Little more than a week before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and ignited World War II, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin struck a bargain. Under the agreement, both sides promised that they would not attack the other and also agreed not to help an enemy of the other party. It was, notes British historian Roger Moorhouse, “one of the salient events of World War II.”
Officially known as the “Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” the Nazi-Soviet pact stunned the world. Partisans of both sides who had spent years verbally sparring and physically attacking each other had to perform some impressive verbal gymnastics to explain why these mortal enemies had suddenly become BFF.
Ultimately, the reason was simple – the treaty helped both sides in tangible ways. Hitler got a free hand to attack Poland without fear that the Soviet Union would intervene. In addition, he was assured that the Russians would not ally themselves with the British and the French and then fall on Germany. Finally, an economic agreement that followed the treaty ensured a steady supply of raw materials in the event that the British blockaded German ports as they had during World War I.
Stalin was promised that the Nazis would not invade Russia after conquering Poland and, thanks to a “secret protocol” appended to the agreement, was promised part of that country after the Nazis took their share. He also got carte blanche to help himself to the then independent Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
So it was security and spoils for everyone.
This landmark treaty is the subject of Moorhouse’s carefully researched and exceptionally readable new book, The Devil's Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 . This volume is an important addition to the vast literature on the war and will be a starting place for readers who want to understand this critical aspect of the conflict.
Moorhouse offers a wealth of important insights about this unlikely alliance. For example, he considers the now popular idea that Stalin agreed to the pact because he was “buying time” to rearm his military before the inevitable struggle. Moorhouse strongly and convincingly demolishes the claim. He argues that Stalin signed the treaty simply because of what it gave him. Indeed, after the war the Soviet Union was so anxious to minimize Stalin’s dalliance with fascism that they refused to acknowledge the “secret protocol” until 1989 – even though a copy of it had been found in the rubble of Berlin and published by the US State Department. Moorhouse concludes “The pact with Hitler, like the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, left an indelible stain on world communism.”
Second, Moorhouse argues that the eventual break between the two powers was not the result of underlying philosophical disagreement as some historians claim but rather because of more prosaic strategic and tactical concerns. Obviously, there were fundamental conflicts between fascism and communism – but they were not a barrier to the alliance nor were they the reason it fell apart. Ultimately, it was a tension over spheres of influence that destroyed the alliance: Hitler was uneasy about Stalin’s expansion into the Baltic states (even though it was permitted by the secret agreement) and both dictators had designs on the Balkans.
Finally, Moorhouse makes abundantly clear that Stalin should not have been surprised by the Nazi invasion in June 1941. The Soviets had pervasive evidence of a pending military assault from multiple sources. Stalin’s intelligence agencies warned him that an attack was imminent, as did Great Britain and America. Even some Germans tried to alert him – one Wehrmacht soldier deserted, crossed into Soviet territory, and informed the Russians of the invasion plans. Stalin had the soldier shot for spreading disinformation. The Soviet dictator simply chose to ignore what he did not want to hear.
In some respects, Moorhouse extends his argument too far. For example, he claims that the treaty has become an overlooked part of the Second World War. He writes that “the pact is simply not part of our collective narrative of World War II.” In fact, a number of recent historians have considered the impact of this notorious agreement on the course of the War and the peace that followed. Arguably, it deserves more attention than it has received. But it has hardly been forgotten.
Despite the fundamental differences between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, this thoughtful and engaging book is a compelling reminder that these two mortal enemies did have some things in common. Both totalitarian states were ruled by despots with absolutely no moral principles. Territorial expansion, subjugation of others, unadulterated violence, pure hypocrisy, and complete cynicism are not really a basis for a productive relationships between nations. But for a brief period of time, it was enough for two of the 20th century’s most notorious villains. And the world paid a terrible price.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.