This week in history: Hitler and Stalin sign the non-aggression pact
On Aug. 23, 1939, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The agreement freed Hitler to begin World War II in Europe and lasted for nearly two years.
The late 1930s saw Hitler bloodlessly incorporating Germany's neighbors into the Reich. In March of 1938, the German army marched unopposed into Austria, greeted by throngs of cheering Austrians delighted at the prospect of unification. In September, however, Hitler had demanded that the Czech Sudetenland, an area with a significant ethnic German minority, also be incorporated into the Reich.
Czechoslovakia opposed this annexation and turned to its allies, Britain and France, for help. With memories of the first World War at the forefront of their minds, British and French leaders met with Hitler in Munich, Germany. There, they agreed to recommend that Czechoslovakia hand over the Sudetenland, and stated firmly that they would not honor their treaty commitments to Czechoslovakia if it chose to fight the Germans. Without the support of their allies, the Czechs gave in to Hitler's demands.
The British policy of appeasing Hitler rested partially on the notion that the victors of World War I had indeed been too harsh on Germany, and Britain must be gracious and allow Germany to regain territories taken from it under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The British also felt that Hitler was sincere in his desire to protect the rights of ethnic Germans throughout Europe. Though grossly exaggerated by Hitler and the Nazis, the German minority in the Sudetenland had experienced oppression at the hands of the Czechs.
With this attitude, the British were willing to sell out the Czechs in order to avoid a new war with Germany. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, believed that he had achieved a master diplomatic coup when Hitler stated that after the Sudetenland he would have no more territorial demands in Europe. He was wrong.
In March of 1939, only six months after the agreement at Munich, Hitler marched his army into the rest of the Czechoslovakia. Here, Hitler showed his true intentions. The Czechs and the Slovaks were not ethnically German; thus, his previous line about protecting the rights of German minorities was proved false. The move revealed Hitler for what he was: a power-mad demagogue intent on dominating Europe. British and French attitudes began to change.
When only a short time later Hitler insisted that the Polish Corridor — the strip land that gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea and cut German East Prussia off from Germany proper — be returned to Germany, the British and French drew a line in the sand. The two Western powers agreed to guarantee Poland's borders. Disbelieving the willingness of Britain and France to go to war, Hitler remarked, “Our enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich.”
Yet there was one big wild card that remained in Hitler's calculations: What would the Soviet Union do in the event of a German invasion of Poland? Poland lay right between Germany and the USSR. How would the Soviets feel about a new common border that stretched for hundreds of miles?
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union represented two different and entirely antithetical political systems: fascism and communism. While in practice both regimes shared many similarities — mass propaganda, secret police, concentration camps — there were significant differences. The Nazis were dedicated to building a racial utopia; the Soviets sought to create one by eliminating class differences.
In the years before the Nazis took power, the German communist party proved a powerful rival. When Hitler became chancellor, the first group he targeted was German communists, who became the first inmates in German concentration camps. Likewise, Stalin believed the Nazis represented an extreme form of capitalism, one that was bent on destroying the USSR. A frequent insult and accusation in the Soviet Union was the word “fascist.”
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