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Who gained
the most?
Paul Letters examines the
significance of the 'devils pact'

Exam context
Knowledge of the NaziSoviet Pact is required for papers 1, 2 and 3
of the new syllabus (first examinations 2017).

n 1 September 1939 German SS troops dressed in Polish

uniforms staged an attack against a German radio station
on the Polish border. This provided Germany with the false
justification to invade Poland. The Nazis knew that the Soviet Union
would soon invade eastern Poland, and they assumed Britain could
not enter the war against Germany because it would also have to
declare war on the USSR.
All of this was made possible a week earlier, thanks to an
unlikely pact that brought together Europes two great twentieth
century devils: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The NaziSoviet
Non-Aggression Pact (or MolotovRibbentrop pact) was signed on
23 August 1939 on Hitlers behalf by his foreign minister Joachim
von Ribbentrop and for Stalin by his foreign minister Vyacheslav
Molotov. In the agreement, Germany and the Soviet Union promised
IB Review February2016

not to attack each other for 10 years even if Germany invaded

Poland, France or Britain. The pact also included a secret clause.

Why did the USSR agree?

For many years now we have been pouring buckets ofshit on
each others heads, and our propaganda boys could not do
enough in that direction. And now, all of a sudden, are we to
make our peoples believe that all is forgotten and forgiven?

Joseph Stalin

Nazi Germany and Communist USSR were not natural allies. Stalin
feared an attack by Hitler, so he invited Lord Halifax, the British
foreign secretary, to Russia to negotiate an alliance against Germany.
The British delayed and, in August 1939, a month away from war,
eventually sent a low-ranking official called Reginald Aylmer
Ranfurly Plunckett-Ernle-Erle-Drax instead of the foreign secretary.
The USSR wanted to send troops into Poland if Hitler invaded.
Britain was against that, and the talks ended in failure.
Also in August 1939, Germany held talks with the USSR. Hitler
promised not to attack the USSR, and in the secret clause to be
included in the NaziSoviet Pact in exchange for not fighting
against Germany, Stalin could take almost half of Poland. Hitler
also suggested that the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
could come under Soviet control.
Stalin knew that if he supported Britain, the Soviet Union would
end up fighting a war in Poland without British soldiers and he
was probably right, for when Britain did declare war on Germany, it
sent no troops to Poland. Indeed, the appeasement by Britain and
France of Germanys remilitarisation of the Rhineland (March
1936), Anschluss with Austria (March 1938) and invasion of the
Sudetenland (October 1938) and the rest of Czechoslovakia (March
1939) had convinced both Hitler and Stalin that Britain and
France would not send troops to fight against Germany. A common
mistake that IB students make on questions concerning the origins
of the Cold War is that it began in 1945 this pre-war mistrust
between the USSR and Western powers shows that the schism
between East and West began much earlier.
In 1939 Stalin wanted to feel safer from
an invasion from the west, and the secret
clause handed him territories that would act
as a buffer for the Soviet Union a buffer that
would be needed in 1941. The USSR would gain
territory and peace with Nazi Germany.
Stalin may have brutalised his own people
and picked fights with smaller nations, but when
it came to major powers he repeatedly acted to
avoid war. For example, in 1941 he made a peace
pact with Japan that lasted until August 1945.

Hitler aimed to expand Germanys lebensraum with as little armed

resistance as possible (in keeping with how he had gained Austria
and Czechoslovakia).
Hitler knew Britain couldnt keep its promise to defend Poland
but the USSR could. If Stalin signed a peace pact, Britain would
be forced to back down over Poland. Germany could take its larger
share of Poland with ease, and Polish forces would also have to
contend with the USSR invading its eastern border.
Hitler still hated the communist Soviet Union and could break
the pact whenever it suited him. A USSR that had a peace agreement
with Germany might be less likely to proactively prepare for war,
and the icing on the cake was that an alliance with the Soviet Union
would include supplies of desperately needed goods to Germany.

Economic gains
Ribbentrop and Molotov signed an economic deal on 19 August
1939 4 days before the main pact. Germany would provide
military equipment in exchange for raw materials such as iron, oil
and grain.
Britain had initiated a naval blockade to stop goods being
imported into Germany by sea. This economic agreement helped
Germany circumvent the British blockade until Hitler broke the
NaziSoviet Pact in June 1941. In 1940 over half of the USSRs total

1 September 1939

Germany attacks Poland.

3 September 1939

Britain and France declare war on


17 September 1939

USSR invades eastern Poland to occupy its

sphere of influence, as given in the secret

June 1940

Soviet invasion of Estonia, Latvia and


22 June 1941

German invasion of the USSR.

Why did Germany agree?

When looking for factors that caused the
Second World War, we should look at the
First. Germanys desire to revise the Treaty of
Versailles and regain territory from Poland is
clear. Thereafter, the two-fronted First World
War shaped German thinking regarding any
future war, i.e. the need to avoid fighting
another great war on two fronts simultaneously.

The policy of appeasement

convinced Hitler and Stalin that
Britain and France would not send
troops to fight Germany

exports went to Germany in exchange for technology and weaponry.

German-made machinery and tools helped Soviet industrial
production which had plateaued before the pact to rise in 1940.
German machinery also contributed to the production of Soviet
tanks that would one day be used to fight German Panzer tanks.
In 1941 those Panzers raced into the USSR fuelled by Russian oil
and built with Russian iron. The Germans even provided the Ltzow
warship though its turrets and armaments were incomplete
which would be used against them later in the war.

Nothing to lose?

Hitler said of the NaziSoviet Pact:

We have nothing to lose; we have everything to gain.

Theory of knowledge
1 Is it possible to know why Stalin and Hitler acted as they did?
Did Stalin agree to the NaziSoviet Pact more because he wanted to
avoid war (with Germany) or because he wanted to gain territory? In
history, can we ever know for sure the reasons why people acted as
they did?
2 Are there times in history where false evidence, or an as-yetunrevealed hoax, may continue to fool us today?
3 Can we ever have all the possible evidence to make knowledge
claims? How can we guarantee that we have enough evidence?
4 Can we ever trust a historical interpretation with 100% certainty?
If not, does that mean every historical interpretation is, at least in a
sense, untrue or false?

Until Hitler chose to invade the USSR on 22 June 1941, the Nazi
Soviet Pact kept the Soviets out of the fight, and Germany was
successful in avoiding a two-front war. The economic agreements
probably gave Germany more than it lost.
However, the USSRs economy and military were better prepared
for war in June 1941 than in September 1939. Whats more, the
territories the USSR gained remained under Soviet influence until
the 1990s.
Hitlers betrayal of the pact brought about Germanys defeat,
whereas Stalin felt emboldened to complete a sweep of eastern
Europe: within a decade of August 1939 Stalin controlled all of the
lebensraum Hitler had desired. This process of Soviet empire building
began with the NaziSoviet Pact.

References and resources

The History Place:
Moorhouse, R. (2014) The Devils Alliance: Hitlers Pact with Stalin
1939-41, Bodley Head.
Primary sources:

Paul Letters teaches IB Diploma history and TOK at King

George V School, Hong Kong.

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IB Review February2016