An Assessment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: An Assessment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact

Q1: Study source 1. It shows Adolf Hitler (Germany), Neville Chamberlain (Britain), Edouard Daladier (France) and Benito Mussolini (Italy) discussing the Sudetenland. The man on the right is Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union). What is the point being made by David Low?

A1: David Low believes that Stalin should be involved in these discussions about the future of the Sudetenland. Low argued that if Britain and France formed an alliance with the Soviet Union we would have a much better chance of resisting the territorial demands of Hitler.

Q2: How does the information in the introduction help to explain source 5?

A2: In his book, Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler claimed that the Jews were involved with Communists in a joint conspiracy to take over the world. He was also very hostile to the Russian Revolution. In his cartoon, Henri Paul Gassier shows Hitler carrying a copy of his biography, suggesting that it would be impossible for him and Stalin to reach agreement.

Q3: Read sources 2 and 3. Explain why Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill held different views on forming an alliance with the Soviet Union. Can you think of any other reasons for Chamberlain not wanting to do a deal with Stalin.

A3: Winston Churchill (source 3) believed that an alliance with the Soviet Union would help block Hitler in his desire to take back land as a result of Germany's defeat in the First World War. Churchill argued that such an agreement would "confront Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Goebbels and co. with forces the German people would be reluctant to challenge".

Neville Chamberlain (source 2) points out that he does not trust Stalin or his motives. He also has doubts about the effectiveness of the Soviet armed forces. Some critics claimed that Chamberlain was more interested in doing his own deal with Hitler in the hopes he would attack the Soviet Union.

Q4: Study source 8. Do you think the cartoonist agrees with Chamberlain or Churchill about forming an alliance with the Soviet Union?

A4: The cartoonist, David Low, is a supporter of Churchill. He is suggesting that if Britain does not sign an alliance with the Soviet Union, Stalin will do a deal with Hitler.

Q5: On 3rd May, 1939, Joseph Stalin dismissed Maxim Litvinov, his Jewish Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Read sources 4 and 6 and explain why some people in Britain was worried by this development?

A5: Litvinov had a good relationship with the British and French negotiators. As he was Jewish it was felt that he would have had more difficulty with the Germans. Time Magazine (source 4) suggests that it was possible that "Stalin still hankered after an alliance with Great Britain and France and by dismissing his experienced, alliance-seeking Foreign Commissar was simply trying to scare the British and French into signing up." However, it claims that the "most likely explanation was that in the bluff and counter-bluff of present European diplomacy, Dictator Stalin was simply clearing the decks to be ready at a moment's notice to jump either way".

Walter Krivitsky, who had previously worked closely with Stalin, was more convinced that this showed he was about to change his foreign policy. Litvinov had promoted the "Paris-London axis". The fact that he had been dismissed suggested that this "policy has collapsed" and that Stalin was likely to favour the "Rome-Berlin axis".

Q6: On 28th August, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in Moscow. Study sources 7, 9 and 11. Describe the terms of the treaty. Explain the limitations of a magazine article published at the time (source 9) in discovering what the treaty contained.

A6: Source 11 points out the main terms of the treaty stated that: "(1) Neither party would attack the other. (2) Should one of them became the object of belligerent action by a third power, the other party would in no manner lend its support to this third power. (3) Neither Germany nor Russia would join any grouping of Powers whatsoever which is aimed directly or indirectly at the other party."

Source 9 concentrates on the economic aspect of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This is based on the details issued by the two governments. However, source 11 points out that the Pact had a secret protocol that referred to how the Soviet Union and Germany planned to take territory from countries like Poland. In his memoirs published 14 years later, Joachim von Ribbentrop (source 7) comments on how the main reason for the Pact was "to ensure Russian neutrality in the event of a German-Polish conflict". The disadvantage of a source like the Time Magazine report is that it is impossible to know at the time about "secret protocols".

Q7: Study sources 10, 14, 16, 17, 23 and 25. Explain the different reasons why Hitler and Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

A7: The main reason that Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact was to ensure that he did not fight a war on two fronts (sources 10, 16). Stalin's main concern was to "win time" before going to war with Germany. He hoped that by this time Germany would be on "their last legs" and therefore would be easier to defeat (source 10).

By signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact the countries were free to invade Poland (source 14). Sigrid Schultz (source 23) suggests that by signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact, it would be possible to pressurize the British to "offer all the concessions the Germans want". William Joyce (source 25) argues that Hitler needed to sign the Pact in "self-defence" against the British (and French) governments.

Q8: Use the information in source 13 to explain source 12.

A8: David Low claims he knew that the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact meant that he knew that the Second World War was inevitable. The failure to form an alliance with the Soviet Union was a case of "human stupidity". The result would be a war which would be difficult to win. The cartoon shows the two unlikely allies, Hitler and Stalin, congratulating each other over the body of Poland.

Q9: Arthur Szyk was a cartoonist who was born in Poland but was living in New York City in 1939. He was accused by members of the America First Committee of being a "war-monger". Study sources 15 and 24 and explain this statement.

A9: Arthur Szyk, a Jewish cartoonist from Poland, stated after the election of Hitler: "An artist, and especially a Jewish artist, cannot be neutral in these times.... Our life is involved in a terrible tragedy, and I am resolved to serve my people with all my art, with all my talent, with all my knowledge." After arriving in the United States he worked for the left-wing newspaper, PM, that urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enter the war against Nazi Germany. The America First Committee opposed this and described people such as Szyk as a "war monger". In both cartoons Hitler and Stalin are shown to be friends but at the expense of Poland.

Q10: Explain the meaning of sources 18, 21 and 27.

A10: Source 18 shows Hitler having a mock gunfight. The globe, representing the rest of the world, looks on in horror. The cartoonist is suggesting that that the result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is world war.

Source 21 shows Hitler and Stalin getting married. The caption that says "Wonder how long the Honeymoon will last? suggests that it is a marriage of short-term convenience.

Source 27 shows Hitler and Stalin with one boot between them. Hitler and Stalin's three-legged race looks doomed from the start. One points forward as the other turns back.

Q11: Study sources 19, 20 and 22. Why did the Nazi-Soviet Pact cause problems for members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)?

A11: The CPUSA and CPGB supported all attempts to form anti-fascist coalitions. In fact, many people had joined communist parties all over the world in response to the growth of fascism in Europe during the 1930s. Therefore, they were deeply shocked by Stalin's decision to join the Nazi-Soviet Pact. As John Gates (source 19) of the CPUSA pointed out: "Leaders and rank-and-file members were thrown into utter confusion. The impossible had happened." Soon afterwards, "statements now began to come from Moscow - both from the Soviet press and the Communist International - which made clear a big change in policy was under way". The leadership of the CPUSA eventually accepted this change in policy whereas "the Soviet position was that British and French imperialists were responsible for the war, that this was an imperialist war and that neither side should be supported".

Whittaker Chambers (source 20) was so appalled by this that he decided to betray his former comrades in the CPUSA. Chambers had been part of a 200 Soviet spy network in the United States. "Two days after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact - I went to Washington and reported to the authorities what I knew about the infiltration of the United States Government by Communists".

Source 22 includes some of the debate that took place within the CPGB. Rajani Palme Dutt supported the idea that the CPGB should follow the policy being handed down from the Soviet Union. John R. Campbell, the editor of the CPSU's The Daily Worker, pointed out: "We started by saying we had an interest in the defeat of the Nazis, we must now recognise that our prime interest in the defeat of France and Great Britain... We have to eat everything we have said." The General Secretary, Harry Pollitt, was also against the new policy, but was out-voted and was forced to resign his position. Membership of the CPUSA and the CPGB fell dramatically after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. However, it increased again after the Soviet Union joined the war against Nazi Germany in June, 1941.