The Russo-German Alliance: August 1939 – June 1941, by A. Rossi (Angelo Tasca) 1949

Chapter IX: Molotov in Berlin (12-13 November 1940)

In the summer of 1940 German – Soviet relations, and through them the European situation, were influenced by a new factor: Hitler firmly resolved not to allow the Russians to advance any further in Europe. His decision was apparent in an increased stiffening all along the new frontiers created by the 1939 agreements.

In the far north Germany concluded a ‘transit agreement’ with Finland in the second half of September 1940, allowing for the free passage of German troops on their way to northern Norway. [1] It was apparently only a provisional arrangement which was to terminate when the military needs of the war against Britain no longer existed. But Moscow was not taken in by this. In a conversation with von Schulenburg on 26 September, Molotov again showed that he suspected the agreement and asked to see the text, including its secret clauses. [2] He insisted on further explanations and described the presence of German troops in Finland, a country within the sphere of influence awarded to Russia in August 1939, as contrary to Russian interests; and during his talks with Hitler in November Molotov again made strenuous efforts to have these troops withdrawn.

When Germany cancelled the former German – Lithuanian agreements for the free port of Memel [3] she showed that she meant to deprive Russia of anything which could provide her with a base of operations outside the boundaries of the now ‘Sovietised’ Baltic states. Hitler had planned to settle the future of the Danube region without consulting Russia or allowing her a share in it. When, following her protests, he adopted a more conciliatory attitude, it was only the more effectively to throw dust in her eyes – as will be seen. [4] German policy in the Balkans and the Dardanelles was undoubtedly intended to prevent the USSR from crossing the frontiers of July 1940, over which Germany had written ne plus ultra.

The Three-Power Pact: But this new factor did not change Hitler’s general strategy. His principal aim was still victory over Britain, either by isolating her or by a frontal assault, or by both at the same time.

The main objective of the pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan in Berlin on 27 September 1940 was to isolate and weaken Britain. It was a pact of mutual assistance based on a redistribution of vast spheres of influence in Europe, Africa and Asia. Europe and Africa (the German ‘geo-politicians’ were to speak of ‘Eurafrica’) were assigned to Germany and Italy, and Far-Eastern Asia to Japan.

Ribbentrop went to Rome on 19 September to win Italy over to the idea. During his conversation with Mussolini he brought up the question of Russia’s possible reaction to the tripartite military alliance. He personally was very optimistic. Russia would not, he thought, be thrown into the arms of the Western democracies, as might be feared. ‘Stalin was an intelligent statesman’ who did not intend Russia ‘to shed her blood for England and France’ and who would have everything to lose through such a venture, since Hitler had taken his precautions and was ready for any eventuality. They need not worry: ‘Stalin will continue his bargain-hunting. Up to now he has exploited the situation very much to his own advantage. He was quite within his rights, but there is a limit to everything.’ This limit was fixed by the Vienna Award. There was no question of adopting a ‘hostile policy towards Russia’, all that was needed was ‘to define clearly the spheres of influence’. If this were done, friendship with Russia could continue and she could even become ‘more deeply involved in our game’. Mussolini agreed with him entirely and thought that Russia’s ‘main anxiety was not to lose what she had already won’. [5] Hitler repeated the same opinion about two months later during his interview with General Antonescu: ‘Russia will never fight against a coalition such as that of Germany and her friends. Stalin does not wish to risk anything, he only wants to win.’ [6]

The Three-Power Pact must undoubtedly have given Russia something to think about and have removed any temptation she may have had to attack Germany, for she risked finding herself attacked by Japan in Siberia. But fundamentally the pact was not directed against Russia. In fact, when the pact was signed the Nazi leaders anticipated reaching a new agreement with her much wider in scope than that of August and September 1939. Between a Europe controlled by Germany and Italy and a Japanese-controlled East Asia there remained a large area which – if Russia would only fall in with Berlin’s views in future – was to be reserved for her. Ribbentrop explained at Nuremberg:

Do you know what I planned? I wanted a rapprochement with the Russians. I wanted to include them in our three-power pact and make it a four-power pact. [7]

This ‘plan’ later provided the main theme in the discussions with Molotov at Berlin in November 1940. [8]

What Germany intended was to use the Three-Power Pact as a means of tackling the problem which lay at the root of her policy and strategy – the problem of increasing Britain’s isolation so as ‘to have a free hand to deal with her for all emergencies’, [9] either through the much-desired compromise or through war to the bitter end. The Nazi leaders continued to believe that Britain went on fighting only because she thought Germany and Russia would eventually fall out and America would enter the war. With Russia there was to be another and even greater sensation than that of 23 August 1939, and Britain would give up all hopes of detaching her as soon as she saw Russia finally lined up on the side of the three powers which had recently signed the Anti-Comintern Pact against her. And America would doubtless abandon any idea of intervening in Europe, since by doing so the Three-Power Pact would automatically bring in the Japanese in Asia and she would be forced to fight on two fronts. It was therefore true that the pact was directed ‘against the American warmongers’, as Ribbentrop reassured the Russians, [10] and that it was designed ‘to keep the United States out of the war’, as he later confirmed at Nuremberg. [11]

German-Soviet Policy at the Crossroads: If the sole aim of Germany’s policy had been to block Russia’s aspirations in the West, she would have been irrevocably committed to war with her partner of 1939-40. But her Russian policy continued to fit in as part of her British policy, the latter being the more important of the two.

All this was in the autumn of 1940. No large-scale military operation against either Russia or Britain was possible in the Balkans or the Mediterranean until the following spring. Hitler had therefore some weeks, even some months, in which to make his choice. And on this choice depended the whole development of the war and of the world situation.

In an appreciation of the situation which Admiral Raeder made to Hitler on 26 September 1940, just before the signing of the Three-Power Pact, the Commander-in-Chief of the navy pointed out that it was possible to avoid clashing with Russia by carrying out a large-scale operation to seize the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, thus delivering a knock-out blow at the British Empire. Hitler agreed:

He believes [Raeder said] that Russia should be encouraged to advance southwards or towards Iran and India, so as to find an outlet to the Indian Ocean much more important than her positions in the Baltic.

He was of the opinion ‘that Russia is afraid of Germany’s strength and that she will not attack Finland this year’. [12] A week earlier Ribbentrop had said to Mussolini: ‘We could divert Russia towards the Persian Gulf and India.’ [13]

It was precisely this possibility which was left wide open by the Three-Power Pact. Germany saw in it a two-fold advantage: she could divert Russia towards the east and south-east of Asia, where German interests were not directly involved; and in this area Russia would also clash with Britain.

L'Invitation au Voyage’: Hitler and Ribbentrop were both fully aware that they would have to resort to drastic measures, as was the case in August and September 1939. If Russia renounced her ambitions in the Balkans she would have to be offered something considerable by way of compensation, in the hope that it would tempt her to fall in with Germany’s plans.

Starting from this assumption, Ribbentrop went into action. On 13 October 1940, he sent Stalin a very long letter in which, after reviewing the course of the war and repeating his assurances regarding Germany’s intentions towards Russia, he painted an imposing picture of the future relations between the two countries as Hitler saw them. Hitler hoped that Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy and Japan would come to a far-reaching agreement on their political aims, based on a delimitation of their respective interests which would last for centuries. Ribbentrop would be happy to welcome Molotov to Berlin in order to discuss the agreement and would willingly return to Moscow himself to resume the exchange of ideas personally with Stalin and, if possible, with representatives of Italy and Japan. [14]

Ribbentrop’s letter was delivered at the Kremlin only on 17 October, its translation at the German Embassy in Moscow having taken several days. The Wilhelmstrasse later asked the Embassy for an explanation of the delay. Molotov immediately admitted the need for a visit to Berlin, and two days later he officially accepted the invitation. [15] The official reply to Ribbentrop’s letter was delivered on 21 October and was written and signed by Stalin. He agreed that relations between Germany and the USSR were capable of further improvement through a new definition of their respective spheres of influence:

I agree with you [he wrote] that a further improvement in the relations between our countries is entirely possible on the permanent basis of a long-range definition of mutual interests. [16]

He suggested 10-12 November as the dates for Molotov’s visit and agreed to the idea of a subsequent discussion with Ribbentrop in Moscow, but postponed a decision on joint deliberations with Italy and Japan. While, therefore, Hitler was sounding out the French and Spanish governments (he met Laval on 22 October, Franco on the 23rd, and Pétain on the 24th), he had decided to try to secure Russia’s adherence to the Three-Power Pact with, as he thought, a good chance of succeeding. When he went to France for the meetings he already knew that his advances had had a favourable reception, first from Molotov and then from Stalin. In his conversation with Franco at Hendaye he told him: ‘England is wrong to place any hope in Russia. If Russia were to abandon her passive role, she would at least come over to the German side.’ [17]

The German leaders thought that Molotov’s visit showed every sign of producing the desired results. Stalin’s letter was brought to Berlin personally by Gustav Hilger. Molotov requested that the intended journey should be kept a close secret. [18] Ribbentrop was optimistic and reminded Molotov, in a letter on 8 November, of his promise to bring a portrait of Stalin to Berlin, and Molotov assured him on the same day that he would comply with this friendly request. [19]

The Molotov Talks in Berlin: Molotov reached Berlin at midday on 12 November. Shortly afterwards he had his first conversation with Ribbentrop, and during the afternoon his first conversation with Hitler. Next day, on the 13th, he met Hitler again in the afternoon and had a final talk with Ribbentrop during the evening. The notes taken at all these meetings by Paul Schmidt, the interpreter, are available, and for the last meeting between Molotov and Ribbentrop the memorandum by Gustav Hilger, who was present, has also been found.

At the first meeting with Molotov [20] Ribbentrop wanted to draw up a sort of political programme for his stay in Berlin. There were three important subjects for discussion: the adherence of the Soviet Union to the Three-Power Pact; the definition of the spheres of interest between the contracting powers; and the revision of the Montreux agreements. In the new world share-out which he had in mind, Russia was to receive South-East Asia towards the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, with at the same time the assurance of a freer access to the Mediterranean. ‘The German – Soviet Pact’, he recalled, ‘has benefited both partners’, who ‘had together done good business’. The question was now whether ‘they could not continue to do good business together’, thanks to the disintegration of the British Empire. [21]

After admitting that the distribution of the spheres of influence decided in August 1939 was only a partial solution and was therefore now obsolete, Molotov came round to the idea that there would have to be a new share-out and asked a few questions. The discussion was not pursued farther for the moment; it was resumed shortly afterwards with Hitler. [22]

As usual, Hitler started off with a grandiloquent survey of the whole situation. According to him, the war against Britain was as good as won; it was only a matter of hastening the end, and this would be achieved through the agreements now being drawn up with France and Spain and through the Three-Power Pact. German – Soviet cooperation was possible on the basis of a new definition of their spheres of influence; Russia should turn towards the East, towards Asia.

Molotov was in general agreement with Hitler’s ideas about German – Soviet relations, and he was also of the opinion that ‘it would be in the interest of Germany and the Soviet Union if the two countries would collaborate and not fight each other’. He declared that on this point, as on all the others, he was expressing Stalin’s own views. [23] But he was not dazzled by the wonderful prospects which the German dictator unrolled before his eyes. When confronted by Mussolini, Franco, Laval or the Balkan politicians, Hitler had got used to impressing his listeners by the breadth of his ideas, but he could not get a grip on Stalin’s emissary.

Paul Schmidt, the interpreter, described to his wife the impression Molotov had made on Hitler:

Molotov struck Hitler as being not a diplomat but, to use his own words, ‘a mathematics teacher’. Molotov was never ruffled and was not a coiner of phrases. He stuck to the facts and never wandered from his argument. He confronted Hitler as his equal. [24]

And so while Hitler made strenuous efforts to tempt Molotov with prospects of the ‘warm seas’ of the Indian Ocean and offered him a large slice of ‘Greater Asia’, Molotov obstinately returned to Europe, a subject they would have preferred him to leave alone. He was in entire agreement with the Führer’s statements on the role of America and Britain. ‘Russia’s participation in the Three-Power Pact appeared to him entirely acceptable in principle, provided that Russia was to cooperate as a partner and not simply as an object.’ [25] Hitler spoke to him about the future; Molotov, while taking good note of the offers they were making, kept mainly to the present and asked some precise questions. Before ‘partitioning the British Empire’ there were other partitions closer at hand in Europe on which Germany and Russia must now come to some agreement. There was no need to bother Italy and Japan with them.

After outlining Russia’s neo-imperialist programme during his first conversation with Hitler, Molotov gave further details in their second interview on the afternoon of the 13th. [26] Certain Russian demands had first to be met. The USSR felt she was again being threatened by Finland, whom the agreement of August 1939 had brought within the Soviet sphere of influence; and Germany should recognise Russia’s full liberty of action in this country and withdraw the troops she had sent there. Germany had guaranteed the new Rumanian frontiers; did this guarantee apply to Russia as well? The USSR intended to conclude a pact of mutual assistance with Bulgaria, in which she would undertake not to interfere in the internal order of the country and would allow the king to remain. Lastly, she wanted to settle the problem of her security in the Black Sea, and could only do so if she had concrete guarantees; these could be provided only through the possession of bases in the Dardanelles.

In the dialogue forced on him by these considerations, Hitler endeavoured to wrap up his dissent in reassuring comment. So far as Finland was concerned he did not repudiate the agreements of August 1939, but Germany could not tolerate the outbreak of another war in the Baltic. Before deciding his attitude to the assistance pact which Russia intended concluding with Bulgaria, he wanted to know if Bulgaria had asked for it, and what Mussolini thought of it. As for the Dardanelles, Germany favoured a revision of the Montreux Convention which would facilitate Russia’s access to the Mediterranean and close the Black Sea to the warships of non-riparian powers, but she could not go as far as accepting the establishment of Soviet bases on the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

The Last Talk Between Ribbentrop and Molotov: After a day and a half of discussion, they had still not succeeded in reconciling their opposing points of view: so Ribbentrop, after a dinner to which he was invited at the Soviet Embassy on the evening of the 13th, made a supreme effort to secure Molotov’s consent to his plans. As there was an air-raid warning in Berlin, the conversation took place in the shelter at the Wilhelmstrasse and was continued there until midnight. [27]

In an attempt to limit their discussion and to reach a decision, Ribbentrop put all his cards on the table. He had ready some definite proposals for a treaty, which was to be accompanied by two secret protocols. Through it Russia was to concur in the aims of the Three-Power Pact; the four signatory powers were to define and respect each other’s spheres of influence and were not to join any combination of powers directed against any one of them. The first secret protocol went into precise details of the division of the spheres of influence: Central Africa for Germany; North and North-East Africa for Italy; Southern Asia for Japan; the Middle East towards the Indian Ocean for the USSR. The second secret protocol recognised the Soviet navy’s right of unrestricted passage through the Dardanelles under all circumstances, whereas the warships of the non-riparian powers were not to be allowed to enter the Black Sea.

Molotov first replied to these two points. Russia, he said, would certainly be delighted to expand in the direction of Iran, but this must be discussed in greater detail; as for the Dardanelles, he needed more than ‘paper guarantees’. He then added a whole list of Soviet interests and demands in Europe. Setting aside the question of Finland, which had been fully discussed with Hitler, he emphasised that Russia still had interests in Rumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Greece; she insisted on settling her relations with Bulgaria on the basis of a pact of mutual assistance; she had something to say about the future status of Poland; [28] and lastly, she was very anxious to maintain Swedish neutrality and to preserve her freedom to pass from the Baltic to the North Sea through the straits between Denmark and Scandinavia.

Thus the hopes entertained by Hitler and Ribbentrop of diverting Soviet aspirations towards Eastern Asia seemed to have come to nothing, since they had run up against Russia’s fixed determination to pursue a policy of no retreat and expansion in the West, and locally all over Europe. The Berlin conversations had merely served to measure the distance separating their respective positions.

Molotov left Berlin at midday on 14 November, exactly two days after arriving; he knew what the German proposals were, and on his return to Moscow could report them accurately to Stalin.

The Soviet Conditions for Joining the Three-Power Pact: On 25 November 1940, 10 days after his return to Moscow, Molotov summoned von Schulenburg and gave him the Soviet government’s reply to the German proposals. [29]

The USSR was prepared to accept Ribbentrop’s plan that it should join the Three-Power Pact, but on certain well-defined conditions.

They took as their starting point the two secret protocols put forward by Ribbentrop on the evening of 13 November.

The first protocol, dealing with the spheres of influence, must recognise that ‘the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognised as the centre of gravity of the aspirations of the Soviet Union’.

The second protocol required extensive amendment: the USSR should receive the right to establish a land and naval base in the Dardanelles; Turkey was again to be invited to join the pact, which would now be a Four-Power Pact; if she agreed, her territorial integrity would be guaranteed by Germany, Italy and Russia; if she refused, the three powers would take the necessary military and diplomatic steps to make good their interests.

The Soviet government asked for three further secret protocols in addition to the two suggested by Ribbentrop and thus amended. In the third, Germany was to undertake the immediate withdrawal of her troops from Finland; in the fourth, Japan was to renounce her rights to coal and oil concessions in Northern Sakhalin; the fifth protocol was to state that:

Bulgaria was within the security zone of the Soviet frontiers, and that a mutual assistance pact between the USSR and Bulgaria was therefore a political necessity, this pact in no way to affect the internal regime of Bulgaria, her sovereignty or independence.

In this official statement the USSR was defining in great detail the conditions on which she was prepared to enter the orbit of the pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan two months previously in Berlin.

The Reich never answered the Soviet government’s proposals, although Russia subsequently asked for a reply on several occasions. [30]


1. See above, Chapter VIII, section ‘Finland: Another Stake in the Game’.

2. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), p 198.

3. See above, Chapter VIII, section ‘A Misunderstanding Is Cleared Up’.

4. See below, Chapter X, section ‘The Struggle in the Balkans’.

5. See the two existing reports of the conversation on 19 September: Ciano’s (in Ciano’s Diplomatic Papers (London, 1948), pp 389-93), and the unpublished notes of Schmidt, the interpreter.

6. Schmidt’s notes, unpublished.

7. GM Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (London, 1948), p 88.

8. See below, this chapter, section ‘The Molotov Talks in Berlin’.

9. GM Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary (London, 1948), p 88, statement by Ribbentrop.

10. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 195-96.

11. Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, Volume 10 (Nuremberg, 1947), p 294.

12. Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs (1940) (London, 1947), p 106. See also Raeder’s statement at Nuremberg, Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, Volume 14 (Nuremberg, 1947), pp 103-05.

13. Schmidt’s notes, unpublished.

14. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 207-13.

15. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), p 214; telegram dated 19 October from von Schulenburg, no 2233, unpublished.

16. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), p 216.

17. The Spanish Government and the Axis (US Department of State, 4 March 1946), document VIII.

18. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 216-17.

19. Telegrams no 2022 from Berlin and no 2377 from Moscow, both unpublished.

20. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 217-25.

21. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 221-22.

22. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 226-34.

23. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), p 232.

24. Account by Mme Schmidt, Journal de Genève, 31 October 1946.

25. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 233-34.

26. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 234-37.

27. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 247-54.

28. See above, Chapter V, section ‘Towards the “Government General” of Poland’.

29. Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 258-59; cf Ribbentrop’s statements at Nuremberg, Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, Volume 10 (Nuremberg, 1947), p 314.

30. Especially by its démarche on 17 January 1941, Nazi – Soviet Relations 1939-41 (Washington, 1948), pp 270-71. At Nuremberg Ribbentrop referred to a telegram from Moscow in December 1940 (Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, Volume 10 (Nuremberg, 1947), p 315).