Yuriy RUBTSOV: The Moscow talks in 1939: a missed chance

6 May, 2009 — Strategic Culture Foundation

The European Parliament, where they are baking all those democratic values, called for proclaiming August 23, the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a Europe-wide Remembrance Day for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. In March, 2009, the Parliament of Estonia approved the idea. Some members of the European Parliament, who represented Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and the Czech Republic suggested a ban on both Soviet and Nazi symbols.

The Balts have long disowned their armies’ participation in the WW II as part of the Waffen-SS units. For many years they have been demanding that Russia repents for the Soviet policy. They also insist that the USSR and Germany shared ‘equal responsibility’ for unleashing the WW II as they had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and thus divided Europe.

Some people believe that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and not the infamous Munich agreement (September 1938) which started the countdown to September 1, 1939. But I have to remind them of something. Seventy years ago the Soviet Union launched the talks with England and France in Moscow but in August 1939 it was clear that the negotiations had failed and thus the Soviet Union faced a choice-whether to take risks and begin a war with the united Europe or sign a pact with Germany and thus leave them no chances to create a united front against the Soviet Union.

In violation of the Munich agreement with Great Britain and France, in March 1939 Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and thus demonstrated to the whole world that the trying to appease Hitler was a risky thing. However, London and Paris still hoped to sign a separate agreement with Berlin. They resorted to diplomatic maneuvers in order to achieve several goals at a time: to retain influence on minor and medium European states, to intimidate Hitler by a probable agreement with the Soviet Union and not to let Moscow find a compromise with Germany. Some politicians in Britain did not rule out a possibility of a deal with Moscow.

On March 18, 1939, diplomats in London asked their colleagues in Moscow to comment on the reaction of the Soviet Union to the possibility of Germany’s invasion of Romania. Moscow suggested convocation of the negotiations between the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Poland, Romania and Turkey to work out a set of measures to persuade Berlin to abandon its aggressive policy. And this is when the West started its maneuvers. Having received the response from the Kremlin, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax said the British government could not find a man who would be responsible enough to represent the country at the conference. (?!)

When the British diplomats understood it was no longer possible to ignore the Soviet proposal, they released a memorandum which read: “We should sign some kind of an agreement with the Soviet Union that they would help us in case we are attacked from the East, not only in order to persuade Germany to fight on two fronts but also-and this probably the most important thing- to force the Soviet Union in the war if its begins”.

On March 21 the British ambassador William Seeds handed over to the Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov a draft declaration between Great Britain, USSR, France and Poland, which obliged the four countries to ”discuss all the steps which may be taken to repel threats to Europe’s political independence and security”.

Although the project did not feature any effective means to restrain aggression, on March 23 the Soviet government agreed to sign it. Moscow also suggested that the Balkan, the Baltic and the Scandinavian states joined the declaration after it was published. The next day France accepted the proposal and called on the sides to hold a special meeting to sign the declaration. After a week of hesitations, London renounced its initiative with reference to the Polish government which did not like the idea.

However, the maneuvers were not over. Secretly approving Hitler’s operation in Memel (Klaipeda), the Chamberlain government still hoped to have control of Moscow. In mid April Britain suggested that the Soviet Union took on unilateral obligations to help ”its neighbors in Europe” in case of aggression. France announced it was ready to sign a deal of mutual assistance with Moscow in case either of the sides was forced into the war with Germany because of their help to Poland or Romania.

On April 17 the Soviet government made several counter offers, which unlike cautious proposals of the western democracies, were much more constructive. Here they are:

1. England, France and the Soviet Union achieve a 5-10-year agreement on mutual assistance in case of aggression against either of the sides.

2. England, France and the Soviet Union promise to provide different kinds of assistance, including military, to the East European states located between the Baltic and the Black Seas and bordering the USSR in case of any threat to their security.

3. England, France and the Soviet Union pledge to discuss the details of military assistance to each state mentioned in paragraphs 1,2.

4. The British government specifies that their aid to Poland is valid only in case of German aggression.

5. The existing union agreement between Poland and Romania comes into effect in case of any aggression against Poland and Romania or is subject to cancellation if it is aimed against USSR.

6. England, France and the Soviet Union pledge after the beginning of military campaign not to join any negotiations and unilaterally achieve peace deals with aggressors.

7. The agreement in question is due to be signed together with a convention which results from paragraph 3.

8. England, France and the Soviet Union find it necessary to join the negotiations with Turkey on mutual assistance.

In other words, the Soviet Union proposed a three-party agreement on mutual assistance, based on equal share of responsibility and necessity to prevent aggression in any region of Europe. The new Triple Entente could have become an obstacle to Hitler`s expansion. Apparently, this is what Britain and France were afraid of as they were not ready to play such serious political games.

If it took France 8 days to prepare counter offers, Great Britain hesitated during 20 days, which could not but affect the course of the negotiations between Vyacheslav Molotov (Stalin appointed him as the Soviet Foreign Minister on May 3, 1939) and the ambassadors W. Seeds and E. Nadjiyar. The Pravda (Truth) newspaper described the tactics of the western states as the following: “In spite of the fact that each day they are talking about equality and mutual respect, they do not want such kind of a treaty with the Soviet Union. Actually, they want the Soviet Union to have the whole burden on their shoulders. If a country has a sense of dignity, it will never agree on this”.

By the end of July the text of the declaration was almost ready but the sides yet failed to agree on the definition of ‘indirect aggression’, which was an important step towards protection of the Baltic states. Having taken a tough stance, Great Britain did not let Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia receive their guarantees. Without this, the deal lost its significance for the Soviet Union since the Baltic governments tended to close cooperation with Nazi Germany and thus could be viewed by Berlin as a bridge-head to attack the USSR.

There also were some other countries which sowed the seeds of discord. Poland and Romania did not approve the Soviet proposal to join efforts against fascism. And since they had common border with our country, the ground forces of Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union would not be able to cooperate in case of German invasion of the Soviet Union.

A chance to create a united anti-fascist front in Europe was missed. Threatened by a possibility of international isolation, the Soviet government agreed to welcome Ribbentrop in Moscow. The Western democracies sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

See also Olga CHETVERIKOVA: ‘Secret Run-Up to World War II: the Responsibility of the West’

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