Military history

THE NAZI-SOVIET TALKS: AUGUST 15–21, 1939

Ambassador von der Schulenburg saw Molotov at 8 P.M. on August 15 and, as instructed, read to him Ribbentrop’s urgent telegram stating that the Reich Foreign Minister was prepared to come to Moscow to settle Soviet–German relations. According to a “most urgent, secret” telegram which the German envoy got off to Berlin later that night, the Soviet Foreign Commissar received the information “with the greatest interest” and “warmly welcomed German intentions of improving relations with the Soviet Union.” However, expert diplomatic poker player that he was, Molotov gave no sign of being in a hurry. Such a trip as Ribbentrop proposed, he suggested, “required adequate preparation in order that the exchange of opinions might lead to results.”

What results? The wily Russian dropped some hints. Would the German government, he asked, be interested in a nonaggression pact between the two countries? Would it be prepared to use its influence with Japan to improve ‘Soviet-Japanese relations and “eliminate border conflicts”?—a reference to an undeclared war which had raged all summer on the Manchurian-Mongolian frontier. Finally, Molotov asked, how did Germany feel about a joint guarantee of the Baltic States?

All such matters, he concluded, “must be discussed in concrete terms so that, should the German Foreign Minister come here, it will not be a matter of an exchange of opinions but of making concrete decisions.” And he stressed again that “adequate preparation of the problems is indispensable.”10

The first suggestion, then, for a Nazi–Soviet nonaggression pact came from the Russians—at the very moment they were negotiating with France and Great Britain to go to war, if necessary, to oppose further German aggression.* Hitler was more than willing to discuss such a pact “in concrete terms,” since its conclusion would keep Russia out of the war and enable him to attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. And with Russia out of the conflict he was convinced that Britain and France would get cold feet.

Molotov’s suggestions were just what he had hoped for; they were more specific and went further than anything which he had dared to propose. There was only one difficulty. With August running out he could not wait for the slow Soviet tempo which was indicated by Molotov’s insistence on “adequate preparation” for the Foreign Minister’s visit to Moscow. Schulenburg’s report on his conversation with Molotov was telephoned by the Wilhelmstrasse to Ribbentrop at Fuschl at 6:40 A.M. on August 16 and he hurried across the mountain to seek further instruction from the Fuehrer at Obersalzberg. By early afternoon they had drawn up a reply to Molotov and it was rushed off on the teleprinter to Weizsaecker in Berlin with instructions to wire it “most urgent” to Moscow immediately.12

The Nazi dictator accepted the Soviet suggestions unconditionally. Schulenburg was directed by Ribbentrop to see Molotov again and inform him

that Germany is prepared to conclude a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and, if the Soviet Government so desire, one which would be undenounceable for a term of twenty-five years. Further, Germany is ready to guarantee the Baltic States jointly with the Soviet Union. Finally, Germany is prepared to exercise influence for an improvement and consolidation of Russian–Japanese relations.

All pretense was now dropped that the Reich government was not in a hurry to conclude a deal with Moscow.

The Fuehrer [Ribbentrop’s telegram continued] is of the opinion that, in view of the present situation and of the possibility of the occurrence any day of serious events (please at this point explain to M. Molotov that Germany is determined not to endure Polish provocation indefinitely), a basic and rapid clarification of German–Russian relations, and of each country’s attitude to the questions of the moment, is desirable.

For these reasons I am prepared to come by airplane to Moscow at any time after Friday, August 18, to deal, on the basis of full powers from the Fuehrer, with the entire complex of German—Russian relations and, if the occasion arises, to sign the appropriate treaties.

   Again Ribbentrop added an “annex” of personal instructions to his ambassador.

   I request that you again read these instructions word for word to Molotov and ask for the views of the Russian Government and of M. Stalin immediately. Entirely confidentially, it is added for your guidance that it would be of very special interest to us if my Moscow trip could take place at the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

   The next day, on their mountaintop, Hitler and Ribbentrop waited impatiently for the response from Moscow. Telegraphic communication between Berlin and Moscow was by no means instantaneous—a condition of affairs which did not seem to be realized in the rarefied atmosphere of the Bavarian Alps. By noon of the seventeenth, Ribbentrop was wiring Schulenburg “most urgent” requesting “a report by telegram regarding the time when you made your request to be received by Molotov and the time for which the conversation has been arranged.”13 By dinnertime the harassed ambassador was replying, also “most urgent,” that he had only received the Foreign Minister’s telegram at eleven the night before, that it was by then too late to conduct any diplomatic business and that first thing in the morning of today, August 17, he had made an appointment with Molotov for 8 P.M.14

For the now frantic Nazi leaders it turned out to be a disappointing meeting. Conscious of Hitler’s eagerness and no doubt fully aware of the reasons for it, the Russian Foreign Commissar played with the Germans, teasing and taunting them. After Schulenburg had read to him Ribbentrop’s telegram, Molotov, taking little note of its contents, produced the Soviet government’s written reply to the Reich Foreign Minister’s first communication of August 15.

Beginning acidly with a reminder of the Nazi government’s previous hostility to Soviet Russia, it explained “that until very recently the Soviet Government have proceeded on the assumption that the German Government are seeking occasion for clashes with the Soviet Union … Not to mention the fact that the German Government, by means of the so-called Anti-Comintern Pact, were endeavoring to create, and have created, the united front of a number of States against the Soviet Union.” It was for this reason, the note explained, that Russia “was participating in the organization of a defensive front against [German] aggression.”

If, however [the note continued], the German Government now undertake a change from the old policy in the direction of a serious improvement in political relations with the Soviet Union, the Soviet Government can only welcome such a change, and are, for their part, prepared to revise their policy in the sense of a serious improvement in respect of Germany.

But, the Russian note insisted, it must be “by serious and practical steps”—not in one big leap, as Ribbentrop proposed. What steps?

The first step: conclusion of a trade and credit agreement. The second step, “to be taken shortly thereafter”: conclusion of a nonaggression pact.

Simultaneously with the second step, the Soviets demanded the “conclusion of a special protocol defining the interests of the contracting parties in this or that question of foreign policy.” This was more than a hint that in regard to dividing up Eastern Europe at least, Moscow was receptive to the German view that a deal was possible.

As for the proposed visit of Ribbentrop, Molotov declared that the Soviet government was “highly gratified” with the idea, “since the dispatch of such an eminent politician and statesman emphasized how serious were the intentions of the German Government. This stood,” he added, “in noteworthy contrast to England, which, in the person of Strang, had sent only an official of second-class rank to Moscow. However, the journey by the German Foreign Minister required thorough preparation. The Soviet Government did not like the publicity that such a journey would cause. They preferred to do practical work without much fuss.”15

Molotov made no mention of Ribbentrop’s urgent, specific proposal that he come to Moscow over the weekend, and Schulenburg, perhaps somewhat taken aback by the course of the interview, did not press the matter.

The next day, after the ambassador’s report had been received, Ribbentrop did. Hitler, it is obvious, was now growing desperate. From his summer headquarters on the Obersalzberg there went out on the evening of August 18 a further “most urgent” telegram to Schulenburg signed by Ribbentrop. It arrived at the German Embassy in Moscow at 5:45 A.M. on the nineteenth and directed the ambassador to “arrange immediately another conversation with M. Molotov and do everything possible to see that it takes place without any delay.” There was no time to lose. “I ask you,” Ribbentrop wired, “to speak to M. Molotov as follows”:

… We, too, under normal circumstances, would naturally be ready to pursue a realignment of German–Russian relations through diplomatic channels, and to carry it out in the customary way. But the present unusual situation makes it necessary, in the opinion of the Fuehrer, to employ a different method which would lead to quick results.

German–Polish relations are becoming more acute from day to day. We have to take into account that incidents might occur any day that would make the outbreak of open conflict unavoidable … The Fuehrer considers it necessary that we be not taken by surprise by the outbreak of a German–Polish conflict while we are striving for a clarification of German–Russian relations. He therefore considers a previous clarification necessary, if only to be able to take into account Russian interests in case of such a conflict, which would, of course, be difficult without such a clarification.

The ambassador was to say that the “first stage” in the consultations mentioned by Molotov, the conclusion of the trade agreement, had been concluded in Berlin this very day (August 18) and that it was now time to “attack” the second stage. To do this the German Foreign Minister proposed his “immediate departure for Moscow,” to which he would come “with full powers from the Fuehrer, authorizing me to settle fully and conclusively the total complex of problems.” In Moscow, Ribbentrop added, he would “be in a position … to take Russian wishes into account.”

What wishes? The Germans now no longer beat around the bush.

I should also be in a position [Ribbentrop continued] to sign a special protocol regulating the interests of both parties in questions of foreign policy of one kind or another; for instance, the settlement of spheres of interest in the Baltic area. Such a settlement will only be possible, however, in an oral discussion.

This time the ambassador must not take a Russian “No.”

Please emphasize [Ribbentrop concluded] that German foreign policy has today reached a historic turning point … Please press for a rapid realization of my journey and oppose appropriately any fresh Russian objections. In this connection you must keep in mind the decisive fact that an early outbreak of open German–Polish conflict is possible and that we, therefore, have the greatest interest in having my visit to Moscow take place immediately.16

August 19 was the decisive day. Orders for the German submarines and pocket battleships to sail for British waters were being held up until word came from Moscow. The warships would have to get off at once if they were to reach their appointed stations by Hitler’s target date for the beginning of the war, September 1—only thirteen days away. The two great army groups designated for the onslaught on Poland would have to be deployed immediately.

The tension in Berlin and especially on the Obersalzberg, where Hitler and Ribbentrop waited nervously for Moscow’s decision, was becoming almost unbearable. The Foreign Office dispatches and memoranda that day disclosed the jittery feelings in the Wilhelmstrasse. Dr. Schnurre reported that the discussions with the Russians on the trade agreement had ended the previous evening “with complete agreement” but that the Soviets were stalling on signing it. The signature, he said, was to have taken place at noon this day, August 19, but at noon the Russians had telephoned saying they had to await instructions from Moscow. “It is obvious,” Schnurre reported, “that they have received instructions from Moscow to delay the conclusion of the treaty for political reasons.”17 From the Obersalzberg, Ribbentrop wired Schulenburg “most urgent” to be sure to report anything Molotov said or any sign of “Russian intentions” by telegram, but the only wire received from the ambassador during the day was the text of a denial by Tass, the Soviet news agency, in Moscow that the negotiations between the Russian and Anglo–French military delegations had become snarled over the Far East. However, the Tass démenti added that there were differences between the delegations on “entirely different matters.” This was a signal to Hitler that there was still time—and hope.

And then at 7:10 P.M. on August 19 came the anxiously awaited telegram:

SECRET
MOST URGENT

The Soviet Government agree to the Reich Foreign Minister coming to Moscow one week after the announcement of the signature of the economic agreement. Molotov stated that if the conclusion of the economic agreement is made public tomorrow, the Reich Foreign Minister could arrive in Moscow on August 26 or 27.

Molotov handed me a draft of a nonaggression pact.

A detailed account of the two conversations I had with Molotov today, as well as the text of the Soviet draft, follows by telegram at once.

SCHULENBURG18

The first talk in the Kremlin, which began at 2 P.M. on the nineteenth and lasted an hour, did not, the ambassador reported, go very well. The Russians, it seemed, could not be stampeded into receiving Hitler’s Foreign Minister. “Molotov persisted in his opinion,” Schulenburg wired, “that for the present it was not possible even approximately to fix the time of the journey since thorough preparations would be required … To the reasons I repeatedly and very emphatically advanced for the need of haste, Molotov rejoined that, so far, not even the first step—the concluding of the economic agreement—had been taken. First of all, the economic agreement had to be signed and published, and achieve its effect abroad. Then would come the turn of the nonaggression pact and protocol.

“Molotov remained apparently unaffected by my protests, so that the first conversation closed with a declaration by Molotov that he had imparted to me the views of the Soviet Government and had nothing to add to them.”

But he had something, shortly.

“Hardly half an hour after the conversation had ended,” Schulenburg reported, “Molotov sent me word asking me to call on him again at the Kremlin at 4:30 P.M. He apologized for putting me to the trouble and explained that he had reported to the Soviet Government.”

Whereupon the Foreign Commissar handed the surprised but happy ambassador a draft of the nonaggression pact and told him that Ribbentrop could arrive in Moscow on August 26 or 27 if the trade treaty were signed and made public tomorrow.

“Molotov did not give reasons,” Schulenburg added in his telegram, “for his sudden change of mind. I assume that Stalin intervened.”19

The assumption was undoubtedly correct. According to Churchill, the Soviet intention to sign a pact with Germany was announced to the Politburo by Stalin on the evening of August 19.20 A little earlier that day—between 3 P.M. and 4:30 P.M.—it is clear from Schulenburg’s dispatch, he Had communicated his fateful decision to Molotov.

Exactly three years later, in August 1942, “in the early hours of the morning,” as Churchill later reported, the Soviet dictator gave to the British Prime Minister, then on a mission to Moscow, some of the reasons for his brazen move.21

We formed the impression [said Stalin] that the British and French Governments were not resolved to go to war if Poland were attacked, but that they hoped the diplomatic line-up of Britain, France and Russia would deter Hitler. We were sure it would not. “How many divisions,” Stalin had asked, “will France send against Germany on mobilization?” The answer was: “About a hundred.” He then asked: “How many will England send?” The answer was: “Two, and two more later.” “Ah, two, and two more later,” Stalin had repeated. “Do you know,” he asked, “how many divisions we shall have to put on the Russian front if we go to war with Germany?” There was a pause. “More than three hundred.”

In his dispatch reporting the outcome of his conversations with Molotov on August 19, Schulenburg had added that his attempt to induce the Foreign Commissar to accept an earlier date for Ribbentrop’s journey to Moscow “was, unfortunately, unsuccessful.”

But for the Germans it had to be made successful. The whole timetable for the invasion of Poland, indeed the question of whether the attack could take place at all in the brief interval before the autumn rains, depended upon it. If Ribbentrop were not received in Moscow before August 26 or 27 and then if the Russians stalled a bit, as the Germans feared, the target date of September 1 could not be kept.

At this crucial stage, Adolf Hitler himself intervened with Stalin. Swallowing his pride, he personally begged the Soviet dictator, whom he had so often and for so long maligned, to receive his Foreign Minister in Moscow at once. His telegram to Stalin was rushed off to Moscow at 6:45 P.M.on Sunday, August 20, just twelve hours after the receipt of Schulenburg’s dispatch. The Fuehrer instructed the ambassador to hand it to Molotov “at once.”

M. STALIN, MOSCOW,

I sincerely welcome the signing of the new German–Soviet Commercial Agreement as the first step in the reshaping of German–Soviet relations.*

The conclusion of a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union means to me the establishment of German policy for a long time. Germany thereby resumes a political course that was beneficial to both States during bygone centuries …

I accept the draft of the nonaggression pact that your Foreign Minister, M. Molotov, handed over, but consider it urgently necessary to clarify the questions connected with it as soon as possible.

The substance of the supplementary protocol desired by the Soviet Union can, I am convinced, be clarified in the shortest possible time if a responsible German statesman can come to Moscow himself to negotiate. Otherwise the Government of the Reich are not clear as to how the supplementary protocol could be cleared up and settled in a short time.

The tension between Germany and Poland has become intolerable … A crisis may arise any day. Germany is determined from now on to look after the interests of the Reich with all the means at her disposal.

In my opinion, it is desirable in view of the intentions of the two States to enter into a new relationship to each other, not to lose any time. I therefore again propose that you receive my Foreign Minister on Tuesday, August 22, but at the latest on Wednesday, August 23. The Reich Foreign Minister has the fullest powers to draw up and sign the nonaggression pact as well as the protocol. A longer stay by the Foreign Minister in Moscow than one to two days at most is impossible in view of the international situation. I should be glad to receive your early answer.

ADOLF HITLER22

During the next twenty-four hours, from the evening of Sunday, August 20, when Hitler’s appeal to Stalin went out over the wires to Moscow, until the following evening, the Fuehrer was in a state bordering on collapse. He could not sleep. In the middle of the night he telephoned Goering to tell of his worries about Stalin’s reaction to his message and to fret over the delays in Moscow. At 3 A.M. on the twenty-first, the Foreign Office received a “most urgent” wire from Schulenburg saying that Hitler’s telegram, of which Weizsaecker had advised him earlier, had not yet arrived. “Official telegrams from Berlin to Moscow,” the ambassador reminded the Foreign Office, “take four to five hours, inclusive of two hours’ difference in time. To this must be added the time for deciphering.”23 At 10:15 A.M. on Monday, August 21, the anxious Ribbentrop got off an urgent wire to Schulenburg: “Please do your utmost to ensure that the journey materializes. Date as in telegram.”24 Shortly after noon, the ambassador advised Berlin: “I am to see Molotov at 3 P.M. today.”25

Finally, at 9:35 P.M. on August 21, Stalin’s reply came over the wires in Berlin.

TO THE CHANCELLOR OF THE GERMAN REICH,

A. HITLER:

I thank you for the letter. I hope that the German–Soviet nonaggression pact will bring about a decided turn for the better in the political relations between our countries.

The peoples of our countries need peaceful relations with each other. The assent of the German Government to the conclusion of a nonaggression pact provides the foundation for eliminating the political tension and for the establishment of peace and collaboration between our countries.

The Soviet Government have instructed me to inform you that they agree to Herr von Ribbentrop’s arriving in Moscow on August 23.

J. STALIN26

For sheer cynicism the Nazi dictator had met his match in the Soviet despot. The way was now open to them to get together to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on one of the crudest deals of this shabby epoch.

Stalin’s reply was transmitted to the Fuehrer at the Berghof at 10:30 P.M. A few minutes later, this writer remembers—shortly after 11 P.M.—a musical program on the German radio was suddenly interrupted and a voice came on to announce, “The Reich government and the Soviet government have agreed to conclude a pact of nonaggression with each other. The Reich Minister for Foreign Affairs will arrive in Moscow on Wednesday, August 23, for the conclusion of the negotiations.”

The next day, August 22, 1939, Hitler, having been assured by Stalin himself that Russia would be a friendly neutral, once more convoked his top military commanders to the Obersalzberg, lectured them on his own greatness and on the need for them to wage war brutally and without pity and apprised them that he probably would order the attack on Poland to begin four days hence, on Saturday, August 26—six days ahead of schedule. Stalin, the Fuehrer’s mortal enemy, had made this possible.

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