The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non-aggression pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939, a week before the start of World War II that would allow these two powers to invade Poland. Here is an introduction to the Pact and an overview of its consequences for World War Two.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop shake hands after agreement on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Source: Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available  here .

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop shake hands after agreement on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Source: Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available here.

The Pact

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed between Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and the Soviet Union’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov in Moscow on August 23, 1939.

With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union committed themselves to not attack each other, and to not support or assist states that were an enemy of the other. The Pact was supposed to last for ten years. The treaty also led to economic and commercial benefits, most notably in a separate 1940 agreement.

The exact details of the treaty were known only by the leadership of both governments - and they were not revealed to the public; however, much later it was found out that the treaty had some secret clauses. Eastern Europe was to be divided into zones of German and Soviet influence, leaving Poland divided between the two powers, and with Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania recognized by Germany as areas of Soviet interest.

Under the terms of the Pact, if Germany attacked Poland, the Soviet Union would not provide support to the government in Warsaw. Furthermore, if the consequence of Germany invading Poland was a war with the Western Powers (in particular France and Great Britain), the Soviet Union would not enter the conflict, thus preventing the opening of a second front for Germany. 


The consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 

The conclusion of the pact meant that Germany would be able to pursue its expansionist objectives in Poland. Adolf Hitler wanted the German state to grow and he wanted “living space” (or lebensraumin German) for the German people in Eastern Europe. In order to obtain this, Hitler had been busy creating a dispute with Poland, just as he had done with Czechoslovakia previously. With Poland, the dispute was regarding Danzig, a largely German-speaking city that was a free state and that became independent of Germany as a consequence of the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles, along with parts of Poland where people spoke primarily German. Hitler wanted these territories to become part of Germany. Indeed, Adolf Hitler used these disputes as a pretext to invade Poland. 

This meant that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact enabled Hitler to invade Poland without Stalin’s interference and allowed for the start of World War II. On September 1, 1939, the Germany army invaded Poland, and on September, 17 1939, with the Polish Army greatly weakened, the Soviet Union attacked the eastern part of Poland. Even before the Soviet invasion, the Western Powers of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

A further consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was that the Soviets did not join the fight against Germany from 1939, which may have prolonged the Second World War until 1945. Without the Pact, the war could have ended sooner – although that is far from certain as the Soviet Army may not have been able to defend the Soviet Union effectively against the Germans in 1939 as it was able to in 1941.


German advantages

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gave Germany some tremendous strategic advantages, as it allowed the country to focus its attack on Britain and France. Hitler did not need to split his forces between the eastern and western fronts; where as during World War One, Germany had to split its forces on two fronts, which may have cost them victory. In 1939, this was not the case, as the German army could fully focus on the west. Thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the German army launched a large-scale attack solely on Western Europe. Within in less than a year of the outbreak of the war, countries including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France were invaded by the Germans. 

By mid-1940, Stalin may have started to question his decision to cooperate with Hitler, since Hitler had become the master of Europe. Nonetheless, Stalin kept observing the Pact’s terms due to the seeming strength of the German war machine and the need to further strengthen the Soviet Army.

On June 22, 1941, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact came to an end when Germany launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa. While this was not totally unexpected by Stalin and the Soviet leadership, they were still not fully prepared for a large-scale German assault at that time. So, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact enabled Adolf Hitler to invade France, leave Britain largely isolated in Europe, and allow him to concentrate his efforts on defeating the Soviet Union. 

Even though at first Stalin thought that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was beneficial, as he was able to secure his western borders against attack and gain territory in Eastern Europe, Stalin empowered Germany to dominate Western Europe and later invade the territories of the Soviet Union. In the end, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made the USSR vulnerable, which resulted in great human and industrial loss to the Soviet Union over the period 1941-45.


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