The Treaty of Non-Aggression

The non-aggression agreement signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, was known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact/The Treaty of Non-Aggression. The secret agreement allowed Germany and the Soviet Union to divide Poland between them. 

The Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formally signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, by Joachim von Ribbentrop of Germany and Vyacheslav Molotov of the Soviet Union.  

It has sometimes been referred to as the Hitler-Stalin Pact informally Nazi-Soviet Alliance or the Nazi-Soviet Pact, although it was not a formal alliance.

Vyacheslav Molotov of the Soviet Union and Joachim von Ribbentrop of Germany.  

A trilateral alliance?

The Soviet Union attempted to construct a trilateral alliance with Britain and France before the treaty was established. The Soviet Union desired nothing less than an ironclad military alliance with France and Britain to assure support for a two-pronged attack on Germany because it dreaded Western powers and the threat of "capitalist encirclements" and had little hope of averting war. As a result, Stalin's allegiance to the collective security line was only conditional.

The Soviet Union had also been devastated by the Great Purge to such an extent, that Britain and France doubted it could be a meaningful participant should war broke out. So the latter two countries instead pinned their hope on avoiding war in the first place. This offered little comfort to the Soviet Union.

Photograph showing inmates of a Soviet Gulag forced labour camp building the White Sea-Baltic Canal in 1933. During the Great Purge, thousands ended up in Gulags like the one pictured with many dying in captivity.

Getty Images Europe/Laski Diffusion

The primary tripartite negotiations began in mid-June. Potential guarantees to Central and Eastern Europe in the event of German assault were the main topic of discussion. The Soviets suggested taking into account the possibility that the Baltic republics' political pivot toward Germany would amount to "indirect aggression" against the Soviet Union. Britain resisted such plans because they thought the Soviets' suggested language would encourage Finland and the Baltic states to seek closer ties with Germany or legitimise a Soviet involvement in those nations.

By mid-July, the parties had agreed to begin talks on a military accord, which the Soviets insisted had to be reached, and the tripartite political negotiations had effectively come to a standstill. One of the sticking points between the parties was the discussion of what constitutes "indirect aggression."

By the middle of July, the parties had agreed to begin talks on a military accord, which the Soviets maintained had to be completed concurrently with any political deal. The discussion of a definition of "indirect aggression" continued to be one of the sticking issues between the parties.

The Soviet Politburo formally resolved to take the German offers seriously despite their dismal outlook that the upcoming negotiations would fail. A British mission led by retired admiral Sir Reginald Drax, a French delegation led by General Aimé Doumenc, and a Soviet delegation led by Kliment Voroshilov, the commissar of defence, and Boris Shaposhnikov, the chief of general staff, started military negotiations on August 12 in Moscow.

Drax had been given instructions by the British government to drag out the negotiations as long as possible and to avoid answering the question of whether Poland would consent to allow Soviet troops to enter the country in the event that the Germans invaded. Without written credentials, Drax was not authorised to guarantee anything to the Soviet Union. This misstep marks a significant failure to prevent future German aggression.

The Soviets turn to Germany

Two Focke-Wulf Condors carrying the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop and carrying roughly 20 German ambassadors, officials, and photographers made their way toward Moscow on August 23, 1939. "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles" was being performed by a Soviet military band as the Nazi delegates exited the aircraft.

The entrance of the Nazis was meticulously prepared and presented beautifully. The Nazi swastika, used in a nearby film studio for Soviet propaganda movies, was propped up next to the traditional hammer and sickle.

Joachim von Ribbentrop, (1893 – 1946)

Minister of Foreign Affairs for Nazi Germany.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H04810 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg (1875 – 1944) German ambassador


After shaking hands and exiting the aircraft, Ribbentrop, Gustav Hilger, Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg, the German ambassador, and Nikolai Vlasik, Stalin's senior bodyguard, boarded an NKVD-operated sedan and drove to Red Square. Alexander Poskrebyshev, the head of Stalin's personal chancellery, met the limousine as it approached Stalin's office.

The Germans were taken to a chamber with ornate furnishings after being escorted up a set of steps. The visitors were received by Stalin and Molotov, much to the amazement of the Nazis. Stalin shunned meetings with foreign guests, so his attendance at the meeting demonstrated how seriously the Soviet Union was treating the negotiations.

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov. (1890 – 1986), Soviet Foreign Minister

colorized by jecinci

Joseph Stalin. (1878 - 1953), Soviet Leader.

colorized by jecinci


German and Soviet officials specifically discussed a prospective political deal in late July and early August 1939, which the Soviets said could only occur after an economic agreement. They also agreed on the majority of the terms of the intended economic pact.

Early in August, talks of a political alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union began as they finalised their economic agreement. There is one common element in the ideologies of Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union: opposition to the capitalist democracies, or "it seems to us rather unnatural that a socialist state would stand on the side of the western democracies," as stated by the diplomats of both countries when explaining to one another the causes of the hostility in their foreign policies in the 1930s.

Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild, via Getty Images

The 1939 German-Soviet Commercial Agreement was finally signed on August 19. (Two days later the tripartite military negotiations with Britain and France were put on hold indefinitely by the Soviets on August 21).

After negotiations with France and Britain fell through on August 22, Moscow announced that Ribbentrop would see Stalin the next day. The British and French embassies in Moscow were still participating in negotiations with the Soviets. Stalin instead signed a covert German-Soviet collaboration since the Western nations were unwilling to comply with Soviet demands.  

Signing the treaty

A ten-year non-aggression pact was signed on August 23 1939 and included clauses like consultation, arbitration in the event of a disagreement, neutrality in the event that either party went to war with a third party, and no membership in any organisations "which is directly or indirectly aimed at the other."

The treaty featured the Secret Protocol, which delineated the boundaries of the Soviet and German spheres of influence across Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, in addition to the publicly disclosed non-aggression clauses.

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the pact in the Kremlin

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Ribbentrop and Stalin discussed the previous disagreements between the two nations in the 1930s further during the signing ceremony, during which they had cordial chats and toasts. They claimed that Great Britain was constantly trying to sabotage relations between the Soviet Union and Germany and claimed that the Anti-Comintern Pact was actually intended for Western democracies rather than the Soviet Union and "afraid primarily the City of London [British financiers] and the English shopkeepers."

Molotov signs the treaty. For the Soviet Union, the pact bought time to rebuild its military before what appeared to be an inevitable conflict.


The Secret Protocol

The so called ‘Secret Protocol’ (Which only became public knowledge after the war) saw Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland divided into "spheres of influence" for the German and Soviet Union.

In the north, the Soviet Union was given control of Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. In the case of Poland's "political rearrangement," the Soviet Union would take control of the territory east of the Pisa, Narev, Vistula, and San Rivers, while Germany would occupy the territory west of those rivers.

The secret additional protocol of 23 August 1939 to the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union.

User:ThoralfSchade - Wikimedia Commons

Lithuania, which bordered East Prussia, was originally given to Germany as part of a secret agreement; nevertheless, in September 1939, Lithuania was given back to the Soviet Union. The protocol stipulated that Vilnius, Lithuania's former capital that Poland had held during the interwar years, would be returned to it.

Germany was also required to refrain from interfering with Soviet Union policy toward Bessarabia, which was then a part of Romania, according to another paragraph. The Soviet Union subsequently seized and annexed Bessarabia as well as the Northern Bukovina and Hertsa provinces.

Despite the secret nature of the protocol, it's existence and aims were suspected by many.

The world reacts

The New York Times reporting on the signing of the treaty.

Newspaper sellers in Parliament Square publicise the news of a non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR, 22 August 1939.

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Further reading