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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Bungled Berlin mission

Two dictators couldn’t make a deal in November 1940
7 December, 2010 - 00:00
THE “GOOD FRIENDS” MOLOTOV AND HITLER IN BERLIN, NOVEMBER 12, 1940 / Photo from the book Molotov (1999)

The friendly relations between Germany and the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland didn’t last long. The honeymoon following the two dictators’ political wedding ended in 1940. Outwardly both sides demonstrated close contacts, primarily in terms of economy and cooperation, even between their secret services. In October-November 1939, the Soviet and German governments agreed on the deportation to Germany — to the Gestapo prisons — of German and Austrian communists granted political asylum in the USSR, although many were already Soviet citizens. Tentative estimates point to more than 900 such deportees. Some proletarian internationalism!

During the Winter War of 1939-40, Berlin maintained friendly neutrality, but problems were mushrooming. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union annexed Bessarabia, but Berlin was worried about the USSR’s claims to Northern Bukovyna, including Chernivtsi. The problem was that Moscow was supposed to reacquire territories that had belonged to the Russian Empire, and that, save for a brief period after the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92, Northern Bukovyna had never been part of Russia. Germany was too busy fighting on the Western front and had to tolerate this, though Hitler told the Romanian leadership, “Give it to them, I’ll return it to you.”

The situation in the West wasn’t satisfying for Germany, either. According to plan, Great Britain would agree to negotiate a distribution of the spheres of influence after the French defeat. In July 1940, Hitler offered England what he believed was a fair deal: Germany would have Europe and the former German colonies in Africa, while Great Britain would retain its empire provided it would never interfere into the European affairs. Much to his astonishment, his proposal was turned down. Rather than make a pact with the aggressor, the UK chose to fight. Germany then lost the Battle of Britain, so invasion was now out of the question. The Third Reich found itself faced with the prospect of protracted war, the outcome of which was anyone’s guess. London was backed by Washington with its immense industrial and financial potential, and with Stalin in the East showing an appetite for territories that was growing on a daily if not hourly basis.

In June 1940, following Molotov’s ultimatum, Bucharest was gripped by panic. Moreover, Hungary and Bulgaria were demanding a revision of their frontiers with Romania. Hungary wanted Transylvania back after losing it under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, and Bulgaria wanted Southern Dobruja. Berlin and Rome took over the matter. Foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Galeazzo Ciano invited Hungarian and Romanian officials to Rome on August 30, 1940, and informed them about the “arbitration award”: the northern part of Transylvania would go to Hungary. On September 7, 1940, a quadrilateral agreement handed Southern Dobruja over to Bulgaria (it had lost this territory in 1913, after the Second Balkan War). Bulgaria and Romania reaffirmed the Vienna arbitration award with the Peace Treaty of Craiova signed in September 1940. Germany and Italy simultaneously guaranteed the inviolability of Romania’s new borders.

Needless to say, these developments angered Moscow. Although the Third Reich had advised the Soviet government of the arbitration, Molotov told Ambassador von Schulenburg, on August 31, 1940, that the German government had acted contrary to Article III of the Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact of August 23, 1939, and reminded him of Germany’s assurances in the second half of June 1940 that the Balkan issue would be resolved jointly with the USSR. During the next meeting, on September 9, Molotov declared that the Soviet government’s views differed from those of the German side, stressing the presence of an unloyal attitude to one’s obligations, and that the stand taken by the German government was totally unacceptable. He made it clear that Moscow was especially chagrined by the guarantees of the inviolability of the Romanian borders, considering that they were also aimed against the USSR.

Quite a few problems arose in conjunction with German activities in Finland, what with a large Wehrmacht contingent allegedly stationed before being dispatched to northern Norway, considering that Finland was in the sphere of Soviet interests under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. After the bungled Soviet campaign in Finland, Germany decided Stalin would never have that country.

The signing of the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan gave rise to even more questions in Moscow. The document read: “Japan recognizes and respects the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe (Article 1).” “Germany and Italy recognize and respect the leadership of Japan in the establishment of a new order in Greater East Asia (Article 2).” “Japan, Germany, and Italy agree to cooperate in their efforts on aforesaid lines. They further undertake to assist one another with all political, economic and military means if one of the Contracting Powers is attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese-Chinese conflict (Article 3).” To Placate Moscow, there was Article 5: “Japan, Germany and Italy affirm that the above agreement affects in no way the political status existing at present between each of the three Contracting Powers and Soviet Russia.” Hard as the German diplomats tried to assure that this pact was aimed against Great Britain and the United States, its anti-Soviet orientation was clearly apparent.

Although the decision to attack the USSR is supposed to have been made in July 1940, the German General Headquarters’ plans were tentative since the order to plan combat operations wasn’t in writing and no final political decision was made. Besides, other options in the war against Great Britain were being considered, allowing for the fact that invasion wasn’t possible in the nearest future. Among these options was a breakthrough in the Middle East, to reach the oil fields in Iran and Iraq through Syria, Palestine, Transjordan, maybe even through Turkey. Support could be expected from the French forces in Syria and Lebanon that remained under the command of the Vichy government’s Marshal Petain. To do so, however, it was necessary to seize the Balkans or to arrange for the Balkan countries to let through the German troops. The Middle East option was supported by a few among the Wehrmacht brass, but they didn’t have the final say in the matter.

Berlin and Moscow each sought clear understanding of the other’s intentions. In October 1940, Ribbentrop wrote a letter to Stalin in which he invited his Soviet counterpart [Molotov] to Berlin, so that further talks could be held in Moscow. Considering that the German foreign minister had twice visited Moscow, diplomatic protocol required to accept the invitation. Stalin replied that he agreed to Molotov’s visit to Berlin, as well as to Ribbentrop’s subsequent visit to Moscow “in order to resume the exchange of ideas commenced last year, concerning matters being of interest to our countries.”

On November 10, 1940, the Soviet readers of Izvestia found this sensational announcement: “At the invitation of the German government and in response to last year’s visits of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, von Ribbentrop, the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, Molotov, will shortly visit Berlin in order to continue and deepen, by resuming personal contact, the current exchange of ideas within the framework of friendly relations between both countries.” In fact, Molotov left for Berlin that same day. On November 11 Izvestia informed about this and mentioned some of the names in Molotov’s retinue. Among those left unmentioned were Merkulov, one of the NKVD brass, and 16 subordinates, General Staff officers Vasilevsky and Zlobin, a physician, three of Molotov’s personal service staff, consultants, administrative assistants, interpreters, totaling 60. Another unmentioned fact was that the German Ambassador, Count von Schulenburg, accompanied the Soviet delegation.

Lev Bezimensky, a noted historian, dug up Molotov’s memo that started, “Top Secret. V.M. Certain directives re Berlin trip (11.09.40)…” In the Kremlin bureaucratese the initials “V.M.” indicated that the text was in Viacheslav Molotov’s own hand and were meant for his personal archives. Historians analyzed this memo and concluded that most likely it was written as dictated by Stalin. Certain points were added in Berlin, after receiving telegrams from Moscow. Proof of this is the presence of numerous abbreviations and references to previous discussions. Take Clause 2, for example:

“2. Since G.[erman]-S.[oviet] agreement re partial distribution of USSR and Germ.[any’s] spheres of interest has been exhausted (save for Fin.[land] [reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — Author]), it is necessary in the course of talks to have the following included in the USSR’s sphere of interest: (a) Finland — as per G.-S. [19]39 Agreement, whereby G. must eliminate all difficulties and ambiguities (withdrawal of G. troops, cessation of all political demonstrations in F.[inland] and G. to the detriment of the USSR… Also mention our displeasure at G. failing to consult the USSR re guarantees and deployment of troops in Romania; (b) Bulgaria: as per agreement with G. and I.[taly] talks to focus on USSR guarantees for Bulgaria, as done by G. and I. re Romania, and deployment of Soviet troops in Bulgaria; (c) Turkey and its future: this issue can’t be resolved without USSR taking part since we have serious interest in Turkey…”

The above makes it clear that the Balkans had turned into the apple of discord between Germany and the USSR, with Moscow trying to secure its dominance in Bulgaria to counterpoise the strengthening German positions in Hungary and Romania, also to change in their favor the regime of the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The latter was only part of the pressure brought to bear on Turkey, including by military means.

After August 23, 1939, the USSR actually became Nazi Germany’s ally and Turkey responded accordingly. On August 28, the newspaper Yeni Sabah (The New Market) commented on the Soviet-German pact, noting that the supporters of peace had lost hope in the Soviet Union. Had the USSR sided with the peace forces, the war could have been avoided. Huseyin Jahil Alcin, a noted Turkish journalist, wrote in Yeni Sabah, on September 23, 1939, that the Polish state had fallen as a result of Soviet intervention. In fact, Alcin’s reputation was such that even President Mustafa Ismet Inonu listened to what he had to say. Soviet Ambassador Vinogradov told as much to Palgunov, head of the Press Department at the Council of People’s Commissars for Foreign Affairs, and Novikov, head of the Middle East Department. Ahmet Sukru Esmer wrote in the newspaper Ulus (The Nation) that the USSR’s policy was wrong and that the war was its fault. The newspaper Tan (Twilight) had been pro-Soviet until the fall of 1939, but after the Soviet-German pact it wrote that the Soviet Union had played the main role in the outbreak of war. Its publications were so sharp worded that even Pravda responded with the spoof “There is the Newspaper Tan at Ankara’s Bazaar.” Journalist Asim Vus wrote in Vakit (The Time) that the USSR was after the straits and it was to blame for the war being waged in Europe.

During the talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Saracoglu in Moscow, in September-October 1939, the Soviet side made it perfectly clear it didn’t want to sign a mutual assistance agreement. It is interesting to note Stalin’s reasoning during a meeting with Saracoglu: “… Or take the complication [of relations] between the USSR and Romania because of Bessarabia; we have no intention of attacking the Romanians, but neither do we intend to share Bessarabia [with anyone], yet this means another conflict. I think that Romania is like Poland, for that country has grabbed as many territories as Romania. Whoever makes a mutual assistance agreement with Romania should keep his sword within easy reach; there is Hungary and perhaps others. This doesn’t serve Turkey’s good… We won’t act against Germany. So what’s left of the Pact? Nothing. Do we want to make a pact with Turkey? We do. Are we Turkey’s friend? We are. Yet there are the circumstances I’ve mentioned, which leave this pact on paper. Who is to blame for this situation which is unfavorable for making this pact with Turkey? No one. Circumstances, the course events have taken… The British and the French — especially the British — wanted no agreement with us, they thought they could manage without us. If there is anyone to blame, we’re also to blame for failing to foresee all this.” During a session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, in October 1939, Molotov addressed undisguised threats to Turkey. Meeting with Comintern Chairman Dimitrov, on 25 November, 1940, Stalin spoke his mind: “We’ll herd the Turks to Asia. What’s Turkey? Two million Georgians, a million and a half Armenians, a million Kurds, and so on. And only six to seven million Turks.” There was only one way to drive the Turks to Asia. The military way. Note that this conversation took place almost right after Molotov’s visit to Berlin.

The same policy was discussed during the talks in the German capital. Twice, when meeting with Hitler and Ribbentrop, Molotov insisted on German support in pressuring Turkey: first, in the placement of a Soviet naval base in the Dardanelles, and second, on a revision of the international regime of the Straits.

The talks took a strange course. Hitler and Ribbentrop spoke a lot and often on subjects other than those under study, whereas Molotov confined himself to asking simple questions. He underestimated the Fuehrer’s mounting irritation over a number of painful problems in Soviet-German relations. Particularly, he misinterpreted Hitler’s probable attitude to the Finnish issue. In a telegram to Stalin he reported: “Hitler shows considerable interest in strengthening friendship with the USSR and agreeing on the spheres of influence. Obviously he wants to push us in the direction of Turkey from which Ribbentrop wants only absolute neutrality. The topic of Finland is being avoided but I will make them broach it. Awaiting instructions. Molotov.” He received instructions but they did not take into account Germany’s actual stand in regard to Bulgaria, Finland, and Turkey, the key issues for the USSR.

During the second meeting Hitler made it perfectly clear that Germany wasn’t interested in another war in the Baltics, thus frustrating the Soviet plan to bring the Finnish issue to what Moscow saw as its logical conclusion: occupation in the course of another war for which the USSR was getting actively prepared. His response to the Bulgarian question was also negative. Germany refused to support Moscow’s pressure on Sofia and help make a Baltic-like agreement with it, least of all with the Soviet military deployment clause.

The Bulgarian issue turned out closely linked with the Turkish one. The Soviet proposals consisted of two parts. First, joint pressure on Turkey to make it agree to a Soviet naval base in the Dardanelles; second, same joint pressure to have the status of the Straits revised. In response to the German suggestion that Germany and Italy take part in the talks, Molotov said, “Germany isn’t a Black Sea coastal state.” Nor was Italy, of course. The Soviet Union wanted to resolve the matter of the Straits with Turkey, on a bilateral basis, but with Germany and Italy not being officially uninvolved. Not surprisingly, Hitler got away with general remarks about the need to maintain the USSR’s security on the Black Sea.

In return for making a pact with the USSR and allowing Soviet military deployment, Bulgaria was offered to take part in a possible partition of Turkey. That was exactly what Stalin had in mind when meeting with Dimitrov. Bulgaria was to receive the European and maybe even some of the Asian part of Turkey. Molotov’s German interlocutors had no illusions about the outcome of Soviet military presence in Bulgaria, despite the guarantees of preserving the existing regime. The Baltic example was fresh on their minds. Turning Bulgaria into a Soviet satellite, even making it part of the USSR, having a Soviet naval base in the Straits, territorial division of Turkey would give Moscow access to the Middle East. This wasn’t in the German plans. Italy adamantly refused to allow a Soviet naval base in the Straits and Hitler used this as an excuse for turning down the Soviet proposals. The Fuehrer would tell the Turks later that in the course of his meetings with Molotov he had prevented the annihilation of Bulgaria and Turkey by Russia.

Molotov’s last meeting with Ribbentrop took place on the night of November 13, in the foreign minister’s air raid shelter because of a British air raid on Berlin. As Ribbentrop started on the same subject of Britain’s imminent collapse, Molotov, who usually preferred to listen rather than talk, interrupted him with what his interpreter Berezhkov later called a phrase that related to a dispute rather than diplomatic exchange. “If Britain is defeated, what are we doing sitting in this shelter? Whose bombs are falling so close that we can hear the explosions?” Molotov would later often tell this story as an example of what he saw as diplomatic prowess. Churchill wrote in his memoirs that the British knew about those meetings in Berlin; although they weren’t invited, they didn’t want to stand aside. During the war, meeting with Churchill, Stalin asked jokingly, “Why did you bomb my Viacheslav in Berlin?”

Practically none of the issues raised during the talks in Berlin yielded any results. Molotov sent a telegram to Stalin: “Today, November 13, had a 3.5-hour conversation with Hitler, also after lunch and above schedule, a 3-hour conversation with Ribbentrop. Neither yielded the desired results. The Finnish issue took most of the time with Hitler. Hitler stated that he confirms last year’s agreement but Germany is interested in preserving peace on the Baltic Sea. My remark that no reservations were made last year was not refuted but nor did it have any effect. The second issue that made Hitler wary were the Soviet guarantees for Bulgaria… Hitler hedged saying that he would have to learn Italy’s opinion first… Such are the main results. Nothing to write home about, but I have at least figured out Hitler’s current moods that will have to be reckoned with.”

A number of historians believe that after the bungled talks Hitler made the final decision to attack the USSR. This was not quite the case. In the brief period of the second half of November and the first half of December 1940, Berlin still hoped for diplomatic solutions to the problems with Moscow. On the second day after Molotov’s departure from Berlin, Goebbels wrote in his diary: “Molotov has left… The rest depends on Stalin. He is taking his time making a decision.” Hitler told his closest associates that all his efforts during the talks were in vain. He attributed this to Russia’s “exceptionally favorable” international position; Berlin was at war, Moscow wasn’t, keeping neutral. Hitler had broached this subject when meeting with Mussolini in October 1940, asking what was making the British hold the fort despite their hopeless military condition. He thought the reason was that they were hoping for US and Russian support. He then said it would be good to direct the Russians toward India or at least the Indian Ocean, but added that he wasn’t sure he could talk the Russians into taking active steps in that direction.

The fact that the German leadership still hoped to reach an understanding with Moscow, through direct talks, right after Molotov’s visit, is confirmed by Hitler words. The Fuehrer told Molotov he was sorry he hadn’t as yet met with such a great historical figure as Stalin, the more so that he hoped he would himself go down in history. He asked Molotov to give his best regards to Herr Stalin and suggest a meeting in the near future. It is also an established fact that on November 13 Ribbentrop gave Molotov a draft agreement on the USSR’s accession to the Tripartite Pact. However, the Reichsminister’s visit to Moscow was no longer on the agenda.

The reply from Moscow came on November 25. The USSR agreed to join the pact provided several conditions were met, including those brought forth during the talks: Finland, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Now it was obvious that no deal would be made. Hitler finally decided on war and ignored the Soviet proposals. Stalin would keep waiting for his response until June 22, 1941.