80 years have passed since the signing of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Western historians have come to cite these events as the “trigger” that set off the bloodiest conflict in human history. But archive documents presented by the internet project “1939. From Appeasement to War” show a different story. RuBaltic.Ru sat down with the director of the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA) Vladimir TARASOV to discuss why the Soviet Union was forced to turn to Hitler.
— Mr. Tarasov, the exhibit has hundreds of documents, but the RGVA funds and other agencies probably have a lot more. Can you explain how the documents were selected for this exhibit?
— Let’s start with the fact that the project based on the year 1939 is a continuation of another project, one dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement. For the virtual exhibits, we selected almost twice as many documents as we did for the one in real life.
We took the period between 15 March and 23 September 1939. The Munich Agreement project ended with March, so we were looking at a chronological continuation. And in September, Poland stopped being an independent state.
So we selected the most crucial and important documents that we were able to find (in our own archive, as well as in other places) for this exhibit. We managed to receive the missing documents from the German MFA’s political archive. In particular, the telegram of President Roosevelt to Hitler.
We did not add documents that, even when not reiterating those in the exhibit, did not add anything of substance to it.
— You have pre-empted one of the questions. I wanted to ask you of the stand out “gems” of your project, the most interesting documents, perhaps shown for the first time. What else can you tell us about? And why is this Roosevelt telegram of such note?
— As it is known, Roosevelt basically approved of the Munich Agreement and gave his blessing to UK and France’s policy of appeasing Germany. In his telegram to Hitler, Roosevelt tried to dissuade Hitler from his aggressive plans and invited him to discuss all of the issues on an international conference, he also named 31 European and Asian states, toward which the Third Reich was not to take any hostile action.
In response to this, Hitler called a Reichstag session, where he basically ridiculed the US President’s position. Before this, he ordered his diplomats to find out if any of the countries mentioned by Roosevelt gave the United States the right to speak on their behalf and obviously none of them did.
At the same address in the Reichstag, Hitler called off a military maritime agreement with the United Kingdom and spoke radically against the Polish. This speech was the harbinger of Germany’s later aggression.
And out of the other documents, I would like to highlight the dispatches of the Red Army intelligence agency that have been published for the first time. These are very valuable sources, because they give a better idea of what was happening on the European continent at the time. For example, there is a special dispatch of the intelligence agency on Germany’s military preparations in 23 March 1939. It clearly states that Berlin is strengthening its army and what it is preparing to do.
There is also a propagandist map of the expanded German territories of 1938-1948. The Nazis freely distributed it in Prague and Carpathian Ruthenia.
So the Third Reich was not hiding its aggressive plans for the coming decade.
It clearly shows the timeline of Germany’s future expansion. And Hitler followed that plan.
— The Russian Embassy in Canada published scans of the 13 July 1939 notes of the French military attaché in Moscow on Twitter. Some responses to this amounted to “This is a Russian manipulation. An alliance with Nazi Germany was part of the Soviet agenda.” Do the documents show when an “alliance with Nazi Germany” became “part of the Soviet agenda”? Can there even be talk of an alliance?
— Throughout 1939, there were active negotiations on a variety of lines.
Immediately after Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia and took Memel (Klaipėda), the Soviet Union spoke of joint action with the UK, France and Poland.
These suggestions were, putting it lightly, glossed over, as no one in Europe wanted to enter any agreements with the USSR.
Also Moscow did not suggest something vague and abstract, it talked of a full-fledged union in order to stop Germany’s aggression. This was all rejected.
In our exhibit we have a number of documents covering these negotiations.
Only after the Soviet Union was sure they couldn’t side with the British and the French, they shifted to Germany.
It was clear that after Poland, the Germans would move to Russian borders (the intelligence reported on it all going that way). There was a goal to move the Western border further.
If we hadn’t made that agreement with Germany, the border would have been 30 kilometers away from Minsk.
Until late July 1939, the USSR did not take any significant steps to meet Berlin, even though the invitations were there before. Germany realized that a war on two fronts (France and UK on the West and Poland and USSR on the East) would mean a swift defeat.
It was important for Hitler to keep the Soviet Union neutral during the attack on Poland. That is why he was willing to compromise, which is what ended up happening.
First, there were talks of trade and economic agreements. It was an important issue for the USSR, as it was in de facto international isolation. Shipments of equipment from Germany were quite welcome.
But I would like to reiterate: all of this was possible only after talks with London and Paris fell through. Then the Soviet Union responded to Berlin’s initiatives
Ultimately we got what we were looking for – delaying the start of the war. So you could say that the non-aggression pact was beneficial to both Germany and the USSR.
— But why did the Soviet-British-French negotiations fail? Because London and Paris were not going to compromise with Moscow in the first place? Or was Poland’s position the decisive factor when they refused to work with the “Reds”?
— I think both of those statements are true.
During talks between USSR, UK and France there was a heavy weight of distrust, and this was felt and there was no effort to hide it. British Prime Minister Chamberlain is famous attributed saying that he would “rather resign than sign an alliance with the Soviets.” And in letters to his sister he denies any possible agreement with Moscow. France was following Britain in terms of these policies.
There were people in these countries who looked at things more rationally and understood that only joint action with the USSR would help them get any positive shifts with the Germans. But the policy of the establishment was different. They demanded one-sided obligations from the Soviet Union, which it clearly could not take.
Poland also influenced the course of events. Under no condition would it agree to let the Red Army on its territory. This was the main issue in the Soviet-British-French talks. So they demanded that the Soviet Union would stood against the Third Reich, to which Moscow would raise a logical question of not having a border with Germany.
They would have to go through Poland. And Warsaw would not even hear of this. The main Russophobe at the time, in my opinion, was Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Józef Beck
The de facto leader of the country Marshall Rydz-Śmigły also said that, even though Hitler is their opponent, but at least he is a European. And that they could reason with the Germans. And the Soviet Union are all barbarians, who are beyond any reason.
— And as I understand, London and Paris did not try to dissuade them?
— They tried. Talks of some kind of joint action went on with various intensity since Spring 1939. And up to the end, the Brits and the French could not change Poland’s mind.
Only on 25 August, after the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact, they managed to get Poland to agree to a vague wording of them looking into some kind of joint actions with the USSR under certain circumstances and conditions. But the ship had already sailed. The chain of events was already unfolding along a different path.
— The problem of “Appeasing Hitler” is viewed differently by different historians. Some say the guarantors of the Versailles Peace just made a mistake, they chose the wrong path of action, “missing” the appearance of the monster. Russian experts frequently voice the idea that the West was intentionally leading Hitler to USSR’s borders. Which one of these points of view do the archival documents confirm?
— The archives confirm that the Western countries were trying to direct Hitler’s aggression to the East. This is seen from intelligence dispatches of the Red Army, agent information and the correspondence of various diplomats. And our Western partners are not really denying it.
Of course, they had underestimated Hitler’s capabilities.
The logic went like this, if Hitler couldn’t be appeased, then let him go East at least. And history clearly shows why that policy failed.
— It is commonly assumed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was a devastating blow to European (primarily British) diplomacy. The British did not expect Moscow and Berlin to sign a Non-Aggression pact?
— I agree that this was a blow to British and French diplomacy. And indeed, in London they didn’t believe that Moscow and Berlin could get along. Even though there were high ranking officials in the West who warmed of the impending Soviet-German agreements that would come as a result of France and UK’s policies. For example, this was said by the French Military Attaché in Moscow, General August-Antoine Palasse.
They left us no choice, so we had to make a reasonable compromise with Hitler. This was an act to defend Soviet national interests, and this was acknowledged by many Western politicians. Winston Churchill wrote that he would have done the same thing if he were in Stalin’s shoes.
The reaction of the different countries to the signing of Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact is quite interesting.
In the UK it caused a genuine panic, which was reported by Soviet Envoy in London Ivan Maysky. Paris had to take additional measures to protect the Soviet Embassy. And there was a full-on political crisis in Japan. The Japanese, who were nurturing their own plans for USSR’s territories, viewed the Soviet-German pact like a stab in the back. And this affected Tokyo’s future policies as well.
Translated by Pavel Shamshiev