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Special | Molotov-Ribbentrop: Hitler and Stalin’s Pact to Divide Europe

December 17, 2021
On September 22, 1939, the 4th battalion of the Soviet 29th light tank brigade entered the city of Brest-Litovsk. Escorted by German motorcyclists from Hitler’s army, they paraded beneath “Victory Arches” erected for the occasion and decorated with red stars and swastikas
by Vanessa C. Valverde, translated to English by Carlos Sapir
This military parade, jointly supervised by Nazi Army General Heinz Guderian and Soviet Commander Semyon Krivoshein, marked the beginning of the joint nazi-soviet occupation of Poland and bordering territories.
The cooperation between Hitler and Stalin to occupy Poland and divide its territories into their spheres of influence was established by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; a “peace” and cooperation treaty between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR, signed on August 24, 1939.

Parade of the Wehrmacht and Red Army, September 22, 1939

This pact included both public and private provisions, the latter of which were only discovered following the publication of the Nazi German archives when its buildings were captured by Allied forces.
The public provisions established peace between the USSR and Germany for 10 years, during which neither of the states would ally with any states fighting their counterpart.
The USSR also promised to not intervene in the eventual German invasion of Poland and established trade relations between the two countries. Stalin promised to send oil and wheat to Hitler, while Hitler would ship weapons to the Red Army.
But, in its secret clauses, it was decreed that Germany would only occupy half of Poland, west of the River Bug, and that the USSR would annex the other portion. Germany would invade Lithuania, and Stalin’s forces would take Estonia, Latvia, and parts of Romania and Bulgaria.
The cooperation between Stalinism and Nazism would end in 1941, to Stalin’s shock, when Hitler invaded the USSR as part of Operation Barbarossa. Shock and surprise, despite having received intelligence from his agents that precisely this was going to occur.
“Social-fascists”: How socialism in one country helped Hitler take power
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is one of the best known episodes of cooperation between Stalinism and Hitler, but this was merely the continuation of a general policy of alliance between Stalin and conservative Germany.
Even before Hitler’s rise to power, the German Communist Party (KPD), taking orders from the Stalinist bureaucracy, cooperated with the “pro-East” sectors of the German bourgeoisie.
While Trotsky was demoted from People’s Commissar of the Army in 1925, secret arrangements for cooperation between the Red Army and the Reichswehr were already underway. These operations endeavored to rearm and train the German armed forces, building factories, military schools, and joint exercises with the Soviet Army.
The two states operated symbiotically: the Reichswehr received a safe reprieve for its training and rearmament, while the officials of the Red Army received training from their German counterparts.
But this military cooperation would not have been possible without a political framework to support it.
On one hand, Germany wanted to rearm its military, but following its defeat in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles placed limits on its size, territory and types of munitions. Any attempt to rearm within its territory would be easily monitored and blocked by the victors of the last war. Germany’s main goal was to undermine the restrictions placed by Versailles, at a minimum regain the 1914 borders, and compensate its losses with a new partition of Poland.
On the other hand, the USSR needed to rebuild following its devastating civil war. But the primary reasons for the alliance appeared following Lenin’s death in 1924, when Stalin took control of the state, changing its internal policies and those of the 3rd International.
By 1925, Stalin had already proclaimed his intent to build “socialism in one country”, and in 1928 he would initiate his first five-year plan to that effect. Stalin’s Russia thus needed capital and technical assistance to achieve industrialization, as well as military advising to professionalize the Red Army.
Following the consecration of socialism in one country, and even more following the 5th Congress of the 3rd International, the rest of the Communist Parties of the world ceased to be instruments for global revolution, and instead became forces that limited themselves to protecting the interests of the USSR in their home countries.
The German Revolution was defeated in 1919, and following Stalin’s rise to power, the influence of the 3rd International waned in Germany. Thus disorganized, Stalin did not see the need to support communist revolution in Germany, as he could receive the military and economic aid just as easily from conservative Germany.
Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country began to show its true colors, which comprised a defeat of the international working class.
The USSR’s interests in Germany seemed to primarily be under threat by the possibility of a “pro-west” government’s return to power, led by the social-democrats. This threat was underway in 1928, as the social democrats had won a majority in parliament and for the first time in 8 years were heading the German government.
It was at this time that the communists of Germany received direct orders from Moscow: their main enemy was the social democrats, now denounced as “social-fascists”. Under these orders, from 1928 to 1933, the Communist Party of Germany focused all of its forces on the attack against social democracy. Nazism’s rise was a secondary concern, easily tolerated and justified by Stalin’s hopes for treaties with Hitler.
What is certain is that during this period, the German Communist Party organized joint, armed demonstrations together with Nazis in order to attack social-democrat demonstrations and kill their militants.
Trotsky wrote about the dangers of Nazism and fascism from abroad, arguing that the Communist Party should support the social democrats to jointly put an end to Hitler’s rise. But despite the wisdom of his advice, he was unable to stop the application of the Stalinist line.
Thus, the policy of opposition to “social-fascism” was what allowed Hitler and Nazism to triumph in Germany. This entailed defeat of the working class in Germany and the near-immediate persecution and extermination of communist militants alongside the social-democrats.
Even during the first year of Hitler’s government, while he was liquidating the entirety of the German Communist Party, the leaders in the Kremlin felt that thanks to external political pressures they needed to continue to praise the “good faith” of the German government, calling on the Soviet press to maintain a moderate line towards Germany.
Hitler and Stalin: Lebensraum and socialism in one country
Stalin’s support for Hitler over the social-democrats is rationalized by the former’s need to maintain economic and military relations with Germany, which had been established by the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922. Even as the world slid into economic crisis in 1929, the treaties between the two countries kept their economies stable and afloat.
But Hitler had no intention to preserve this alliance for the long term. Since the publication of Mein Kampf, his political manifesto, he had declared his intent to conquer Russia to create “Lebensraum”, a policy of eastern colonization. By subjugating the peoples of Russia and stealing their resources, he would be able to establish his “Herrenrasse” (master race).

Stalin and Ribbentrop at the Kremlin

Hitler was capable of committing the cruelest of actions in order to win his Lebensraum, and Stalin was able to do the same to defend his goal of “socialism in one country”.
Although Hitler was clear from the beginning that he considered Stalin to be an obstacle for his long-term plan, he was happy to propose a temporary alliance that would allow him to better reorganize his military and plan the conquest. Stalin, on the other hand, far from having prepared a “grand strategy against Nazism” as his apologists now claim, placed his trust in Hitler’s “good intentions” and did nothing to prepare the fight against Nazism.
Hitler conceived of three phases for his Lebensraum strategy: first, to “free Germany from Versailles’ chains”, i.e. to prepare Germany for war; then, to expand the “Reich” with the population of Germans who lived outside of Germany’s borders, and finally to advance towards Russia directly. This last goal would provide a front for a military assault, which at the time was blocked by a string of countries between their borders, including Poland.
The invasion of Poland was perhaps the most delicate part of this plan, as a military occupation would inevitably lead to war with France and the UK. A two-front war (in the west against France and the UK and in the east against Russia) was not ideal for the Nazi government. Thus, Hitler made Stalin a generous deal: 10 years of peace, the partition of Poland, and a thick buffer between the USSR and the west. Hitler exhibited the generosity of someone who knows that they will soon recover their losses.
The true winner of this pact was Hitler. Far from renouncing his goal of destroying the USSR and subjugating its peoples, he simply bought himself time enough to fight the war in the west before starting his main assault against the USSR.
And what about Stalin? Explanations abound regarding the short-sightedness of Stalin’s policies, but they had their own justification. The Stalinist bureaucracy leading the USSR was looking to protect its material privileges, to maintain the status quo that would allow such privileges. In 1939, Stalin was sitting in what could be considered a privileged position: both the UK and Germany were offering him an alliance.
An alliance with France and the UK could potentially have defeated Hitler, but Stalin did not want war, as it would threaten the privileges of the Soviet bureaucracy. Thus, Stalin maintained dialogue with both factions, and ultimately decided to align with Hitler, as he offered to not only divide Europe but to provide economic collaboration and armaments, which would allow the Stalinist government to consolidate its recent conquests of weaker states.
The compromising, defeatist, and chauvinist attitudes of the Stalinist bureaucracy resulted in them abetting the expansion of Nazism bit by bit, betraying the peoples of the USSR to a life of slavery.
On top of this, it needs to be noted that in 1939 the Red Army’s fighting force was comparable to that of Germany, enough to fight it alongside the rest of the countries opposed to Germany. However, the Red Army was being actively weakened, and had been since the beginning of the bloodthirsty purges in 1937 that depleted the country’s military cadre. The purges liquidated 10 Vice-Commissars of the People’s Defense, 2 Commissars of the People’s Navy, 4 Aviation Commanders, 3 out of 5 Field Marshalls, 13 out of 15 Army Generals, 8 out of 9 Admirals, 50 out of 57 commanders of the army and 154 out of 186 division commanders.
The majority of those killed by Stalinism were accused of being Trotskyists or Nazi collaborators, or both things at once. In 1935, the Military Council of the Defense Commissariat was made up of 85 officials with combat experience from World War I and the Russian Civil War. From this group, 68 were executed by firing squad, 2 committed suicide, 2 died in prison, and 4 were condemned to long sentences of forced labor.
In as little as 2 years, 45,000 officials and commissars were arrested. From this number, 15,000 were executed.
What is certain is that thanks to the Hitler-Stalin pact, Nazi Germany was able to grow its military capacity while the USSR was weakening itself. In 1941, following the conquest of 10 European countries, Germany had increased its production of arms by 75% over 1939, as well as massively increasing its production of mining, petroleum, and other resources.
The “Supreme Commander” flees in the face of Barbarossa
On June 22, 1941, at 3 AM, 153 of Hitler’s brigades crossed the River Bug. This was Operation Barbarossa, which mobilized 2,700 planes, 3,000 tanks, 600,000 horses and 4 million soldiers. The largest invasion force in the history of warfare, Hitler was hoping to deal a quick and final blow to the workers’ state.
This operation should not have been a surprise for Stalin, as Soviet secret agents in Germany and Japan had obtained plans for the invasion down to the finest detail. They knew the time and date of the attack, as the Soviet secret service’s German operations, under the command of Leopold Trepper, counted the stenographer of the German high command among its informants.

German advance into the USSR, June 1941

Despite this information, the attack caught the Red Army off guard. Stalin had not believed his agents’ reports, preferring to believe his “ally” instead. When the attack began, the “Supreme Commander” hid for 10 days, leaving the Red Army leaderless and without any plan for defending itself from the Nazi attack.
In the first three weeks of war, the USSR lost 3,500 planes, 6,000 tanks, and 20,000 artillery pieces. After one month, the Germans had suffered 97,200 casualties to the Soviets’ 350,000; the Germans had captured 819,000 Soviet soldiers compared to the Soviets’ capture of 5,335 German soldiers.
Stalin emerged from hiding 11 days after the beginning of the German assault. By radio, he announced to the people of the USSR:
“All soviet citizens should defend every centimeter of ground, to fight until the last drop of blood, with the initiative and audacity of our people”.
That is when the true resistance against Nazism began. Not thanks to Stalin, but thanks to the Soviet people, whose masses did bravely fight “to the last drop of blood”. Despite their leader’s betrayal and the repression that left the Red Army disarmed, the people of the USSR succeeded in their fight against Nazism.
The turning point of the war was at Stalingrad. On August 2, 1942, the Germans had surrounded the city with nearly 300,000 soldiers. Meanwhile, one million Soviet soldiers, conscripts without fighting experience who had only recently been drafted into the Red Army, surrounded the German forces. The battle lasted 5 months, until February 5, 1943.
26 million Soviets lost their lives during this war, and the USSR suffered terrible destruction across the country. A military alliance between the USSR and the Western Allies came late, but even once it was in force it was not the sole factor in Hitler’s defeat.
The people’s resistance despite and against Stalinism
The myopia of the Stalinist bureaucracy meant that they failed to anticipate that the peoples of Europe would rise up and fight against Nazism. That the Soviet, British, and US soldiers would fight ferociously, and that the people would rise up and support these soldiers. That in the USSR people would fight on the front lines to defend the workers’ state, and that they would organize partisan cells in occupied zones, and that every country would soon have its own anti-Nazi resistance movement.
Once Hitler was defeated, Stalin, standing alongside his new friends Churchill and Roosevelt, portrayed himself as the principal leader in the fight against Nazism. A fight that had been won by the people, despite the myopia and the treason committed by its leader.
When the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were published following the fall of Nazi Germany, Stalinists claimed that they were fabrications. For decades, they claimed that these were lies invented by the capitalists to “discredit Stalin’s efforts” against Nazism.
This was the history taught in the schools of the USSR, and repeated ad nauseam by the various Communist Parties of the world until the anti-bureaucratic protests of the 1980s. On the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, activists organized the “Baltic chain” demanding the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the end to the occupation. 1.5 million people stood shoulder to shoulder across more than 600 kilometers, connecting the three Baltic capitals of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.
The struggle of the peoples of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania continued, now against the weight of Stalinist authoritarianism. Despite being a peaceful protest, it was repressed by the state. Nevertheless, the struggle continued, and the USSR ended up acknowledging the factual reality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact’s secret history.
Following his return to Moscow after the war, Leopold Trepper reported to his supervisor for his next assignment. The former secret agent, who had risked his life to identify the exact date and time of the German assault, interrupted his superior to ask why nothing had been done to prepare Soviet defenses in light of his intelligence.
Trepper received no response and was deported to Siberia for 10 years until 1955. The “Supreme Commander” Stalin could not stand anyone questioning his role as heroic defender of the people of the Soviet Union.
Original article published here.

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