On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany began its war of extermination against the Soviet Union, displacing and killing millions. The date also marks the beginning of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Russian-based historian and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Shveitser, analyses the geopolitical situation preceding the German attack.
Abstract: The article analyses the Soviet-German relations of the interwar period. It emphasises the fact that after the Munich Agreements of September 1938, Germany outlined its strategy of pressure on countries that were part of the "Drang nach Osten" concept. The victims of this strategy in 1938-1939 were Czechoslovakia and Poland – the countries lost their statehood. In spring and summer of 1939, Britain and France deemed it possible to reconsider the discreditable for them Hitler’s "appeasement" policy and were ready to join the USSR in the search for ways to prevent Hitler’s expansion. However, the inconsistent and contradictory nature of such "change of milestones" reinforced the position of the Soviet leadership in favour of the agreement with Germany. Subsequent events – up to June 22, 1941, showed the unreliability of agreements with the Nazism, facilitated Germany’s fleeting victory over Poland and France, and placed Great Britain in isolation conditions. The treachery of the Hitler attack on the USSR did not remove the historical guilt from the Soviet leadership for the failure to prepare for the military confrontation with fascism and for the colossal human and territorial losses of the first phase of the war.
The Twists of Geopolitics
The Munich Conference in September 1938 demonstrated the power structure of the European geopolitics of the time. The Versailles system had been on the verge of collapse, and Czechoslovakia, deprived of its statehood six months later, was not its only casualty. The elaborate "policy of appeasement" devised by the West had shown its complete failure in dealing with aggressive Hitlerism. Leadership in the European affairs, which Great Britain and France had in the 1920s and the mid-1930s, moved to the hands of Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’. From the autumn of 1938, the Nazis began to implement in phases what had been identified in the ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1924 and became the alpha and the omega of German foreign policy after their assumption of power. At the same time, the Nazis used a carrot-and-stick approach and were ready to temporarily share a part of their gains with those who shared their ideological and political methods. The most striking example here was the collapse of Czechoslovakia, where Poland and Hungary were also involved. As a result, on March 15, 1939, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was annexed by the ‘Reich’. At Hitler’s behest, Slovakia became a supposedly independent state, the Teschen Silesia region moved to Poland, and the Zakarpattia to Hungary. In February 1939, the latter joined the Anti-Comintern Pact concluded between Germany and Japan in November 1936. In March 1939, Germany, having put a strong pressure on Lithuania, implemented another "historic" project – it acquired Klaipeda called Memel by the Germans.
More difficult for Germany to implement was its long-standing plan for the return of Gdansk, or Danzig in the German version. Hitler failed to solve this problem from the outset, nor did he gain control of the "Polish corridor" that divided the main part of Germany from East Prussia. Moreover, Poland, unlike Hungary, did not join the Anti-Comintern Pact. Poland reasonably believed that this move could dramatically complicate relations with its eastern neighbour – the USSR, and in future, could exclude support from the British and the French. After the Germans seized Czechoslovakia, these countries finally realised that Hitler had deceived them in Munich. It was from March 1939 that the transition from the policy of appeasement to a search for a joint resistance to Berlin’s aggressive plans began. In essence, this transition, full of understatements and contradictions, continued until the outbreak of World War II.
In order to understand the complexity, internal and external contradictions that arose in early 1939, we should refer to the overview contained in the report of I.V. Stalin at the 18th Congress of the CPSU on the 10 March 1939 [Stalin, 1952: 604-614]. He noted the beginning, albeit on a limited scale, of the "Second imperialist War" [Stalin, 1952: 607]. The seizure of Abissinia by Italy, the German-Italian intervention in Spain, and the outbreak of Japanese military actions against China were identified as the most important elements of this process. The report also referred to the seizure of Austria by Germany and the annexation of the Sudeten region from Czechoslovakia. Germany, said Stalin, "demands the expansion of its territories in Europe, the return of the colonies" [Stalin, 1952: 607]. The formation of the block of three aggressive states – Germany, Italy, and Japan – took place. All of this did not meet any resistance from "non-aggressive democratic States" which allowed some condoning the above-mentioned aggressive actions of the "Troika". Stalin listed as the "non-aggressive states", first of all England, France, and the United States.
What circumstances contributed to the successes of the aggressor? The leader of the USSR believed that they were not stronger than the "non-aggressive states". On the contrary, non-aggressive democratic states taken together remained undeniably stronger than the fascist states, both economically and militarily. However, Stalin believed, they did not initiate military confrontation with fascism partly because of fear that the large-scale war could result in revolutionary events in their own states, as was the case in Russia after the end of the First World War [Stalin, 1952: 609].
Stalin reproached the "non-aggressive West" for rejecting the policy of collective security proposed by the USSR in the mid-1930s and replaced by the "policy of non-intervention", which ultimately contributed to fascism. Moreover, in Stalin’s opinion, the West believed Germany, who convinced the "non-aggressive states" in its principle anti-Soviet line disguised as "anti-Comintern" [Stalin, 1952: 608]. On the other hand, the western press, according to Stalin, spread rumours about Germany’s plans to seize Soviet Ukraine. "It looks like this suspicious noise was intended to infuriate the Soviet Union against Germany, poison the atmosphere and provoke a conflict with Germany without any apparent reason" [Stalin, 1952: 611]. Developing this highly sensitive subject, Stalin did not exclude that "there are lunatics" in Germany capable of adopting such an algorithm of decision-making. At the same time, he did not exclude the presence of normal people in the Third Reich who did not seek to go in the eastern direction, which was pointed to Germany by the West. Returning to the topic of Munich collusion, Stalin suggested that "the Germans received the areas of Czechoslovakia as a price for the commitment to start war with the Soviet Union" [Stalin, 1952: 611]. In fact, having recognised the extreme fragility and contradictions of the evolving international situation, Stalin in his report pointed out the well-known treaty obligations of the USSR with France and Czechoslovakia, as well as Mongolia and China. At the same time, he confined himself to stating the general principles of the Soviet foreign policy.
In the final part of the report on the international situation, the attention of the delegates of the XVIII Congress of the CPSU focused on such directions of the Soviet foreign policy as "strengthening business ties with all countries", "peaceful, close and good-neighbourly relations with all the countries that have a common border with the USSR". Support was expressed for the "victims of aggression". One of the tasks of the party was the observance of caution to prevent the "provocateurs of war" from drawing the USSR into conflicts [Stalin, 1952: 613-614]. In essence, the last instruction to the party, based on the aforesaid, was addressed equally to the "non-aggressive West" that was pushing Germany towards a military conflict with the USSR. Stalin sufficiently clearly identified the "concept of equidistance" from both the fascist aggressors in Europe and Asia, and from "non-aggressive democrats" on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the sequence of European events in the spring of 1939 shifted previously identified accents.
Change of Guidelines
By mid-March 1939, both the USSR and Great Britain with France began to sound out the topic of resistance to the eventual Hitler’s aggression, the main object of which could have become Poland. The movement in this direction began on both sides. On March 18, 1939, the British Government requested Moscow to agree to sign a joint declaration of Great Britain, France, the USSR and Poland against possible aggression, with subsequent consultations. For its part, the Soviet Government, although stating in the relevant note, that "such a declaration does not solve the issue", nevertheless saw in it the first step in the resistance to Hitlerism [History of Diplomacy, 1945: 673].
Acting in a constructive manner, the Soviet Union added to the initiative of Great Britain its own proposal to convene an immediate meeting, where the participation of Romania would be most desirable. On March 19, M.M. Litvinov, the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, proposed to invite Turkey as well. Let us note that the British draft included the obligations for the Governments concerned to "immediately report on the steps to be taken for general resistance" [White Stains, 2010: 143]. In response to the British initiative, Litvinov made an important reservation on the possibility of the Soviet signature under the declaration only if Poland signed it. However, Warsaw did not sign the document, apparently fearing the negative reaction of Berlin, which the Poles considered could have given Hitler a reason for aggressive action. Six months later, it became apparent that Germany could resort to such action, in its most extreme form – the war, without an appeal to any agreements of Poland with other countries. The plan of the attack on Poland (‘Fall Weiss’) was prepared by the Wehrmacht in mid-April 1939 and approved by Hitler. In truth, the accompanying document stated that the aim behind the Fall Weiss was not the beginning of the pan-European military action, but only the isolation of Poland from its Western allies. Hitler annulled the 1934 pact on "non-recourse to force" and on the same day, on April 28, terminated the Anglo-German naval agreement of June 18, 1935. At the same time, he referred to the British guarantees to Poland in the event of aggression against it by an unnamed country [History of Diplomacy, 1945: 674, 675; White Stains, 2010: 145,146]. Indeed, on April 6, Great Britain and Poland concluded an agreement on mutual assistance. A week later, on April 13, the guarantees were given to Romania and Greece. France also promised guarantees of independence to the aforesaid countries.
Britain invited the USSR to enter a limited security system for Poland and Romania. On April 17, Moscow put forward a counter-proposal to conclude the Troika Pact of the USSR, Great Britain and France. To develop this initiative, the USSR proposed the following scheme: a treaty of the three powers, plus a military convention, plus the provision of guarantees to all countries from the Baltic to the Black Seas. However, London delayed with the response. For their part, the English pointed out the importance of permanent contacts at the level of officials of the relevant agencies, as well as through the embassies in Moscow, London, and Paris.
A new unexpected factor in the way of reaching agreements between the three European powers was the resignation of Litvinov from his post of the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs on May 3, 1939. Serious contradictions in the position of Litvinov and his immediate chief Molotov, the Chairman of The Council of People’s Commissars emerged at the meeting on the foreign policy issues in the Kremlin on April 21. A famous Russian researcher of foreign policy M.M. Narinsky notes in this regard:
"Litvinov’s policy oriented towards an alliance with England and France was severely criticized. The head of the Government Molotov emphasised the need to find alternative solutions to improve the foreign policy of the USSR, including considering the possibilities of improving relations with Hitler’s Germany" [White Stains, 2010: 147].
Litvinov was accused of disloyalty to the Council of People’s Commissars and was released "on his own will" from the duties of the People’s Commissar. His place was taken by Molotov. According to the memoirs of the then Ambassador of the USSR to London I.M. Mayskij, in Europe Litvinov’s resignation was "a great sensation and interpreted as a change of the foreign policy of the USSR" [May, 1987: 396]. At that time, Mayskij denied such assumptions, stating to the head of the Foreign Ministry of England Lord Halifax that "the proposals we made on April 17 retain their validity" [Majskij, 1987: 396].
Another evidence of changes in the direction of the USSR’s foreign policy was the withdrawal from Berlin of the then Soviet Ambassador A.F. Merkalov, who enjoyed the full confidence of Litvinov. The interim attorney in the affairs G.A. Astakhov took his place. It was he, whom a few months later, Ribbentrop informed about the possibility of concluding a treaty between the two countries concerning many aspects of their relations. Litvinov’s resignation had another important point. Stalin obviously believed that Litvinov being a Jew could not create confidence of the anti-Semitic leadership of Germany. However, the main reason was the need to transfer the foreign policy of the USSR to a man who was ready to deal pragmatically, rather than ideologically, with a situation in which the threat of a new war was becoming more real.
Hot summer of 1939
The last decade of May 1939 was marked by important events in Europe. On May 22, Germany and Italy signed an agreement on synchronicity of action in the event of an external danger. Five days later, Britain and France proposed to the USSR a new version of the three-way agreement on mutual assistance against aggression. Molotov agreed with this concept in principle, but saw no guarantees for the neighbouring with USSR Baltic States.
His views on the whole range of problems related to a possible "triple union", Molotov elaborated in his report on foreign policy at the third session of the Supreme Council of the USSR on May 31, 1939. His reasoning was as follows:
"It would be an agreement of a purely defensive nature against an attack by the aggressors and fundamentally different from the military and offensive alliance that had recently been concluded between Germany and Italy" [History of Diplomacy, 1945: 683].
A stumbling block for the "triple union", for the new People’s Commissar (aka the Chairman of the CPC), was the principle of reciprocity and equal responsibilities that had not yet been traced back to the proposals of Great Britain and France. Especially, in the reaction to it from Poland, Romania and the Baltic States. An important point in Molotov’s report is his opinion, according to which, "while negotiating with England and France, we do not believe it necessary to abandon the business ties with countries such as Germany and Italy" [History of Diplomacy, 1945: 683, 684].
It would be a great simplification to see in the last phrase only an attempt to balance the assessment of the new treaty between Germany and Italy previously expressed in the report. In fact, the sounding of the German direction began much earlier. Of course, during the Litvinov period of work as the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, it looked as an attempt to revive economic and trade relations. Initiated by Germany, negotiations on this topic had been happening since the beginning of 1938. Litvinov believed that Germany wished to have an extra trump card in the game with the Anglo-French opponents by replacing the political proposals with the economic scenarios for the time being. Variations on the topic of improvement of relations between the USSR and Germany were also noted on April 17, 1939, during the conversation of the then plenipotentiary in Berlin A.F. Merkalov with E. von Weizsäcker, the State Secretary of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latter, although he recognised that both countries had "contradictions of ideological order", but in his opinion, Germany wanted to develop economic relations with the USSR. The changes in the German politics had not escaped the attention of the interim attorney G.A. Astakhov, who replaced A.F. Merkalov. In a letter to Molotov dated June 14, 1939, he noted that "the pro-soviet (with certain reservations) manoeuvre of the German politics in the last two months was conceived somewhat deeper than it might have been thought at the beginning" [White Stains, 2010: 151].
Soon after, the purely economic plot of the "new course" in the relations between Moscow and Berlin had seamlessly transferred into the sphere of politics. In truth, the Soviet leadership did not try to force the events while having at its disposal the developing process of negotiations with Great Britain and France. Their key issue was going to be a military convention obliging the signatories to come to the assistance to each other in the event of aggressive actions from a third party. However, it was only on July 25, when the English and the French accepted the proposal of the Soviet Government to send their military missions to Moscow for negotiations. It is noteworthy that the status of the participants in the negotiating process had not been clarified. As a result, "second division" military representatives arrived in the USSR, who, as it became clear later, had no powers to sign agreements of a practical nature. Their visit to Moscow was extremely inexpedient, and the negotiations themselves began only on August 12. It should be noted, that the appointed main participant of the negotiations from the Soviet side was the People’s Commissar of Defence K.E. Voroshilov.
An unfruitful outcome of the event was pre-determined. The key issue – the contact of the Soviet troops with the aggressor with whom they had no common border, unlike France (the land border) and Great Britain (the maritime border), could only have been resolved by the non-participating Poland. The latter feared that the guarantee of the passage for the Soviet troops through its territory would make war with Germany inevitable. The head of the Soviet delegation People’s Commissar Voroshilov considered the differences that arose to be the main reason for the failure of the negotiations. However, it is hard to deny the logical connection of the military negotiations in Moscow concluding early (on August 22) and the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact between the USSR and Germany on August 23 [History of Diplomacy, 1945: 686].
The German political leadership closely followed the slow downturn of the "union of three". Strategically, it gradually moved towards the main objective – the military action against Poland, which was not going to forego Danzig or the "Polish corridor". At the same time, the Germans, while declaring the possibility of agreement with the USSR, constantly intrigued the Soviet leadership with the possibility of an agreement with Britain. The meetings of the British and the Germans were not conducted at a high level, but the participants were closely linked to the leadership of their countries. For example, in July 1939, the meeting of the International Whaling Commission was held in London, and among the participants, there was a certain H. Wohlthat, someone close to Gering. He also met with the British Minister of Commerce, R. Hudson and the very influential in the London circles J. H. Wilson. Upon his return from London, Wohlthat reported on the results of the meetings to Gering and Ribbentrop, informing them that the English were not interested in the solution of the "Polish problem" with the assistance of the USSR [Bezymenskij, 1972: 113-119]. Let us note, that the Germans consciously allowed the leak of information on the contacts between the representatives of Germany and Britain. Through the intelligence channels this was almost immediately known to the Soviet leadership and further reinforced its mistrust of London.
In reviewing the suspenseful situation of the summer of 1939, the indirect impact on it of such large geopolitical players as the United States and Japan ought to be mentioned. According to the testimony of P.A. Sudoplatov, one of the leaders of the Soviet foreign intelligence of the time, an active part in the establishment of the anti-German bloc was plaid by the President of the United States F. Roosevelt. The American leader encouraged Chamberlain to enter into negotiations with the European partners of Great Britain, including the Soviet Union, with the aim of deterring Hitler.
"Our sources reported that the British Government had clearly been reluctant in taking up the American initiative, therefore Roosevelt had to put pressure on the British to force them to negotiate with the Soviets to elaborate military measures to counteract Hitler" [Sudoplatov, 1996: 79].
Japan also had its interests in relation to the European situation of the summer of 1939. It enjoyed the support of the English during this tense period, following their special agreement "granting Tokyo freedom of hand in China" [Putin, 2020: 5].
Having entered into military contact with the USSR in the Far East, Japan expected that USSR would enter into the military conflict with Germany and thus weaken its Far East flank. The Japanese emissaries in Berlin spoke directly to the German leadership that excessive peacekeeping could damage the Anti-Comintern Pact, which consolidated the strategic interests of Germany and the Land of the Rising Sun. It is obvious that the Soviet leadership had the opposite view, and one of the motives of the Non-Aggression Treaty of August 23 was the avoidance of the "dual-front" option of the forthcoming events. For his part, Hitler, until the signing of this document, was not confident in the neutral attitude of the USSR to the war with Poland, believing that Stalin, in a convenient case, could deploy troops into the territory of the former part of the Russian Empire. It should be stressed: the Wehrmacht and Abver leadership warned their Commander of the insidious nature of his Soviet counterpart, believing that the simultaneous war on both the western and the eastern front would be devastating for Germany [Volkov, Slavin, 1999: 339, 354]. The German military did not exclude the possibility of reviewing the time of the implementation of the Fall Weiss plan unless the USSR is guaranteed to be neutralised by the time set for the invasion of Poland.
In the context of the alarming mistrust towards each other, Germany and the USSR began the "breakthrough phase" of their mutual relations. The most important date in this process was the August 3, when simultaneously Ribbentrop met with Astakhov in Berlin, and Molotov met with F. von der Schulenburg in Moscow. According to the German side, the era of "political contradictions" ended and, in the words of Ribbentrop, "it is possible to exchange views in a more specific order" [White Stains, 2010: 153]. Molotov retained his inherent caution putting the emphasis on the priority solution of the mutually beneficial trade and credit problems in the framework of the Berlin negotiations. Astakhov in his correspondence with Molotov noted the scepticism of the Germans about the meetings of the military delegations of the USSR, England and France announced in early August. In this context, the Germans considered it "conceivable to enter a known agreement … to neutralise us in the event of war with Poland" [White Stains, 2010: 153]. The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union expressed a very unambiguous stance on this subject. It stated its decision of August 11 that it would be desirable to "enter into the formal discussion of the issues raised by the Germans and to inform Berlin of this" [White Stains, 2010: 156].
The format of the possible agreements was now put to the forefront. In the continuous consultation with Stalin, Molotov submitted to the German side a proposal to conclude the Non-Aggression Pact, which was accompanied by a protocol document covering the likely situational implications of this joint document [White Stains, 2010: 156]. It was the annex, not the Pact itself, which was harmful in terms of the international legal doctrine and became the subject of intense discussions. The draft pact with the protocol document were transferred to F. von Schulenburg, were slightly adjusted in Berlin and signed in Moscow on August 23. For this purpose, Ribbentrop arrived to the Soviet capital from Berlin.
The treaty itself (see clause 1) not only excluded the possibility of the military conflict between the USSR and Germany, but also the actions of this kind "together with other States". Clause 2 excluded the possibility of supporting an external aggressor by the signatories of the treaty. Clause 4 clarified the exceptions set out in Clause 2 for the signatories to participate in the "alliance of States directly or indirectly oriented against the other party". Clauses 3 and 5 contained in the most general form efforts for consultations, exchange of information "affecting their common interests". The treaty accepted the emergence of "disputes or conflicts", which were to be resolved in a friendly manner of exchange of views [History of Diplomacy, 1945: 689, 690].
If the Treaty itself did not go beyond the generally accepted framework of the international legal instruments of this kind and was part of the bilateral relations, the content of the secret protocol to it was precisely linked to the geopolitical interests of the USSR and Germany, first of all, based on the emerging inevitable military conflict between Germany and Poland. In fact, Poland was indirectly denoted as the object of aggression, since, at the insistence of the German party, the Soviet reservation concerning the non-support of the initiator of the military actions by the signatories of the treaty was removed from Clause 2. In this way, Germany informally notified the USSR of its nearest plans.
Everything in the secret protocol was said in a sufficiently targeted manner. "The division of spheres of interest of the two countries in the event of the territorial and political reorganisation of the regions of the Polish State" was identified. The independence of the latter, as the borders thereof, were also assigned to the process of "further political development" [White Stains, 2010: 157]. As it became clear after June 22, 1941, the long common border with Russia gave an obvious military-strategic advantage to the multi-million Wehrmacht troops. Essentially, the border was along the Curzon Line. It followed from the protocol that the territorial and political restructuring of the constituent regions of the Baltic States were also on the horizon. Germany generously ceded to the sphere of interests of the USSR not only the eastern part of Poland, but also the then Romanian Bessarabia, as well as the Baltic States and Finland. As it soon became apparent, all of this was the basis of the subsequent territorial accession of the Baltic States and Bessarabia to the USSR and the preceding Winter War (1939-1940) with Finland.
Over the next decades, the Soviet-German treaty and the secret protocols have become the subject of intense political debates. Let us recall that Stalin in his radio speech on July 3, 1941 distorted the sequence of events: he insisted that the Non-Aggression Pact, which the Soviet Union could not refuse, was proposed by Germany. Nor was Stalin troubled by the fact that the "peacekeepers" were led by such, in his words, "villains and cannibals, like Hitler and Ribbentrop". Naturally, Stalin did not even hint at the existence of the secret protocol, the content of which was precisely contrary to Stalin’s words on the possibility of a peace agreement, provided that it "… does not undermine, directly or indirectly, the territorial integrity, independence and the honour of the peace-loving State" [Diplomatic Dictionary, 1950: 699-700].
An objective assessment of both the Pact and the protocol thereof was made only at the time of the departure of the Soviet authority. According to the statement of President Putin, "… the Soviet Union made a legal and moral assessment of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact". In the decision of December 24, 1989 by Supreme Soviet, the secret protocols were formally condemned as "an act of personal authority that did not reflect the will of the Soviet people, who are not responsible for this collusion" [Putin, 2020: 7]. Let us note, that as a geopolitical act, the Pact and its protocols categorically contradicted the principles of sovereignty and independence of a whole group of countries.
With all the negative attitude towards these documents, they cannot be considered the main impetus for the Second World War, which began on September 1, 1939. However, this is the way the European Commission interprets them in the statement released for the 80th anniversary of the Pact. Using the metaphor of the said statement, the "black page" in the European history were, first of all, the Munich Agreements of 1938, that gave the "green light" to the Hitler’s aggression in Europe. Although they did no honours to the Soviet leadership, in no way could the Pact and the protocols be tantamount to the beginning of the war against Poland, which was the next step for Germany in the implementation of its aggressive plans.
From War to War
The events of September 1, 1939 were quite expected. Having staged a provocation on the border with Poland, the Germans declared a war, in which the allied with Warsaw London and Paris joined nominally rather than in reality. For the USSR, the beginning of the continental war was quite predictable. V.A. Nikonov cites a reference from the diary of G. Dimitrov, who reproduced a part of the conversation with Stalin in his entry of 7 September. The latter clearly expected that the war would weaken all its participants: "It would be good if the situation of the richest capitalist countries got shaken at the hands of Germany" [Nikonov, 2014: 606]. The USSR clearly did not rush to take part in carving up the Polish land. The leadership of the country was aware that military invasion into the territory of the neighbouring State without declaring war would objectively reduce the international prestige of the Soviet Union. However, Berlin was constantly making proposals to Moscow to act in the spirit of the recent agreements.
The Soviet leaders – Molotov in this case – for their part, pointed out to the Germans that hasty action could "facilitate cohesion of the opponents" [Nikonov, 2014: 606]. This wording can also be interpreted as a hint to the support of Poland by England and France. Only after the Polish Government had fled the country, which absolutely demoralised the Polish army, the Soviet troops entered the territory of the neighbouring State and occupied the part of its territory marked in the secret protocol. This was recorded in the new Soviet-German Boundary and Friendship Treaty of September 28, 1939. Its secret protocol finally defined the new border established after the contact of the two armies [Putin, 2020: 10].
Developing the strategy outlined in the secret protocol, the USSR proposed mutual assistance pacts to the Baltic States. This, in fact, signified the penultimate step towards their occupation, as it envisaged the accommodation in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania of not only the Soviet military bases but also the military contingents. In the summer of 1940, the Baltic States witnessed the "people’s revolution" and became part of the USSR. In the same year of 1940, Bessarabia and Bukowina were included in the USSR as part of the new formation – the Moldavian SSR. The situation was more difficult with making Finland a Soviet state, which was also part of the sphere of influence of the USSR according to the protocol. Firstly, the Government of that country did not agree to the exchange of territories requested by Moscow. Secondly, in the winter of 1939-1940 the Finnish army showed sustained resistance to the Soviet troops. As a result, only on March 12, 1940, the USSR achieved the desired result, moving the border from Leningrad to a considerable distance. In addition to the large human losses, this "winter war" seriously damaged the prestige of the Soviet Union, which was expelled from the League of Nations on December 14, 1939. In the beginning of 1940, France and England were ready to send an expedition corps to assist the Finns, which clearly indicated that restoration of even a purely business relationship with the USSR was unrealistic. For its part, in the months of the "winter war", Germany with the help of the military intelligence was able to determine the real possibilities of the Red Army. Hitler and the Wehrmacht leadership became firmly convinced that the USSR would not withstand clashes with the German troops. At the end of 1940, this confidence translated into the Operation Barbarossa plan. The invasion of the Soviet Union became Hitler’s next goal.
This goal became even more real in May – June 1940, when France was defeated and the British Corps struggled to evacuate to the homeland through the English Channel. It is natural that the USSR, bound by the agreements of August 23, 1939, did not in any way indicate its interest in the other development of events. Moreover, Moscow was clearly not pleased with the information relating to the early 1940 about the possible Anglo-French bombings of the Baku oil industries, which was linked to the supply of strategically important petroleum products from the Soviet State to Germany. It can be assumed that Abwehr deliberately planted various evidence of the possible actions of England and France from the territory of their mandated territories – Iraq and Syria.
The actual defeat of England in the "summer war" with Germany in 1940 and the deterioration of the Anglo-Soviet relations associated with the Finnish campaign by the Red Army in 1939-1940, as well as the rumours of possible bombings of the Baku oil industries, opened up to Hitler the prospects of finding new arrangements with Stalin. This would ultimately impede the restoration of relations between London and Moscow. In this regard, great hopes were placed on Molotov’s visit to Berlin, which took place on 10-12 November 1940. The key moment of the meeting between the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs and Hitler was Führer’s proposal to replace the triple pact of Germany, Italy and Japan with a coalition, which would include the Soviet Union in addition to the French Collaborationists and the Spanish Francists. Hitler did not hide that it concerned the preparation of the division of the British Empire. It was proposed that after the military victory over Great Britain, the Soviet Union was to include Iran and India in the sphere of its influence, and to establish control of the Black Sea Straits.
The proposals were clearly unexpected for Molotov; he promised to discuss them with the Soviet leadership. However, the Kremlin was not ready for such prospects. As counter-proposals, the Soviet diplomacy put forward a number of clearly unrealisable preconditions [Nikonov, 2014: 610]. It was expected that Berlin would reject the Soviet demand for the withdrawal of the German troops from Finland, which appeared there in 1940 without consultation with the USSR, and oppose to the Soviet-Bulgarian Mutual Assistance Pact and the establishment of the Soviet naval base in the Black Sea Straits. The USSR’s position ought to be explained not only by the complication of the Soviet-German relations after the German victories in 1940, but also by the certain advances made by Britain, where the office of W. Churchill, more favourable to the USSR, came to power. Churchill himself, in the opinion of the Russian President V.V. Putin, was among the "responsible, far-sighted politicians" [Putin, 2020: 12]. Stalin’s refusal to the plans for "carving-up" the British Empire played a positive role for the future allied relations of the USSR and Britain.
Unsuccessful in its plans for destroying the prospects of anti-Hitler cooperation, Germany firmly took the course to prepare for the war against the USSR. On December 18, 1940, Hitler signed the Operation Barbarossa plan and began the transfer of the German troops to Bulgaria in January 1941, which Molotov considered to be an invasion of the Soviet security zone. Finally, in the beginning of April 1941, the German troops invaded Yugoslavia, where the day before the pro-Soviet Government General Simić came to power.
Altogether, this paved the way for the events of June 22, 1941. Unfortunately, Stalin and his immediate circle did not make strategic conclusions from the emerging situation. The geopolitics Soviet leadership was drawn into by Hitler complicated understanding the realities of the current politics, consideration of both the military-political threats and the possible alternatives to cooperation with the aggressive fascism.
Territorial increments on the western border of the Soviet State did not become a winning factor in the context of the obvious gaps in the organisation of defence, which subsequently fell under the Wehrmacht attacks. As a result, "the most serious military losses of 1941 put our country on the brink of disaster" [Putin, 2020: 15]. The treachery of the Hitler’s attack on the USSR did not remove the historical guilt from the Soviet leadership for the unpreparedness to the war with fascism. The people of the Soviet Union paid an unmeasurably high price for the victory over fascism.
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First original publication here (Russian), in the Modern Europe journal, issue 6, and continues the topic of the study that the author has initiated in the previous issue of the journal: USSR and Germany in the Context of the Events of the 1920-1930s. Modern Europe, 2020, Issue 5, pp. 193-203.