By the summer of 1939, war in Europe seemed inevitable. As people braced themselves, many wondered how the Soviet Union would respond. For years, Hitler had targeted the Soviet Union and the Communist Party as Germany’s primary enemy. Joseph Stalin held similar views of Germany and the Nazi Party.
To the surprise of almost everyone, the two dictators announced a nonaggression pact on August 23, 1939. The two men agreed that their countries would not to attack each other, either independently or along with other nations. They also vowed to consult each other in order to provide information or raise questions concerning their common interests and also to resolve any differences through negotiation or arbitration. The pact would be in effect for ten years, with an automatic extension for another five years unless either party gave notice to end it.1
The treaty startled people everywhere. Both Stalin and Hitler knew that their internal propaganda machines would have to work hard to change current public opinion within their nations and also to change the negative perceptions that each country had been cultivating about the other. According to historian Roger Moorhouse:
[T]he tone of public and cultural life in the Soviet Union shifted after the signing of the pact. From one day to the next, the newspapers stopped criticizing Nazi Germany and instead began lauding German achievements. As Kravencho (a factory director) noted . . . “The Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries instantly discovered the wonders of German Kultur. Visiting Moscow on business, I learned that several exhibits of Nazi art, Nazi economic achievements and Nazi military glory were on view or in the process of organization. In fact, everything Germanic was in vogue.” 2
In Germany, people were equally surprised. As in the Soviet Union, official propaganda reversed itself quickly after its years of attacks on Soviet communism. According to Moorhouse:
Public discourse was uniformly positive about the pact, with German newspapers immediately altering the tone with which they reported Soviet current affairs or Russian culture. Where reporters and editors had once been unable to resist inserting—at the very least—a derogatory adjective or a critical aside, they now reported events with scrupulous evenhandedness. On the morning of the pact's announcement, the newspapers seemed desperate to make the case for the new arrangement. Every title carried almost verbatim reports and commentaries, scripted under Goebbels’s supervision, rejoicing at the restoration of the “traditional friendship between the Russian and the German peoples.” In the Nazi Party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, [German Foreign Minister] Ribbentrop congratulated himself by lauding his achievement as “one of the most important turning points in the history of our two peoples.” Even the in-house newspaper of the SS, Das Schwarze Korps, toed the optimistic line, reminding its readers, in a gallop through Russian and Soviet history, that the empire of the tsars had originally been a Germanic state, that it had twice “saved” Prussia, and that it had “paid dearly” for its enmity with Germany in World War I. Echoing Ribbentrop, the newspaper concluded that the two countries had always flourished when they were friends and so looked forward to a new era of collaboration.3
At the time, only a handful of diplomats from both countries knew that the treaty contained a set of secret clauses in which Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland and other parts of eastern Europe between them. The clauses were not made public until much later.
- 1 : “Treaty of Nonaggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” The Avalon Project (Yale Law School), last modified 2008, accessed April 26, 2016.
- 2 : Roger Moorhouse, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939–1941 (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 119.
- 3 : Roger Moorhouse, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939–1941 (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 125–126.
- 4 : Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 37.