Roger Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance:
Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41
On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union stunned the world by executing a non-aggression pact, sometimes referred to as the “Ribbentrop-Molotov” accord after the foreign ministers of the two countries. The pact, executed in Moscow, seemed to come out of nowhere and was inexplicable to large portions of the world’s population, not least to German and Soviet citizens. Throughout most of the 1930s, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had vilified the other as its archenemy. Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany in no small measure because he offered the country and especially its privileged elites protection from the Bolshevik menace emanating from the Soviet Union. Stalin’s Russia viewed the forces of Fascism and Nazism as dark and virulent manifestations of Western imperialism and global capitalism that threatened the Soviet Union.
In his fascinating and highly readable account of the pact, The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41, Roger Moorhouse, an independent British historian, writes that the “bitter enmity between the Nazis and the Soviets had been considered as a given, one of the fixed points of political life. Now, overnight, it had apparently been consigned to history. The signature of the pact, then, was one of those rare moments in history where the world – with all its norms and assumptions – appeared to have been turned on its head” (p.142). Or, as one commentator quipped at the time, the pact turned “all our –isms into –wasisms” (p.2).
According to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, when the Fûhrer learned at his mountain retreat that Stalin had accepted the broad outlines of the proposal Ribbentrop carried to Moscow, Hitler “stared into space for a moment, flushed deeply, then banged on the table so hard that the glasses rattled, and exclaimed in a voice breaking with excitement, ‘I have them! I have them!’” (p.35). But Moorhouse quotes Stalin a few pages later telling his adjutants, “Of course, it’s all a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler’s up to. He thinks he’s outsmarted me but actually it’s I who has tricked him” (p.44).
Which devil got the better of the other is an open and perhaps unanswerable question. For Germany, the pact allowed Hitler to attack Poland a little over a week later without having to worry about Soviet retaliation and, once Poland was eliminated, to pursue his aims elsewhere in Europe without a two-front war reminiscent of Germany’s situation in World War I up to Russia’s surrender after the Bolshevik revolution. The conventional view is that for the Soviet Union, which had always looked upon war with Nazi Germany as inevitable, the pact at a minimum bought time to continue to modernize and mobilize its military forces.
But, Moorhouse argues, Stalin was interested in far more than simply buying time. He also sought to “exploit Nazi aggression to his own ends, to speed up the fall of the West and the long awaited collapse of the West” (p.2). The non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany provided the Soviet Union with an opportunity to expand its influence westward and recapture territory lost to Russia after World War I. The pact ended almost exactly 22 months after its execution, on June 22, 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the code name given to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But during the pact’s 22-month existence, both Hitler and Stalin extended their authority over wide swaths of Europe. By June 1941, the two dictators — the two devils — between them controlled nearly half of the continent.
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As late as mid-August 1939, Soviet diplomats were pursuing an anti-Nazi collective defense agreement with Britain and France. But Stalin and his diplomats suspected that the British and the French “would be happy to cut a deal with Hitler at their expense” (p.24). Sometime that month, Stalin concluded that no meaningful collective defense agreement with the Western powers was feasible. Through the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, therefore, Stalin preempted the British and French at what he considered their own duplicitous game. Three days prior to the signing of the non-aggression pact, on August 20, 1939, Berlin and Moscow executed a commercial agreement that provided for formalized exchanges of raw materials from the Soviet Union and industrial goods from Germany. This agreement had been in the works for months and, unlike the non-non-agression pact, had been followed closely in capitals across the globe.
The non-aggression pact that followed on August 23rd was a short and in general non-descript document, in which each party guaranteed non-belligerence to the other and pledged in somewhat oblique terms that it would neither ally itself nor aid an enemy of the other party. But a highly secret protocol accompanied the pact — so secret that, on the Soviet side, historians suspect, “only Stalin and Molotov knew of its existence” (p.39); so secret that the Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge its existence until the Gorbachev era, three years after Molotov had gone to his grave denying the existence of any such instrument. The protocol divided Poland into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of interest” to apply in the event of a “territorial and political rearrangement of the area belonging to the Polish state” (p.306).
The accompanying protocol contained similar terms for Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, anticipating future “territorial and political rearrangements” of these countries. The protocol also acknowledged Moscow’s “interest in” Bessarabia, the eastern portion of today’s Moldova, then part of Romania, for which Germany declared its “complete disinterest” (p.306). For Stalin, the pact and its secret protocol marked what Moorhouse terms an “astounding success,” in which he reacquired a claim to “almost all of the lands lost by the Russian Empire in the maelstrom of the First World War” (p.37). Moorhouse’s chapters on how the Soviets capitalized on the pact and accompanying secret protocol support the view that the Soviet and Nazi regimes, although based on opposing ideologies, were similar at least in one particular sense: both were ruthless dictatorships with no scruples inhibiting territorial expansion at the expense of less powerful neighbors.
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After Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939 (eight days almost to the hour after execution of the pact), the Soviet Union followed suit by invading Poland from the east on September 17th. The Nazi and Soviet occupiers embarked upon a “simultaneous cleansing of Polish society,” with the Nazis motivated “primarily by concerns of race and the Soviets mainly by class-political criteria” (p.57). Moorhouse recounts in detail the most chilling example of Soviet class cleansing, the infamous Katyn Forest massacre, where the Soviets methodically executed approximately 21,000 Polish prisoners of war – high-ranking Army officers, aristocrats, Catholic priests, lawyers, and others, all deemed “class enemies.” Stalin attributed the massacre to the Nazis, and official acknowledgement of Soviet responsibility did not come until 1990, one year prior to the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
The Soviet Union browbeat Estonia into a “mutual assistance” treaty that, nominally, obligated both parties to respect the other’s independence. Yet, by allowing for the establishment of Soviet military bases on Estonian soil, the treaty “fatally undermined Estonian sovereignty. Estonia was effectively at Stalin’s mercy” (p.77). Similar tactics were employed in Lithuania and Latvia. By mid-October 1939, barely six weeks after signing the pact, Stalin had “moved to exercise control of most of the territory that he had been promised by Hitler” in the secret protocol, “securing the stationing of around 70,000 Red Army troops in the three Baltic states, a larger force than the combined standing armies of the three countries” (p.78). By August 1940, each Baltic state had become a Soviet constituent republic.
The Soviet Union also invaded Finland in November 1939 and fought what proved to be a costly winter war against the brave Finns, who resisted heroically. The war demonstrated to the world – and, significantly, to Nazi Germany itself – the weaknesses of the Red Army. It ended in a standstill in March 1940, with Moscow annexing small pieces of Finnish territory, but with no Soviet occupation or puppet government. The Soviet Union also wiped out Bessarabia. Although the secret protocol had explicitly recognized Soviet interest in Bessarabia, Hitler saw the Soviet move as a “symbol of Stalin’s undiminished territorial ambition.” Though he said nothing in public, Moorhouse writes, “Hitler complained to his adjutants that the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia signified the ‘first Russian attack on Western Europe’” (p.107).
In the same timeframe, Hitler extended Nazi domination over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg and Northern France, as well as much of Poland, some 800,000 square kilometers. Hitler and Stalin thus divided up Europe in 1940, with Nazi Germany becoming the preeminent power on the continent. Stalin “did less well territorially, with only around half of Hitler’s haul at 422, 000 square kilometers, but was arguably better placed to actually absorb his gains, given that all of them were long standing Russian irredentia, with some tradition of rule from Moscow and all were neatly contiguous to the western frontier of the USSR” (p.106).
Hitler’s concerns about the extent of Soviet territorial ambitions in Europe after its annexation of Bessarabia were magnified when the Soviets also demanded nearby northern Burkovina, a small parcel of land under Romanian control, nestled between Bessarabia and Ukraine. Northern Burkovina was Stalin’s first demand for territory beyond what the secret protocol had slated for Moscow. By late summer of 1940, therefore, the German-Soviet relationship was in trouble. The “mood of collaboration of late 1939 shifted increasingly to one of confrontation, with growing suspicions on both sides that the other was acting in bad faith” (p.197).
In November 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was summoned to Berlin to try to breathe new life into the pact. Hitler and Ribbentrop made a concerted effort to head off westward Soviet expansion with the suggestion that the Soviet Union join the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan and focus its territorial ambitions to the south, especially on India, where it could participate in the “great liquidation of the British Empire” (p.215). Ribbentrop’s contention that Britain was on the verge of collapse was called into question when certain meetings with Molotov had to be moved to a bunker because of British bombings of the German capital.
Molotov left Berlin thinking that he had attended the initial round in what were likely to be lengthy additional territorial negotiations between the two parties. In fact, the November conference marked the end of any meaningful give-and-take between them. In its formal response back to Germany, which Molotov delivered to the German Ambassador in Moscow, the Soviet Union made clear that it had no intention of abandoning its ambitions for westward expansion into Europe in exchange for membership in the Tripartite Pact. No formal German response was forthcoming to Soviet demands for additional European territory. Rather, the often-vacillating Hitler had by this time made what turned out to be an irrevocable decision to invade the Soviet Union, with the objective of turning Russia into “our India” (p.295).
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In the period leading up to the invasion in June 1941, Stalin refused to react to a steady stream of intelligence from as many as 47 different sources concerning a German build up near the Western edges of the new Soviet empire. Stalin was obsessed with not provoking Germany into military action, “convinced that the military build up and the rumor-mongering were little more than a Nazi negotiating tool: an attempt to exert psychological pressure as a prelude to the resumption of talks” (p.229). Stalin seemed to believe that “while Hitler was engaged in the west against the British, he would have to be mad to attack the USSR” (p.230).
But ominous intelligence reports continued to pour into Moscow. One in April 1941 concluded that Germany had “as many as one hundred divisions massed on the USSR’s western frontier” (p.238). In addition, over the previous three weeks, there had been eighty recorded German violations of Soviet airspace. “Such raw data was added to the various human intelligence reports to come in from Soviet agents . . . all of which pointed to a growing German threat” (p.238). Still, Stalin “did not believe that war was coming, and he was growing increasingly impatient with those who tried to persuade him of anything different” (p.239).
In the early phases of Operation Barbarossa, German troops met with little serious resistance and were able to penetrate far into Soviet territory. In many of the areas that the Soviets had grabbed for themselves after execution of the pact, including portions of the Baltic States, the Germans were welcomed as liberators. The Soviet Union incurred staggering loses in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, losing much of the territory it had acquired as a result of the pact.
Minsk, Bessarabia’s largest city, fell into German hands on June 28, 1941. Its fall, Moorhouse writes, “symbolized the wider disaster not only for the USSR, but for Stalin personally.” It was the “moment at which his misjudgment was thrown into sharp relief. Only a dictator of his brutal determination – and one with the absolute power that he had arrogated for himself – could have survived it” (p. 273). Moorhouse’s narrative ends with the Germans, anticipating an easy victory, not far from Moscow as 1941 entered its final months and the unforgiving Russian winter approached.
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Moorhouse contends that the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-non-aggresson pact has largely been glossed over in Western accounts of World War II, which focus on the fall of France and Britain’s lonely battle against the seemingly invincible Nazi military juggernaut during the 22-month period when the Soviet Union appeared to be aligned with Germany against the West. To the degree that there is a knowledge gap in the West concerning the pact and its ramifications, Moorhouse’s work aptly and ably fills that gap.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
May 13, 2016