German-Soviet Relationship 1939–1941

11 min readJul 16, 2020


Molotov signs the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August 1939, Moscow. Standing behind Molotov: Stalin, Ribbentrop, Shaposhnikov


The diplomatic altitude was once cordial between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939, when they signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which resulted in the partition of Poland. However, the two countries became hostile to each other as Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. This college essay attempts to trace and explain this dramatic change in the diplomatic relationship of Germany and the Soviet Union from the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and to Operation Barbarossa. It was a partnership based on interest and ended on a conflict of interest.

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in German Perspective

Ideologically, the Nazi Party was negative towards Soviet Russia. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925, which became the ideological foundation of National Socialism. In his book, he considered every leftist ideology as Jewish conspiracies scheming to harm the prosperity of Germany and should be rooted out. Slavs were inferior to the superior Aryans race, and hence Germans should take over their land for resources and future development. The Anti-Comintern Pact signed in 1936 served as a clear example of the Nazi’s negative attitude towards Marxism.

Despite the Nazi Party’s fundamental ideological hatred towards communism, yet, temporary cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union was promoted by Hitler. He thought the failure of maintaining an alliance with Russia was one of the reasons for the shameful German defeat in the WWI, such that it is useful to align to Russia and provoke a fight between Britain and Russia before a new great war broke out.

Poland was the next target of German expansion in 1939, as Germany denunciated the 1934 German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact. Other powers such as Britain and France had guaranteed its independence, making the invasion of Poland a diplomatic challenge. To prevent Germany from being dragged into a two-front war again, cooperation with the Soviet Union was necessary to secure the Eastern Front. Therefore, the direct motive of the non-aggression pact was the strategical concern of reducing pressure while it assaults Poland.

The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in Soviet Perspective

Leaders of the Soviet Union feared war after 1927, as they expected any war would be a capitalist encirclement against the Soviet Union. Stalin followed the Leninist doctrine, which is to prevent such encirclement by manipulating discord between the capitalist countries. Thus, he viewed the establishment of a Nazi Regime in Germany as beneficial to the survival of the USSR and eventually to a communist victory, as the Nazi Party was less influenced by the capitalist countries than the Social Democrat Party.

Although Stalin noticed Hitler’s expansionist ambition as Hitler repeatedly mentioned Lebensraum should be seized from Eastern Europe countries such as Poland and Ukraine, Stalin might be fooled by Hitler disclaiming any aggressive intention towards the USSR in the first few years after Hitler obtained power.

The USSR leadership also considered Western countries were not good choices for allies, as they would try to deflect the Nazi threats eastward and betray the USSR. Despite France and Germany had signed a Mutual Assistance Treaty targeted to curb German threat in 1935, USSR was not invited to the Munich Conference, creating mutual distrust. By considering these, the USSR leadership maintaining a cooperative attitude would comparatively bring less harm then confronting with Germany.

After the “Gleichschaltung” (Nazification of Germany) and the Great Purge, Soviet ability to gather information from Germany was significantly weakened. The Communist Party of Germany helped to create one of the best soviet intelligence networks in Europe, but it was mowed down after the Reichstag fire, destroying most parts of the Soviet intelligence service within Germany. Also, Soviet diplomats that were identified with a pro-German attitude such as Krestenii and Karahan were purged. The insufficiency in German intelligence may lead to diplomatic decisions being made without being well-informed.

The Great Purge also severely weakened the Soviet diplomatic position. As many diplomats were executed and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was under heavy political surveyance, its staffing and efficiency suffered. Soviet diplomats were pushed out of diplomatic relations with foreign powers, as foreign countries no longer treat them as reliable. Diplomatic relationships also suffered as other countries were disgusted by the purges and became reluctant to be involved diplomatically with the USSR. The effectiveness of Soviet diplomatic influence in the West was further weakened.

In the end, Germany was more attractive than the Western countries in terms of Soviet interest. The attempt of an Anglo-Soviet-French triple alliance was broken down in August 1939, which was one of the causes for Russia to seek a new partner. The USSR was attracted to sign the non-aggression pact with Germany as it promised that a Soviet sphere of interest could be established in the Baltics states (Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), take Eastern part of Poland and ensure Germany will not intervene the USSR interest in Bessarabia.

Aggregating these factors, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was eventually signed by the two countries on 23 August 1939. Consequently, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union, as stated in the secret protocol of the Pact.

Gradual Relationship Deterioration

Conflict of interest between the USSR and Germany had increased the friction between the two countries and became a factor for the gradual deterioration of their diplomatic relationship. The disputes revolved around the implementation and interpretation of the Non-Aggression Pact.

In Article 3 of the Pact, German declared that they have no interest in the Bessarabia region. The USSR then proceeds to send an ultimatum requesting the control of the region from Romania on 25 June 1940. However, the request included the cessation of Northern Bukovina, which is not written on the pact. Germany attempted to separate the question of Bukovina from the demand of Bessarabia but was ignored. Molotov did not positively respond to the concern of Germany on ethnic Germans living in the two regions. Instead, Molotov stressed the Soviet legitimacy on the claim of the two regions as he claimed that the two regions were settled by Ukrainians and disregarded a 1925 population opposite to this view. Although the Romanian Army eventually evacuated from the two regions peacefully and the ethnic Germans were resettled in the Third Reich, this incident had created discord between the two countries, which Molotov protested that Germany intervened and had failed to observe the pact.

The territorial arrangement of Lithuania also increased friction between the two countries. In the secret supplementary protocol of 28 August 1939, the Mariampol region shall be allotted to Germany. However, Stalin hoped for the full annexation of Lithuania and formally requested Germany to consider whether it is possible for Germany to relinquish the claim of this region. The USSR offered a large sum of 3.86 million gold dollars for recompensate German’s territorial lost and was formalised in a secret protocol in January 1940. However, divergence existed on the repayment schedule, as Molotov hoped to extend the schedule while the German government hoped to finish the issue as quickly as possible. In the end, it was just a minor issue resolved, but different thinking of national interest can be found in this event.

The Balkan problems further deteriorated the Soviet-German relations. The territorial dispute between Hungary and Romania was arbitrated by Germany and Italy in the Second Vienna Award, and the Soviet Union was informed after the decision being made. The USSR leadership thought that the Balkan question should be solved by Germany, Italy and the USSR together, and regarded the relations between Romania and Hungary an issue that should be consulted as stated in Article 3 using a dynamic interpretation of the pact. The Soviet Union not being able to participate in the discussion of Balkan issues, which hampered its relation with Germany.

Soviet-German bonding was weakened by minor arguments due to conflict of interest, such as the interpretation of the Pact and their interest in the Balkans. These conflicts foreshadowed the eventual destruction of the partnership.

Point of No Return — Molotov visited Berlin in November 1940

The turning point of the event was Molotov’s Berlin Talk in November 1940, in which the gap between the USSR and Germany became far beyond reconcilable. The talk was the final attempt of Germany inviting the Soviet Union into a military alliance, and the failure of it eventually led to the outbreak of the Soviet-German War. This part will be examined through official transcripts of the talk.

Ribbentrop met Molotov and invited the USSR to join the Axis, stating that joining the Axis is a wise choice as Germany was powerful and winning. Germany claimed that it is winning in the fight against Britain and would “definitely crush England”, portraying German’s confidence in obtaining the victory. Germany also tried to show off its “extraordinary strong” strength by mentioning the quick victory achieved in the French Campaign.

Mutual benefits were also a concept that Germany used to persuade the Soviet Union to join the Axis. Hitler said that “it would be advantageous in any case if the attempt were made to establish the spheres of influence between Russia, Germany, Italy and Japan along very broad line” and suggested that the Soviet Union can take advantage in the assumed soon collapse of British Empire and gain access to sea “in the direction of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea” in the transcript of 12 November 1940.

Molotov’s initial response was that the USSR is primarily attracted by the plan purposed but details of it needed to be clarified. For example, the concept of “Greater East Asian Sphere” and what Germany expected the Soviet Union to do in actions shall be discussed in detail. He also hoped for a more precise boundary for dividing sphere of influences as he thought that the older order established by the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was “rendered obsolete” and a “permanent settlement” is necessary for the new world order.

Later on the same day, Hitler further discussed the possibility of a German-Soviet alliance with Molotov. The interest in Romania was used to persuade the Soviet Union that joining the Axis enhances mutual benefits, as Germany could secure the vital Romanian petroleum fields while the Balkan and Black Sea interests of the Soviet Union can be settled by cooperation. Molotov emphasised that “Stalin had given him exact instruction” so that he had the same view as Stalin, and thought that if Germany and the Soviet Union collaborate, it would enhance the interest of both countries.

Although seemingly the talk was proceeding with positive signs of progress, there were differing opinions that hampered the reaching of an agreement. At the end of 12 November, Molotov raised the question concerning Finland, as the Soviet government thought that resolution of Finland in the Pact was not yet completed and questions Germany whether the old decision was still valid. The question was answered by Hitler in the next day and became the focal point of conflict.

Hitler started by portraying the image that Germany is a faithful and considerate friend of the Soviet Union. He claimed that Germany “had lived up to the agreements” while the Soviet was not. He said that Germany had observed the secret protocol by maintaining “absolutely benevolent neutrality” and had detained ships in Bergen that was sailing to support Finland with weapons and ammunition. Another example of Bukovina was used to portray the German understanding and willingness to revise agreements for Soviet strategic consideration.

The debate centred around Finland and was mild at first. Hitler said that Germany recognised that Finland “was of primary interest of Russia and was in her zone of influence”, yet, Germany does not want a war to break out for the sake of German trading interest and import of strategical resources such as nickel and lumber as Finland was one of the few last regions that Germany can trade with. Molotov then demanded that no German troops shall exist in Finland and no political demonstration by Finland against the Soviet government as the prerequisite for the USSR not to invade Finland. Hitler accepted to pull out German troops once a general agreement was made.

The tension of the debate reached its climax when Molotov threatened to invade Finland. Molotov argued that no new agreements were necessary for settling the Finland issue, and he further stressed that “the issue could be solved without war” only if “Russia and Germany had a good understanding” on the issue, and the issue had “spoiled the atmosphere of German-Russian relations”. Hitler replied sharply that “there must be no war with Finland”, or else there might be “far-reaching repercussions”. Molotov eventually backed down by saying that “he did not see any indications of the outbreak of war in the Baltic”. However, the conflict of interest between the Soviet Union and Germany was exposed in the debate.

In the end, additional demands from the USSR was rejected by Germany, causing to the failure of the addition of the Soviet Union into the Axis. Germany drafted a treaty proposal on November 15, 1940. The USSR sent an edited treaty proposal on November 26, adding the clause that forces Germany to withdraw its troops in Finland. In the end, the counterproposal was not answered by Germany, causing the failure of this alliance attempt and soured the Soviet-German relationship, which example can be found in a protesting note from Molotov to the German Ambassador in Russia on 17 January 1941.


The German invasion of Russia commenced on 22 June 1941, marking the end of Soviet-German partnership. This is a predictable outcome with a gradual process, which is not same as thought by the public that the deterioration of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union all happened in a sudden. The cooperation between the Soviet Union and Germany was doomed at the beginning, as the ideologies of the two countries conflicted with each other, and their interest was overlapping in some of the regions while they are still trying to establish a partnership based on interest.


Primary Sources

Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Hitler and Molotov Meetings, Berlin, November 12 and 13, 1940. Berlin, 1940.

Secret Supplementary Protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, 1939.” In Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939–1941: Documents from the Archives of the German Foreign Office, ed. Raymond James Sontag and James Stuart Beddie (Washington D.C.: U. S. Department of State, 1948)

Secondary Sources

Ellis, Frank, Raymond Callahan, Jacob W. Kipp, Allan R. Millett, Carol Reardon, Dennis Showalter, David R. Stone, and James H. Willbanks. “Dance of the Snakes: Soviet and German Diplomacy, August 1939–June 1941.” In Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler’s Invasion of Stalin’s Soviet Empire, 121–63. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2015.

Hitler, Adolf. Sitele — Wode Fendou希特勒-我的奮鬥 [Hitler — Mein Kampf]. Translated by Chen Shi 陳式, Hsinchu: Minguo, 2004.

Kocho-Williams, Alastair. “The Soviet Diplomatic Corps and Stalin’s Purges.” The Slavonic and East European Review 86, no. 1 (2008): 90–110.

Popplewell, Richard J. “The KGB and the Control of the Soviet Bloc: The Case of East Germany” in Knowing Your Friends: Intelligence Inside Alliances and Coalitions from 1914 to the Cold War, ed. Martin S. Alexander. London: Routledge, 1998.

Roberts, Geoffrey. “The Soviet Decision for a Pact with Nazi Germany.” Soviet Studies 44, no. 1 (1992): 57–78.

Stackelberg, Roderick. Hitler’s Germany: Origins, Interpretations, Legacies. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2009.

Uldricks, Teddy J. “Stalin and Nazi Germany.” Slavic Review 36, no. 4 (1977): 599–603.


Molotov signs the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August 1939, Moscow.




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