Tag Archives: Hitler

Remembering the Past: Hitler and Stalin Neutrality Pact (1939)

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands over the newly signed pact between Germany and Soviet Union. August 23,1939
Source: German Federal Archive

On August 23, 1939 it was announced that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression treaty. The pact has various names but was commonly known as the Nazi–Soviet Pact or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Both countries had suffered in World War I. Both ended with their monarchies toppled and both started as nascent democracies. Neither survived and both countries became ruled by authoritarian states. In Russia, the Communists seized power and for a while sought to bring about promised world-wide revolution that never happened thanks to British efforts to expose their purposes in neighboring countries. Germany fell into NAZI power because Hitler promised to end the chaos, bring order, and restore German power in Europe.

By 1939 though, it was evident Germany was on a collision course in Europe. The winds of war were certainly blowing with the French and British appeasing Germany. The view in Moscow was simple: they did not want war with Germany but saw Hitler as the means to weaken and divide Europe to their advantage. The view there was that an all out war in the West would so weaken them that they would be able to infiltrate and take over (either by stealth or force). Stalin too wanted territory and the Nazi-Soviet Pact gave his country much of what it needed: spheres of influence. Poland and Romania were divided between the two in secret protocols to the pact. And the countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland were similarly divided as well. It gave them access to raw materials (iron, coal etc) and oil. All needed to build up the Soviet Union. For Hitler it was strategy. He wanted to invade Poland but did not want to risk war with the Soviets at that time. Although the officer corps had been severely depleted during the Great Purge of 1936-1938 (aided in part by the German Gestapo who created documents that implicated military officers or party officials of spying for Germany or others),the Soviet Union was not underestimated either.

The announcement of the pact was sensational. Many were aghast and surprised the two would sign such a pact. And when Hitler invaded Poland in September, Stalin invaded a few days later to claim the territory ceded to him in the secret parts of the pact.

Aftermath
Stalin unfortunately believed Hitler would hold up his end of the bargain. He thought Hitler would be more interested in subduing the West rather than heading East. And he also believed Hitler would not want a two front war. He was wrong. Despite getting warnings from the British and his own intelligence services, Hitler invaded on Sunday, June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa had as its goal to completely defeat the Soviet Union, kill its leadership, and reduce its population so that German settlers would occupy the land. The Germans had initial successes but after the failure of Battle of Moscow in 1942, the German army would be held back and a vicious war between the two countries along what was called the Eastern Front would emerge. It ended up demanding more resources and manpower that caused severe problems for Hitler. The Soviet Union was being supplied by the Allies (at great cost to those doing the dangerous supply missions from the North Atlantic to Murmansk). Ultimately as Germany became weaker after Allied forces invaded Europe and the Soviet Union pushed through towards Berlin, Hitler was forced to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Russians.

Stalin though came out ahead in the end. After expanding westward to push back the German army, the Soviet Union would hold on to the territory it gained. Communist parties would gain control in everyone of those countries creating, as Winston Churchill would say later, an Iron Curtain. East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria were all part of that curtain with the Soviet Union. Only Czechoslovakia would stay out of the Warsaw Pact but only because Tito had an independent streak but otherwise was a dedicated Communist. Only after the fall of Communism in Russia in 1992 would many of these states finally be liberated from the Soviet Union.

Today in History:The Infamous Munich Pact

By 1938 there was no doubt anymore about the intentions of Germany’s Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. European nations were generally worried about a major war and to that end the two biggest powers in Europe: France and Great Britain, sought to avert it. It was based on the experience of the First World War in which millions had died. The aftermath of that war was a sentiment that total war must be averted at all costs. So far all of Hitler’s violations of treaties, such as occupying the Rhineland in 1936, had caused no major retribution even if it was a major violation of the Treaty of Versailles that Germany had agreed to in 1918.

In spring 1938, Hitler claimed that German-speaking people living in Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia wanted closer ties with Germany and began agitating that unless this was done it would be taken by force. Hitler claimed that this region was part of a Greater Germany. Needless to say, the Czechoslovakian government was concerned. Hitler had annexed Austria in 1938 and he might just do the same to Sudeten. Czechoslovakia had a pact with both France and Great Britain to come to its defense. Neither power was interested in having to defend Czechoslovakia on the battlefield. Both Britain and France sought to avoid a war and both agreed, without bothering to consult with the Czechoslovakians, they would give Hitler what he wanted. The deal was that in areas of fifty percent or more German Sudetens would go to Germany.

Hitler though, sensing he could get a lot more, wanted to put German soldiers in Sudeten and that Czechoslovakian army had to leave by 28 Sept 1938. This caused a crisis resulting in the Munich Conference of 29 Sep 1939. In attendance were British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, French premier Édouard Daladier, and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini presented a plan (that imitated a German proposal) which allowed German military occupation and an international commission to resolve disputes. It was formally agreed to on 30 Sep 1938. Czechoslovakia was presented with this agreement and had no choice but to accept or face immediate invasion. Chamberlain would get Hitler to sign a treaty and proclaim later, upon arrival in Britain, that he delivered “peace for our time.”

Aftermath
Germany acquired not only territory but the industrial resources that it needed (raw ore, steel and iron production, electrical plants). Czechoslovakia was diminished as a result. While many in public in Britain and France heralded the agreement as avoiding war, there were warnings it was wrong. Winston Churchill was critical of the deal and how they had abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The British Labor Party opposed the deal as well. A view began to emerge and would continue long after, that Britain and France wanted to get out of the military pact as they were not ready for war. Was Hitler bluffing or not also is discussed as well. The evidence is that Germany could have invaded but got what it wanted without firing a shot. And it was handed to Hitler on a platter by two powers that in the last war had been Germany’s enemies. It could not have been a greater present for Hitler.

Czechoslovakia was doomed by the pact. In October 1938, it was forced to hand over under the Vienna Award territory in its south to Hungary and a small concession to Poland. In March 1939, after Slovakia seceded to become a pro-German state, Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia accede to German occupation, which it did. Czechoslovakia then became a protectorate of the Third Reich. Churchill’s warning had come true. With his policy of appeasement now deemed a total failure, Neville Chamberlain realized that it was time to mobilize for war. The French would likewise make preparations (but so entrenched was the avoidance of total war doctrine failed to act when it had the option to do so when most of the German army was invading Poland). In September 1939, World War II would officially begin with the invasion of Poland and declaration of war by Britain and France on Germany.

The lesson of the Munich Pact is that making short term deals with dictators to gain a moment of peace comes at a high cost. The Czechs were abandoned by Britain and France to their fate because neither one wanted to stand up to Hitler. Both Chamberlain and his French counterpart would live to see how badly it would turn out. After war broke out,  Chamberlan’s popularity fell and would resign on 10 May 1940 and replaced by Winston Churchill though remained in the Cabinet. He would die in November 1940. Édouard Daladier, who was under no illusions as to Hitler’s goals (but knew support for standing up to Hitler was thin),had resigned his position in March 1940 but was still minister of defense when Germany invaded. He would be arrested and charged with treason by the German supported Vichy government and imprisoned. He would be imprisoned in several places, including the Buchenwald concentration camp and ended up in Itter Castle in Tyrol with other French dignitaries until liberated on 5 May 1945 after the Battle of Itter . He would return to the Chamber of Deputies after the war, served as mayor of Avignon, and died in Paris in 1970.