25: German-Soviet Relations


Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941: Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office edited by Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddie

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Member Episode 25 - Documents on Nazi-Soviet Relations. This continues our investigation into primary source documents on various different topics from before the Second World War. This episode our documents come to us courtesy of Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddie who edited Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941: Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office. The book collects documents from April 1939 until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Ware are going to focus just on the events between April 1939 and the signing of the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. One of the things I found interesting about the documents featured in the book is that they started off with the somewhat bland topic of the economic agreements that had been made between the Skoda Works in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Skoda had been a major supplier of some hard to get items like armor plate and other metallurgical items before the war, exporting their products to many nations including the Soviet Union. Here is State Secretary in the German Foreign Office Weizsäcker on April 17, 1939 “The Russian Ambassador visited me today-for the first time since he took up his post here [1]-for a conversation on practical matters. He dwelt at length on a subject which he said was of particular interest to him: namely, the fulfillment of certain contracts for war materiel by the Skoda Works. Although the items involved are manifestly rather insignificant, the Ambassador regarded the fulfillment of the contracts as a test, to determine whether, in accordance with a recent statement by Director Wiehl [Head of the Commercial Policy Division of the German Foreign Office.] to him, we were really willing to cultivate and expand our economic relations with Russia. The matter of these supply contracts is being looked into elsewhere.” This topic would then prove to be a gateway into other conversations, as discussed in this Foreign Office Memorandum on May 5, 1939 “This afternoon I asked the Soviet Chargé, Counselor of Embassy Astakhov, to come to see me and informed him that we had agreed, as requested by his Ambassador on April 17, to carry out the Soviet supply contracts with the Skoda Works. Appropriate instructions had already been given. I asked him to inform his Government of this. Counselor of Embassy Astakhov was visibly gratified at this declaration and stressed the fact that for the Soviet Government the material side of the question was not of as great importance as the question of principle. He inquired whether we would not soon resume the negotiations which had been broken off in February. To this I replied that I could not yet give him any answer to that, as the examination of the numerous problems which the last Russian answer had raised was not yet completed.”

After the more mundane topics of trade relations were sorted out, the two governments would go on a lengthy serious of conversations as they slowly circled around coming to some kind of agreement. On June 29th the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union, Schulenburg, “I described to Molotov the impressions which I had gained from talk with influential personalities in Berlin, particularly with the Reich Foreign Minister. I pointed out that we would welcome a normalization of the relations between Germany and Soviet Russia, as the State Secretary had stated to the Soviet Chargé in Berlin. For this we had furnished a number of proofs, such as reserve in the German press, conclusion of the non-aggression treaties with the Baltic countries and desire for resumption of economic negotiations. From all this it was evident that Germany did not have any bad intentions toward the Soviet Union, particularly since the Berlin Treaty was still in force. We, on the German side, would continue to take advantage of any opportunity to prove our goodwill. However, we had had no answer from the Soviet Union to the question of what Molotov meant in his last conversation with me by “creation of a new basis of our relationship” [“Schaffung einer Neuregelung der Basis”]. We also objected to the attitude of the Soviet press.My impression is that the Soviet Government is greatly interested in knowing our political views and in maintaining contact with us. Although a strong distrust was evident in everything that Molotov said, nevertheless he described normalization of relations with Germany as desirable and possible.” Then he would provide another update in August 4th “M. answered point by point at some length. He stated that the Soviet Government had always desired the conclusion of an economic agreement and if a like desire existed on the German side, he considered the prospects for realization of an economic agreement as entirely favorable. So far as the attitude of the Soviet press was concerned, he considered our reproaches-with some exceptions-unjustified. But he took the stand that the press of both countries must desist from anything that might tend to exacerbate their relations. He considered the gradual resumption of cultural relations necessary and expedient and believed that a gratifying start had already been made toward improvement. Going on to the question of political relations, M. declared that the Soviet Government also desired normalization and improvement of mutual relations. It was not its fault that relations had so deteriorated. The reason for this he saw, firstly, in the conclusion of the Anti-Comintern Pact and in everything that had been said and done in this connection. To my objection that the Anti-Comintern Pact was not directed against the Soviet Union and had been designated by M. himself on May 31st as an alliance against the Western democracies M. said that the Anti-Comintern Pact had nevertheless encouraged the aggressive attitude of Japan toward the Soviet Union. In the second place, Germany had supported Japan, and thirdly, the German Government had repeatedly shown that it would not participate in any international conferences in which the Soviet Union participated. M. cited the meeting in Munich as an example. I answered M. in detail, stressing that it was not a matter of discussing the past but of finding new ways.”

Would would then happen throughout early August was the German Foreign Office tried to determine what the Soviet views were on relations with Germany through discussions with the Soviet Charge de Affairs Astakhov. Here are some pieces of a Foreign Office Memorandum from August 10th: “We had wished that Molotov would let us know his basic attitude in regard to the status of Soviet interests in order to facilitate further conversations and had believed that it was premature for us to discuss concrete problems so long as we did not know exactly the interests of the Soviets.” Of very immediate concern, with the Polish invasion planned for later in August, was the topic of Poland “But, in any event, one question was quite ripe, namely Poland. The Polish delusion of grandeur, shielded by England, drove Poland constantly to new provocations. We were still hoping that Poland would somehow come to reason, so that a peaceful solution could be found. Failing this, it was possible that, against our will and against our desires, a solution by force of arms would have to take place. If, as we had now done on various occasions, we had declared ourselves willing to enter upon a large-scale adjustment of mutual interests with Moscow, it was important for us to know the position of the Soviet Government on the question of Poland.” But there was also some concern that after the Germans were very clear about their intentions there would be some kind of military agreement reached between Moscow, London, and Paris, for which conversations were known to be occurring in Moscow. What the Germans did not know is that the three nations were very far apart, mostly due to there being some hesitancy in the British and French governments, and the Soviet government very clearly feeling that hesitancy. But this friction was not known in Berlin and so the Memorandum would continue: “These were therefore questions that were of interest to us at this stage of our conversations, and upon them depended, after all, the prospects of achieving a German-Soviet understanding: in the first place, then, the attitude of the Soviet Union on the Polish question, and, in the second place, the objectives that Moscow was pursuing in the military discussions with England and France.” During this feeling out period Astakhov could often only discuss his own views “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 course of the conversation, however, he went quite extensively into both subjects on his own accord. The negotiations with England had begun at a time when there had still been no sign of a disposition on the part of Germany to come to an understanding. The negotiations had been entered upon without much enthusiasm, but they had to conduct them because they had to protect themselves against the German threat and had to accept assistance where-ever it was offered. To be sure, the situation had changed since the conversations with Germany had started.”

On August 14th the push towards further negotiation got a large nudge on the German side with a letter from Ribbentrop to the German ambassador in Moscow, which through 6 different topics outlined why Germany and the Soviet Union should enter into negotiations to come to some kind of agreement. The first point makes clear that the German government did not consider the differences in politics to be a roadblock “The ideological contradictions between National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union were in past years the sole reason why Germany and the U.S.S.R. stood opposed to each other in two separate and hostile camps. The developments of the recent period seem to show that differing world outlooks do not prohibit a reasonable relationship between the two states, and the restoration of cooperation of a new and friendly type. The period of opposition in foreign policy can be brought to an end once and for all and the way lies open for a new sort of future for both countries.” I then like point 2 because, while it presents the argument differently, to me it reads like the German government is clearly trying to convey that the two nations can come to an agreement on how to carve up Eastern Europe: “There exist no real conflicts of interest between Germany and the U.S.S.R. The living spaces of Germany and the U.S.S.R. touch each other, but in their natural requirements they do not conflict. Thus there is lacking all cause for an aggressive attitude on the part of one country against the other. Germany has no aggressive intentions against the U.S.S.R. 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. Among these are such questions as: the Baltic Sea, the Baltic area, Poland, Southeastern questions, etc. In such matters political cooperation between the two countries can have only a beneficial effect. The same applies to German and Soviet economy, which can be expanded in any direction.” I will skip points 3 and 4, which are mostly just empty words discussing German-Soviet relations. Then Point 5 calls back to something that had been an important part of Soviet planning off and on since the Revolution, which was the idea that the Western Democracies were trying to bring the Soviet Union into a war with Germany, or any other nation, to try and weaken its power. This belief had waned during the late 1930s as the Soviet Union had made it a point to try and build up relations with nations to combat the rising power of Germany, but the fear that those in London and Paris were just as interested in weakening the Soviet Union as they were in trying to fight Germany never went away “The Reich Government and the Soviet Government must, judging from all experience, count it as certain that the capitalistic Western democracies are the unforgiving enemies of both National Socialist Germany and of the U.S.S.R. They are today trying again, by the conclusion of a military alliance, to drive the U.S.S.R. into the war against Germany. In 1914 this policy had disastrous results for Russia. It is the compelling interest of both countries to avoid for all future time the destruction of Germany and of the U.S.S.R., which would profit only the Western democracies.” Then point 6 is a call to action “The crisis which has been produced in German-Polish relations by English policy, as well as English agitation for war and the attempts at an alliance which are bound up with that policy, make a speedy clarification of German-Russian relations desirable. Otherwise these matters, without any German initiative, might take a turn which would deprive both Governments of the possibility of restoring German-Soviet friendship and possibly of clearing up jointly the territorial questions of Eastern Europe. The leadership in both countries should, therefore not allow the situation to drift, but should take action at the proper time. It would be fatal if, through mutual lack of knowledge of views and intentions our peoples should be finally driven asunder.”

While the two governments were trying to come to an agreement, there was just one small problem, Germany had an alliance with Japan, and at the very moment that these conversations were happening the Red Army was in a lengthy struggle with the Japanese Army at Nomonhan, which we recently covered on the podcast. The reaction of Japan to the discussions that were occurring was a topic that was discussed in June 1939, in this message from the German Ambassador in Moscow to the Foreign Office in Berlin: “It is obvious that Japan would not like to see even the smallest agreement between us and the Soviet Union. The less our pressure becomes upon the western boundary of Russia, the stronger the might of the Soviet Union will make itself felt in Eastern Asia. The Italians really ought to welcome a German-Russian arrangement; they themselves have always avoided clashing with Moscow, and the Reich could take a stronger stand toward France if Poland were kept in check by the Soviet Union, thus relieving our eastern boundary. If the Italians nevertheless are “pretty reserved,” the reason may be that they are not pleased to see the importance of the Reich within the Axis increase through an improvement in German-Soviet relations and the resulting automatic increase in our power.” Then in August a more direct conversation would occur between Molotov and the German Ambassador, which would be relayed to Berlin on August 15: “In this connection, he was interested in the question of how the German Government was disposed to the idea of concluding a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and further, whether the German Government was prepared to influence Japan for the purpose of improvement in Soviet-Japanese relations and settlement of border conflicts and whether a possible joint guarantee of the Baltic States was contemplated by Germany.”

German efforts to conclude some kind of agreement became far more urgent as the days slipped away in August and the impending invasion of Poland grew ever closer. To try and move things along as quickly as possible, the proposal would be made on August 16th for Ribbentrop to fly to Moscow on August 16th, with the German Ambassador in Moscow told: “The Führer is of the opinion that, in view of the present situation, and of the possibility of the occurrence any day of serious incidents (please at this point explain to Herr Molotov that Germany is determined not to endure Polish provocation indefinitely), a basic and rapid clarification of German-Russian relations and the mutual adjustment of the pressing questions are desirable. For these reasons the Reich Foreign Minister declares that he is prepared to come by plane to Moscow at any time after Friday, August 18, to deal on the basis of full powers from the Führer with the entire complex of German-Russian questions and. if the occasion arises [gegebenenfalls], to sign the appropriate treaties.” This was not the typical way that these kinds of agreements were reached, with lengthy discussions before people like Foreign Ministers got involved, but the Germans were pressed for time. In this case it was the perfect suggestion though, if only because the British and French had done the exact opposite, as outlined in this note from the German Ambassador back to Berlin on August 18th: “With regard to the proposed trip of the Reich Foreign Minister to Moscow, he declared that the Soviet Government was very gratified by this proposal, since the dispatch of such a distinguished public figure and statesman emphasized the earnestness of the intentions of the German Government. This stood in noteworthy contrast to England, who, in the person of Strang, had sent only an official of the second class to Moscow. A journey by the Reich Foreign Minister, however, required thorough preparation. The Soviet Government did not like the publicity that such a journey would cause. They preferred that practical work be accomplished without so much ceremony. To my remark that it was precisely by the journey of the Reich Foreign Minister that the practical goal could be speedily reached, Molotov countered that the Soviet Government nevertheless preferred the other way in which the first step had already been taken.” An immediate response was sent back to Moscow stating “We were, therefore, now asking for an immediate reaction to the proposal made in the supplementary instruction regarding my immediate departure for Moscow. Please add in this connection that I would come with full powers from the Führer, authorizing me to settle fully and conclusively the total complex of problems.”

After Ribbentrop travelled to Moscow things got going very quickly, on August 19th the Soviets would give the German ambassador a draft copy of a nonaggression pact, which the German government would agree to in principle on August 20th. Ribbentrop still wanted to go to Moscow, and would travel there on August 22nd, carrying with him this note to make it clear he had the authority to agree to what was being discussed: “I hereby grant full power to negotiate, in the name of the German Reich, with authorized representatives of the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, regarding a non-aggression treaty, as well as all related questions, and if occasion arises, to sign both the non-aggression treaty and other agreements resulting from the negotiations, with the proviso that this treaty and these agreements shall enter into force as soon as they are signed.” On the 23rd the conversation was done to the very final details, with Ribbentrop writing back to Berlin to get approval on some small pieces that needed to be altered and a notification that a secret piece of the treaty, the delineation of Eastern Europe, was also being discussed: “Please advise the Führer at once that the first three-hour conference with Stalin and Molotov has just ended. At the discussion- which, moreover, proceeded affirmatively in our sense-it transpired that the decisive point for the final result is the demand of the Russians that we recognize the ports of Libau and Windau as within their sphere of influence. I would be grateful for confirmation before 8 o’clock German time that the Führer is in agreement, The signing of a secret protocol on delimitation of mutual spheres of influence in the whole eastern area is contemplated, for which I declared myself ready in principle.” The response from Hitler was a simple “yes, Agreed”. The treaty would then be signed that same day on August 23rd. I won’t be reading out the full agreement here, because it will be featured on an upcoming episode of the podcast, which should be released at roughly the exact same time as this.