September 1, 2012


On September 1, 1939 without a declaration of war, Hitler attacked Poland setting off World War II.  It was Blitzkrieg, the likes of which had never been seen before in the history of modern warfare. The German Wehrmacht encircled Polish defences crushing them with combined forces of land, sea and air: sixty divisions, 6 brigades, 9,000 guns, 2,750 tanks, 2,315 aircraft, and over 1.5 million troops. Then, on September 17th, the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland from the east, overwhelming Polish defenses. Soviet power consisted of 33 divisions, 11 brigades, 4,959 guns, 4,736 tanks, and 3,300 aircraft.  The combined German-Soviet forces destroyed and crippled Polish defences.  Facing this onslaught were only 39 Polish divisions (not all fully mobilized), 16 brigades, 4,300 guns, 880 tanks, and 600 aircraft (many of which were obliterated). The Polish government saw no other alternative but to order an immediate evacuation of Polish troops.

Molotov signing Pact_standingbehindare Ribbentrop and Stalin
Molotov signing the Pact
Just a week before the outbreak of war, an agreement was made between Germany and Russia, the "Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact", or more formally, the "Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union." This agreement, drafted by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslay Molotov, and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, stipulated the conditions  which called for mandatory consultation, arbitration in the event of a disagreement, neutrality if either party declared war against a third power, and prohibiting membership in any alliance "which is directly or indirectly aimed at the other."  But more importantly the Pact provided guarantees that neither signing party would instigate military aggression on the other.  

These were the non-secret conditions but it also contained a secret protocol which established "spheres of influence".  That is, the Soviet Union was "assigned" Finland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and areas east of the Pisa, Narev, Vistula and San Rivers;  while Germany would occupy the West.  Eleven days after the joint invasion of Poland, the secret protocol of the Pact was modified to give Germany a larger portion of Poland, and most of Lithuania allotted to the Soviet Union. 

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact August 1939 document
Molotov Ribbentrop Pact

Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence Molotov Ribbentrop Pact

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made headline news the following day in the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia, publishing the famous photo of Molotov signing the Pact, while Stalin stood behind him smiling. International reaction by governments and media was one of surprise and utter shock.  In the preceding months, Britain, France and the Soviet Union had been conducting negotiations of their own with the objective of establishing a "Tripartite Alliance".  With the sudden turn of events, Time Magazine coined the phrase "Communazi Pact" to describe the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and referred to its signatories and collaborators as "Communazis".  

Just six months later, Germany and the Soviet Union entered into a trade negotiations that was substantially larger than the original agreement signed in August 1939;  according to the terms, the Soviet Union would provide millions of tons of supplies to Germany in exchange for German war machines and materiel.  But the agreement was never finalized because on June 22, 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and in so doing, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and trade agreements were null and void.

For decades since the end of the World War Two, historians have been debating the motives of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and opinions continue to vary widely.  Edward Hallett Carr,  a British historian, Marxist and expert in the history of the Soviet Union, maintained that the Pact was necessary for the Soviet Union in order for them to buy time.  From his point of view, the Russians were not ready for war in 1939 and needed "at least three years to prepare". (A statement which I believe to be preposterous.) He stated furthermore that "in return for non-intervention Stalin secured a breathing space of immunity from German attack."  In other words, it was a defensive measure against the possibility of a German attack.   Another historian, Werner Maser disputes the claim that the Soviet Union was threatened by Hitler, and asserts that "it is a legend" that was created by others, including Stalin himself.  Neither Germany nor Japan possessed the military might to successfully invade the Soviet Union.  Others like Viktor Suvoroy speculated that Stalin's primary reason for signing the Pact was due to his expectation that it would provoke a conflict between the capitalist countries of Western Europe. 

It has been debated ad naseum that the Soviet Union needed to establish so-called buffer zones, using Poland and other Baltic countries, in order to defend itself from Germany.  But history has often shown that this is merely a precursor for invasion and occupation.  Shortly before the outbreak of war, Stalin attempted to negotiate a deal which would he hoped would allow Soviet troops passage through Polish territory in the event that Germany attacked.  Polish authorities refused to give their consent.  According to Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck, once the Red Army entered Polish territory, they might never leave.

International Black Ribbon Day August 23 2012
The controversy about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has never abated since its inception. Typically, the Soviet Union would for decades continually deny the very existence of the secret protocol. But eventually they had to bow to public pressure:  on August 23, 1986 demonstrations were held in 21 western cities including New York, London, Stockholm, Toronto, Seattle, and Perth.  Tens of thousands of people joined the Black Ribbon Day Rallies to bring attention to the Secret Protocols.  On August 23, 1989, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a  public demonstration, referred to as Baltic Way, was organized. An estimated two million people formed a human chain, linking hands over a span of 600 kilometers (370 miles) across Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, Lithuanian SSR.  It was meant to attract international attention to their desire for independence from illegal Soviet occupation.
Baltic Way Human chain in Lithuania
Human chain in Lithuania
Public pressure eventually led to the creation of a special commission headed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev to "investigate" whether such a protocol actually existed.  By December of 1989, the commission announced its conclusions to the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies and passed a declaration on December 24. They confirmed the allegations to be true, and at the same time, condemned and denounced them.  The Federal Republic of Germany had already made a similar declaration on September 1, 1989.  The Soviet document was declassified only in 2002  and was subsequently published in a scientific journal.  In an effort to allay tensions between Russia and Poland,  Putin wrote an article in August 2009 for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, condemning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as "immoral".

August 23 has been proclaimed by the European Parliament as European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.  In addition, a parliamentary resolution was passed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which condemns both communism and fascism for starting World War Two.  It calls upon the world to remember the victims of both Stalinism and Nazism on the 23rd of August.  Oddly, the Russian legislature was offended by this proclamation and  threatened the OSCE with "harsh consequences" - this, despite Russian condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The United States Congress, in 1982 established Baltic Freedom Day, to be commemorated by Americans every June 14th.

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