Saturday, August 23, 2014

When Germany and Russia Signed Their Nonaggression Pact

By and large, people are pretty good about learning from their mistakes. When they do something that results in physical pain and/or humiliation, most people make a mental note not to do that anymore. It's a defense mechanism, I suppose.

But there is one lesson — well, actually two lessons — that people repeatedly refuse to learn: (1) There is evil in the world, and (2) there is always someone who will be willing to cooperate with that evil.

I think just about everyone can agree that Adolf Hitler was evil. Everything he did in World War II was influenced by his experiences as a soldier in World War I.

One of the most significant lessons he took from World War I was that Germany came closest to victory when Russia was not involved. When that changed, so did the fortunes of war.

Consequently, as Hitler was readying his forces for the invasion of Poland that would set World War II irretrievably in motion 75 years ago, he dispatched foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow to work out an agreement with the Russians: The countries would agree not to attack each other.

Hitler intended to keep the Soviet Union out of the fighting this time.

Ribbentrop's trip to Moscow was announced on Aug. 22, 1939. Actually, I suppose, things got started around Aug. 14, when Ribbentrop contacted the Soviets to work out the second of a couple of deals.

The first pact was an economic one. The Soviets promised to provide food and raw materials to the Nazis; in return, the Nazis promised to provide products like machinery to the Soviets. (This made it possible for the Nazis to sidestep Britain's blockade in the early years of the war.) The details had been worked out earlier in the summer, and the agreement was signed in Berlin on Aug. 19.

The second agreement was the nonaggression pact.

Under the cloak of darkness in the late hours of Aug. 23, Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed a nonaggression pact that history remembers as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. It achieved what Hitler wanted. It kept the Soviet Union out of the hostilities.

Until Hitler himself broke the pact with Germany's invasion of Russia in June 1941.

Why did Hitler do it? I suppose you can answer that with another question: Why did Hitler do anything? The simple answer was that keeping Russia out of the war had helped him strengthen his hand in Europe. The nonaggression pact had served its purpose, and Hitler was looking to fulfill his pledge in Mein Kampf to look to the east for "living space" for the German people — and the raw materials he needed for the war effort.

He misjudged the strength of his position, and, apparently, he forgot with whom he was dealing.

Hitler's military leaders warned him that a two–front war would put enormous strain on the already weak German economy, but Hitler saw only the potential benefits. He soon saw the downside as his Army was repelled outside Moscow after the Russian winter set in.

There was a secret protocol in the nonaggression pact of which the world knew little until the Russians confirmed its existence in 1989.

Under this secret protocol, the Nazis and Soviets divided up eastern Europe into what were called "spheres of influence." In exchange for the Soviets' promise to stay out of the coming war, the Nazis gave them the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to act as a buffer from an invasion from the west. Poland also would be divided between the two countries.

The spoils of war were already being divvied up — and not a single shot had been fired ... yet.

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