From Confrontation to Conciliation: Origins of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1938–1939

  • Geoffrey Roberts


For nearly 50 years the course of Moscow’s policy towards Germany during the months before the signature of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939 remained something of a mystery. There were available a number of German diplomatic documents on relations between the two states in 1938–9 which shed some light on the origins of the Nazi-Soviet pact. But their reliability as a source of Soviet attitudes and policy was questionable. German reports and memoranda inevitably reflected German assessments of Soviet policy and German objectives in relation to the USSR. These essentially second-hand accounts were balanced on the Soviet side by only a scattering of documents and fragments from Moscow’s archives.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    See God Krizisa, 19381939: Dokumenty i Materialy,2 vols (Moscow, 1990) (hereafter God Krizisa).Extensive extracts from the documents in this collection dealing with Soviet-German relations in 1939 are quoted by V. Ya. Sipols, ‘Za Neskolko Mesyatsev do 23 Avgusta 1939 goda’, Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn(May 1989) (English translation: ‘A Few Months Before August 23, 1939’, International Affairs[Moscow], June 1989). A few of the documents are translated in full in ‘Around the Non-Aggression Pact (Documents of Soviet-German Relations in 1939)’, International Affairs(Moscow), October 1989. Some additional documents of interest were published in Dokumenty Vneshnei Politiki 1939 god(hereafter DVP 1939), 2 vols (Moscow, 1992).Google Scholar
  2. The events leading to the opening up of Soviet archives in 1989–1990 are discussed in G. Roberts, The Unholy Alliance: Stalin’s Pact with Hitler(London, 1989), ch. 2Google Scholar
  3. and T.J. Uldricks, ‘Evolving Soviet View of the Nazi-Soviet Pact’, in R. Frucht (ed.), Labyrinth of Nationalism and Complexities of Diplomacy: Essays in Honor of Charles and Barbara Jelavich(Columbus, OH, 1992).Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    See D. C. Watt’s discussion in his ‘The Initiation of the Negotiations Leading to the Nazi-Soviet Pact: A Historical Problem’, in C. Abramsky (ed.), Essays in Honour of E. H. Carr(London, 1974).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Soviet Peace Efforts on the Eve of World War II(hereafter: Soviet Peace Efforts), part one (Moscow, 1973), doc. 47.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    On Soviet foreign policy in the post-Munich period see Roberts, Unholy Alliance,ch. 6. The relevant Soviet diplomatic correspondence may be consulted in SSSR v Borbe za Mir Nakanune Vtoroi Mirovoi Voiny(Moscow, 1971) (English translation: Soviet Peace Efforts on the Eve of World War II,2 vols [Moscow, 1973]); God Krizisa;and DVP 1939,vol. 1.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    On the cancelled Schnurre trip see D. C. Watt, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War(London, 1989), p. 121Google Scholar
  8. and J. Haslam, The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security in Europe, 1933–1939 (London, 1984), pp. 202–3.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Watt, ‘Initiation of the Negotiations’.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Documents on British Foreign Policy(DBFP), 3rd series, vol. 4, p. 416.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    J. Stalin, Leninism(London, 1940), pp. 619–30.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    For Molotov’s speech see J. Degras (ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy,vol. 3 (Oxford, 1953), pp. 308–11.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    See references in note 4 above.Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    R. J. Sontag and J. S. Beddie (eds), Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939–1941 (New York, 1948) (hereafter NSR), p. 2. A slightly different translation of Merekalov’s statement will be found in Documents on German Foreign Policy(DGFP), series D, vol. 6, doc. 215.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    E.g.Watt, ‘Initiation of the Negotiations’.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    God Krizisa,vol. 1, doc. 252.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 237. See also DGFP,series D, vol. 6, doc. 217.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    God Krizisa,vol. 1, doc. 279.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 236. See also I. Fleischhauer, Pakt: Gitler, Stalin i Initsiativa Germanskoi Diplomatii, 1938–1939 (Moscow, 1991), pp. 126–7 who cites a slightly different text of this report by Astakhov, dated 17 April 1939.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    Watt, How War Came,p. 230.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    NSR, p.13.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    For further exploration of this issue see G. Roberts, ‘Infamous Encounter? The Merekalov-Weizsäcker Meeting of 17 April 1939’, Historical Journal(December 1992). Merekalov was purged following his return to Moscow in April 1939.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    R. Overy and A. Wheatcroft, The Road to War(London, 1989), p. 210.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    The argument concerning Litvinov’s dismissal is pursued in G. Roberts, ‘The Fall of Litvinov: A Revisionist View’, Journal of Contemporary History(October 1992). Some additional documents relevant to this issue were published in DVP 1939,vol. 1, espec. Litvinov’s reports to Stalin in March–April 1939: docs 143, 150, 154, 156, 157, 206, 216, 223, 224, 228, 251, 267, 268.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    A critique of Stalin and Molotov’s stifling of informed discussion on foreign policy was one of the features of early glasnost debates in the USSR on pre-war Soviet foreign policy. See e.g. A. Chubaryan, ‘Was an Earlier Anti-Nazi Coalition Possible?’, World Marxist Review (August 1989).Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 280; NSR,p. 3.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    God Krizisa,vol. 1, doc. 329. Stumm’s report of the meeting is in NSR, pp. 3–4. See also the memoirs of I. F. Filippov, Zapiski o Tretiyem Reikhe(Moscow, 1966), pp. 30–1, who was the Tass journalist being introduced by Astakhov.Google Scholar
  28. 25.
    God Krizisa, vol. 1, doc. 341. Among the rumours Astakhov was referring to in this letter was an AP report of 8 May 1939 that a Russo-German pact was imminent. See Documents Diplomatiques Français(DDF), 2nd series, vol. 16, doc. 105.Google Scholar
  29. 26.
    Astakhov’s report: God Krizisa,vol. 1, doc. 349; also: DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 318 for Astakhov’s short telegram to Moscow on the meeting: Schnurre’s report: NSR,pp. 4–5. According to the God Krizisadocument the meeting took place on 15 May, whereas the telegram in DVP 1939indicates a date of 17 May (the same as that given by Schnurre).Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    God Krizisa,vol. 1, doc. 362. Schulenburg’s account of the meeting is in NSR,pp. 5–9.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
  32. 29.
    God Krizisa,vol. 1, pp. 482–3.Google Scholar
  33. 30.
    DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 342, and ibid., doc. 384 for a longer report by Astakhov of the same meeting. For Weizsäcker’s report see NSR,pp. 15–18.Google Scholar
  34. 31.
    Soviet Peace Efforts,doc. 314.Google Scholar
  35. 32.
    On the German-Soviet economic negotiations see DGFP,series D, vol. 6 passim. Also God Krizisa,vol. 2, docs 388 and 412.Google Scholar
  36. 33.
    NSR, p.21.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Bulgarian foreign policy archives, cited by S. A. Gorlov, ‘Sovetsko-Germanskii Dialog Nakanune Pakta Molotova-Ribbentropa 1939g’, Novaya i Noveishaya Istoriya,no. 4 (1993), 22.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 403.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 369.Google Scholar
  40. 37.
    Ibid., doc. 382.Google Scholar
  41. 38.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 413, and DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 378.Google Scholar
  42. 39.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 442. Schulenburg’s account of the meeting, which puts a more optimistic gloss on it than Molotov’s, is in NSR,pp. 26–30.Google Scholar
  43. 40.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 485.Google Scholar
  44. 41.
    Ibid., docs 494 and 503. See also: DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 431. Also present at the meeting was E. Babarin, Soviet trade representative in Berlin. For Schnurre’s account, which appears to conflate the meetings of the 24th and 26th, see NSR,pp. 32–6.Google Scholar
  45. 42.
    Soviet foreign policy archives, cited by Gorlov, ‘Sovetsko-Germanskii Dialog’, p. 28.Google Scholar
  46. 43.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 510.Google Scholar
  47. 44.
    Ibid., doc. 511. See also Gorlov, ‘Sovetsko-Germanskii Dialog’, pp. 28–9.Google Scholar
  48. 45.
    A.J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War(Harmondsworth, 1964), p. 282.Google Scholar
  49. 46.
    Soviet Peace Efforts,doc. 376. The triple alliance negotiations are dealt with by Roberts, Unholy Alliance,ch. 7.Google Scholar
  50. 47.
    In this connection Alexander Yakovlev’s report on behalf of the special commission on the Nazi-Soviet pact set up by the Congress of People’s Deputies in June 1989 (Pravda,24 December 1989) refers to the Soviet leadership’s access to intelligence information that Germany planned to attack Poland in August/September. One of the sources was the reported remarks of Kleist, a Ribbentrop aide, in early May 1939. These were passed on to Stalin who wrote a note on the report asking for the name of the source. See Izvestiya Tsk KPSS,no. 3 (1990), pp. 216–19. Other remarks by Kleist, apparently from the same source and in the KGB archives, are cited in the notes to DVP 1939. See vol. 2, nn 131, 136, 169.Google Scholar
  51. 48.
    In relation to this last point one should note that in the KGB archives there is a report on remarks made by Kleist (see previous note) in mid-July 1939 in connection with Hitler’s intentions towards the USSR. According to Kleist, Hitler told Ribbentrop that pending the resolution of the dispute with Poland he wanted a new Rapallo, a period of Soviet-German rapprochment and economic co-operation. However, this rapprochement would only be of a temporary character. See DVP 1939,vol. 2, n. 136, p. 559.Google Scholar
  52. 49.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 504. Astakhov’s letter to Potemkin is dated 27 July, but wasn’t received in Moscow until either 29 July (Gorlov,‘Sovetsko-Germanskii Dialog’, p. 28) or 31 July (God Krizisa,vol. 2, p. 139).Google Scholar
  53. 50.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 523, and DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 445, for a longer report by Astakhov on the same meeting. For Ribbentrop’s report of the meeting see NSR,pp. 37–9.Google Scholar
  54. 51.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 525.Google Scholar
  55. 52.
    NSR, p.41.Google Scholar
  56. 53.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 528.Google Scholar
  57. 54.
    On the military negotiations see Roberts, Unholy Alliance,Haslam, The Soviet Union, 19339; M. Jabara Carley, ‘End of the “Low, Dishonest Decade”: Failure of the Anglo-Franco-Soviet Alliance in 1939’, Europe-Asia Studies,45, no. 2 (1993); and Soviet Peace Efforts,docs 315, 316, 317, 327, 328, 339 and 497. Additional documentary information includes the written instructions to the Soviet delegation on the conduct of the negotiations (God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 527) and a briefing document on tactics to be pursued in the negotiations (DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 453). Also of interest are the recollections of Alexander Ponomarev, a Soviet interpreter at the talks: ‘Polkovnik perevel netochno? …’, Novoye Vremya,no. 33 (1989) (English translation in New Times,no. 34 [1989]).Google Scholar
  58. 55.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 529.Google Scholar
  59. 56.
    Ibid., doc. 532.Google Scholar
  60. 57.
    Ibid., doc. 534.Google Scholar
  61. 58.
    Ibid., doc. 540.Google Scholar
  62. 59.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 541. Astakhov was recalled to Moscow in September 1939. He was subsequently purged and died in a labour camp in 1942.Google Scholar
  63. 60.
    DVP 1939,vol. 1, doc. 465.Google Scholar
  64. 61.
    Ibid., doc. 556. For Schulenburg’s report of the meeting see NSR,pp. 52–7. The telegram from the Soviet embassy in Rome at the end of June reporting on the so-called ‘Schulenburg Plan’ is doc. 437 in vol. 2, God Krizisa.The origin of these rumours concerning the Schulenburg Plan appears to have been Hans von Herwarth, Second Secretary of the German embassy in Moscow, who was passing confidential information about Soviet-German discussions to a contact in the Italian embassy. From there it found its way to Rome and then, via the Soviet embassy, back to Moscow. See H. von Herwarth, Against Two Evils(London, 1981), ch. 11.Google Scholar
  65. 62.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 570. Schulenburg’s report is in NSR,pp. 59–61.Google Scholar
  66. 63.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, doc. 572. Schulenburg’s report: NSR,pp. 64–5.Google Scholar
  67. 64.
    God Krizisa,vol. 2, docs 582 and 583. For the German record of the Stalin-Hitler exchanges see NSR,pp. 66–9.Google Scholar
  68. 65.
    On the discussions of 23 August see G. Hilger and A. G. Meyer, The Incompatible Allies: A Memoir-History of Soviet-German Relations 1918–1941(London, 1953), pp. 300–3; the testimony of Ribbentrop and Gaus at the Nuremberg Trials in Trials of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal,vol. 10, pp. 268–9 and 310–13;Google Scholar
  69. A. Read and D. Fisher, The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact 1939–1941(London, 1988), pp. 248–9; and Watt, How War Came,ch. 24. 66. NSR,p. 76.Google Scholar

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© Geoffrey Roberts 1995

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  • Geoffrey Roberts

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