By the beginning of 1939, Adolf Hitler had become so bold that he tried
to steal two separate neighboring territories at the same time. While he
was focusing on taking Czechoslovakia, he was also pressuring Poland to
give him the former German city of Danzig located on the Baltic Sea. And
he wanted the Poles to permit construction of a new super highway and railroad
stretching from Germany through Polish territory into East Prussia.
The territory in question was known as the Polish Corridor, a narrow
strip of land which gave Poland access to the sea and cut off East Prussia
from the rest of Germany. Poland had been granted this sea corridor after
World War I by the Treaty of Versailles, which also designated Danzig as
a Free City operating under the supervision of the League of Nations.
All of this, of course, was completely unacceptable to Hitler and to
most Germans but they never had the power to do anything about it – until
April 1939 - Hitler is delighted by the gift of a framed painting from SS-Reichsführer Himmler in honor of his 50th birthday. Reaching the half-century mark had huge personal significance for the Führer - who now wanted his war for Lebensraum sooner rather than later. Below: Nazi elite and assorted guests at Hitler's birthday reception held at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin.
Making matters worse, Poland's military leaders had connived with Hitler
to steal a small piece of Czechoslovakia back in October 1938. Thus they
were more susceptible to being pressured by the Nazis into some kind of
agreement concerning Danzig and the Polish Corridor.
To achieve this, Hitler and Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop held several meetings with
Poland's Ambassador to Germany, Josef Lipski, and with the Polish Foreign
Minister, Józef Beck. But the Poles said they had absolutely no
interest in compromising with Hitler and bluntly informed the Nazis in
late November 1938 that any attempt by Germany to grab Danzig "must
inevitably lead to conflict."
Thus far, all of Hitler's conquests had resulted from his successful
use of gangster diplomacy. But now, for the first time in his career, Hitler
had encountered an opponent that would not give in. Hitler responded to
Poland's defiance by ordering his generals to prepare to take Danzig "by
Meanwhile, Hitler had managed to annex what remained of Czechoslovakia.
But it had been a costly move on his part. Outraged public opinion in Great Britain resulted in a tough stance taken by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
and a firm declaration on March 31, 1939, that Britain, with the backing
of France, would fight to save Poland.
Things were not going so easily for Hitler anymore. When he heard about
Chamberlain's guarantee to Poland, he flew into a rage and shouted against
the British: "I'll cook them a stew they'll choke on!"
That stew would be World War II and was now only a matter of months
away. Thus the time had come for the major powers in Europe and elsewhere
to pick sides. Britain and France were already aligned with Poland. It
could also be assumed that the United States would side with Britain at
some future point.
Germany's main friend in Europe, Fascist Italy, had been strangely silent
up to this point. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had been hemming
and hawing for about a year as to whether he would actually take the plunge
and formally link his country's future with Nazi Germany. Mussolini hesitated
with good reason. During several visits with top Nazis he had listened
to their reckless bragging about the coming war in Europe and Germany's
Mussolini was not at all opposed to the use of military force. However,
he preferred to choose his targets carefully, preferably defenseless little
countries such as Ethiopia and Albania, both of which he had occupied.
But a European war against the major powers was another story. Mussolini's
army was simply not ready for such a war.
The Italians were also taken aback by the Nazis total disregard for
the death and suffering a new world war would bring. Mussolini differed
greatly from Hitler in that he did not possess the same murderous mentality
as the Führer. Hitler did not value human life. Mussolini, although
he was a belligerent bully and opportunist, did value life.
Interestingly, Mussolini seems to have made his final decision to ally
with Hitler almost on the spur of the moment. On May 6, 1939, Nazi Foreign
Minister Ribbentrop met in Milan, Italy, with Mussolini's son-in-law, Count
Galeazzo Ciano, who functioned as Italy's Foreign Minister. Count Ciano
hoped to impress upon the Nazis that Italy wished to delay the onset of
war for at least three years. Ribbentrop greatly surprised Ciano by saying
that Nazi Germany also wanted to delay things for another three years.
Later that evening, Mussolini telephoned Ciano for a report on the discussions
and was informed the talks had gone very well indeed. Upon hearing this,
Mussolini instructed his son-in-law to announce to the press that Italy
and Germany had concluded an actual military alliance. Ciano then informed
Ribbentrop of Mussolini's remarkable request. Ribbentrop, naturally, had
to talk to his Führer before he would agree to anything. He telephoned
Hitler who immediately approved the announcement.
| Portrait of Count Galeazzo Ciano, the gullible son-in-law of Mussolini, who inadvertently paved the way for the Nazi military pact with Fascist Italy.
Tragically for Italy, Mussolini and his son-in-law had completely misjudged
the whole situation. By this time, Hitler had already issued secret orders
to his generals to be ready to invade Poland by September 1st. The Germans
were deliberately keeping the Italians in the dark as to their true intentions.
The military "Pact of Steel" subsequently signed by Italy and
Germany would later have disastrous consequences for the Italian people
as they were drawn into Hitler's war.
While all of these developments were occurring, Soviet Russia was
feeling quite left out of the whole diplomatic scenario. The Russians voiced
their dissatisfaction in a series of speeches originating from Moscow but
geared toward Western ears. In March 1939, Soviet leader Josef Stalin
gave a cynical speech describing the Munich Agreement and subsequent concessions
made by Britain as an attempt to push Germany further eastward, perhaps
into a war with Russia. Stalin warned the Western Allies that
he would not allow Soviet Russia to be manipulated into a solo war against
Nazi Germany while the West just stood by and watched.
In May 1939, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov gave a speech
hinting that the Western Allies should get busy and talk to Moscow soon
or there might be some kind of agreement forthcoming between Soviet
Russia and Nazi Germany.
However, Prime Minister Chamberlain, leader of the Western Allies, was
in no hurry to talk to the Russians. He simply did not believe in the value
of a military alliance with Soviet Russia. In a private letter he even
asserted: "I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an
effective offensive, even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives..."
Chamberlain was not alone in his distrust. The Poles actually hated
the Russians, knowing that Stalin would not hesitate to gobble up Poland
if he had the chance. As a result, Poland, along with Britain, had thus
far refused all Russian offers to discuss joint military action in the event
of further Nazi aggression. This outright rejection encouraged Stalin to negotiate
with the Nazis.
Although Hitler had repeatedly professed his own hatred of Bolshevism (Communism in Soviet Russia),
he decided to pursue a non-aggression pact with Stalin to avoid the possibility
of having to fight a war on two fronts at the same time.
Hitler's master plan was to crush Poland with lightning speed, then
turn westward and knock out France and Britain. It was therefore necessary
for Soviet Russia to remain neutral, otherwise Germany might have to
fight the French-British in the west and Russians in the east – the dreaded military scenario that had proved so disastrous for Germany two decades earlier during World War I.
This time around, the Western Allies would be knocked out first, then Hitler would turn his
armies eastward and plunge deep into Russia, rolling over Stalin's Red Army to acquire thousands of miles of Lebensraum at Russia's expense.
Hitler, just like the Western Allies, had a low opinion of the Red Army's
fighting potential and also grossly underestimated Josef Stalin, one of the most
ruthless humans who ever lived.
Stalin, like Hitler, did not value human life. By this time in Soviet
Russia's history, Stalin had experience in committing mass murder and had
his own well-developed system of concentration camps. Stalin would kill
anyone for any reason. The slightest suspicion, real or imagined, was enough
to make a person vanish without a trace inside the Soviet terror state
But now, through a quirk of fate, Stalin suddenly became the man of
the hour in Europe. When the British finally realized there was a good
possibility he might side with the Nazis, they put aside their own reservations
about the man and pursued an alliance.
A beaming Josef Stalin (rear right) along with Foreign Minister Molotov (beside him) watches Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop sign the Non-Aggression Pact for Germany. Below: Symbolic Russian-German handshake by Stalin and Ribbentrop after the signing.
When the Nazis realized the British were seeking an alliance, they intensified
their own efforts. Thus, as the summer of 1939 arrived, a strange kind
of competition sprang up between the British and the Germans as to who
would succeed in getting the Russian leader to sign on the dotted line.
The biggest hurdle facing the British was that Poland refused outright
to allow any Russian troops onto its soil under any conditions, even if
the country was being invaded by Hitler. This, of course, made it nearly
impossible to conclude a military pact involving Russia.
In addition to this, Chamberlain made a series of diplomatic blunders
that allowed Hitler and Ribbentrop to gain momentum. Chamberlain's negotiators
didn't even arrive in Moscow until August 11th. By that time, the Nazis had
been hard at work laying the groundwork for a Nazi-Soviet pact.
Worse for the British, the Russians were insulted that
Chamberlain sent second-rank British military officers to Moscow on such
an important mission. Chamberlain also instructed his negotiators not to
rush into anything at first, thus they moved at a snail's pace during the
initial discussions, frustrating the Russians. The British also declined
to share any military intelligence with the Russians, further insulting
All of these complications served to convince Stalin that Poland and
its Western Allies were not serious about seeking a military alliance against
Stalin had no qualms about negotiating with Hitler, if it was in the
best interest of Soviet Russia to do so. Hitler, of course, had every
reason to negotiate with Stalin. It was now mid-August and his planned
invasion of Poland was just a few weeks away.
Germany's ambassador in Moscow, Count Schulenburg, pushed hard to get
the whole process rolling and was authorized by Berlin to say yes to every
Russian demand. The Russians responded kindly to this and on August 16th sent
the first word back to Berlin that a non-aggression pact might indeed be
forthcoming. They even took the time to provide a first draft of just such
As the days of August ticked by and September grew
ever-closer, Hitler and Ribbentrop became frantically determined to get
the pact finalized and signed. On August 20th, Hitler sent a personal message
to Stalin stating that "a crisis may arise any day" between Germany
and Poland and therefore the Russian leader should receive Ribbentrop in
Moscow "at the latest on Wednesday, August 23rd."
again the Russians responded kindly and agreed to see Ribbentrop on the
23rd to seal the actual agreement. The two Foreign Ministers, Ribbentrop
and Molotov, thus signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression
Pact in a ceremony at the Kremlin building attended by Stalin himself.
Hitler had gotten what he needed. He would not have to fight a war
on two fronts. And Stalin got what he wanted. According to a secret protocol
attached to the pact, Stalin was granted a free hand in Eastern Europe
to steal back several areas lost to Russia at the end of World War I, including
the countries of Latvia, Estonia and Finland, the province of Bessarabia
in Romania, and most importantly, the entire eastern portion of Poland.
Hitler was quite willing to be this generous to Stalin, knowing all
along that he intended to destroy Soviet Russia itself in the not-too-distant
The Nazi-Soviet Pact sealed the fate of Poland, a country that was geographically
isolated from its Western Allies, thus making direct military aid nearly
impossible. Poland's only hope for survival would have been an alliance
with its next door neighbor, the Russians.
The news that these two cynical, ruthless men, Adolf Hitler and Josef
Stalin, had made a pact with each other, shocked the world. Everyone knew
what it meant – that a new world war was all but certain now. All that
remained was for the Führer to say when.