The USSR 101 articles intend to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the 20th century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps that have led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, the relations with other countries and the factors that triggered its collapse.
URSS 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:
3. USSR 101: From Foe to Friend: An Ally of Nazi Germany
4. USSR 101: Operation Barbarossa: The Turning Point of the World War II
5. USSR 101: The Building of the Eastern Block
6. USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots
7. USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US
8. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR
USSR 101: From Foe to Friend: An Ally of Nazi Germany
The assassination of French Foreign Minister Barthou marked the beginning of a shift in European relationships and the need for Stalin to rethink the security of the USSR.
Barthou argued that the era of collective security had finished, and that new instruments for France's security needed to be developed. A return to a strategy of balance had to accompany the slogan of collective security and peace. Barthou recognized the need and importance to form an alliance with the Soviet Union in order to safeguard and defend his allies against Nazi Germany; this policy, known as the Barthou Plan or Litvinov Plan, could only result in an alliance with the Soviet Union, which was showing its reliability (Chamberlin, 1943). It was thus required to create an Eastern security structure backed by France and the Soviet Union. The goal was to enlist the cooperation of the countries bordering Germany and the Soviet Union by signing military cooperation agreements that guaranteed mutual integrity and political independence. Obviously, the USSR, Germany, and all the other countries in the vicinity were involved (the Baltic, Finland, Poland and Czechoslovakia). The two major powers should have guaranteed this system, known as Locarno Orientale (Sakwa, 1999).
It was assumed that Germany would not support the development of a system that would freeze Eastern European spatial planning; hence the first portion of the Plan would be useless. However, Barthou's proposition, as well as the Franco-Russian alliance, remained legitimate. Following the attempted coup in Austria in the summer of 1934, the idea of mutual assistance between the USSR and Germany and all intervening countries faded, leaving only the proposal for a Franco-Russian alliance: such possibility began to be negotiated in the second half of 1934, when the danger of Hitler's regime became even more visible. Both Stalin and the French diplomat saw the need of involving a third party in the alliance: Mussolini's Italy, which feared Germany and might have thwarted any subversive attempt from the south (Suny, 1998). The only option to keep Europe at peace was for completely opposite political groups to reach an agreement based on shared interests.
This effort to encircle Germany in Europe was thwarted in 1935, when Barthou was killed in a terrorist attack in Marseille during the visit of Yugoslavian King Alexander I. The USSR's sole option at the time was to negotiate a mutual defense pact with Czechoslovakia, which was signed at the end of 1935. The lack of robust guarantees from other European nations, on the other hand, undermined the security system. Furthermore, the new international contingencies aggravated the situation. Stalin lost confidence in Germany's containment in the Mediterranean and in central Europe after Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 and Mussolini's choice to ally himself with Hitler and his policies (Chamberlin, 1943). Furthermore, the Spanish Civil War, which broke out that same year, forced the USSR and Italy, which had been nearly allies, to fight on opposing fronts. The USSR, on the other side, dispatched its own troops to support the Popular Front government of Madrid through the International Brigades, while Italy supported Francisco Franco's campaign with both resources and men.
Another source of concern for Stalin was the British appeasement policy: Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, sought to offer Hitler some expansionist goals in order to assuage Hitler's desire to create a large Reich that would destabilize the 1919 system (Kenez, 1999). The situation came to a head in 1938 with the Moscow Conference, when Britain, France, and Italy negotiated with Hitler for the acquisition of various German-populated European areas to the east. Stalin’s exclusion from these negotiations prompted resentment towards the Europeans, leading to the belief in the USSR that capitalist countries were plotting to overthrow communism by redirecting Hitler's gains to the lands east of Germany. The Sudeten capitulation, as well as the crises that ensued, set the stage for war (Ibidem). 1939 was a year of considerable anticipation and war preparation. France and the United Kingdom approached Stalin again with the hope of reuniting the Triple Entente in the event of a new conflict. The multiple rounds of negotiations between the three governments, however, yielded no concrete results, due to the military's reluctance to reach an agreement, politicians' distrust, and, above all, a practical problem: where to station Soviet forces in the event of a conflict with Germany (Chamberlin, 1943).
The USSR urged the French to persuade Poland' and Romania's allies to allow Russian forces to pass; neither consented because the Soviets risked reclaiming regions beyond the ethnic line drawn in Poland in 1920-1921, as well as Romania's Bessarabia. Any hope of a military accord or understanding between the Western Anglo-French alliance and the USSR faded, and Stalin began studying the prospect of reaching an agreement with the Germans, as they had demanded at the time (Sakwa, 1999). The Soviets chose this approach for practical and pragmatic reasons: the USSR needed time to rebuild its armed forces, while at the same time it could see some of the West's expansionist goals accomplished. On the other hand, even Germany was not prepared for a total war and hence needed assistance from one of the Great War's successful states (Ibidem).
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a beautiful, simple pact that restored collaboration between the USSR and Germany; it was a treaty of non-aggression that allowed both countries to pursue their own expansionist goals without fighting. The pact's premise was conceived by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, a staunch opponent of the United Kingdom. His goal was to cut Poland off from its allies, France and the United Kingdom (Communist Crimes, 2022). Poland was promised geographical integrity by Paris and London, but they were unable to keep their word without the help of the Soviet Union. The pact between Germany and the Soviet Union substantially tied their hands. Furthermore, the treaty isolated Poland from the rest of the world community, and it foresaw the option of getting natural resources from the USSR to speed up weaponry (Ibidem).
Such agreement had remarkable political value, since it permitted Germany to wage war in the West with the assurance that the USSR would cover its back and that there would be no second front: Hitler was now granted that once the Polish matter was raised with arms, he would be ready to fight. Stalin, on the other hand, was pleased that the war had been exported to the West against capitalists seeking to topple the USSR. For Stalin, in fact, there was no difference between Nazism and finance capitalism as they were both adversaries: thus, waging war in the West would almost surely provide the opportunity to grow and export communism, increasing the USSR's dominance (Chamberlin, 1943). In addition, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact included a secret protocol that divided Central and Eastern Europe into influence zones: Finland, Estonia, and Latvia were under Soviet control, while Lithuania was under German influence (Ibidem). The rivers traced the borders; further south, Germany acknowledged that Bessarabia had entered the USSR's sphere of influence.
The disintegration of the European collective security system, as well as the exclusion of the USSR from any decision involving the acquisition of lands, contributed to Stalin's isolation at the end of World War I. On the other hand, the USSR's decisive role as the conflict approached placed it in a strong bargaining position, allowing it to achieve a condition that appeared to be more beneficial at the time, but which quickly turned out to be a temporary defeat.
Chamberlin, W. H. (1943). Russia’s Role in the Postwar World. The Russian Review, 2(2), 3–9. https://doi.org/10.2307/125248
Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press; 2° edition
Sakwa, R. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917-1991. Routledge.
Suny, R. G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: University Press
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. (1939). International Relation and Security Network - ISN ETH Zurich. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/125339/1393_Molotov-Ribbentrop_Pact.pdf
Mythbuster: Why the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 was not ‘forced’ on Stalin | Communist Crimes. (2022). Estonian Institute of Historical Memory; communistcrimes.org. https://communistcrimes.org/en/mythbuster-why-molotov-ribbentrop-pact-1939-was-not-forced-stalin
Figure 1. An artwork representing communism fighting capitalism [Image] - Red Avantgard. http://redavantgarde.com/collection/show-collection/2554-one-like-all-sign-up-for-the-fourth-government-war-loan-.html.
Figure 2. Stalin, Molotov, Ribbentrop, and other members of the German and Soviet delegations during the singing of the Pact [Photo] - Sitocomunista. https://www.sitocomunista.it/movimentooperaio/spagna/brigateinternazionali.html
Figure 3. The symbol of the Soviet Union raising above a city [Image] - Red Avantguard. http://redavantgarde.com/collection/show-collection/2554-one-like-all-sign-up-for-the-fourth-government-war-loan-.html.
Figure 4. Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands after signing the pact in Moscow in August 1939. [Photo] - WIkiwand. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Foreign_relations_of_the_Soviet_Union