The 80th Anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact, as Joseph Stalin looks on. August 23, 1939.

Today is the 80th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, signed on August 23, 1939. What I wrote on the 75 anniversary five years ago, remains true today. In this post, I reprint it with minor changes and additions:

History is full of cynical international agreements, many of which led to terrible results. But it is likely impossible to find any worse than this one.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact set the stage for history’s bloodiest war, which killed some 50 million people. Without assurance of Soviet noninterference, the Germans could not have gone to war against Britain and France (they realized that, in 1939, they lacked the military power to fight a two-front war). The agreement also enabled both powers to inflict horrible atrocities against the people of the Eastern Europe states they occupied as a result.

Everyone knows about the Nazi part of these crimes. The Soviet part is less well-known, but almost equally heinous. For example, the treaty gave the Soviets the “right” to occupy the Baltic States, and Eastern Poland. This led to the extermination of some 3% of Estonia’s population, and the deportation to Gulags of many more in all three Baltic states. The other areas occupied by the USSR (including a large part of eastern Poland) suffered comparable atrocities. It is difficult  to precisely calculate the overall harm caused by the Nazi-Soviet Pact. But the death toll surely runs into the many millions. Historian Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin includes a far more extensive account of the many atrocities perpetrated by both regimes as a result of their agreement.

To this day, defenders of Stalin’s decision to sign the pact claim that he needed to do it because the British and French otherwise might have simply stood aside and let Hitler attack him. There is no justifying the Anglo-French appeasement of the late 1930s. But at

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