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What Was Stalin Thinking?
If you knew this, well, I didn’t. When Josef Stalin signed the German-Soviet Pact of Non-Aggression on August 23, 1939, he did not do so to buy time to prepare his armies in the face of the Nazi threat. He had other goals. The pact, which gave Hitler a free hand to invade Poland, shocked the West, and especially the members of the Left who believed in the USSR’s particular anti-fascist mission. Many people had held out the hope that Stalin would sign such a pact with France and England. But as John Lukacs describes in another exhilarating book, June 1941: Hitler and Stalin, Stalin was motivated by territorial expansion and a desire to throw in with an ascendant Germany. The solidarity of the world’s working peoples be damned.
Right up until the Nazi invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, an ever-growing number of trains brought Soviet strategic raw materials (oil, timber, rubber) to Germany; and, as the Wehrmacht found in the first days of its attack, Stalin’s armies were not on any kind of war footing. In fact, Stalin was utterly surprised by Hitler’s attack. He had repeatedly expressed disbelief as plans for the invasion were reported to him by his own spies (“Dezinformator,” he scrawled on one report), German deserters, and even Winston Churchill.
Stalin believed in Hitler’s assertions of friendship; after the Non-Aggression treaty was signed, he memorably proposed a toast to Hitler’s name at a Moscow banquet: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore drink to the health of this great man.” Beyond the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s secret protocols dividing northeastern Europe into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence, Stalin wrote to Hitler at the end of 1940 suggesting the inclusion of the Soviet Union in the Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan, with each nation having hegemony over areas in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. And Stalin’s daughter Svetlana recalls her father commenting ruefully after the war, “Together with the Germans we would have been invincible.”
Uncle Joe, indeed.
Addendum: A counterpoint to the above comes from a young Dartmouth alumnus:
I am a longtime reader of your blog, and greatly enjoy its contribution to Dartmouth life.
My email, however, is more due to a tangent regarding Stalin and the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty. Your post on July 14th implies that Stalin was looking for a German alliance from the start. I must take issue with this, and argue the situation was more complex - the Soviet Union was trying to avoid a one-on-one war with Germany, while Britain, France stood idly by. The previous dismemberment of Czechoslovakia suggested that the Western Powers were encouraging Eastern Expansion by Germany. If the Soviet Union was to face Germany, Stalin needed assurance that France and Britain would mount a sufficient advance on the Western Front. The Non-aggression pact with Germany was only signed after the Tripartite talks with Britain and France stalled, due to Britain’s hesitation in providing military assurance to the Soviet Union.
Until 1939, the Soviet Union explored an anti-German alliance with Britain and France, alongside German negotiations. I would not say that the pro-German pact was favored among the two approaches - the Soviet Foreign Affairs Commissar until 1939 was Maxim Litvinov, a Jew who pursued talks with Britain and France, surely he would have been replaced earlier than 1939 if the USSR was intent on an alliance with Germany? Moreover, in May of 1939, London was carrying out its own negotiations for a political treaty with Germany - these also pushed the Soviets to advance talks regarding a German non-aggression treaty.
This is not to defend Stalin, a proven anti-semite, as well as many other terrible things, but the USSR’s decision to advance with the non-aggression pact was not a simple one. I am not familiar with historian John Lukacs, but I would have to infer that he is working with incomplete data. May I recommend you take a look at Derek Watson’s article “Molotov’s Apprenticeship in Foreign Policy: The Triple Alliance Negotiations in 1939”.
Thank you for your recent posts regarding Soviet and Russian contributions to world history, and of course for your work surrounding Dartmouth developments.
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