Historian’s Blog Assignment 7 & 8
Final Paper Presentation
The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939
As Stalin was quoted saying in the 1930’s in regards to a war that would soon be at his doorstep: “It can hardly be doubted that a second war against the USSR will lead to the complete defeat of the aggressors, to revolution in a series of countries of Europe and Asia . . . . Victory in revolution never comes of itself. It must be prepared for and won.” These sentiments spoken by the leader of the USSR would come into fruition as the underlying offensive theme of his country’s foreign policy as the uncertainty of the German war machine and European alignments came to pass in the later part of the 1930’s. Through the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, Stalin was promoting his own offensive foreign policy in eastern Europe by agreeing to ‘secret protocols’ within the pact that were used by the Soviets to expand over the Baltic States in Eastern Europe, actively fighting alongside Germany in their war with Poland and aiding the Nazis in their fight with Western powers so as to weaken them both for Soviet advantage later.
The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 was a pact between the two respective nations on the eve of World War II that secured Hitler’s ability to invade Poland without Soviet interference and provided the Soviet Union with a buffer zone that they had failed to secure through a British and French allied agreement, as some historians claim. Along with securing neutrality for both countries in respects to who the other was at war with and each other, the pact also established secret protocols defining the boundaries that each country would respect in regards to the breakup and acquisition of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and ensured Poland would be divided along the rivers Narew, Vistula and San between the two. The historiography of the Non-Aggression Pact is split between historians who view Stalin’s motives as defensive in establishing a border between the Soviet Union and the advancing German war machine and those who view his actions as advancing his foreign policy and gaining more Soviet territory. While the former tend to look at the failure of treaty talks between England, France and the Soviet Union as the reason for the pact the latter group of historians focus on the secret protocols of the pact and the accounts of Soviet officials during the war that shed light on the inner conversations of the Soviet political elite.
Geoffrey Roberts is an historian of the first school of thought. In his article “The Soviet Decision for a Pact with Nazi Germany”, Roberts makes use of then newly released Soviet diplomatic documents from God Krizisa, 1938-1939 to support his view that the pact was a result of the breakdown in negotiations between the French, English and Soviets to form a triple alliance against Germany. He also goes to great pains to illustrate the latter time period when he believes the Soviets finally agreed to the pact as evidence that the treaty was more accidental than calculated, from a Soviet point of view. In disagreement with other historians’ views that Stalin had made his decision to side with Germany when he replaced the current People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Litvinov, with Molotov on May 4th, Roberts claims that the change in Soviet policy happened at the earliest in July 1939. Evidence of this claim is seen in the first correspondence from Molotov to Astakhov, Soviet Embassy leader in Berlin, regarding the first “political instruction” to pass on to Germany on July 28th. Roberts claims that the Soviets’ decision to listen to German proposals came in light of the failing negotiations with the British and French which would end with no treaty signed on August 17th, the escalating conflict between Germany and Poland, and the ongoing attempts of Germany to meet the Soviet’s specifications in an alliance, which Astakhov took notice of. While Roberts agrees that Stalin had a deep interest on the specifics of the “spheres of influence” the Soviets would have in Eastern Europe with the pact, he argues that the expansion of Soviet borders was not guaranteed with the agreement that was signed on August 23rd. He notes evidence of this with Stalin waiting until early September to change foreign policy with the Comintern affairs and at that point deciding to invade Poland as well as a telegram from Germany on September 3rd requesting the Soviets to advance on Poland with them in order to gain control of their sphere of influence.
While Roberts’ points have their merit, he focuses a great deal of time and attention to the period leading up to the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact while only glossing over the resulting effects that the treaty had in regards to the spheres of influence that the Soviet government would expand into. The author himself mentions the aftermath of invading Poland, specifically the creation of Soviet military bases in the Baltic states by October and the Soviet attack on Finland in November. While the theory exists that these expansions were all a part of a defensive buffer the Soviets were creating between themselves and Germany, Molotov himself stated in his memoirs that part of his job was to “broaden as far as possible the borders of the fatherland.” In light of Molotov’s statement and many others like it, this particular historiography pays too much attention to the diplomatic documents from God Krizisa, 1938-1939 without actively investigating evidence from other sources. Roberts is quick to point out the disadvantage that historians like D.C. Watts had with only having access to official German documents, stating that the facts within these documents were “tainted by German preoccupations, perceptions and policy objectives.” The same comments could be said in regards to the Soviet documents that are relied so heavily upon to paint a chronological picture of Stalin’s motives leading up to the signing of the pact. While these sources provide insight into the thought process of the Soviet Union and Stalin during this time period they do not encompass the inner workings of the Soviet political elite.
On the other side of this historiographical debate is historian R.C. Raack and his view that the Non-Aggression Pact was used to full advantage to promote Stalin’s offensive goals in foreign policy. Raack acknowledges the fact that while new Soviet diplomatic documents became available in the early 1990’s, much is still hidden away in archives that could shed more light on Stalin’s true intentions. Common sources used in this historiography come from the personal accounts of the political and military elite and those that interacted with them on a daily basis between 1939 and 1941. Of these varied accounts, Raack focuses on the testimony of two defectors: Vincas Kreve-Mickievicius, a Lithuanian progressive, and a former NKVD who interacted with Andrei Zhdanov. These defectors were direct witnesses to Baltic speeches given by Molotov and Dekanosov, high ranking Soviet officials, emphasizing that a Communist revolution was coming and that the end of World War II would see the unification of Europe under Stalin. Raack’s argument is that at some level this kind of offensive foreign policy thinking had to start with Stalin and trickle down to officials like Molotov and Dekanosov, and was the more probable reason for the Soviets’ occupation of territories in Eastern Europe. Another point touched upon by Raack is the fact that most of Stalin’s annexations of the Baltic States and Romania occurred when Britain was preoccupied with Hitler’s attacks in June of 1940 and that he was consciously making these moves out to be “defensive” in the public’s eye.
Other historians from this second school, like Professor Albert Weeks from New York University, would also quote Stalin and Molotov to illustrate Soviet intentions of expansion as well as Soviet military accounts that paint the Red Army as anything but defensive. Weeks cites the accounts of Grigory Tokaev, a Soviet Military Administration officer and NKVD confidant, who stated what many other ex-military officials also agreed with: “the Soviets were counting on war to expedite Sovietization to the West.” Further evidence of this offensive military stance can be seen in the accounts of Stalin’s “secret speech” to Red Army graduates in the weeks prior to German attack where Stalin reportedly spoke negatively regarding Germany and their military might and that his army must “prepare to wage offensive war” in the days to come. The examples of sources that Raack and Weeks use to support their position that Stalin was acting offensively with the Non-Aggression Pact are similar to those who also follow this historiographical path. With a lack of official accounts of the Soviet political machine and inner-circle dealings that went on from 1939 to 1941, these historians rely heavily on non-official accounts and outside testimony to further their points on what they believe to be proof of offensive Soviet foreign policy during this time.
Regarding both schools of thought on this topic, the best arguments are those that take into account official Soviet diplomatic sources as well as witness testimony of high ranking Soviet officials that were in some way involved with the treaty. An example of another type of historian who draws from both official and eye-witness testimony to little effect in ascertaining thought-out conclusions is Alexander Werth, author of Russia at War, 1941-1945. Werth himself was a Russian-born wartime correspondent and journalist for the London Sunday Times and the BBC throughout the majority of World War II. The recollection of the opinions of high ranking military and political officials as well as common Soviet soldiers and citizens during the
war, of which Werth kept a “day-to-day record”, is the primary source information that Werth contributes from his own accounts. The monograph is intended for a broader audience because of the vastness of its scope but unfortunately that narrative structure leaves out many questions and hypotheses regarding the events that Werth summarizes and the source never quite answers the question of “what made Russia tick” during the war years. The lack of historical questions asked in Werth’s monograph can make the overarching theme of his work hard to grasp and the first-hand accounts he presents of the Soviet people during the war, while interesting, are few and far between his narration. Concerning the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, these first-hand accounts from Werth do little to add to the evidence he is presenting on that particular part of the war and mainly represent the lower classes in Soviet society that were as confused as the next citizen as to the reasons behind the Pact being signed. This monograph was written with the intention of presenting the recollections of the Soviets that Werth encountered during his time there and as such should be analyzed as subjective, qualitative data. In regards to his primary and secondary sources, Werth relies heavily on the Soviet press resource of the Pravda as well as various military and political accounts then recently published in the comprehensive and Soviet-official History of the Great Fatherland War of the Soviet Union. While presenting the irony in the fact that Pravda was still running anti-Nazi articles while Germany and the Soviet Union were in conversation to form an alliance, Werth never goes into detail on what the major political players were doing during this crucial time period. The lack of diverse sources or any conversation regarding the manipulations that could be present in official Soviet documents is of note with a historian like Werth and his research. While historians like Roberts and Raack show both sides of an argument focusing on different source material to come to their conclusions, Werth is an example of a researcher who presents interesting information regarding the Soviets during the war with little attempt of gleaning true insight or debate from it.
In regards to the varying historians’ viewpoints and approaches analyzed in this research, it is important to note not only the different interpretations that scholars reach on the various components of the Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 but also the repercussions that the pact had as a whole in regards to Europe that are hard to argue. The best example of these repercussions can be seen in the ‘secret protocols’ established in the treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union that effectively broke up eastern Europe to Soviet advantage beyond defensive means. The protocols established for both respective countries on August 23rd and September 28th not only ensured Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bessarabia and Finland to the Soviets but also established an “agreement on the exchange of populations across the borders separating the Soviet and German spheres”. The Soviets’ European acquisitions after their intervention in Poland would add some 13 million people under their banner and also provided military bases for Stalin in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. While many argue that these were defensive moves for Stalin in light of possible war with Germany, the fact that the Soviets continued to acquire portions of Romania and other Baltic states when Britain was preoccupied with German invasion at the same time when figures like Molotov were speaking of the Bolshevik takeover of Europe by the war’s end points towards Stalin’s true offensive foreign policy ideology.
The attack on Finland by the Soviets on November 30th, 1939, a country that had once been ruled by Russia until the 1918 revolt, exemplifies the offensive nature of Stalin’s push into eastern Europe that could be described as anything but a defensive move to secure Soviet borders. In over three months of fighting, the Soviets lost almost three times the amount of men compared to Finland’s guerilla-style army, their military exhibited a proficient weakness in operating efficiently, especially in harsh conditions, and Stalin only acquired ten percent of Finland in the March armistice that ended the fighting. While the official Soviet reason for the invasion was the added security for Leningrad, which was close to the border of Finland, the measures Stalin took to ascertain it, including the execution of senior military officers who could not produce results and lying to his army regarding Finland starting the conflict, seem so extreme for so little reward that a historian would have to question the motives of Stalin during this time period of expansion. Further arguments can be made that the Baltic states under Soviet control during this period were strategically set up for Stalin to attack Germany when the time was right and were in no way defensive. Weeks notes the offensively trained military personnel occupied within these new territories, the many airfields that existed along these borders and strategic “preemptive war” plans from high-ranking Soviet military officials in 1941 as evidence of Stalin’s true intentions and plans for World War II, not to mention Molotov and Stalin’s statements, both public and private, regarding the opportunity that a second European war would be for communist expansion. The combination of unofficial Soviet military and political commentary as well as the examples of the aggressive nature in which Stalin took control of the eastern Europe independent states for military purposes must at least be taken into account when considering the nature of Soviet foreign policy. While the historians explored in this research lack the official Soviet documentation on a number of internal political matters to say without a doubt that Soviet policy was offensive during this time period, the evidence they do contribute to the discussion highly suggests that Stalin had more on his mind that defensive strategy. The fact that Soviets’ documentation regarding the process in which protocols and treaty came to be with Germany disappeared from Russian archives in 1946 only adds fuel to the fire that officials like Molotov wanted to keep their true nature hidden from public view.
While the expansion of the Soviet Union’s interests into the Baltic States and their military preparations from that period point to the offensive nature of Stalin’s goals, Soviet involvement in the attack and takeover of Poland in aid to Germany clearly illustrates the country’s duplicitous nature in foreign affairs and offensive mindset. In an article from the New York Times from August 24th, 1939, general secretary of the Communist party Earl Browder spoke emphatically in regards to Poland’s security not being affected by the treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union and that in reality it would be a “great weakening of the Axis powers”. Less than a month later on September 17th the Soviets attacked Poland, acting on their agreement through the treaty with Germany to secure the division of the country, one that had won independence from Bolshevik Russia less than twenty years before. In direct contradiction to what Browder had been quoted saying in the United States, Molotov stated in a speech on October 31st to the Supreme Soviet, regarding Poland, that the Germans and Soviets were able “to reduce to nothing this monster child of the Treaty of Versailles”. The Soviet’s willingness to attack Poland seems then to stem at least in part from resentment on the Russian side following the loss of their former territory and the creation of the independent state. Poland had also rejected any alignment with the Soviets earlier that year when the Four-Power Declaration was being discussed between Britain, Poland, France and the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the Soviet advance, Molotov assured Poland that Russia entered their country “to protect Russian citizens in western Belorussia and western Ukraine” when in reality they gained “77,000 square miles of territory” and imprisoned some 1.5 million Polish natives in Russia, whom many of which would die by lack of care or on Stalin’s insistence. This back and forth nature of Stalin’s elite telling the world one thing while actually securing their own interests through violence and the obliteration of a foreign people proves that there was more to the Soviet involvement with Germany than was being presented to the public. These inconsistencies present with Stalin’s interactions with Europe would foreshadow the duplicity that he would also show towards Germany and the Western nations and what his true intent was for both.
Stalin was willing to aid the Germans in their fight against the Western powers of the world but this was all part of his plan for Soviet domination in Europe. His hope was that the Germans and their combined capitalist adversaries would go toe to toe long enough to weaken themselves and ultimately protect the “future expansion of Soviet power. In fulfilling Soviet pact agreements, Stalin provided food, supplies and oil from Russia’s rich reserves in order to keep Germany going and to ease their fears of the possibility of a future British blockade. While the relationship between Germany and Russia was mutually beneficial during this time, with the Nazis enjoying a war on one front and the Soviets being free to expand into the smaller independent states of Eastern Europe, the peace would not last. Germany’s decimation of France in short time in 1940 made Stalin extremely nervous because he needed more for Soviet military build-up and had counted on the slow burn of Germans and Westerners wiping each other out while he was left to his own devices in Eastern Europe. In a 1941 speech that would be passed down from Stalin to officials such as Molotov and Zhdanov and other Soviet elite, the topic at hand was now an offensive war against Germany which they were preparing for as well as any war pitting them against a Western capitalist country. While there are those that argue that Stalin himself had entered the treaty with Germany as a defensive precursor to what he thought would inevitably lead to conflict with the Nazis, his offensive approach to the situation as regarded in the sources researched shows a single-mindedness to his aims at Soviet expansion and ideology that he kept close to his chest.
Through the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, Stalin was promoting his own offensive foreign policy in eastern Europe by agreeing to ‘secret protocols’ within the pact that were used by the Soviets to expand over the Baltic States in Eastern Europe, actively fighting alongside Germany in their war with Poland and aiding the Nazis in their fight with Western powers so as to weaken them both for Soviet advantage later. While Stalin’s final dream of Soviet domination over Europe through the means of World War II would never come to be, the aggressive way in which he positioned himself with Germany and his ferocious utilization of the secret protocols established between the two countries to sweep independent Eastern Europe into his pocket is a reminder of what his true foreign policy aims were. With Poland and Finland serving as physical examples of how far Stalin would go to achieve his desires for his Communist dictatorship, it is not difficult to see that through all of his posturing and outward attempts to appear as a defensively-minded leader, his offensive nature knew no bounds and was always at the surface.
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