The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Was A Pragmatic Means Of Managing The Soviet-Nazi Security Dilemma

Whatever one may think about its lack of morality, it was coldly pragmatic and wasn’t responsible for sparking World War II, just for temporarily putting off what proved to be its most deadly phase in Europe.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP) is back in the news after President Putin explained to Tucker Carlson how interwar Polish diplomacy make World War II inevitable. Many on social media reacted by bringing up that agreement and arguing that it was responsible for Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Without their secret deal to divide Central & Eastern Europe (CEE) into spheres of influence, they argue, he wouldn’t have been emboldened into starting World War II. The reality, however, is altogether different.

Hitler candidly declared in his 1925 infamous manifesto that he planned to obtain “Lebensraum” from the Soviet Union, which would naturally require Germany to first go through Poland since it wasn’t adjacent to the USSR. He also had a feverish hatred of communism and regarded the Nazis as the only force capable of preventing the continent’s conquest by that ideology. It therefore follows that he was plotting to invade the Soviet Union the entire time but wanted to do so after he was fully prepared.

Poland threw a wrench in his plans by refusing to appease his demands for a so-called “Danzig Corridor” that would restore Germany’s pre-World War I borders, which caught him off guard after it arguably synchronized its capture of Zaolzie from Czechoslovakia during the Munich Crisis. That development as well as this country’s similar threat assessment of the Soviet Union and communism convinced him that it would agree to being his junior partner, after which they’d later jointly invade the USSR.

In exchange, Poland could receive the Soviet half of Belarus that those two partitioned after the 1921 Treaty of Riga while the Nazis could obtain their envisaged “Lebensraum” in the Soviet half of Ukraine. He was obsessed with the last-mentioned land as proven by the private conversations during World War II that his secretary recorded with his permission and which were later published under the title “Hitler’s Table Talk”. Poland’s capitulation to his “Danzig Corridor” demands were the prerequisite for these plans.

The British diplomatically intervened, however, and convinced Poland to hold its ground and refuse to enter into negotiations with the Nazis over returning Germany’s pre-World War I territory. Since he wasn’t one to ever take no for an answer and fearing that backing down would strengthen the incipient (but at the time toothless) containment coalition that was forming around his country, he instead felt compelled to push his militant plans forward and decided to invade Poland.

That risked provoking a war with the USSR before the Nazis were ready due to those two’s seemingly intractable security dilemma up until that point since Stalin could have been spooked into thinking that Hitler wouldn’t stop at the Soviet border. He already feared that the West was tempting his ideological foe into expanding eastward and worried that they’d support him basing troops in the Baltic States and Finland as the prelude to the Soviet-Nazi War that they were encouraging if he didn’t invade right away.

If it broke out before he had time to rebuild his armed forces after the purge that he’d just carried out, and remembering that the Nazis weren’t yet prepared for this either (hence why Hitler preferred diplomacy for rebuilding the Reich over war at that point), then both would be destroyed. In that scenario, which was credible enough that it shaped the way in which Stalin formulated policy as will soon be explained, the British could once again divide-and-rule Europe to their ultimate benefit.

Hitler was keenly aware of this scenario as well and hoped that no Soviet-Nazi War would occur by miscalculation over the invasion of Poland that he felt compelled to order after Warsaw was emboldened by London into rejecting his “Danzig Corridor” demands. He therefore dispatched his Foreign Minister to Moscow to reach a secret agreement for dividing CEE between them in order to avert war for now and buy time to prepare for invading the USSR at a later date when he was fully ready.

In the interim, he sincerely thought that the British would ally with the Nazis or at least not stand in the way of their plans, which he wrote about in his detailed foreign policy manifesto that was unpublished during his life and posthumously released under the title “Hitler’s Second Book”. He was also an open and unabashed Anglophile who deeply respected the UK, and it was his dream to partner with it in some respect. In fact, all of his plans hinged on them not meaningfully intervening to stop him.

With these false expectations in mind, Hitler swiftly moved to defuse the seemingly intractable Soviet-Nazi security dilemma in the run-up to his invasion of Poland, which Stalin agreed to for the shared purpose of averting war for now and fully preparing for the inevitable one at a later time. The CEE states were treated as pawns in their “Great Power Chessboard” per the diplomatic traditions of the time, with the next two years characterized by each trying to gain an edge over the other via those countries.

This outcome was coldly pragmatic despite whatever misgivings some observers, especially those in the CEE states that were divided into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence, might have about its morality. Hitler was going to invade Poland after the UK convinced that country with false security guarantees not to appease him, which drastically raised the risk of a Soviet-Nazi War by miscalculation before either were ready due to their seemingly intractable security dilemma up until that point.

Stalin wasn’t prepared to fight Hitler at the time after having just purged his armed forces, nor did he want to risk losing and have the British divide-and-rule the continent, including the USSR if it was “Balkanized” as a result via the “Prometheist” policy that was pursued by interwar Poland. At the very least, a defeated Soviet Union would have lost its half of partitioned Belarus and Ukraine, with the real possibility of other non-ethnic-Russian regions being taken from it too depending on how badly it lost.

By accepting Hitler’s olive branch, which both knew was offered for coldly pragmatic reasons aimed at delaying the inevitable Soviet-Nazi War until both were fully prepared to fight it (and hoping that the British could be tamed or swayed to their side in the interim), Stalin put the USSR’s interests first. It wasn’t just a perfect example of the Neo-Realist school of International Relations thought in action, but was Hyper-Realist since both explicitly declared their interests and negotiated how best to respect them.

While Stalin subsequently succeeded in rebuilding his armed forces, establishing enough of a buffer zone to insulate the Soviet core from the first phase of the Nazis’ blitzkrieg, and swaying the British to his side, Hitler failed to blitz through those buffers and couldn’t convince the UK to stay out of the fray. Furthermore, Stalin entrenched and expanded his sphere of influence after the war with the exception of Finland, while Germany lost a whopping one-quarter of its pre-World War II territory.

The takeaway is that the MRP was much more beneficial for the Soviet Union than for the Nazis, but it nevertheless served both of their immediate interests by defusing their seemingly intractable security dilemma up until that point and delaying the inevitable Soviet-Nazi War by about two years. Whatever one may think about its lack of morality, it was coldly pragmatic and wasn’t responsible for sparking World War II, just for temporarily putting off what proved to be its most deadly phase in Europe.

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