A fresh initiative had come from the Russians.
On July 18, E. Babarin, the Soviet trade representative in Berlin, accompanied by two aides, called on Julius Schnurre at the German Foreign Office and informed him that Russia would like to extend and intensify German–Soviet economic relations. He brought along a detailed memorandum for a trade agreement calling for a greatly increased exchange of goods between the two countries and declared that if a few differences between the two parties were clarified he was empowered to sign a trade treaty in Berlin. The Germans, as Dr. Schnurre’s confidential memorandum of the meeting shows, were rather pleased. Such a treaty, Schnurre noted, “will not fail to have its effect at least in Poland and Britain.”76 Four days later, on July 22, the Russian press announced in Moscow that Soviet–German trade negotiations had been resumed in Berlin.
On the same day Weizsaecker rather exuberantly wired Ambassador von der Schulenburg in Moscow some interesting new instructions. As to the trade negotiations, he informed the ambassador, “we will act here in a markedly forthcoming manner, since a conclusion, and this at the earliest possible moment, is desired here for general reasons. As far as the purely political aspect of our conversations with the Russians is concerned,” he added, “we regard the period of waiting stipulated for you in our telegram [of June 30]* as having expired. You are therefore empowered to pick up the threads again there, without in any way pressing the matter.”77
They were, in fact, picked up four days later, on July 26, in Berlin. Dr. Schnurre was instructed by Ribbentrop to dine Astakhov, the Soviet chargé, and Babarin at a swank Berlin restaurant and sound them out. The two Russians needed little sounding. As Schnurre noted in his confidential memorandum of the meeting, “the Russians stayed until about 12:30 A.M.” and talked “in a very lively and interested manner about the political and economic problems of interest to us.”
Astakhov, with the warm approval of Babarin, declared that a Soviet–German political rapprochement corresponded to the vital interests of the two countries. In Moscow, he said, they had never quite understood why Nazi Germany had been so antagonistic to the Soviet Union. The German diplomat, in response, explained that “German policy in the East had now taken an entirely different course.”
On our part there could be no question of menacing the Soviet Union. Our aims were in an entirely different direction … German policy was aimed at Britain … I could imagine a far-reaching arrangement of mutual interests with due consideration for vital Russian problems.
However, this possibility would be barred the moment the Soviet Union aligned itself with Britain against Germany. The time for an understanding between Germany and the Soviet Union was opportune now, but would no longer be so after the conclusion of a pact with London.
What could Britain offer Russia? At best, participation in a European war and the hostility of Germany. What could we offer against this? Neutrality and keeping out of a possible European conflict and, if Moscow wished, a German–Russian understanding on mutual interests which, just as in former times, would work out to the advantage of both countries … Controversial problems [between Germany and Russia] did not, in my opinion, exist anywhere along the line from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and to the Far East. In addition, despite all the divergencies in their views of life, there was one thing common to the ideology of Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies in the West.78
Thus in the late-evening hours of July 26 in a small Berlin restaurant over good food and wine partaken by second-string diplomats was Germany’s first serious bid for a deal with Soviet Russia made. The new line which Schnurre took had been given him by Ribbentrop himself. Astakhov was pleased to hear it. He promised Schnurre that he would report it at once to Moscow.
In the Wilhelmstrasse the Germans waited impatiently to see what the reaction in the Soviet capital would be. Three days later, on July 29, Weizsaecker sent a secret dispatch by courier to Schulenburg in Moscow.
It would be important for us to know whether the remarks made to Astakhov and Babarin have met with any response in Moscow. If you see an opportunity of arranging a further conversation with Molotov, please sound him out on the same lines. If this results in Molotov abandoning the reserve he has so far maintained you could go a step further … This applies in particular to the Polish problem. We would be prepared, however the Polish problem may develop … to safeguard all Soviet interests and to come to an understanding with the Government in Moscow. In the Baltic question, too, if the talks took a positive course, the idea could be advanced of so adjusting our attitude to the Baltic States as to respect vital Soviet interests in the Baltic Sea.79
Two days later, on July 31, the State Secretary wired Schulenburg “urgent and secret”:
With reference to our dispatch of July 29, arriving in Moscow by courier today:
Please report by telegram the date and time of your next interview with Molotov as soon as it is fixed.
We are anxious for an early interview.80
For the first time a note of urgency crept into the dispatches from Berlin to Moscow.
There was good reason for Berlin’s sense of urgency. On July 23, France and Britain had finally agreed to Russia’s proposal that military-staff talks be held at once to draw up a military convention which would spell out specifically how Hitler’s armies were to be met by the three nations. Although Chamberlain did not announce this agreement until July 31, when he made it to the House of Commons, the Germans got wind of it earlier. On July 28 Ambassador von Welczeck in Paris wired Berlin that he had learned from “an unusually well-informed source” that France and Britain were dispatching military missions to Moscow and that the French group would be headed by General Doumenc, whom he described as being “a particularly capable officer” and a former Deputy Chief of Staff under General Maxime Weygand.81 It was the German ambassador’s impression, as he stated in a supplementary dispatch two days later, that Paris and London had agreed to military-staff talks as a last means of preventing the adjournment of the Moscow negotiations.82
It was a well-founded impression. As the confidential British Foreign Office papers make clear, the political talks in Moscow had reached an impasse by the last week in July largely over the impossibility of reaching a definition of “indirect aggression.” To the British and French the Russian interpretation of that term was so broad that it might be used to justify Soviet intervention in Finland and the Baltic States even if there were no serious Nazi threat, and to this London at least—the French were prepared to be more accommodating—would not agree.
Also, on June 2 the Russians had insisted that a military agreement setting down in detail the “methods, form and extent” of the military help which the three countries were to give each other should come into force at the same time as the mutual-assistance pact itself. The Western Powers, which did not think highly of Russia’s military prowess,* tried to put Molotov off. They would only agree to starting staff talks after the political agreement had been signed. But the Russians were adamant. When the British tried to strike a bargain, offering on July 17 to begin staff conversations at once if the Soviet Union would yield on its insistence on signing political and military agreements simultaneously and also—for good measure—accept the British definition of “indirect aggression,” Molotov answered with a blunt rejection. Unless the French and British agreed to political and military agreements in one package, he said, there was no point in continuing the negotiations. This Russian threat to end the talks caused consternation in Paris, which seems to have been more acutely aware than London of the course of Soviet–Nazi flirtations, and it was largely due to French pressure that the British government, on August 23, while refusing to accept the Russian proposals on “indirect aggression,” reluctantly agreed to negotiate a military convention.84
Chamberlain was less than lukewarm to the whole business of staff talks.*On August 1 Ambassador von Dirksen in London informed Berlin that the military negotiations with the Russians were “regarded skeptically” in British government circles.
This is borne out [he wrote] by the composition of the British Military Mission.† The Admiral … is practically on the retired list and was never on the Naval Staff. The General is also purely a combat officer. The Air Marshal is outstanding as a pilot and an instructor, but not as a strategist. This seems to indicate that the task of the Military Mission is rather to ascertain the fighting value of the Soviet forces than to conclude agreements on operations … The Wehrmacht attachés are agreed in observing a surprising skepticism in British military circles about the forthcoming talks with the Soviet armed forces.86
Indeed, so skeptical was the British government that it neglected to give Admiral Drax written authority to negotiate—an oversight, if it was that, which Marshal Voroshilov complained about when the staff officers first met. The Admiral’s credentials did not arrive until August 21, when they were no longer of use.
But if Admiral Drax had no written credentials he certainly had secret written instructions as to the course he was to take in the military talks in Moscow. As the British Foreign Office papers much later revealed, the Admiral was admonished to “go very slowly with the [military] conversations, watching the progress of the political negotiations,” until a political agreement had been concluded.87 It was explained to him that confidential military information could not be imparted to the Russians until the political pact was signed.
But since the political conversations had been suspended on August 2 and Molotov had made it clear that he would not assent to their being renewed until the military talks had made some progress, the conclusion can scarcely be escaped that the Chamberlain government was quite prepared to take its time in spelling out the military obligations of each country in the proposed mutual-assistance pact.* In fact the confidential British Foreign Office documents leave little doubt that, by the beginning of August, Chamberlain and Halifax had almost given up hope of reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union to stop Hitler but thought that if they stretched out the staff negotiations in Moscow this might somehow deter the German dictator from taking, during the next four weeks, the fatal step toward war.†
In contrast to the British and French, the Russians placed on their military mission the highest officers of their armed forces: Marshal Voroshilov, who was Commissar for Defense, General Shaposhnikov, Chief of the General Staff of the Red Army, and the commanders in chief of the Navy and Air Force. The Russians could not help noting that whereas the British had sent the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Edmund Ironside, to Warsaw in July for military talks with the Polish General Staff, they did not consider sending this ranking British officer to Moscow.
It cannot be said that the Anglo–French military missions were exactly rushed to Moscow. A plane would have got them there in a day. But they were sent on a slow boat—a passenger-cargo vessel—which took as long to get them to Russia as the Queen Mary could have conveyed them to America. They sailed for Leningrad on August 5 and did not arrive in Moscow until August 11.
By that time it was too late. Hitler had beaten them to it.
While the British and French military officers were waiting for their slow boat to Leningrad the Germans were acting swiftly. August 3 was a crucial day in Berlin and Moscow.
At 12:58 P.M. on that day Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop, who invariably left the sending of telegrams to State Secretary von Weizsaecker, got off on his own a wire marked “Secret—Most Urgent” to Schulenburg in Moscow.
Yesterday I had a lengthy conversation with Astakhov, on which a telegram follows.
I expressed the German wish for remolding German–Russian relations and stated that from the Baltic to the Black Sea there was no problem which could not be solved to our mutual satisfaction. In response to Astakhov’s desire for more concrete conversations on topical questions … I declared myself ready for such conversations if the Soviet Government would inform me through Astakhov that they also desired to place German–Russian relations on a new and definitive basis.89
It was known at the Foreign Office that Schulenburg was seeing Molotov later in the day. An hour after Ribbentrop’s telegram was dispatched, Weizsaecker got off one of his own, also marked “Secret—Most Urgent.”
In view of the political situation and in the interests of speed, we are anxious, without prejudice to your conversation with Molotov today, to continue in more concrete terms in Berlin the conversations on harmonizing German–Soviet intentions. To this end Schnurre will receive Astakhov today and will tell him that we would be ready for a continuation on more concrete terms.90
Though Ribbentrop’s sudden desire for “concrete” talks on everything from the Baltic to the Black Sea must have surprised the Russians—at one point, as he informed Schulenburg in his following telegram which was sent at 3:47 P.M., he “dropped a gentle hint [to Astakhov] at our coming to an understanding with Russia on the fate of Poland”—the Foreign Minister emphasized to his ambassador in Moscow that he had told the Russian chargé that “we were in no hurry.”91
This was bluff, and the sharp-minded Soviet chargé called it when he saw Schnurre at the Foreign Office at 12:45 P.M. He remarked that while Schnurre seemed to be in a hurry, the German Foreign Minister the previous day “had shown no such urgency.” Schnurre rose to the occasion.
I told M. Astakhov [he noted in a secret memorandum]92 that though the Foreign Minister last night had not shown any urgency to the Soviet Government, we nevertheless thought it expedient to make use of the next few days* for continuing the conversations in order to establish a basis as quickly as possible.
For the Germans, then, it had come down to a matter of the next few days. Astakhov told Schnurre that he had received “a provisional answer” from Molotov to the German suggestions. It was largely negative. While Moscow too desired an improvement in relations, “Molotov said,” he reported, “that so far nothing concrete was known of Germany’s attitude.”
The Soviet Foreign Commissar conveyed his ideas directly to Schulenburg in Moscow that evening. The ambassador reported in a long dispatch filed shortly after midnight93 that in a talk lasting an hour and a quarter Molotov had “abandoned his habitual reserve and appeared unusually open.” There seems no doubt of that. For after Schulenburg had reiterated Germany’s view that no differences existed between the two countries “from the Baltic to the Black Sea” and reaffirmed the German wish to “come to an understanding,” the unbending Russian Minister enumerated some of the hostile acts that the Reich had committed against the Soviet Union: the Anti-Comintern Pact, support of Japan against Russia and the exclusion of the Soviets from Munich.
“How,” asked Molotov, “could the new German statements be reconciled with these three points? Proofs of a changed attitude of the German Government were for the present still lacking.”
Schulenburg seems to have been somewhat discouraged.
My general impression [he telegraphed Berlin] is that the Soviet Government are at present determined to conclude an agreement with Britain and France, if they fulfill all Soviet wishes … I believe that my statements made an impression on Molotov; it will nevertheless require considerable effort on our part to cause a reversal in the Soviet Government’s course.
Knowledgeable though the veteran German diplomat was about Russian affairs, he obviously overestimated the progress in Moscow of the British and French negotiators. Nor did he yet realize the lengths to which Berlin was now prepared to go to make the “considerable effort” which he thought was necessary to reverse the course of Soviet diplomacy.
In the Wilhelmstrasse confidence grew that this could be accomplished. With Russia neutralized, Britain and France either would not fight for Poland or, if they did, would easily be held on the western fortifications until the Poles were quickly liquidated and the German Army could turn its full strength on the West.
The astute French chargé d’affaires in Berlin, Jacques Tarbé de St.-Hardouin, noticed the change of atmosphere in the German capital. On the very day, August 3, when there was so much Soviet–German diplomatic activity in Berlin and Moscow, he reported to Paris: “In the course of the last week a very definite change in the political atmosphere has been observed in Berlin … The period of embarrassment, hesitation, inclination to temporization or even to appeasement has been succeeded among the Nazi leaders by a new phase.”94