Miner on Moorhouse, 'The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact With Stalin, 1939-41'

Seth  Offenbach's picture
Roger Moorhouse
Steven M. Miner

Miner on Moorhouse, 'The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact With Stalin, 1939-41'

Roger Moorhouse. The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact With Stalin, 1939-41. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 432 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-03075-0.

Reviewed by Steven M. Miner (Ohio University) Published on H-Diplo (January, 2015) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Seventy-five years after it was signed in August 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact has lost none of its allure for historians and readers alike. Little wonder. The pact was the great pivot point of the twentieth century and thus of modern history: in a secret protocol, the signatories divided east-central Europe into spheres of influence between their two totalitarian empires, Nazi Germany and the Communist USSR. The agreement assured Adolf Hitler that Moscow would not ally with the British and French to thwart his plans to redraw the European map by force, but that the Red Army would instead connive in the dissection of Poland. For twenty-two crucial months at least, the Führer thereby avoided Kaiser Wilhelm II’s fatal blunder of fighting a great-power war on two fronts. With the invasion of Poland, the conflict already raging in China thus spread into the heart of Europe to become the Second World War.  

Although no serious historian has disputed Hitler’s ultimate responsibility for the war, arguments about the role played by Iosif Stalin began in August 1939 and continue to the present day. Soviet historians and a dwindling band of Western scholars contend that Stalin was compelled to sign his deal with Hitler: the Western democracies through their policy of appeasing Nazi Germany had rejected Soviet efforts to organize “Collective Security” against Nazi, Italian Fascist, and Imperial Japanese aggression and were ostensibly driving Hitler eastward, against the USSR. Stalin merely turned the tables on London and Paris, enmeshing them in a fight with Nazi Germany while he bought time to bolster the USSR’s defenses for an inevitable showdown with Nazism. No less a figure than Vladimir Putin has recently revived this line, telling a gathering of young Russian historians in November 2014 that Poland has no grounds for complaint about its vivisection at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets, since Warsaw had itself participated in the division of Czechoslovakia following the Munich Conference the previous year. As for the pact itself, Putin argued that war with Hitler was unavoidable, but that the USSR wished to remain out of the conflict for as long as possible. He asked rhetorically: “What is so bad here if the Soviet Union did not want to fight?” Echoing Soviet-era histories, Putin claims that Stalin used the interval bought by the pact to prepare for a showdown with Hitler: “Every day was significant,” Putin claimed.[1]

Among the virtues of Roger Moorhouse’s lively popular history is that he gives his reader a sense of how historians’ understanding of the pact has changed over time as new sources have slowly emerged. In his own telling, he effectively refutes what he calls “the Kremlin’s postwar exculpatory line that Stalin was merely buying time by signing the pact.” In Moorhouse’s portrayal, “Stalin was much more proactive and anti-Western,” intentionally setting the imperialist powers at one another’s throats in the hopes of gain for the Communist, or more precisely the Soviet imperial cause (p. xxiv). “The Soviet Union,” Moorhouse writes, “saw the spreading of Communism as part of its raison d’être” (p. 15). He does not go so far as “Viktor Suvorov” (pen-name for Vladimir Rezun), who has argued in several discredited works that Stalin was actually preparing to launch his own preventative war against Nazi Germany once the latter was sufficiently bogged down and weakened by its conflict with the British empire.[2] In Moorhouse’s view, Stalin was an opportunist who sought to expand at the expense of the imperialist powers but if possible without actually having to fight them.

Moorhouse is no apologist for what he judges to be the maladroit diplomacy of France and Great Britain in 1939. He accurately describes Neville Chamberlain’s distaste for and distrust of the Communist state and his reluctance to sign a pact with Stalin. He carries this argument too far, however, when he claims that London and Paris dragged their feet during the failed negotiations of summer 1939. He also repeats the old Soviet canard that Britain demonstrated its insouciance about a defensive alliance by dispatching a military delegation to the USSR in August via a slow ship, rather than airplane (p. 20). In fact, Britain and France had made a firm offer of an alliance more than a month earlier, and the Soviets, not the democracies, strung out negotiations, raising numerous objections and obstacles in hopes that Hitler would suggest a better deal, as he did. Moorhouse makes little use of Russian documents. These show that even before the hapless Allied delegation appeared, Stalin decided to grasp Hitler’s offer to negotiate a grand territorial bargain. Soviet foreign commissar Viacheslav Molotov informed the Germans of this on August 11, the very day the slow-boat Allied representatives arrived in Moscow.[3]

Moorhouse does not suggest what the Allies might have offered to induce Stalin to sign a defensive alliance. Their best hope was that an East-West pact might deter Hitler from launching a war to destroy a worldwide status quo that Stalin had repeatedly and openly denounced. Hitler, by contrast, gave Stalin the chance to remain on the sidelines of a fratricidal intra-capitalist war, and he was ready to consign to the Soviet sphere territory containing more than twenty-three million souls. This was a deal that Stalin could not refuse. A year later, the Soviet dictator explained to Britain’s ambassador why he had signed his pact with Hitler: “During the pre-war negotiations with England and France, the USSR had wanted to change the old equilibrium for which these countries stood [emphasis added], but ... England and France had wanted to preserve it. Germany had also wanted to make a change in the equilibrium, and this common desire to get rid of the old equilibrium had created the basis for the rapprochement with Germany.”[4]

Moorhouse describes in vivid and unsparing detail the consequences of the Nazi-Soviet bargain: the dismemberment of Poland and the violent murders, arrests, and deportations the Nazis and Soviets inflicted on their respective occupation zones. He provides a clear description of Stalin’s war against Finland, the occupation of the Baltic States and Bessarabia (the core of current-day Moldova). He also delights in recounting the pretzel-like contortions of the international Communist community as it struggled to justify their idol’s pact with the Nazi devil and to support Soviet expansionism and violence. 

Moorhouse misses details at times. Regarding Soviet territorial gains during the pact, he writes: “all of them were long-standing Russian irredenta with some tradition of rule from Moscow” (p. 95). In fact, the far western portion of Polish Ukraine had never been part of the Tsarist empire, nor had the Romanian province of North Bukovina. He also argues that “the degree of premeditation and conspiracy involved in the Soviet subversion of the Baltic States is traditionally exaggerated” (p. 80). In his view, although Soviet forces occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1939, Stalin only decided to incorporate them into the USSR in the spring of 1940. To support this contention, Moorhouse cites an October 25, 1939, entry in the diary of Georgi Dimitrov, the head of the Communist International, where Stalin says of the Baltics: “We are not going to seek their sovietizationThe time will come when they will do that themselves [italics in original].”[5] A month before his comment to Dimitrov, however, Stalin revealed his intentions to Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, telling him that in Estonia and Latvia “the present governmental system, ministers and so forth will nevertheless temporarily remain in place [italics added].”[6] Moorhouse underestimates Soviet ability to organize seemingly spontaneous popular demonstrations at will. 

Regarding Nazi-Soviet trade, Moorhouse corrects the general belief that only the Germans benefited, describing in detail the naval equipment and machine tools that the USSR received from the Reich. He rightly points out that this very industrial equipment later helped to construct the tanks and artillery that defeated the Wehrmacht. Moorhouse is less convincing when he downplays the significance of Soviet raw materials supplied to Hitler’s war machine. He contends that Soviet shipments to Germany were not critical during Hitler’s defeat of France, becoming so only in the spring of 1941 when the prospect of an impending German invasion caused Stalin to accelerate deliveries in a vain attempt to appease Hitler. Here, Moorhouse benefits from hindsight. German planners lacked the luxury of knowing that France would capitulate as quickly as it did; in the event of a protracted war that virtually everyone expected in 1940, the Soviet lifeline would have been critical. This was certainly the view of the quartermaster general of the German army who wrote: “the conclusion of this [February 1940] treaty [with the USSR] has saved us.”[7]

Moorhouse writes that “it is often lazily assumed” that Soviet petroleum supplies were vital to Germany, writing dismissively: “the idea that Hitler was dependent on Soviet oil between 1939 and 1941 simply does not withstand scrutiny” (pp. 180, 181). He correctly points out that Romania supplied four times more oil to Germany than did the USSR, and he notes that the German army “confiscated around 1 million tons of French oil stocks following the fall of France in 1940” (p.181). French oil was a one-time windfall, however, since that country had no domestic sources of petroleum. Ironically, a substantial portion of French supplies actually originated in the USSR.[8] As Adam Tooze points out in his brilliant study of the Third Reich’s wartime economy, Hitler’s conquest of western Europe actually worsened his energy situation, since he now had to supply the needs not only of Germany itself but also those of the Czech lands, France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and the Balkans. Moorhouse neglects the importance of marginal supplies. True, Romania sold Hitler more oil; but the Führer could scarcely do without Soviet shipments. Germany did not yet possess large-scale capacity to convert coal into fuel for vehicles.

Stalin was aware of Hitler’s dependence on Soviet supplies, as he received regular and accurate reports from his agent in the German Ministry of Trade, Arvid Harnack. Moorhouse mentions this key figure only once in passing, and he does not cite the many documents that Harnack passed to the Kremlin, some of which have been published in Russian. Stalin was also aware of another vital Soviet economic asset, which Moorhouse neglects: namely, given the British blockade of Germany, the USSR was the only route to the Reich for supplies from the Middle East, the Western Hemisphere, and Asia, including Berlin’s ally Japan. Before Stalin sent his deputy Molotov to Berlin to negotiate with the Führer in November 1940, he reminded his emissary that this was the Soviet trump card. 

So confident was Stalin of Nazi Germany’s reliance on the Soviet raw-materials lifeline that he ordered Molotov to take a hard line with Hitler. Moorhouse believes that Stalin was dissatisfied with Molotov’s performance during these talks. In fact, the foreign commissar stuck carefully to the detailed script that his boss had given him, changing it only when Stalin ordered him to do so via coded cables. Far from being displeased, Stalin congratulated Molotov, writing: “Your conduct in the negotiations we consider correct.”[9] Moorhouse also repeats the argument made by those familiar only with the German documentary record: that Molotov rejected Hitler’s offer to join the Axis and participate in the partition of Britain’s empire, “a gigantic world-wide estate in bankruptcy” in Hitler’s words.[10] On the contrary, in a note of November 25, which Moorhouse misinterprets, Stalin offered to join the Axis if the Germans would honor their agreement that Finland fell within the Soviet sphere; that Japan would surrender concessions in Sakhalin Island gained in the 1905 war against Tsarist Russia; if Hitler would agree that Bulgaria fell within the Soviet sphere and that the USSR should have bases on the Turkish Straits; and finally that the area south of the Caucasus toward the Persian Gulf should be recognized as a region of Soviet expansion. It is clear from Soviet documents that Stalin believed that these demands would be the basis for further high-level negotiations, perhaps in Moscow. Ribbentrop himself--not Molotov--suggested Soviet expansion into Iran and a revision in the USSR’s favor of the convention governing the Turkish Straits. As for Soviet aims in Finland and Bulgaria, although Hitler told Molotov that he did not wish to see a renewed Soviet-Finnish war, and he dodged Molotov’s questions about Bulgaria, he did not state outright that these areas fell outside the Soviet sphere. In short, far from rejecting Hitler’s offer to join the Axis, Stalin instead believed that he had accepted, provided that his conditions were met. Moscow waited impatiently for a reply to Stalin’s counter-offer. When one never materialized, this provided one of the clearest indications that the Nazi-Soviet honeymoon was over.

In his closing chapters, Moorhouse persuasively shows how the USSR did not effectively use the twenty-two months of their pact with Hitler to prepare for an invasion, and how Stalin misread the many intelligence warnings he received. The result was the disastrous performance of the Red Army during the summer and early autumn of 1941. Moorhouse argues that Stalin hoped to delay a German attack for at least another year through appeasement and diplomacy. Most contemporary leaders misread Hitler. Chamberlain and Daladier had tried and failed to appease the Führer. Learning little from their example, Stalin tried the same approach in 1941, with even more catastrophic results. The Soviet people paid a very high price for Stalin’s miscalculations.

Moorhouse wrote this book for the general reader, and it succeeds on that level, providing an excellent and vibrant introduction to the subject. Although most of his sources have been well mined by other historians, and the specialist may learn very little that is new, Moorhouse issues lively and sometimes provocative opinions about all aspects of this violent and crucial period. These alone make this a book worth reading.


[1]. “Встреча с молодыми учёными и преподавателями истории,” http://kremlin.ru/news/46951, accessed November 23, 2014.      

[2]. Viktor Suvorov [Vladimir Rezun], Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990); and more recently, Suvorov, The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009).

[3]. Molotov to Astakhov, August 11, 1939, Ministerstvo inostrannykh del SSSR, God krizisa 1938-1939, vol. 2, 2 iiunia 1939 g.-4 sentiabria 1939 g.: Dokumenty i materialy (Moscow: A/O ‘Kniga i biznes’, 1990), 184. 

[4]. Memorandum of conversation between Cripps and Stalin, July 1, 1940, The National Archives, Great Britain, N6526/30/38.

[5]. Diary entry for October 25, 1939, in Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, edIvo Banac (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 120.

[6]. Ministerstvo inostrannykh del Rossiiskoi federatsii, Dokumenty vneshnei politiki: 1939 god Tom XXII, Kniga 2 (Moscow: 1992), 606-617. 

[7]. Quoted in Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Cambridge: Viking, 2006), 321.

[8]. Gregory P. Nowell, Mercantile States and the World Oil Cartel, 1900-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), table on 217. I thank my colleague, Professor John Brobst, for suggesting this source.

[9]. Stalin to Molotov, November 13, 1940, in 1941 god: v 2-kh knigakh, ed. A. N. Iakovlev, vol. 1 (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnaia fond ‘demokratiia’), 374. 

[10]. Schmidt record of Hitler-Molotov discussion, November 15, 1940, in United States Department of State, Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945 , Series D (1937-1945) DGFP vol. 11, (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1960), 541-549.


Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=42637

Citation: Steven M. Miner. Review of Moorhouse, Roger, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact With Stalin, 1939-41. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42637

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


Categories: Review, Research, H-Net Reviews
Keywords: Germany, Book Review

Comment by Geoffrey Roberts on Steven Merritt Miner’s H-Diplo review of Roger Moorhouse, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-41. New York: Basic Books, 2014.


Edited for H-Diplo by Diane Labrosse

Comment by Geoffrey Roberts, University College Cork, Ireland

As Steven Merritt Miner notes in his recent H-Diplo review, Roger Moorhouse’s The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 “makes little use of Russian documents,” notwithstanding the mountain of evidence on Nazi-Soviet relations now available in or from the Russian archives.[1] This body of evidence constitutes an essential source on Stalin’s pact with Hitler. Yet Moorhouse does not cite this evidence documents, not even those documents that are available in English translation.[2]


Merritt Miner – unlike Moorhouse -  is a Soviet specialist, but he makes poor use of these documents in his review, instead reprising western cold warrior tropes that have, in my view, been discredited for a quarter of century or more.


Merritt Miner refers to “Soviet historians and a dwindling band of Western scholars” who “contend that Stalin was compelled to sign his deal with Hitler.” I don’t know of any historian who holds that Stalin was compelled to sign the deal, but I know plenty – myself included - who think that Stalin felt he had to sign a non-aggression treaty with Germany in August 1939 because he believed the British and French were manoeuvring him into a war with Hitler that they would leave the Soviet Union to fight alone.


In April 1939 the Soviet Union offered Britain and France a triple alliance against Hitler, together with a system of security guarantees that would become operative in the event of war with Germany. Merritt Miner takes Moorhouse to task for suggesting that the British and French dragged their feet during the triple alliance negotiations. According to Merritt Miner it was the Soviets, not the democracies, who “strung out the negotiations raising numerous objections and obstacles in the hope that Hitler would suggest a better deal, which he did.” A.J.P. Taylor refuted this canard a half century ago:


“The diplomatic exchanges show that the delays came from the West and that the Soviet government answered with almost breathtaking speed. The British made their first tentative suggestion on 15 April; the Soviet counter-proposal came two days later, on 17 April. The British took three weeks before designing an answer on 9 May; the Soviet delay was then five days. The British took thirteen days; the Soviets again took five. Once more the British took thirteen days; the Soviet government answered within twenty-four hours. The British next needed nine days; the Soviets two. Five more days for the British; one day for the Russians. Eight days on the British side; Soviet answer on the same day. British delay of six days; Soviet answer the same day…If dates mean anything, the British were spinning things out, the Russians were anxious to conclude.”[3] (emphasis added)


Taylor’s view has been vindicated by Soviet archival documents, which reveal that while the Soviets did not trust the British and French, and were intent on driving a hard bargain, they were serious about the pursuit of a triple alliance and wanted to sign an agreement as soon as possible. Indeed, in June 1939 Moscow told London and Paris that it was prepared to sign, immediately, a triple alliance without the security guarantees, the discussion of which was holding up the negotiations.[4] This was unacceptable to Britain and France. For the British and French, Soviet support for their guarantees of Poland and Romania was the main point of the triple alliance.


The political negotiations for the triple alliance concluded by the end of July and it was the Soviets who insisted on immediate military negotiations in Moscow to complete the pact. As Moorhouse notes, these negotiations could have started earlier if the Anglo-French delegation had flown to Moscow rather than journeyed by ship to Leningrad. Admiral Drax, the head of the British delegation, did not even have the plenipotentiary power to negotiate and sign a military convention.  On the other hand, Kliment Voroshilov, the Soviet Defence Commissar, was authorised to negotiate and sign a military pact with the British and French.[5] On 7 August Voroshilov drew up a set of instructions on the Soviet negotiating stance. The most important point was the Red Army’s right of passage across Poland and Romania.[6]  This was no idle or obstructive issue, it was not even new: the Soviets had been raising this question with the French since the mid-1930s.[7]  Longstanding Soviet war plans envisaged an advance through Poland and Romania to engage the Germans. Originally, the Soviets feared they might have to fight their way through countries that would be at best neutral and at worst German allies. Soviet plans evolved in the context of the triple alliance negotiations and the projected joint guarantee of Poland and Romania. Now the Soviets expected the Red Army to be invited in by the Poles and the Romanians and that consent to be signalled in advance of war.  


The Soviet war plan was presented to the British and French on 15 August by the Chief of the General Staff, Boris Shaposhnikov.[8] Given that the Poles and Romanians were allies of the British and French, the Soviets expected London and Paris to secure advance consent to the Red Army’s right of passage across Poland and Romania. When that consent was not forthcoming the military negotiations broke down.


Although the Soviets expected the British and French to take responsibility and to deliver on the consent issue they had not been inactive in this regard themselves. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Commissar, is depicted by some historians as an active wooer of the Germans in the 1930s and as one of the key architects of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Actually, Molotov did little or no wooing of the Germans in 1939 (or before for that matter).[9] The state that he wooed most on the eve of war was Poland, but the Poles were unwilling to ally with the Soviet Union until hostilities broke out. The Soviets warned Warsaw that it might be too late by then, and it was.[10]


According to Merritt Miner, Stalin had decided to “grasp Hitler’s offer to negotiate a grand territorial bargain” even before the military talks began: “Molotov informed the Germans of this on August 11, the very day the slow-boat Allied representatives arrived in Moscow.” In fact, Stalin did not make his move until it was clear that the military negotiations had failed.


As the Soviet documents show, Berlin – or at least some German diplomats – had been wooing the Soviets since the beginning of the triple alliance negotiations but Molotov did not begin to respond to these advances until the end of July. By that time the triple alliance negotiations had been ongoing for months and Soviet doubts about the seriousness of the British and French were growing. Hence Moscow’s decision to hear what the Germans had to say.


The Soviets’ interlocutor in Berlin was their Chargé d’affaires, Georgy Astakhov. On 2 August German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop told him that “we consider that there are no contradictions between our countries from the Black Sea to the Baltic. On all problems it is possible to reach agreement; if the Soviet government shares these premises we can exchange views in more concrete terms.”[11] But Moscow did not share these premises, at least not yet. When Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, the German Ambassador, met Molotov the next day he concluded from the meeting that “the Soviet Government is at present determined to sign with England and France if they fulfil all Soviet wishes…it will…take considerable effort on our part to cause the Soviet Government to swing about.”[12]


But German efforts continued, and paid off when on 11 August Molotov instructed Astakhov that Moscow was interested in discussions with Berlin but there would have to be preparations and a period of transition from trade and credit negotiations to other matters.[13] This move was a long way short of the dramatic action depicted by Merritt Miner in his review. On 12 August Astakhov excitedly reported to Molotov that the Germans had “become unsparing in their arguments and promises in order to prevent a military agreement. For the sake of this they are now ready, I believe, to make the kind of declarations and gestures that would have been inconceivable six months ago. The Baltic, Bessarabia, Eastern Poland (not to speak of the Ukraine) – at the present time this is the minimum they would give up without a long discussion in order to secure a promise from us not to intervene in their conflict with Poland.”[14]


On 15 August Schulenburg met Molotov again and proposed that Ribbentrop should visit Moscow for face-to-face negotiations. Molotov probed for what might be negotiated by asking about the so-called ‘Schulenburg Plan’ – a rumoured proposal emanating from the Ambassador calling, among other things, for a Soviet-German non-aggression treaty and a joint guarantee of the Baltic States. Schulenburg told Molotov that the plan was a myth but he promised to convey to Berlin the Soviet interest in its contents.[15]


At his next meeting with Schulenburg, on 17 August, Molotov took the initiative and gave the Ambassador a formal proposal for an non-aggression pact, or a reaffirmation of the 1926 Soviet-German neutrality and friendship treaty (the Treaty of Berlin), together with a ‘special protocol’ that would form an ‘integral’ part of the pact. Molotov refused to be drawn on the content of the special protocol and resisted Schulenburg’s representations that Ribbentrop should fly to Moscow immediately for negotiations but it was clear that Stalin had decided to do a deal with Hitler.[16] That same day Voroshilov proposed an indefinite adjournment of the military negotiations pending an answer to the question of Polish and Romanian consent to the Red Army’s right of passage. Only after strenuous representations from the British and French did Voroshilov agree to meet again to review the situation. By the time that happened, on 21 August, the Soviets and the Germans had agreed to sign a non-aggression treaty. All that remained was to agree with Ribbentrop on the terms of the special protocol that would be attached to the pact.


The text of the non-aggression treaty was edited and corrected by Stalin[17] and it seems likely that he had a hand in drafting the secret protocol as well. Famously, the protocol divided Poland into Soviet and German spheres of influence. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, on 17th September the Red Army invaded from the east, occupying the disputed territories of Western Belorussian and Western Ukraine, which the Soviets had lost to the Poles as result of the Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920. At the end of September Poland was formally partitioned by the Soviet Union and Germany.


This dramatic sequence of events notwithstanding, the first clause of the secret protocol was devoted not to Poland but to German-Soviet spheres of influence in the Baltic, with Estonia, Latvia, and Finland allocated to the Soviets and Lithuania to the Germans. This order of priorities reflected the main strategic goal of the Soviets in 1939 – to block the German path to Leningrad along the Baltic coastlands. Again, this was a longstanding security concern that dated back to the 1920s.[18] What the British and French had been reluctant to grant in the form of joint guarantees of the Baltic States would now be secured by a Soviet sphere of influence which the Germans promised not to transgress. In the weeks following the pact Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (transferred to the Soviet sphere by the Germans in exchange for some more Polish territory) were forced to sign mutual assistance treaties with the USSR and to allow the establishment of Soviet military bases on their territory. When the Soviets tried to impose a similar deal on Finland it led to the ‘Winter War’ of 1939-1940.


Merritt Miner criticises Moorhouse’s view that Stalin only decided to incorporate the Baltic States into the Soviet Union in spring 1940. In support of his contention Moorhouse cites Stalin’s statement to the leader of the Communist International, Georgy Dimitrov, on 25 October 1939:


“We believe that in our pacts of mutual assistance we have found the right form to allow us to bring a number of countries into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. But for that we have to maintain a consistent posture, strictly observing their internal regimes and independence. We are not going to seek their sovietisation. The time will come when they will do that themselves.”[19]


Merritt Miner counterposes to this evidence a statement by Stalin to Ribbentrop at the end of September 1939 that the present governmental system and ministers in Estonia and Latvia would remain temporarily remain in place. According to Merritt Miner this statement reveals Stalin’s true intention to sovietise the Baltic States, later if not sooner. In citing this source Merritt Miner refers the reader to a collection of Soviet documents published in Russian. However, the cited document is not the Soviet record of the meeting – which has yet to come to light – but a translation of the German one.[20] Moreover, according to this German report it was Ribbentrop who prompted the quoted statement by Stalin when he asked if the Soviets intended a “slow penetration” of Latvia and Estonia. Stalin answered affirmatively, stating in addition that the government system etc. would be temporarily preserved.


Now, it is most unlikely that Stalin would have revealed his true intentions to a Nazi foreign minister rather than to the leader of the Communist International. At the end of September it was early days in the European war, its course, and outcome uncertain. In all probability Stalin did not know what he wanted to do with the Baltics States and his statement to Ribbentrop was a warning to the Germans to keep out and not to misinterpret Soviet passivity in relation to the internal affairs in Estonia and Latvia. In fact, there was no slow Soviet penetration of the Baltic States and Moscow’s diplomats there were under strict instructions not to interfere in the countries’ internal affairs and to play down expectations of sovietisation on the part of local radicals. When the Soviets did take over the Baltic States in summer 1940 it was a sudden and radical action, prompted by Moscow’s fears of possible German encroachment of its sphere of influence.[21]


Why did Stalin conclude the Nazi-Soviet pact rather than continue to pursue the triple alliance with Britain and France?  On 7 September 1939 he told Dimitrov: “we preferred agreements with the so-called democratic countries and therefore conducted negotiations. But the English and the French wanted us for farmhands and at no cost!”[22] In a radio broadcast on 3 July 1941, just after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin defended the pact with Hitler on grounds that he gained a year and a half of peace in which to prepare for war. In a conversation with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s envoy Averell Harriman and British Supplies Minister Lord Beaverbrook in September 1941 Stalin said he had seen the war coming in 1939 and had to know where the Soviet Union stood: “if he could not get an alliance with England, then he must not be left alone – isolated – only to be the victim of the victors when the war was over. Therefore, he had to make his pact with Germany.”[23] According to Winston Churchill, in August 1942 Stalin spoke to him as follows. “We formed the impression”, said Stalin, “that the British and French governments were not resolved to go to war if Poland were attacked but that they hoped the diplomatic lineup of Britain, France and Russia would deter Hitler. We were sure it would not.”[24]


In probing Stalin’s motives for the pact Merritt Miner cites the British record of Stalin’s conversation with Ambassador Stafford Cripps on 1 July 1940 in which the Soviet dictator stated that the rapprochement with Germany had been based on a common desire to change the equilibrium in Europe which Britain and France wanted to preserve. But, as the Soviet record of the same conversation reveals, this statement was in response to Cripps saying that Britain was fighting to restore the equilibrium in Europe. To which Stalin responded that the old equilibrium had been directed against the USSR and that he could not agree to its restoration. In the same conversation Stalin assured Cripps that while the USSR had a non-aggression pact with Germany it was not part of a German bloc against Britain.[25]


But Merritt Miner is right to suggest that for Stalin the Nazi-Soviet pact had strategic as well as tactical purposes. Admittedly, the strategic dimension was ad hoc and developed during the course of events, but after the outbreak of the war Stalin did adopt, albeit temporarily, the perspective of long-term coexistence with Hitler’s Germany, including the negotiation of a new Nazi-Soviet pact that would extend the spheres of influence agreement and deepen the collaboration of the two states. Probing the possibility of such a pact was one Molotov’s missions in Berlin in November 1940 when he met Ribbentrop and Hitler.


Merritt Miner presents Molotov’s discussions in Berlin as amounting to a new deal, or at least Soviet belief that such a deal was possible if only the Germans would accept their conditions. However, out of Molotov’s fractious discussions with Hitler and Ribbentrop there came not even the semblance of an agreement. It is true, as Merritt Miner points out, that a couple of weeks after Molotov’s return from Berlin the Soviets put a proposal to the Germans, setting out their conditions for signing a four-power pact with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Merritt Miner claims that “it is clear from Soviet documents that Stalin believed that these demands would be the basis for further high-level negotiations.” However, the Germans did not even bother to reply to the Soviet proposals of 25 November and neither did the Soviets press them for one because Hitler and Ribbentrop had already rejected or evaded key Soviet demands in relation to a Soviet-Bulgarian mutual assistance pact and the withdrawal of German troops from Finland. These Soviet proposals were not an attempt to negotiate a new pact but a test of Hitler’s intentions and Berlin’s silence left no doubt that a German-Soviet war was coming.


In his review Merritt Miner also takes a sideswipe at Russian President Vladimir Putin for his comments on the Nazi-Soviet pact at a meeting with Russian history teachers and students in November 2014. According to Merritt Miner, at this meeting Putin claimed that “Poland has no grounds for complaint about its vivisection at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets, since Warsaw had itself participated in the division of Czechoslovakia following the Munich conference”.  This interpretation is less than even-handed.


Putin did point out Poland’s part in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 but not as a matter of blame or justification: “I do not want to blame anyone here, but serious studies show that these were the foreign policy methods at the time.”  Nor did Putin, as Merritt Miner writes, argue that war was inevitable. That was Winston Churchill, whom Putin quoted, leading to the comment that “there should be a deep multilateral study of what was happening before World War II.”[26] Putin did, like Stalin, defend the Nazi-Soviet pact on grounds that it bought time for the USSR to build up its defences. Whether that time was used wisely by Stalin or whether Hitler gained more from the pact than the Soviets are questions that Putin does not address.


Putin is a politician who - like his counterparts the world over – uses history to rationalise and legitimise present-day policies, but sometimes, as in this case, he says things  about the past that are balanced and nuanced.


Geoffrey Roberts
University College Cork



[1] The key published collections are God Krizisa, 1938-1939, two vols, Moscow, Politizdat, 1990; Dokumenty Vneshnei Politiki (hereafter DVP), vols 22-23, Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye Otnosheniya, 1992, 1995; and 1941 god, 2 vols, Moscow: Demokratiya, 1998.

[2] For example: Soviet Peace Efforts on the Eve of World War II (hereafter: SPE), Moscow: Novosti Press, 1973.

[3] A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War, London: Harmondsworth, 1964, 282

[4] SPE, doc. 330.

[5] Ibid., doc. 400.

[6] DVP, vol.22 doc. 453.

[7] See Michael Carley’s various writings on Soviet-Western relations in the 1930s, including 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War I, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.

[8] God Krizisa, doc.527. For the Soviet war plan on which Shaposhnikov’s presentation was based see 1941 god, 557-571.

[9] On Molotov’s role in the triple alliance negotiations: G. Roberts, Molotov: Stalin’s Cold Warrior, Washington DC: Potomac Books 2012 chap.2.

[10] See G. Roberts, “Origins of the Nazi-Soviet Partition of Poland: The View from Moscow” in C. Koch (ed), Gab es einen Stalin-Hitler-Pakt? Charakter, Bedeutung und Deutung des deutsch-sowjetischen Nichtagriffsvertrags vom 23. August 1939, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2015, 89-106

[11] God Krizisa, doc .523.

[12] Nazi-Soviet Relations, New York: Didier, 1948, 41.

[13] God Krizisa, doc. 540.

[14] Ibid., doc. 541.

[15] DVP, vol.22, doc. 556.

[16] God Krizisa, doc. 570.

[17] For a facsimile of Stalin’s corrections see SSSR-Germaniya, 1933-1941, Moscow: Vestnik Arkhiva Prezidenta Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2009, 209-214.

[18] See M.J. Carley, Silent Conflict: A Hidden History of Early Soviet-Western Relations, Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield,  2014.

[19] The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, 1933-1949, New Haven: Yale University Press: 2003, 120.

[20] For an English translation see I. Fleischhauer, “The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: The German Version”, International Affairs (Moscow) August 1991, 114-29.

[21] The key collection remains Polpredy Soobshchayut: Sbornik Dokumentov ob Otnosheniyakh SSSR s Latviei, Litvoi i Estonii, Avgust 1939g-Avgust 1940g, Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye Otnosheniya, 1990.  These documents are utilised in G. Roberts, “Soviet Policy and the Baltic States, 1939-1940”, Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 5, no. 3, November 1995, 672-700.

[22] Dimitrov diary, 115-116.

[23] “Captain H.H. Balfour Moscow Diary 1941”, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Harriman Papers, container 164.

[24] W.S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 1, London: Cassell, 1948, 44. According to the British interpreter at this meeting, A.A. Birse, Stalin said that he “had the impression that the talks were insincere and only for the purpose of intimidating Hitler, with whom the Western Powers would later come to terms.”

[25] DVP, vol. 23, doc. 240.

Edited on 19 February by Diane Labrosse, H-Diplo managing editor.

Reviewer’s response to comments by Geoffrey Roberts on Steven Merritt Miner’s H-Diplo review of Roger Moorhouse, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-41. New York: Basic Books, 2014. https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/58075/miner-moorhouse-devils-alliance-hi...


Response by Steven M. Miner, Ohio University

            In Geoffrey Roberts’s comments on my review of Roger Moorhouse’s new history of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he writes almost nothing at all about the book under discussion. His essay consists instead of a heavily footnoted response to several points I raise in my review. In a commentary that is much longer than the initial review itself, Roberts accuses me of reviving “western cold warrior tropes,” an argument that surely has passed its sell-by date. I will respond below to a few of Roberts’ more salient points, since his contentions should not go entirely unanswered. I will leave a fuller elaboration of my own views on Stalin’s wartime diplomacy, among many other subjects, to my book The Furies Unleashed: The Soviet People at War, 1941-1945, soon to be published by Simon and Schuster.   

            Roberts and I disagree over whether the Soviets, or the British and French, prolonged the negotiations for a mutual defense pact during the summer of 1939. Roberts cites British historian A. J. P. Taylor, writing five decades ago, to respond to my supposed “canard” that Moscow was dragging its feet. This is not the place to rehash the many peculiarities of Taylor as a historian of WWII, though I was surprised to see him still cited as an authority on this subject. In the passage Roberts quotes, Taylor, whether knowingly or not, was repeating the arguments of Andrei Zhdanov, the Communist Party boss of Leningrad, who published an article in the Soviet press on June 29, 1939, pointing out that his government had by that date taken only sixteen days to respond to Allied initiatives, whereas the Western powers had taken fifty-nine days.[1] Zhdanov’s point–and by extension Taylor’s and Roberts’s–was correct, but it was also terribly misleading.  Soviet delays did not consist in being slow to respond to Allied proposals; rather, in these very responses Moscow continually raised ever more creative and convoluted arguments and demands. Stalin understood perfectly well that by doing so he forced the Allies to consult between themselves, as well as with the governments of Poland and Romania, and additionally those of the Baltic States, Turkey, and others. All of this required time. It was a brilliant form of diplomatic jujitsu, where the Kremlin forced the Allies to expend time responding to detailed initiatives, only to turn round and accuse them of intentional delay.  Stalin could afford to dawdle: the Anglo-French guarantees of Poland and Romania against German attack, issued in March, ensured that, if Hitler moved east, he would enmesh himself in a war with the Western Powers. If Hitler moved west, by contrast, Stalin’s hands remained free.

            Roberts writes that “Taylor’s view has been vindicated by Soviet archival documents.”  He cites no convincing evidence, and in fact there is none. In comments to the Bulgarian ambassador to Germany on June 15, the record of which was available even in Taylor’s days, Georgii Astakhov, the Soviet chargé in Berlin, revealed the game Stalin was playing. Moscow “was vacillating between three possibilities,” Astakhov explained, “namely the conclusion of the pact with England and France, a further [emphasis added] dilatory treatment of the pact negotiations, and a rapprochement with Germany. This last possibility, with which ideological considerations would not have to become involved, was closest to the desires of the Soviet Union.”[2]

            In Roberts’s view, the Soviets were negotiating in good faith with the Allied military delegation that arrived in Moscow on August 11 to settle the details of defense cooperation. In his account, the talks broke down only because London and Paris failed to compel their Polish and Romanian allies to allow the entry of the Red Army into their countries in the event of a war: “Given that the Poles and Romanians were allies of the British and French,” Roberts writes, “the Soviets expected London and Paris to secure advance consent to the Red Army’s right of passage across Poland and Romania. When that consent was not forthcoming the military negotiations broke down.” In fact, of course, the Poles and Romanians feared, with good reason, that the Soviet Army would never leave once it had entered their countries. Stalin was not so naive as all that; he understood the Poles’ and Romanians’ fears perfectly well, and he knew that the Western Powers could not compel Warsaw or Bucharest to accept a Soviet occupation under the guise of defending their countries’ integrity.

            Instead, Stalin used the military talks with the Allies as both a cover and goad to prod Berlin. The Soviet representative in Berlin, Astakhov, informed the Kremlin on August 8: “the Germans wish to give us the impression that they would be prepared to declare their disinterest (at any rate politically) in the Baltic States (other than Lithuania), Bessarabia, Russian Poland (with changes to the benefit of Germany) and disassociation from aspirations in the Ukraine.”  The price Hitler demanded for this glittering prize: “A rejection of an Anglo-Franco-Soviet military-political agreement.” Astakhov reasoned that the German offer aimed at “neutralizing us in the case of their [planned] war with Poland.”[3] On August 11, the very day that the Allied military delegation arrived in Moscow, Molotov cabled Astakhov: “The enumeration of objects indicated in your letter of 8 August interests us.”[4] From that point on, events moved at lightning pace, showing that the Kremlin could act quickly when it chose to do so. The next day, Astakhov wrote excitedly: “Events are developing fast.” He continued: “Our negotiations with the Anglo-French military clearly worry [the Germans] and they do not shy away from arguments and inducements of the widest order in order to forestall an eventual military agreement.” He concluded:  “this is at the present moment [emphasis in original] what the Germans have come to accept without prolonged talks, simply to receive from us a pledge of non-interference in [their] conflict with Poland.”[5] Three days later, Molotov agreed to the German suggestion that Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, should visit Moscow.  The result was the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

            Roberts would have us believe that, while this rapid-fire exchange was taking place, the Soviet military delegation was negotiating honestly with its Allied counterparts, instead of using these negotiations to spur Berlin to offer Astakhov’s “inducements of the widest order in order to forestall an eventual military agreement.” This takes indulgence of Stalin to new lows and is at best naive.  Stalin was no doe-eyed innocent. Imagine if the roles had been reversed, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain conducted parallel talks–one set with the Soviets, openly publicized in the press; the other conducted in secret with the Nazis, involving territorial deals with neutral countries being parceled out to the British sphere. In such circumstances, historians would rightly howl “perfidy” down the ages.

            In closing, Roberts takes issue with my critique of Vladimir Putin’s defense of the Hitler-Stalin Pact.  He finds Putin’s justification for the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland and of the pact itself to be “balanced and nuanced.” It is nothing of the sort. The Russian president states that Poland committed the original sin by seizing portions of Czechoslovakia during the Munich Crisis of 1938, implying that Warsaw therefore had no grounds for complaint when it was devoured in turn by its totalitarian neighbors the following summer. “These were the foreign policy methods at the time," Putin states breezily.[6] Here, as elsewhere, Putin uses history as a bludgeon. There can be no legitimate comparison, even by inference, between Poland’s acquisition of portions of the Teschen region–however wrong that may have been–and the unparalleled savagery the Nazi and Soviet conquerors unleashed on Poland during their vivisection of that country.  There was no Polish equivalent to Moscow’s deportation of hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens, to say nothing of the Katyn massacres. These were the “methods at the time” only because the two totalitarian dictatorships abandoned any established moral or humanitarian constraints and acted as they pleased.

            The history of this grim period is far too important to leave to the likes of Putin and those who find this former KGB officer’s twisted rationalizations to be “nuanced.” Roberts makes a number of other claims in his commentary that are equally questionable or just wrong.  I deal with such questions in more detail than is possible in this forum in my forthcoming book.

Steven M. Miner, Ohio University



[1] Andrei Zhdanov, “The British and French Governments Do not Want an Equal Agreement with the USSR,” June 29, 1939, in Gromyko, et al. (eds.), Soviet Peace Efforts pp. 403-406.

[2]  Woermann memorandum, June 15, 1939, in Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddie (eds.), Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941:  Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office (Westport: 1976, reprint), pp. 20-21.

[3] Astakhov to Molotov, in and Ministerstvo inostrannykh del SSSR, God krizisa 1938-1939, vol. II, 2 iiunia 1939 g.-4 sentiabria 1939 g.: Dokumenty i materialy (Moscow: 1990), pp. 178-180.

[4] Molotov to Astakhov, August 11, 1939, ibid., p. 184.

[5] Astakhov to Molotov, August 12, 1939, ibid., pp. 185-186.

[6] “Встреча с молодыми учёными и преподавателями истории,” http://kremlin.ru/news/46951 , accessed November 23, 2014.

From: Geoffrey Roberts, University College Cork
Re: https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/58075/miner-moorhouse-devils-alliance-hitlers-pact-stalin-1939-41#replies

Some points in response to Steven M. Miner’s rejoinder to my critique of his review of Roger Moorhouse, The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-41.


1. Steven Miner is not convinced by my A.J.P. Taylor quote about who was responsible for dragging their feet in the triple alliance negotiations. This quote from William Strang, the Foreign Office official sent to Moscow in 1939 to assist the British ambassador with the negotiations, may be more convincing:

“The history of the negotiations is the story of how the British government was driven step by step, under stress of Soviet argument, under pressure from Parliament and the press and public opinion polls, under advice from the Ambassador at Moscow, and under persuasion from the French, to move towards the Soviet position. One by one they yielded points to the Russians. In the end they gave the Russians the main part of what they asked for. Everything in the essential structure of the draft agreement represented a concession to the Russians”.[1]


The failure of the British and French to accept the Soviet proposal for a comprehensive triple alliance when it was tabled in April 1939 had grave consequences. By the time London and Paris had, in mid-July 1939, accepted the Soviet terms for a triple alliance Hitler was intent on war and Stalin was convinced that Poland would soon be attacked. In those circumstances only a watertight military agreement was acceptable to Stalin and in its absence he decided to gamble on a deal with Hitler. This denouement was not entirely the fault of the British and French.  Back in the 1990s I criticised the Soviets for being too passive in the triple alliance negotiations and of not doing enough to speed and shape their outcome.[2]

But then, as now, new approaches to the Nazi-Soviet pact were overshadowed by continuing cold-war ideological debates about who betrayed whom to Hitler.


2. Historians seeking to show that Stalin was playing a double-game in 1939, and was intent on doing a deal with Hitler, love to quote what Georgii Astakhov supposedly said to Draganov, the Bulgarian ambassador, in mid-June 1939. The problem with this evidence – as I first pointed out 23 years ago[3]– is that Astakhov’s report of this meeting contradicts that of Draganov.  According to Astakhov it was Draganov who made all the running in this conversation. The Bulgarian, Astakhov reported to Moscow, said that Germany would only start a war if there was an Anglo-Soviet pact and that if there was a triple alliance the Poles would provoke a conflict. Draganov’s advice to Astakhov was that “you would do better to spin out the negotiations…If you are worried about the appearance of the Germans in the Baltic, Bessarabia etc, you can make an agreement with the Germans who would readily enter into the broadest exchange of views on these questions.”[4] (4)  Who knows who said what to whom at this meeting.  But if Astakhov did say the things that Draganov attributes to him, he was not acting on Moscow’s instructions since that surely would have been reflected in his report home.


3. Astakhov’s account of his conversation with Draganov was one of his many dispatches to Moscow in May, June and July 1939 reporting on German overtures about a possible deal. Astakhov pleaded to Moscow for instructions about how to respond to these German approaches but these did not arrive until the 29 July when Molotov wrote: “until recently the Germans did nothing but curse the USSR, did not want any improvement in political relations and refused to participate in conferences where the USSR was represented. If the Germans are now sincerely changing course and really want to improve political relations with the USSR they are obliged to state what this improvement represents in concrete terms…We would, of course, welcome any improvement in political relations between the two countries.”[5]


4. Molotov’s telegram to Astakhov on 29 July was the beginning of the Soviet turn to a pact with Germany but this change in policy was not completed until the failure of the military negotiations with the British and French. Miner’s view is that the military talks were destined to fail because Stalin was using them to extract a better offer from the Germans. Such an interpretation does not accord with how the Soviets conducted the negotiations or with their longstanding plans for war with Germany, which required the Red Army to advance through Poland and Romania. The Soviets were aware of Polish and Romanian fears that once the Red Army entered their countries it would not leave, which is why they felt it was up to the British and French to secure the requisite consent. At the same time Molotov went to considerable lengths in the summer 1939 to get the Poles to signal, in advance of war, that they would welcome Soviet aid in fighting the Germans.


5. It is true that in first two weeks of August 1939 – but not before – the Soviets were involved in parallel negotiations with the Germans and with the British and French. But this was hardly surprising in the light of the history Anglo-French appeasement of Hitler, of London and Paris’s evident reluctance to conclude a triple alliance with the Soviet Union, and of Stalin’s fears that the British and French were attempting to manoeuvre him into a war with Germany while they stood on the sidelines.



[1] William Strang, “The Moscow Negotiations 1939,” in David Dilkes (ed), Retreat from Power, Macmillan: London 1981 p.177.

[2] Geoffrey Roberts, “The Alliance that Failed: Moscow and the Triple Alliance Negotiations, 1939,” European History Quarterly, vol.26 (3), 1996, 383-414.

[3] Geoffrey Roberts, “The Soviet Decision for a Pact with Nazi Germany”, Soviet Studies, vol. 44 (1) 1992, 57-78.

[4] Astakhov’s report may be found in God Krizisa, 1938-1939, vol.2, Moscow 1990, doc.403.

[5] Ibid., doc.511