Volume 35, No.1 - Spring 1989
Editor of this issue: Saulius Sužiedėlis
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1989 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



The Background: The Spring of 1939 and the Scramble for Security

In an eerily prophetic memorandum written in 1925, Sir James Headlam-Morley, the historical advisor to the British Foreign Office, explained the critical importance of Eastern Europe to the stability of the continent:

Has anyone attempted to realize what would happen if there were to be a new partition of Poland, or if the Czechoslovak state were to be so curtailed and dismembered that in fact it disappeared from the map of Europe? The whole of Europe would at once be in chaos. There would no longer be any principle, meaning, or sense in the territorial arrangements of the continent. Imagine, for instance, that under some improbable condition, Austria rejoined Germany; that Germany using the discontented minority in Bohemia, demanded a new frontier far over the mountains. . . and that at the same time, in alliance with Germany, the Hungarians recovered the southern slope of the Carpathians. This would be catastrophic, and, even if we neglected to interfere in time to prevent it, we should afterwards be driven to interfere, probably too late.1

Headlam-Morley's insight was not shared by majority British opinion of the twenties and thirties. The Munich fiasco of September 1938 was presided over by Western statesmen who failed to grasp the British historian's premise: European peace could not be preserved if the basic arrangements of the Versailles settlement were sabotaged. This would happen, Headlam-Morley had argued, if Germany and Russia were allowed to cooperate in the destruction of the newly-independent East European states.2

In early 1939 the hour was indeed late. The collapse of the truncated Czech state on 15 March 1939 unnerved an already anxious Europe. The Munich Pact had survived less than six months. The Reich's seizure of Klaipėda (Memel) from Lithuania a week later followed logically. Hitler's recapture of Klaipėda Territory was a milestone on the road to war: This was to be the Third Reich's last territorial acquisition, the final revision of Versailles accomplished without a resort to armed conflict.3 Nonetheless, the events of March 1939 prodded the Western powers into some action. There was now a perception that the very existence of the East European states that had emerged after Versailles (sometimes condescendingly referred to as the "successor States") was threatened. Some belatedly grasped Headlam-Morley's point that the continued independence of these weaker nations was essential for the peace and security of Europe. In fact, the territorial integrity and security of the East European countries constituted the centerpiece of the complex diplomatic maneuvering that followed the disintegration of Czechoslovakia.

The diplomatic maneuvers of the spring and summer of that year appear frantic and disjointed in retrospect. Responding to the Czech disaster, Britain moved quickly to reassure Poland, the largest and most important of the East European states and now clearly Hitler's next target. On 31 March 1939 the British government offered Poland an Anglo-French guarantee and on 6 April London and Warsaw completed negotiations for a formal alliance to be ratified at a later date.4 A British guarantee was extended to Romania and Greece on 13 April. The intended message seemed clear: There would be no repetition of Munich.

However, the British understood that the guarantees extended to Poland and Romania lacked military and political muscle. France in particular argued that only an overwhelming display of military strength would impress Hitler. Since it was known that Germany feared a repetition of a two-front war, one obvious solution to Nazi expansion was an Anglo-French-Soviet political and military accord, the establishment of a powerful bloc to contain Hitler. Yet even assuming that the Soviet Union seriously considered a common front with the West against the Reich, formidable stumbling blocks emerged to such an East-West alliance. As we shall see, one of the most critical issues was the problem of the Baltic States.

The course of the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations in the spring and summer of 1939 has been the subject of considerable attention and thus, the basic train of events which led up to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is well-known.5 Immediately after the German takeover of Prague the Soviet government proposed a conference of the "peaceful powers" to deter aggression but the idea was rejected by Britain as premature. However, during mid-March of 1939 British Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax and the Soviet Ambassador to Britain Ivan Maisky initiated a series of contacts concerning a common front against Germany. The first serious proposals came in April. For its part, Britain requested that the Soviet Union issue a declaration promising support for Russia's western neighbors if the smaller countries were threatened by Nazi Germany. On 17 April the Soviets proposed a pact to the British and French consisting of three basic elements: an agreement between the three powers for mutual assistance in case of war; a detailed military convention; a guarantee of the East European states lying between the Baltic and the Black Sea. These proposals formed the core issues of the protracted negotiations between the USSR and the Western powers during the following months.6

The Emergence of the Baltic Question in Soviet Negotiations with the West

The importance that the USSR attached to its western boundaries and the basic principles of Soviet policy in the Baltic region were evident well before the commencement of Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations. In June 1936 Foreign Commissar Maxim Litvinov told Latvian Foreign Minister Vilhelms Munters that, in the Soviet view, Article 16 of the League of Nations Covenant envisioned military assistance and transit rights for "foreign armed forces" to fight an aggressor irrespective of the wishes of the member states who were threatened. Munters rejected this notion: In the Latvian view, the assistance provisions and military transit rights could be invoked only with the consent of the affected League members. In December 1936 the foreign ministers of the Baltic Entente representing Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia met in Riga and affirmed strict neutrality as the optimal policy for their countries. The Soviet government criticized such a strategy as illusory and maintained that only the USSR could actually guarantee the security of the Baltic States.7 The Baltic governments were in a quandary. In principle, they desired friendly relations with the Soviet Union. But the Baits had no wish to provoke Germany; moreover, they had good reason to fear unsolicited guarantees from the USSR, which had in the past demonstrated its animosity to the socioeconomic systems and pro-Western orientation of the Baltic countries.

On 6 November 1938 Molotov declared that "the second imperialist war has begun."8 In ideological terms, the Soviet leadership saw little difference between the two potentially antagonistic imperialist (Anglo-French and German) camps. The USSR would consolidate its position in Eastern Europe as best it could whatever the circumstances. The French ambassador to Moscow Robert Coulondre claims that the Assistant Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vladimir Potyomkin told him that, in the wake of the Munich crisis, a "fourth partition of Poland" was now Russia's only alternative policy. The Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov also reportedly told the French Ambassador that Hitler would choose to attack Britain and for this reason the Fuehrer would eventually come to an agreement with the USSR.9

While the Soviet Union remained open to a detente with Nazi Germany, it strove to improve its position on the country's western borders. On 20 February 1939 the Finnish envoy in Moscow reported that the USSR had expressed concern about the possible orientation of Lithuania towards Germany and Poland, as well as the "direction" of Latvia. The chief of the Main Political Administration of the Red Army, Lev Mikhlis, in a revealing speech to Soviet soldiers on 14 March 1939 made it clear that the Soviets intended to fight their enemies outside their borders: If the USSR were attacked, he told Red Army men, they would have to "transfer military operations to the territory of the enemy, perform their international duties and increase the number of Soviet republics."10 For the Soviet Union, the looming conflict provided an opportunity as well as a threat. On 28 March 1939 Litvinov announced that the Soviet Union would not tolerate the establishment of significant influence by a "third power" in Latvia and Estonia; in hindsight this statement of a unilateral guarantee was "a de fact announcement that Estonia and Latvia belonged to the (Soviet) sphere of influence."11 In the Baltic States such Soviet assurances were bound to generate fear rather than a sense of security.

In the context of Soviet attitudes of the late 1930s, Stalin's policy toward the Baltic acquires a certain consistency. Given Soviet interest in the Baltic, it was not surprising that the issue of the Baltic States which bordered on the Soviet Union (Finland, Estonia and Latvia) became central to the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations concerning a common front against Hitler. On 22 May the British Foreign Office finalized an offer of a mutual assistance pact between Britain, France and the Soviet Union.12 At this point the issue of a guarantee to the Baltic States became the subject of serious disagreement. The British proposed that before the Soviet Union, France and Britain could activate the alliance, the threatened East European states themselves would have to request assistance against aggression. In other words, the victims of aggression would be the ones to invoke outside assistance as they saw fit. It became clear that Finland, Latvia and Estonia had no desire to be bound to the Soviet Union by a comprehensive guarantee; all three countries protested vigorously against unsolicited guarantees of their independence. The Estonian protests were particularly vociferous.13 Some commentators have suggested that the Baltic powers had failed to recognize the German danger by clinging to an unrealistic policy of unenforceable neutrality.14 Such a characterization of the Baltic attitude is simplistic. Baltic leaders were not universally opposed to guarantees as such. On 22 May Latvian Foreign Minister Munters met with British Foreign Secretary Halifax and suggested that the objections of the Baltic States could be overcome if a pact were to guarantee the neutrality of the small countries. In this way these States would acquire the status of Belgium whose neutrality had been guaranteed by international agreement and historically enforced by Britain. In fact Munters' suggestions were incorporated into the proposals that the Western Powers presented to Molotov on 27 May.15

The Western proposals stressed that an Anglo-French-Soviet pact would extend aid to all guaranteed and neutral states on the condition that the third party would itself request assistance. The rights of the guaranteed states were not to be prejudiced in any way. The British assured the Baltic governments that they did not intend to force them into unwanted guarantees. The Soviet Union's response of 2 June reiterated earlier Soviet demands for unconditional assistance to Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Greece and Belgium. In the Soviet plan, the signatories of the pact would intervene irregardless of the wishes of the guaranteed states. In his discussions with the Soviets, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, remarked that, from the point of view of the smaller states, such guarantees constituted a threat rather than an offer of assistance. Molotov replied that the Soviet Union could not risk the possibility that the Baltic States would come under political German influence; if threatened, they could then refuse or be unable to invoke the assistance of the Great Powers.16

The disagreements over the guarantees stimulated doubts about Soviet intentions in the Baltic. Seeds himself briefly advocated the cessation of negotiations rather than risking the enmity of the Baltic States. Still, compelling reasons remained for continuing negotiations, including the attractive prospect of Soviet military power in support of the West and the pervasive Western fear of a Nazi-Soviet rapproachment. The French in particular urged concessions to the Soviet Union in order to realize a mutual assistance pact. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explained to the House of Commons on 7 June that Britain was seeking a compromise on the issue of unsolicited assistance to threatened states. The British proposed that assistance to the small states be conditional on consultations by the three Great Powers, which it was felt, would give the West an effective means to avert unwarranted intervention in the Baltic region by the Soviet Union.17

The USSR, however, remained adamant on the issue of unconditional guarantees to the Baltic States. Over time British resistance to the Soviet demand for unconditional guarantees in the Baltic weakened steadily. Both the increasingly dangerous international situation and domestic political pressure on the Foreign Office, led by such notables as Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, pushed Britain towards a conclusion of the Moscow talks and the signing of a mutual defense pact. By the end of June, the British had practically assented to Soviet demands for an unsolicited guarantee of the Baltic States. The new Anglo-French proposals of 27 June 1939 in effect granted the Soviet Union the right to decide if aggression against a "Baltic State constitutes a threat to the independence or neutrality of that State such that the Soviet Government feels obliged to assist the victims."18

On 1 July Molotov responded to the latest Western proposals. He complained that the Anglo-French formulation did not protect the Soviet Union against what he termed "indirect aggression." Czechoslovakia's collapse had shown, he explained, that the independence of a state can be undermined in an indirect manner. The Soviet Union could not ignore the possibility of a threat to its security by an indirect attack, presumably political subversion, on the Baltic States. The Soviets proposed that the three powers agree to a secret protocol that would define indirect aggression as "an internal coup d' etat or a reversal of policy in the interests of the aggressor."19 The Soviet concept of indirect aggression, of course, had been foreshadowed by Litvinov's 28 March declaration. In view of some Western negotiators, the concept of indirect aggression was so broad that it could be interpreted as a right to unlimited intervention in the political affairs of neighboring states. There is little doubt that the negotiators in Moscow understood that the inclusion of "indirect aggression" as part of a pact meant a serious abridgement of the independence of the Baltic States.

Eager for agreement, but still hesitant to agree to such Soviet predominance in the Baltic, the British attempted to further define the concept of aggression; they proposed that it necessarily entail the "threat of force." Halifax himself explained that the issue was one of principle. Yet the Western powers continued to show a willingness for compromise; they were taken aback when on 23 July Molotov abruptly announced that the issue of indirect aggression was only a "technical matter" and that talks for a detailed military convention should begin even while the political questions, including a formulation of indirect aggression acceptable to all sides, were still under negotiation.20

The issues of unsolicited guarantees, indirect aggression and the procedural problem of two-track negotiations continues to trouble British and French negotiators. On 31 July, Chamberlain explained to the House of Commons that there were basic disagreements on principle between the negotiating parties in Moscow and that Britain did not wish to create the impression that it would diminish the sovereignty of other states. The under-secretary of state Butler was more blunt: "the main question has been whether we should encroach on the independence of the Baltic States."21 The Soviet press reacted strongly to the insinuation that it harbored any designs on her Baltic neighbors. Nevertheless, talks continued although as British ambassador Seeds noted, Molotov's attitude cooled after the failure to settle the indirect aggression problem to Soviet satisfaction. Molotov repeated his formula that indirect aggression was possible without the threat of force. Political talks were at a standstill.22

On 11th August an Anglo-French military mission arrived in Moscow and negotiations commenced on the following day. Almost immediately, the Soviets demanded passage rights for their forces through Romania and Poland. In the latter case, the Red Army was to cross through the "Vilnius Corridor" and Galicia in the event of war. The French, without success, pressed the Poles to agree to the Soviet proposals.23 The refusal of the Polish government to grant passage rights stymied the military negotiators and the talks were suspended on 21 August. On that day TASS announced that Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a trade and credit agreement; on 22 August news came that the Reich's foreign minister, Ribbentrop, was on his way to Moscow to sign a non-agression pact with the USSR. On 25 August the Western powers were informed that the Soviet Union was no longer interested in continuing political and military discussions.

The Baltic Question in German-Soviet Negotiations

On 10 March 1939 Stalin denounced the Western powers at the Eighteenth Party Congress for their alleged attempts to provoke a Soviet conflict with Germany and suggested that there were grounds for improved relations with the Reich. The Germans did not take Stalin's words for idle chatter; they treated it as a sign of a new Soviet orientation. Whatever the intentions of the Soviet leaders, it appears that the "German card" was a consideration even before the contacts with the West. On 17 April 1939 the Soviet ambassador to Germany Merekalov called on State Secretary Ernst Weizsaecker and signaled the Soviet desire for good relations with Germany.24 The unexpected dismissal of Maxim Litvinov as Commissar for Foreign Affairs and his replacement by Stalin's confidant Vyacheslav Molotov on 3 May emphasized the importance the Soviet Union placed on the current negotiations. As Litvinov was of Jewish origin, the new appointment may have been intended to facilitate talks with Nazi Germany.25

Soviet trade negotiations with the Reich continued in the spring of 1939 but showed little sign of progress; however, the Soviets let it be known that they were favorably impressed with the new-found moderation that the German press displayed toward their country.26 The atmosphere was further improved when the Germans allowed the fulfillment of Soviet supply contracts with the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia. On 20 May Molotov expressed a vague desire for German "political proposals" as essential in resuming the stalled talks for a trade agreement. In late May, the German Foreign Office decided "to undertake definite negotiations with the Soviet Union." Progress was initially slow as both sides were reluctant to commit themselves to political negotiations during the exploratory economic talks; in addition, the Germans were anxious about the ongoing Soviet discussions with the British and French.27

On 14 June the Soviet Charge d'Affaires in Berlin Georgi Astakhov reported to the Bulgarian minister there that Soviet policy was still "open" to an agreement with Germany, an apparent feeler intended for German ears and duly reported by the Bulgarian. A series of Soviet-German contacts between late June and mid-July convinced both sides that, in addition to the continuation of economic talks, serious negotiations for a political pact could also be undertaken.28 An important indicator that the Soviets and Germans were in fact considering a revolutionary reconciliation was the emergence of the Baltic area as a primary object of discussion. Dr. Karl Schnurre, head of the East European and Baltic commercial policy division 6f the German Foreign Office, reported that in conversations held on 26 July, Astakhov had expressed repeated interest in the Baltic area and had insisted that the question of spheres of influence was the essential component of any political agreement with the Reich.29 On 29 July Weizsaecker wrote to the German Ambassador in Moscow Count von Schulenburg that "if the talk (with Molotov) proceeds positively in the Baltic question too, the idea could be advanced that we will adjust our stand with regard to the Baltic in such a manner as to respect the vital Soviet interests in the Baltic."30

The German eagerness to come to an agreement with Moscow became ever more apparent. The USSR could afford to be courted: The advantages for the Soviet Union's negotiating position inherent in the obvious haste and eagerness for an agreement displayed by the Germans could not have been lost on Stalin and Molotov. In the process, Poland and the Baltic became negotiable. On 3 August Ribbentrop cabled Schulenburg that he had informed Astakhov that "there was no problem from the Baltic to the Black Sea that could not be solved" between the Reich and the Soviet Union and that "there was room for the two of us on the Baltic and that Russian interests by no means needed to clash with ours there." Ribbentrop also told the Soviet Chargé:

As far as Poland was concerned, we were watching further developments attentively and dispassionately. In case of provocation on the part of Poland, we would settle matters with Poland in the space of a week. For this contingency, I dropped a gentle hint at coming to an agreement with Russia on the fate of Poland.31

Ribbentrop noted that the Soviets seemed interested in "concrete terms." For his part, Schulenburg reported that in a lengthy conference with Molotov on 4 August the Soviet Foreign Commissar "abandoned his usual reserve and appeared unusually open." The Soviets were definitely prepared to discuss "concrete" issues.

I (Schulenburg) thereupon again stressed the absence of opposition of interests in foreign policy and mentioned German readiness so to orient our behavior with regard to the Baltic States, if occasion arose, as to safeguard vital Soviet Baltic interests.

At the mention of the Baltic States, M. (Molotov) was interested in learning what States we meant by the term and whether Lithuania was one of them.32

Molotov's last remark was interesting in that Lithuania, in contrast to Finland, Latvia and Estonia, had generally not figured as one of the "Baltic States" in the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations. (The country had no border with the USSR at the time).

On 7 August Schulenberg described a definite cooling in the Soviet attitude towards the British and French but noted that Molotov "has been very different toward Hilger (Counselor of the German Embassy in Moscow) and me of late; very communicative and amiable."33 Despite the warming, however, the Soviets still professed a suspicion of German influence in the Baltic region. Schulenburg wrote:

In conversation with Molotov, the Ministers of Latvia and Estonia here also characterized the German Nonaggression Treaties (with their countries) as guarantees of peace, and remarked that the conclusion of the treaties had been entirely natural, since Latvia and Estonia had similar nonaggression treaties with the Soviet Union. Molotov, however, had taken the position that these treaties indicated an inclination toward Germany, and he could not be moved from this position.

The Estonian Chargé here, in talking about the attitude of the Soviets toward Baltic questions, spoke of the possibility that Germany might guarantee the independence of Latvia and Estonia, as it had done with Belgium. I am of the opinion that the Soviets no longer want such a guarantee to be given by us.34

During the week of August 7-14 the basic agenda of a German-Soviet pact was negotiated. On 10 August the Reich Foreign Office made clear that, in the event of a Polish-German conflict, "German interests in Poland were quite limited. They did not at all need to collide with Soviet interests of any kind, but (Germany) had to know those interests."35 The statement constituted an unambiguous invitation to discuss a partition of Poland. On 12 August, the same day that the British and French military missions opened their talks with the Soviets, Molotov informed the Reich that he was prepared for formal political negotiations in Moscow.36

On 14 August Ribbentrop sent detailed instructions to Schulenburg. The Ambassador was to communicate to Molotov the German Foreign Minister's offer to come to Moscow on the condition that he be allowed to see Stalin himself. Once again, Ribbentrop emphasized that Baltic problems as well as the other East European issues could be settled. He warned that if the Soviets allowed themselves to be drawn into "attempts at an alliance which are bound up with (English) policy," then the chance would be lost for "restoring German-Soviet friendship and possibly of clearing up jointly the territorial questions of Eastern Europe."37 On 15 August Molotov told Schulenburg that the Soviet Union wished to sign a nonaggression pact with the Reich and inquired "whether a possible joint guarantee of the Baltic States was contemplated by Germany."38 The ambassador noted with pleasure the "surprising moderation" of Molotov's reactions to the German proposals but noted that "despite all efforts, we did not succeed in ascertaining entirely clearly what Herr Molotov desires in the matter of the Baltic States." Schulenberg thought that a joint guarantee (of the Baltic States) seemed "at variance with the behavior of the Soviet Government in the British-French negotiations."39

German eagerness for a solution of the Baltic issue grew as the Reich, in view of the escalating German-Polish crisis, began to press Moscow for an early agreement. On 16 August Ribbentrop transmitted a message to Schulenburg in which he stated that "Germany is ready to guarantee the Baltic States jointly with the Soviet Union."40 On 18 August Schulenburg reported that Molotov had finally outlined the general Soviet conditions for a pact: The economic agreement would be signed first, followed by a nonaggression pact "with the simultaneous conclusion of a special protocol which would define the interests of the signatory parties in this or that question of foreign policy and which would form an integral part of the pact."41 In order that there be no misunderstanding, Molotov reiterated that the special protocol should include "the German statements of August 15," which had spoken clearly of territorial questions in the region between the Black and Baltic seas. It was agreed in principle that Ribbentrop should travel to Moscow. In the early morning hours of 19 August Schulenburg received Ribbentrop's instructions to notify the Soviet government that the Reich was "in complete agreement with the idea of a nonaggression pact, a guarantee of the Baltic States, and German pressure on Japan."42

The actual definition of a "guarantee" realized the latent fears of the Baltic States concerning their independence. The note stated that Ribbentrop, upon his arrival "would be in a position to sign a special protocol regulating the interests of both parties... for instance, the settlement of spheres of interest in the Baltic area, the problem of the Baltic States, etc." Ribbentrop communicated to Moscow that "German foreign policy today has reached a turning point."43 On the same day, 19 August, the economic agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed in Berlin.

Schulenburg met twice with Molotov on the afternoon of the 19th of August. During their first meeting, Molotov noted that the "content of the protocol was a very serious question and the Soviet Government expected the German Government to state more specifically what points were to be covered in the protocol."44 During the second encounter, Molotov handed Schulenburg a draft of the nonaggression pact, which contained a "Postscript:" The proposed pact would be valid "only if a special protocol is signed simultaneously covering the points in which the High Contracting Parties are interested in the field of foreign policy. The protocol shall be an integral part of the pact."45 Molotov now agreed that Ribbentrop arrive in a week's time.

Committed to an attack on Poland within days, even such rapid progress could not satisfy Hitler. On 21 August Stalin received a personal letter from the Fuehrer stating that "the supplementary protocol desired by the Soviet Union can ... be substantially clarified" if Ribbentrop were to arrive in Moscow by the 23rd of August at the latest. Within two hours Stalin responded and agreed to Ribbentrop's Moscow trip on the 23rd.46 On 22 August Hitler formally empowered Ribbentrop to negotiate and sign a "nonaggression treaty . . . and other agreements resulting from the negotiations."47 On the morning of 23 August Ribbentrop and his delegation arrived in Moscow on a flight from Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad). The Reich Foreign Minister carried one last instruction from Hitler: He was to inform the Soviets that hence the problems of Eastern Europe "would be considered to belong exclusively to the sphere of interests of Germany and Russia."48

At 8 p.m. on 23 August Ribbentrop cabled Hitler that the first three-hour conference with Stalin and Molotov had just ended. The Reich Foreign Minister's telegram to Berlin makes it clear that the major topic of conversation was not the text of the nonaggression pact, but the territorial and political issues associated with the "protocol." Ribbentrop reported:

At the discussion ... it transpired that the decisive point for the final result is the demand of the Russians that we recognize the ports of Libau (Liepaja) and Windau (Ventspilis) as within their sphere of influence. I would be grateful for confirmation before 8 o'clock German time that the Fuehrer is in agreement. The signing of a secret protocol on delimitation of mutual spheres of influence in the whole eastern area is contemplated, for which 1 declared myself ready in principle.49

Hitler quickly agreed to what was a minor adjustment in the context of this proposed historic partition of Eastern Europe and thus the Soviet-German nonaggression pact was signed in the early morning hours of 24 August. The published text of the treaty (see below), which went into force immediately, prohibited either party from attacking one another or participating in any hostile "grouping of powers" directly or indirectly aimed at the other. It obliged both parties to maintain "continuous contact" with the other and settle disputes by arbitration.

However, as far as the Baltic States were concerned, the critical section of the treaty dated 23 August was the secret protocol in which the Germans and Soviets "discussed in strictly confidential conversations the question of the boundary of their respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe." Aside from the stricture that it be kept secret, the protocol contained three provisos. The first partitioned the Baltic States, defined as Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, into spheres of influence "in the event of a territorial and political rearrangement." The first three states went to the USSR, while Lithuania was to be included in the German sphere. The Lithuanian-Latvian border formed "the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and the USSR." In a move of utmost importance for Lithuania's national aspirations, both sides declared that they recognized "the interest of Lithuania in the Vilnius area." The second proviso partitioned Poland approximately along the Narva, Vistula and San Rivers. It included a chilling paragraph on the future of Poland:

The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish state and how such a state should be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of further political development.

In any event both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly agreement.

The final territorial provision of the protocol affirmed Soviet rights to Bessarabia.50

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August was formally a nonaggression treaty, similar to the 1926 treaties of nonaggression signed between the Soviet Union and Germany, as well as the pacts concluded between the USSR and its western neighbors during the interwar period. However, together with the secret protocol, the treaty of 23 August amounted to much more than a promise of neutrality in case of war. Given strategic realities, the pact constituted a de facto alliance, which was to be realized in the subsequent economic, military and diplomatic cooperation between Hitler and Stalin that emerged during the 1939-1941 period. The Soviet Union and Germany envisioned the destruction of an independent Polish state, as well as cooperation in its partition; in view of Britain's guarantee of Poland this meant a general war in Europe. Unlike numerous other nonaggression treaties and guarantees that proliferated in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, the pact between Hitler and Stalin was concluded with the expectation that it would facilitate war, not prevent it. The delineation of "spheres of influence" in Eastern Europe was, in fact, a partition of most of the region; it could hardly be expected that Hitler and Stalin, having planned the disappearance of a Poland allied to the West, would respect the independence of the smaller and weaker states that had fallen within their respective "spheres of influence."

Although it was known that the Germans and Soviets had been conducting talks, the swift conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact stunned Europe. The recognition that the treaty constituted a diplomatic revolution and the expectation that the pact made war likely were widespread in the Baltic. Leon Mitkiewicz, the Polish military attaché in Kaunas, noted that "this event created a tremendous impression, bordering on general panic, among Lithuanian political circles and in the diplomatic corps."51 While the political pundits and the press speculated on what lay in store and even foresaw Lithuanian territorial gains at the expense of Poland, the Smetona government assured the Poles of its strict neutrality.52 Some still hoped that Hitler could be restrained from war by a show of resolve, such as Britain's formal conclusion of the treaty of alliance with Poland on 25 August. In Lithuania the Anglo-Polish treaty was seen as having "made quite an impression on Berlin . . . which forced Germany to view the newly-created situation in a new light."53 There was, in fact, no hope for negotiation and compromise, despite the various last-minute maneuvers to negotiate over Danzig. Hitler, who had already once delayed the attack on Poland, now rescheduled it for 1 September.

The Pact Redefined and Enforced: 23 August to 28 September 1939

While the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact provided for the destruction of Poland, the hastily negotiated provisions of the secret protocol had to be modified in view of the rapid advance of the German armies in September 1939. The realization of the secret protocol's territorial provisions required a substantial degree of Soviet-German diplomatic and military coordination which went beyond the requirements of a nonaggression pact.54

Stalin was eager that military events not affect the agreements of 23 August and that the Soviet Union gain all the advantages to which it was entitled by the partitions of a month earlier. Despite repeated German reassurances that the Reich would respect the spheres of interest outlined in Moscow, the Soviets expressed concern about their share of Poland. When the Soviet Army did finally attack Poland on 17 September, its intervention was rationalized by the need for (a) the restoration of order in the areas that had belonged to Poland; (b) fraternal assistance to the Byelorussian and Ukrainian minorities which had long been oppressed by the Poles.55 On 20 September Schulenburg reported that the Soviet government no longer envisioned even a "residual" Polish state and wished to commence negotiations at once concerning the details of a definitive partition of Poland along the Pissa-Narev-Vistula-San.56 In contrast to the negotiations of August, it was now the Soviets who displayed haste and nervousness in pressing for an agreement. The talks on the "definitive structure of the Polish area" soon expanded to include the Baltic States. On 25 September Schulenburg was received by Molotov and Stalin. According to Schulenburg, it was Stalin who explained the outline of an amended deal:

In the final settlement of the Polish question anything that in the future might create friction between Germany and the Soviet Union must be avoided. From this point of view, he (Stalin) considered it wrong to leave an independent Polish rump state. He proposed the following: From the territory to the east of the demarcation line, all the Province of Lublin and that portion of the Province of Warsaw which extends to the Bug should be added to our (German) share. In return, we should waive our claim to Lithuania.

Stalin designated this suggestion as a subject for the forthcoming negotiations with the Reich Foreign Minister and added that, if we consented, the Soviet Union would immediately take up the solution of the Baltic countries in accordance with the Protocol of August 23 and expected in this matter the unstinting support of the German Government. Stalin expressly indicated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but did not mention Finland.57

Even as Stalin spoke Soviet aircraft made continuous and intimidating over flights over Estonian territory. On 27 September Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow for a second time, a visit of less than forty-eight hours. The result of the trip was the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939 which formalized the fourth partition of Poland, allowed the repatriation of ethnic Germans to the Reich as well as Ukrainians and Byelorussians to the Soviet Union, and promised to suppress "Polish agitation" in both the German and Soviet areas of occupied Poland. Most important for Lithuania, another "secret supplementary protocol" redefined the German-Soviet partition of the Baltic. It noted that in exchange for Lublin and part of the province of Warsaw, "the territory of the Lithuanian state falls to the sphere of influence of the USSR." The protocol went on to state:

As soon as the Government of the USSR shall take special measures on Lithuanian territory to protect its interests, the present German-Lithuanian border, for the purpose of a natural and simple boundary delineation, shall be rectified in such a way that the Lithuanian territory situated to the southwest of the line marked on the attached map should fall to Germany.

Further it is declared that the economic agreements now in force between Germany and Lithuania shall not be affected by the measures of the Soviet Union referred to above.58

The strip of territory in question constituted only 1,800 square kilometers but included the largest city in southwestern Lithuania, Marijampolė (since 1965 Kapsukas). This cession to the Reich is usually referred to as the "Suwalki strip."59 Eventually, it proved politically impractical to complete the transfer of the Suwalki strip to German jurisdiction. On 10 January 1941 the last of the German-Soviet "secret protocols" renounced German claims to the border strip for 7.5 million dollars to be paid in gold and "nonferrous metals."60

The 28 September treaty was accompanied by an interesting Soviet-German declaration which, in the Realpolitic spirit of the partitions of the late eighteenth century, claimed that Germany and Russia had "definitively settled the problems arising from the collapse of the Polish state and have thereby created a sure foundation for a lasting peace in Eastern Europe." If the general European war continued, the Germans and Soviets maintained, it would be the fault of England and France. The message was a cynical affirmation of the fait accompli: Poland was gone and Eastern Europe lay under a German-Soviet condominium; there was, therefore, no further reason for war.61

The Baltic in the European Balance of Power: Prelude to Occupation

What role did the Baltic question play in the dramatic realignment of the European balance of power that emerged in August of 1939? As we have seen, disagreements over the Baltic constituted a major obstacle to an Anglo-French-Soviet agreement. However, a careful review of Anglo-French concessions to the Soviet demands for an unconditional guarantee of the Baltic States indicates that by late July and early August, the Western powers had moved to accommodate Soviet concerns.

There was a duality in the Western position. The British continued to reassure the smaller nations both in the West (for example, the Netherlands) and the East (especially Finland, Latvia and Estonia) that guarantees of their independence would not evolve into secret agreements concerning spheres of influence. Yet the negotiations on guarantees and "indirect aggression" clearly moved the British and French towards the Soviet interpretation. If one compares the positions of the Western powers and the Soviet Union in April and May of 1939 with the proposals that emerged in midsummer, it is obvious that the concessions, the movement for compromise, came mainly from the British and French; the Soviet side displayed not only rigidity but a tendency to come up with new demands.62

This situation grew out of the Soviets' superior negotiating position in 1939. The collapse of Czechoslovakia and the Anglo-Polish defense pact made a British-French detente with Germany difficult if not impossible. On the other hand, the Soviet Union had since the spring of 1939 entertained at least the possibility of a rapprochements with the Third Reich. Both the Western powers and the Germans sought an agreement with the USSR. Each side was understandably anxious to prevent the Soviet Union from attaching itself to its protagonist. It was thus natural that the concessions and the initiative for compromise came from the Soviets' negotiating powers rather than from Moscow. Stalin could afford to wait and see which side was willing to pay the higher price in return for Soviet support.

The issue of the Baltic States underlined the strength of the Soviet negotiating position. Despite concessions regarding the formulation of a guarantee of the Baltic States, Britain and France stopped short of accepting a division of the region into "spheres of influence," which was implicit in the concept of indirect aggression and the proposals of including West European states in the guarantees of independence against Nazi aggression.63 The West insisted on haggling over the formal political independence of the Baltic States. The Germans had fewer scruples. As noted earlier, they repeatedly emphasized their understanding of Soviet interests in the Baltic. The principle that the interests of both powers need not clash in this area was, in hindsight, an invitation to a partition of the region.

However, the spheres of influence between Hitler and Stalin outlined on 23 August, including the division of the Baltic States, could not be realized without the destruction of Poland. For Lithuania, this fact was imbued with irony. For many years, Lithuanian public opinion had excoriated Poland as Lithuania's historic enemy, the usurper of her ancient capital: Vilnius. By sealing Poland's fate, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact created the necessary preconditions for realizing the provisions of the secret protocol of 23 August which at the same time assured the eventual destruction of Lithuanian independence. The anxiety of the Soviet government about the fate of its share of the Polish lands in the wake of the Wehrmacht's invasion is visible in the correspondence that passed between Berlin and Moscow in the first half of September.64 The division of Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence," which had been agreed to in principle, was made concrete in the wake of Poland's destruction. Historically, the treaties and secret protocols signed on 28 September 1939 were both an extension and enactment of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

On 24 September the Soviet Union moved to persuade the Estonian government to accept a Soviet-Estonian mutual defense treaty, which would effectively transform Estonia into a Soviet protectorate incapable of "indirect aggression." In reality, the demonstration of military force against Estonia (overflights of Tallinn and concentration of Soviet troops at the border) and Molotov's unmistakable threats of force transformed the offer of a pact into an ultimatum. The most important element in Stalin's demands to the Estonians was the establishment of Soviet military bases in Estonia. Given geopolitical realities and the nature of Stalinism, this protectorate meant considerably less political independence for the weaker side than that enjoyed by Panama or Nicaragua vis-a-vis the United States during the interwar period. For their part, the Germans informed the Estonians that they would not assist them if the latter resisted the Soviets by force; on the contrary, the Reich would be compelled "on the basis of its treaties" to adopt a hostile attitude towards Estonia. Reich officials made it clear that there was no possibility of Germany permitting war materials from Western Europe to reach Estonia if the country chose to confront the Soviet Union.65

Estonia was the psychological lynchpin in the Soviet move to establish military bases in the Baltic. The later negotiations with Latvia and Lithuania were marked by less obvious threats. The Estonian example spoke for itself: The USSR was prepared to use force to achieve the conclusion of the mutual defense treaties with the Baltic governments. For Lithuania, the establishment of Soviet bases in October 1939 was accompanied by the return of Vilnius and its environs, a cherished national goal. The acquisition of Vilnius significantly attenuated the worry about Soviet military installations in the country. The history of the negotiations and signing of the mutual defense treaties is outside the framework of this article and is described elsewhere.66 The treaties are mentioned to illustrate the process which realized the "territorial and political rearrangement" of the Baltic foreseen in the 23 August secret protocol.

As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty and accompanying secret protocols of 28 September 1939, as well as the Baltic mutual defense treaties with the Soviet Union (Estonia: 28 September 1939, Latvia: 5 October 1939, Lithuania: 10 October 1939) completed only the initial stage of the territorial and political arrangements of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The final implementation of the Pact, of course, took place with the incorporation of the partitioned territories into the Soviet Union. On 1 November and 2 November 1939 the Supreme Soviet incorporated the Ukrainian and Byelorussian territories which had been assigned to Poland by the Treaty of Riga (March 1921) into the Soviet Union. In a lengthy report to the Supreme Soviet on 31 October 1939 Molotov made it clear that there was no question of restoring the "old Poland." Germany and Russia, as Molotov put it, had abolished the "ugly offspring of the Versailles treaty."67 Fortunately for Poland, the German attack of 1941 forced a desperate Soviet Union to make an about-face and support the Western war aim of restoring the Polish state.

In contrast, the Soviet Union delayed cashing its Baltic and Bessarabian chips until the spring of 1940. This delay can be explained largely by the Soviet view of the prevailing political and military situation of 1939-1940. In his November 12-13 visit to Berlin, Molotov suggested to Hitler that Soviet policy in the region had been achieved in two stages: The first had been concluded by the "end of the Polish War, while the second stage was brought to an end by the defeat of France." In other words, the first witnessed the legitimization of the Soviet sphere of influence through agreement with the Reich; the precondition was the dismemberment of Poland. The second saw the thorough Sovietization of that sphere; the precondition here was the military collapse of France. The third stage, an even more ambitious partition scheme was never realized.68 Efforts by the Soviet Union and Germany to further define their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Balkans failed. In fact, Soviet-German disagreements over further shares in the region (Bukovina, Bulgaria, Turkey) gave rise to Soviet-German tensions. Despite the fact that the principle of partitioning territory had been settled in August 1939, squabbles over the precise division of spoils were the immediate cause for the breakdown in Soviet-German relations.69

Molotov's commentary suggests a logical explanation for the contrast between the USSR's rapid annexation of eastern Poland and the relatively cautious policy of gaining a foothold in the Baltic States during 1939-1940. Poland had ceased to exist; even a genuine armistice between the Anglo-French alliance and Germany was unlikely to restore the Poland which had existed before 1 September 1939. The Baltic States, on the other hand, had not been destroyed by the European war which after the Polish campaign had settled into its "phony" period (before April 1940). In contrast to Poland, an easy excuse for intervention was lacking: There was no need to reestablish "peace and order" in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia. Nor could the Soviet Union claim protection over ethnic brethren in the Baltic as it had with the Byelorussians and Ukrainians of eastern Poland. During the period of the "phony war" Stalin could not be sure how the war in the West would unfold but he is on record stating that Britain would comprise a formidable foe to the Reich.70 France had the largest army in Europe; it must be remembered that it was highly regarded before the debacle of May-June 1940. The progress of the war was crucial in Soviet plans: A quick victory by either side in the West or a German-Anglo-French negotiated peace would spell potential disaster for the USSR (despite the pious peace declaration of 28 September).71 The final successful exploitation by the Soviet Union of the "territorial and political rearrangement" promised on 23 August was predicated on a prolonged and hopefully debilitating war between the "imperialist" powers in the West.

The Finnish example shows that the Soviet delay in the Baltic was prudent. The Finns were audacious enough to suggest genuine negotiations to alleviate Soviet security concerns rather than simply accept the kind of ultimatum that Stalin had successfully pressed against the other Baltic States. The Russo-Finnish war provoked worldwide outrage and inspired great sympathy for the beleaguered Finns. In the spring of 1940 the British and French initiated attempts to come to Finland's assistance by organizing an expeditionary force, despite the risk of involving the Western powers in a war with the Soviet Union; however, the Winter War ended before the plan could be carried out.72 Nevertheless, the implications, particularly in the event of a German defeat, could not have been lost on the Soviet leaders: Britain and France did not look kindly on Soviet policy in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and the Baltic.

The collapse of France and what appeared as the imminent defeat of Britain after the German offensive in the West must have convinced Stalin that the possibility of Western intervention had passed. Only now was it safe to undertake the final step of incorporating the territories assigned to the Soviet Union during the previous August; Molotov's "second stage" was completed. It is certainly no coincidence that the Baltic States and Bessarabia were annexed by the Soviet Union at the time of obvious German military ascendancy in the West. The Soviets began presenting their ultimatums to the Baltic governments in mid-June 1940 (Lithuania: 14 June 1940; Latvia and Estonia: 16 June). The military occupation of the Baltic States began when the Red Army streamed into Lithuania on 15 June, the same day the Wehrmacht marched into Paris. From the Soviet point of view, the optimal situation now prevailed. The territorial gains of the German-Soviet Pact had been realized. Soviet economic deliveries to the Reich helped the Germans evade the British blockade and thus hindered the Western war effort; but if Britain held out against the German assault in a debilitating conflict, so much the better. The occupation and subsequent Sovietization of the Baltic States, as well as the seizure of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina in 1940 marked the real origins of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. This Soviet success constituted Stalin's reward for granting Hitler a free hand in the West. But Soviet actions depended on the general military and diplomatic situation in Europe; Stalin moved as much in response to Western weakness as German strength. In this view, the decision of the Western powers not to launch a blow against Germany's weakly defended western frontier in September 1939 and thus fight a serious battle for Poland's independence had profound consequences for Eastern as well as Western Europe.

The Baltic States: Victims of Aggression or Obstacles to Security?

Few events of this century have aroused as much controversy as the Soviet-German Treaty of Nonaggression of 23 August 1939 and the subsequent agreements that made up what we can call the Nazi-Soviet Pact. In fact, the Pact is one of those momentous developments which invites political, indeed moral, judgments in addition to dispassionate investigation. Conflicting interpretations of this "pact that shook the world" have emerged. Some perceive the treaty as a reluctant but necessary, perhaps even brilliant, stroke of Soviet diplomacy compelled by the unwillingness of the Western Powers to enter into a genuine military alliance with the USSR against Nazi aggression. An opposing view sees the pact as a cynical alliance between two like-minded and aggressive dictators, Hitler and Stalin, intent on realizing grandiose schemes of conquest by partitioning Eastern Europe.

In the main, the nations which directly experienced the consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact within a year of its signing (Poland, Romania, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) tend to view the treaty and its signatories with unambiguous contempt. It is significant that the official Soviet view of the Nonaggression Pact as a successful and unavoidable, albeit distasteful, strategic gambit has recently come under attack from Soviet scholars and commentators themselves. Serious Western scholarship has attempted a more balanced, varied and sophisticated approach.73

Discussion and historical research on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the entire 1939-1941 period has now been complicated by the emergence of the treaty as an important issue in East European and Soviet politics, particularly in the Baltic. The outpouring of sorrow, anger and national purpose during the mass demonstrations in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn on 23 August 1988, the 49th anniversary of the Pact, no doubt surprised those who have assumed that the Baits were reconciled to the cruel hand which recent history has dealt them. The demonstrations revealed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact has acquired immense symbolic value for Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians.

The treaty is universally acknowledged as a seminal event in the modern history of the Baltic peoples. For the Baits, the 1939 agreement between Hitler and Stalin commenced their political and human tragedy: the loss of independence as well as the destruction and forcible displacement of more than a million Baltic citizens during the period between 1940 and 1953.74 The losses suffered by the people and the devastation of their physical, spiritual and cultural landscape by the successive ravages of Stalinism, Nazism and relentless postwar Sovietization have been recognized for some time now as a threat to the very survival of the Baltic nations. Perhaps more than any other factor, the desperate need to avert this impending catastrophe is the impetus behind the Baltic national democratic movements that have gained mass popular backing since the spring of 1988.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the existence of conflicting historical interpretations based on differing evaluations of available sources. It is also appropriate that the Baltic nations should commemorate this event as a tragic milestone. However, the sudden political prominence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is not without risks for historical scholarship. If scholars amass documentation solely to fortify different political or national camps, then history will become the handmaiden of politics. The insidious results of the subordination of history to politics are only too apparent in the disarray which has gripped much of the Soviet historical establishment as it struggles to overcome "stagnation."

For historians, the Pact raises a host of interesting questions: To what extent did the "Baltic Question" determine the outcome of the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations in the summer of 1939 and the decision of Hitler and Stalin to come to terms? Did the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement increase or undermine Soviet security? What were the consequences of the 1939-1941 period of Nazi-Soviet cooperation for the West? In general, what has been the role of the Pact in European, and more specifically, East European history?

Two issues in particular tend to elicit sharply differing perspectives. The first involves the role of the Baltic States and Poland in the failure to construct an anti-Nazi alliance in 1939. The second deals with the legitimacy of Soviet security needs before 1941. Perhaps, there is no definitive scholarly answer to such questions but highlighting some of their aspects might shed light on the nature of the disputes.

It is customary and indeed natural that Baits and Poles should view themselves as victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. However, there has existed and still exists a body of opinion that presents the Baltic question of 1939 as a significant, even critical impediment to an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance that, it is felt, may have averted the Second World War. In 1940, American journalist H. B. Elliston put it somewhat harshly and impatiently: "The British (government) found themselves the target of abuse from intelligentsia in America as well as Britain for not selling the Baltic States down the river."75 Not all persons who have criticized the West's failure to accommodate the Soviets were or are politically-motivated apologists.

At the time of the negotiations, this position was held by such persons as British MP Alfred Duff-Cooper76 and recently in more subtle guise by such well-known historians as A. J. P. Taylor.77 Some historians have portrayed the policies of Poland the Baltic States as short-sighted if not morally suspect.78

Perhaps the problem should be restated in a way that goes beyond speculation on whether the independence of small countries was a suitable price for collective security against Hitler, one of history's most deranged and vicious tyrants. It seems safe to assume that if the Western allies had granted the Soviet Union its sphere of interest in the Baltic, the Baltic States would eventually have found themselves under Soviet rule. At least this was the assumption of many at the time. Thus, would Britain and France have been justified in applying Hitler's methods (that is, turning over the Baltic States to Stalin in return for crucial support) to stop Hitler himself? British MP Duff-Cooper certainly thought so; Taylor strongly implied it. But there should be no illusions about what such an attitude portended for the Baltic peoples. This is not a quibble over tactics. It seems obvious that one of the most fundamental pillars of civilized life, after all, is the conviction that the means one employs are as important as the ends one professes: One cannot betray some principles in order to uphold others. If the British and French were reluctant to accommodate Stalin in the summer of 1939, the motives, in contrast to Munich, had some basis in attachment to principle.

The role and attitude of the East European states themselves is another aspect of the collective security problem. It is more revealing, although perhaps less understood in the West. Obviously the Polish refusal to grant the Red Army passage rights and Baltic wariness of the USSR were major stumbling blocks to an Anglo-French-Soviet agreement. Yet a closer look at the record indicates that the Baltic States were not opposed to an international guarantee of their neutrality as such. However, neither the Baltic States, Poland nor the other East European countries which had gained their independence as a result of Russian and German weakness could be expected to support unilateral guarantees of their integrity which foreshadowed Soviet military and political domination in the region. In addition, the Baltic States had little to gain from provoking Germany, a situation which surely would have resulted from joining an alliance directed against the Reich. The British, in fact, feared that an attempt by the Soviet Union to acquire dominance in the region would only push the Baltic States towards Germany.

The Baltic States exercised the Realpolitik of the weak: attempts at strict neutrality, evasion of doubtful guarantees, openings to the Soviet Union or Germany depending on the requirements of the situation. Perhaps, as some point out, neutrality was an unrealistic course and Soviet protection was inevitable.79 The Baltic policy of neutrality was, after all, ineffective; it failed to keep the Baltic States out of the war and preserve their independence.

It was, of course, easy for some Western statesmen and politicians, whose countries were unlikely to endure the consequences of Soviet domination, to berate Polish and Baltic reluctance to join in an alliance with the Soviets. In retrospect, the moralizing element in this criticism is particularly difficult to understand if one compares the two dictators threatening the East European states in starkly human terms. In the summer of 1939 Stalin's "body count" of political violence considerably exceeded that of Hitler; only in the early 1940s did the two begin to reach a kind of murderous parity. Baltic (and Polish) policy in 1939 was based in large part on the fear of the consequences of Soviet domination and few will doubt that the subsequent fate of the Baltic populations at the hands of Stalinism more than justified their dread of the Soviet alternative. It is a lot to ask of even small peoples to go willingly to their slaughter for the sake of collective security or some other grand goal.

The problem of Soviet security needs is another issue that arouses debate. Was Stalin simply attempting to assert the legitimate security interests of the USSR in 1939? Or was Soviet Russia engaging in an opportunity to foment its own version of socialist imperialism? Naturally, this problem elicits two schools of thought or, more often, dogmatic assertions concerning Soviet intentions which are nearly as old as the Revolution itself. Some believe that Soviet interests are primarily defensive, rooted in a nearly pathological fear of invasion grounded in the realities of Russian history. Others stress the traditional expansionism of the Russian Empire rooted in Muscovite history and, during the twentieth century, wedded to the world revolutionary aims of Bolshevism.80 It should be said that an analogous dichotomy has typified discussion of virtually every Great Power.

The problems of security and political intent are legitimate interests for the statesmen of the Great Powers and important objects of scholarly discussion. However, for the weaker neighbors of the security-obsessed or imperialistic power (whichever characteristic one chooses to emphasize) the question is, existentially speaking, irrelevant. For the small country the cogent point is the political and moral nature of the powerful neighbor, not whether he is pathologically defensive or expansionist. The crucial, indeed, life-and-death issue for the Baltic States and the other East European countries between the wars was not whether German and Soviet foreign policies were motivated by security needs or imperialist designs; in either case the end result was the same. The real problem, the threat, lay in the totalitarian nature of Nazism and Stalinism.

Finally, many people presuppose that security concerns and ideologically-motivated aggression are necessarily contradictory, that they constitute distinct and opposed attitudes or modes of behavior. In reality, it is improbable that a totalitarian superpower can ever achieve sufficient security by its own definition. The ideal of total control in both the international and domestic spheres, so essential to Stalinism and Nazism, is unlikely to be achieved in practice. Soviet policy during 1939-1941, largely defined by the Pact of 23 August, was driven by both security considerations and imperialistic designs. From the point of view of military security, the Soviet case for military bases in the Baltic, particularly in the Gulf of Finland, was not unsound. The fear of invasion from the West (but not necessarily of the West) proved only too well-founded. Yet Molotov's November 1940 discussions in Berlin, which, at the very least, revealed Soviet willingness to seriously discuss joining the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy and Japan) in a "worldwide" delineation of spheres of influence, uncovers ambitions far beyond the limited goals of security in Eastern Europe which had so preoccupied the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiators. Molotov's obsession with Finland in November 1940 strongly suggests that the Sovietization of that country was still in the minds of the Kremlin.81 The seizure of North Bukovina, the expressed Soviet interest in a mutual assistance pact with Bulgaria and the discussions concerning Turkey indicate intentions that have been associated with nineteenth-century Russian imperial designs. It strains credibility to assume that all of this was simply the construction of a defense against Germany, particularly in view of the fact that Soviet deliveries of vital raw materials to the Reich during the period of Nazi-Soviet amity significantly assisted the German war effort.

Until Soviet diplomatic archives are fully available to independent scholars, questions of intent will remain largely speculative. In any case, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States in 1940 primarily as a result of its historic treaties with Nazi Germany of 23 August and 28 September 1939. A growing number of Soviet scholars now admit that this process of the Sovietization of the Baltic was in no sense revolutionary: It was imposed by military force and carried out against the will of the overwhelming majority of Baltic citizens.82 Nor does the Realpolitik myth that the Soviet actions of 1940 were, however regrettable, necessary and effective in view of what happened in 1941 hold up much better. One can make the argument that the occupations the annexations of 1940, in contrast to the establishment of Soviet bases under the mutual defense pacts of October 1939, not only failed to provide the USSR with security against the Reich, but actually contributed to the Soviet military disaster of June 1941.

If the goal of Soviet diplomatic pressure on the Baltic states since 1937 and military action in 1939-1940 was to insure its northern flank against German attack, the results were counterproductive. The speed of the initial German thrust through the Baltic states (480 kilometers from East Prussia to Pskov, in 17 days) surpassed that of most German offensives during World War II. This advance could not possibly have been much faster in face of the weak Baltic armies defending their homelands against the traditional German enemy, and it could have been slower. In any event, the Soviet forces, now trapped in the Baltic states could have been spared for the defense of Leningrad. The unusual speed of the German thrust is at least partly explained by the Stalinist feat of making the Baltic populations friendly toward the Germans.83

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the accompanying German-Soviet agreements of the 1939-1941 period have spawned a variety of historical interpretations. Given the state and nature of the evidence, the range of reasonable opinion based on scholarly examination is wide. Yet the perspective of a half-century makes some things clearer. It is obvious that the consequences of the Pact were disastrous for the victims of the partitions of 1939-1940. It is ironic that, in a different sense, they were calamitous for the negotiators of the Pact as well.


1 James Headlam-Morley, Studies in Diplomatic History (London: Methuen and Co., 1930), 184.
2 On the further elaboration of Versailles as the "fabric of the continent" see Headlam-Morley, 185-192 as well as Hajo Holborn, The Political Collapse of Europe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), 111-137.
3 For the loss of Klaipėda see Julius P. Slavėnas, "Lithuania, Klaipėda-Memel and Hitler," in Baltic History, Arvids Ziedonis, ed. (Columbia, Ohio: Ohio State University, 1974), 262-266; Ernst-Alfred Pflieg, Das Memelland 1920-1939: Deutsche Autonomiebestrebungen in Litauischen Gesamstaat (Wuerzburg: Holzner-Verlag, 1962), 182-187; Juozas Urbšys, "Klaipėdos krašto atplėšimas nuo Lietuvos 1939 metais," Gimtasis kraštas, No. 6 (February 5-11), 6-7; cf. Stasys Raštikis, Kovose dėl Lietuvos: kario atsiminimai, Vol. 1 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Karys, 1956), 541-544.
4 A comprehensive review of the problem is in Anna M. Cienciala, Poland and the Western Powers 1919-1939 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968).
5 A good scholarly account is Ebba Čeginskas, "Die baltische Frage in den Grossmaechteverhandlungen 1939," Commentationes Balticae, 12/13 (2,1967), 3-46. There is also the more journalistic but readable Anthony Read and David Fisher, The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact 1939-1941 (New York: Norton, 1988).
6 Seeds to Halifax, 18 April 1939 and 15 May 1939, in E.L. Woodward, Rohan Butler and Anne Orde, eds., Documents on British Foreign Policy (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1952), Third Series (henceforth DBFP), V, 228-229, 558-559.
7 Seppo Myllyniemi, Die baltische Krise 1938-1941. Trans. Dietrich Assmann (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1979), 21-23.
8 Max Beloff, The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia 1929-1941, Vol. 2: 1936-1941 (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), 219.
9 A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War, 2nd ed. (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1961), 186.
10 Quoted from Comintern sources in Jurg Wegmueller, Das Experiment der Volskfront: Untersuchungen zur Taktik der Kommunistischen Internationale der Jahre 1934 bis 1938 (Frankfurt/M: Herbert Lang Bern, 1972), 75.
11 Myllyniemi, 43. Lithuania had no border with the USSR at the time.
12 UK Delegation (Geneva) to Cadogan, 21 May 1939 DBFP, 626; Foreign Office memorandum, 22 May 1939, ibid., 639-647.
13 Čeginskas, 7; Beloff, Vol. 2, 251-252; on the Latvian desire for neutrality see the British note to the Latvian minister of 12 June 1939, DBFP, VI, 48-49.
14 See Myllyniemi, 157.
15 UK Delegation (Geneva) to Cadogan (Docs. 591 and 592), 23 May 1939, DBFP, V, 648-649.
16 Seeds to Halifax, 30 May 1939, DBFP, V, 726.
17 See Foreign Office memorandum of 12 June 1939, DBFP, VI, 33-41.
18 Halifax to Seeds, 27 June 1939, DBFP, VI, 174; see also Seeds to Halifax, 24 June 1939, ibid., 161-162.
19 Seeds to Halifax, 4 July 1939, DBFP, VI, 251.
20 Read and Fisher, 116-117.
21 Halifax to Seeds, 3 August 1939, DBFP, VI, 578.
22 Taylor, 231.
23 V. la. Sipols, Diplomaticheskaya bor'ba nakanune vtoroi mirovoi voiny (Moscow: Mezhdunarodniye otnosheniya, 1979), 26; cf. Čeginskas, 24 ff.
24 Weizsaecker's memorandum of 17 April 1939, in Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddin, eds. Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-1941: Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office (Washington, D.C.: Department of State, 1948), 1-2. Henceforth cited as NSR. Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany and the Soviet Union 1939-1941, 2nd ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972), 12-13.
25 At least the Germans seem to have interpreted the move as "decisive." See Henry L. Roberts, "Maxim Litvinov," in Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, eds. The Diplomats 1919-1939, Vol. 22: The Thirties (New York: Atheneum, 1965), 374.
26 Schnurre's memorandum, 17 May 1939, NSR, 4-5.
27 On early German-Soviet contacts in the spring of 1939 see Weinberg, Germany and the Soviet Union, 14 ff.; Schulenburg's memorandum of 20 May, 1939, NSR, 7; Weizsaecker to Schulenburg, 30 May 1939, NSR, 15.
28 Weinberg, Germany and the Soviet Union, 33-34.
29 Schnurre's memorandum, 27 July 1939, NSR, 32-36.
30 Weizsaecker to Schulenburg, 29 July 1939, NSR, 36.
31 Ribbentrop to Schulenburg, 3 August 1939, NSR, 38.
32 Schulenburg to German Foreign Office, NSR, 4 August 1939, 41.
33 Ibid., 41; cf. this attitude strongly expressed as late as 17 August in the Soviet note quoted in Schulenburg to German Foreign Office 18 August 1939, NSR, 59
34 Schulenburg to German Foreign Office, 4 August 1939, NSR, 43.
35 Schnurre's memorandum of 10 August 1939, NSR, 45.
36 See Phillip W. Fabry, Der Hitler-Stalin Pakt 1939-1941: Ein Beitrag zur Method soėjetischer Aussenpolitik (Darmstadt: Fundus Verlag, 1962), 53-70.
37 Ribbentrop to Schulenburg, 14 August 1939, NSR, 51.
38 Schulenburg to German Foreign Office, 16 August 1939, NSR, 52; Schulenburg's memorandum of 16 August 1939, NSR, 54.
39 Schulenburg to Weizsaecker, 16 August 1939, NSR, 57.
40 Ribbentrop to Schulenburg, 16 August 1939, NSR, 58.
41 Schulenburg to German Foreign Office, 18 August 1939, NSR, 60.
42 The USSR was engaged in military clashes with Japanese forces in the Far East.
43 Ribbentrop to Schulenburg, 18 August 1939, NSR, 63.
44 Schulenburg to the German Foreign Office, 19 August 1939, NSR, 64.
45 Schulenburg to the German Foreign Office, 19 August 1939,
NSR, 66.
46 Ribbentrop to Schulenburg, 20 August 1939, NSR, 66-67; Schulenburg to the German Foreign Office, 21 August 1939, NSR, 69.
47 National Archives, T-120, Roll 616, F11/032-033.
48 As quoted in Weinberg, Germany and the Soviet Union, 46.
49 Ribbentrop to German Foreign Office, 23 August 1939, NSR, 71-72; German Foreign Office to Ribbentrop, 23 August 1939, NSR, 72. A good summary of the 23 August negotiations is in Fabry, 74-80.
50 The German text of the treaty is in Paul R. Sweet et. al., eds., Akten zur Deutschen Auswaertigen Politik 1918-1945, Series D. Vol. VII (Baden-Baden: Imprimiere Nationale, 1951), 205-207 hereafter, ADAP). The Russian text is in National Archives, T-120, Roll 616, F11/0050-0052, Roll 620, F19/184-185.
51 Leon Mitkiewicz, Wspomnienia Kowienskie (London: Veritas, 1968), 217.
52 Mitkiewicz, 218, 221-222.
53 Trimitas (The Bugle), No. 35 (31 August 1939), 850. In fact, the British response seems to have briefly unnerved Hitler.
54 See Documents in nsr, 79 ff.
55 Adam B. Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1967 (New York: Praeger, 1968), 282-285.
56 Schulenburg to German Foreign Office, NSR, 20 September 1939, 101.
57 Schulenburg to German Foreign Office, NSR, 25 September 1939, 103.
58 German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty and Secret Supplementary Protocol, 28 September 1939, NSR, 107.
59 See Bronis Kaslas, The Lithuanian Strip in Soviet-German Secret Diplomacy, 1939-41," Journal of Baltic Studies, 3 (1973), 211-225.
60 Text in National Archives, T-620, Roll 620, F15/329 ff.
61 Declaration of the Government of the German Reich and the Government of the USSR of September 28, 1939, NSR, 108.
62 Čeginskas, 39-46;Beloff, Vol. ii, 234 ff.
63 Guarantees to the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland were discussed. Molotov's allusions to the Western states implied that they were in the British and French "sphere" while the Baltic States were of concern to the USSR.
64 See the correspondence contained in NSR, 5 September to 28 September, 88-102.
65 Myllyniemi, 59.
66 On the mutual assistance pacts see Edgar Anderson, "The Pacts of Mutual Assistance between the U.S.S.R. and the Baltic States," in Ziedonis, ed., Baltic History (1974), 239-255. It should be noted that the Baltic governments learned of the provisions of the Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact soon after its signing on 23 August. See Anderson, 240 and Kh. Arumyae's interview in Sovetskaya Estoniya, 17 August 1939. On 30 August the Latvians expressed their concern about German press reports indicating a division of "living space in the east" between the Soviet Union and West Germany; Woermann's note of 30 August 1939, in ADAP, VII, 379.
67 The speech is published in Ann Su Cardwell, Poland and Russia: The Last Quarter Century (Sheed and Ward: New York, 1944), 223-245.
68 Schmidt's memorandum of Hitler's and Molotov's Conversation, 15 November 1940, NSR, 236.
69 Ulam, 297-303.
70 See Hencke's memorandum of 24 August 1939, NSR, 74.
71 On the other hand, the Soviets could assume that any Anglo-French-German armistice short of a decisive victory would restore at least a curtailed Polish state. In such an eventuality, the West would have no reason to resist giving Germany a free hand in Russia.
72 Gordon Wright, The Ordeal of Total War 1939-1945 (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 20-22. See Anthony F. Upton, Finland 1939-1940 (Newark, N.J.: Delaware Univ. Press, 1979), 27-28, 39-40, 95 ff.
73 For a standard summary of the Soviet view of the 1939 negotiations and the Hitler-Stalin pact see Sipols, Diplomatechiskaya bor'ba, particularly 241 ff. Sipols quotes A. J. P. Taylor as supportive of the Soviet view that the fault for the failure of an Anglo-French-Soviet agreement lay with the West. Some pro-Soviet apologists have even viewed the Pact as a sign of German weakness, a kind of "German Brest-Litovsk." See the fanciful account in Gregory Meiksins, The Baltic- Riddle: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Key-Points of European Peace (New York: L. B. Fischer, 1943), 106 ff. Yuri Afanasyev's criticism of the Pact has been widely reported in the West (Washington Post and New York Times, 24 August 1988) as has been the anti-Stalinist interpretation of Soviet military historian V. M. Kulish (Washington Post, "Outlook," 18 September 1988; (Komsomolskaya Pravda, 24 August 1988). For the widely held view that the Soviets' commitment to collective security was not reciprocated by the West see, for example, Taylor, Origins, 208-268. A recent serious and thoughtful presentation in this vein is Jonathan Haslam, The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security 1933-1939 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984), 207-232. For a more critical view regarding the Soviet role see Abba Čeginskas, 3-73 and Weinberg, Germany and the Soviet Union.
74 There is considerable fluctuation in the demographic estimates or "Guesstimates" concerning the population losses of the Baltic between 1940-1953. The most recent comprehensive review is in Romuald J. Misiūnas and Rein Taagepera, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence 1940-1980 (Berkeley: University of California, 1983), pp. 274-280. If one assumes a steady population growth, then the demographic losses of the 1939-1959 period for the Baltic States are over two million. However, demographic losses do not necessarily represent the actual number of persons who were victims of genocide, organized destruction, deportation and mass flight. For example, they might not include voluntary repatriation or a possible decline in the birth rate due to war, dislocation and urbanization.
75 H. B. Elliston, Finland Fights (Boston: Little, Brown, 1940), 160.
76 See Meiksins, Baltic Riddle, 7.
77 Taylor, Origins, esp. 227-239. Taylor's controversial work is marred by a persistent anti-Polish bias. Cf. the more thoughtful analysis of Haslam mentioned above.
78 At its most extreme see Meiksins, Baltic Riddle as well as Soviet works, for example, Kostas Navickas, TSRS vaidmuo ginant Lietuvą nuo imperialistinės agresijos 1920-1940 metais (Vilnius: Mintis, 1966).
79 Myllyniemi, 25, 157.
80 Elliston, 170-171. Elliston notes that the two opposing views were held by many Scandinavian and Baltic statesmen in 1939-1940. Cf. Fabry, 85.
81 Schmidt's memorandum of 15 November, NSR, 234-242.
82 See Atgimimas, 16 September 1988; cf. Sovetskaya Estoniya, 23 August 1939 and the reaffirmation of orthodox Soviet interpretations in the "scholars' roundtable" on the eve of the anniversary demonstrations against the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
83 Misiūnas and Taagepera, 44; cf. Haslam, 232.