In August 1939, an announcement of a pact between two nations stunned the world.
The nations could not have been more ideologically apart. Yet the signing of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signaled a temporary détente between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
That mutual agreement seemingly caught the British and French off-guard, with headlines decrying that the Allies had again been stabbed in the back by Mother Russia.
Or so popular Western history goes.
Yet outside of historiographies, little attention has been given to the Soviets’ overtures to the British and French in the leadup to the Second World War.
Soviets’ Plan for Revolution
The great socialist revolution hadn’t taken place in industrial England or Germany, as Karl Marx predicted, but in an agrarian but developing Russia.
By the 1930s, Joseph Stalin understood that the way to self-sufficiency was through the Soviet Union’s iron, coal, electricity and steel industries. The forces behind trying to build a great revolution abroad shifted to building socialism at home.
But the Soviets’ plan for industrialization — and with it, revolution — required stability abroad in order to maintain stability at home.
And building that required time. So Stalin, according to historian Richard Overy in “The Origins of the Second World War,” aimed to avoid Soviet involvement in any major war — at all costs.
Soviet Ice Thaws to Axis and Allies
On March 10, 1939, five days before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, Stalin gave his famed “Chestnut” speech in which he declared that the communist nation was “to be cautious and not allow our country to be drawn into conflict by war mongers who are accustomed to have others pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them.”
And so the diplomatic isolation began to wane as both the Axis and the Western powers began to court the once international pariah.
Despite trusting neither side, in May 1939, Stalin removed Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov — who doubted such an alliance was workable — and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov and instructed his diplomats to revive collective security conversations with the West.
Talks continued into April as both France and Britain began to make approaches. Stalin even offered more concrete terms: an iron-clad military alliance with the British and French that would give Germany pause.
According to Overy, the terms also stipulated that all the territories from the Baltic States to the Black Sea were to be given guarantees of direct military assistance by all three powers. The Soviets feared that if there was war, they would be left to bear the brunt of fighting in the east. Stalin wanted a guarantee that if there was war, the burden would be shared by all.
It was a deal aimed to avert the clash with fascism — which for all intents and purposes, the British squandered.
“We have every interest in the war beginning in the east and becoming a general conflict only little by little,” Maurice Gamelin, commander-in-chief of the French Armed Forces, wrote in July 1939.
The divergent goals and expectations of the nations further barred an agreement. The British viewed the purge-ravaged condition of the Red Army as hardly strong enough to stand up to the growing Nazi threat. Furthermore, according to historian Teddy J. Uldricks in “Debating the role of Russia in the origins of the Second World War,” they looked at the Soviet Union as only a supply base, not as the main striking force of the prospective alliance.
What’s more, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, further confessed that he had the “most profound distrust of Russia, and I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our idea of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting every one else by the ears.”
What this misses, Uldricks says, is how the ideological underpinnings of the British government, namely Chamberlain, influenced British foreign policy. The French were inclined to an alliance but were largely tied to British decision-making.
The sticking point to the alliance became Poland. In order for the Soviet Union to hold up the collective security terms, it wanted guaranteed passage through Poland. But the British, hoping to woo Poland and Romania away from an alliance with Germany, feared that a treaty with the Soviets would alienate the Eastern European countries.
The British therefore dawdled, sending draft after draft back to the Soviets with “edits” that did not answer the central question of a corridor through Poland.
“Talks continued throughout the summer,” wrote Overy, “though both sides complained endlessly about the obduracy and deviousness of the other.”
August Meeting Backfires
By August, fed up with the stalling, the Soviets insisted on full military discussions between the three nations.
The British responded by sending a delegation on a long trip by sea rather than by air. To add insult to injury, the Soviets — all top military and political figures — found that the British had sent a junior representative who had no powers to sign an agreement or even negotiate.
The discussions, which began on August 12, 1939, ended three days later and accomplished nothing.
What the Soviet leaders wanted, the French ambassador Paul-Émile Naggiar wrote to Paris on August 21, was “simple, concrete decisions [made] quickly.”
The Allies seemed incapable of doing just that.
After rebuffing German overtures for months, Stalin, backed into a corner, pivoted.
By this time, German negotiators were desperate for an agreement “to complete the diplomatic route of western policies of ‘encirclement’ and to make certain that the Polish war could be localized,” wrote Overy. Instead of sending delegates by trains, planes and automobiles, Adolf Hitler personally telegraphed Stalin asking for a meeting before the 26th.
Joachim Ribbontrop, with the full backing of Hitler, flew to Moscow on the 21st, and two days later, the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed.
Germany was able to offer the one thing Stalin desperately wanted: time. (In addition to, writes Overy, “a trade treaty which promised German weapons and machinery in return for Soviet materials, and a secret protocol which granted an agreed sphere of influence in Finland, the Baltic States, eastern Poland, the Romanian province of Besssarbia, all of the territories of the former Tsarist Empire.”)
This strange pairing, an alliance of convenience, would remain until Hitler’s ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Time had run out.