The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Its Significance Today

Front, Left to right – Joachim von Ribbentrop, Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov
Source – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

On September 17, 1939, when the Polish army, weakened by a German Wehrmacht onslaught, tried to regroup in strategic depth to the direction of Lviv and Brest and create a defensive line, the Soviet Army invaded from the east. They tried to justify the military action by the collapse of the Polish rule,which they accomplished, and the protection of so-called Soviet people – Ukrainians and Belarussians. They not only destroyed Polish villages, towns, and cities but also wiped out any hotbeds of potential resistance against the German Wehrmacht and paved the way for Nazi occupation. When the Wehrmacht appeared in Brest, no one expected them to be replaced by the Soviet Army in a matter of hours, especially without firing a bullet. Though some Belarusians or Ukrainians welcomed the entry of the Soviet Army, it was only temporary – the Soviets were not going to protect them either. Instead, the principle of “Divide and Rule” was not unfamiliar even then. As historian Roger Moorhouse points out, the Soviet troops in Lviv and Brest were calling on the ethnically non-Polish population: “Do not be afraid! We are here against Polish fascism and to defend you.” The result of these words was that tens of thousands of Polish militants or civilians, who surrendered to Soviet forces, were shot and massacred by the Soviets in the Katyn forest, April of the following year. The Kremlin completely denied its involvement and blamed it on the Germans until the 1990s, when the official Soviet documentation came to light and showed that it was the Soviets who conducted the massacre.

In December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin denies the Soviet attack on Poland and, moreover, blames the Poles for starting the war altogether. According to him, the Soviet Union decided to cooperate with Nazi Germany only after every European political actor or superpower declared cooperation with it. This assessment is not only false but is based on a deliberate lie. German-Soviet cooperation dates back to 1922, when the Rapallo Treaty was signed, aimed at dismantling the international order after the First World War. It was a declaration of readiness to act against the existing political reality. This was followed by the 1926 Treaty of Berlin, which implied neutrality and cooperation for five years. The treaty once again supported the principles of the Rapallo Treaty. But a particularly intense union between the Soviet Union and Germany began in the late 1920s, which coincided with a deliberate famine in Soviet Ukraine – the Holodomor. A period when several million people died of starvation. What did this cooperation mean? The wheat and barley collected by the Ukrainians were sent to the Germans and because of this Ukrainians starved to death. That kind of cooperation between Germany and the USSR varied in intensity but fully continued until June 22, 1941, the very day when the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany. But a few hours before the start of the war, a train loaded with the Soviet resources entered the German territory.

The Nazi Party and its leader, Adolf Hitler, were declared anti-communists. Nevertheless, the cooperation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union never ceased until June 1941. Arming, training, and equipping of the German military forces were carried out not only with the help of the Soviet Union, but also with joint exercises on the territory of the Soviet Union.

In 1932, a non-aggression pact was signed between the Soviet Union and Poland, which, of course, was violated by the Soviet Union on September 17, 1939. The breaking of this treaty was exactly what Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had been aiming for since its signature. Since the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union had been seeking to capture Eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland, and even attempted to do so in 1920. However, the Poles were able to stop them and, moreover, even inflicted lasting damage to the Soviet military forces.

Nazi Germany considered Poland to be an abnormal entity. In addition to seeking a regain of the lost territories in World War I, Germany also expressed a formal desire to expand eastward. As soon as Adolf Hitler came to power, he stressed the importance of the creation of the Eastern policy.

Everything got dark on August 23, 1939, after a plane flying from Königsberg landed in Moscow. A German delegation, led by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, got off the plane. From the Soviet side the talks were led by Vyacheslav Molotov and Joseph Stalin himself. Formally, the treaty provided for non-aggression between the Nazis and Soviets, although the secret articles aimed to divide Eastern Europe into German and Soviet occupation zones. If Poland was divided into two parts, Baltic states and parts of Romania would fall into the Soviet hands. It also paved the way for the Soviet aggression against Finland.

For its part, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was aimed not only at destroying Eastern Europe, but also at turning a blind eye to Nazi Germany’s incursion into Western Europe. The backdrop of this pact and some de-facto additions on 28 September 1939, after the Polish occupation, became the basis for the terror and violence conducted by totalitarian states in Europe. After the agreement, the parties not only continued to cooperate economically and politically but also through their secret services –  the Soviet NKVD and the Nazi Gestapo met periodically to exchange information, captives, and political prisoners, creating grounds for bilateral terror in the occupied territories. There were warm relations between the Soviet and Nazi militaries too. In May 1941, even some high-ranking German military officials attended the events in Moscow.

After the Second World War, the Soviet Union hid the articles of this treaty and the active cooperation with Nazi Germany. Archives have been opened since the 1990s, shedding light on crimes committed by the Soviet Union and collaboration and bond with Nazi Germany. However, the Kremlin is still trying to leave room for interpretation and reinterpretation. Moreover, according to Vladimir Putin, cooperation with Germany was a “necessary evil”, and Poland was not the victim, but the culprit, which provoked both the Soviet and German aggression. Talking about all this is not only a dangerous precedent for history, but also creates a justification for the Soviet and Nazi aggression and ideology, which still has a supporter in the form of a state that is characterized by permanent aggression against its own neighborhood.

Giorgi Koberidze
Senior Fellow

The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

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