In this essay, I hope to answer the above question. I will be going back and using evidence and information from Stalin’s purges between 1924 and 1938 which filled the Central Committee with bureaucrats who were too afraid to stand up to the Soviet leader, and which crippled the Soviet army almost completely. This events and many others all resulted in the choice that Joseph Stalin had to make between an alliance with Britain and France, or signing away the lives of millions of innocents to make a pact with Germany.
During 1924 and 1936, Stalin instituted a series of Party purges, during which the most militant and thinking Communists, who under the course of Joseph Stalin’s paranoia and self-serving politics came to be regarded as unreliable, were expelled. In their place were recruited Soviet employees and bureaucrats, who were ready, for the sake of material gain and promotions, to carry out with absolute efficiency, any order of the Central Committee.
The process of mass collectivisation – which basically meant gathering up all the serfs and making them work on large farms – gathered momentum throughout the winter of 1929-1930. In late 1929, Stalin decided to call for the liquidation of the kulaks (all peasants opposed to collectivization). This involved the brutal enslavement of about 1,250,000 kulak households, the enforced destitution, deportation and death of more than 10 million1. In desperation, rather than give up their livestock, many peasants slaughtered their cows and horses. The kulaks decided that the mass destruction of millions of valuable livestock was better than handing over their hard earned livelihoods to the Soviet government. This lead to the eventual impoverishment of millions of peasants across Russia. The consequent famine of 1932 was caused not only by drought but also by the government’s policy of forcing the peasantry to make compulsory sales of their produce at artificially low state prices to make Soviet export prices look more attractive to those abroad.
Soviet Russia was, shortly after, literally placed on a war footing. Every human activity, whether in the economic, social or cultural sphere, was to be made to serve the needs of the state and the Communist Party. Arrest, imprisonment or deportations to labour camps were to be the penalties for criticising the state or failure to meet the Party norms. Exemplary show trials, such as those of industrial saboteurs and Mensheviks in 1930-31, were staged as a means of unmasking “enemies of the people”.
In 1934 an order was decreed that anyone accused of acts of terrorism would therefore be made an outlaw and a secret instruction to the NKVD – The People’s Commissariat for the Interior – demanded that all so accused of “terrorism” should be executed without delay, and without right of appeal against their sentence. Almost instantaneously, mass executions – without trial or as a result of “confessions” elicited under torture – became the order of the day. During the height of the Yezhovshchina purges, in 1937 and 1938, many millions of Soviet citizens were arrested, interrogated, tortured and forced into making false confessions, and then shot or despatched to forced labour camps run by NKVD. It is impossible to estimate quite how many innocent people were “repressed” as a result of what are referred to as the “excesses associated with the cult of personality”2.
In 1936 Stalin set in motion the machinery of a new purge. Initially, it seemed he was striking at the Old Bolsheviks (those who had joined the Party before October 1917) and their associates but the purge quickly began to acquire all the features of a new “terror” aimed at renovating the Party and the entire administrative personnel of the country. Joseph Stalin was effectively ridding the Party of anyone who may have opposed him or may have became too close to challenging his power over the Soviet people. He replaced these people and surrounded himself with those who would agree and carry out his every word and action, no matter how petty (see The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes by Alexander Orlov 1953 pages 347 to 349). Seventy per cent of the full members and candidate members of the Central Committee elected at the seventeenth Party Congress in 1934 were either liquidated or eliminated in one from or another3. During the Yezhovshchina 850,000 party members had been purged4. Stalin did not stop in purging the Party; by the spring of 1937 it was the turn of the army.
In the end, after two successive waves of arrests during 1937-38, the officer corps of the Soviet army was probably depleted by as much as half its total complement. Such a weakening of its military command was to be a crucial factor three years later during the Nazi invasion, when the military unprepardness of the Soviet Union became painfully evident. By the end of the purges the labour forces in the NKVD camps and enterprises probably exceeded seven million and may have reached twenty million5. Out of eighty members of the 1934 military soviet only five were left in September 1938. All eleven deputy commissars for defence were eliminated. Every commander of a military district had been executed. Thirteen out of fifteen army commanders, fifty-seven out of eighty-five corps commanders, 110 out of 195 divisional commanders and 220 out of 406 commanders were all liquidated6.
David Low: “What, no chair for me?” 30th September 1939
In 1938, when Adolf Hitler, after the seizure of Austria, began to make demands on Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union once again found itself isolated by the other main powers.
In the subsequent negotiations with Hitler during the Munich crisis of September 1938, the British and French governments disregarded the Soviet Union. So the Soviet change of heart towards Nazi Germany may perhaps have been linked to the British and French appeasement of Hitler at the time. Both these countries were desperate to stop a Second World War from happening, as both had suffered greatly during, and after, World War One, and were still trying to revive their countries economically and spiritually. Joseph Stalin now believed that the main objective of the British and French foreign policy was to encourage Germany to head East to Russia and the Baltic states, rather than West.
The following is a quote by Neville Chamberlain in a letter to a friend – 26th March 1939:
“I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia …And I distrust her motives, which seems to me to have little connection with our (British and French) ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears.”7
Stalin had realised that war with Germany was soon to be inevitable for the Soviet Union. So to have any chance of victory against the Germans, he needed time to build up his depleted armed forces. The only way he could obtain time was to do a deal and make a pact with Hitler. Stalin was convinced that Hitler would not be foolish enough to fight a war on two fronts. If he could persuade Hitler to sign a peace treaty with the Soviet Union, Germany was likely to invade Western Europe instead. Also, behind the scenes in the Kremlin, the new approach to Germany was may also have been initiated by the appointment of Molotov as Commissar for Foreign Affairs in May 1939.
On August 19th 1939, a trade agreement was signed with Germany and Stalin agreed that Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, should fly to Moscow for negotiations. There, a ten-year non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed. The treaty became effective at once and was ratified on August 31st, the day before Hitler’s troops entered Poland and four days before Britain and France declared war on Germany in defence of Polish interests.
Illustration from Canadian grade 12 history exam
The Hitler-Stalin pact caused an instantaneous lowering of Soviet prestige throughout the world. Although Stalin might later justify his pact with the argument that it allowed the Soviet Union eighteen months respite before the Nazi invasion, there was no apparent reluctance on the Soviet part to fulfil its side of the bargain in absolute detail. For a while the Hitler-Stalin pact may have seemed to be a diplomatic victory from which Soviet Union had nothing to lose and everything to gain. To all outward appearances the Soviet Union became the ally of Nazi Germany; it condoned and benefited from Nazi aggression; entertained hopes of sharing the spoils of a Nazi victory over the Western allies and greedily anticipated that the whole of Europe, maimed and laid bare by war and strife, would soon fall an easy prey to Communist domination. In Soviet eyes, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Germany were going to be the ‘icebreaker’ that would be their excuse for extending their empire to cover all of Europe.
In conclusion, the USSR joined the Russia-German pact as it was the only viable option available to Joseph Stalin at the time. His army forces were far too weak at the time and Russia would have been defeated within weeks if he had joined up with Britain and France, as they would not have been able to support the Soviet sufficiently. Perhaps if Russia had not formed the non-aggression pact with the Germans, they would not have been able to invade Poland and World War Two would have had a very different story than it does today. Yet, when Russia signed up with Germany, both nations reaped many benefits. For Germany, the main asset was that they would not have a war on two fronts and could effectively attack the Baltic States without much opposition.
For Russia, the pact gave them eighteen months with which to move factories away from the front line with Germany so their vital industries would still be operational during the eventual war. Also, Russia was able to envelope many Baltic states – including Eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland into the USSR; the Soviet was also able to replenish its army to its full strength both from internally, and from the other countries it had annexed. The Soviet was very opportunistic and took full advantage of the situation presented to it, opened up by the German pact.