Military history

RIBBENTROP IN MOSCOW: AUGUST 23, 1939

Those “certain political events” now took place.

Armed with full powers in writing from Hitler to conclude a nonaggression treaty “and other agreements” with the Soviet Union, which would become effective as soon as they were signed, Ribbentrop set off by plane for Moscow on August 22. The large German party spent the night atKoenigsberg in East Prussia, where the Nazi Foreign Minister, according to Dr. Schmidt, worked throughout the night, constantly telephoning to Berlin and Berchtesgaden and making copious notes for his talks with Stalin and Molotov.

The two large Condor transport planes carrying the German delegation arrived in Moscow at noon on August 23, and after a hasty meal at the embassy Ribbentrop hurried off to the Kremlin to confront the Soviet dictator and his Foreign Commissar. This first meeting lasted three hours and, as Ribbentrop advised Hitler by “most urgent” wire, it went well for the Germans.32 Judging by the Foreign Minister’s dispatch, there was no trouble at all in reaching agreement on the terms of a nonaggression pact which would keep the Soviet Union out of Hitler’s war. In fact the only difficulty, he reported, was a distinctly minor one concerning the division of spoils. The Russians, he said, were demanding that Germany recognize the small ports of Libau and Windau in Latvia “as being in their sphere of interest.” Since all of Latvia was to be placed on the Soviet side of the line dividing the interests of the two powers, this demand presented no problem and Hitler quickly agreed. Ribbentrop also advised the Fuehrer after the first conference that “the signing of a secret protocol on the delimitation of mutual spheres of interest in the whole Eastern area is contemplated.”

The whole works—the nonaggression treaty and the secret protocol—were signed at a second meeting at the Kremlin later that evening. So easily had the Germans and Russians come to agreement that this convivial session, which lasted into the small hours of the following morning, was taken up mostly not by any hard bargaining but with a warm and friendly discussion of the state of the world, country by country, and with the inevitable, effusive toasts customary at gala gatherings in the Kremlin. A secret German memorandum by a member of the German delegation who was present has recorded the incredible scene.33

To Stalin’s questions about the ambitions of Germany’s partners, Italy and Japan, Ribbentrop gave breezy, reassuring answers. As to England the Soviet dictator and the Nazi Foreign Minister, who was now on his best behavior, found themselves at once in accord. The British military mission in Moscow, Stalin confided to his guest, “had never told the Soviet government what it really wanted.” Ribbentrop responded by emphasizing that Britain had always tried to disrupt good relations between Germany and the Soviet Union. “England is weak,” he boasted, “and wants to let others fight for her presumptuous claim to world dominion.”

“Stalin eagerly concurred,” says the German memorandum, and he remarked: “If England dominated the world, that was due to the stupidity of the other countries that always let themselves be bluffed.”

By this time the Soviet ruler and Hitler’s Foreign Minister were getting along so splendidly that mention of the Anti-Comintern Pact no longer embarrassed them. Ribbentrop explained again that the pact had been directed not against Russia but against the Western democracies. Stalin interposed to remark that “the Anti-Comintern had in fact frightened principally the City of London [i.e., the British financiers] and the English shopkeepers.”

At this juncture, the German memorandum reveals, Ribbentrop felt himself in such good humor at Stalin’s accommodating manner that he even tried to crack a joke or two—a remarkable feat for so humorless a man.

The Reich Foreign Minister [the memorandum continues] remarked jokingly that M. Stalin was surely less frightened by the Anti-Comintern Pact than the City of London and the English shopkeepers. What the German people thought of this matter was evident from a joke, which had originated with the Berliners, well known for their wit and humor, that Stalin will yet join the Anti-Comintern Pact himself.

Finally the Nazi Foreign Minister dwelt on how warmly the German people welcomed an understanding with Russia. “M. Stalin replied,” says the German record, “that he really believed this. The Germans desired peace.”

Such hokum grew worse as the time for toasts arrived.

M. Stalin spontaneously proposed a toast to the Fuehrer:

“I know how much the German nation loves its Fuehrer. I should therefore like to drink to his health.”

M. Molotov drank to the health of the Reich Foreign Minister … MM. Molotov and Stalin drank repeatedly to the Nonaggression Pact, the new era of German–Russian relations, and to the German nation.

The Reich Foreign Minister in turn proposed a toast to M. Stalin, toasts to the Soviet Government, and to a favorable development of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union.

And yet despite such warm exchanges between those who until recently had been such mortal enemies, Stalin appears to have had mental reservations about the Nazis’ keeping the pact. As Ribbentrop was leaving, he took him aside and said, “The Soviet Government take the new pact very seriously. He could guarantee on his word of honor that the Soviet Union would not betray its partner.”

What had the new partners signed?

The published treaty carried an undertaking that neither power would attack the other. Should one of them become “the object of belligerent action” by a third power, the other party would “in no manner lend its support to this Third Power.” Nor would either Germany or Russia “join any grouping of Powers whatsoever which is aimed directly or indirectly at the other Party.”*

Thus Hitler got what he specifically wanted: an immediate agreement by the Soviet Union not to join Britain and France if they honored their treaty obligations to come to the aid of Poland in case she were attacked.*

The price he paid was set down in the “Secret Additional Protocol” to the treaty:

On the occasion of the signature of the Nonaggression Treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union the undersigned plenipotentiaries discussed in strictly confidential conversations the question of the delimitation of their respective spheres of interest in Eastern Europe.

1. In the event of a territorial and political transformation in the territories belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, LatviaLithuania), the northern frontier of Lithuania shall represent the frontier of the spheres of interest both of Germany and the U.S.S.R.

2. In the event of a territorial and political transformation of the territories belonging to the Polish State, the spheres of interest of both Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narew, Vistula and San.

The question whether the interests of both Parties make the maintenance of an independent Polish State appear desirable and how the frontiers of this State should be drawn can be definitely determined only in the course of further political developments.

In any case both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly understanding.

Once again Germany and Russia, as in the days of the German kings and Russian emperors, had agreed to partition Poland. And Hitler had given Stalin a free hand in the eastern Baltic.

Finally, in Southeastern Europe, the Russians emphasized their interest in Bessarabia, which the Soviet Union had lost to Rumania in 1919, and the Germans declared their disinterest in this territory—a concession Ribbentrop later was to regret.

“This protocol,” the document concluded, “will be treated by both parties as strictly secret.”36

As a matter of fact, its contents became known only after the war with the capture of the secret German archives.

On the following day, August 24, while the jubilant Ribbentrop was winging his way back to Berlin, the Allied military missions in Moscow requested to see Voroshilov. Admiral Drax had actually sent an urgent letter to the Marshal requesting his views on the continuation of their talks.

Voroshilov gave them to the British and French military staffs at 1 P.M. the next day, August 25. “In view of the changed political situation,” he said, “no useful purpose can be served in continuing the conversations.”

Two years later, when German troops were pouring into Russia in violation of the pact, Stalin would still justify his odious deal with Hitler, made behind the backs of the Anglo–French military delegations which had come to negotiate in Moscow. “We secured peace for our country for one and a half years,” he boasted in a broadcast to the Russian people on July 3, 1941, “as well as an opportunity of preparing our forces for defense if fascist Germany risked attacking our country in defiance of the pact. This was a definite gain for our country and a loss for fascist Germany.”

But was it? The point has been debated ever since. That the sordid, secret deal gave Stalin the same breathing space—peredyshka—which Czar Alexander I had secured from Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807 and Lenin from the Germans at Brest Litovsk in 1917 was obvious. Within a short time it also gave the Soviet Union an advanced defensive position against Germany beyond the existing Russian frontiers, including bases in the Baltic States and Finland—at the expense of the Poles, Latvians, Estonians and Finns. And most important of all, as the official Soviet History of Diplomacy later emphasized, it assured the Kremlin that if Russia were later attacked by Germany the Western Powers would already be irrevocably committed against the Third Reich and the Soviet Union would not stand alone against the German might as Stalin had feared throughout the summer of 1939.

All this undoubtedly is true. But there is another side to the argument. By the time Hitler got around to attacking Russia, the armies of Poland and France and the British Expeditionary Force on the Continent had been destroyed and Germany had the resources of all of Europe to draw upon and no Western front to tie her hands. All through 1941, 1942 and 1943 Stalin was to complain bitterly that there was no second front in Europe against Germany and that Russia was forced to bear the brunt of containing almost the entire German Army. In 1939–40, there was a Western front to draw off the German forces. And Poland could not have been overrun in a fortnight if the Russians had backed her instead of stabbing her in the back. Moreover, there might not have been any war at all if Hitler had known he must take on Russia as well as Poland, England and France. Even the politically timid German generals, if one can judge from their later testimony at Nuremberg, might have put their foot down against embarking on war against such a formidable coalition. Toward the end of May, according to the French ambassador in Berlin, both Keitel and Brauchitsch had warned Hitler that Germany had little chance of winning a war in which Russia participated on the enemy side.

No statesmen, not even dictators, can foretell the course of events over the long run. It is arguable, as Churchill has argued, that cold-blooded as Stalin’s move was in making a deal with Hitler, it was also “at the moment realistic in a high degree.”37 Stalin’s first and primary consideration, as was that of any other head of government, was his nation’s security. He was convinced in the summer of 1939, as he later told Churchill, that Hitler was going to war. He was determined that Russia should not be maneuvered into the disastrous position of having to face the German Army alone. If a foolproof alliance with the West proved impossible, then why not turn to Hitler, who suddenly was knocking at his door?

By the end of July 1939, Stalin had become convinced, it is obvious, not only that France and Britain did not want a binding alliance but that the objective of the Chamberlain government in Britain was to induce Hitler to make his wars in Eastern Europe. He seems to have been intensely skeptical that Britain would honor its guarantee to Poland any more than France had kept its obligations to Czechoslovakia. And everything that had happened in the West for the past two years tended to increase his suspicions: the rejection by Chamberlain of Soviet proposals, after theAnschluss and after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, for conferences to draw up plans to halt further Nazi aggression; Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich, from which Russia had been excluded; the delays and hesitations of Chamberlain in negotiating a defensive alliance against Germany as the fateful summer days of 1939 ticked by.

One thing was certain—to almost everyone but Chamberlain. The bankruptcy of Anglo–French diplomacy, which had faltered and tottered whenever Hitler made a move, was now complete.* Step by step, the two Western democracies had retreated: when Hitler defied them by declaring conscription in 1935, when he occupied the Rhineland in 1936, when he took Austria in 1938 and in the same year demanded and got the Sudeten-land; and they had sat by weakly when he occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. With the Soviet Union on their side, they still might have dissuaded the German dictator from launching war or, if that failed, have fairly quickly defeated him in an armed conflict. But they had allowed this last opportunity to slip out of their hands. Now, at the worst possible time in the worst possible circumstances, they were committed to come to the aid of Poland when she was attacked.

The recriminations in London and Paris against the double-dealing of Stalin were loud and bitter. The Soviet despot for years had cried out at the “fascist beasts” and called for all peace-loving states to band together to halt Nazi aggression. Now he had made himself an accessory to it. The Kremlin could argue, as it did, that the Soviet Union had only done what Britain and France had done the year before at Munich: bought peace and the time to rearm against Germany at the expense of a small state. If Chamberlain was right and honorable in appeasing Hitler in September 1938 by sacrificing Czechoslovakia, was Stalin wrong and dishonorable in appeasing the Fuehrer a year later at the expense of Poland, which had shunned Soviet help anyway?

Stalin’s cynical and secret deal with Hitler to divide up Poland and to obtain a free hand to gobble up Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Bessarabia was not known outside Berlin and Moscow, but it would soon become evident from Soviet acts, and it would shock most of the world even at this late date. The Russians might say, as they did, that they were only repossessing territories which had been taken away from them at the end of the First World War. But the peoples of these lands were not Russian and had shown no desire to return to Russia. Only force, which the Soviets had eschewed in the heyday of Litvinov, could make them return.

Since joining the League of Nations the Soviet Union had built up a certain moral force as the champion of peace and the leading opponent of fascist aggression. Now that moral capital had been utterly dissipated.

Above all, by assenting to a shoddy deal with Nazi Germany, Stalin had given the signal for the commencement of a war that almost certainly would develop into a world conflict. This he certainly knew.* As things turned out, it was the greatest blunder of his life.

* See p. 523.

* The only source found for what happened at this meeting is in the unpublished diary of General Halder, Chief of the Army General Staff. It is the first entry, August 14, 1939. Halder kept his diary in Gabelsberger shorthand and it is an immensely valuable record of the most confidential military and political goings on in Nazi Germany from August 14, 1939, to September 24, 1942, when he was dismissed from his post. The Obersalzberg entry consists of Halder’s shorthand notes jotted down while Hitler spoke and a summary which he added at the end. It is strange that no American or British publisher has published the Halder diary. The writer had access to the German longhand version of it, transcribed by Halder himself, during the writing of this volume. Hitler’s daily record book confirms the date of this meeting and adds that besides the commanders in chief, Brauchitsch, Goering and Raeder, Dr. Todt, the engineer who built the West Wall, also was present.

* Dahlerus told the Nuremberg tribunal on March 19, 1946, when he was on the stand as a witness for Goering, that the Field Marshal had assured the British businessmen “on his word of honor” that he would do everything in his power to avert war. But Goering’s state of mind at this time may have been more accurately expressed in a statement he made two days after seeing the British visitors. In boasting about the Luftwaffe’s air defenses, he said, “The Ruhr will not be subjected to a single bomb. If an enemy bomber reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Hermann Goering: you can call me Meier!”—a boast he was soon to rue.

* Naujocks had a hand in the “Venlo Incident,” which will be recounted further on. He was involved in an undertaking to disguise German soldiers in Dutch and Belgian frontier guard uniforms at the time of the invasion of the West in May 1940. Early in the war, he managed a section of the S.D. which forged passports and while thus employed proposed “Operation Bernhard,” a fantastic plan to drop forged British banknotes over England. Heydrich eventually tired of him and forced him to serve in the ranks of an S.S. regiment in Russia, where he was wounded. In 1944 Naujocks turned up in Belgium as an economic administrator, but his principal job at that time appears to have been to carry out in Denmark the murder of a number of members of the Danish resistance movement. He probably deserted to the American Army in Belgium to save his neck. In fact, he had a charmed life. Held as a war criminal, he made a dramatic escape from a special camp in Germany for war criminals in 1946 and thus escaped trial. At the time of writing, he has never been apprehended or heard of. An account of his escape is given in Schaumburg-Lippe, Zwischen Krone und Kerker.

* S.S. Oberfuehrer Dr. Mehlhorn, who administered the S.D. under Heydrich. Schellenberg, in his memoirs (The Labyrinth, pp. 48–50), recounts that Mehlhorn told him on August 26 that he had been put in charge of staging the faked attack at Gleiwitz but that Mehlhorn got out of it by feigning illness. Mehlhorn’s stomach grew stronger in later years. During the war he was a notable instigator of Gestapo terror in Poland.

 The submarines sailed between August 19 and 23, the Graf Spee on the twenty-first and the Deutschland on the twenty-fourth.

* The British government soon learned of this. On August 17 Sumner Welles, the U.S. Undersecretary of State, informed the British ambassador in Washington of Molotov’s suggestions to Schulenburg. The American ambassador in Moscow had wired them to Washington the day before and they were deadly accurate.11 Ambassador Steinhardt had seen Molotov on August 16.

* It was signed in Berlin at 2 A.M. on Sunday, August 20.

* No official minutes of Hitler’s harangue have been found, but several records of it, two of them made by high-ranking officers from notes jotted down during the meeting, have come to light. One by Admiral Hermann Boehm, Chief of the High Seas Fleet, was submitted at Nuremberg in Admiral Raeder’s defense and is published in the original German in TMWC, XLI, pp. 16–25. General Halder made voluminous notes in his unique Gabelsberger shorthand, and an English translation of them from his diary entry of August 22 is published in DGFP, VII, pp. 557–59. The chief document of the session used by the prosecution as evidence in the Nuremberg trial was an unsigned memorandum in two parts from the OKW files which were captured by American troops at Saalfelden in the Austrian Tyrol. It is printed in English translation inNC A, III, pp. 581–86 (Nuremberg Document 798-PS), 665–66 (N.D. 1014-PS). and also in DGFP, VII, pp. 200–6. The original German text of the two-part memorandum is, of course, in the TMWC volumes. It makes Hitler’s language somewhat more lively than do Admiral Boehm and General Halder. But all three versions are similar in content and there can be no doubt of their authenticity. At Nuremberg there was some doubt about a fourth account of Hitler’s speech, listed as N.D. C-3 (NCA, VII, pp. 752–54), and though it was referred to in the proceedings the prosecution did not submit it in evidence. While it undoubtedly rings true, it may have been embellished a little by persons who were not present at the meeting at the Berghof. In piecing together Hitler’s remarks I have used the records of Boehm and Halder and the unsigned memorandum submitted at Nuremberg as evidence.

* “Dirty dog.”

 According to the account in Nuremberg Document C-3, (see footnote above, p. 529), Goering jumped up on the table and gave “bloodthirsty thanks and bloody promises. He danced around like a savage. The few doubtful ones remained silent.” This description greatly nettled Goering during an interrogation at Nuremberg on August 28-and 29, 1945. “I dispute the fact that I stood on the table,” Goering said. “I want you to know that the speech was made in the great hall of Hitler’s private house. I did not have the habit of jumping on tables in private homes. That would have been an attitude completely inconsistent with that of a German officer.”

“Well, the fact is,” Colonel John H. Amen, the American interrogator, said at this point, “mat you led the applause after the speech, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but not on the table,” Goering rejoined.27

*“A humiliating experience,” Strang had called it in a dispatch to the Foreign Office on July 20.28

* The timing is important. Molotov did not receive the Nazi proposal that Ribbentrop come to Moscow until the evening of August 15. (See above, p. 520.) And though he did not accept it definitely he did hint that Russia would be interested in a nonaggression pact with Germany, which of course would have made negotiation of a military alliance with France and Britain superfluous. The best conclusion this writer can come to is that, as of August 14, when Voroshilov demanded an “unequivocal answer” to the question of allowing Soviet troops to meet the Germans in Poland, the Kremlin still had an open mind as to which side to join. Unfortunately the Russian documents, which could clear up this crucial question, have not been published. At any rate, Stalin does not seem to have made his final decision until the afternoon of August 19. (See above, p. 526.)

* Lloyd George, in a speech in the Commons on April 3, four days after Chamberlain’s unilateral guarantee to Poland had been announced, had urged the British government to make such a condition. “If we are going in without the help of Russia we are walking into a trap. It is the only country whose armies can get there [to Poland]…. I cannot understand why, before committing ourselves to this tremendous enterprise, we did not secure beforehand the adhesion of Russia … If Russia has not been brought into this matter because of certain feelings the Poles have that they do not want the Russians there, it is for us to declare the conditions, and unless the Poles are prepared to accept the only conditions with which we can successfully help them, the responsibility must be theirs.”

* At a session of the military delegates the morning before, on August 21, Voroshilov had demanded the indefinite adjournment of the talks on the excuse that he and his colleagues would be busy with the autumn maneuvers. To the Anglo–French protests at such a delay the Marshal had answered, “The intentions of the Soviet Delegation were, and still are, to agree on the organization of military co-operation of the armed forces of the three parties … The U.S.S.R., not having a common frontier with Germany, can give help to France, Britain, Poland and Rumania, only on condition that her troops are given rights of passage across Polish and Rumanian territory … The Soviet forces cannot co-operate with the armed forces of Britain and France if they are not allowed onto Polish and Rumanian territory … The Soviet Military Delegation cannot picture to itself how the governments and general staffs of Britain and France, in sending their missions to the U.S.S.R…. could not have given them some directives on such an elementary matter … This can only show that mere are reasons to doubt their desire to come to serious and effective co-operation with the U.S.S.R.”

The logic of the Marshal’s military argument was sound and the failure of the French and especially the British governments to answer it would prove disastrous. But to have repeated it—with all the rest of the statement—on this late date, August 21, when Voroshilov could not have been ignorant of Stalin’s decision of August 19, was deceitful.

* The wording of the essential articles is almost identical to that of a Soviet draft which Molotov handed Schulenburg on August 19 and which Hitler, in his telegram to Stalin, said he accepted. The Russian draft had specified that the nonaggression treaty would be valid only if a “special protocol” were signed simultaneously and made an integral part of the pact.34

According to Friedrich Gaus, who participated at the evening meeting, a high-falutin preamble which Ribbentrop wanted to insert stressing the formation of friendly Soviet–German relations was thrown out at the insistence of Stalin. The Soviet dictator complained that “the Soviet government could not suddenly present to the public assurances of friendship after they had been covered with pails of manure by the Nazi government for six years.”35

* Article VII provided for the treaty to enter into force immediately upon signature. Formal ratification in two such totalitarian states was, to be sure, a mere formality. But it would take a few days. Hitler had insisted on this provision.

* And of Polish diplomacy too. Ambassador Noël reported Foreign Minister Beck’s reaction to the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact in a dispatch to Paris: “Beck is quite unperturbed and does not seem in the slightest worried. He believes that, in substance, very little has changed.”

 Despite many warnings, as we have seen, that Hitler was courting the Kremlin. On June 1, M. Coulondre, the French ambassador in Berlin, had informed Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister, that Russia was looming larger and larger in Hitler’s thoughts. “Hitler will risk war,” Coulondre wrote, “if he does not have to fight Russia. On the other hand, if he knows he has to fight her too he will draw back rather than expose his country, his party and himself to ruin.” The ambassador urged the prompt conclusion of the Anglo–French negotiations in Moscow and advised Paris that the British ambassador in Berlin had made a similar appeal to his government in London. (French Yellow Book, Fr. ed., pp. 180–81.)

On August 15, both Coulondre and Henderson saw Weizsaecker at the Foreign Office. The British ambassador informed London that the State Secretary was confident that the Soviet Union “would in the end join in sharing the Polish spoils.” (British Blue Book, p. 91.) And Coulondre, after his talk with Weizsaecker, wired Paris: “It is necessary at all costs to come to some solution of the Russian talks as soon as possible.” (French Yellow Book, p. 282.)

Throughout June and July, Laurence Steinhardt, the American ambassador in Moscow, had also sent warnings of an impending Soviet–Nazi deal, which President Roosevelt passed on to the British, French and Polish embassies. As early as July 5, when Soviet Ambassador Constantine Oumansky left for a leave in Russia, he carried with him a message from Roosevelt to Stalin “that if his government joined up with Hitler, it was as certain as that the night followed day that as soon as Hitler had conquered France he would turn on Russia.” (Joseph E. Davies, Mission to Moscow, p. 450.) The President’s warning was cabled to Steinhardt with instructions to repeat it to Molotov, which the ambassador did on August 16. (U.S. Diplomatic Papers, 1939, I, pp. 296–99.)

* Years before, Hitler had written prophetically in Mein Kampf: “The very fact of the conclusion of an alliance with Russia embodies a plan for the next war. Its outcome would be the end of Germany.” (See p. 660 of the Houghton Mifflin edition, 1943.)

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