Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: No ‘Alternative’ Soviet Facts, Please.  

The anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Agression Pact between Hitler and Stalin is hotly debated these days. Dutch historian Jeroen Bult rejects Russian Ambassador Shulgin's explanation of the facts. In reality, what happened was this: 'Germany and the Soviet Union joined forces to destroy the Order of Versailles, by which both of them felt so humiliated, for good.'

MolotovRibbentropStalinForeign Ministers of Germany and the USSR on August 23 1939 in Moscow sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Stalin himself attended. 

by Jeroen Bult

Ambassador Shulgin’s article Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: A Logical Consequence of the Munich Betrayal on RaamopRusland, a reaction to historian Marc Jansen’s earlier analysis, once again demonstrates, unfortunately, that Soviet thinking is still thriving within the ranks of Russian policy makers and diplomats. Virtually all ‘alternative facts’ from the U.S.S.R. (history-)manuals are popping up.

It is probably even more interesting to see which facts are not coming up in Shulgin’s disquisition: the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland on 17 September 1939, the common military parade of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in Brest-Litovsk on 22 September, the supply of, among other things, oil, iron and grain to Nazi Germany and the extradition of German and Austrian refugees, including Communists, to the Gestapo by the NKVD, not to mention the close cooperation between the latter two in Poland. The radio mast in Minsk guided the Luftwaffe, when it was on its way to bomb Warsaw. Were these treacherous deeds and activities also necessary to ‘better prepare for the imminent future war’?

Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, in a speech in the Supreme Soviet on 31 October 1939 (so well after the invasion of Poland), characterized the Third Reich as a peace-loving power, while he labelled Great Britain and France as warmongers. Eight months later, Molotov congratulated Ambassador Von der Schulenburg with Germany’s ‘splendid success’: the military victory over France. Books that were critical of the Nazi regime had already been removed from the shops. Soviet media like Pravda also embraced the new ally and were even quoting from the Völkischer Beobachter, the notorious newspaper of the Nazi party, and from Hitler’s speeches.[1]

Striking hiatus

The most striking hiatus in the Ambassador’s article are the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its ‘follow-up’, the Border and Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939. Adding these documents, in which Moscow and Berlin divided their spheres of influence, did not pose a ‘forced and difficult decision’ for the Soviets at all, as the Ambassador states.

Indeed, in the summer of 1939, Britain and France were prepared to embark on a far-going security arrangement with the Soviet Union, but the main obstacle was a more precise, detailed definition of the phrase ‘indirect aggression’, which Molotov demanded on 3 July. London and Paris were aware that if they would accept the Soviet Union’s interpretation – a strong interference in the internal affairs of adjacent countries, creating puppet regimes there – not much would be left of the national sovereignty of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland. Maybe this British- French reluctance to sacrifice them to Stalin was, on the contrary, connected to the shameful failure of ‘Munich’, i.e. Hitler’s demolition of Czechoslovakia?

Hitler, however, promptly indicated that he was willing to give the Soviets what they desired: the restoration of the western borders of the Czarist Empire. Germany and the Soviet Union joined forces to destroy the Order of Versailles, by which both of them felt so humiliated, for good. A thought that had evidently crossed the Nazi and Soviet minds earlier in the 1930s. Already in April 1933, three months after Hitler seized power, Soviet Defence Minister Voroshilov hosted a delegation of the Reichswehr [2]. And in July 1935 the head of a Soviet trade mission told the President of the Reichsbank (the German Central Bank), Von Schacht, that Stalin and Molotov were interested in warming up relations with Berlin.[3] 

Maybe Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his novel In the First Circle, has offered the best explanation for Stalin’s behaviour in August 1939: ‘In all his long, suspicion-ridden life, he had only trusted one man. [...] That man, whom Stalin had trusted, was Adolf Hilter.’

Military usefulness?

Were the secret protocols, then, to any avail from a strictly military-strategic perspective? A couple of years ago, Major General Lev Sotskov, a senior official of the SVR, Russian Foreign Intelligence, in an article argued, that the Soviet Union had no choice but to create a cordon sanitaire; it had to take precautionary measures and move its borders to the west as far as possible, in order to ensure a rock-hard future defence of its political and military-industrial centers. By invading the three Baltic republics, the Soviet leadership managed to avert a catastrophe – the Germans were forced to station their troops much further to the west (so not in the Baltics).[4] 

Yet, in the summer of 1941 it turned out that this idea would not materialize: the German army conquered Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia swiftly and was able to march on to Leningrad. As Dutch historian Martin van den Heuvel once put it: ‘Without a Russian occupation, the Baltic armies might have resisted the Germans better. The Russians could have saved their armed forces – for the defence of Leningrad.’[5]

It remains to be seen whether a serious, profound debate on these delicate issues will ever occur under the Putin Presidency. Therefore, the question is appropriate if ‘resuming [the] dialogue on an inclusive security architecture in the Euro-Atlantic based on universally recognized principles and norms of international law’ with Russia makes any sense, as long as the country will stick to the perception of history of an unscrupulous totalitarian regime/system that never displayed any respect for such principles and norms in the first place.

Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist, specialized in Estonia, Latvia en Lithuania.


[1] See: Ewa M. Thompson, ‘Nationalist Propaganda in the Soviet Russian Press, 1939-1941’, in: Slavic Review, Nr. 2 (Vol. 50), Summer 1991, pp. 389-390.

[2] See: ‘Pakt mit dem Satan gegen den Teufel', in: Der Spiegel, Nr. 32 (Vol. 43), 7 August 1989, pp. 97-100.

[3] Magnus Ilmjärv, ‘Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Eastern Pact Project’, in: Acta Historica Tallinnensia, Nr. 10, p. 103.

[4] Lev Sotskov, ‘The Baltics and Geopolitics’, in: International Affairs, Nr. 3 (Vol. 53), pp. 104-108.

[5] Martin van den Heuvel, Speelbal der grote mogendheden. De Baltische volken vroeger en nu, Clingendael-reeks (series), 11, The Hague: Staatsuitgeverij, 1986, p. 85.

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