Philip Coben

Stalin’s Role in the Nazi Pact

Inside the Stalin-Hitler Deal

(March 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 3, March 1948, p. 80–82.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This supplementary article completes our presentation, in organized and digested form, of the invaluable historical material brought to light in the State Department’s recent publication of the captured German foreign-office archives, Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939–1941. Together with Ricky Saunders’ digest of the bulk of the material in last month’s NI, all of the important contents are now made available for ready reference: and we feel sure that our readers will be using these two articles for such reference for some time to come. All numbers on brackets refer to pages In the State Department book. – Ed.

In the captured German documents dealing with the Stalin-Hitler Pact period, the picture of Stalin which emerges adds little to one’s knowledge of his personality but it does make completely clear the role that the Boss played in the affair of the pact itself.

At the time there were the inevitable speculations as to whether the new pro-German orientation of Russian policy did or did not reflect the views of the dictator himself, whether it showed the ascendancy of a new clique in the Kremlin, etc. What is perfectly plain now is that there was no one in the Russian regime who held as thoroughly a pro-Nazi orientation, from the beginning and to the end, as did Stalin himself.

To begin with, the signing of the pact took place under Stalin’s personal push and drive; the initial bid came from his mouth in his speech of March 1939. The Russians’ diplomatic campaign for the pact really got under way with the replacement of Litvinov by Molotov as foreign affairs commissar. The German embassy in Moscow considered this important precisely because it showed Stalin’s hand: while incidentally noting that Molotov was “no Jew,” what the embassy stressed in its interpretation was the fact that the move was the “result of spontaneous decision by Stalin” made “apparently to guarantee that the foreign policy will be continued strictly in accordance with Stalin’s ideas.” [2–3]

By August Hitler began pressing for a quick achievement of the alliance, in anticipation of a quick attack on Poland: but Molotov hung back from too precipitous action. He kept delaying to fix the date for Ribbentrop’s expected visit, until (as Schulenburg, the German ambassador, wired home on August 19) Stalin himself intervened to set it for August 26–27. [65] In response, however, to a direct appeal from Hitler for more speed, Stalin accepted the German proposal for August 23 “for the establishment of peace and collaboration between our countries.” [Stalin’s letter to Hitler, 69] The Nazis thereupon achieved their schedule over Molotov’s head.

The Nazis, indeed, found more than once that they could get from Stalin what Molotov refused. (Cf. the case of the joint communiqué on Poland, NI, February, page 45.) They came to regard Molotov (even Molotov!) as “obstinate” [335] in his attitude on questions, as compared with Stalin. In March 1940 Ribbentrop was trying to get Molotov to visit Berlin, but he added in his secret wire to his ambassador: “it would suit our own needs better, as well as our really ever-closer relations with Russia, if Herr Stalin himself came to Berlin.” [135]

Stalin’s pro-Nazi orientation seems to have been closely associated with an Anglophobia as firmly held as the Nazis’ own. The Japanese foreign minister, Matsuoka, played upon this string and struck the responsive chord:

Matsuoka [reported] that he had discussed with Stalin his ideas about the New Order and had stated that the Anglo-Saxon represented the greatest hindrance to the establishment of this order ...

Stalin had arranged to give him an answer when he passed through Moscow again on his return journey to Japan; he had, however, after some reflection stated that Soviet Russia had never gotten along well with Great Britain and never would. [297]

Further on, Matsuoka quotes Stalin as saying that “he [Stalin] was a convinced adherent of the Axis and an opponent (Gegner) of England and America.” [324] This was in April 1941. But in the very first recorded conversation with Stalin – Ribbentrop’s on the day the pact was signed in 1939 – Stalin’s feelings about England had burst forth in response to a remark by the German foreign minister about England’s weakness:

Herr Stalin eagerly concurred and observed as follows: the British Army was weak; the British Navy no longer deserved its previous reputation ... If England dominates the world in spite of this, this was due to the stupidity of the other countries that allowed themselves to be bluffed. It was ridiculous, for example, that a few hundred British should dominate India. [74]

Stalin’s Scramble to Hang Onto Hitler

When Sir Stafford Cripps visited Moscow in July 1940 in the vain hope that Stalin could be separated from his partner, the Genial Leader was brusque in his defense of the Nazis. Schulenburg quotes a memorandum of the conversation supplied by Molotov himself:

Stalin’s answers are given as follows:

... he (Stalin) did not see any danger of the hegemony of any one country in Europe and still less any danger that Europe might be engulfed by Germany. Stalin observed the policy of Germany, and knew several leading German statesmen well. He had not discovered any desire on their part to engulf European countries. [167]

Cripps was virtually slapped in the face and told to run home.

The “several leading German statesmen” whom Stalin knew “well” consisted, of course, of Ribbentrop, the only one whom Stalin had ever talked to. It was in the course of this conversation that

Herr Stalin spontaneously proposed a toast to the Führer, as follows:

“I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink to his health.” [79]

But until the pact began to get ragged around the edges, Stalin’s interventions were minor and spotty; Molotov carried the ball. In early 1941, however, the rumor of Hitler’s intentions to attack Russia began to get thick all over Europe. The Russians denied this vehemently, but at the same time began to feel a touch of panic. It was at this point that Stalin decided to take over completely the job of hanging on to Hitler’s coat tails.

His first step was, literally, a bit of back slapping. Schulenburg describes the extraordinary scene at the railway station when Stalin personally came down to see Matsuoka off, an unexpected honor in itself:

Then Stalin publicly asked for me, and when he found me he came up to me and threw his arm around my shoulders: “We must remain friends and you must now do everything to that end!” Somewhat later Stalin turned to the German Acting Military Attache, Colonel Krebs, first made sure that he was a German, and then said to him: “We will remain friends with you – in any event!” Stalin doubtless brought about this greeting of Colonel Krebs and myself intentionally, and thereby he consciously attracted the general attention of the numerous persons who were present. [324]

This was April 13. Two days later the German embassy in Moscow deemed it necessary to wire home that, in their current routine negotiations, the attitude of the Russians had suddenly become very “compliant” – “seems very remarkable,” they add. [325] Two weeks later, in a personal interview with

Hitler, Schulenburg informed his chief that he “was convinced that Stalin was prepared to make even further concessions to us.” [332]

About a week later Stalin broke a long-standing precedent: he became the titular head of the country by replacing Molotov as premier. Schulenburg leaves no doubt as to the meaning of this step at this time:

The reason for it may be sought in the recent mistakes in foreign policy which led to a cooling off of the cordiality of German-Soviet relations, for the creation and preservation of which Stalin had consciously striven, while Molotov’s own initiative often expended itself in an obstinate defense of individual issues. [335]

A few days later, Schulenburg points up his interpretation by reviewing Stalin’s actions in the few days since assuming the new office:

... the pronouncements and decrees that have been promulgated since Stalin’s assumption of office ... are all in the realm of foreign policy. The matters involved are: (1) The TASS denial of alleged strong concentrations of military forces on the western border of the Soviet Union, etc. (2) The decree regarding the restoration of diplomatic ranks (Ambassador, Minister, Chargé). (3) The decision regarding the closing of the Embassies of Belgium, Norway, and Yugoslavia, and (3) The government decision regarding the opening up of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Iraq.

These ... are calculated ... to relieve the tension between the Soviet Union and Germany ... We must bear in mind particularly that Stalin personally has always advocated a friendly relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union ...

In my opinion, it may be assumed with certainty that Stalin has set himself a foreign policy goal of overwhelming importance for the Soviet Union, which he hopes to attain by his personal efforts. I firmly believe that, in an international situation which he considers serious, Stalin has set himself the goal of preserving the Soviet Union from a conflict with Germany. [338–9]

This whole scramble by Stalin personally to insure continued partnership with Hitler was, however, quite useless; No humiliating show of friendliness and conciliation on the part of Moscow was able to change Hitler’s mind, nor would any further amount of belly-crawling have been sufficient.

Nazi Analysis of Stalin Regime

We turn, lastly, to those few points in the documents where one gets an inkling of the ideological attitudes held by the partners with relation to each other. There are, of course, numerous statements by the Russians to the effect that “ideological differences” need not be a bar to friendly political cooperation; but such statements were also made publicly in the same general terms. More interesting is the passage in which Schnurre, of the German foreign office, explains to Astakhov, Russian representative in Berlin, why the Nazis feel that friendship with Stalin’s Russia is possible now. Astakhov had been whining that the bad blood between the two countries was Germany’s fault –

I took advantage of this opportunity [reports Schnurre] to explain in detail our opinion concerning the change in Russian Bolshevism during recent years. The antagonism of National Socialism resulted naturally from the fight against the Communist Party of Germany which depended upon Moscow and was only a tool of the Comintern. The fight against the German Communist Party had long been over. Communism had been eradicated in Germany. The importance of the Comintern had been overshadowed by the Politbureau, where an entirely different policy was being followed now than at the time when the Comintern dominated. The amalgamation of Bolshevism with the national history of Russia, which expressed itself in the glorification of great Russian men and deeds (celebration of the battle of Poltava, Peter the Great, the battle on Lake Peipus, Alexander Nevski), had really changed the international face of Bolshevism, as we see it, particularly since Stalin had postponed world revolution indefinitely. In this state of affairs we saw possibilities today which we had not seen earlier ...

At the end Astakhov stressed how valuable this conversation had been to him. He would report it to Moscow, and he hoped that it would have visible results in subsequent developments there. [35]

Thus the Nazis based their justification for their own flip-flop on something real: the growth of degeneration in the Russian state, its growing nationalism which the Nazis could recognize with a fellow feeling, the subordination of the Communist Parties to the Stalinist bureaucracy and their conversion into fifth columns rather than instruments of world revolution. In their negotiations with the Russians, the German diplomats – diplomats though they were – never thought it necessary to assume that the Stalinist bureaucrats had anything in common with the Revolution of 1917. There is, on the contrary, a curious passage in which Ribbentrop casually refers to the revolutionary outcome of the First World War as a disaster for Russia – and this in an argument to be presented to Molotovl He is writing Molotov that the “Western democracies” are trying to drive Russia into war with Germany, and he adds: “In 1914 this policy had disastrous results for Russia.” [51] This he writes to the men who presumably are the heirs and beneficiaries of that “disaster”! But it is not Ribbentrop whose pen has slipped: he well knows that the men he is addressing would consider a revolutionary outcome of the Second World War to be as “disastrous” as would the Nazis themselves.

Again: more than once the term “Western democracies” is used contemptuously by Ribbentrop to distinguish the Berlin-Moscow axis from the Allies. [33, 51] He obviously had no fear that the Russians would be offended by not being considered a “democracy.” In Ribbentrop’s letter to Stalin, the German foreign minister refers casually and in passing to “authoritarian regimes as ours,” [208] and Hitler, in his personal conversations with Molotov, equally casually brackets the characters of the German and Russian regimes, as if it is an understood question; and Molotov expresses “his entire agreement” [226].

The Stalinists, of course, pass off all such questions as merely “diplomatic talk”; we shall not waste any space arguing this matter here: even naive people should be aware that precisely in “diplomatic talk” one does not gratuitously insult the feelings of others. The whole point is that obviously the German diplomats had no reason to believe that the Russians took their “democracy” seriously; and it is even a separate point to demonstrate that the Nazi totalitarians recognized their similars under the “Communist” labels.

Symmetrical Regimes

But the Nazis’ assumptions about the totalitarian character of the Russian state were not limited to talk; they made this assumption in action. In December 1939, for example, Ribbentrop was annoyed by a report published by TASS, the Russian news agency. He thereupon called in the Russian ambassador and requested that hereafter, before releasing such reports, TASS should clear them with the German embassy in Moscow or Berlin!

Or we read the interesting account by Schulenburg of the reaction inside Russia to the signing of the pact; he notes that on the one hand there has been great relief over the disappearance of the danger of German attack:

However, the sudden alternation in the policy of the Soviet Government, after years of propaganda directed expressly against German aggressors, is still not very well understood by the population. Especially the statements of official agitators to the effect that Germany is no longer an aggressor run up against considerable doubt. The Soviet Government is doing everything to change the attitude of the population here toward Germany. The press is as though it had been transformed. Attacks on the conduct of Germany have not only ceased completely, but the portrayal of events in the field of foreign politics is based to an outstanding degree on German reports and anti-German literature has been removed from the book trade, etc. [88]

Both partners were also identical in their attitude toward the conquered Poles. Indeed, on September 28, 1939, a “Secret Supplementary Protocol” was added to the pact providing for mutual aid in suppression of any Polish underground in either’s territory:

Both parties will tolerate in their territories no Polish agitation which affects the territories of the other party. They will suppress in their territories all beginnings of such agitation and inform each other concerning suitable measures for this purpose. [107]

The Germans never had cause to complain about any laxity on the part of the Russians in the enforcement of this contract. What they did have cause to complain about was something else: the Russians refused to accept Jews expelled across the border by the Nazis, insisting on returning them to their Nazi captors!

Colonel General Keitel found it necessary to complain to his foreign office about this because, obviously, it was a widespread practice and not an isolated incident. The foreign-office memorandum records “repeated wrangles on the boundary” and explains:

The expulsion of Jews into Russian territory, in particular, did not proceed as smoothly as had apparently been expected. In practice, the procedure was, for example, that at a quiet place in the woods, a thousand Jews were expelled across the Russian border; fifteen kilometers away, they came back, with the Russian commander trying to force the German one to readmit the group. [128]

Truly, for the Jews, Stalinism and fascism were symmetrical phenomenal The back reflection of all this upon the meaning of the Moscow Trials and Russian purges, where the hapless victims were accused of being Hitlerite, agents, has been noted before, but what should not be missed is the interesting passage in the archives which reflects ahead on the post-war purges in Russia.

Weizsäcker, of the foreign office, writes a statement arguing against the advisability of an attack on Russia; and one of his reasons is: “I do not see in the Russian State any effective opposition capable of succeeding the Communist system and uniting with us and being of service to us.” [333]

In April 1941, shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, the German foreign office knew of no pro-German movement, no significant pro-German elements, in all of Russia. This after over a year and a half of friendly relations. Yet we are supposed to believe, according to the later purges, that such a movement was developed by German spies after years of bitter warfare against Germany, across the battle lines! We here have a new sort of proof of the political meaning of the purges in Stalinist Russia.

To be sure, to the professional apologists of the Kremlin butchers and to their blind adorers, this material will mean no more than the previous piled-up evidence of the degeneration of the Russian state. To many sincerely confused and bedazzled sympathizers of the Russian despotism, however, it should be a revelation.

Last updated on 6 July 2017