The Volokh Conspiracy

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The 80th Anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact

Today is the anniversary of perhaps the most awful international agreement in all of world history.


Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact, as Joseph Stalin looks on. August 23, 1939.

Today is the 80th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, signed on August 23, 1939. What I wrote on the 75 anniversary five years ago, remains true today. In this post, I reprint it with minor changes and additions:

History is full of cynical international agreements, many of which led to terrible results. But it is likely impossible to find any worse than this one.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact set the stage for history's bloodiest war, which killed some 50 million people. Without assurance of Soviet noninterference, the Germans could not have gone to war against Britain and France (they realized that, in 1939, they lacked the military power to fight a two-front war). The agreement also enabled both powers to inflict horrible atrocities against the people of the Eastern Europe states they occupied as a result.

Everyone knows about the Nazi part of these crimes. The Soviet part is less well-known, but almost equally heinous. For example, the treaty gave the Soviets the "right" to occupy the Baltic States, and Eastern Poland. This led to the extermination of some 3% of Estonia's population, and the deportation to Gulags of many more in all three Baltic states. The other areas occupied by the USSR (including a large part of eastern Poland) suffered comparable atrocities. It is difficult  to precisely calculate the overall harm caused by the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But the death toll surely runs into the many millions. Historian Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin includes a far more extensive account of the many atrocities perpetrated by both regimes as a result of their agreement.

To this day, defenders of Stalin's decision to sign the pact claim that he needed to do it because the British and French otherwise might have simply stood aside and let Hitler attack him. There is no justifying the Anglo-French appeasement of the late 1930s. But at least they did not actively collaborate with Hitler, as Stalin chose to do. Moreover, Hitler could not have attacked the USSR in 1939 without going through Poland, which the British and French had just guaranteed against German attack.

Finally, by allowing Hitler to deal with his Western enemies before having to worry about the Soviets, Stalin set up a situation where the Nazis could, in 1941, attack the USSR without having to face any other opponent on in Europe on land. By signing the pact with Hitler, Stalin himself helped create the absence of a "second front" that he later spent much of World War II complaining about.

On a more personal note, my great-uncle was killed in the Russo-Finnish War, just a few months after the pact was signed. Finland was, of course, one of the states allocated to Soviet [sphere of influence] under the agreement with the Nazis. It is unlikely that Stalin would have dared to attack Finland without first being assured of German noninterference. Thus, my relative became one of the millions who lost their lives as a result of history's most infamous agreement. Many other relatives died in the Holocaust (which likely would not have happened on anything like the same scale without the Pact), and later phases of World War II that the agreement made possible.

Today is also an appropriate time to take note of the enormous contrast between present-day German and Russian views of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Almost no one in the political mainstream in modern Germany defends the  agreement, or the other crimes of the Nazi era. By contrast, state-controlled media under the regime of ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin, who called the fall of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century" have have sought to whitewash the communist past, including the 1939 agreement with Hitler. Such refusal to learn the lessons of the past increases the likelihood of similar moral regression in the future.