Seventy-five years ago today an unlikely partnership was born when Adolf Hitler allied the Nazi state with Joseph Stalin‘s Soviet Russia. Historian Roger Moorhouse explains why this event – often little more than a footnote in the narrative of World War Two – was so crucial: not only defining a third of the war, but also going some way to start it.
On 23 August 1939, Stalin drank to Hitler’s health. Though the two dictators would never meet, the agreement they forged that day would change the world. As the “Nazi–Soviet Pact”, the “Hitler–Stalin Pact” or the “Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact”, it was in force for less than two years – ending with Hitler’s attack on Stalin’s Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 – but it was nonetheless one of the salient events of the Second World War.
Our ignorance of the subject is surprising. When one considers the pact’s obvious significance and magnitude, this is quite astonishing.
When I started researching this book, I was occasionally asked what I was working on by friends and acquaintances beyond academic and history circles, and I would reply “the Nazi–Soviet Pact”. The blank looks and furrowed brows that I saw in response spoke volumes. Except in Poland and the Baltic states, the pact is simply not part of our collective popular narrative of the Second World War. It is my firm conviction that it really should be.
Our ignorance of the subject is surprising. While every other curiosity, campaign and catastrophe from the Second World War has been interpreted and reinterpreted, assessed and reassessed, the pact remains largely unknown – passed over often in a single paragraph, dismissed as a dubious anomaly, a footnote to the wider history. It is instructive, for example, that almost all of the recent popular histories of the Second World War published in Britain give it scant attention. It is never considered to warrant a chapter, and usually attracts little more than a paragraph or two and a handful of index references.
When one considers the pact’s obvious significance and magnitude, this is quite astonishing. Under its auspices, Hitler and Stalin – the two most infamous dictators of twentieth-century Europe – found common cause. Their two regimes, whose later confrontation would be the defining clash of the Second World War in Europe, stood side by side for twenty-two months, almost a third of the conflict’s entire time span.
We forget the link, perhaps, but the pact also led directly to the outbreak of war; isolating Poland between its two malevolent neighbours and scuppering the rather desultory efforts of the Western Powers to thwart Hitler via diplomacy. The war that followed, therefore, also carried the pact’s odious stamp. While the Western Powers endured the so-called “Phoney War”, Poland was invaded, divided and occupied by Moscow and Berlin. With Hitler’s connivance, the independent Baltic States were occupied and then annexed by Stalin, as was the Romanian province of Bessarabia. Finland, too, was invaded and conquered by the Red Army.
When Hitler turned west in 1940, invading first Scandinavia, then the Low Countries and France, Stalin sent his congratulations. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the Nazis and the Soviets traded secrets, blueprints, technology and raw materials, oiling the wheels of each other’s war machines. For a time, indeed, it seemed very much as though the two dictatorships – or “Teutoslavia” as one British politician called them – were ranged together against the democratic world. As, in fact, they were.
This aspect of the pact’s motivation is perhaps the most surprising. Where it is discussed at all nowadays, the Nazi-Soviet Pact is conventionally seen in the following terms: for the Germans it was a place-holder, buying Stalin’s temporary quiescence while the West could be dealt with. For Stalin, it was defensive: holding Hitler off to enable the USSR to rearm so as to better face an inevitable German attack. Of course, there is something in all of this, but as ever it is all far too simplistic. German thinking, for instance, was far less coherent and far-sighted than is usually assumed. A subjugation of the USSR was certainly Hitler’s long-term goal, but there is no evidence that the precise method and timetable to be adopted was set behind Stalin’s back in August 1939. Hitler was an opportunist; he just didn’t plan that far ahead.
For Stalin, the Pact was certainly not defensive. He might well have feared Germany, and even foreseen a German attack, but he saw the Pact was a way of turning Hitler west, making gains on Hitler’s coattails and – crucially – undermining and damaging the Imperialist West. For Stalin, the Pact was a golden opportunity to set world historical forces in motion – he said as much at the time – a chance to ‘shake the tree’, to roll the dice. Just as Lenin had exploited “revolutionary defeatism” in World War One, so he was using his new enemy – Nazi Germany – to attack his old one – British Imperialism.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact, therefore, was no chimera, not just a cynical, temporary arrangement between dictators to “do over” Poland. It was far more profound, more serious and more long-lasting than that. Though it was not a formal alliance, it had all the trappings of one. It was appended by no less than four economic agreements, for instance, constituting one of the largest trade deals in history. Indeed the relationship between Moscow and Berlin was much more vital and much more important to both sides than that between Berlin and Rome – even though the latter is the one that we all know.
For those that remember Stalin as the avuncular “Uncle Joe” of the Grand Alliance, this book will perhaps be a surprising corrective. Stalin was no innocent victim of World War Two – he was Hitler’s arch abettor and collaborator for nearly two years until the two fell out over the spoils. It is only Hitler’s attack on him in June 1941 that brought him over to “our side”. Yet, as he demonstrated after Hitler’s defeat, his enmity towards the West had never abated. This book shows, quite starkly, that there were very definitely two villains at large in the opening phase of World War Two, not one – two Devils, who managed for forge an unlikely alliance.
Roger Moorhouse, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can Click & Collect The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 from your local Waterstones bookshop or buy it online at Waterstones.com