang, a lower level offical giving Stalin the idea that the Allies did not attach great importance to a Soviet alliance. A draft agreement was reached (July 23). It provided for "immediatly all effective assisatnce" in case of attack. The agreement also covered Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey. Lituania was apparently not covered. Hitler had seized Memel (March 1939) and apprently the negotiators considered it already lost to the NAZIs. [Black, pp. 520-522.] The term "effective assistance was not defined and was far short of war. Hitler of course made a much btter offer, sweetened with acceptance of actual territorial concessions t the Soviet Union--of course the territory of other countries. Not only was the German deal better, but Stalin saw the British as essentially involved in a conspiracy of leading him to a war with Hitler that they could sit out. Stalin saw how the Cechs were abaonded, as well as the Little Entente by France. The American assessments in 1939 was that if the British and French failed to make an arrangement with Stalin, Hitler might well do this.


President Roosevelt had hoped to involve the Soviet Union in the effort to stop Hitler. The President in 1939, however, had little to offer the Soviets. [Freidel, p. 319.] The President had without success tried to arrange the construction of a battleship. He was also interested in an exchnge of intelligence. In early August the U.S. Embsssy in Berlin reported that there were diplomatic contacts betweem Germany and Russia. Roosevelt cabled Stalin profetically warning that if France fell, Russia would face Germany alone. [Black 528.] Based on his own experience with the British Foreign Office, Roosevelt had no confidence that the Allies could pull this off.

Preliminary German Contacts

German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on August 14, 1939, first contacted the Soviets. Ribbentrop flew to Moscow to meet with Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov. An economic agreement was signed August 19. The agreement provided for an exchange of Soviet food and raw materials in exchange for German machinery and manufactured goods. The raw materiald provided by the Soviet played a major role in the Geman war economy and significantly reducd the impact of the Allied blockade.

Agreement (August 23, 1939)

NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

The Agreement

The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was to last for 10 years.


The Pact shocked the world. Hitler had spoke so often and with so much vitriol about the Bolshevicks that most assumed that any kind of alliance was impossible. Stalin had been at the forfront of fighting Fascism. Stalin was the only world leader to offer effective assistance to the Republic. The purpose was immedietly apparent to all. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts.

Secret Protocol

What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The Soviets received the Baltic Repulics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). Poland was divided along the Narew, Vistula, and San rivers. These were all areas that had been par of the old Rusian Empire.

Stalin's Calculations

Western historians constantly refer to the affect of Munich on Stalin's psyche. This is undoubtedly true, although there is no way of knowing just what went through Stalin's mind. Even his cloest associates were often not sure and of course there is no memoir, not that they would have been very revealing had they been written. In fairness, however, we often do not know what the calculations Roosevelt was making. We can only guess at Stalin's calculations. Munich was undoubtedly a factor. Another factor was Stalin's suscpicious nature. He not only believed that the Allies were unreliable, but their purpose was to push im in a war with Germany. Thus an arrangement with Hitler would deflect the German armies west. In effect, Stalin was doing to the Allies what he thought the Allies were trying to do to him. Now as President Roosevelt pointed out, a German defea of France would be disastrous for the Soviet Union. Stalin's calculation was, however, that war in the West would not end in a few days. Most at the time credited the French army as a powerful force. Stalin would not have imagined that the French would collapse within only 5 weeks. Rather he reasoned that war in the West would significantly weaken the Germans. Also Stalin had no idea how much his purges had weakened the Soviet military. He had spent vast sums in building the largest army and air force in the world. And as a result of the agreement with Hitler, he was able to push the Soviet bounfaries west, providing a buffe around the Russian heartland of the Soviet Union. In fact even though the NAZIs in Barbrossa penetrated to Lenningrad and Moscow, mist of the fighting in the East was in the Balics, White Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine and not in Russia itself.

Poland (September 1, 1939)

The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland launching World War II (September 1, 1939). Britain and France declared war (September 3). The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began on September 1, 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. Britain and France declared war September 3. Within 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention, abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came. [Fest, pp. 602-603.] Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east.

NAZI-Soviet Cooperation

The NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939) essentially made the NAZIs and Soviets allies. The Soviets never joined the Axis, although Japanese diplomats argued that they should be allowed to join. Even so, the Soviets were a very important NAZI ally. World War II histories generally mention the Pact in terms of making possible the NAZI invasion of Poland and then generally provide littleadditional information on the Pact and the NAZI-Soviet alliance. This is in part because after the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviets became a key element of the Allied struggle against the Axis. And this Soviet aggressions were inconvenient in depicging the struggle with the Axis as one between good and evil. Unfortunaltely, subsequent historians have focused on NAZI campaigns and occupation policies and generally left untouched the 2 years in which the NAZIs and Soviets cooperated. There was extensive cooperation between the two powers as they proceeded to divide Europe between themselves. The relation was troubled over differences between how Eastern Europe was to be divided, espcially disagreements over Finland, Lithuania, and Romania. With the Royal Navy blockade in place, the Soviet Union became Germany's most important supplier of strategic materials. The Soviets also facilitated contacts between Germany and Japan.

Soviet Aggressions

Although it is the NAZI aggressions that are most commonly addressed in World War II histories, the Soviet Union compiled nearly as long a list of aggressions as the NAZIs. Operating within secret protocols to the Non-agression Pact, Hitler and Stalin were in fact close partners in the waging of aggressive war. The Great Patriotic War fought against the NAZIs after the 1941 German invsion came to be an icon in Soviet history. Left unsaid was the fact that Hitler and Stalin were partners in the virtul partition of Europe.

Molotov-Hitler Discussions (November 1940)

NAZI and Soviet military actions had been so successful that the two powers now bordered each other and had overlapping interests in other areas. Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov came to Berlin to iron out differences resulting from their spectacular successes and to discuss a broad range of political and economic issues. Molotov met with both Ribbontrop and Hitler. The meeting with Hitler is fascinating. Hitler had already decided to invade the Soviet Union and ordered his generals to prepare the plans. (The final orders to the Wehrmacht had not been given, but there can be little doubt that Hitler had made up his mind. Not all historians agree with this assessment, but we believe that the destruction of the Soviet Union and the acquisition of Lebensraum in the East had been central to his thinking since the 1920s. His commanders delivered the draft invasion he requested 3 weeks after his meeting with Molotov. He then issued Directive No. 21 Operation Barbarossa 2 weeks after that.) Despite this, Hitler invited Stalin to join the Tripartite Axis Pact. As an inducement he was offered important parts of the British Empire, namely India. (Hitler was adept at attracting allies by offering other country's territories.) Hitler assured Molotov that Britain was a defeated country. (British air raids while Molotov was in Berlin did not help with this asertion.) He suggested that thus decessions about the division of the Empire needed to be made. Hitler told Molotov that Germany and Italy were interested in Africa, the territory south of Europe. He suggested that the Soviet Union might also want to move to the south against British India. In effect a renewal of the Great Game. What Hitler surely was thinking is that to the extent Stalin moved south and engaged Britain, it would weaken Soviet forces in Europe where he planned to attack. Molotov did not dismiss the suggestion, but his focus was on Eastern Rurope. He wanted to discuss Finland and the Balkans, two areas where Soviet and NAZI interests overlapped. Stalin had fairly cosistently persued a policy of regaining the Tsarist boundaries whivh included Finland. And of course Stalin shared the Tsarist concern in extending Russian interests in the Balkans. Hitler was unwilling for Stalin to expand further in Finland in part or racial reasons. In the Balkans Hitler was unwilling to accecpt significant Soviet expabnsion, primarily because the Ploesti oilfields were Germany's principal source of petroleum. One area to the south that did interest the Soviets was Iran. The Molotov-Hitler agreement (November 26, 1940) addressed the Soviet demand that "the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognized as the center of the aspirations of the Soviet Union." This of course meant Iran. Interestingly at a time when there was considerable support for the NAZIs in Iran, the same NAZIs were colluding with the Soviet Union in effect to develop a new colonial empire in the Middle East. Hitler was more than willing to agree because it furthered his interest in enducing the Soviets to move south and engage the British.

Soviet Historiography

The Soviet approach to inconvinient history was simply to deny it. This was for example to simply deny it. This ewas, for example, the approach to the NKVD murders of the Polish officers in the Katyn Forrest. It was a major problem for Soviet librarians. Leaders that were major figures in the 1920s became traitors and enenies when Stalin began the purges. NKVD men would actually go into libraries and cut out artivcles and photographs from old newspapers, magazines, encylopediasa, and books. The NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was a special problem because it was too big an event to be ignored or denied. The basic approach was to claim that the British and French were about to sign an agreement with Hitler that would have allowed him to invade the Soviet Union without fear of this western frontier. And that Stalin acted first to prevent that from happening. Soviet historians also claim that Stalin approved the agreement to buy time. Now knowing just what was going through SDtalin's mind is impossible. He left not memnoirs and even had he done so, his veracity would have certainly been questionable. It is almost certainly the case that buying time was a factor. Stalin had in the Great Purges decimsated the officer corps which significantly weakened the Red Army as well as the Air Force. While we can not know what was in Stalin's mind, the historography of England, France, and Germany is well established by historians. There was no effort by Britain and France to sign another agreement with Hitler after Munish. Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in complete violation of the Munich Agreement proved to even a committed peace advocate like Chamberlain that it was impossible to negotiate with Hitler. Stalin may have after Munich had good reason to be sceptical that France and Britain would fight the Germans, but he had no reason to believe that they were conspiring against the Soviet Union. The most likely calculation that Stalin was making was that Germany and the Allies (Britain and France) would wage a World War I-style war of attrition and that after they had fought wach other to a drawl that the Soviet Union could then invade. An even greater problem for Soviet historians than the Pact itself was the existince of the secret protocols to the Pact which essentially carved up Europe between the two dictators. Soviet historians simply denied theie existence. It was only after mass demonstrations on the 50th anniversary of the Pact that a Soviet commission finally acknowledged that the secret protocals existed (1989). The actual texts were, however, not published until the disolution of the Soviet Union (1992). The Pact and protocals continue to be an embarrassment for Prime Minister Putin who continue to focus on World War to glorify the Soiviet Union. Putin has recently called for law to make it a crime for historians to denegrate the Sovie role in World War II.


Black, Conrad. Franklin Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs: New York, 2003), 1280p.

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Shirer, William. CBS Broadcast from New York, July 14. 1939. Shirer was wrong abouit the Soviets, but he was right that the East was Hitler's primary objective and would eventually lead to war between the two great totalitarian powers. He also put his finger on the problems with the German-Japanese relarionship. Hitler's decesion to negotiate the alliasnce with the Soviets would damage his relationship with the Japanese. It would undercut the Strike North faction in the Japanese military. The result would be the victory of the Strike South Faction. This would mean that within the space of 6 months (June-December 1941), Hitler would find himself at war with not only the British, but an undefeated Soviet Union a unified United States. Japan was an ally, but an ally unwilling to take the only step that would significantly assist Germany, invade the Sioviet Uniom.


Navigate the CIH World War II Pages:
[Return to Main Communism page]
[Return to Main Soviet World War II page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: February 16, 2003
Last updated: 1:01 AM 5/31/2011