August 23rd in German History: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is Signed

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H27337, Moskau, Stalin und Ribbentrop im Kreml.jpg
Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the treaty. The former would have the latter executed after the war.

The Soviet Union was the nation that sacrificed the most in the defeat of Germany. As such, we often forget that it also was crucial to enabling Germany to invade and take over much of Europe. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non aggression pact signed by the USSR and Nazi Germany which gave Germany a free hand in expanding into Poland and invading France the following year. It was signed on August 23rd, 1939.

The pact’s main component was a treaty of non aggression between the two nations. Both promised not to attack each other. This agreement was surprising not least because of Hitler’s well-known hatred of communism and of the Slavic peoples. However, there were strategic reasons for his decision. He did not want to fight a two front war in 1939 and so desired to pacify the east so that he could focus on France and the UK in the west. Further, the Soviet Union was a crucial supplier of raw materials for the German war machine. Stalin, for his part, wanted the Democratic and Fascist countries to exhaust each other, which would allow the USSR to sweep in and create a communist Europe. He was thus happy to sell oil to Germany if that oil would be expended against French tanks. The pact also divided Eastern Europe up between the two nations. Germany was to get Western Poland while the Soviet Union would take the rest along with the Baltic States, parts of Finland, and the Romanian territories of Besserabia and Bukovina. Polish diplomacy in the 1930s was focused on playing Germany and the USSR off each other, but this treaty ensured that the two would be partners in the carving up of nations instead of rivals. In accordance with the pact, the Soviet Union invaded Poland after Germany did and subsequently it annexed the Baltics, invaded Finland, and forced Romania to cede territory to it. When Germany invaded France in 1940, it did so knowing that it would face no invasion from the east and what’s more, it did so with tanks built with Russian minerals, fueled with Russian oil, and crewed by men fed with Russian grain. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would see nearly two years of collaboration between the greatest Communist power and the greatest Fascist one, and it would allow Germany to invade and subjugate most of Western Europe.

The nation that would suffer the most from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was, of course, the Soviet Union. Hitler was able to take the west and then turn his full focus east. He broke the pact in 1941 and the war that followed resulted in the death of ten million Soviet citizens. The USSR paid dearly for Joseph Stalin’s short-sighted diplomatic ploys. Germany would not have been able to invade Poland if it had been opposed by with the Western Allies and the USSR. Without Poland and France subjugated, Germany could never have invaded Russia. If the Soviet Union had not signed the pact and had instead warned Germany against invading Poland, a great deal of suffering could have been avoided.

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