The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was an alliance

an interveiw with prof. Mariusz Wołos

The essence of this agreement was not an open and public non-aggression pact, and thus similar to many other documents of this type signed in the interwar period, but a secret protocol on the division of Central and Eastern Europe says Prof. Mariusz Wołos, a historian from the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Pedagogical University of Krakow.


Michał Szukała: Many analyses of the genesis of the Soviet-German pact begin with remembering the famous “chestnut speech” of Joseph Stalin. Stalin spoke of “maintaining peace” and the possibility of reaching an agreement with any state, regardless of its political system. What foreign policy motives and factors did Stalin take into consideration as guiding principle when he spoke on 10 March 1939?

Prof. Mariusz Wołos: The “chestnut speech” was indeed the beginning of a direct road to the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but it must not be forgotten that the Weimar Republic was a trusted, albeit informal, ally of the Soviet Union. This applied, though not fully formalized, agreement in the form of an alliance treaty lasted from the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922 until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. The consequences of the agreement were far-reaching and very beneficial for both countries. Thus, the tradition of German-Soviet cooperation was very good and Stalin had a favorable association regarding it.

Prof. Mariusz Wołos (fot. PAP/L. Szymański)

The “chestnut speech” itself was a consequence of Stalin’s belief that war was inevitable and that the country he ruled must take advantage of it. The USSR had been preparing for an offensive war for a long time. Five-year plans had been designed to serve this purpose. It would be no exaggeration to say that at the end of the 1920s and at the beginning of the 1930s, the Soviet Union was transformed into a huge arms factory. In the second half of the 1930s, it produced a huge number of tanks, which, after all, are not defensive but offensive weapons. Stalin wanted war. He saw two political blocs getting ready to fight – the Axis countries with the Third Reich at the head and the democratic states of the west with Poland that had been treated in Moscow for a long time as subordinates obediently carrying out the orders of London and Paris.

So the question is, why declare that it is possible to make an alliance with any country, regardless of the political system. The actual goal was to attract German diplomacy. In the Third Reich, such a situation was very appropriate. Stalin knew it was necessary to seek an alliance with the strong and aggressive partner, meaning with the Germans. His speech triggered negotiations that were secret, conducted by diplomats on both sides, that lasted for several months. Their culmination was the conclusion of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 23 August and the famous secret protocol on the division of Central and Eastern Europe into zones of interest attached to it. In the few years leading up to that moment, Stalin not only carried out unimaginably large armament, but also activities on peculiar testing grounds. In this context, I do not call the battles waged in Spain a civil war, but a training ground for the Soviet Union, which treated this theater of struggle in the same way as the Third Reich or Italy. Soviet tanks and planes were tested beyond the Pyrenees. The second training ground was the Sino-Japanese War that started in 1937. There, Stalin militarily supported the Chinese.

It is also worth analyzing the phrase “with everyone, regardless of the political system.” Obviously, representatives of the Soviet Union conducted parallel negotiations with the delegations of France and Great Britain. My thesis is that the conversations were not sincere from the beginning. Their real function was to create a nexus of pressure on German diplomacy. Berlin was reprimanded: if we do not reach an agreement that is favorable to us, we can come to an agreement with Western democracies. Moscow’s position was therefore very favorable. It was up to Stalin to get in line with those interested in the talks. This also contradicts the thesis about the alleged threat of isolation of the USSR after the Munich conference. It was exactly the opposite. Western democracies, if they wanted to stop Hitler from further pursuing his aggressive plans, had to join the Soviet Union. The issue was raised in Paris and London. If Hitler wanted to implement his mad and paranoid plans, he had to have Stalin’s tactical support for some time, if only to isolate Poland and ensure peace in the east during the fighting in Western Europe.

Meeting between Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop in Moscow on August 23, 1939 (photo: CC-BY-SA 3.0; Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337)

Thanks to the pact with Moscow, Hitler could be convinced that the Soviets would not come to the aid of the Western European countries attacked by him. However, he could not be sure that the latter would not help the USSR when he attacked “the homeland of the proletariat.” It can be said that there were many factors at the origin of the pact of 23 August 1939 that must be taken into account in order to understand its practical goals.

Was the risk of a Soviet-German agreement noticed in London and Paris?

It was, but it was underestimated. The Soviet-German rapprochement was a threat, although on the surface it might seem that these two totalitarian systems were so distant that it precluded the possibility of an agreement. The French say, however, that “les extrêmes se touchent” (extremes attract each other). This proverb turned out to be true in August 1939. It is also necessary to return for a moment to the Soviet-German cooperation of 1922–1933. At that time, it was a nightmare for Western politicians and diplomats. The vision of an alliance between the USSR and Germany was therefore a huge threat not only to the countries located between these powers, but also to the West. The thought was pushed aside, but in the back of the mind, politicians like Winston Churchill were aware that such an agreement was possible.

Polish diplomacy followed the guiding principle of the so-called equal distances between Berlin and Moscow. Was it assumed in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs that these opposites could attract each other so much?

Such a scenario was assumed, but no action was taken against its fulfillment. Polish diplomacy was too weak to oppose the intentions of Berlin and Moscow. Let us note that neither party invited the Poles to the talks in 1939. I mean, first of all, the negotiations with the Soviets by the delegations of France and Great Britain. Poland was treated by these countries as a medium-sized secondary European country and thus was not taken into account in the game played by the great powers. Meanwhile, British and French diplomats talked in Moscow about passing the Soviet troops through the territory of the Republic of Poland. It was significant that negotiations were conducted without Poles.

It should also be emphasized that Polish diplomacy, headed by Minister Józef Beck, had to make a choice then, whether to accept or reject the German proposals, including a joint march to the East. The second option was to accept the veiled, but from time to time visible, Soviet postulate to provide aid against German aggression. I am not sure if it was formulated honestly, or if it meant introducing the Red Army troops to areas called by the Soviets “Western Belarus” and “Western Ukraine”. Both of these “proposals” were rejected because they led to the loss of independence of at least a large part of the territory of the Polish state. No government could afford it, except one made by communists. These are fundamental issues, which, however, need to be emphasized and, as it turns out – in connection with the wave of the so-called alternative history – constant repetition.

From left: head of the legal department of the German Foreign Ministry Friedrich Gauss, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Joseph Stalin and People’s Commissar (Minister) of Foreign Affairs of the USSR Vyacheslav Molotov, 23 August 1939, Moscow

Can we risk a claim that the Western countries had nothing to offer Stalin, while Hitler could present specific benefits from concluding the agreement?

In my opinion, the Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations were only an attempt to pressure Stalin on Berlin. Stalin from the beginning assumed that Hitler was the right partner for him. He rightly believed that French and British diplomacy would, at best, agree to the Red Army’s march through Polish territory. Such consent was actually given without Warsaw’s approval. Meanwhile, Hitler could provide Stalin with what he cared about: spheres of interest in Finland, Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, Estonia, Latvia, perhaps Lithuania, and in the eastern half of Poland. It was known that no democratic country would agree to such an arrangement. Meanwhile, a totalitarian state like the Third Reich would do so without much hesitation.

Stalin’s behavior is also explained by his goals. His minimum plan was to rebuild the Soviet Union within the tsarist empire. If we look at the pact from this perspective, this goal was almost achieved politically and diplomatically without much military effort. Let us remember that the line separating the spheres of interest (and not the spheres of influence – in the language of diplomacy these are two completely different concepts) ran according to the arrangements of 23 August along the lines of the Narew, Vistula and San rivers. This meant that Warsaw’s district Praga was to be located on the Soviet side of the border. Such a solution was already relatively close to the Russian-German border in 1914.

Stalin’s maximum plan was to move the border or the aforementioned sphere of interests of the USSR even further to the west. Stalin thought in practical terms, counting on favorable circumstances. The minimum and maximum plans were by no means mutually exclusive, and could complement each other very well. It is worth explaining what these “favorable circumstances” were for the Soviet dictator.

Document of the secret protocol to the pact of August 23, 1939, with the signatures of J. Ribbentrop and V. Molotov. German text

Stalin was not the genius that  he presented himself to be or as he was regarded by his followers. He was a conservative man, not devoid of paranoid features. He thought in terms of the First World War. He assumed that the signing of the treaty with Hitler was for the dictator of the Third Reich a guarantee that the Soviet Union would not provide any aid to the Western powers. This also happened in 1940, and Hitler took advantage of the favorable attitude of the Soviet Union, by attacking Denmark, Norway, then France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and fighting with Great Britain. Stalin hoped that the fighting in Western Europe would last a long time, would completely bleed out and weaken both sides of the “imperialist” conflict, as it had during the First World War. After their completion, or even in the final phase of their duration, Stalin would have a comfortable situation to move from the Vistula, Narew and San rivers to the west. This is how the thinking of the Soviet dictator can be summarized, to whom the sudden fall of France was a surprise. Therefore, in the spring and summer of 1939, Hitler was his dream partner. All ideological differences were therefore pushed to the far side. They were losing relevance. Hence the shock in the ranks of Western European communist parties. Their members could not understand why the communist state, which saw “fascists” as their main enemy, was making such a bizarre political turn along the lines of the diplomacy of the 19th century powers. They could not understand that it was not about any ideology or internationalism, but rather the particular imperialist interests of the Soviet Union, personified by the Great Russian chauvinist, a Georgian in the Kremlin.

It seems necessary to explain what the difference between “spheres of interest” and “spheres of influence” in the language of diplomacy is.

Sphere of influence is an area that can be influenced by propaganda and politics (e.g. by supporting favorable parties or controlling the mass media). It is also possible to interfere in political, social and economic life more or less visibly. The zone of interest is a veiled announcement of joining certain lands to one’s own state (the case of the Polish lands incorporated into the Third Reich) or their total dependence by the occupation (the case of the General Government). In the case of the USSR, this difference was openly demonstrated on 17 September 1939, that is on the day of armed aggression against Poland, and in June 1940, when the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as their zone of interest under another treaty with The Third Reich, signed on 28 September 1939.

The Soviet aggression on Finland at the end of November 1939 was also an element of the definition and division of the zones of interest in practice. In 1940, after brutal pressure on the Romanian government, the pact concerning the zones of interest was implemented by Bessarabia and northern Bukovina in the USSR. From the point of view of the Russian chauvinists, it was the recovery of the lands lost by Russia as a result of the collapse of the Romanov empire and the decisions taken after the end of the First World War.

Can this concise document of 23 August 1939 be called an alliance in the language of diplomacy? If so, what was the level of trust between the allies?

Of course it could be regarded as so and it was. We should remember that the essence of the agreement concluded in Moscow was not an open and public non-aggression pact, otherwise similar to many other documents of this type signed in the interwar period, but rather a secret protocol on the division of Central and Eastern Europe into zones of interest. Its provisions were implemented, albeit with the aforementioned modification concerning Lithuania and the shifting of the line delimiting the zones of interest to the San-Bug-Narew-Pisa rivers. It was the result of the course of the Polish defense campaign and the treaty on borders and friendship between the Third Reich and the USSR, along with secret protocols, signed on 28 September 1939.

Map of territorial changes in Europe after World War I (as of 1923). Note that the creation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland is not shown (photo: CC BY-SA 3.0; derivative work: Fluteflute (talk) Map_Europe_1923-fr.svg)

I would risk the thesis that among the signatories of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, trust was greater on the Soviet side. Stalin trusted Hitler so much that he respected its arrangements until the very last moments of the Soviet-German pact. Trains with natural resources from the USSR crossed the border with the Third Reich just before the attack of 22 June 1941. To use Aleksander Bregman’s phrase: the Soviet Union was “Hitler’s best ally”.

Hitler, on the other hand, did not fully trust Stalin. He considered him a very deceitful man. From the beginning, he treated the agreement as a tactical arrangement. When the Soviet Union delayed its attack on Poland, Hitler put pressure on the Kremlin, including by Ambassador Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg. Meanwhile, Stalin delayed, because he wanted to join the aggression only when it would cost him as little as possible. The degree of trust was therefore different, but in both cases so high that the pact of 23 August 1939 lasted almost two years.

You said that it was also an alliance against the West. On this occasion, it is worth asking how the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is assessed by Western historiography.

In a very different way. Part of Western historiography influenced by liberal and leftist currents evaluates it relatively mildly, and even tries to justify it, blaming Poland as well. It happens that some historians follow the voice of mainstream Russian historiography and seek to justify Stalin, who they believe, after Munich, may have felt embattled and convinced that he would be attacked by Hitler. In this context, the aim of the pact would be to move the Soviet border to the west in order to gain space for defense and even to limit German expansion.

One example: the Italian historian, writer, journalist and diplomat (including the former ambassador to the USSR), Sergio Romano not only justifies the Soviet occupation of the eastern territories of Poland but also blames it for being at least also responsible for the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and indirectly for causing the Second World War. There is also a large group of serious Western scholars who consider it an act of condemnation and interpret it as an agreement between two criminal totalitarianisms seeking to crack down on their opponents.

“The Prussian Tribute in Moscow” in the Polish satirical newspaper Mucha of 8 September 1939

Again, another example. Henry Kissinger in his “Diplomacy”, translated into many languages, called it “to some extent a repetition of the partitions of Poland.” The eminent French expert on the history of the USSR, Nicolas Werth, rightly drew attention to the location of the “historically and ethnically Polish” regions of Warsaw and Lublin in the Soviet zone, which after all did not belong to “Western Belarus” or “Western Ukraine”, adding that the pact was by societies of many countries assessed as “a real revolution in the European order”. The German researcher Dietmar Neutatz emphasized that the treaty gave Hitler a free hand to start a war against Poland, while Stalin opened the prospect of seizing territories of interest without risking an armed conflict with any power. Italian historian Andrea Graziosi emphasized that thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Moscow was able to move from the role of an observer to the role of an arbiter in an armed conflict. The American biographer of the Soviet leader, Stephen Kotkin, described the lands of the Polish Republic seized by the Red Army as the “Stalin’s Sudetenland”, where Soviet orders were spread extremely quickly, including various methods of terror aimed at all enemies of the new authorities.

After all, most modern Western historians avoid unequivocally pointing to the USSR as a state co-responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War. The burden of responsibility shifts to Hitler. At most, it is emphasized that the Soviet side, by concluding a pact with the Third Reich, created almost ideal conditions for Germany to unleash the largest military conflict to date. In Russia, they see this matter most often differently – the world war began only in 1941 with the attack of Germany on the USSR and Japan on the USA, and before that, we had to deal with local or regional conflicts. Such an attitude is convenient because it sheds the risk of co-responsibility for starting the Second World War with the Soviet Union.

Some time ago, Igor Shishkin, a Russian historian, political scientist, vice-president of the Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States, stated that the provisions of the secret protocol to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact were “absolutely right from a legal and moral point of view,” and described the Second Polish Republic as “pathetic border state”. In this context, can it be said that the narrative of Russian historiography is a continuation of the Soviet narrative?

Shishkin’s statement is a melange of Stalinist propaganda and contemporary Great Russian chauvinism and nationalism. It meets the needs of today’s Russian “historical policy”. This is one big distortion, otherwise interesting not so much for professional historians or political scientists, but for cultural scientists, sociologists, and maybe even social psychologists. Such theses cannot be taken seriously, they are nothing new, but rather a rehashing of old slogans. Russian historiography cannot cope with the “problem” of 1939–1941. It would be best for it if this period was completely erased from history, because then the Soviet Union could only act as a victim of German aggression. And then as a country that brought both its citizens and the citizens of the countries occupied by the Axis countries freedom and deliverance from the horrors of war. In other words, as a just hero saving the world from imminent destruction. However, this period of allied cooperation with the Third Reich did exist and one must somehow respond to it.

Nazis destroying border markers on the Polish-German border, 1939 (photo: CC BY 4.0;

Meanwhile, dealing with the mendacious black pages of one’s own past is extremely difficult, and it could accurately target not only the assumptions of contemporary Russian “historical policy”, but also the foundation myths of the Russian Federation, including the “Great Patriotic War” in a different light. So what is left? Representatives of the mainstream of Russian historiography are seeking to blame the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and its tragic consequences for many nations all around, but not the USSR.

It is worth knowing, however, that Russian historiography is still not a monolith. Some researchers severely judge or even condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. I would venture to say that these are the historians who know Soviet and not only Soviet sources best, as well as Western literature. At this point, I would mention, inter alia, of the long remembered Oleg Ken from St. Petersburg, Sergei Sluch, and Julia Kantor. Their theses are closer to our view of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, although there are also differences in their perception, but they relate to secondary issues rather than to the fundamental evaluation.


Interview by Michał Szukała (PAP)
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki