An Assessment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (Classroom Activity)

Adolf Hitler argued in his book, Mein Kampf (1925), that the Jews were involved with Communists in a joint conspiracy to take over the world. Hitler claimed that 75% of all Communists were Jews. He added that the combination of Jews and Marxists had already been successful in Russia and now threatened the rest of Europe. At the time of the Russian Revolution there were only seven million Jews among the total Russian population of 136 million. Although police statistics showed the ratio of Jews participating in the revolutionary movement to the total Jewish population was six times that of the other nationalities in Russia, they were no way near the figures suggested by Hitler.

As soon as Hitler gained power in 1933 Hitler began making hostile speeches towards the Soviet Union. As a result, Joseph Stalin became increasingly concerned that the country would be invaded by Nazi Germany. Stalin believed the best way to of dealing with Germany was to form an anti-fascist alliance with countries in the west. Stalin argued that even Hitler would not start a war against a united Europe. Adam B. Ulam, the author of Stalin: The Man and his Era (2007) has argued: "Soviet diplomacy sought (in a much more realistic way than that of Britain and France) to avoid war. To do Stalin justice, he never made a secret greater than his desire to avoid war, or more precisely to avoid Russia's military involvement in one."

On 18th March, 1939, Maxim Litvinov, Commissar for Foreign Affairs, denounced Hitler's decision to occupy Prague. Later that day, the British Foreign Office, asked Litvinov what would be the Soviet Union's attitude be towards Hitler if he ordered the invasion of countries such as Poland and Rumania. On 17th April, Stalin replied when he proposed an alliance between Britain, France and the Soviet Union, where the three powers would jointly guarantee all the countries between the Baltic and the Black Sea against aggression.

Primary Sources

David Low, What, no chair for me? (30th September, 1938)
(Source 1) David Low, "What, no chair for me?" (30th September, 1938)


(Source 2) Neville Chamberlain, letter to a friend (26th March, 1939)

I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia. I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears. Moreover, she is both hated and suspected by many of the smaller States, notably by Poland, Rumania and Finland.

(Source 3) Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (19th May, 1939)

There is no means of maintaining an eastern front against Nazi aggression without the active aid of Russia. Russian interests are deeply concerned in preventing Herr Hitler's designs on eastern Europe. It should still be possible to range all the States and peoples from the Baltic to the Black sea in one solid front against a new outrage of invasion. Such a front, if established in good heart, and with resolute and efficient military arrangements, combined with the strength of the Western Powers, may yet confront Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Goebbels and co. with forces the German people would be reluctant to challenge.

(Source 4) Time Magazine (15th May, 1939)

Most ominous - and least likely - explanation of the change: Comrade Stalin had decided to ally himself with Führer Hitler. Obviously Comrade Litvinov, born of Jewish parents in a Polish town (then Russian), could not be expected to complete such an alliance with rabidly Aryan Nazis. More likely: the Soviet Union was going to follow an isolationist policy (almost as bad for the British and French). By turning isolationist it would let Herr Hitler know that as long as he keeps away from Russia's vast stretches he need not fear the Red Army. Russia might even supply the Nazis with needed raw materials for conquests. Comrade 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. But 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.

Henri Paul Gassier, War Camouflage (1939)
(Source 5) Henri Paul Gassier, War Camouflage (1939)

(Source 6) Walter Krivitsky, Baltimore Sun (5th May, 1939)

Stalin has been driven to the parting of roads in his foreign policy and had to choose between the Rome-Berlin axis and the Paris-London axis... Litvinov personified the policy which brought the Soviet government into the League of Nations which raised the slogan of collective security, which raised the slogan of collective security, which claimed to seek collaboration with democratic powers. That policy has collapsed.

(Source 7) Joachim von Ribbentrop, Memoirs (1953)

To seek a settlement with Russia was my very own idea which I urged on Hitler because I sought to create a counter-weight to the West and because I wanted to ensure Russian neutrality in the event of a German-Polish conflict.

After a short ceremonial welcome the four of us sat down at a table: Stalin, Molotov, Count Schulenburg and myself. Others present were our interpreter, Hilger, a great expert on Russian affairs, and a young fair-haired Russian interpreter, Pavlov, who seemed to enjoy Stalin's special trust.

Stalin spoke - briefly, precisely, without many words; but what he said was clear and unambiguous and showed that he, too, wished to reach a settlement and understanding with Germany. Stalin used the significant phrase that although we had 'poured buckets of filth' over each other for years there was no reason why we should not make up our quarrel.

Arthur Szyk, Hermann Goering,Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito (1942)
(Source 8) David Low, "If the British won't, maybe we will". (29th June, 1939)

(Source 9) Time Magazine (28th August, 1939)

Late Sunday night - not the usual time for such announcements - the Soviet Government revealed a pact, not with Great Britain, not with France, but with Germany. Germany would give the Soviet Union seven-year 5% credits amounting to 200,000,000 marks ($80.000,000) for German machinery and armaments, would buy from the Soviet Union 180,000.000 marks' worth ($72,000,000) of wheat, timber, iron ore, petroleum in the next two years.

(Source 10) Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (1949)

In the course of two meetings in the Kremlin, on the evening of 23 August and late the same night, the partners thrashed out the main issues of "common interest" and signed a pact of non-aggression and a "secret additional protocol". Stalin could not have had the slightest doubt that the pact at once relieved Hitler of the nightmare of a war on two fronts, and that to that extent it unleashed the Second World War. Yet he, Stalin, had no qualms. To his mind the war was inevitable anyhow; if he had made no deal with Hitler, war wound still have broken out either now or somewhat later, under conditions incomparably less favourable to his country. His purpose now was to win time, time, and once again time, to get on with his economic plans, to build up Russia's might and then throw that might into the scales when the other belligerents were on their last legs.

(Source 11) James Taylor and Warren Shaw, Dictionary of the Third Reich (1987)

The details of the pact were: (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. The secret protocol Russia had requested was attached to this pact. Spheres of interest were settled with regard to future possible territorial and political transformation in the Baltic states (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and in the territories belonging to Poland.

David Low & Adolf Hitler
(Source 12) David Low, Rendezvous (20th September, 1939)


(Source 13) David Low, Autobiography (1956)

Britain and France were dragged to war under such uninspiring and disadvantageous circumstances that it seemed hardly possible for them to win. What a situation! In gloomy wrath at missed opportunity and human stupidity I drew the bitterest cartoon of my life, Rendezvous, the meeting of the 'Enemy of the People' with the 'Scum of the Earth' in the smoking ruins of Poland.


(Source 14) Raymond Gram Swing, Good Evening (1964)

The British were busy all through early 1939 trying to negotiate an agreement with the Soviet Union. Even up to the stunning surprise of the Von Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, a success in the British negotiations was awaited. The Poles were against it; they wanted no truck with Moscow. But I thought the British-Soviet negotiations would succeed in spite of the Poles, and said so.

Now that this is all in the past, one sees that Stalin signed the pact with Hitler for two reasons, one being to partition a hostile Poland and annex a part of it, the other being to buy time to prepare for an attack Hitler might launch against the Soviet Union. This makes the perfidy of the Von Ribbentrop-Molotov pact no less venal, but perhaps a little less stupid than at first appeared. It would have served mankind far better for Stalin to have joined in deterring Hitler, instead of giving him the green light to make war. But when it comes to attributing blame for Hitler's war, France and Britain bear part of it for selling out Czechoslovakia at Munich.

Arthur Szyk, Hermann Goering,Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito (1942)
(Source 15) Arthur Szyk, Peace Be With You (1939)

(Source 16) Nikita Khrushchev was the secretary of the Moscow Regional Committee in 1939. Khrushchev who was with Stalin when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, wrote about these events in his autobiography, Khrushchev Remembers (1971)

I believe the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939 was historically inevitable, given the circumstances of the time, and that in the final analysis it was profitable for the Soviet Union. It was like a gambit in chess: if we hadn't made that move, the war would have started earlier, much to our disadvantage. It was very hard for us - as Communists, as anti-fascists - to accept the idea of joining forces with Germany. It was difficult enough for us to accept the paradox ourselves.

For their part, the Germans too were using the treaty as a maneuver to win time. Their idea was to divide and conquer the nations which had united against Germany in World War I and which might united against Germany again. Hitler wanted to deal with his adversaries one at a time. He was convinced that Germany had been defeated in World war I because he tried to fight on two fronts at once. The treaty he signed with us was his way of trying to limit the coming war to one front.

(Source 17) Walter Krivitsky, The New Leader (26th August, 1939)

Not only are the American people shocked, but far more the unhappy masses of Germany and Russia who have paid and will continue to pay for this triumph with their blood. Such master strokes are eloquent proof of the return by the totalitarian states to the darkest phases of secret diplomacy such as characterized the epoch of Absolutism... For the democratic world the importance of the pact lies in that it has finally ripped the mask from Stalin's face. I believe that in those countries where the free word still exists, the master stroke of diplomacy is the death stroke of Stalinism as an active force. I believe this because after nearly 20 years of service for the Soviet government, I am convinced that democracy; despite its present perilous position, is the sole path for progressive humanity.

Arthur Szyk, Hermann Goering,Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito (1942)
(Source 18) A cartoon on the Nazi-Soviet Pact published in Japan (1939)

(Source 19) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

The announcement on August 23, 1939, that the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a non-aggression pact came like a thunderclap, not least of all to the communist movement. Leaders and rank-and-file members were thrown into utter confusion. The impossible had happened. We looked hopefully for an escape clause in the treaty, but the official text provided none... 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. When the Nazis now invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war against Germany, 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.

(Source 20) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952)

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. For years, international Communism, of which the United States Communist Party is an integral part, had been in a state of undeclared war with this Republic. With the Hitler-Stalin pact that war reached a new stage. I regarded my action in going to the Government as a simple act of war, like the shooting of an armed enemy in combat.

Arthur Szyk, Hermann Goering,Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito (1942)
(Source 21) Clifford Berryman, "Wonder how long the Honeymoon will last? (9th October 1939)

(Source 22) Minutes of the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (2nd October 1939)

Rajani Palme Dutt: "I demand the acceptance of the (new Soviet line) by the members of the Central Committee on the basis of conviction... Every responsible position in the Party must be occupied by a determined fighter for the line..."

William Gallacher: "I have never... at this Central Committee listened to a more unscrupulous and opportunist speech than has been made by Comrade Dutt... and I have never had in all my experience in the Party such evidence of mean, despicable disloyalty to comrades..."

John R. Campbell: "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."

Harry Pollitt: "Please remember, Comrade Dutt, you won't intimidate me by that language. I was in the movement practically before you were born, and will be in the revolutionary movement a long time after some of you are forgotten.... I believe in the long run it will do this Party very great harm... I don't envy the comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week... go from one political conviction to another... I am ashamed of the lack of feeling, the lack of response that this struggle of the Polish people has aroused in our leadership."

(Source 23) Sigrid Schultz, Chicago Tribune (13th July, 1939)

Communism, Soviet Russia and Dictator Stalin were called the arch enemies of civilization when Hitler was advancing toward supreme power. Hatred of communism and the faith of the bourgeois that he would save from communism helped him become master of Germany.

Today England is being proclaimed as World Enemy No.1. She is accused of usurping the rights of small nations, of opposing Germany's "right to be the first power in the world."

Hatred of England is simmering or blazing in Japan, India, Arabia, Africa, Ireland, Russia, and England's ally, France. It is being fanned systematically by Nazi agents throughout the world.

Hitler, it is said, hopes to use this hatred to establish Germany as the most powerful nation in the world, the same as he used the German citizen's hatred of communism to establish his rule in Germany.

Friendship with Soviet Russia, or at least an understanding with her, can prove a powerful weapon in Germany's campaign "to force England to her knees," diplomatic sources declare.

The Germans figure that the English are so terrified of the possible formation of a Soviet-German bloc that Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax will again go to Germany and offer all the concessions the Germans want. If the British fail to respond to the threat, the Germans argue that they can still get enough raw materials and money out of Russia to make the deal worth while.

Arthur Szyk, Hermann Goering,Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito (1942)
(Source 24) Arthur Szyk, For a total living space, comrades in arms (1939)

(Source 25) William Joyce, radio broadcast from Germany (23rd June, 1941)

When in August, 1939, Hitler made a pact of friendship with Stalin, some of you may have wondered if Hitler had betrayed western civilisation. Yesterday in his proclamation, the Führer was able to speak openly for the first time. He said that it was with a heavy heart that he sent his Foreign Minister to Moscow. England left him no other choice. She had worked hard throughout the summer of 1939 to build up a coalition against Germany. Hitler was compelled in self-defence to conclude a pact of friendship with Russia in which the signatories agreed not to attack each other and defined spheres of interest.

(Source 26) Time Magazine (4th September, 1939)

What Poland had to watch calmly last week (with not nearly enough gas masks to go around, due to the Government's all-for-the-Army emergency economy) was a succession of border intrusions, in which many observers saw true Nazi rhythm. From Germany, from East Prussia, even by air from Free Danzig, came Nazi "gangs" to provoke the alert Polish guards into brief scuffles from which four deaths resulted - extreme casualties of the war of nerves. At week's end the Polish radio, protesting that "the limit of Polish patience is very near," turned from straightforward reporting of developments to a satiric debunking of the provocative propaganda its people were hearing from over the border. One German radio report had it that a certain retired Polish Army captain had been leading forays against Germans in Poland. Polish officials investigated, found that the captain had been dead for two years. Commented the radio: "Such incidents could only, therefore, have been perpetrated by a ghost, for which the Polish authorities can hardly be held responsible."

Kimon Marengo, The Progress of Russian and German Cooperation (1939)
(Source 27) Kimon Marengo, The Progress of
Russian and German Cooperation
Questions for Students

Question 1: 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?

Question 2: How does the information in the introduction help to explain source 5?

Question 3: 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.

Question 4: Study source 8. Do you think the cartoonist agrees with Chamberlain or Churchill about forming an alliance with the Soviet Union?

Question 5: 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?

Question 6: 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.

Question 7: Study sources 10, 14, 16, 17, 23 and 25. Explain the different reasons why Hitler and Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

Question 8: Use the information in source 13 to explain source 12.

Question 9: 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.

Question 10: Explain the meaning of sources 18, 21 and 27.

Question 11: Study sources 19, 20 and 22. Why did the Nazi-Soviet Pact cause problems for members of the Communist Party of the United States and Communist Party of Great Britain?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.