On August 20, 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a speech at the opening of an exhibition in Moscow called “Year 1939: The Outbreak of World War II.” Lavrov accused unnamed parties of “falsifying” the history of the Second World War. On the topic of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Treaty signed on August 23, 1939 between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Lavrov said:
“In these circumstances, the Soviet Union had to go it alone to ensure its national security and sign a non-aggression pact with Germany. This forced move made it possible to better prepare for the coming war with the aggressor. Today, it is worth reminding everyone that our country made a decisive contribution to defeating the Hitler war machine and liberating Europe and the world from Nazism. Had the efforts been joined in the pre-war period, the many victims could have been avoided.”
While there are some kernels of truth in Lavrov’s claim, he not only leaves out crucial details about the nature of the USSR’s pact with Germany, but he also fails to explain them in any way. First, it is important to look at what is actually true in his claim.
In 1939, the Soviet Union, like all major powers that later took part in World War II, did not consider itself ready for a major war. It is true that the USSR attempted to create a collective security pact against Nazi Germany with the help of Britain and France. However, alliance with the USSR was unpalatable to the leaders of both Western powers.
On their part, Britain and France chose a policy of appeasement with the Third Reich instead. The most notable example of this was the Munich Agreement of 1938, whereby British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated away Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region to Germany in exchange for an assurance of peace. The move made Czechoslovakia ripe for full annexation and partition in the spring of 1939.
Yet, in contrast to the lack of discourse about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Soviet-Nazi collaboration in modern day Russia, the interwar policy of Western appeasement with Nazi Germany is openly taught in Western school systems, and it is generally seen to be a failure of foreign policy. Even the name Chamberlain has become synonymous with inviting aggression through weakness. By contrast, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its details were secret for decades in the USSR and are still not well-known in popular discourse in contemporary Russia. In one famous case, a Russian man was charged with a crime for sharing a video that talked about the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, which was a direct result of the pact.
And while the USSR was not the only country to sign a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, as Lavrov pointed out in the same August 20 speech, few of those non-aggression pacts had as many tragic, far-reaching consequences as the one signed between Stalin and Hitler. The pact included a secret protocol that divided Central-Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, in which each major power could annex territory and redraw borders as it saw fit.
Equally important was the commercial agreement between Nazi Germany and the USSR signed five days before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which fueled Hitler’s war machine. Moscow supplied Berlin with vital raw materials that would play a major role in sustaining the German war effort on the Western front and, ultimately, up to the very day of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
Mistrust and enmity between the major powers on the eve of World War II produced a number of episodes of betrayal. Before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the most significant deal made with Hitler was in Munich in 1938 when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain abandoned Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. However, while Western countries such as Britain have acknowledged Chamberlain’s failures and his policy of appeasement, in the USSR the history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was largely suppressed, with the secret protocol kept secret by the Soviet authorities until December 1989.
The Putin government has similarly sought to downplay the Pact and its consequences, while at the same time attacking other countries over their past cooperation with the Axis powers.