The most audacious diplomatic pact of the twentieth century was between Nazi Germany and the USSR: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (23rd Aug 1939). It was audacious but stood in the tradition of German foreign policy established by Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck’s foreign policy was based on a European ‘balance of power’ between combinations of large countries. His alliance system ensured the safety of Germany as no combination of enemy countries would be sufficiently powerful to overwhelm Germany and her allies. Astonishingly the crude, simplistic Nazis temporarily achieved the gold standard of a Bismarckian alliance system. Fortunately the Nazis didn’t have Bismarck’s iron discipline and Hitler was revealed as an immature bungler. Within two years Hitler had wrecked his diplomatic triumph by reverting to type. Hitler’s spectacular ‘own goal’ was declaring a two-front war with the Soviet Union (June) and the USA (December) in 1941.
Hitler believed the western democracies were spiritually and militarily feeble. Hitler, and many Germans, wanted revenge for the defeat and the loss of territory that was imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Hitler firmly believed that the Wehrmacht was vastly superior to all the armies of the western democracies. Diplomatic triumphs between 1938-9 led to Austria and Czechoslovakia being subsumed into Germany. Hitler’s aspirational plan for the conquest of western Europe was a nightmare for diplomats and the German High Command. Both feared that the traditional diplomatic relationship between France and the Soviet Union (Russia) would be revived, leading to Germany fighting a two-front war. Conventional military thinking stated that if Germany fought a two-front war they would lose.
The obvious solution was a mutually advantageous pact between Hitler and Stalin. Given ideological differences that appeared wildly improbable. Nonetheless diplomatic imperatives forced just such a pact on the agenda. Stalin was severely weakened by his grotesque policy of ‘Purges’, which included the army and Hitler needed to secure his eastern frontier. The scale of Stalin’s military purges is astonishing:
Between May 1937 and September 1938, some 36,700 men had been purged in the army and 3,000 in the navy: 90% of the district chiefs of staff and deputies, 80% of corps and divisional commanders and 90% of staff officers and chiefs of staff…..By the time of the German attack 75% of the officers had been in active service for less than one year.*
Soviet military weakness was underlined by their failure to defeat Finland (1939-40). Stalin desperately needed a pact and western appeasement policies towards Hitler meant they would avoid ‘encircling’ aggressive alliances. From a position of acute weakness Molotov was sent to Berlin to sign the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which included secret clauses. This pact partitioned Poland, along with acknowledgement of Soviet control of Baltic countries created in 1919**. For Hitler it meant Germany could attack western Europe.
Bismarckian diplomacy was tightly focussed. Bismarck’s quick-fire wars (1864, 1866 and 1870-1)*** all had an exit strategy. Bismarck knew what he wanted and got it. Bismarck revered Claus von Clausewitz’s book On War with the famous aphorism ‘War is the continuation of politics by others means’ placing war as a subsidiary to politics and diplomacy. The Army, for Bismarck, was merely a tool of politics. Bismarck achieved his aims and terminated military influence on policy. Needless to relate the bombastic glory-hunting Nazis were incapable of Bismarckian discipline. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact led to the obliteration**** of western Europe and fed Hitler’s hubris further weakening his restraint.
The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was audacious and incredibly successful. Hitler’s eastern flank was safe and the Wehrmacht was free to attack the west. Versailles was avenged and the Nazi Empire extended from the Atlantic to Warsaw. If Hitler had followed Bismarck he would have consolidated his position creating a gigantic European empire. After a few decades Europe would have been a single federal nation-state with the founding father being Hitler. Instead Germany embarked on ludicrous and fatal wars against the USSR and the USA. Hitler was an immature Bismarck and democratic Europe survived.
*Gabriel Gorodetsky The Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia p115
**Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Parts of Finland that were adjacent to Leningrad were also incorporated in the USSR.
***Respectively Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France.
****Hitler’s military successes were more spectacular than Bismarck’s: between April and June 1940 Belgium, Holland, France (partitioned in the first instance), Denmark and Norway were conquered.