The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact

The 1939 Agreement Between Hitler and Stalin

Signing of Non Aggression Pact
Hulton Deutsch / Contributor

On August 23, 1939, representatives from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union met and signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (also called the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact), which guaranteed that the two countries would not attack each other.

By signing this pact, Germany had protected itself from having to fight a two-front war in the soon-to-begin World War II. In return, as part of a secret addendum, the Soviet Union was to be awarded land, including parts of Poland and the Baltic States.

The pact was broken when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union less than two years later, on June 22, 1941.

Why Did Hitler Want a Pact With the Soviet Union?

In 1939, Adolf Hitler was preparing for war. While he was hoping to acquire Poland without force (as he had annexed Austria the year before), Hitler wanted to prevent the possibility of a two-front war. Hitler realized that when Germany fought a two-front war in World War I, it had split Germany's forces, weakening and undermining their offensive.

Since fighting a two-front war played a large role in Germany losing the First World War, Hitler was determined not to repeat the same mistakes. Hitler thus planned ahead and made a pact with the Soviets -- the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

The Two Sides Meet

On August 14, 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop contacted the Soviets to arrange a deal. Ribbentrop met with the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in Moscow and together they arranged two pacts -- the economic agreement and the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

To the chancellor of the German Reich, Herr A. Hitler.

I thank you for your letter. I hope that the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact will mark a decisive turn for the better in the political relations between our two countries.

J. Stalin*

The Economic Agreement

The first pact was an economic agreement, which Ribbentrop and Molotov signed on August 19, 1939.

The economic agreement committed the Soviet Union to provide food products as well as raw materials to Germany in exchange for furnished products such as machinery from Germany. During the first years of the war, this economic agreement helped Germany bypass the British blockade.

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact

On August 23, 1939, four days after the economic agreement was signed and a little over a week before the beginning of World War II, Ribbentrop and Molotov signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

Publicly, this agreement stated that the two countries -- Germany and the Soviet Union -- would not attack each other. If there were ever a problem between the two countries, it was to be handled amicably. The pact was supposed to last for ten years; it lasted for less than two.

What was meant by the terms of the pact was that if Germany attacked Poland, then the Soviet Union would not come to its aid. Thus, if Germany went to war against the West (especially France and Great Britain) over Poland, the Soviets were guaranteeing that they would not enter the war; thus not open a second front for Germany.

In addition to this agreement, Ribbentrop and Molotov added a secret protocol onto the pact -- a secret addendum whose existence was denied by the Soviets until 1989.

The Secret Protocol

The secret protocol held an agreement between the Nazis and Soviets that greatly affected Eastern Europe. In exchange for the Soviets agreeing to not join the possible future war, Germany was giving the Soviets the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Poland was also to be divided between the two, along the Narew, Vistula, and San rivers.

The new territories gave the Soviet Union the buffer (inland) that it wanted to feel safe from an invasion from the West. It would need that buffer in 1941.

Impacts of the Pact

When the Nazis attacked Poland in the morning on September 1, 1939, the Soviets stood by and watched. Two days later, the British declared war on Germany and World War II had begun. On September 17, the Soviets rolled into eastern Poland to occupy their "sphere of influence" designated in the secret protocol.

Because of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the Soviets did not join the fight against Germany, thus Germany was successful in its attempt to safeguard itself from a two-front war.

The Nazis and the Soviets kept the terms of the pact and the protocol until Germany's surprise attack and invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.


* Letter to Adolf Hitler from Joseph Stalin as quoted in Alan Bullock, "Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives" (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) 611.