Stalin-Hitler Pact: Buying Time?

Against the Current, No. 9, May/June 1987

Joshua P. Kiok

DEBATES ON ANCIENT history have their obvious limitations. However, I just could not leave unanswered R.F. Kampfer’s “random shots” on the “political atrocity” of the Soviet-German Treaty of Non-Aggression of 1939 that appeared in the May-June 1986 issue of Against The Current (ATC #3).

One of the deepest fears of the Soviet Union was to fight Nazi Germany alone. The overriding aim of their pre-World War II diplomacy was to avoid this nightmare. As the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 approached, the Soviets suspected that if they fought against Germany then, the Western powers would sit back and gleefully watch them bleed each other to death.

This not ungrounded fear was compounded by Poland’s adamant refusal to allow the Red Army to pass through Polish territory on its way to meet the invading Germans. (Poland is situated between Germany and the Soviet Union.) Poland’s allies, Great Britain and France, were unwilling to pressure the Poles to grant the Red Army this right of transit. This was in stark contrast to their almost hysterical willingness to force Czechoslovakia to accept its own dismemberment at Munich in 1938.

Subsequent events amply justified the Soviet Union’s suspicions. Though Britain and France declared war on Germany after Poland was invaded, they did not attack Germany. This was in spite of the guarantees they had given to Poland and in spite of the fact that Germany’s western border with France was left relatively undefended. (Who really stabbed Poland in the back?) As the Wehrmacht General Jodl, who was eventually executed at Nurenberg, testified:

“If we did not collapse in 1939 that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions.” (W.L. Shirer, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, 840)

This period between the invasion of Poland and the invasion of France in May 1940 has been variously referred to as The Phony War and the Sitzkrieg because even though they were nominally at war with Germany, Great Britain and France were not engaged in any significant land-based hostilities with Germany. They were more content with sitting behind the Maginot Line and watching the fascist army march eastwards.

The publicly released Treaty of Non-Aggression signed on August 23, 1939 between the Soviet Union and Germany promised Soviet neutrality in the upcoming conflict between Germany and Poland. Also signed was a Secret Additional Protocol which recognized the Soviet Union’s dominance in eastern Poland, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, and Bessarabia in eastern Romania.

The “idiotic” military perspective of these treaties merely gave the Soviet Union an additional twenty-two months of time to prepare for war and placed the German war machine an additional 150- 200 miles westward for their June 22, 1941 offensive against the Soviet Union. This can hardly be construed as a disadvantage.

A.J.P. Taylor commented in The Origins of the Second World War:

“… from the point of view of 28 August 1939, it is difficult to see .what other course Soviet Russia could have followed. The Soviet apprehensions of a European alliance against Russia were exaggerated, though not groundless. But, quite apart from this given the Polish refusal of Soviet aid neutrality, with or without a formal pact, was the most that Soviet diplomacy could attain; and limitation of German gains in Poland and the Baltic was the inducement which made a formal pact attractive. The policy was right according to the textbooks of diplomacy. It contained all the same a grave blunder; by concluding a written agreement, the Soviet statesmen, like Western statesmen before them, slipped into the delusion that Hitler would keep his word.” (253)

As far as Finland was concerned, the Soviets desired to strengthen their frontier with Finland which was only thirty kilometers from Leningrad. The Soviets feared that Finland would be used as a springboard for an attack on them which is exactly what happened in June 1941.

Negotiations between the Soviet Union and Finland failed and the Soviet Union invaded Finland during the Winter War of 1939-40 in which the Red Army ultimately prevailed. (Trotsky supported the Soviet Union in this war, although he criticized some of its military tactics.)

Since Hitler came to power the Soviet Union actively campaigned for an anti-fascist coalition. Unfortunately there were no takers among the “Western Democracies.”

This is just a mere outline of some of the background and repercussion of the Non­Aggression Treaty of 1939. The issues are complex. To glibly dismiss it as “totally idiotic” and a “political atrocity” is certainly an oversimplification and arguably incorrect.

–Joshua P. Kiok
Granada Hills, CA

May-June 1987, ATC 9

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