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13 MOLOTOV-RIBBENTROP PACT Conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union seemed inevitable from the moment that Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Hitler had gained of- fice in part by depicting himself and his political party as the only bulwark against the spread of international Communism. In addition to the ideological rivalry between National Socialism and Marxist Communism, the two states were natural geopolitical competitors. The Russian history of constant invasion from the west motivated any government in Moscow to seek buffer territories in central and eastern Europe. Similarly, German power politics and Nazi ideology regarded German economic and political exploitation of the same region as an inevitable part of national resurgence and economic security. The secret German-Soviet military cooperation ended by mutual consent within months of Hitler’s accession to power. The two regimes fought by proxy in the Spanish Civil War, sending “volunteers” and equipment to help the opposing sides. Russian bombers even sank a German warship off the coast of Spain in 1938, and Soviet ships escorted supply vessels against unidentified Fascist submarines in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Moscow condemned each successive German demand for more territory in central Europe. Yet, Stalin was reluctant to fight Hitler without allies. In the late 1930s, the Soviet economy was just beginning to recover from previous conflicts and purges. Moreover, Stalin had no desire to fight a war that would weaken the young socialist state while eliminating the German threat to the capitalist West. M. M. Litvinov, the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, campaigned vainly for collective security in response to German aggression. The 1938 Munich crisis over Czechoslovakia convinced Stalin that Britain and France were unlikely to take effective action against Hitler and would willingly sacri- fice the Soviet Union if the opportunity arose. Although Moscow conducted a partial mobilization of its armed forces to intimidate Berlin and impress its potential allies, the Soviets were not even invited to the Munich conference .1 Then, when Hitler violated the Munich agreement by occupying the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the British response again CHAPTER TWO Armed Truce, 1939–1941 14 Chapter Two excluded Moscow. Neville Chamberlain’s guarantee of Poland’s 1921 borders was intended to deter Hitler, but it also excluded Stalin’s claims to Polish territory that had once belonged to Imperial Russia. After lengthy diplomatic negotiations, British and French military representatives finally arrived in Moscow in August 1939, ostensibly to discuss plans for combined action against Germany. Both the junior rank of these representatives and the limited military forces that Great Britain would pledge confirmed Soviet skepticism about the seriousness of the negotiations . The talks ultimately foundered on the question of troop transit rights through Poland. The chief Soviet negotiator, Marshal Voroshilov, naturally insisted that Red Army forces be allowed to enter Poland to join in a combined response to further German aggression in the region. It is unclear whether this was a sincere Soviet proposal or a test of Western resolve. In either event, the Polish strongman, Colonel Joseph Beck, opposed such passage rights, suspecting his former enemy of territorial ambitions. King Carol II of Romania was equally opposed to Soviet passage across his territory. By this time, Stalin had concluded that he would gain more by compromising with Hitler than he could expect from his divided and hesitant Western partners. He may also have feared a German-British combination against the Soviet Union, a recurring nightmare of the Soviet leadership. In any event, on 3 May 1939 V. M. Molotov replaced Litvinov as foreign affairs commissar. This was a clear signal that Moscow was willing to depart from its previous anti-German policies of collective security. Over the ensuing months, the two enemies negotiated a trade and finance agreement. The Germans were initially suspicious of Soviet overtures, which occurred while Moscow was still negotiating with the British and French representatives. As the Polish crisis intensified, however, Hitler sought a free hand to dispose of Poland quickly, and Stalin did not wish to enter a premature war without reliable allies. On 20 August 1939, Hitler sent Stalin a message asking that the Soviet leadership receive the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop , not later than 23 August. Ribbentrop flew to Moscow and quickly finalized a nonaggression agreement that was announced to a stunned continent on 24 August.2 The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact publicly promised friendship and mutual nonaggression but secretly divided eastern Europe into spheres of influence...


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