A Look at “The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin

The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 by Roger Moorhouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good time to examine one of the root causes of many years of Soviet/Russian political and military dominance of Eastern Europe. I read this book last year after seeing a tremendous bargain on my Kindle. Well worth the price, with a pretty good overview of what became known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that remains so very controversial to this day.

Author Roger Moorhouse has an entire book to focus on the treaty, how it was arrived at, and the politics involved in the run up to the actual treaty signing. I thought he did a good job, but I expected a little bit more on the treaty, and how the treaty ended up being utilized by each side in advance of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In light of Hitler’s long history of invective towards Soviet Russia many have just assumed that the German violation of the treaty was baked into the German ideological cake. I have never believed that, although Hitler’s writings made clear his desire to conquer lands to the East. Was there something in the post treaty interactions that led Hitler to his invasion decision beyond ideology?

In all matters of World War II a reliance on William Shirer can help to more fully understand some of the details involved. In this case Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” still is an outstanding help in understanding Hitler and Stalins motivations, and gives us some great details on the treaty interactions after signing. After the Hitler takeover of rump Czechoslovakia (a truly terrible story by itself) the German dictator set his sights on new territorial demands to be made on Poland: The status of Danzig, and the German desire for a extra-territorial “corridor” through Poland to connect East Prussia to Danzig and Germany proper. The western powers, having had their eyes opened by Hitler’s duplicity on the Czech issue, now determined to draw a red line on potential German aggression against the Polish state. When both Britain and France issued “guarantees” to protect the Polish borders Adolph Hitler found himself in a predicament. The British and French made diplomatic efforts to secure Soviet participation in a common front against Germany, but these efforts were so ineffectual as to be counter-productive. The Polish government’s refusal to accede to transit rights for the Red Army to move onto Polish soil to meet an aggression by Germany sealed the fate of any common front against Germany that would include Soviet Russia. With Hitler intent on invading Poland by a date certain he began to entertain the concept of a rapprochement with Russia that would allow him, militarily, to finish off Poland and then turn West. Hitler was in a hurry, and Stalin liked what Hitler had to offer, which was the fate of several states, including Poland, that would now fall into the Soviet “sphere of influence.”

German outreach to the Soviets was reciprocated slowly, but eventually German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop ended up in Moscow to finalize the non-aggression treaty, along with the “secret protocols’”that have been the subject of so much discussion, and denial, by Soviet and Russian governments.

Josef Stalin was a tough and notoriously difficult negotiating partner in the best of circumstances. When he understood the imperative to Germany of concluding a non-aggression treaty in short order he drove an especially difficult bargain.

“Discussion swiftly moved to the essence of the Nazi-Soviet arrangement, the so-called secret protocol by which both parties were to divide the spoils of their collaboration. The initiative came from the Soviet side. Realizing that Hitler was impatient to proceed with his invasion plans for Poland, Stalin sought to extract the maximum possible territorial concession. “Alongside this agreement,” he announced, “there will be an additional agreement that we will not publish anywhere else,” adding that he wanted a clear delineation of “spheres of interest” in central and eastern Europe. Taking his cue, Ribbentrop made his opening offer. “The Führer accepts,” he said, “that the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia and Latvia, up to the river Dvina, will all fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.” This was exceedingly generous, but Stalin was not satisfied and demanded all of Latvia. Ribbentrop stalled. Although he had been given the authority to agree to terms as was necessary, he utilized the negotiating trick of breaking off talks to refer a question to a higher authority. Replying that he could not accede to the Soviet demand for Latvia without consulting Hitler, he asked that the meeting be adjourned while a call was made to Germany.”

Moorhouse, Roger. The Devils’ Alliance . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Hitler, after consulting a map, quickly acceded to Latvia falling into the Soviet “sphere.” The conclusion of the treaty was a source of great relief to Hitler, who now felt free from the potential of a two-front war. The Germans launched their invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and achieved rapid military success. In light of that success Josef Stalin, looking to get his share of the spoils, invaded Poland from the East. This action, regardless of historical revisionism, was one of the most cynical acts of the war.

At 3 a.m. that morning the Polish ambassador in Moscow, Wacław Grzybowski, was summoned to the Kremlin, where he was presented with a note from the Soviet government outlining the grounds for its intervention. As if to emphasize the impossibility of Poland’s predicament, the note itself had been drawn up jointly by the Soviets and the German ambassador in Moscow, Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg. It claimed, “The Polish government has disintegrated,” and “the Polish state no longer exists.” Given this apparent collapse, it went on, “the Soviet government cannot remain indifferent at a time when brothers of the same blood, the Ukrainians and the Byelorussians, residing on the Polish territory have been abandoned to their fate.” Consequently, the Red Army had been ordered to “cross the border and take under their protection the lives and property of the inhabitants of Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia.” By “Western Ukraine” and “Western Byelorussia,” the note meant eastern Poland.

Moorhouse, Roger. The Devils’ Alliance . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

At this key point the non-aggression pact appeared to be working to further the interests of the Soviets and Germans, but there were the seeds of tension nonetheless. The Germans dutifully turned over Polish territory to the Soviets in accordance with their treaty obligations, and Poland was effectively dismembered. But it was not only Hitler who had large territorial ambitions. Josef Stalin, with attention focused on Hitler, began to make demands on his peaceful neighbors that fell into his “sphere of influence.” Estonia was first, but not the last. The Estonian Foreign Minister Karl Selter was greeted in Moscow by Molotov, with an assist from Stalin, who made it quite clear that unless a “mutual assistance” pact was concluded there would be ominous repercussions for Estonia.

In response to Selter’s protestations of his country’s innocence in the affair, Molotov called upon Stalin himself to join the discussion. The Soviet leader showed his avuncular side upon entering the room soon after, joking with the Estonians, but he quickly got down to business. Once apprised of the essentials, he stated ominously, “What is there to argue about? Our proposal stands and that must be understood.” What passed for negotiations continued for the next couple hours, the Soviets insisting on placing 35,000 Red Army troops in Estonia to “protect order” and demanding a base in Tallinn itself, and the Estonians desperately trying to resist while sticking to the diplomatic niceties that their opponents had long since abandoned. Browbeaten, berated, and bullied, the Estonian delegates returned the following day having decided that they had no choice but to yield. Yet, with Ribbentrop waiting in the wings, they were again met with additional demands and the threat that “other possibilities” existed for ensuring Soviet security. The mutual assistance pact was finally signed at midnight on September 28 and ratified by the Estonian president a week later. Nominally, the treaty obliged both parties to respect each other’s independence; yet, by allowing for the establishment of Soviet military bases on Estonian soil, it fatally undermined Estonian sovereignty. Estonia was effectively at Stalin’s mercy.

Moorhouse, Roger. The Devils’ Alliance . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Hitler had used similar tactics in his meetings with unfortunate Presidents and Foreign Ministers of target countries, but Josef Stalin needed no lessons on this score. Similar tactics were used against Latvia and Lithuania, with Stalin effectively gobbling up the Baltic states. Those states appealed to Germany for help, but Hitler turned a deaf ear to their pleas. Despite that fact the Germans were not entirely comfortable with Stalin’s aggressive moves.

Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, himself born in Tallinn, was clear on the potential consequences, confiding to his diary, “If the Russians now march into the Baltic States, then the Baltic Sea will be strategically lost to us. Moscow will be more powerful than ever.”

Moorhouse, Roger. The Devils’ Alliance . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

In addition to the geopolitical issues there existed a heavy Germanic population in the Baltics that brought political pressure to bear on Hitler. (Yes, Hitler was concerned with German public opinion.) Stalin was not quite done, issuing an ultimatum to Romania over the province of Bessarabia, which Stalin occupied shortly thereafter. He occupied a bit more than the Germans had bargained away in the treaty, and was coming perilously close to Romanian oil fields which were essential for fueling the Nazi war machine. Hitler was appalled, and took measures to protect those oil fields, and what was left of Romania itself. The tension with Soviet Russia had begun, and although Hitler always had an attack on the Soviet Union on the German menu of military options it is my belief that the tensions that started with Romania would ultimately lead Hitler to decide that hostilities with Russia could not be avoided. The Molotov visit to Berlin to discuss some of these issues, in which he directly challenged Hitler in a face to face meeting over Romania, as well as German use of Finland for troop transit, and how to properly divide the geographic spoils of war, did not go well. Hitler’s not so veiled warning to Molotov during that discussion showed that Ribbentrop was not the only dense Foreign Minister in the room. In discussing the status of Finland Hitler, in stark terms, warned Molotov that there must not be a war launched in the Baltics, describing such a possibility as having the potential to create a heavy strain on Soviet-German relations that could have “unforeseen consequences.”

Moorhouse gives us detail on the brutality of the Polish invasion by both Hitler and Stalin, and of the difficulty Stalin had in explaining the pact to communists all over the world, who detested Hitler.

In light of the Soviet aggression against Poland and the Baltic states the question has arisen as to how Stalin got a pass on his actions while the West determined to stop German aggression. The answer is simply that the British and French identified Germany as the greater threat, and took steps to “keep the Soviet Union in play,” refusing to extend the guarantee of Polish borders to potential aggression by the Soviet Union.

Although Whitehall was aware that, in the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Poles might be reckoning with a Soviet invasion as well as a Nazi one, the guarantee was not extended to include aggression by Moscow. The British Foreign Office viewed the pact as a fundamentally unnatural arrangement, and so—expecting it to prove temporary—was unwilling to close off a potentially vital link to the USSR by prematurely making her an enemy. Thus, though the treaty mentioned only aggression by an unspecified “European Power,” it was appended by a secret protocol, similarly signed by both parties, which provided clarity. By “European Power,” the protocol explained, the signatory parties understood “Germany,” and in the event of aggression by any other power, they resolved only to “consult together” on their response.

Moorhouse, Roger. The Devils’ Alliance . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

The Devil’s pact ended badly for both Germany and the Soviet Union, with Hitler launching his invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. But as the world deals today with a revanchist Russia it is clear that the territorial demands of Russia are influenced by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and its secret protocols. Utilization of the Stalin methodology of dealing with weaker neighboring states is still part of the Russian playbook, as evidenced by the brutal invasion of Ukraine. This book is not new but brings back a truly terrible point in history. We should never forget the lessons of that period.

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