The Nazi-Soviet Pact was a non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR. Also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the agreement was signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939. It remained in effect for almost two years, until the Germans broke the pact on 22 June 1941 by invading the USSR.
The pact was a surprise to contemporary observers. The Nazis hated communism and the Soviets hated fascism. So why did these ideologically opposed powers enter into such an agreement?
The first Nazi-Soviet talks failed
In 1933, the Nazi party gained power in Germany and Hitler set about implementing his aggressive rearmament programme. Stalin considered creating an alliance with the increasingly powerful Nazi leader, but ideological differences prevented this from taking place.
Instead, Stalin turned to western liberal democracies and joined the League of Nations in September 1934. Members of the League similarly opposed communism, but they accepted the USSR into the body as a potential ally against any future aggression from Nazi Germany.
Stalin grew impatient
Despite joining the League, Stalin opposed Britain and France’s appeasement policy, which he believed was encouraging the Nazis to march east against the Soviets.
In the spring of 1939, it seemed likely that Britain and France would soon be at war with Hitler, and Stalin feared German military aggression. In April of that year, the Soviet foreign minister, Maxim Litvinov, proposed a treaty of collective security between Britain, France and the USSR.
However, Britain and France took six weeks to reply and Stalin grew impatient. He dismissed Litvinov for being too friendly to Britain and France and appointed Vyacheslav Molotov. The Soviet leader then held secret talks with both sides in order to obtain the best deal for the USSR.
The pact proposals
In May 1939, Molotov initiated secret talks with Germany about a potential alliance. Hitler offered Stalin a non-aggression pact, which stated that Germany would not attack the USSR and that the two countries would remain neutral if attacked by external forces. Hitler also promised the USSR eastern Poland and territories it had lost during World War One, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Before signing a treaty with Germany, however, Stalin first wanted to hear Britain and France’s offer. In August 1939, representatives from Britain, France and the USSR met in Leningrad.
They envisioned a pact stating that the USSR would join Britain and France in the fight against Germany if the Nazis invaded Poland. Yet, Soviet troops would not be allowed to enter Poland. The USSR would also receive no extra land and would likely be at war very soon.
The choice was easy: Stalin chose to ally with Hitler. The agreement seemingly marked the official end of Nazi-Soviet hostility. On 23 August 1939, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Russian foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
What happened to Poland?
A secret protocol in the pact stated that Germany and the USSR would divide and occupy Poland and bring their shares of the country under their respective spheres of influence. Both the Nazis and the Soviets subsequently invaded Poland.
Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and the campaign that followed was short yet destructive, with bombing raids devastating Poland’s physical landscape.
The Red Army likewise invaded the country on 17 September 1939. Poland was only able to resist for six weeks before surrendering on 6 October 1939.
Germany and the USSR subsequently divided Poland into separate occupation zones. The USSR annexed areas east of the Narew, Vistula and San rivers, while Germany annexed western Poland. The Nazis also united southern Poland with northern parts of Ukraine to create the “General Government”, a Nazi-occupied zone.
The pact remained in effect for almost two years. On 22 June 1941, it was declared void when Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the USSR. This was a crucial turning point in the war, as it led to the USSR joining the Allies in the fights against the Nazis and Axis powers.
At the end of the war, the Red Army found itself entering Poland once again, only this time it was to liberate the Poles from Nazi occupation.
Even after the war, the Soviet government continued to deny the existence of the secret protocol to divide and occupy Poland. It was only revealed, acknowledged and denounced in 1989 with the fall of the USSR.