The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939: Myth and reality


Cartoon in the Evening Standard depicting Hitler greeting Stalin after the invasion of Poland PHOTO/Fair Use

In a remarkable book, 1939 : The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II, the Canadian historian Michael Jabara Carley describes how, at the end of the 1930s, the Soviet Union repeatedly tried, but finally failed, to conclude a pact of mutual security, in other words a defensive alliance, with Britain and France. This proposed arrangement was intended to counter Nazi Germany, which, under Hitler’s dictatorial leadership, had been behaving more and more aggressively, and it was likely to involve some other countries, including Poland and Czechoslovakia, that had reason to fear German ambitions. The protagonist of this Soviet approach to the Western powers was the minister of foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov.

Moscow was eager to conclude such a treaty because the Soviet leaders knew only too well that, sooner or later, Hitler intended to attack and destroy their state. Indeed, in Mein Kampf, published in the 1920s, he had made it very clear that he despised it as “Russia ruled by the Jews” (Russland unter Judenherrschaft), because it was the fruit of the Russian Revolution, the handiwork of Bolsheviks, who were supposedly nothing but a bunch of Jews. And in the 1930s, virtually everybody with some interest in foreign affairs knew only too well that, with his remilitarization of Germany, his large-scale rearmament program, and other violations of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler was preparing for a war of which the victim was to be the Soviet Union. This was demonstrated quite clearly in a detailed study written by a leading military historian and political scientist, Rolf-Dieter Müller, entitled Der Feind steht im Osten: Hitlers geheime Pläne für einen Krieg gegen die Sowjetunion im Jahr 1939 (“The enemy is in the east: Hitler’s secret plans for war against the Soviet Union in 1939.”)

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