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The Truth About the Soviet German Non-Aggression Pact of August 23rd 1939 and Its Secret Protocol

In no part of its text does the Secret Protocol assign Polish or Baltic territory to the USSR or Nazi Germany

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The anniversary of the end of the Second World War has, as is now routine, resurrected the subject of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of 23rd August 1939.

The subject was even brought up during Putin’s press conference with Merkel on 10th May 2015.  Here is what Putin said:

"Concerning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, let me draw your attention to the historical events, when the Soviet Union… It is not even so important who was in charge of diplomacy at the time. Stalin was in charge, of course, but he was not the only person thinking about how to guarantee the Soviet Union’s security. The Soviet Union made tremendous efforts to put in place conditions for collective resistance to Nazism in Germany and made repeated attempts to create an anti-Nazi bloc in Europe.

"All of these attempts failed. What’s more, after 1938, when the well-known agreement was concluded in Munich, conceding some regions of Czechoslovakia, some politicians thought that war was inevitable. Churchill, for example, when his colleague came back to London with this bit of paper and said that he had brought peace, said in reply, 'Now war is inevitable.'

"When the Soviet Union realised that it was left to face Hitler’s Germany on its own, it acted to try to avoid a direct confrontation, and this resulted in signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In this sense, I agree with our Culture Minister’s view that this pact did make sense in terms of guaranteeing the Soviet Union’s security. This is my first point.

"Second, I remind you that after the Munich Agreement was signed, Poland itself took steps to annex part of Czech territory. In the end, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the division of Poland, they fell victim to the same policy that they tried to pursue in Europe."

The relevance of this pact both to Russia’s celebration of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, and to the international situation today, is not obvious, given that today’s Russia is not the USSR and Putin is not Stalin.  

However it constantly gets brought up, especially by East European politicians who, out of hostility to Russia, seek to apportion blame equally between Germany and Russia for the start of the Second World War.

That claim is false. It is Putin’s version that is correct, as a simple statement of the facts shows.  

The facts are very simple and straightforward and are well-known, and problems of interpretation are (or should be) few.

The starting point is that Stalin had no plans in the spring or early summer of 1939 to attack Poland, and had no territorial claims against Poland.

Hitler by contrast did. In fact not only did Hitler plan to attack Poland, but he was resolved to do so.  

At the end of March 1939 he told General Brauchitsch, the head of the German army, that he would attack Poland if Poland did not surrender Danzig to him.  

On 3rd April 1939 he gave a formal directive to his generals to prepare plans to do so.  

On 28th April 1939 he denounced his non-aggression pact with Poland and threatened Poland publicly in a speech to the Reichstag, saying he would cease to look for a peaceful settlement with Poland if Poland did not give him Danzig and did not abandon its alliance with Britain.  

On 23rd May 1939, in a secret speech made to the top German leadership in his office in the New Chancellery, he put the issue beyond any further doubt, making his decision to attack Poland absolutely clear.

There is no instance of Hitler committing himself to attack a country and then failing to do so. Hitler would have attacked Poland in August 1939 whether Germany had agreed a Non-Aggression Pact with the USSR or not. Perhaps the only thing that might have deterred him was a formal alliance between Poland, the USSR and the Western powers.

That however did not happen, and the story of the diplomacy that preceded the signing in Moscow on 23rd August 1939 of the Non-Aggression Pact shows why.

In the event of a German attack on Poland, Britain and France were committed by the guarantees they gave Poland in March 1939 to come to its defence.

The only outstanding issue in the diplomacy leading up to the war was therefore whether Britain, France and Poland would be able to ally themselves with the USSR to defeat or deter Germany.

The need for such an alliance was obvious and was explained by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons in a speech he gave on 3rd April 1939:

"To stop here with a guarantee to Poland would be to halt in No-man’s Land under fire of both trench lines and without the shelter of either.... Having begun to create a Grand Alliance against aggression, we cannot afford to fail.  We shall be in mortal danger if we fail.... The worst folly, which no one proposes we should commit, would be to chill and drive away any natural co-operation which Soviet Russia in her own deep interests feels it necessary to afford."

The story of the diplomacy of 1939 is that “chill and drive away” co-operation with the USSR is precisely what the Western Powers did.

An alliance with the USSR against Hitler ought to have been a straightforward matter given the intense hostility between the USSR and Nazi Germany and Soviet efforts throughout the 1930s to forge an alliance against Nazi Germany.  

Conditions however for forging such an alliance had never been worse than they were in the spring of 1939.

Britain and France had spurned a Soviet offer of alliance in 1938 and had sacrificed at the Munich Conference (from which the USSR was excluded) the USSR’s ally Czechoslovakia.  

On 28th March 1939 Franco’s troops occupied Madrid, the capital of the USSR’s only other European ally, Republican Spain. Britain and France, whose policy had been instrumental in sealing the fate of the Republican Spain, actually recognised Franco’s regime as the legitimate government of Spain on 27th February 1939 -- before Madrid fell.

Not surprisingly, and as Putin correctly says, by April 1939 Stalin had as a result become deeply suspicious of the British and French. The debacles in Czechoslovakia and Spain will have taught him that Britain and France preferred an accommodation with Hitler, if that was humanly possible, to an alliance with him. The possibility that in a war with Hitler the British and French might leave him and the USSR hanging out to dry, must in the spring of 1939 have appeared very real to him

In a speech to the Communist Party Conference in Moscow on 10th March 1939 Stalin made his suspicion and disillusionment with the Western powers absolutely clear when he said that he would "not let our country be drawn into conflict by warmongers, whose custom is to let others pull their chestnuts out of the fire."

Very few Western writers have been prepared to acknowledge the influence on Soviet policy of Western policy during the Czech crisis of 1938, and over the course of the Spanish Civil War. Westerners, who are so acutely sensitive to Russian actions, real or imagined, are invariably blind to the effect their actions have on Russia. This has been true in recent years as well, as the West’s misreading of Russia's reaction to NATO’s expansion and to Western policy in Ukraine and Georgia, shows. It was equally true in 1939.

Despite his suspicions, Stalin did nonetheless make the Western powers an offer of alliance on 17th April 1939. As late as 15th August 1939 he continued making it, though by this point it’s clear he had lost hope in it.

The reason the alliance did not happen is because Poland rejected it and Britain and France were not prepared to pressure Poland to accept it.  

The Poles made their position clear during the visit of Polish foreign minister Beck to London in early April 1939.  

In private discussions Beck told the British: "there were two things which it was impossible for Poland to do, namely, to make her policy dependent upon either Berlin or Moscow. Any pact of mutual assistance between Poland and Soviet Russia would bring an immediate hostile reaction from Berlin and would probably accelerate the outbreak of a conflict."  While the British could negotiate with Soviet Russia if they liked -- and even undertake obligations towards her, "these obligations would in no way extend the obligations undertaken by Poland."

The Poles stuck firmly by this position throughout the ensuing crisis, categorically rejecting proposals for an alliance with the USSR or for Soviet troops to enter Poland to fight the Germans alongside them.

It was this Polish refusal to accept the offer of a Soviet alliance and of Soviet aid, and the failure of the Western powers to override it, that ultimately caused the failure of the negotiations for an alliance with the USSR.  

That this was a catastrophic failure of Western policy, which deprived the Western powers of the means to defend Poland --- which they were committed to defending --- was widely understood at the time and was said in a speech in the House of Commons by the former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George:

"If we are going in without the help of Russia we are walking into a trap. It is the only country whose arms can get there.... If Russia has not been brought into this matter because of certain feelings the Poles have that they do not want the Russians there, it is for us to declare the conditions, and unless the Poles are prepared to accept the only conditions with which we can successfully help them, the responsibility must be theirs."

The British and the French were not prepared "to declare the conditions" and the Poles refused to change their stance.  

By mid August 1939 this had become clear to Stalin, at which point, given the certainty of a German attack on Poland, the attractions for Stalin of the Non-Aggression Pact Hitler was offering had become overwhelming. Given Stalin’s deep suspicions of both the Germans and the West, and the West’s failure to agree his offer of alliance, a peace agreement with Germany that minimised the risk to the USSR of a hostile Germany on its western border, made obvious sense.  

The whole issue has been muddled by constant misrepresentation of the Non-Aggression Pact’s Secret Protocol, which is invariably misrepresented as an agreement by Stalin and Hitler for a cynical carve up of Eastern Europe.

The language of the Secret Protocol (reproduced below, together with that of the Non-Aggression Pact and of the subsequent Protocols which amended it) does not bear that out.  

In no part of its text does the Secret Protocol assign Polish or Baltic territory to the USSR or to Nazi Germany.  

The purpose of the Secret Protocol is made clear both by its text and by its context - a pending German attack on Poland. It was to prevent the German army, after it defeated Poland, marching into regions (eastern Poland, the Baltic States and Bessarabia), which the USSR considered vital for its own security.  In private conversations (alluded to in the text of the Secret Protocol) Stalin and Molotov made clear to Ribbentrop that that would be unacceptable and that were it to happen the Non-Aggression Pact would be dead. As its text says, the Secret Protocol was intended to put the substance of these conversations into writing.

Using today's language, the Secret Protocol set out Stalin’s red lines, the crossing of which by Nazi Germany would not be tolerated, and which would lead to war. In the context of a pending German attack on Poland, they made total sense. Far from converting the Non-Aggression Pact into some sort of secret alliance, insisting on them was a basic precaution, which made the Non-Aggression Pact possible by placing a limit on German expansion, which for Stalin and Molotov was its whole point.  

In the event, when Nazi Germany did cross the red lines on 22nd June 1941, the Non-Aggression Pact was dead, and war followed.

The issue has been clouded because of certain steps the USSR took between the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact on 23rd August 1939 and the German attack on the USSR on 22nd June 1941.  

Following the German attack on Poland, in October 1939, in an act that understandably continues to cause great bitterness in Poland, the USSR annexed eastern Poland, which was predominantly but by no means exclusively populated by Ukrainians and Byelorussians.  

Over the course of the winter of 1939-1940 the USSR fought a brief but bitter war with Finland, which resulted in the Soviet annexation of Karelia.  

In June 1940, following the defeat by Nazi Germany of France, the USSR annexed the three Baltic States, which in October 1940 it had previously pressured into agreeing mutual defence arrangements.  

Lastly, in July 1940 the USSR annexed Bessarabia (today’s Moldova), which it acquired from Romania.

These actions were not authorised by the Secret Protocol or by any of the other Protocols the USSR concluded with Nazi Germany.  There is nothing in the text of the Secret Protocol of 23rd August 1939 that authorises such annexations. The Soviet annexation of the Baltic States and of Bessarabia took place almost a year after the Secret Protocol was signed, making the Secret Protocol's relevance to these annexations dubious, to say the least.  

At the time all of these actions were construed both by the Germans and by the West for what they were -- anti-German actions intended to strengthen the USSR’s position in light of Nazi Germany’s growing power in Europe. Hitler did not prevent them, not because he agreed to them, but because as he was fully occupied in the West when they happened, he lacked the means to prevent them.  

Hitler did however eventually attack the USSR on 22nd June 1941, and in his speech declaring war on the USSR (which directly alluded to the Secret Protocol) he bitterly complained about these Soviet actions, which he made clear he saw as directed against Germany.

In relation to Finland and the Baltic States he said the following:

"The first results were evident in fall 1939 and spring 1940. Russia justified its attempts to subject not only Finland, but also the Baltic states, by the sudden false and absurd claim that it was protecting them from a foreign threat, or that it was acting to prevent that threat. Only Germany could have been meant. No other power could enter the Baltic Sea, or wage war there. I still had to remain silent. The rulers of the Kremlin continued.

"Consistent with the so-called friendship treaty, Germany removed its troops far from its eastern border in spring 1940. Russian forces were already moving in, and in numbers that could only be seen as a clear threat to Germany.

"According to a statement by Molotov, there were already 22 Russian divisions in the Baltic states in spring 1940.

"Although the Russian government always claimed that the troops were there at the request of the people who lived there, their purpose could only be seen as a demonstration aimed at Germany."

In relation to the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia he said the following, making clear how grudgingly he accepted it:

"Russia’s threatened attack on Rumania was intended not only to take over an important element in the economic life not only of Germany, but of Europe as whole, or at least to destroy it.

"With boundless patience, the German Reich attempted after 1933 to win over the southeastern European states as trading partners. We, therefore, had the greatest possible interest in their domestic stability and order. 

"Russia’s entrance into Rumania and Greece’s ties to England threatened to rapidly transform this area into a general battleground.

"Despite our principles and customs, and despite the fact that the Rumanian government had brought on these troubles itself, I urgently advised them, for the sake of peace, to bow to Soviet extortion and cede Bessarabia."

Even in relation to Poland Hitler bitterly complained that the victory over Poland had been "gained exclusively by German troops", making his anger at the USSR’s annexation of eastern Poland obvious.

Since Hitler’s speech of 22nd June 1941 does not bear out claims of a cynical Soviet German carve-up of eastern Europe in August 1939, it is very rarely quoted in the West, though it is one of the most important speeches of Hitler’s career.

Of course what Hitler said would by itself count for little. In this case however his words are fully borne out both by the historical record and by the text of the Non-Aggression Pact and of the Secret Protocol. 

This has been known for decades, allowing the British historian A.J.P. Taylor to say of the Non-Aggression Pact as long ago as 1961:

"However one spins the crystal and tries to look into the future from the point of view of 23 August 1939, it is difficult to see what other course Soviet Russia could have followed.  The Soviet apprehensions of a European alliance against Russia were exaggerated, though not groundless.  But, quite apart from this - given the Polish refusal of Soviet aid, given too the British policy of drawing out negotiations in Moscow without seriously striving for a conclusion - neutrality, with or without a formal pact, was the most that Soviet diplomacy could attain; and limitation of German gains in Poland and the Baltic was the inducement which made a formal pact attractive."

(A.J.P. Taylor: The Origins of the Second World War, Hamish Hamilton, 1961)

Nothing in the vast tide of literature that has been written on this subject since those words were written has challenged their truth.  Despite the constant obfuscation there continues to be around this issue, they remain the best --- and ought to be the last --- words on the subject. 

Putin’s words during his press conference with Merkel on 10th May 2015 show that on this issue too the historical truth is known in Russia, even if for political reasons it is being denied elsewhere.

Here follows the text of the Non-Aggression and of its Secret Protocols:


The Government of the German Reich and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics desirous of strengthening the cause of peace between Germany and the U.S.S.R and proceeding from the fundamental provisions of the Neutrality Agreement concluded in April 1926 between Germany and the U.S.S.R., have reached the following agreement:


Both High Contracting Parties obligate, themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other powers.


Should one of the High Contracting Parties become the object of belligerent action by a third power, the other High Contracting Party shall in no manner lend its support to this third power.


The Governments of the two High Contracting Parties shall in the future maintain continual contact with one another for the purpose of consultation in order to exchange information on problems affecting their common interests.


Neither of the two High Contracting Parties shall participate in any grouping of powers whatsoever that is directly or indirectly aimed at the other party.


Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties over problems of one kind or another, both parties shall settle these disputes or conflicts exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions.


The present treaty is concluded for a period of ten years, with the provision that, in so far as one of the High Contracting Parties does not denounce it one year prior to the expiration of this period, the validity of this treaty shall automatically be extended for another five years.


The present treaty shall be ratified within the shortest possible time. The ratifications shall be exchanged in Berlin. The agreement shall enter into force as soon as it is signed.

Done in duplicate, in the German and Russian languages.

MOSCOW, August 23, 1939.

For the Government of the German Reich:


With full power of the Government of the U.S.S.R.:



FIRST SECRET PROTOCOL dated 23rd August 1939

On the occasion of the signature of the nonaggression treaty between the German Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the undersigned plenipotentiaries of the two parties discussed in strictly confidential conversations the question of the delimitation of their respective spheres of interest in Eastern Europe. 

These conversations led to the following result: 

  1. In the event of a territorial and political transformation in the territories belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern frontier of Lithuania shall represent the frontier of the spheres of interest both of Germany and the U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilna territory is recognized by both parties. 
  2. In the event of a territorial and political transformation of the territories belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of interest of both Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San.  The question whether the interests of both parties make the maintenance of an independent Polish state appear desirable and how the frontiers of this state should be drawn can be definitely determined only in the course of further political developments.  In any case both governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly understanding. 
  3. With regard to southeastern Europe, the Soviet side emphasizes its interest in Bessarabia. The German side declares complete political disinterest in these territories. 
  4. This protocol will be treated by both parties as strictly secret.

Moscow, Aug. 23, 1939. 




SECOND SECRET PROTOCOL dated 28th September 1939

The undersigned delegates establish agreement between the Government of the German Reich and the Government of the U.S.S.R. concerning for the concerning the following matters:

The secret supplementary protocol signed on Aug. 23, 1939 is amended at No. 1 in that the territory of Lithuania comes under the U.S.S.R. sphere of interest, because on the other side the administrative district ''Woywodschaft'' of Lubin and parts of the administrative district of Warsaw come under the German sphere of influence (cf., map accompanying the boundary and friendship treaties ratified today). As soon as the Government of the U.S.S.R. takes special measures to safeguard its interests on Lithuanian territory, the present Germany-Lithuanian border will be rectified in the interests of simple and natural delimitation, so that the territory of Lithuania lying southwest of the line drawn on the accompanying map will fall to Germany.

It is further established that the economic arrangements in force at the present time between Germany and Lithuania will be in no way damaged by the aforementioned measures being taken by the Soviet Union.

Moscow, Sept. 28, 1939. 




THIRD SECRET PROTOCOL dated 10th January 1941

Graf von Schulenburg, the German Ambassador, acting for the Government of the German Reich, and the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the U.S.S.R., V. M. Molotov, acting for the Government of the U.S.S.R., have agreed upon the following points: 

  1. The Government of the German Reich renounces its claims to the portion of the territory of Lithuania mentioned in the Sept. 28, 1939 Secret Protocol and shown on the included map. 
  2. The Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is prepared to compensate the Government of the German Reich for the territory mentioned in Point 1 of this protocol by payment of the sum of 7,500,000 gold dollars, or 31,500,000 reichsmarks to Germany.Payment of the sum of 31.5 million reichsmarks will be accomplished by the U.S.S.R. in the following way: one-eighth, i.e., 3,937,500 reichsmarks, in shipments of nonferrous metal within three months of ratification of this treaty, and the remaining seven-eighths, 27,562,500 reichsmarks, in gold by a deduction from the German payments in gold which the German side was to bring up by Feb. 11, 1941. On the basis of the correspondence concerning the Feb. 11, 1940 economic agreement between the German Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the second section of the agreement between the chairman of the German economic delegation, Herr Schnurre and the people's commissar for U.S.S.R. foreign trade, Herr A. I. Mikoyan. 

This protocol has been prepared in both German and Russian (two originals) and goes into effect upon being ratified.

Moscow, Jan. 10, 1941. 

(Illegible, presumably von Schulenburg) FOR THE GOVERNMENT OF THE GERMAN REICH 




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