Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

[By Patrick Foley]

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is the official treaty of non-aggression agreed upon by Germany and the USSR on 23 August in 1939. In order to understand the treaty and the “Secret Additional Protocol,” it is important to consider the context within which the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact emerged. By 1939, the Third Reich had already begun annexing significant portions of Eastern Europe in order to fulfill the policy of Lebensraum, a core component of Nazi ideology, calling for new “Living Space” in the East for the German people. Hitler had also repeatedly spoken about his belief in Slavic racial inferiority, and it soon became apparent that Germany posed an imminent threat to the USSR. Anti-ethnic sentiments were a driving force behind foreign policy. At the time, the USSR was facing an internal struggle and wanted to avoid a war with Germany. Stalin’s purge of the top-level Russian general staff, as well as the rapid program of industrialization undertaken by Stalin, left Russia ill-equipped for a massive war. A war with Germany would require the Soviet union to divert most major resources towards the conflict, and it would become difficult for Stalin to continue reforming domestic programs.

Cartoon by David Low, published in the Evening Standard: 20 September 1939. Image courtesy of ceweb2.uml.edu

Initially, Stalin and his top deputies attempted to remedy the situation by reaching out to the Western powers for support. However, after negotiations with France and England over a Triple Alliance began to fall apart, Russian foreign officials opened the door to a treaty with Germany (Roberts, 67). Soon after, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister began to correspond with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister. The two parties agreed to a formal treaty during a summit in Moscow. The treaty that emerged pledged that both Russia and Germany were committed to non-aggression. The two major powers also agreed to a “Secret Additional Protocol” that divided Northeastern Europe into Soviet and German spheres of influence (Roberts, 67). The “Secret Additional Protocol” provided a general outline of the territorial claims made by Germany and the USSR over the land belonging to Poland and the Baltic States.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had dire consequences for the people living in the Western Borderlands, in particular the citizens of Poland. Within a matter of days of the announcement of the non-aggression treaty, Germany launched its planned invasion of Poland. Without the threat of Russia retaliating on behalf of Western Poles, the German Army easily advanced without significant opposition. Great Britain and France finally declared war following the German invasion of Poland, but they could offer little support given the dual-threat of German and Russian forces in the region. Moreover, Great Britain and France could little afford to extend their troops when it seemed inevitable that the Nazis would soon invade their respective homelands.

As the Third Reich expanded into the new territories, the USSR did not stay inactive. The Red Army began its own advance into Poland on 17 September. In the “Secret Additional Protocol,” Russia and Germany informally agreed to divide their expansion into Poland along the Narew, Vistula and San Rivers on 23 August, 1941 (Roberts, 70). Although it is unclear whether the two powers formally outlined the terms for partitioning Poland, it seemed generally understood by both sides that Germany would occupy the land West of the rivers while Russia would remain in the East (Roberts, 73).

Beyond the occupation of Poland, one of the primary effects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the incorporation of several Baltic states into the USSR. More so than Poland, Russia’s diplomatic agents were concerned about increasing Soviet access and influence throughout the Baltic states. As evidence, the first clause in the “Secret Additional Protocol” called for Russian access to the Baltic territories, including the Northern border of Lithuania (Roberts, 73). Stalin viewed the treaty as an unprecedented opportunity to expand into these distant borderlands and to establish a bulwark against Germany. While Germany and Russia had just agreed upon a treaty, Stalin was rightfully skeptical of Hitler’s expansionist tendencies. Therefore, Stalin believed that he should preserve the peace as long as possible so that fortifications in the Baltic states might provide some additional safety for Russia (Mastny, 1367). Stalin was eager to avoid prolonged conflict with Germany. However, if Germany were to renege on the treaty and declare war against the Soviet Union, Stalin reasoned that the Molotov-Ribbentrop would allow Russia additional time to settle the Baltic states and prepare in the case of a German invasion.

In addition to military and strategic advantages, an unexpected consequence of the treaty was the rise of early nationalist movements within certain Baltic states. For example, many Latvian nationalists of the 1990s trace their ideological motivations back to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Vizulius, 37). The Soviet Union pursued aggressive policies within the newly acquired Baltic states, and this process of incorporation undoubtedly left its mark on the three states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (Loeber, 6). Russian officials believed that Sovietization policies were a necessary step towards achieving protection against Germany. While these states provided a buffer against Germany, it also seems likely that Russia had imperialist ambitions to expand into these territories regardless of the war. Russian intervention in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had become commonplace since Tsarist expanisonist policies in the nineteenth century.

The USSR was unwilling to accept any criticism of these policies, despite allegations of wrongdoing by international critics and national protesters alike. Even today, the Russian state has been reluctant to apologize for the occupation of the Baltic States, claiming that these states readily agreed to the entry of Soviet forces in 1939 and 1940 (Loeber, 7). Tellingly, however the Soviet Union refused to acknowledge the existence of the “Secret Additional Protocol” until Christmas Eve of 1989 (Loeber, 7). According to the Soviet narrative, these territories were rightfully incorporated into the larger framework of empire without any resistance.

While the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact only remained in effect until Germany initiated Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941, the treaty had far-reaching consequences that spanned beyond the Second World War. The two years of non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union afforded Stalin the opportunity to extend Russian influence into parts of Poland and the Baltic States. Stalin was quite committed to staying out of war with Germany. There is even evidence to suggest that Stalin attempted to negotiate a separate peace with Germany in 1943, long after the invasion of Russia’s mainland had begun (Mastny, 1370). Despite his hesitation, the Second World War later assumed an almost mythic status as the Great Patriotic War in the Russian historical narrative. The desires and ambitions of the nationalists within Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, were thus ignored in the name of Soviet hegemony. Soviet officials in Moscow often overlooked how the empire actually acquired the aforementioned territories, and did little to acknowledge the nationalist movements. The effects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact can still be felt today as these Baltic states struggle to distinguish their separate pre-war national identity within the larger framework of Soviet occupation following the Second World War.

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                                                     Works Cited

D.A. Loeber, “Consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact for Lithuania of Today: International Law Aspects.” Harvard International Law Journal (1997)

Geoffrey Roberts, “The Soviet decision for a Pact with Nazi Germany.” Soviet Studies 44, no. 1 (1992): 57-78.

Joseph Vizulius, The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939: the Baltic Case (New York: Praeger, 1990).

Vojtech Mastny, “Stalin and the Prospects of a Separate Peace in World War II.” American Historical Review 77, no. 5 (1972): 1365-1388.

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