Seventy Years Ago Today: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact



When American students learn about World War II, they are usually taught that it began on September 1, 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. They do not get much instruction about the Treaty of Non-Aggression between the Third German Reich and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (after the foreign ministers of the two countries), signed early on August 24, 1939, but dated August 23. By this agreement, each side promised to remain neutral in the event that the other were attacked by a third party.

A key feature of the agreeement, however, was the secret protocols that accompanied it, by which the USSR and Germany divided eastern and central Europe into “spheres of influence” and provided that each side might occupy its sphere should “territorial and political rearrangements” be made in these areas. In other words, they agreed on a plan for carving up the entire area between the USSR and Germany as their borders existed at that time.

Seventeen days after the German invasion of Poland, the Russians invaded from the other side and quickly occupied the Polish territories identified as the Soviet sphere of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Afterward, the two sides cooperated economically and militarily in subduing the Poles and in supplying one another with various raw materials and manufactured goods, including military arms and equipment, as well as plans for weapons.

The pact, which came as a great surprise to almost everyone, created a potentially huge embarrassment for the many Soviet sympathizers in the West, including those in the United States, who had worked tirelessly for years to move public opinion against the fascists in general and Germany in particular. But, like the mindless marionettes they were, they missed not a beat, switching virtually overnight to praise for Stalin’s efforts to promote world peace and opposing war against Hitler.

Further potential for embarrassment arose in June 1941, when, notwithstanding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Disdaining embarrassment, the Roosevelt administration immediately embraced the mass murderers in Moscow and maintained them in a tight embrace for the balance of the war. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

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