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), a mutual promise made by the two leaders guaranteeing that neither would attack the other.

With the imminence of World War II becoming ever clearer, signature of the pact guaranteed Germany protection against the necessity of fighting a two-front war. The Soviet Union was awarded land in return, including parts of Poland and the Baltic States, as part of a secret addendum.

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?

Germany's role in a two-front war in World War I had split its forces, very effectively weakening and undermining their offensive strength. 

As he prepared for war in 1939, Adolf Hitler was determined not to repeat the same mistakes. While he'd hoped to acquire Poland without force (as he had annexed Austria the year before), the necessity to diminish the possibility of a two-front war as a consequence of the invasion was clear.

Thus negotiation for Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was born.

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.

The Economic Agreement

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

The agreement, which proved instrumental in helping Germany bypass the British blockade during the early years of World War II, committed the Soviet Union to provide food products and raw materials to Germany in exchange for products such as German machinery for the Soviet Union.

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 Germany and the Soviet Union would not attack each other and that any problem which may arise between the two countries was to be handled amicably. The pact, which was supposed to have lasted for ten years, lasted for less than two.

Terms of the pact included the provision that if Germany attacked Poland, 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 would block the opening of 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.

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.

The Secret Protocol

The secret protocol held an agreement between the Nazis and the Soviets that greatly affected Eastern Europe. In exchange for the Soviets pledging to decline engagement in the imminent war, Germany gave the Soviets the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), leaving Poland to be divided between the two along the Narew, Vistula, and San rivers.

The territory restructuring provided the Soviet Union a level of protection from a Western invasion via an inland buffer. It would need that buffer in 1941.

The Pact Unfolds, then Unravels

When Nazis attacked Poland on the morning of September 1, 1939, the Soviets stood by and watched. Two days later, World War II was begun with the British declaration of war on Germany.

Soviets rolled into eastern Poland on September 17 to occupy their "sphere of influence" as designated in the secret protocol.

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact effectively barred the Soviet Union from joining the fight against Germany, thus affording Germany success in its attempt to safeguard its borders 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.