Why didn’t Britain or France declare war on the USSR?

Dear Mr. History,

Why didn’t France and/or Great Britain declare war on the Soviet Union on September 17, 1939, when the USSR invaded Poland and/or when the Soviets invaded Finland on November 30, 1939? Also, why are the Soviets looked at today more as Allies, versus Axis? Italy was an Axis nation, then switched to being an Allied one but is still deemed an Axis today.

Steve Bagdon

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Bagdon,  

In response to your first question, the British and French were not stupid. Germany had violated the Munich Pact by invading Poland and was enemy enough to have to fight. The French had already invaded Russia and even taken Moscow in 1812. How’d that work out by the end of the year? Both countries condemned the Soviet Union for invading Finland (you may note that Germany did not support the Finns at that time), but limited their aid to under-the-table weapons deliveries (e.g., Gloster Gladiators, which also came from Sweden in the form of a volunteer squadron). The priority, however, was still dealing with Germany and that proved more than enough, as France humiliatingly found out in June 1940.  

Italy is historically regarded as an Axis power because it was one as of June 10, 1940, when it invaded France and declared war on Britain. Technically you might call co-belligerent Italy as much of an Allied power as you would Romania and Bulgaria—after they switched sides in August and September 1944, respectively. In Italy’s case, though, things were complicated by the rescue of Benito Mussolini and the establishment of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana in Turin, keeping northern Italy fighting alongside the Germans. Any Italians taken prisoner prior to September 8, 1943, were still regarded as POWs, though they were treated with more lassitude than their German and Japanese colleagues. (I interviewed an Italian fighter pilot incarcerated at Camp Shanks, N.Y., who was invited to join a friend who had obtained a pass to visit some American relatives in Pelham for Thanksgiving dinner—and met his future wife there).  

The Soviet Union’s Allied status as of June 22, 1941 was accepted with few illusions in the West, either in regard to why it had made its August 1939 non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler (to buy time to prepare for the inevitable confrontation), or to how many values they shared. (As Winston Churchill put it, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.")  



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History


8 Responses

  1. rick

    i believe churchill had wanted to attack the communists initially-the soviet union and hitler were still negotiating a separate peace into 1943-alas hitler wanted the ukraine-the ultimate enemy was always the soviet union which was the only belligerent who came out ahead after the war-they tuurned christian eastern europe into a prison camp-
    a great book by tolstoy is\ stalin’s secret war\!

    • Larry C.

      “Stalin’s Secret War” is a very informative book by a person who was in a position to know. All history buffs should read it!

  2. Ken Blackman

    Whether it was prudent or not to declare war on the Soviet Union in 1939 it was still double standards, we went to war over Poland, had Polish divisions fighting for us but lifted not one finger to stop Russia from dominating Poland after the war, I firmly believe that the USA has a lot to answer for when it came to what went on in Europe both during and after the war.

  3. Bryan

    Because Britain and France had a defensive pact with Poland in the event the Germans attacked, it did not apply to the Soviet Union.

    • Peter Meinhold

      How was this defensive pact written so that it guaranteed that Britain and France would protect Poland ONLY if it was attacked by Germany, not any other country?

  4. Ron

    I agree with Ken, the USA and all the Allies have alot to answer for by not declare war on the Russia but also to the fact that they sold all of Eastern Europe into slavery to the Russians after the war.
    It is puzzling to me that the Allies thought only Western Europe was worthy of freedom to fight for?

  5. Bob

    What is not being discussed are the large number of prominant government officials in Britain who were agents of influence for Stalin. There were also loud calls for pacifism by British communists after the R-M Non-Agression Pact. Many people in Britain took their marching order from Moscow, not London, as George Orwell repeatedly reminded us.

    With Vansittartism (anti-German, as opposed to Nazis, hatred) running amok, the general impression was that the German people were warlike and evil, and had to be crushed.

    As an aside, it is a myth perpetuated by the Stalinists of the day that Stalin agreed to the Pact to buy time. Nothing was further fromo the truth.

  6. Peter Meinhold

    How was this defensive pact written so that it guaranteed that Britain and France would protect Poland ONLY if it was attacked by Germany, not any other country?


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