Seventy-five years ago this weekend, Vyacheslav Molotov left Berlin without the second Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty Moscow and Berlin had sought (and that would have contained a second set of “secret protocols”) because Hitler refused to agree to the Soviet annexation of Finland and Moscow’s expansion into the Balkans and Türkiye.
That made war between the two totalitarian dictatorships inevitable, Boris Sokolov, a member of Moscow’s Free Historical Society, says, and that outcome, the result of unrestrained greed on the part of both, provides an object lesson to and about those who “strive for expansion” now.
During the Soviet foreign minister’s visit to Berlin, Hitler and Ribbentrop proposed that the USSR join the axis and that they sign a second “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” which formally would commit the members to respecting “the natural spheres of influence of each other” and secretly define Moscow’s focus away from Europe and toward the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
Moreover, Hitler told Molotov that the Soviet Union did not need to do anything to get conquests in those areas because they could simply wait until Germany had defeated the United Kingdom and then would parcel out its empire to others, including to the USSR.
Speaking for Stalin, Sokolov continues, Molotov said that the USSR was prepared to join the Axis but for that to happen, Moscow required that Germany pull its forces out of Finland and “permit the USSR to occupy this country,” end its guarantees of territorial integrity to Romania, and transfer Bulgaria to the Soviet sphere of influence.
But perhaps most important, the Moscow writer says, Molotov required that Hitler agree to “the establishment of Soviet control over the Black Sea straits and the establishment of a [Soviet] naval base there. These demand were included “in the draft agreement among the USSR, Germany, Japan and Italy” that Molotov gave the German ambassador in Moscow.
That document, Sokolov continues, also added another Russian demand that Germany recognize as part of the Soviet sphere of influence “’from the south of Batumi and Baku in the general direction toward the Persian Gulf,’ which would include within it Türkiye and Iran.”
Germany did not respond to this note, as Moscow almost certainly must have known it would not, the Free History Society writer says. “Already in Berlin,” he points out, “Hitler had categorically opposed a new war of Stalin against Finland, having indicated the importance for Germany of quiet in the Baltic region.”
Hitler added that he would agree to the transfer of Bulgaria to Moscow’s sphere of influence only if Sofia agreed, something that wasn’t likely to happen. And as far as Türkiye was concerned, the Nazi leader was prepared only to modify the Montreux Conventions on the use of the straits in the Soviet Union’s favor.
After this, Sokolov argues, “a Soviet-German war became inevitable in the next few months,” something that memoirs and archival documents from both countries make clear. Both began preparing for attacks on one another. “Hitler didn’t trust Stalin… just as Stalin did not trust Hitler.”
“What might have happened had Stalin and Molotov accepted the proposal of Hitler and Ribbentrop? It is likely that then Hitler would not have immediately attacked the USSR but shifted the axis of attack of the Luftwaffe to the Mediterranean and send there several of his best tank and motorized rifle divisions.”
“But,” Sokolov argues, the German leader “would have lever the main part of his land army in the east in the event of a Soviet attack.”
Had Stalin agreed to join the Axis, “the Soviet dictator would have had the chance to strike first, but he decided to play for larger stakes hoping that for his positive neutrality, Hitler would conceded Finland, Bulgaria and Türkiye.” But from Hitler’s perspective, “such concessions had not sense.”
“The Soviet occupation of Finland would have created a threat to Sweden from which iron ore, something vitally important for the Reich’s industries, came.” And making concessions to Stalin in the Balkans would call into question Hitler’s ability to pursue his plans in the Mediterranean theater.
In this way, Sokolov concludes,“the expansion which the two dictators sought led to a bloody war. The Nazi Reich died, but even the Soviet Union, while remaining among the victors, lost millions of its residents and was so weakened that it could not long hold on to the territories it had acquired.”
That is something that anyone thinking about expanding the borders of his country now should be reflecting upon.