Nazis, Soviets, Poles, Jews

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Stalin standing behind Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov as he signs the two countries’ nonaggression pact, Moscow, August 23, 1939

The Nazi foreign minister had lost his patience with the Poles. “You are stubborn on these maritime questions,” he told Polish diplomats in January 1939. “The Black Sea is also a sea!”1 Joachim von Ribbentrop had been trying for years to induce Poland to join Germany in a war against the Soviet Union. Germany would annex from Poland districts by the Baltic Sea; the two countries would invade the USSR; and Poland would be compensated with conquered Soviet territory on the Black Sea.

Ribbentrop’s master Adolf Hitler wanted a deal so that he could begin a war. For the Nazis, the Soviet Union was the main enemy, and its agriculture and oil the prize. But between Germany and the USSR lay Poland, and the Poles expressed no interest in being the junior partner in the adventure. Why should Poland trade Baltic territories for the chance to fight for a Black Sea coastline? Why would German troops, once they entered Poland, ever leave? The Polish foreign minister declared that Poland would concede no territory and would fight to preserve its sovereignty. France and Britain, having seen Germany annex Austria and destroy Czechoslovakia, now offered guarantees to Poland, and sought to bring the Soviet Union into an alliance.

Josef Stalin doubted that the British or the French would be much use if Germany attacked, and he knew that Poland would not permit Soviet troops to cross Polish territory to attack Germany. Stalin waited for a better offer, and got one—from Hitler. On August 23, 1939, Ribbentrop flew to Moscow, where he and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov concluded a nonaggression pact. The agreement included a secret protocol whereby the two powers endorsed each other’s spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, dividing between themselves the lands between the Baltic and the Black Seas.

Having failed to draw the Poles into a war against the Soviet Union, Ribbentrop succeeded in enticing the Soviets to join in an invasion of Poland. On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht attacked Poland from the west and south; on September 17, the Red Army entered from the east. The two armies met in the middle of Poland, marked their new common border, and organized a joint victory parade. Stalin had concluded, understandably, that it was better to fight the Germans later rather than sooner. Convinced that Hitler would wait to begin a second eastern offensive, he was surprised by the German invasion of June 22, 1941. Three years later, the Red Army drove the Germans from the Soviet Union. So the USSR began World War II as an ally of Germany, but ended it as an enemy of Germany. The Nazis, too, sacrificed ideological consistency for…


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