Lest We Forget:
   World War II













Causes and Implications of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
   by Stephen Payne

On August 23, 1939, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed a pact ensuring absolute neutrality between the two nations. The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, for the two foreign ministers that signed it, ensured the borders, spheres of influence, and quasi-alliance of the two nations. More importantly, the pact opened the way for the launching of World War II. A mere eight days after the signing of the pact, the German army, navy, and air force invaded Poland, secure in the knowledge that the Soviet Union would not intervene. What made this pact unusual was the diametrically opposed ideological nature of the two nations. The incompatibility of the two systems of government, the xenophobic nature of the two regimes, and the insatiable appetite for conquest of both rulers meant that it was only a matter of time before the two powers clashed. The Soviets sensed this as early as 1937, and the Nazis were committed to an invasion of Russia by early 1940. Both Hitler and Stalin, however, had needs that far outweighed any negative factors that existed.

The greatest fear and worry for Germany was the prospect of a two-front war of attrition. From the lessons learned in World War I, Hitler realized that Germany simply could not defeat Russia, France, and England simultaneously. However, Hitler believed that victory could be achieved much in the way that Schlieffen had proposed thirty years previously. If either the east or the west could be knocked out of the war quickly, and full attention could be turned in the remaining direction, Hitler (rightly) believed that Nazi Germany could triumph. As it was, Germany fought, and very nearly won, a three front war, so it is clear that Germany would have emerged victorious from a war featuring a single front.

In the tradition of Schlieffen, Hitler decided to knock out the west, and then turn full attention to the east. In order to do this, however, he needed a guarantee that the giant in the east, Russia, would sit idly while Germany conquered Western Europe. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact provided the assurance Hitler needed, and gave the green light for Hitler's plan of military aggression. With the pact so obviously pro-German, at the expense of Europe and Russia, it seems strange that Stalin agreed to the pact.

Although Germany gained more immediate and visible benefits from the pact, Russia received more, and more important gains than did Germany. The first, and most sought after gain Stalin made was the acquisition of a buffer zone between Russia and Germany. This buffer zone consisted of the eastern third of Poland, with Bessarabia, Estonia, Finland, and Lithuania being put under the Soviet sphere of influence as well. This buffer zone was the primary goal of Stalin in pursuing the pact. Already paranoid, Stalin felt that Russia could not survive a German onslaught without the buffer zones. In all actuality, he was correct. Even with the buffer zone of hundreds of miles, the German army marched to within twenty miles of Moscow. It is highly probable that the buffer zones saved the Soviets from defeat at the hands of the Germans.

In addition to the desire for buffer zones, Stalin pursued the Nazi-Soviet pact for a variety of other reasons. The second major factor leading to Stalin's agreement to the pact was the weakness of the Red Army. After the vast purge of the army in 1937, the Soviet military was left with essentially no effective leadership. Nearly the entire officer corps had been annihilated in the purge, leaving the Red Army leaderless and ineffective. Stalin realized this, and realized that the Red Army did not stand a chance against the effective, soon to be battle-hardened Wermacht. Accordingly, he sought time to rebuild the leadership of the army, and found the time he needed in the non-aggression pact. Stalin also needed time to assimilate a modern armor force into the antiquated Red Army. Though Germany attacked before full assimilation was realized, the short time given by the pact was enough to begin the assimilation of armor.

The third reason the Nazi-Soviet Pact was attractive to Stalin was problems with the Japanese. Major border conflicts had been occurring between the Japanese and the Soviets, and though the Red Army always dominated, these clashes worried Stalin. Just as Germany could not fight a two-front war, Stalin knew that Russia could ill-afford to combat the Japanese and the Germans simultaneously. Given Stalin's view that war with Germany was inevitable, any delay in the coming of the inevitable would give Russia time to work things out with the Japanese, thereby eliminating the possibility of a two-front war. This did in fact happen, for the Japanese came to the conclusion that excursions into Siberia were far too costly, and shortly thereafter signed a neutrality pact with the Soviets. The pact ensured Stalin of his eastern borders, and allowed him to bolster defenses in the west, for the imminent attack from Germany.

Though the Russians gained much from the pact, their gains came at the cost of German supremacy on the European continent. Though Stalin must have known that this would happen, he willingly endorsed the non-aggression pact. This happened due to a variety of factors. The weakness of the Red Army, the need for buffer zones, and the disputes with the Japanese all contributed to the decision, but Stalin's perception of the west contributed more than anything else. Stalin was under the impression that the west (Britain, France, etc.) would not fight to save Eastern Europe from Nazi oppression. This perception of Stalin, more than anything else, influenced him to open negotiations with Germany.

Though Stalin was partially correct in his assumption that Britain and France would not fight to save Eastern Europe, he was also somewhat wrong. While the western powers, through their policy of appeasement, stood by while Germany gobbled up Austria and Czechoslovakia, they did not remain idle when Germany invaded Poland. Granted, the nascent commitment was hardly enthusiastic, and in fact a rather lackluster declaration of war backed by little action, but it was a commitment to the sovereignty of Eastern Europe nonetheless.

Through his semi-flawed reasoning, Stalin allowed Hitler and Nazi Germany to conquer all of Western Europe. While this was a negative side effect of the treaty, Stalin viewed it as a necessary evil. By buying time, which is essentially what Stalin sought to do through the pact, Russia was enabled to begin reconstructing and revamping the Red Army, secure the eastern border from Japan, and obtain a buffer zone between Russia and Germany. All three of these measures bolstered the Soviet defensive position for the war with Germany that came on June 22, 1941. Though the non-aggression pact did allow Russia time for such things, in the end, it only provided less than two years for the Soviets to work with.

Those two years, however, were desperately needed. Russia furiously worked on areas that could help defend against Germany. Even with the additional two years provided by the pact, when Germany finally attacked Russia, the Red Army was still no match for the Wermacht. Germany made sweeping advances along a two thousand-mile front, proving beyond a doubt that Germany had superior forces. Had the attack come in 1939, with the Red Army completely debilitated, Germany most likely would have defeated Russia. The pact, then, may have saved Russia, and indeed the entire world, from the fate suffered by France and Western Europe in 1940.

Ironically, though the pact saved Europe from the Nazis, it was the pact that led to the fall of France and Europe to Germany. Both Germany and Russia made gains through the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Germany made tremendous short-term gains, whereas Russia made more meaningful long-term gains. Though many uninformed people condemn the Soviets for signing the pact, it was the single greatest factor that led to Germany's defeat, for it was the Soviet Union, and not the western allies, who defeated the Nazis in World War II. The Soviet triumph was made possible only by the extra two years of preparation allotted by the non-aggression pact.

The Soviets benefited from the pact after war's end as well. Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and scores of other sovereign nations fell under the shadow of Soviet domination. Whether annexed into the vast Soviet empire, or merely controlled politically, socially, and economically, Eastern Europe felt the effects of the Nazi-Soviet pact for nearly fifty years after the end of the war. Of course, had the pact not been signed, it is entirely possible that the states would have been, or would still be under Nazi oppression. As it turned out however, the Soviets, aided by the western allies, gained the upper hand, and eventually vanquished the Nazis. This was due largely to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Had Germany not signed the non-aggression pact, and launched Operation Barbarossa in 1939 against an antiquated and leaderless Red Army, the Wermacht would have rolled across all of Russia, instead of being halted at Moscow as it was in 1942. Though the pact did allow Hitler to conquer Europe, it ironically also allowed Stalin to crush Hitler. The deceiving pact, which appeared to be pro-Nazi, in all actuality was pro-Soviet, and prevented Hitler from realizing his dream of a "thousand-year Reich." The short-term gains of Germany paled in comparison to the long-term, more substantial gains of Russia. Though it took time to realize this fact, it is clear that the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact was one of the single greatest factors that led to Nazi Germany's fall.
Copyright © 1994-2005 Stephen Payne