107: Gonna Take it Right Into the Danger Zone


On August 23rd an important step would be taken that would completely shift the balance of power in Europe: Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a nonaggression pact.


  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • The Rome-Berlin Axis, 1936-1940. Myth and Reality by D.C. Watt
  • France and the Nazi Threat by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle
  • Mussolini and the Origins of the Second World War, 1933-1940 by Robert Mallett
  • The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War Edited by Williamson Murray, Macgregor Knox, Alvin Bernstein
  • The Balkan Pact and Its Immediate Implications for the Balkan States, 1930-34 by Mustafa Türkeş
  • La Grande Illusion: Belgian and Dutch Strategy Facing Germany, 1919-May 1940 (Part 1) by Jeffery A. Gunsburg
  • Depression Decade Crisis: Social Democracy and Planisme in Belgium and the Netherlands, 1929-1939 by Erik Hansen
  • Fascist Italy and the Middle East, 1933-40 by Nir Arielli
  • Geopolitics and Domestic Politics: Greece’s Policy Towards the Great Powers During the Unravelling of the Inter-War Order, 1934-1936 by Sotiris Rizas
  • The Reversal of Belgian Foreign Policy, 1936-1937 by Pierre Henri Laurent (1969)
  • The Shadows of Total War: Europe, East Asia, and the United States 1919-1939 Edited by Roger Chickering and Stig Forster
  • Rearmament and Economic Recovery in the Late 1930s by Mark Thomas
  • Preparing for War: Naval Education Between the World Wars by Professor Douglas V. Smith
  • Naval Radar by Norman Friedman
  • Regia Marina: Italian Battleships of World War Two by Erminio Bagnasco and Mark Grossman
  • A Century of Replenishment at Sea by Commander John A. Lukacs IV
  • When Dreams Confront Reality: Replenishment at Sea in the Era of Coal by Warwick Brown
  • Military Innovation in the Interwar Period Edited by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 107 - Highway to the Danger Zone - Gonna Take It Right Into the Danger Zone. This week a big thank you goes out to Bart, James, and Christopher for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can head over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. The guarantee provided to Poland by the British government in the spring of 1939 was not the only agreement that would be reached in the months before the war. As we discussed last episode there were discussions between the British, French, and Soviet governments with the goal of creating some kind of mutual assistance pact, discussions that never really went anywhere. The lethargic nature of those talks can be traced back to the lack of urgency shown by the Western governments when it came to getting the pact in place and the Soviet assistance that any agreement could only be signed after meaningful military planning had taken place. What would not be lethargic was Germany’s attempt in August 1939 to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. In this we will look at those efforts, the discussions that were occurring among Hitler and the German military at the same time that their diplomatic overtures were being made, the reaction of other nations to the announcement of the non-aggression pact, and finally the last attempts near the end of August 1939 to defuse the tension between Germany and Poland. We start with another nation which was very interested in the actions of Germany in the summer of 1939, Italy.

Italy had signed the pact of steel with Germany on May 22, 1939 and this kicked off a very lively summer for the Italian foreign minister Ciano as he had discussions with the German government whose decisions had the possibility of pulling Italy into a war. These discussions would escalate in urgency as relations between Germany and Poland continued to deteriorate over the course of the summer. During these talks Ciano and the Italians were always pushing for some kind of peaceful solution, which almost certainly would have required an international conference between Italy, Germany, France, and Britain. On July 26th this type of solution was proposed to Hitler by Ciano, with the German leader not really seeing such peaceful options as a viable path forward. The real key to this mindset, which would be communicated very bluntly to Ciano in August, was that Hitler firmly believed that if he went to war with Poland France and Britain would not enter the conflict, regardless of whatever their agreements with Poland might be. Ciano believed that there was no chance that Germany could keep a Polish conflict localized, but during multiple meeting spanning August 11-13 with both Ribbentrop and Hitler it was reiterated multiple times that France and Britain would not fight. To quote from Ciano’s account, when he pressed this issue with Hitler, the response would be from Hitler that “I personally, am absolutely convinced that the Western democracies will, in the last resort, recoil from unleashing a general war.” Ciano would write in his diary after his last meeting with Hitler on August 13th: “I return to Rome completely disgusted with the Germans, with their leader, with their way of doing things. They have betrayed us and lied to us. Now they are dragging us into an adventure which we have not wanted and which might compromise the regime and the country as a whole.” Obviously in these personal notes that he was taking, Ciano was a bit harsher in his words than any official Italian communication. Unfortunately for the Italian government their desires for a delay in the start of a war would have little impact on German decision making. And to be clear the Italian government was not concerned about a war starting in general, just that it was starting too soon.

In the area of German foreign relations, of much greater importance during August 1939 were the discussions that would occur between the German government and the Soviet Union. Relations between the two nations had been improving over the course of the summer of 1939, after they had greatly deteriorated after Hitler had come to power in 1933. The idea of a more formal agreement between the two governments, if only of an economic nature, would begin to be discussed during the spring of 1939 shortly after the Germans had invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, because the Soviet government was concerned about some contracts that had been signed with Skoda, the armament firm, and whether or not their products would still be delivered. By August these conversations were becoming targeted, due to the impending schedule for the invasion of Poland. On August 10th German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop would meet with the Soviet Charge de Affairs Astakhov in Berlin for a wide ranging discussion on German-Soviet relations. Here is a small excerpt from the summary written up by the German Foreign Ministry: " I could again assure Herr Astakhov, as I had already done on various occasions, that, even in the event of a solution by force of arms, German interests in Poland were quite limited. They did not at all need to collide with Soviet interests of any kind, but we had to know those interests. If the motive behind the negotiations conducted by Moscow with England was the feeling of being threatened by Germany in the event of a German-Polish conflict, we for our part were prepared to give the Soviet Union every assurance desired, which would surely carry more weight than support by England, which could never become effective in Eastern Europe. Astakhov was keenly interested, but naturally had no instructions of any kind from Moscow to discuss the subject of Poland or the subject of the negotiations in Moscow.". In the two weeks between when that meeting with Astakhov occurred and when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed there would be a flurry of communications between Berlin and Moscow. The first stage of communication mostly revolved around the German government making it very clear that it wanted to sign an agreement, and was very serious about signing one in the immediate future. On August 14th the German Ambassador in Moscow was told to meet with Molotov and make it clear that the German government did not believe that the ideological differences between the two governments were a problem, and that there was no real geographic cause for problems, in a precursor to the later sphere of influence agreements “The Reich Government is of the opinion that there is no question between the Baltic and the Black Seas which cannot be settled to the complete satisfaction of both countries.” When this message was received very well, and Molotov indicated that the Soviet government was interested in further discussions Ribbentrop offered to fly to Moscow within days to conclude discussions. It was proposed that he would come not just quickly, but with full diplomatic powers to sort out any kind of disagreement. You can contrast this with the low level functionaries sent from London and Paris, and on a slow boat, just a few weeks earlier, and you can do this because the Soviets absolutely did. The Soviet response to the suggestion that Ribbentrop fly to Moscow was basically to pump the breaks, like you would a relationship that was accelerating too fast. Instead of just jumping directly into negotiations at the Foreign Minister level, the Soviets instead drafted a nonaggression pact that they gave to the German Ambassador to get approval of the document as the basis for negotiations. Even this happened quite quickly, and was communicated on August 19th, just one day after Ribbentrop’s offer to fly to Moscow. Just two days later Ribbentrop would be on a flight to Moscow, with full powers of agreement on behalf of the German government. There were a few small disagreements that had to be ironed out, but these were in the smallest of details, primarily around the spheres of influence granted to both nations, an example would be the Soviets wanting the city of Libau, or Liepaja in modern day Latvia, which amounted to a very small adjustment in the grand scheme of the territorial discussions occurring between Ribbentrop and Molotov. Then on the 23rd the agreement was official. In just a few moments will be a full reading through the 7 articles of the agreement, which essentially just say that the nations were signing a nonaggression pact, and they agreed not to directly or indirectly go to war. The seven articles seem pretty standard to me when it comes to the wording of nonaggression agreements during the 1930s. What is far more interesting is the Secret Protocol attached to the treaty. The secret protocol functioned in a similar way to what was attached to the British and Polish guarantee, it said the things clearly and unequivocally that could not be so clearly spelled out in the public text. Most importantly it clearly spelled out the boundaries of the various spheres of influence, with the Baltic states, and the boundaries placed within the nation of Poland should it be carved up. It is probably worth mentioning here that the Soviet Union would officially deny that they had signed any Secret Protocol with Germany at this time, and this denial would only be reversed in the late 1980s. I bring up this topic because if you do go out there on the internet, you can still find sources that predate the official recognition of the protocol and then the later publishing of the full text of the agreement signed by the Soviet government. In those older sources you can often find denials of the secret protocols, of even claims that it was some kind of Western hoax created during the Cold War. As far as I know there is no denial of the existence of the protocols, just a debate about the morality of their signature, which I will let you decide for yourself.

Article I. Both High Contracting Parties obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other Powers. 

Article II. Should one of the High Contracting Parties become the object of belligerent action by a third Power, the other High Contracting Party shall in no manner lend its support to this third Power. 

Article III. The Governments of the two High Contracting Parties shall in the future maintain continual contact with one another for the purpose of consultation in order to exchange information on problems affecting their common interests. 

Article IV. Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties neither shall participate in any grouping of Powers whatsoever that is directly or indirectly aimed at the other party.

Article V. Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties over problems of one kind or another, both parties shall settle these disputes or conflicts exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions. 

Article VI. The present Treaty is concluded for a period of ten years, with the proviso that, in so far as one of the High Contracting Parties does not advance it one year prior to the expiration of this period, the validity of this Treaty shall automatically be extended for another five years. 

Article VII. The present treaty shall be ratified within the shortest possible time. The ratifications shall be exchanged in Berlin. The Agreement shall enter into force as soon as it is signed.

Secret Protocol

Article I. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilna area is recognized by each party. 

Article II. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San. The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish States and how such a state should be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of further political developments. In any event both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly agreement. 

Article III. With regard to Southeastern Europe attention is called by the Soviet side to its interest in Bessarabia. The German side declares its complete political disinterest in these areas. 

Article IV. This protocol shall be treated by both parties as strictly secret.


The reason that the German government was so motivated to get an agreement signed as soon as possible came down to the fact that the date for the invasion of Poland was very rapidly approaching. The German military spent the second half of August frantically preparing for the invasion and trying to put in place defensive preparations in Western Germany just in case France and Britain did decide to go to war. For example on the 19th, a week before the initial date for the invasion, the German Navy were given orders to sail, and as a reminder Ribbentrop had originally wanted to fly to Moscow on August 18th, and would actually do so only on the 22nd. So the negotiations with Moscow were occurring simultaneously as what amounted to war orders were being sent out to the German military. This also meant that the agreement did not necessarily change any plans for the German invasion, as they were already made before negotiations even started. In London the announcement of the nonaggression pact was concerning to say the least. The British government knew that Ribbentrop had traveled to Moscow but they were surprised by the quick turn around on an agreement. It would prompt the passage of an Emergency Powers Bill and some mobilization measures to be taken on August 24th, that is how serious it was considered. The British Ambassador Henderson would be sent with a letter to deliver to Hitler. He was not thrilled with the message, and Henderson would relay to London that it threw Hitler into a violent rage, with threats involved that Britain should not get involved in German Polish relations. On August 25th when the two met again the conversation was very different, with Hitler taking a very conciliatory tone, saying that much like with the Soviet Union the British and German governments could surely come to some kind of agreement. Hitler even believed that the agreement between the two nations could go further, and not just be in the form of nonaggression but also a mutual assistance pact. He also offered a guarantee that Germany would not in anyway interfere with the British Empire. What seems clear from these discussions is that Hitler was hoping that Chamberlain and the British government could be tempted by the same fruit that had been offered to Stalin and the Soviet government, with Germany claiming that they would stay away from a certain area and given the other nation free reign in that region. This rested on one major miscalculation, a simple underestimation of how important to British interests the British government considered the stability of the continent of Europe. The domination of Europe by one power, even one with agreements signed with London, was not seen as being in the interesting of the British Empire. It was a concentration of resources that, even if it did not involve an immediate war, would give a single nation far more resources than could be mustered by the British. And Hitler and the German government had also very clearly shown that they would not honor agreements, which did not help their case at all. Ambassador Henderson would write to London late on the 25th with his notes on the conversation: “Conversation lasted an hour, my attitude being that Russian Pact in no way altered standpoint of His Majesty’s Government, and that I must tell him quite honestly that Britain could not go back on her word to Poland and that I knew his offer would not be considered unless it meant a negotiated settlement of the Polish question. Herr Hitler refused to guarantee this on grounds that Polish provocation might at any moment render German intervention to protect German nationals inevitable. I again and again returned to this point but always got the same answer.” Even with the British rejection of these discussions on the 25th there would still be some shred of belief by Hitler that he would still be presented with the opportunity to gain a negotiated settlement with London and Paris, even after a Polish invasion was launched. During this time most of Hitler’s attention was focused on Britain, instead of on France. French Prime Minister Daladier had earlier written to Hitler that “If the blood of France and of Germany flows again, as it did twenty-five years ago, in a longer and even more murderous war, each of the two peoples will fight with confidence in its own victory, but the most certain victors will be the forces of destruction and barbarism.” Then on August 26th another letter would be sent to Daladier, re-emphasizing that France would fight in defense of Poland, and that it would lead to a long and bloody war. But such letters would have no effect on Hitler or his plans. One gets the feeling that Hitler judged that British actions would dictate those of France, which as we have discussed during the Munich Crisis episodes was not the worst assumption that Hitler made during August 1939. On August 24th an important step was taken and the rest of British and French nonofficial civilians were evacuated from Germany, and on the 25th German citizens had been asked to leave Britain, France, and Poland immediately. During all of this time military preparations continued on the German-Polish border. The Polish and German troops were in relatively close proximity for days before the invasion actually began. Orders were sent to Polish troops to not take any offensive action against German actions, as outlined in a note from the French ambassador in Warsaw on August 28th “THE Polish troops have received orders from Marshal Rydz-Smigly not to reply to any German provocation. Their task is to drive back any incursions into Polish territory but to take strict care not to cross the frontier.” Also on the 28th Henderson would again meet with Hitler, bringing with him another communication from the British government which once again restated that it would go to war if it had to, but was open to negotiations. Henderson would record that “Herr Hitler continued to argue that Poland could never be reasonable: she had England and France behind her, and imagined that even if she were beaten she would later recover, thanks to their help, more than she might lose. He spoke of annihilating Poland. I said that reminded me of similar talk last year of annihilation of the Czechs. He retorted that we were incapable of inducing Poland to be reasonable. I said that it was just because we remembered the experience of Czecho-Slovakia last year that we hesitated to press Poland too far to-day. Nevertheless, we reserved to ourselves the right to form our own judgment as to what was or what was not reasonable so far as Poland or Germany were concerned. We kept our hands free in that respect.” But in the official German response to these conversations, the response was much more measured, and they pulled on a string that was provided. The German government now claimed that it was ready to negotiate directly with the Polish government. But the key was they wanted a representative of the Polish government dispatched to Berlin within 24 hours, and that representative had to have full powers to agree to anything that was signed. This was the German tactic used on multiple different occasion over the previous 2 years which basically boiled down to getting a foreign leader into a room with Hitler and then letting Hitler or Ribbentrop threaten them enough to get an agreement. It had happened to Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania. Polish foreign minister Beck was far less interested in such an adventure. I think we will stop here for this week. I hope you will join me next episode our a bit of an interwar reflection episode. We will discuss the first 107 episodes, why they are important, and some of the more important lessons that can be learned from the study of the interwar period.