The British and French governments now attempted to negotiate with the Soviet Union to bring it into the alliance against German expansion. Although France could attack western Germany in the event of an invasion of Poland, the British and French would be hard-pressed to get forces to Poland in time to help that nation stave off a German invasion. Negotiations of the British and French with the Soviet Union for an alliance that would preserve Poland proceeded at a leisurely pace throughout the spring and summer of 1939.
These talks yielded little, as Stalin did not trust the western powers. He also insisted on the right of Soviet forces to move into Poland and the Baltic states in the event of a German thrust east, something refused by these countries, which feared the Soviets more than the Germans. The Soviets assumed that the western powers wanted them to bear the brunt of the attack. The western powers, for their part, were unwilling to yield territory to the Soviet Union the way they had to Hitler.
Stalin was also concerned about the possibility of having to fight a two-front war against both Germany and Japan. There had already been serious fighting between Soviet and Japanese forces in the Far East in 1938 and 1939. Concern over the Japanese threat may have been a major factor in Stalin's thinking regarding an alliance with Germany. An agreement with Germany, Stalin believed, would not only gain space in the form of territorial concessions but also win the time necessary to rebuild the Soviet armed forces after the costly purges of their senior leadership.
While they were negotiating more or less openly with the British and French, the Soviets were also secretly negotiating with Germany. The western powers discounted this possibility, believing that the Soviet and German political systems were diametrically opposed and that the two powers were permanent enemies.
Although Berlin rejected Stalin's initial efforts, Hitler became convinced that Stalin was serious when in May 1939 the Soviet dictator dismissed Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, a champion of collective security and a Jew. The pragmatist and nationalist Vyacheslav Molotov replaced Litvinov. At the end of May, the German government indicated its willingness for a "certain degree of contact" with Moscow, beginning the process that would culminate in the German-Soviet pact.
On 21 August 1939, after a series of German communications, Stalin telegraphed Berlin and asked that Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop come to Moscow. Ribbentrop arrived on 23 August and met personally with Stalin. The pact was signed that same night, stunning the world. The pact had three major provisions, two of them secret and not revealed until the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II had ended. The open provision consisted of a 10-year nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany.
The first of the two secret sections divided the Baltic states and Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany. The Soviet sphere of influence was to include eastern Poland, Bessarabia (a province of Romania), Estonia, Latvia, and Finland. The Germans secured western Poland and Lithuania. A month after the pact was signed, Hitler traded Lithuania to the Soviet Union in exchange for further German concessions in Poland. The second secret clause stipulated that the Soviet Union would provide Germany with massive amounts of raw materials and act as its purchasing agent abroad for items it could not itself furnish. In return, Germany agreed to provide finished goods and weapons technology from Germany. This was particularly helpful to Germany, nullifying the effects of the British naval blockade of Germany.
After signing the pact, Stalin drew Ribbentrop aside and told him that the Soviet Union would live up to its provisions and never betray Germany. Stalin understood the danger of the alliance, yet he continued to trust his ally until the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation barbarossa, in June 1941. With the signing of the pact, Hitler freed himself of the threat of Soviet military intervention and a two-front war. He was now free to launch his invasion of Poland. On 1 September 1939, German forces crossed the border. Two days later, Great Britain and France honored their pledge to Poland and declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union denied the secret provisions of the pact until 1990.
Eric W. Osborne
Bloch, Michael. Ribbentrop: A Biography. New York: Crown Publishers, 1982.; Fourestier, Jeffrey de. "The Hitler-Stalin Pact: Discussion of the Non-Aggression Treaty and the Secret Protocols." Master's thesis, McGill University, 1992.; Read, Anthony, and David Fisher. The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939–1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988.; Roberts, Geoffrey. The Unholy Alliance: Stalin's Pact with Hitler. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.