Military history


In a debate in the House of Commons on May 19, the British Prime Minister had again taken a cool and even disdainful view, as Churchill thought, of the Russian proposals. Somewhat wearily he had explained to the House that “there is a sort of veil, a sort of wall, between the two Governments which it is extremely difficult to penetrate.” Churchill, on the other hand, backed by Lloyd George, argued that Moscow had made “a fair offer … more simple, more direct, more effective” than Chamberlain’s own proposals. He begged His Majesty’s Government “to get some brutal truths into their heads. Without an effective Eastern front, there can be no satisfactory defense in the West, and without Russia there can be no effective Eastern front.”

Bowing to the storm of criticism from all sides, Chamberlain on May 27 finally instructed the British ambassador in Moscow to agree to begin discussions of a pact of mutual assistance, a military convention and guarantees to the countries threatened by Hitler.* Ambassador von Dirksen in London advised the German Foreign Office that the British government had taken the step “with the greatest reluctance.” Furthermore, Dirksen divulged what was perhaps the primary reason for Chamberlain’s move. The British Foreign Office, he reported urgently to Berlin, had got wind of “German feelers in Moscow” and was “afraid that Germany might succeed in keeping Soviet Russia neutral or even inducing her to adopt benevolent neutrality. That would have meant the complete collapse of the encirclement action.”53

On the last day of May, Molotov made his first public speech as Commissar for Foreign Affairs in an address to the Supreme Council of the U.S.S.R. He castigated the Western democracies for their hesitation and declared that if they were serious in joining Russia to stop aggression they must get down to brass tacks and come to an agreement on three main points:

1.     Conclude a tripartite mutual-assistance pact of a purely defensive character.

2.     Guarantee the states of Central and Eastern Europe, including all European states bordering on the Soviet Union.

3.     Conclude a definite agreement on the form and scope of the immediate and effective aid to be afforded each other and the smaller states threatened by aggression.

Molotov also declared that the talks with the West did not mean that Russia would forego “business relations on a practical footing” with Germany and Italy. In fact, he said that “it was not out of the question” that commercial negotiations with Germany could be resumed. Ambassador von der Schulenburg, in reporting the speech to Berlin, pointed out that Molotov had indicated that Russia was still prepared to conclude a treaty with Britain and France “on condition that all her demands are accepted,” but that it was now evident from the address that it would take a long time before any real agreement was reached. He pointed out that Molotov had “avoided sallies against Germany and showed readiness to continue the talks begun in Berlin and Moscow.”54

This readiness was now suddenly shared by Hitler in Berlin.

   During the last ten days of May, Hitler and his advisers blew hot and cold over the thorny question of making advances to Moscow in order to thwart the Anglo–Russian negotiations. It was felt in Berlin that Molotov in his talk with Ambassador von der Schulenburg on May 20* had thrown cold water on Germany’s approaches, and on the following day, May 21, Weizsaecker wired the ambassador that in view of what the Foreign Commissar had said “we must now sit tight and wait to see if the Russians will speak more openly.”55

But Hitler, having fixed September 1 for his attack on Poland, could not afford to sit tight. On or about May 25, Weizsaecker and Friedrich Gaus, director of the Legal Department of the German Foreign Office, were summoned to Ribbentrop’s country house at Sonnenburg and, according to Gaus’s affidavit submitted at Nuremberg, informed that the Fuehrer wanted “to establish more tolerable relations between Germany and the Soviet Union.” Draft instructions to Schulenburg were drawn up by Ribbentrop outlining in considerable detail the new line he was to take with Molotov, whom he was asked to see “as soon as possible.” This draft is among the captured German Foreign Office documents.56

It was shown to Hitler, according to a notation on the document, on May 26. It is a revealing paper. It discloses that by this date the German Foreign Office was convinced that the Anglo–Russian negotiations would be successfully concluded unless Germany intervened decisively. Ribbentrop therefore proposed that Schulenburg tell Molotov the following:

A real opposition of interests in foreign affairs does not exist between Germany and Soviet Russia … The time has come to consider a pacification and normalization of German–Soviet Russian foreign relations … The Italo–German alliance is not directed against the Soviet Union. It is exclusively directed against the Anglo–French combination …

If against our wishes it should come to hostilities with Poland, we are firmly convinced that even this need not in any way lead to a clash of interests with Soviet Russia. We can even go so far as to say that when settling the German–Polish question—in whatever way this is done—we would take Russian interests into account as far as possible.

   Next the danger to Russia of an alliance with Great Britain was to be pointed up.

We are unable to see what could really induce the Soviet Union to play an active part in the game of the British policy of encirclement … This would mean Russia undertaking a one-sided liability without any really valuable British quid pro quo … Britain is by no means in a position to offer Russia a really valuable quid pro quo, no matter how the treaties may be formulated. All assistance in Europe is rendered impossible by the West Wall … We are therefore convinced that Britain will once more remain faithful to her traditional policy of letting other powers pull her chestnuts out of the fire.

   Schulenburg also was to emphasize that Germany had “no aggressive intentions against Russia.” Finally, he was instructed to tell Molotov that Germany was ready to discuss with the Soviet Union not only economic questions but “a return to normal in political relations.”

Hitler thought the draft went too far and ordered it held up. The Fuehrer, according to Gaus, had been impressed by Chamberlain’s optimistic statement of two days before, May 24, when the Prime Minister had told the House of Commons that as the result of new British proposals he hoped that full agreement with Russia could be reached “at an early date.” What Hitler feared was a rebuff. He did not abandon the idea of a rapprochement with Moscow but decided that for the time being a more cautious approach would be best.

The backing and filling which took place in the Fuehrer’s mind during the last week of May is documented in the captured German Foreign Office papers. On or about the twenty-fifth—the exact day is not quite certain—he had suddenly come out for pushing talks with the Soviet Union in order to thwart the Anglo–Russian negotiations. Schulenburg was to see Molotov at once for that purpose. But Ribbentrop’s instructions to him, which were shown Hitler on the twenty-sixth, were never sent. The Fuehrer canceled them. That evening Weizsaecker wired Schulenburg advising him to maintain an “attitude of complete reserve—you personally should not make any move until further notice.”57

This telegram and a letter which the State Secretary wrote the ambassador in Moscow on May 27 but did not mail until May 30, when a significant postscript was added, go far to explaining the hesitations in Berlin.58 Weizsaecker, writing on the twenty-seventh, informed Schulenburg that it was the opinion in Berlin that an Anglo–Russian agreement would “not be easy to prevent” and that Germany hesitated to intervene decisively against it for fear of provoking “a peal of Tartar laughter” in Moscow. Also, the State Secretary revealed, both Japan and Italy had been cool toward Germany’s proposed move in Moscow, and the reserve of her allies had helped to influence the decision in Berlin to sit tight. “Thus,” he concluded, “we now want to wait and see how deeply Moscow and Paris–London mutually engage themselves.”

For some reason Weizsaecker did not post his letter at once; perhaps he felt that Hitler had not yet tally made up his mind. When he did mail it on May 30, he added a postscript:

   P.S. To my above lines I must add that, with the approval of the Fuehrer, an approach is nonetheless now to be made to the Russians, though a very much modified one, and this by means of a conversation which I am to hold today with the Russian chargé d’affaires.

   This talk with Georgi Astakhov did not get very far, but it represented for the Germans a new start. Weizsaecker’s pretext for calling in the Russian chargé was to discuss the future of the Soviet trade delegation in Prague, which the Russians were anxious to maintain. Around this subject the two diplomats sparred to find out what was in each other’s mind. Weizsaecker said he agreed with Molotov that political and economic questions could not be entirely separated and expressed interest in the “normalization of relations between Soviet Russia and Germany.” Astakhov asserted that Molotov had no “intention of barring the door against further Russo–German discussions.”

Cautious as both men were, the Germans were encouraged. At 10:40 o’clock that evening of May 30 Weizsaecker got off a “most urgent” telegram59 to Schulenburg in Moscow:

   Contrary to the tactics hitherto planned we have now, after all, decided to make a certain degree of contact with the Soviet Union.*

   It may have been that a long secret memorandum which Mussolini penned to Hitler on May 30 strengthened the Fuehrer’s resolve to turn to the Soviet Union, however cautiously. As the summer commenced, the Duce’s doubts mounted as to the advisability of an early conflict. He was convinced, he wrote Hitler, that “war between the plutocratic, self-seeking conservative nations” and the Axis was “inevitable.” But—“Italy requires a period of preparation which may extend until the end of 1942 … Only from 1943 onward will an effort by war have the greatest prospects of success.” After enumerating several reasons why “Italy needs a period of peace,” the Duce concluded: “For all these reasons Italy does not wish to hasten a European war, although she is convinced of the inevitability of such a war.”60

Hitler, who had not taken his good friend and ally into his confidence about the date of September 1 which he had set for attacking Poland, replied that he had read the secret memorandum “with the greatest interest” and suggested that the two leaders meet for discussions sometime in the future. In the meantime the Fuehrer decided to see if a crack could be made in the Kremlin wall. All through June preliminary talks concerning a new trade agreement were held in Moscow between the German Embassy and Anastas Mikoyan, the Russian Commissar for Foreign Trade.

The Soviet government was still highly suspicious of Berlin. As Schulenburg reported toward the end of the month (June 27), the Kremlin believed the Germans, in pressing for a trade agreement, wished to torpedo the Russian negotiations with Britain and France. “They are afraid,” he wired Berlin, “that as soon as we have gained this advantage we might let the negotiations peter out.”61

On June 28 Schulenburg had a long talk with Molotov which proceeded, he told Berlin in a “secret and urgent” telegram, “in a friendly manner.” Nevertheless, when the German ambassador referred assuringly to the nonaggression treaties which Germany had just concluded with the Baltic States,* the Soviet Foreign Commissar tartly replied that “he must doubt the permanence of such treaties after the experiences which Poland had had.” Summing up the talk, Schulenburg concluded:

   My impression is that the Soviet Government is greatly interested in learning our political views and in maintaining contact with us. Although there was no mistaking the strong distrust evident in all that Molotov said, he nevertheless described a normalization of relations with Germany as being desirable and possible.62

   The ambassador requested telegraphic instructions as to his next move. Schulenburg was one of the last survivors of the Seeckt, Maltzan and Brockdorff-Rantzau school which had insisted on a German rapprochement with Soviet Russia after 1919 and which had brought it about atRapallo. As his dispatches throughout 1939 make clear, he sincerely sought to restore the close relations which had existed during the Weimar Republic. But like so many other German career diplomats of the old school he little understood Hitler.

Suddenly on June 29 Hitler, from his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, ordered the talks with the Russians broken off.

Berchtesgaden, June 29, 1939

… The Fuehrer has decided as follows:

The Russians are to be informed that we have seen from their attitude that they are making the continuation of further talks dependent on the acceptance of the basis for our economic discussions as fixed in January. Since this basis was not acceptable to us, we would not be interested in a resumption of the economic discussions with Russia at present.

The Fuehrer has agreed that this answer be delayed for a few days.63

   Actually, the substance of it was telegraphed to the German Embassy in Moscow the next day.

The Foreign Minister [Weizsaecker wired] … is of the opinion that in the political field enough has been said until further instructions and that for the moment the talks should not be taken up again by us.

Concerning the possible economic negotiations with the Russian Government, the deliberations here have not yet been concluded. In this field too you are requested for the time being to take no further action, but to await instructions.64

   There is no clue in the secret German documents which explains Hitler’s sudden change of mind. The Russians already had begun to compromise on their proposals of January and February. And Schnurre had warned on June 15 that a breakdown in the economic negotiations would be a setback for Germany both economically and politically.

Nor could the rocky course of the Anglo–French–Soviet negotiations have so discouraged Hitler as to lead him to such a decision. He knew from the reports of the German Embassy in Moscow that Russia and the Western Powers were deadlocked over the question of guarantees to Poland, Rumania and the Baltic States. Poland and Rumania were happy to be guaranteed by Britain and France, which could scarcely help them in the event of German aggression except by the indirect means of setting up a Western front. But they refused to accept a Russian guarantee or even to allow for Soviet troops to pass through their territories to meet a German attack. Latvia, Estonia and Finland also stoutly declined to accept any Russian guarantee, an attitude which, as the German Foreign Office papers later revealed, was encouraged by Germany in the form of dire threats should they weaken in their resolve.

In this impasse Molotov suggested at the beginning of June that Great Britain send its Foreign Secretary to Moscow to take part in the negotiations. Apparently in the Russian view this would not only help to break the deadlock but would show that Britain was in earnest in arriving at an agreement with Russia. Lord Halifax declined to go.* Anthony Eden, who was at least a former Foreign Secretary, offered to go in his place, but Chamberlain turned him down. It was decided, instead, to send William Strang, a capable career official in the Foreign Office who had previouslyserved in the Moscow Embassy and spoke Russian but was little known either in his own country or outside of it. The appointment of so subordinate an official to head such an important mission and to negotiate directly with Molotov and Stalin was a signal to the Russians, they later said, that Chamberlain still did not take very seriously the business of building an alliance to stop Hitler.

Strang arrived in Moscow on June 14, but though he participated in eleven Anglo–French meetings with Molotov, his appearance had little effect on the course of Anglo–Soviet negotiations. A fortnight later, on June 29, Russian suspicion and irritation was publicly displayed in an article inPravda by Andrei Zhdanov under the headline, “British and French Governments Do Not Want a Treaty on the Basis of Equality for the Soviet Union.” Though purporting to write “as a private individual and not committing the Soviet Government,” Zhdanov was not only a member of the Politburo and president of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Soviet Parliament but, as Schulenburg emphasized to Berlin in reporting on the matter, “one of Stalin’s confidants [whose] article was doubtless written on orders from above.”

   It seems to me [Zhdanov wrote] that the British and French Governments are not out for a real agreement acceptable to the U.S.S.R. but only for talks about an agreement in order to demonstrate before the public opinion of their own countries the alleged unyielding attitude of the U.S.S.R. and thus facilitate the conclusion of an agreement with the aggressors. The next few days will show whether this is so or not.66

   Stalin’s distrust of Britain and France and his suspicion that the Western Allies might in the end make a deal with Hitler, as they had the year before at Munich, was thus publicized for all the world to ponder. Ambassador von der Schulenburg, pondering it, suggested to Berlin that one purpose of the article was “to lay the blame on Britain and France for the possible breakdown of the negotiations.”67

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