Why did Stalin opt for the pact with Hitler in 1939?

In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Why would Stalin opt for a Pact with Hitler, whilst knowing that Hitler had aims to invade the USSR? Soviet historians have argued that Russia simply did not have the military capabilities to defend herself against a German attack and this pact would provide Russia with time to prepare for the inevitable. However, since the opening of the archives in 1989, it is clear that Stalin had other motives, mainly expansionist aims. Although this alliance between the anti-Nazi Soviet Union and the anti-Communist Germany seemed unlikely, there was a long history of cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union. This essay will aim to show that Stalin did not just opt for the Pact because it bought him time to prepare for an inevitable war but mainly because it provided him with the territory that he wanted and the basis to create a World War, which would destroy capitalism. All three provide us with a more realistic reason as to why Stalin would abandon communist ideology.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact included a non-aggression pact and an economic agreement, which committed the Soviet Union to provide food products and raw materials to Germany in return for finished goods such as machinery from Germany. Secret protocols divided Eastern Europe into two spheres of interest, one for the Soviet Union and one for Germany. Ribbentrop gave Russia the option of avoiding war with Germany in return for half of Poland, along with Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and the Romanian province of Bessarabia. There was no point in fighting the Germans for it, when they could simply gain it all by making a deal.

However, why did Hitler not opt for an alliance with Britain instead of Germany? By 1927, many Western governments except Germany had grown hostile towards Soviet Russia. Stalin saw the Capitalist states to be enemies and needed to prevent them from uniting against the USSR. The 1934 Nazi-Polish Non-Aggression Pact could lead to an anti-Russian alliance and therefore Stalin had to swiftly search for collective security against Germany.Knowing that Hitler would eventually invade the Soviet Union, the only way to do this was to create pacts and in an inevitable world war, the USSR had to be on the winning side. Hence, the USSR joined the League of Nations in September 1934 and between 1934 and 1938, Maxim Litvinov, the Russian Foreign Minister attempted to counter the German threat by forging links with Britain and France. This initially resulted in the Franco-Russian Pact and the Soviet-Czechoslovak Pact. However, Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary, was reluctant to make deals with a Communist regime.

Eventually, the British sent in a minor official named Reginald Ranfurly Plunckett-Ernle-Erle-Drax. With his limited authority and lack of speed, the talks broke down. Stalin had concluded that the Western Powers were unreliable allies. Stalin was disappointed that the Soviets had been left out of the Munich talks and this further caused him to believe that appeasement was encouraging Germany to head towards Russia and the Baltic States. The West’s non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War further showed Stalin that the West were reluctant to intervene in any conflicts and it seemed increasingly likely that Russia would be left fighting Germany on her own. Also, in the short run, Russian troops were fighting Japanese troops in 1938 and 1939 on the borders of Manchuria and Mongolia. Therefore, Stalin had to settle the European uncertainty quickly so that he could send more troops to the Far East. Considering that Litvinov was not able to make collective security work, Stalin needed an alternative fast.

On May 3 1939, Stalin replaced Litvinov with Molotov as foreign commissar. Molotov was more interested in expansionist aims rather than pushing for a drive for collective security. The fact that the Soviets did not trust the Western powers and the western powers did not trust the Soviets is a large reason for Stalin turning to Hitler. Stalin warned against “war-mongers who are accustomed to have others pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them”.1 Collective security arrangements with Britain and France had failed and so he was left with two choices- either make an alliance with Britain, whereby he would have to fight against Hitler for Poland or ally with Germany, strengthen his borders by securing a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe especially in eastern Poland and the Baltic States and still have time to prepare for the inevitable war. For most of 1939, Stalin considered both options. The latter was the obvious choice and hence, the pact was signed on 23 August 1939. It was not an ideological decision but opportunist and pragmatic.

It was sensible to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Hitler and buy extra time to prepare the Soviet military for an inevitable German offensive, to “build up Russia’s might and then throw might into scales when other belligerents were on their last legs.”2 Krushchev was with Stalin when the Pact was signed and he argued that the Pact was inevitable, given the circumstances and the rewards available to the Soviet Union. “It was like a gambit in chess; if we hadn’t made that move, the war would have started earlier, much to our disadvantage. It was very hard for us – as Communists, as anti-fascists – to accept the idea of joining forces with Germany.”3 Soviet historians argue that “subsequent events revealed that this step was the only correct one under the circumstances. By taking it, the USSR was able to continue peaceful construction for nearly two years and to strengthen its defences”.4 This was no doubt a motive behind Stalin’s decision but as mentioned, there was greater reasoning behind such a move. After 1989, when the Soviet archives were opened up during Gorbarchev’s period of Glasnost, historians have been able to delve deeper into answering this question.

With respect to these other motives, Viktor Suvorov, a former Soviet army officer, challenges the Soviet historians and argues that the Nazi-Soviet pact was actually part of Stalin’s Marxist strategy for revolutionary victory in Europe. Marx had argued that conflicts between Capitalist nations would create an opportunity to transform the war into a class war and establish socialism. Of course, he still advocated Socialism in one country but he also believed that revolution would occur eventually. In December 1927, Stalin announced that capitalism had become unstable and argued that the “world economic crisis will turn into a political crisis in a number of countries”5 Therefore, the idea was to wait for this to occur, whilst also industrialising and rearming the country. Just as the First World War had created the conditions for Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, another war in Europe would be ideal to spread Communism. The evidence used is that during the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviets aided the Nazis in crushing the Weimar Republic in Germany. Hitler was codenamed “Icebreaker”, in that he would break the ice by bringing out another world war and create the opportunity for socialism to spread through Europe. Therefore if we follow this logic, by signing the Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin created the conditions necessary to spark another world war. Germany, France and Britain would fight and then the Soviet Union would enter in the latter stages and be the eventual victor.

Therefore, he could either allow capitalism to triumph over communism or cause revolution in capitalist states. Stalin was preparing for the latter; Suvorov convincingly shows that Stalin was building up an offensive military force along the new Soviet border with Germany, rather than a defensive one. Stalin was effectively planning to attack Germany and Suvorov provides evidence that this attack was planned for the middle of July 1941. Unfortunately, Hitler pre-empted this and the defeats in the early stages, were due to the very fact that Stalin had prepared for an offensive and torn down many defence positions.

J Hochman argues that Stalin had secretly been looking for an alliance with Germany because the Great Purge had discredited Russia in most other countries but was actually designed to appeal to Nazi Germany. He argues that the massacres “performed a specific role in asserting the pro-Nazi orientation of Soviet foreign policy”.6 Similarly, George Kennan argued that the purges helped Stalin appeal to the Third Reich “though only to very abnormal mind”.7 Military historian V.M. Kulish also argues that Stalin was attempting to naively create a permanent alliance with Germany. Evidence of relations date back to 1922, when both countries had signed the Treaty of Rapallo, abandoning claims of war damages against each other and renouncing diplomatic relations. Further co-operation is clear in the telegrams and secret correspondence that was sent between Moscow and Berlin right up to when the Pact was signed. Russia had engaged in both internal and external balancing. Internally, the Five Year Plans, were designed to industrialise the country to similar levels to western powers. Externally, it could use German aid to rebuild its munitions industry and also train its army using German officers. The Pact was design to be a political and economical alliance.

Using new sources from Eastern Europe, R.C Raack, has challenged the argument that the West had failed to give him a firm alliance offer and hence forced Stalin to opt for the Pact. Instead he claims that Stalin had allied with Hitler because it suited his expansionist aims. Raack uses Foreign Minister Molotov’s expansionist outlook as evidence of Stalin’s desire for western expansion. Stalin wanted a war which mutually destroyed the British, French and Germans but did not involve Russia; This is exactly what the Pact encouraged. Raack’s contention about Soviet desires for Westward expansion is proved by events dating back to Summer 1920, when Soviet expansionist forces were pushed back from Warsaw by the Poles. Interestingly, Raack uses new information released, to show that Stalin in November 1939, testified to believing that Nazism would adopt socialist characteristics and lead to eventual convergence with Communism. Raack uses East European sources which other Western historians have not had access to or have just chosen to ignore. Therefore, it is a more realistic portrayal of Stalin and disproves Soviet historians who have argued that the Pact was solely, a temporary and necessary measure to delay the Germans until Russia was militarily strong.

Two aspects of the Pact support the argument that Stalin had expansionist aims in Eastern Europe; first, the dealings with the Baltic states and secondly, Lithuania. The Soviets had been insistent about gaining the Baltic states in the early negotiations with Britain and France, however only Germany could offer them to the USSR. The negotiations with Lithuania show that Stalin actively aimed to broaden Soviet borders. On 10th January 1941, Germany and the Soviet Union signed another protocol, in which USSR would pay Germany, $7,500,000 for Lithuania. The secret protocols had all been demanded by the Soviets rather than being offered by Hitler. This theory is also supported by events after the Pact; The Soviets wanted Finland to sign a similar pact to the ones signed by the Baltic states. However, Finland refused and the Red Army invaded it on 29th November. The motive behind the Pact was to regain pre-World War 1 territory rather than simply buying time.

In conclusion, Stalin’s act of realpolitik allowed him time to remodel his arm from an defensive archaic one to a offensive force. “Of course, it’s all a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler’s up to. He thinks he’s outsmarted me, but actually it’s I who have tricked him.” This is Stalin’s explanation for opting for the Pact, to Lavrenti Beria, his Commissioner for Internal Affairs.