“While we look forward to the future, we have to reckon with the present, and we cannot properly deal with the present without evaluating the meaning of the past.
We should not forget that while the seeds of tomorrow are being sown today, the seeds of today were planted in the past, some in the distant past.”
– Gordan Craig –
As my first post on “Russian Foreign Policy” labeled Flashback connected early 2014 and the present situation I will in this post travel again back in time to illuminate parts of the historic development of 21-century diplomatic relations.
To understand the meaning of political crosstalk we have to understand where today´s reasoning is rooted. Let me illustrate this point a bit further, Merkel attended in may 2015 a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of the Unknown Soldier with Putin. The grave of the Unknown Soldier is a dedication to the Unknown Soldier and a memorial side in a lot of nations to all soldiers who left their lives in war. The Russian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in Moscow´s Alexander Garden. In the speeches that were held that day Putin tried to justify the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.
“This pact made sense in terms of guaranteeing the Soviet Union’s security,(…)”, but as it is common practice in politics his words are only representative for one side of the coin. Speaking after Putin, Merkel flipped the coin on the other side adding that besides being a non-aggression pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement was also set up to dismantle Poland.
“From my point of view, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is hard to understand unless you take into consideration the extra secret protocol,” she said, implying Putin gave an inaccurate assessment of the accord. She then continued:
“Because of us [Germans], millions of people died and the Red Army played a decisive role in the liberation of Berlin.” “We have learned from bitter experiences, difficult situations, and now we have to overcome one by peaceful and diplomatic means,” she added, referring to the Ukraine crisis. The chancellor said she regretted that “we still do not have a ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine, despite the “Minsk” ceasefire agreement, but underlined that “we work with Russia, not against her“.
Alright, so far so good, but what exactly is the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact? What is the secret protocol and to what extend did the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact condition the outburst of the Second World War? In order to understand present political crosstalk these questions mark an interesting starting point and are worth to be elaborated. In the following pages I draw the constantly changing geopolitical picture of Eastern Europe and describe the resulting relationships between national states striving for independence. I will briefly explain the principal of collective security endorsed by the League of Nations and show that despite a first common organ hostility and distrust between European states, especially towards the Soviet Union and Germany, was still deeply rooted in history and in statesmen minds. Further I will especially focus on the German- Soviet and Soviet- Anglo- French relations and generate a general understanding of their diplomatic relations shortly before the outburst of the Second World War.
As I do not want to chew too long on the First World War and the end of the Tsarist Empire in 1917, a crash course of events can be found here:
Cues that we have to evolve from the video that are not explicitly mentioned are the facts that leading to the second World War were social and economic conditions. The video says that Germany first repaid its reparations of World War One in 2010, but under the Weimar Republic the high reparations, paid off partly in coal or raw materials were an immense burden that first enabled the Germany Nazi-propaganda to be so effective by taking advantage of the situation and blaming a common scapegoat for the bad conditions.
As a result of the Paris peace conference that ended the First World War, the treaty of Versailles was signed and the League of Nations was founded on the 10.1.1920. The League of Nations is an intergovernmental organization. Its aim was to maintain world peace through collective security and disarmament.
Roots of distrust:
The End of the tsarist Empire and the rise of the Bolsheviks in the two revolutions, the February and October revolution called after the month in which they took place in 1917, are also important to understand how the Ribbentrop- Molotov pact originated. Not mentioned in the Video because obviously not within the same time frame is the historical prerequisite to the October revolution another revolution that took place in 1905.
In Russian history of expansion, from Russian State to Russian Imperialism we find two common patterns used by the Muscovite to accomplish the “imperial mission”. The “gathering of the lands of Rus” (Kappeler 2001) was implemented through sticks and carrots policies. On the one side stands a policy of prudent restraints with the aim to secure the loyalty of new subjects with force and on the other side a more flexible and more pragmatic policy approach. For example from the beginning in the 16th century, the conquest of the Khanate of Kazan and Astrakhan went hand in hand with those policies; the multiethnic groups were controlled by suppression and revolts were brutally turned down in violent clashes. Therefore the Russian mostly urbanized settled population held amanties and Non-Russians were forbidden to possess weapons or metal objects of any kind. However, non-Russian elites achieved often far reaching retention of their status quo based on cooperation. Their allowance of continued use of their existing traditions, for example their political culture and religious freedom, was to guarantee a smooth transfer of power. After a time of acculturation the Russian empire went on slowly downgrading the status of local elites and replacing the existing autonomous administrative structures. (Kappeler 2001).
After the expansion to Siberia and the occupation of the Steppe followed the annexation of the Khanate of Crimea. The further schedule of Russian Imperialism advanced now to the west, annexing the former Kingdom of Poland, Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. I will not go into detailed descriptions of the integration patterns, as this only will display the above-mentioned common tsarist policies patterns with minor variations and does not contribute to the essay.
But what has to be mentioned is that starting in the early 19th century also new patterns appeared that changed the policy patterns. The “policy of nationalities”, especially the “russifiaction” (integration through restriction of linguistic and cultural aspects), first mentioned in Russian history openly in 1863, were largely rejected by the civil society! Affected by changes in the rest of Europe “national- movements, especially that of Poles and national consciousness in sections of Russian society began to jeopardize the basis of the dynastic legitimation”, (Kappeler 2001) and the increasing need to modernize the whole empire became obvious. For instance the state and pre-modern socio economic structures were all in a state of crisis. As a result of industrialization and modernization, additionally regarding the fact of still having no civil rights in controversy to Europe, the Ukraine 1902-1904 peasant movement reemerged. Simultaneously in the ethnically homogeneous Georgian area of Guria spawned a system of “revolutionary self-government”, leading to a wave of urban disturbances in the whole of Transcaucasia. The disturbances swamped over to the Ukraine and the Kingdom of Poland. Finally, the suppression of mass strikes in St. Petersburg on the “Bloody Sunday” sparked the fire of the revolution in 1905. To the greatest extend demands of nationalist movements desired autonomy/ self-government, only in the case of Poland voices were heard that stressed independence (Kappeler 2001)!
According to (Kappeler 2001) it is seen as one of the main reasons for the revolutionary failure that the national intelligentsia, workers, peasants and soldiers of different nations did not become a unified revolutionary movement. However, the concessions that followed as a result of the pressure exerted by the revolution were of importance character; Russia returned again to their tradition pattern of flexible pragmatism! Leading to new language policies, religious tolerance edicts that abolished discrimination against non-orthodox and dismissing of Ukaz (decree) in the case of Finland and Armenia. Most important the revolution lead to the “October Manifesto” guaranteeing for the first time civil rights and freedom and the creation of the first Duma (first elected Parliament); Hence permitting national organizations and national communication in the form of parties and for instance daily papers.
Nicholas 2nd dissolved the first elected parliament shortly after its establishment in July 8, 1906 and by 1907 most concessions were overturned.
However the Bloody Sunday resulting in the October Manifesto lead to political and social mobilization of the Russian society and mark therefore an important precursor of the national revolutionary and separate movements of 1917!
In the events of the First World War tsarist Russia suffered territorial losses at the hand of German troops. All of the Poles and Lithuanians and numerous Latvians, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Baltic Germans were no longer subject of the Russian tsar. The Central Power was viewed as liberator of the suppressed mass in the Baltics, Ukraine and the Kingdom of Poland and thus exacerbated political and social tensions that discharged in the 1917 revolutions. The tsar had forfeited the support of non-Russians and likewise of Russians. The October Revolution combined national and social demands. To wrap history a bit up Bolsheviks came to power in a Constituent Assembly; proclaiming the slogan: “Land, peace and the peoples right to self-determination”.
*Exkurs: What are Bolsheviks?
Bolsheviks like Mensheviks are fractions of the Russian socialist movement that emerged 1904 after a dispute in the Russian Social-Democratic labor party.
The dispute was held about minor organizational measure between Lenin and Martov. Supporters of Lenin were called Bolsheviks, followers of Martov Mensheviks. The wording derives from the meaning bol`shinstvo (=majority) and men`shinstvo (=minority).
The Bolshevik´s victory led to a centrifugal movement; Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, the Moldavian republic and Belorussia declared themselves independent.
“Six month after the October revolution Bolshevik Russia had lost almost all of the peripheral areas of the Russian empire in the west and the south” (Kappeler 2001).
German- Soviet and Soviet- Anglo- French relations:
During the Russian Civil war that broke out after the October revolution the White army fighting against the Red Army, where supported explicitly by the Allied Forces. Still the Red Army crushed the White Army, hence the will of the Allied Forces to engage with the Soviet Union in diplomatic relations was relatively low.
Stalin´s worst nightmare after succeeding the party lead from Lenin was a combined attacking plot of the capitalist world against the Soviet Union. Therefore he signed the Kellog Briand Pact ensuring that war would no longer be a tool of international politics. But in reality it was a “(…) treaty of peace (…) signed for the purpose of depicting new elements of the coming war” (Kissinger 1995).
“Stalin´s purpose was to extract maximum assistance from the capitalist world, not to make peace with it.”
– Robert Lergvold –
All signs in international relations were trenched with hostility towards the Bolshevik reign. The time of NEP (New economic politics) started in March 1921 overshadowing the Soviet Union with distrust, especially after the many human losses that were accepted from Bolsheviks in order to industrialize the Soviet Union. Stalin´s expression “one death is tragedy, 1 million death is simple a statistic”, can be viewed symbolically for the cruelty of the Soviet leader. Furthermore after 1920´s Stalin started to become paranoid and under Stalin´s order the NKVD accused thousands of death plotting. The time is known under the synonym “The great Terror”. Lot of leaders of the Red Army were shot or sent to working camps to be worked to death.
With Hitler´s rise to power Stalin suddenly became the most vocal proponent of collective security, because he feared that Hitler would carry out what he had written in “Mein Kampf” and seek “Lebensraum” in the east.
With Nazi-Germany rearming and growing stronger Stalin signed the Czechoslovakia pact in 1935, enabling Russia’s help in the event that Hitler would seek to conquer Czechoslovakia bound to the agreement that France would fulfill their contract with Czechoslovakia (Kissinger 1995). Czechoslovakia was by that time one of the most advanced military forces in Europe. However, in 1939 when Hitler invaded the whole of Czechoslovakia their leaders were not willed to spread the blood of their own kind and did not resist with armed forces.
“League of Nations declared to be a car with no working engine.”
– Hajo Holborn –
Because the League of Nations had no armed forces under its command to rectify the violation of the Munich agreement it was declared to be a car with no working engine. In the Munich agreement it was settled that Nazi-Germany was officially allowed only to annex the mostly German speaking part of Czechoslovakia called formerly “Sudetenland” not whole Czechoslovakia. Interestingly Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were excluded from the Munich conference, despite the fact that the agreement decided on Czechoslovakia´s future.
First after the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 the Soviet Union was brought into discussions for a collective security system.
As history has shown there were insoluble problems for any system of collective security in Eastern Europe. Because without the Soviet Union it could not work militarily and with the Soviet Union it would not work politically (Kissinger 1995) (as neither any Baltic state nor the Kingdom of Poland or the Ukraine would allow Soviet troops to even trespass their ground; The fear that Stalin would simply take advantage of the situation was immense). This should become the crux for many further negotiations.
To Stalin it was obvious that Hitler’s next target would ultimately be Poland and therefore he first declared the Soviet Union neutral and voiced his determination to retain freedom of action and sell Moscow’s good will to the highest bidder (Kissinger 1995).
“To be cautious and not allow the Soviet Union to be drawn into conflicts by warmongers, who are accustomed to have others pull the chestnut out of the fire for them!”
Britain was now faced with deciding upon creating a system of collective security to stalemate Hitler or to form traditional alliances with possible partners, for example the Soviet Union. Still suffering from the wounds of World War One the commitment of individual national states to fight another war was absent. Therefore Chamberlain proposed a declaration of intent by Great Britain, France, Poland and the Soviet Union “(…) of taking action commonly if one of the European state’s independence was touched” (Kissinger 1995). But Poland refused to accept joint action with the Soviet Union.
A Warsaw report of 19th April ran: ”Poland has informed Great Britain and Russia that she refuses to participate in any efforts to draw the Soviet Union into the anti-aggression “peace front” (Beloff 1963).
Leaving Britain with the choice between common action with the Soviet Union or Poland. Due to reasons mentioned earlier, it can be said that the British government deeply distrusted the Soviet Union and issued a unilateral guarantee to Poland. The guarantee was based on 4 assumptions that should proof inaccurate:
1) Poland = Significant military power
2) France and Great Britain together powerful enough to stalemate Germany
3) Ideologies between Germany and Soviet Union unbridgeable (no fear of a pact)
4) Soviet Union´s co-operation for granted, because of their interest to remain the status quo in the east
“Overall Chamberlain wanted to prevent war and Stalin, who felt war was inevitable, wanted the benefits of war without participating in it.”
– Kissinger –
However diplomatic talks had begun and Stalin proposed a counter offer signaling that he was willed to participate in a system of collective security to the Allies. Furthermore he saw the need of a military convention to guarantee for all countries between the Baltic and the Black seas. He constructed a framework that demanded the expansion of the term “aggression” to “indirect aggression”. This would allow him to intervene in domestic affairs of the Soviet Unions European neighbor. By no surprise the offer of Stalin was rejected (Kissinger 1995).
Meanwhile: Stalin waited for Hitler to swallow the hints he had dropped .
Finally on July 23, 1939 the Soviet Union and Allied negotiators agreed on a draft treaty that was satisfactory to both sides.
Hitler who sought confrontation with Poland before the end of 1939 was quick witted and commanded Schurre to engage in diplomatic talks while negotiating about trade agreements with the Soviet Union. Schurre said at the next meeting: “(…) there was no problem between these two countries from the Baltic to the Black sea or in the far east that could not be solved.”, he also offered “discussions continued at a high-level political meeting with soviets” (Kissinger 1995). Hitler offered secretly what had been in the Soviet sphere of interest since the independence movement of the Baltic States.
Stalin played cool minded and did not flex any muscle until mid August. After Nazi-Germany finally received a positive response Von Ribbentrop rushed to Moscow with the full authority to settle upon a non-aggression pact and Hitler was prepared to give ground on nearly all matters to reach an agreement before end of August. This was of major importance because Hitler feared a two front war. (Fabry 1962/ Kennan 1961/ Kissinger 1995/ Petro and Rubinstein 1997)
Meanwhile: Stalin continued to weight if he could not settle a better deal with the Allies but all efforts deflated because of Polish attitudes.
“With the Germans we risk losing our liberty; with the Russians, our soul!”
– Beloff –
Von Ribbentrop arrived on the August 23, 1939 and later on that day the Ribbentrop- Molotov pact was signed. Von Ribbentrop remarked: “the soviet leader was little interested in a non-aggression pact (…). The focus point of his concern was the dividing up of Eastern Europe”(Kissinger 1995).
According to the secret protocol the plan for eastern Europe was a Poland back in the 1914 boarders, with the slightly difference of Warsaw going to be on the German side. Finland, Estonia and Latvia were supposed to fall under the Soviet sphere of influence and Lithuania was going to be in German hands.
Concluding the Ribbentrop- Molotov pact was besides being a non-aggression pact “ (…) an operation on the body of Poland. The patient would die.” (Fischer 1969). It contributed insofar to the outburst of the Second World War as Hitler invaded Poland on the 1.09.1939 only a week after the pact had been signed. Hence the Allies bound to unilateral agreements to Poland declared war. It conditioned the war because Hitler did not fear to be attacked on two fronts anymore. According to the information I have presented above other factors lead to the outburst of the Second World War but the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact can be viewed as the tipping point, the last dash that caused the barrel to overflow!
What happen after the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact?
Well check it out yourself:
Literature and other sources used:
Beloff, Max. 1963. The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia 1929-1941. London. Oxford University Press. 224-276.
Craig, Gordan A. 1964. “Techniques of Negotiation” in: Ivo J. Leberer (Hg). Russian Foreign Policy. Essays in Historical Perspective. 2. New Haven and London:Yale University Press: 351-376.
Fabry, Philipp W. 1962. Der-Hitler-Stalin-Pakt 1939-1941. Ein Beitrag zur Methode sowjetischer Außenpolitik. Darmstadt. Fundus Verlag. 18-134.
Fischer, Louis. 1969. Russia´s road from peace to war. Soviet Foreign Relations 1917-1941. New York. Harper & Row. 303-349.
Kennan, George F. 1961. Sowjetische Aussenpolitik unter Lenin und Stalin. Stuttgart. Steingrüber Verlag.
Holborn, Hajo. 1964. “Russia and the European Political System” in: Ivo J. Leberer (Hg). Russian Foreign Policy. Essays in Historical Perspective. 2. New Haven and London:Yale University Press: 377-417.
Petro, Nicolai N./ Rubinstein, Alvin Z. 1997. Russian Foreign Policy: From Empire to Nation-State. New York. Longman. 40-67.
Kappeler, A. 2001. The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History. University of Michigan. Longman. 309-366. 370-386.
Kissinger, Henry A. 1995. Diplomacy. Ch.13 Stalin’s Bazaar. Ch.14 The Nazi-Soviet Pact. New York. Simon & Schuster. 332-368.