The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact Anniversary

23 August 2009


Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop

Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop

No one will be “celebrating” the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but it is an anniversary to be noted. It has also been called the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Both names deserve to be remembered in infamy. Nazism and the Soviet Union both represent the worst forms of totalitarian dictatorship to emerge in the twentieth century; that the two should form a pact was certainly a deal made in Hell. Soviet foreign minister Molotov and Nazi foreign minister Ribbentrop moreover represented what was worst in two criminal regimes, Molotov fanatically anti-Western and Ribbentrop a fanatical Nazi at times more radical than Hitler himself.

Ribbentrop signing the treaty while Molotov and Stalin watch.

Ribbentrop signing the treaty while Molotov and Stalin watch.

W. H. Auden, who is not generally thought of as a “political” poet, wrote a poem titled September 1, 1939, which he opened:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was certainly one of the low points in a low dishonest decade. It is easy to see, upon reflection, how those who lived through the 1930s could have seen it as a low dishonest decade, with the Great Depression, the failure of the League of Nations, Italian incursions in Africa, Japanese incursions in Manchuria, Neville Chamberlain at Munich, and the horrific systems of Soviet communism and German fascism brought to the “heights” of their development like Fleurs du mal.

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands.

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands.

Wikipedia has a good article on the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, with maps of the division of Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence as defined in the secret protocols of the treaty, and scans of the signature pages signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop. Lately the BBC has had a couple of good pieces commemorating the anniversary, Pact that set the scene for war and Viewpoint: The Nazi-Soviet Pact. While it won’t make headlines, the anniversary will not go unnoticed.

The so-called “secret protocols” of the treaty dividing up Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, including the complete dismemberment and disappearance of Poland, is the most notorious part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It does not shock us so much today, partly because of 20/20 hindsight, but partly also because of our experience of the Cold War the divided Europe with the Iron Curtain for the second half of the twentieth century.

It is not unusual for ideological enemies or mere strategic rivals to divide the world between them. For many non-Westerners, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 represented the height of Western imperialist hubris in dividing up the world according to the balance of power in Europe, creating nation-states by fiat and ignoring the interests of unrepresented nations and peoples. On even larger scale than this, the Inter caetera papal bull of 1493 granted to Spain all lands to the “west and south” of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues west and south of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands, with the understanding that what remained to be discovered on the other side of the line would go to Portugal. On a rather smaller scale, the Durand Line established a frontier between the British Empire in India and Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan, a line that now forms the border between contemporary Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the growing power of Nazism and communism seemed to point to a future in which the two would have to coexist and agree to disagree on almost everything. Neither imperial dream proved to be sustainable, and what seemed to be in the case in 1939 seems outrageous in 2009. No doubt Molotov and Ribbentrop were as taken in by this triumphalism as Auden was in despair over it.

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3 Responses to “The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact Anniversary”

  1. Tietie007 said

    Some people today forget that pact!

  2. […] See? So if you didn’t want war, then you were implicitly aligned with the Soviet Union, a country that – before fighting Hitler’s Nazis – would first make a pact with them. […]

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