Is Past Prologue? The Eightieth Anniversary of the Start of World War II and a Secret Pact Between Great Powers

As President Trump prepares to travel to Poland to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the start of World War II in Europe, he would do well to recognize another important anniversary—that of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which falls on today, August 23, 2019.
On August 23, 1939, after more than three months of hard diplomacy and sensitive negotiation, the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, respectively—signed a non-aggression pact known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It was both a surprising and devastating document.
Surprising because the Nazis vehemently opposed Soviet communism and vice versa. This deep ideological difference convinced U.S., British, and French diplomats that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin would forever remain adversaries.
Devastating because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gave Hitler a free hand to invade and annex neighboring nations while protecting Germany from Soviet attack (and, Stalin assumed, protecting the Soviet Union from German attack). With this pact, Nazi Germany could fully concentrate its forces on an offensive in Poland followed by invasions of Denmark and Norway in April 1940. The Nazi campaigns against Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France came soon thereafter.
Even more significant than the non-aggression agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact contained secret protocols—sections of the deal not made public until 1992, when the Russian foreign ministry formally condemned it in the months following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In these secret clauses, Stalin and Hitler had planned, in great detail, how to conquer and divide Eastern Europe between them. It was the secret protocol that prompted the Soviets to invade Poland from the east on September 17, 1939, two weeks after Hitler’s initial assault. Ironically, the Soviet invasion breached an earlier non-aggression pact signed between Poland and the Soviet Union in 1932. Of course, the two dictators’ territorial ambitions did not cease with Poland: as Hitler attacked Central Europe, Stalin attacked the Baltic states—all according to the pre-agreed terms of the secret protocol.
For almost two years, Germany and the Soviet Union were firm allies. During negotiations in November 1940, Molotov nearly made the Soviet Union an official fourth Axis power. But as these discussions were taking place, Hitler had already decided to turn on and attack the Soviet Union the following spring. Consequently, Hitler’s massive incursion into the Soviet Union in June 1941, Operation Barbarossa, voided the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

A Warning, a Reminder, and a Revelation for Today

How should President Trump and the U.S. delegation contemplate this important anniversary in keeping with Vladimir Putin’s contemporary Russia? There are three timely takeaways: one warning, one reminder, and one revelation. 
The Warning. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is a cautionary tale about the type of destructive diplomacy that created the pact and where it can lead. Behind Molotov and Ribbentrop were two genocidal dictators, Stalin and Hitler, who cut deals unrestrained by conventions or institutions and with contempt for the most basic notions of humanity. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is one of the purest examples of what happens when such individuals determine international affairs unconstrained by their governments or citizens. It is also a warning not to underestimate the willingness of great power competitors to cooperate with one another opportunistically (in today’s context, China and Russia) to advance their short-term national goals even when their long-term strategic interests and ideologies appear to be at odds.
The Reminder. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is a reminder that changing borders by force and against the will of the people leads to calamity. The pact facilitated the deadliest war the world has ever known. Most of the territories named in the deal were devastated, and the chaos unleashed by the pact spread even further—first throughout Europe, then much of the world. Even after 1945, the once-independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe were forced to accept that the cost of Soviet “liberation” was a future as part of the Soviet Union or as a member of the Warsaw Pact until independence was eventually achieved 45 years later. By contrast, the international system that was developed after 1945, and the relative peace it has procured, is founded on a near-absolute rejection of forced annexations and boundary changes by military means. This is why Russia’s continued annexation and occupation of Crimea, other parts of Ukraine, and Georgia are so wrong. It recasts the shadow of Molotov-Ribbentrop over Europe and recalls a time when land, livelihoods, and lives were easily endangered.
The Revelation. The revelation derives from how the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is described by Russia today and what it tells us about modern Russia—and the power of a Russian historic narrative based on revisionism. Consider the words then-prime minister Vladimir Putin used to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, speaking in Gdansk, Poland in 2009: "All attempts between 1934 and 1939 to pacify the Nazis by making various kinds of agreements and pacts with them were unacceptable from the moral point of view and from the political point of view were pointless, harmful, and dangerous." But following Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Putin shifted his stance in 2015, declaring that the pact "made sense for ensuring the security of the Soviet Union.” Russia’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, went even further, lauding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as “a great achievement of Soviet diplomacy.” These changing Russian attitudes to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are not a reconsideration of historical facts in light of new evidence. Rather, they reveal how drastically Russia has changed its world view in a short period of time to one that is more in sync with the Molotov-Ribbentrop zeitgeist and its desire to seize a neighbor’s territory to ensure Russia’s security.
Today, the rules-based international order constrains the prevalence of secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact variety between totalitarian leaders or great powers. But relative safety from secret deals should not be taken for granted. Divergent aggressors will cooperate on an opportunistic basis to advance their national interests to the detriment of other countries. Transparency is essential for the international system. Signed international treaties should be verified against actions taken and promised (like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Treaty on Open Skies), military exercises should be announced and other countries invited to observe, and there should be open discussion regarding new security partnerships and purchases of military equipment. The U.S.-Polish defense relationship is an example of an open and strong bilateral cooperation that in turn strengthens the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but it is nested in the broader multinational framework and rules-based order that underpins its success.
As President Trump and President Duda of Poland celebrate the heroism of the soldiers who confronted the Nazi menace in 1939, they would do well to remember the sinister strongman diplomacy which unleashed Hitler’s aggression. It was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocol—not just Hitler—that sparked the greatest violence the world has ever known. As we encounter examples of disdain for democracy and the rules-based international order today, we can only hope transatlantic leaders will recognize the danger signs and work to prevent a repeat of past mistakes.
Iain King CBE is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

With special thanks to Holly Geffs, former CSIS Europe Program Coordinator, for her research assistance.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Iain King