Military history


In his speech to the Reichstag on April 28, Hitler had omitted his customary attack on the Soviet Union. There was not a word about Russia. Colonel Beck, in his reply, had mentioned “various other hints” made by Germany “which went much further than the subjects of discussion” and reserved the right “to return to this matter, if necessary”—a veiled but obvious reference to Germany’s previous efforts to induce Poland to join the Anti-Comintern Pact against Russia. Though Beck did not know it, nor did Chamberlain, those anti-Russian efforts were now being abandoned. Fresh ideas were beginning to germinate in Berlin and Moscow.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly when the first moves were made in the two capitals toward an understanding between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which was to lead to such immense consequences for the world. One of the first slight changes in the wind, as has already been noted,*took place as far back as October 3, 1938, four days after Munich, when the counselor of the German Embassy in Moscow informed Berlin that Stalin would draw certain conclusions from the Sudeten settlement, from which he had been excluded, and might well become “more positive” toward Germany. The diplomat strongly advocated a “wider” economic collaboration between the two countries and renewed his appeal in a second dispatch a week later.27 Toward the end of October, the German ambassador in Moscow, Friedrich Werner Count von der Schulenburg, notified the German Foreign Office that it was his “intention in the immediate future to approach Molotov, the Chairman of the Council of the People’s Commissars, in an attempt to reach a settlement of the questions disturbing German–Soviet relations.”28 The ambassador would hardly have conceived such an intention on his own, in view of Hitler’s previous extremely hostile attitude toward Moscow. The hint must have come from Berlin.

That it did becomes clear from a study of the captured Foreign Office archives. The first step, in the German view, was to improve trade between the two countries. A Foreign Office memorandum of November 4, 1938, reveals “an emphatic demand from Field Marshal Goering’s office at least to try to reactivate our Russian trade, especially insofar as Russian raw materials are concerned.”29 The Russo–German economic agreements expired at the end of the year and the Wilhelmstrasse files are full of material showing the ups and downs experienced in negotiating a renewal. The two sides were highly suspicious of each other but were vaguely drawing closer together. On December 22, there were lengthy talks in Moscow between Russian trade officials and Germany’s crack economic troubleshooter, Julius Schnurre.

Shortly after the New Year, the Soviet ambassador in Berlin, Alexei Merekalov, made one of his infrequent trips to the Wilhelmstrasse to inform it “of the Soviet Union’s desire to begin a new era in German–Soviet economic relations.” And for a few weeks there were promising talks, but by February 1939 they had pretty much broken down, ostensibly over whether the main negotiations should be conducted in Moscow or Berlin. But the real reason was revealed in a memorandum of the director of the Economic Policy Department of the German Foreign Office on March 11, 1939: Though Germany was hungry for Russia’s raw materials and Goering was constantly demanding that they be obtained, the Reich simply could not supply the Soviet Union with the goods which would have to be exchanged. The director thought the “rupture of negotiations” was “extremely regrettable in view of Germany’s raw-materials position.”30

But if the first attempt to draw nearer in their economic relations had failed for the time being, there were other straws in the wind. On March 10, 1939, Stalin made a long speech at the first session of the Eighteenth Party Congress in Moscow. Three days later the attentive Schulenburg filed a long report on it to Berlin. He thought it “noteworthy that Stalin’s irony and criticism were directed in considerably sharper degree against Britain than against the so-called aggressor States, and in particular, Germany.” The ambassador underlined Stalin’s remarks that “the weakness of the democratic powers … was evident from the fact that they had abandoned the principle of collective security and had turned to a policy of nonintervention and neutrality. Underlying this policy was the wish to divert the aggressor States to other victims.” And he quoted further the Soviet dictator’s accusations that the Western Allies were

pushing the Germans further eastward, promising them an easy prey and saying: “Just start a war with the Bolsheviks, everything else will take care of itself. This looks very much like encouragement … It looks as if the purpose … was to engender the fury of the Soviet Union against Germany … and to provoke a conflict with Germany without apparent reasons….

   In conclusion Stalin formulated the guiding principles:

1.     To continue to pursue a policy of peace and consolidation of economic relations with all countries.

2.     … Not to let our country be drawn into conflict by warmongers, whose custom it is to let others pull their chestnuts out of the fire.31

This was a plain warning from the man who made all the ultimate decisions in Russia that the Soviet Union did not intend to be maneuvered into a war with Nazi Germany in order to spare Britain and France; and if it was ignored in London, it was at least noticed in Berlin.*

Still, it is evident from Stalin’s speech and from the various diplomatic exchanges which shortly took place that Soviet foreign policy, while cautious, was still very much open. Three days after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia on March 15, the Russian government proposed, as we have seen,* a six-power conference to discuss means of preventing further aggression, and Chamberlain turned it down as “premature.” That was on March 18. Two days later an official communiqué in Moscow, which the German ambassador there hurriedly wired to Berlin, denied that the Soviet Union had offered Poland and Rumania assistance “in the event of their becoming the victims of aggression.” Reason: “Neither Poland nor Rumania had approached the Soviet government for assistance or informed [it] of any danger threatening them.”34

The British government’s unilateral guarantee of Poland of March 31 may have helped to convince Stalin that Great Britain preferred an alliance with the Poles to one with the Russians and that Chamberlain was intent, as he had been at the time of Munich, on keeping the Soviet Union out of the European concert of powers.35

In this situation the Germans and Italians began to glimpse certain opportunities. Goering, who now had an important influence on Hitler in foreign affairs, saw Mussolini in Rome on April 16 and called the Duce’s attention to Stalin’s recent speech to the Communist Party Congress. He had been impressed by the Soviet dictator’s statement that “the Russians would not allow themselves to be used as cannon fodder for the capitalist powers.” He said he “would ask the Fuehrer whether it would not be possible to put out feelers cautiously to Russia … with a view torapprochement.” And he reminded Mussolini that there had been “absolutely no mention of Russia in the Fuehrer’s latest speeches.” The Duce, according to the confidential German memorandum of the meeting, warmly welcomed the idea of a rapprochement of the Axis Powers with theSoviet Union. The Italian dictator too had sensed a change in Moscow; he thought a rapprochement could be “effected with comparative ease.”

The object [said Mussolini] would be to induce Russia to react coolly and unfavorably to Britain’s efforts at encirclement, on the lines of Stalin’s speech … Moreover, in their ideological struggle against plutocracy and capitalism the Axis Powers had, to a certain extent, the same objectives as the Russian regime.36

   This was a radical turn in Axis policy, and no doubt it would have surprised Chamberlain had he learned of it. Perhaps it would have surprised Litvinov too.

On the very day of this discussion between Goering and Mussolini, April 16, the Soviet Foreign Commissar received the British ambassador in Moscow and made a formal proposal for a triple pact of mutual assistance between Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. It called for a military convention between the three powers to enforce the pact and a guarantee by the signatories, to be joined by Poland, if it desired, of all the nations in Central and Eastern Europe which felt themselves menaced by Nazi Germany. It was Litvinov’s last bid for an alliance against the Third Reich, and the Russian Foreign Minister, who had staked his career on a policy of stopping Hitler by collective action, must have thought that at last he would succeed in uniting the Western democracies with Russia for that purpose. As Churchill said in a speech on May 4, complaining that the Russian offer had not yet been accepted in London, “there is no means of maintaining an Eastern front against Nazi aggression without the active aid of Russia.” No other power in Eastern Europe, certainly not Poland, possessed the military strength to maintain a front in that region. Yet the Russian proposal caused consternation in London and Paris.

Even before it was rejected, however, Stalin made his first serious move to play the other side of the street.

   The day after Litvinov made his far-reaching offer to the British ambassador in Moscow, on April 17, the Soviet ambassador in Berlin paid a visit to Weizsaecker at the German Foreign Office. It was the first call, the State Secretary noted in a memorandum, that Merekalov had made on him since he assumed his post nearly a year before. After some preliminary remarks about German–Russian economic relations, the ambassador turned to politics and

asked me point-blank [Weizsaecker wrote] what I thought of German–Russian relations … The Ambassador spoke somewhat as follows:

Russian policy had always followed a straight course. Ideological differences had had very little adverse effect on relations between Russia and Italy and need not disturb those with Germany either. Russia had not exploited the present friction between Germany and the Western democracies against us, neither did she wish to do that. As far as Russia was concerned, there was no reason why she should not live on a normal footing with us, and out of normal relations could grow increasingly improved relations.

With this remark, toward which he had been steering the conversation, M. Merekalov ended the talk. He intends to visit Moscow in a day or two.37

   In the Russian capital, to which the Soviet ambassador returned, there was something up.

It came out on May 3. On that date, tucked away on the back page of the Soviet newspapers in a column called “News in Brief,” appeared a small item: “M. Litvinov has been released from the Office of Foreign Commissar at his own request.” He was replaced by Vyacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of the People’s Commissars.

The German chargé d’affaires reported the change to Berlin the next day.

The sudden change has caused the greatest surprise here, as Litvinov was in the midst of negotiations with the British delegation, had appeared in close proximity to Stalin at the parade on May 1 …

Since Litvinov had received the British Ambassador as recently as May 2 and had even been mentioned in the press yesterday as a guest of honor at the parade, it seems that his dismissal must be due to a spontaneous decision by Stalin…. At the last Party Congress Stalin urged caution lest the Soviet Union be dragged into conflicts. Molotov, who is not a Jew, has the reputation of being the “most intimate friend and closest collaborator” of Stalin. His appointment is obviously intended to provide a guarantee that foreign policy will be conducted strictly on lines laid down by Stalin.38

The significance of Litvinov’s abrupt dismissal was obvious to all. It meant a sharp and violent turning in Soviet foreign policy. Litvinov had been the archapostle of collective security, of strengthening the power of the League of Nations, of seeking Russian security against Nazi Germany by a military alliance with Great Britain and France. Chamberlain’s hesitations about such an alliance were fatal to the Russian Foreign Commissar. In Stalin’s judgment—and his was the only one which counted in Moscow—Litvinov’s policies had failed. Moreover, they threatened to land the Soviet Union in a war with Germany which the Western democracies might well contrive to stay out of. It was time, Stalin concluded, to try a new tack.* If Chamberlain could appease Hitler, could not the Russian dictator? The fact that Litvinov, a Jew, was replaced by Molotov, who, as the German Embassy had emphasized in its dispatch to Berlin, was not, might be expected to have a certain impact in high Nazi circles.

To see that the significance of the change was not lost on the Germans, Georgi Astakhov, the Soviet chargé d’affaires, brought the matter up on May 5 when he conferred with Dr. Julius Schnurre, the German Foreign Office expert on East European economic affairs.

Astakhov touched upon the dismissal of Litvinov [Schnurre reported] and tried … to learn whether this event would cause a change in our attitude toward the Soviet Union. He stressed the great importance of the personality of Molotov, who was by no means a specialist in foreign policy but who would have all the greater importance for future Soviet foreign policy.39

   The chargé also invited the Germans to resume the trade negotiations which had been broken off in February.

The British government did not reply until May 8 to the Soviet proposals of April 16 for a military alliance. The response was a virtual rejection. It strengthened suspicions in Moscow that Chamberlain was not willing to make a military pact with Russia to prevent Hitler from taking Poland.

It is not surprising, then, that the Russians intensified their approach to the Germans. On May 17 Astakhov again saw Schnurre at the Foreign Office and after discussing problems of trade turned to larger matters.

   Astakhov stated [Schnurre reported] that there were no conflicts in foreign policy between Germany and the Soviet Union and that therefore there was no reason for any enmity between the two countries. It was true that in the Soviet Union there was a distinct feeling of being menaced by Germany. It would undoubtedly be possible to eliminate this feeling of being menaced and the distrust in Moscow … In reply to my incidental question he commented on the Anglo–Soviet negotiations to the effect that, as they stood at the moment, the result desired by Britain would hardly materialize.40

   Three days later, on May 20, Ambassador von der Schulenburg had a long talk with Molotov in Moscow. The newly appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs was in a “most friendly” mood and informed the German envoy that economic negotiations between the two countries could be resumed if the necessary political bases for them were created. This was a new approach from the Kremlin but it was made cautiously by the cagey Molotov. When Schulenburg asked him what he meant by “political bases” the Russian replied that this was something both governmentswould have to think about. All the ambassador’s efforts to draw out the wily Foreign Commissar were in vain. “He is known,” Schulenburg reminded Berlin, “for his somewhat stubborn manner.” On his way out of the Russian Foreign Office, the ambassador dropped in on Vladimir Potemkin, the Soviet Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs, and told him he had not been able to find out what Molotov wanted of a political nature. “I asked Herr Potemkin,” Schulenburg reported, “to find out.”41

The renewed contacts between Berlin and Moscow did not escape the watchful eyes of the French ambassador in the German capital. As early as May 7, four days after Litvinov’s dismissal, M. Coulondre was informing the French Foreign Minister that, according to information given him by a close confidant of the Fuehrer, Germany was seeking an understanding with Russia which would result in, among other things, a fourth partition of Poland. Two days later the French ambassador got off another telegram to Paris telling of new rumors in Berlin “that Germany had made, or was going to make, to Russia proposals aimed at a partition of Poland.”42

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