The Nazi-Soviet Pact: Hitler’s Ultimate Triumph

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Post the annexation of Czechoslovakia, Hitler began making military plans for another invasion. After 1919, the Polish Corridor had given the new Polish state access to the Baltic Sea. The city of Danzig was administered as a free city by the League of Nations. Danzig was a German city and Hitler had his eyes set on it.

Hitler sitting on a desk.
To fulfill his territorial ambitions in Europe, Hitler agreed to sign a pact with the Soviet Union in 1939. (Image: Bundesarchiv/Heinrich Hoffmann/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

A Polish Problem

Once again, one saw the usual drumroll: German minorities mistreated by the Polish government, some sort of representation for the German minority had to be made, the German population wasn’t going to stand for more of this. At this point, so grave was the threat that Franklin Roosevelt took the extraordinary step of writing a public letter to Hitler, in which there was a laundry list of states that he wanted Hitler to say that Germany wasn’t going to attack.

And Hitler got up in the Reichstag, now obviously all Nazi, and gave one of his most ironic and sarcastic speeches. In that speech, Hitler made no promises, and he continued to assert that Danzig wasn’t worth a war; he wanted some solution to this now new Polish problem.

Nonetheless, he also gave orders to his military “to attack Poland at the earliest possible opportunity.” So, while publicly protesting that he’s trying to find a way for peace, Poland now becomes first on the agenda.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Worsening Conditions in Europe

Pressure was mounting on Neville Chamberlain’s government. Would it indeed honor its obligation to Poland? The key to the diplomatic situation in the summer and early fall of 1939, however, wasn’t in London; the key was in Moscow.

The British and French had tried at various points over the summer to warn the Soviets about the imminent danger. But they were low-level contacts; Chamberlain certainly didn’t fly off to Moscow to talk with Stalin. Meanwhile, the Germans took this up at a much higher level.

The Nazi Offer to the Soviet Union

German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had begun to send feelers to his counterpart in the Soviet Union, Molotov, about the possibility of some sort of deal between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Finally,  Ribbentrop offered the possibility of a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.

For Hitler, this pact made no ideological sense whatsoever. These were the two great ideological enemies. If Hitler was determined to smash Judeo-Bolshevism in the Soviet Union, Stalin saw Nazi Germany as the incarnation of evil. It was the great fascist power that was the greatest threat to Socialism in the world. But in a practical sense, there was a good deal of compelling evidence to support signing such a pact.

Hitler’s Aggressive Determination

Ribbentrop meeting Stalin in Russia.
Germany sealed the deal with the Soviet Union and pushed Europe toward the Second World War. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

Hitler, who was determined by this point to go to war with Poland, believed that a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union would act as a deterrent to the West. England and France wouldn’t dare intervene if the Soviet Union were already in the same boat as Nazi Germany.

And, of course, at the same time and more obviously, it would remove the danger of a two-front war for Germany. And Hitler was determined to avoid this at all cost.

Learn more about Hitler’s challenge to the international system.

Stalin’s Stance on the Non-Aggression Pact

For Stalin, the pact also made sense. Number one, it would buy time. In 1938, the Soviet Union and Stalin had initiated a massive purge of the Red Army. Not just the leadership, but a purge that went all the way down to company level, inserting political commissars to make sure the army was under direct Bolshevist/Communist control.

International intelligence experts believed that the Soviet military was extremely weak as a result, and so, this would buy time to rebuild his military. It would also provide territorial and strategic advantages in Eastern Europe.

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact

On August 24, 1939, Germany and Russia astonished the world by signing a non-aggression pact—the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact—in Moscow, pledging not to go to war with one another. There were secret clauses, which divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence.

Germany was to get Lithuania and Vilne; the Soviet Union Finland, Estonia, Latvia. They agreed on a partition of Poland. Germans would move in from the west, the Soviets from the east. They couldn’t agree about Romania, which had rich oil fields, but the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the death knell for the state of Poland—and for peace in Europe.

Learn more about the origins of the Second World War.

The Unpreparedness of Germany

Despite a four-year plan that began in 1936 to build the German economy, it wasn’t ready for a long war. It could fight a limited war, such as one against Poland. It reflected Hitler’s conviction that the West wouldn’t fight. The Germans had followed a policy of armaments in breadth, not in depth, so that they had lots of different sorts of military equipment, but it hadn’t been built in any sort of depth to sustain a long war.

On September 1, 1939, the German population was awakened to a news bulletin that the Poles had attacked a German radio station on the frontier, and that German troops had been responding. In fact, the Germans had launched a massive invasion of Poland that, within a month, would bring the defeat of the Polish military.

A Shock for Hitler

To Hitler’s great astonishment, Britain and France decided to honor their obligations. Chamberlain issued an ultimatum to Germany: move out of Poland and then we can talk about the corridor, we can talk about Danzig. Hitler refused.

The Polish campaign was over in a month. The Poles fought heroically against overwhelming German force. Warsaw was bombed, signaling already that this wouldn’t be a war like the First War, where there was a distinction between front and the homefront.

Now civilians were already on the front line with the bombing of Warsaw. What Hitler had believed would be a short engagement against Poland now threatened to be the European-wide war which he did not believe would happen and was not prepared to fight.

Q: When and where did Germany and Russia sign the Nazi-Soviet pact?

On August 24, 1939, Germany and Russia signed a non-aggression pact.

Q: How did Germany and Russia divide Eastern Europe into spheres of influence?

According to the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, Germany was to get Lithuania and Vilne; the Soviet Union Finland, Estonia, Latvia. Germany and Russia agreed on a partition of Poland.

Q: What made Hitler sign the non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union?

Hitler believed that a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union would act as a deterrent to the West.

Keep Reading
Adolf Hitler: The Beginning of a Political Career
The Political Maneuvers of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis
Germany’s Surveillance System in the Nazi Era