Military history

15. THE NAZI-SOVIET PACT

THE “TELEGRAM FROM Moscow” whose contents Hitler disclosed to Ciano at Obersalzberg on the afternoon of August 12 appears to have been, like certain previous “telegrams” which have figured in this narrative, of doubtful origin. No such wire from the Russian capital has been found in the German archives. Schulenburg did send a telegram to Berlin from Moscow on the twelfth, but it merely reported the arrival of the Franco–British military missions and the friendly toasts exchanged between the Russians and their guests.

Yet there was some basis for the “telegram” with which Hitler and Ribbentrop had so obviously tried to impress Ciano. On August 12 a teleprint was sent to Obersalzberg from the Wilhelmstrasse reporting the results of a call which the Russian chargé had made on Schnurre in Berlin on that day. Astakhov informed the Foreign Office official that Molotov was now ready to discuss the questions raised by the Germans, including Poland and other political matters. The Soviet government proposed Moscow as the place of these negotiations. But, Astakhov made it clear, they were not to be hurried. He stressed, Schnurre noted in his report, which apparently was rushed to Obersalzberg, “that the chief emphasis in his instructions from Molotov lay in the phrase ‘by degrees’ … The discussions could be undertaken only by degrees.”1

But Adolf Hitler could not wait for negotiations with Russia “by degrees.” As he had just revealed to a shocked Ciano, he had set the last possible date for the onslaught on Poland for September 1, and it was now almost the middle of August. If he were to successfully sabotage the Anglo–French parleys with the Russians and swing his own deal with Stalin, it had to be done quickly—not by stages but in one big leap.

Monday, August 14, was another crucial day. While Ambassador von der Schulenburg, who obviously had not yet been taken fully into the confidence of Hitler and Ribbentrop, was writing Weizsaecker from Moscow advising him that Molotov was “a strange man and a difficult character” and that “I am still of the opinion that any hasty measures in our relations with the Soviet Union should be avoided,” he was being sent a “most urgent” telegram from Berlin.2 It came from Ribbentrop and it was dispatched from the Wilhelmstrasse (the Foreign Minister was still at Fuschl) at 10:53 P.M. on August 14. It directed the German ambassador to call upon Molotov and read him a long communication “verbatim.”

This, finally, was Hitler’s great bid. German–Russian relations, said Ribbentrop, had “come to a historic turning point … There exist no real conflicts of interests between Germany and Russia … It has gone well with both countries previously when they were friends and badly when they were enemies.”

The crisis which has been produced in Polish–German relations by English policy [Ribbentrop continued] and the attempts at an alliance which are bound up with that policy, make a speedy clarification of German–Russian relations necessary. Otherwise matters … might take a turn which would deprive both Governments of the possibility of restoring German–Russian friendship and in due course clarifying jointly territorial questions in Eastern Europe. The leadership of both countries, therefore, should not allow the situation to drift, but should take action at the proper time. It would be fatal if, through mutual ignorance of views and intentions, the two peoples should finally drift apart.

The German Foreign Minister, “in the name of the Fuehrer,” was therefore prepared to act in proper time.

As we have been informed, the Soviet Government also feel the desire for a clarification of German–Russian relations. Since, however, according to previous experience this clarification can be achieved only slowly through the usual diplomatic channels, I am prepared to make a short visit to Moscow in order, in the name of the Fuehrer, to set forth the Fuehrer’s views to M. Stalin. In my view, only through such a direct discussion can a change be brought about, and it should not be impossible thereby to lay the foundations for a final settlement of German–Russian relations.

The British Foreign Secretary had not been willing to go to Moscow, but now the German Foreign Minister was not only willing but anxious to go—a contrast which the Nazis calculated quite correctly would make an impression on the suspicious Stalin.* The Germans saw that it was highly important to get their message through to the Russian dictator himself. Ribbentrop therefore added an “annex” to his urgent telegram.

I request [Ribbentrop advised Schulenburg] that you do not give M. Molotov these instructions in writing, but that they reach M. Stalin in as exact a form as possible and I authorize you, if the occasion arises, to request from M. Molotov on my behalf an audience with M. Stalin, so that you may be able to make this important communication directly to him also. In addition to a conference with Molotov, a detailed discussion with Stalin would be a condition for my making the trip.3

There was a scarcely disguised bait in the Foreign Minister’s proposal which the Germans, not without reason, must have thought the Kremlin would rise to. Reiterating that “there is no question between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea which cannot be settled to the complete satisfaction of both counties,” Ribbentrop specified “the Baltic States, Poland, southeastern questions, etc.” And he spoke of the necessity of “clarifying jointly territorial questions of Eastern Europe.”

Germany was ready to divide up Eastern Europe, including Poland, with the Soviet Union. This was a bid which Britain and France could not—and, obviously, if they could, would not—match. And having made it, Hitler, apparently confident that it would not be turned down, once more—on the same day, August 14—called in the commanders in chief of his armed forces to listen to him lecture on the plans and prospects for war.

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