Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1939: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact

On August 23, 1939, German and Soviet foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed a Treaty of Non-Aggression known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which secretly carved up Central and Eastern Europe into respective Soviet and German “spheres of influence.”

Since the beginning of the 1930s, the Nazi Party’s rise to power increased tensions between Germany and the Soviet Union. But with Europe on the brink of another major war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin started to view an alliance with Hitler as a plausible way to keep his nation on peaceful terms with Germany, while giving him time to build up the Soviet military.

The Secret Protocol

But the ensuing discussion of a potential political deal between Germany and the Soviet Union had to be channeled into the framework of economic negotiations between the two countries since close military and diplomatic connections, as was the case before the mid-1930s, had been largely severed.

By early August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union had worked out the last details of their economic deal and started to discuss a political alliance grounded in their opposition to the capitalist democracies.

Signed in Moscow in August 1939 by the German and Soviet foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics pact provided a written guarantee of peace by each party towards the other.

But in addition to these publicly-announced stipulations, the treaty also included a Secret Protocol, which provided for the partition of Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe into Soviet and German “spheres of influence”. A week later, Hitler ordered his troops to strike east into Poland. World War II had begun.

Carving up Poland and Central Europe

After the joint invasion and occupation of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union, the new border between the two countries was confirmed and German and Soviet authorities immediately started brutal campaigns of “Germanization” and “Sovietisation” of the newly-acquired areas.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact lasted until June 1941, when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. After the war, Ribbentrop was convicted of war crimes and executed. Molotov died at 96 in 1986, five years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The rumour of the existence of the Secret Protocol was proved only when the German copy of the Secret Protocol was found in the German archives and was made public during the Nuremberg Trials. But the Soviet government denied its existence until 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev admitted and condemned its existence.

While Vladimir Putin has condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as “immoral”, he has also defended it as a “necessary evil” even claiming that the signing of the Pact was no worse than the 1938 Munich Agreement, which led to the partition of Czechoslovakia.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.