Military history


The Kremlin in Moscow, like every other seat of government, had been taken by surprise at the rapidity with which the German armies hurtled through Poland. On September 5 Molotov, in giving a formal written reply to the Nazi suggestion that Russia attack Poland from the east, stated that this would be done “at a suitable time” but that “this time has not yet come.” He thought that “excessive haste” might injure the Soviet “cause” but he insisted that even though the Germans got there first they must scrupulously observe the “line of demarcation” in Poland agreed upon in the secret clauses of the Nazi–Soviet Pact.1 Russian suspicion of the Germans was already evident. So was the feeling in the Kremlin that the German conquest of Poland might take quite a long time.

But shortly after midnight of September 8, after a German armored division had reached the outskirts of Warsaw, Ribbentrop wired “urgent” a “top secret” message to Schulenburg in Moscow stating that operations in Poland were “progressing even beyond our expectations” and that in these circumstances Germany would like to know the “military intentions of the Soviet Government.”2 By 4:10 P.M. the next day Molotov had replied that Russia would move militarily “within the next few days.” Earlier in the day the Soviet Foreign Commissar had officially congratulated the Germans “on the entry of German troops into Warsaw.”3

On September 10, Molotov and Ambassador von der Schulenburg got into a fine snafu. After declaring that the Soviet government had been taken “completely by surprise by the unexpectedly rapid German military successes” and that the Soviet Union was consequently in “a difficult situation,” the Foreign Commissar touched on the excuse which the Kremlin would have to give for its own aggression in Poland. This was, as Schulenburg wired Berlin “most urgent” and “top secret,”

that Poland was falling apart and that it was necessary for the Soviet Union, in consequence, to come to the aid of the Ukrainians and the White Russians “threatened” by Germany. This argument [said Molotov] was necessary to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible to the masses and at the same time avoid giving the Soviet Union the appearance of an aggressor.

Furthermore, Molotov complained that General von Brauchitsch had just been quoted by D.N.B, as saying that “military action was no longer necessary on the German eastern border.” If that were so, if the war was over, Russia, said Molotov, “could not start a new war.” He was very displeased about the whole situation.4 To further complicate matters he summoned Schulenburg to the Kremlin on September 14 and after informing him that the Red Army would march sooner than they had anticipated demanded to know when Warsaw would fall. In order to justify their move the Russians must wait on the capture of the Polish capital.5

The Commissar had raised some embarrassing questions. When would Warsaw fall? How did the Germans like being blamed for Russian intervention? On the evening of September 15 Ribbentrop dispatched a “most urgent,” a “top secret” message to Molotov through the German ambassador, answering them. Warsaw, he said, would be occupied “in the next few days.” Germany would “welcome the Soviet military operation now.” As to the Russian excuse blaming Germany for it, this “was out of the question … contrary to the true German intentions … would be in contradiction to the arrangements made in Moscow and finally … would make the two States appear as enemies before the whole world.” He ended by asking the Soviet government to set “the day and the hour” for their attack on Poland.6

This was done the next evening and two dispatches of Schulenburg, which are among the captured German papers, telling how it was done give a revealing picture of the Kremlin’s deceit.

I saw Molotov at 6 P.M. [Schulenburg wired on September 16]. Molotov declared that military intervention by the Soviet Union was imminent—perhaps even tomorrow or the day after. Stalin was at present in consultation with the military leaders …

Molotov added that … the Soviet Government intended to justify its procedure as follows: The Polish State had disintegrated and no longer existed; therefore, all agreements concluded with Poland were void: third powers might try to profit by the chaos which had arisen; the Soviet Government considered itself obligated to intervene to protect its Ukrainian and White Russian brothers and make it possible for these unfortunate people to work in peace.

Since Germany could be the only possible “third power” in question, Schulenburg objected.

Molotov conceded that the proposed argument of the Soviet Government contained a note that was jarring to German sensibilities but asked us in view of the difficult situation of the Soviet Government not to stumble over this piece of straw. The Soviet Government unfortunately saw no possibility of any other motivation, since the Soviet Union had heretofore not bothered about the plight of its minorities in Poland and had to justify abroad, in some way or other, its present intervention.7

At 5:20 P.M. on September 17, Schulenburg got off another “most urgent” and “top secret” wire to Berlin.

Stalin received me at 2 o’clock … and declared that the Red Army would cross the Soviet border at 6 o’clock … Soviet planes would begin today to bomb the district east of Lwów (Lemberg).

When Schulenburg objected to three points in the Soviet communiqué the Russian dictator “with the utmost readiness” altered the text.8

Thus it was that on the shabby pretext that because Poland had ceased to exist and therefore the Polish–Soviet nonaggression pact had also ceased to exist and because it was necessary to protect its own interests and those of the Ukrainian and White Russian minorities, the Soviet Union trampled over a prostrate Poland beginning on the morning of September 17. To add insult to injury the Polish ambassador in Moscow was informed that Russia would maintain strict neutrality in the Polish conflict! The next day, September 18, Soviet troops met the Germans at Brest Litovsk, where exactly twenty-one years before a newborn Bolshevik government had gone back on its country’s ties with the Western Allies and had received from the German Army, and accepted, separate peace terms of great harshness.

And yet though they were now accomplices of Nazi Germany in wiping ancient Poland off the map, the Russians were at once distrustful of their new comrades. At his meeting with the German ambassador on the eve of the Soviet aggression, Stalin had expressed his doubts, as Schulenburg duly notified Berlin, whether the German High Command would stand by the Moscow agreements and withdraw to the line that had been agreed upon. The ambassador tried to reassure him but apparently with no great success. “In view of Stalin’s well-known attitude of mistrust,” Schulenburg wired Berlin, “I would be gratified if I were authorized to make a further declaration of such a nature as to remove his last doubts.”9 The next day, September 19, Ribbentrop telegraphed the ambassador authorizing him to “tell Stalin that the agreements which I made at Moscow will, of course, be kept, and that they are regarded by us as the foundation stone of the new friendly relations between Germany and the Soviet Union.”10

Nevertheless friction between the two unnatural partners continued. On September 17 there was disagreement over the text of a joint communiqué which would “justify” the Russo–German destruction of Poland. Stalin objected to the German version because “it presented the facts all too frankly.” Whereupon he wrote out his own version, a masterpiece of subterfuge, and forced the Germans to accept it. It stated that the joint aim of Germany and Russia was “to restore peace and order in Poland, which has been destroyed by the disintegration of the Polish State, and to help the Polish people to establish new conditions for its political life.” For cynicism Hitler had met his match in Stalin.

At first both dictators seem to have considered setting up a rump Polish state on the order of Napoleon’s Grand Duchy of Warsaw in order to mollify world public opinion. But on September 19 Molotov disclosed that the Bolsheviks were having second thoughts on that. After angrily protesting to Schulenburg that the German generals were disregarding the Moscow agreement by trying to grab territory that should go to Russia, he came to the main point.

Molotov hinted [Schulenburg wired Berlin] that the original inclination entertained by the Soviet Government and Stalin personally to permit the existence of a residual Poland had given way to the inclination to partition Poland along the Pissa–Narew–Vistula–San Line. The Soviet Government wishes to commence negotiations on this matter at once.11

Thus the initiative to partition Poland completely, to deny the Polish people any independent existence of their own whatsoever, came from the Russians. But the Germans did not need much urging to agree. On September 23 Ribbentrop wired Schulenburg instructing him to tell Molotov that the “Russian idea of a border line along the well-known four-rivers line coincides with the view of the Reich Government.” He proposed to again fly to Moscow to work out the details of that as well as of “the definitive structure of the Polish area.”12

Stalin now took personal charge of the negotiations, and his German allies learned, as his British and American allies later would also learn, what a tough, cynical and opportunistic bargainer he was. The Soviet dictator summoned Schulenburg to the Kremlin at 8 P.M. on September 25 and the ambassador’s dispatch later that evening warned Berlin of some stern realities and of some chickens that were coming home to roost.

Stalin stated … he considered it wrong to leave an independent residual Poland. He proposed that from the territory to the east of the demarcation line, all the Province of Warsaw which extends to the Bug should be added to our share. In return we should waive our claim toLithuania.

Stalin … added that if we consented, the Soviet Union would immediately take up the solution of the problem of the Baltic countries in accordance with the [secret] Protocol of August 23, and expected in this matter the unstinting support of the German Government. Stalin expressly indicated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but did not mention Finland.13

This was a shrewd and hard bargain. Stalin was offering to trade two Polish provinces, which the Germans had already captured, for the Baltic States. He was taking advantage of the great service he had rendered Hitler—making it possible for him to attack Poland—to get everything he could for Russia while the getting was good. Moreover, he was proposing that the Germans take over the mass of the Polish people. As a Russian, he well knew what centuries of history had taught: that the Poles would never peacefully submit to the loss of their independence. Let them be a headache for the Germans, not the Russians! In the meantime he would get the Baltic States, which had been taken from Russia after the First World War and whose geographical position offered the Soviet Union great protection against surprise attack by his German ally.

Ribbentrop arrived by plane in Moscow for the second time at 6 P.M. on September 28, and before proceeding to the Kremlin he had time to read two telegrams from Berlin which apprised him of what the Russians were up to. They were messages forwarded from the German minister atTallinn, who reported that the Estonian government had just informed him that the Soviet Union had demanded, “under the gravest threat of imminent attack,” military and air bases in Estonia.14 Later that night, after a long conference with Stalin and Molotov, Ribbentrop wired Hitler that “this very night” a pact was being concluded which would put two Red Army divisions and an Air Force brigade “on Estonian territory, without, however, abolishing the Estonian system of government at this time.” But the Fuehrer, an experienced hand at this sort of thing, knew how fleeting Estonia’s time would be. The very next day Ribbentrop was informed that Hitler had ordered the evacuation of the 86,000 Volksdeutsche in Estonia and Latvia.15

Stalin was presenting his bill and Hitler, for the time being at least, had to pay it. He was instantly abandoning not only Estonia but Latvia, both of which, he had agreed in the Nazi–Soviet Pact, belonged in the Soviet sphere of interest. Before the day was up he was also giving up Lithuania, on Germany’s northeastern border, which, according to the secret clauses of the Moscow Pact, belonged in the Reich’s sphere.

Stalin had presented the Germans two choices in the meeting with Ribbentrop, which began at 10 P.M. on September 27 and lasted until 1 A.M. They were, as he had suggested to Schulenburg on the twenty-fifth: acceptance of the original line of demarcation in Poland along the Pissa, Narew, Vistula and San rivers, with Germany getting Lithuania; or yielding Lithuania to Russia in return for more Polish territory (the province of Lublin and the lands to the east of Warsaw) which would give the Germans almost all of the Polish people. Stalin strongly urged the second choice and Ribbentrop in a long telegram to Hitler filed at 4 A.M. on September 28 put it up to Hitler, who agreed.

Dividing up Eastern Europe took quite a bit of intricate drawing of maps, and after three and a half more hours of negotiations on the afternoon of September 28, followed by a state banquet at the Kremlin, Stalin and Molotov excused themselves in order to confer with a Latvian delegation they had summoned to Moscow. Ribbentrop dashed off to the opera house to take in an act of Swan Lake, returning to the Kremlin at midnight for further consultations about maps and other things. At 5 A.M. Molotov and Ribbentrop put their signatures to a new pact officially called the “German–Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty” while Stalin once more beamed on, as a German official later reported, “with obvious satisfaction.”* He had reason to.17

The Treaty itself, which was made public, announced the boundary of the “respective national interests” of the two countries in “the former Polish state” and stated that within their acquired territories they would re-establish “peace and order” and “assure the people living there a peaceful life in keeping with their national character.”

But, as with the previous Nazi–Soviet deal, there were “secret protocols”—three of them, of which two contained the meat of the agreement. One added Lithuania to the Soviet “sphere of influence,” and the provinces of Lublin and Eastern Warsaw to the German. The second was short and to the point.

Both parties will tolerate in their territories no Polish agitation which affects the territories of the other party. They will suppress in their territories all beginnings of such agitation and inform each other concerning suitable measures for this purpose.

So Poland, like Austria and Czechoslovakia before it, disappeared from the map of Europe. But this time Adolf Hitler was aided and abetted in his obliteration of a country by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which had posed for so long as the champion of the oppressed peoples. This was the fourth partition of Poland by Germany and Russia* (Austria had participated in the others), and while it lasted it was to be by far the most ruthless and pitiless. In the secret protocol of September 28  Hitler and Stalin agreed to institute in Poland a regime of terror designed to brutally suppress Polish freedom, culture and national life.

   Hitler fought and won the war in Poland, but the greater winner was Stalin, whose troops scarcely fired a shot. The Soviet Union got nearly half of Poland and a stranglehold on the Baltic States. It blocked Germany more solidly than ever from two of its main long-term objectives: Ukrainian wheat and Rumanian oil, both badly needed if Germany was to survive the British blockade. Even Poland’s oil region of Borislav–Drogobycz, which Hitler desired, was claimed successfully by Stalin, who graciously agreed to sell the Germans the equivalent of the area’s annual production.

Why did Hitler pay such a high price to the Russians? It is true that he had agreed to it in August in order to keep the Soviet Union out of the Allied camp and out of the war. But he had never been a stickler for keeping agreements and now, with Poland conquered by an incomparable feat of German arms, he might have been expected to welsh, as the Army urged, on the August 23 pact. If Stalin objected, the Fuehrer could threaten him with attack by the most powerful army in the world, as the Polish campaign had just proved it to be. Or could he? Not while the British and French stood at arms in the West. To deal with Britain and France he must keep his rear free. This, as subsequent utterances of his would make clear, was the reason why he allowed Stalin to strike such a hard bargain. But he did not forget the Soviet dictator’s harsh dealings as he now turned his attention to the Western front.

* This official, Andor Hencke, Understate Secretary in the Foreign Office, who had served for many years in the embassy at Moscow, wrote a detailed and amusing account of the talks. It was the only German record made of the second day’s conferences.16

* Arnold Toynbee, in his various writings, calls it the fifth partition.

† Though signed at 5 A.M. September 29, the treaty is officially dated September 28.

‡ German casualties in Poland were officially given as 10,572 killed, 30,322 wounded and 3,400 missing.

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