So surprising was the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939 that it even came as a shock the Soviet and German governments themselves. When the German delegation arrived at Moscow’s Khodynka airfield on the day of the signing of the treaty, swastika banners had to be taken from local films studios, where they had recently been used for anti-Nazi propaganda films, to welcome foreign minister Von Ribbentrop.
This story is one of many interesting anecdotes Roger Moorhouse uses to help tell the full story of the Nazi-Soviet pact in his book, The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939-1941, which has just been released in paperback. After publications focussed on everyday life in Nazi Germany and the assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler, Moorhouse turns his attention to the pact that disrupted world politics.
One of the strengths of this work is Moorhouse’s use of stories to fill in the details of how and why the pact came about and add life to his retelling. In another bizarre episode he recounts Hitler’s interest in Stalin’s earlobes – whether they were ‘ingrown and Jewish, or separate and Aryan’. Clearly, Moorhouse jokingly argues, the Führer was most impatient to learn as much as he could about his new ally. Far more than a series of anecdotes however, The Devil’s Alliance gives a remarkable insight in the underlying rationale of both Hitler and Stalin to sign the treaty which, contrary to the title of the book, shouldn’t be considered an alliance, but ‘a non-aggression pact’.
While Hitler was afraid of British interference and was keen to direct his full attention to the west, Stalin on his part feared an agreement between Hitler and the British and French governments. In addition, although entirely unrealistic, Stalin seemed to have hoped that Hitler and the other capitalist powers would combat and thereby weaken each other. Contrary to what has often been proclaimed, Stalin should therefore not be considered a passive leader, buying time to be able to confront his enemies, but rather as a passive-aggressive actor.
From the outset, Moorhouse emphasises how the pact left an indelible stain on world communism and appalled the supporters of the Nazi-regime who had spent their lives fighting against the communist enemy. Most importantly, due to its ‘secret clauses’ in which the two states agreed to partition Poland while the independent Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland and parts of Romania would fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, the agreement had a much larger impact on many fronts.
Far from a side-show or curiosity – although we might wonder whether these events are indeed as ‘largely unknown’ as Moorhouse claims in his introduction – the details of the pact are of vital importance to our understanding of the Second World War and the broader story of twentieth century European history.
Throughout the work, Moorhouse increasingly identifies commonalities between the Soviet and Nazi states, not only with reference to their anti-Western policies, but also regarding their hostilities towards the populations of their newly occupied territories. However, in doing so, he leaves little room for thoughts on the crucial differences between the two states.
With the ‘Commercial Agreement’ in early 1940, the pact’s influence extended to the economic sphere of both states. Raw materials from the Soviet Union were exchanged for military supplies by the Germans. The impact of this economic exchange has been largely overestimated. Indeed, as Moorhouse rightfully argues, Soviet-Nazi trade grew throughout the 1940s, but it failed to reach the level of a decade earlier. Besides, there was little trust from both sides that agreement’s terms would actually be realised by the other party, resulting in a restraint of deliveries, particularly from the Soviet side.
In addition, Hitler’s conquest of Romania and France, amongst others, helped him obtain sufficient quantities of natural resources to fulfil the demands of the German war industry, making him less dependent on Stalin than the latter seemed to anticipate. This resulted in the first breakdowns in the Nazi-Soviet relationship as early as September 1940.
After Hitler’s failed attempt to convince Stalin he had to look for new territories southwards rather than eastwards, tensions increased and eventually, despite Stalin’s attempts to get closer to Hitler again by signing a non-aggression pact with Japan, resulted in Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
In his introduction Moorhouse underlines how scandalous it is that Stalin’s atrocities find little place in Western historiography, referring to the vast number of those who became Soviet citizens under the aegis of the pact – Poles, Jews, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Ukrainians and Romanians – and suffered persecution, torture and death at Soviet hands.
He attempts to make up for this by emphasising the atrocities committed by the Soviets during the war, paying particularly close attention to lesser known brutalities in the Baltic States. As a result, the German atrocities committed while the pact was still in force, remain rather unexplored. This seems peculiar for a historian whose previous interests have mainly centred around the history of Nazi Germany, and a major oversight in a book which sets out to look at both sides involved in the pact.
Despite this The Devil’s Alliance is definitely a worthwhile and entertaining read for anyone wanting to find out more about the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A-level and undergraduate students might find it particularly useful, but Moorhouse also provides new insights that will be of use to researchers.
The book provides a masterly account of the confusion that resulted from signing the pact, from Britain’s clumsy attempts to come to an agreement with Stalin, to the impossible choice of the Poles – going westwards or eastwards – after the double invasion. It also sheds light on the the immense problems faced by international communist communities to interpret the new line of their great leader. Crucially, it gives us a glimpse into the minds and mindsets of the key characters involved in one of the most important events of the twentieth century, right up to Stalin’s naive disbelief in June 1941, as Nazi troops invaded the Soviet Union.
Laurien Vastenhout is an AHRC-funded a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, where she is researching the Jewish Councils of Western Europe under Nazi Occupation. The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 is published by Vintage and is available to buy now in paperback. History Matters has five copies of the book to give away. If you’d like to win one, go to @ or https://www.facebook.com/HistorySheffield/ and tell us the title of your favourite popular history book and a reason why. If your favourite is in the top four, you’ll be entered in a draw to win a copy of the book.
In-text image: Cover of The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941, courtesy of Vintage publishing.