By the beginning of 1939, Adolf Hitler had become so bold that he tried to steal two separate neighboring territories at the same time. While he was focusing on taking Czechoslovakia, he was also pressuring Poland to give him the former German city of Danzig located on the Baltic Sea. And he wanted the Poles to permit construction of a new super highway and railroad stretching from Germany through Polish territory into East Prussia.
The territory in question was known as the Polish Corridor, a narrow strip of land which gave Poland access to the sea and cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Poland had been granted this sea corridor after World War I by the Treaty of Versailles, which also designated Danzig as a Free City operating under the supervision of the League of Nations.
All of this, of course, was completely unacceptable to Hitler and to most Germans but they never had the power to do anything about it – until now.
Making matters worse, Poland’s military leaders had connived with Hitler to steal a small piece of Czechoslovakia back in October 1938. Thus they were more susceptible to being pressured by the Nazis into some kind of agreement concerning Danzig and the Polish Corridor.
To achieve this, Hitler and Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop held several meetings with Poland’s Ambassador to Germany, Josef Lipski, and with the Polish Foreign Minister, Józef Beck. But the Poles said they had absolutely no interest in compromising with Hitler and bluntly informed the Nazis in late November 1938 that any attempt by Germany to grab Danzig “must inevitably lead to conflict.”
Thus far, all of Hitler’s conquests had resulted from his successful use of gangster diplomacy. But now, for the first time in his career, Hitler had encountered an opponent that would not give in. Hitler responded to Poland’s defiance by ordering his generals to prepare to take Danzig “by surprise.”
Meanwhile, Hitler had managed to annex what remained of Czechoslovakia. But it had been a costly move on his part. Outraged public opinion in Great Britain resulted in a tough stance taken by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and a firm declaration on March 31, 1939, that Britain, with the backing of France, would fight to save Poland.
Things were not going so easily for Hitler anymore. When he heard about Chamberlain’s guarantee to Poland, he flew into a rage and shouted against the British: “I’ll cook them a stew they’ll choke on!”
That stew would be World War II and was now only a matter of months away. Thus the time had come for the major powers in Europe and elsewhere to pick sides. Britain and France were already aligned with Poland. It could also be assumed that the United States would side with Britain at some future point.
Germany’s main friend in Europe, Fascist Italy, had been strangely silent up to this point. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had been hemming and hawing for about a year as to whether he would actually take the plunge and formally link his country’s future with Nazi Germany. Mussolini hesitated with good reason. During several visits with top Nazis he had listened to their reckless bragging about the coming war in Europe and Germany’s sure victory.
Mussolini was not at all opposed to the use of military force. However, he preferred to choose his targets carefully, preferably defenseless little countries such as Ethiopia and Albania, both of which he had occupied. But a European war against the major powers was another story. Mussolini’s army was simply not ready for such a war.
The Italians were also taken aback by the Nazis total disregard for the death and suffering a new world war would bring. Mussolini differed greatly from Hitler in that he did not possess the same murderous mentality as the Führer. Hitler did not value human life. Mussolini, although he was a belligerent bully and opportunist, did value life.
Interestingly, Mussolini seems to have made his final decision to ally with Hitler almost on the spur of the moment. On May 6, 1939, Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop met in Milan, Italy, with Mussolini’s son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, who functioned as Italy’s Foreign Minister. Count Ciano hoped to impress upon the Nazis that Italy wished to delay the onset of war for at least three years. Ribbentrop greatly surprised Ciano by saying that Nazi Germany also wanted to delay things for another three years.
Later that evening, Mussolini telephoned Ciano for a report on the discussions and was informed the talks had gone very well indeed. Upon hearing this, Mussolini instructed his son-in-law to announce to the press that Italy and Germany had concluded an actual military alliance. Ciano then informed Ribbentrop of Mussolini’s remarkable request. Ribbentrop, naturally, had to talk to his Führer before he would agree to anything. He telephoned Hitler who immediately approved the announcement.
Tragically for Italy, Mussolini and his son-in-law had completely misjudged the whole situation. By this time, Hitler had already issued secret orders to his generals to be ready to invade Poland by September 1st. The Germans were deliberately keeping the Italians in the dark as to their true intentions. The military “Pact of Steel” subsequently signed by Italy and Germany would later have disastrous consequences for the Italian people as they were drawn into Hitler’s war.
While all of these developments were occurring, Soviet Russia was feeling quite left out of the whole diplomatic scenario. The Russians voiced their dissatisfaction in a series of speeches originating from Moscow but geared toward Western ears. In March 1939, Soviet leader Josef Stalin gave a cynical speech describing the Munich Agreement and subsequent concessions made by Britain as an attempt to push Germany further eastward, perhaps into a war with Russia. Stalin warned the Western Allies that he would not allow Soviet Russia to be manipulated into a solo war against Nazi Germany while the West just stood by and watched.
In May 1939, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov gave a speech hinting that the Western Allies should get busy and talk to Moscow soon or there might be some kind of agreement forthcoming between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
However, Prime Minister Chamberlain, leader of the Western Allies, was in no hurry to talk to the Russians. He simply did not believe in the value of a military alliance with Soviet Russia. In a private letter he even asserted: “I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives…”
Chamberlain was not alone in his distrust. The Poles actually hated the Russians, knowing that Stalin would not hesitate to gobble up Poland if he had the chance. As a result, Poland, along with Britain, had thus far refused all Russian offers to discuss joint military action in the event of further Nazi aggression. This outright rejection encouraged Stalin to negotiate with the Nazis.
Although Hitler had repeatedly professed his own hatred of Bolshevism (Communism in Soviet Russia), he decided to pursue a non-aggression pact with Stalin to avoid the possibility of having to fight a war on two fronts at the same time.
Hitler’s master plan was to crush Poland with lightning speed, then turn westward and knock out France and Britain. It was therefore necessary for Soviet Russia to remain neutral, otherwise Germany might have to fight the French-British in the west and Russians in the east – the dreaded military scenario that had proved so disastrous for Germany two decades earlier during World War I.
This time around, the Western Allies would be knocked out first, then Hitler would turn his armies eastward and plunge deep into Russia, rolling over Stalin’s Red Army to acquire thousands of miles of Lebensraum at Russia’s expense.
Hitler, just like the Western Allies, had a low opinion of the Red Army’s fighting potential and also grossly underestimated Josef Stalin, one of the most ruthless humans who ever lived.
Stalin, like Hitler, did not value human life. By this time in Soviet Russia’s history, Stalin had experience in committing mass murder and had his own well-developed system of concentration camps. Stalin would kill anyone for any reason. The slightest suspicion, real or imagined, was enough to make a person vanish without a trace inside the Soviet terror state he created.
But now, through a quirk of fate, Stalin suddenly became the man of the hour in Europe. When the British finally realized there was a good possibility he might side with the Nazis, they put aside their own reservations about the man and pursued an alliance.
When the Nazis realized the British were seeking an alliance, they intensified their own efforts. Thus, as the summer of 1939 arrived, a strange kind of competition sprang up between the British and the Germans as to who would succeed in getting the Russian leader to sign on the dotted line.
The biggest hurdle facing the British was that Poland refused outright to allow any Russian troops onto its soil under any conditions, even if the country was being invaded by Hitler. This, of course, made it nearly impossible to conclude a military pact involving Russia.
In addition to this, Chamberlain made a series of diplomatic blunders that allowed Hitler and Ribbentrop to gain momentum. Chamberlain’s negotiators didn’t even arrive in Moscow until August 11th. By that time, the Nazis had been hard at work laying the groundwork for a Nazi-Soviet pact.
Worse for the British, the Russians were insulted that Chamberlain sent second-rank British military officers to Moscow on such an important mission. Chamberlain also instructed his negotiators not to rush into anything at first, thus they moved at a snail’s pace during the initial discussions, frustrating the Russians. The British also declined to share any military intelligence with the Russians, further insulting them.
All of these complications served to convince Stalin that Poland and its Western Allies were not serious about seeking a military alliance against Hitler.
Stalin had no qualms about negotiating with Hitler, if it was in the best interest of Soviet Russia to do so. Hitler, of course, had every reason to negotiate with Stalin. It was now mid-August and his planned invasion of Poland was just a few weeks away.
Germany’s ambassador in Moscow, Count Schulenburg, pushed hard to get the whole process rolling and was authorized by Berlin to say yes to every Russian demand. The Russians responded kindly to this and on August 16th sent the first word back to Berlin that a non-aggression pact might indeed be forthcoming. They even took the time to provide a first draft of just such a pact.
As the days of August ticked by and September grew ever-closer, Hitler and Ribbentrop became frantically determined to get the pact finalized and signed. On August 20th, Hitler sent a personal message to Stalin stating that “a crisis may arise any day” between Germany and Poland and therefore the Russian leader should receive Ribbentrop in Moscow “at the latest on Wednesday, August 23rd.”
Once again the Russians responded kindly and agreed to see Ribbentrop on the 23rd to seal the actual agreement. The two Foreign Ministers, Ribbentrop and Molotov, thus signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in a ceremony at the Kremlin building attended by Stalin himself.
Hitler had gotten what he needed. He would not have to fight a war on two fronts. And Stalin got what he wanted. According to a secret protocol attached to the pact, Stalin was granted a free hand in Eastern Europe to steal back several areas lost to Russia at the end of World War I, including the countries of Latvia, Estonia and Finland, the province of Bessarabia in Romania, and most importantly, the entire eastern portion of Poland.
Hitler was quite willing to be this generous to Stalin, knowing all along that he intended to destroy Soviet Russia itself in the not-too-distant future.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact sealed the fate of Poland, a country that was geographically isolated from its Western Allies, thus making direct military aid nearly impossible. Poland’s only hope for survival would have been an alliance with its next door neighbor, the Russians.
The news that these two cynical, ruthless men, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, had made a pact with each other, shocked the world. Everyone knew what it meant – that a new world war was all but certain now. All that remained was for the Führer to say when.