Everybody knows about the “German” attack on Poland and how it started the Second World War. Some even know about the German – Soviet pact of 1939. which divided the Poland into two interest areas before the invasion had even begun. This pact is regarded as a moment of opportunism, a temporary alignment of interests between Hitler and Stalin.
Issue with the above is that it is all false.
Invasion was not a German “project” at all, nor was the German – Soviet pact merely a product of the moment. Germany did attack first, but the invasion of Poland – and the Second World War in its entirety – would not have been possible without the support that Soviet Union gave to Germany in the years prior to the invasion. Soviet Union had provided polygon for German weapons development, cooperated in various technological exchange programs, and provided Germany with raw resources such as oil and wheat. This was the reason why, in only six years, Hitler was able to grow the German military from 100 000 in 1933. to nearly 4 million in 1939., and equip it with thousands of tanks and aircraft. Invasion of Poland itself was heavily assisted by the Soviet Union: even before the first Soviet troops entered Poland, fact that Soviet invasion was almost a certainty kept a good portion of the Polish army tied down in eastern Poland. Soviet goal was to stay out of the war, preparing for the “intervention” once the war had exhausted the both sides in order to dictate the terms and, if possible, impose Communism onto Europe. To achieve this goal, Soviet Union provided Nazi Germany with crucial resources.
But of course, things are more complex than this.
German-Soviet relations had been in a constant state of flux. Before and during World War I, Germany and Russia were on opposing sides. In order to knock Russia out of the war, Germany supported the Bolshevik revolution and thus played a key role in formation of the Soviet Union, much like it will play a key role in other evils of the 20th century. After a period of rebuilding, now-Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. This brought a period of close relationship, which among other things led to German-Soviet cooperation on weapons development, with many German weapons being developed and tested in USSR. But when Hitler came to power in 1933., he portrayed the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Union as enemies of the German socialism and German people. Despite this, economic interests led Germany and USSR to maintaining the economic relations throughout the inter-war period. This relationship led to the German – Soviet Non Aggression Pact of 1939. and the Second World War.
These relations were absolutely crucial to both countries’ movements prior to the Second World War. The conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939 gave Germany access to crucial resources and allowed it to concentrate on threat from the West while diminishing the Soviet fear of the German invasion, thus preventing the two-front war. Germany and USSR first signed an economic agreement, which dictated trade relations. Agreement was further amended in 1940., stabilizing the already flagging German economy. Economic pact was if anything even more important to German war mobilization of 1939. – 1941. than the non-aggression pact was.
Early Years: Weimar-Soviet Cooperation
Soviet-German military cooperation between 1922. and 1933. is often forgotten, yet it had a decisive impact on the beginning of World War 2. Germany rebuilt its military at four secret bases hidden in Russia, and in the exchange the Reichswehr sent its men to train Soviet officers.
More important perhaps was the technological cooperation. Germany was forbidden from running weapons development programs, and used the Soviet Union to bypass this prohibition. Together, Germany and the USSR had built a network of laboratories, workshops and testing grounds in which they developed what would become major weapons of World War 2. Without these, Hitler would have been unable to launch his wars of conquest – as even the Weimar Germany seemed to want to do.
After World War I., victors had wanted to make sure Germany would not be able to start a new war. German army was reduced to 100 000 men, and the Treaty of Versailles also forbade Germany from procuring advanced technology: aircraft, armored vehicles, submarines or modern battleships. Germany could have no more than six old battleships. It was hoped perhaps that these provisions would prevent Germany from returning to its militarist past, but they really only convinced Germans that rearmament is absolutely necessary for Germany’s security.
Soviet Union, being largely isolated from the international community, was a perfect answer to Germany’s problems. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that General Hans von Seeckt, Commander-in-Chief of Reichswehr from 1920. to 1926., was eager to work with the Soviet Russia. Soviets were hostile to the current world order and only waiting for an opportunity to export Communism by force, making them a perfect ally. This was especially true because both Germany and the Soviet Union wanted to dismantle the newly revived Poland. German leaders in particular saw Poland as the “pillar of Versailles” designed to encircle Germany from the east, and its absorption of territories holding hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans only further inflamed German public opinion and Berlin’s hostility. Seeckt sent Enver Pasha to Moscow, where he met Trotsky in 1920. Trotsky indicated that he would be willing to recognize old German borders of 1914. in exchange for Soviet conquest of the rest of Poland.
Poland was in fact central to Soviet plans and Soviet cooperation with Germany. Trotsky had hoped that conquered Poland would become a bridge between Germany and the Soviet Union, but those hopes were dashed when Poland defeated Soviet invasion of 1920. Hence it was believed in Moscow that cooperation with Germany was the key to survival of the Soviet regime. Beyond that, Russia has had designs on Poland ever since the 13 Years’ War of 1654., and even today Putin had said that Poland was the aggressor of September 1939.
The Treaty of Rapallo in April 1922. had Germany and the Soviet Union formally normalize relations for the first time, striking the first serious blow against the postwar order and setting the stage for the Second World War. The following summer, the Reichswehr and the Red Army held a series of secret summits during which they drafted the framework for military cooperation. Hans von Seeckt and his staff earmarked a considerable portion of black funds to finance moving banned weapons production and research to the Soviet Union. To accomodate German firms, Lenin personally supervised the establishment of the concessionary system. In it, the German corporations would take over and modernize existing Soviet industrial plants under supervision of Soviet officials. This plan included shipyards, factories for aviation, artillery, grenades, and rifles, chemical weapons plants, and other critical facilities. In return, German businesses would not only earn money, but also gain facilities and resources necessary for technological development, testing and production in banned fields. This would allow Germany to prepare its army for a future war with France. Soviets would gain increase in their military industry potential, access to German technology, and training for hundreds of new engineers. German industrial firms also assisted Soviets with tank and aircraft design.
Many of these early ventures failed, but others were successful. Junkers established an aircraft production facility outside Moscow, which would become one of the most productive in the Soviet Union. But in December 1926, after massive financial losses, the owner of Junkers leaked details on the German program in Russia to members of the Reichstag – Germany’s parliament. On December 3, the scandal became public and was even publicized in Manchester Guardian. It was enough to bring down the German government.
But the cooperation continued, and indeed even accelerated. Beginning in 1925., and only intensifying after the Junkers scandal, the two militaries established a series of secret military bases. In them, German and Soviet officers lived, studied and trained side by side. German and Soviet engineers and scientists worked to both develop new equipment and reverse-engineer the American, British and French military equipment. These bases helped modernize the Red Army and also set the foundation for rebirth of German military under Hitler.
The first such base was the flight school at Lipetsk, some 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow. From 1924. on, the Soviet Air Force invited German pilots to training at the Lipetsk Air Field. A year later the Soviet Air Force transferred the facility to the German military, under provision that Germans would also train Soviet officers and mechanics at the facility. Lipetsk expanded massively following the 1927. Junkers scandal. Nearly thousand German pilots, observers, mechanics and engineers that lived and trained at Lipetsk would become the core of the resurrected Luftwaffe in 1935. Soviet and German top test pilots were sent to Lipetsk to fly their newest designs, and seven out of eight aircraft manufacturers in Germany sent their illegal protoypes to Lipetsk for testing. This included the Junkers Ju-87 dive bomber, which was tested under guidance of WWI fighter ace Ernst Udet. Even more important was the intellectual exchange. Germans learned Soviet concepts such as paratroopers and dive bombers from the Soviet Air Force, while the Red Air Force learned technical and operational lessons from Germans, and also occasionally stole design blueprints. Lessons that German staff learned at Lipetsk would provide crucial foundations for the German mobile warfare doctrine.
Second such operation was at Kazan, 800 kilometers east of Moscow. There, the Red Army and the Reichswehr laid the foundations for the armored warfare and testing grounds. Soviet and German officers and tank crews trained side by side at Karma tank school. Major German corporations involved in Germany’s illegal tank construction program (Krupp, Daimler, MAN) also sent their engineering teams to Kazan as well as their prototypes. New tank designs developed and tested at Kazan would lead to Panzer I through IV, which were majority of German tank production in World War 2, and in fact the entirety of it during the Germany’s victorious early phase. Two-way tank radio, the greatest advantage German Panzer units had in early phases of the war, was in fact developed thanks to German-Soviet cooperation at Kazan. Tests regarding mass coordination of tank units via radio were also carried out at Kazan, much sooner than similar tests carried out in Britain. Tukachevsky realized its implications, and in 1935. published an article detailing Nazi plans for invasion of France, Great Britain and USSR. But Stalin’s purges removed him and other Russian tank officers that had been proponents of mobile warfare.
Soviet gains were also considerable: the experience there led to redesign of basically all new Soviet tank projects. Lastly, the top tank theorists – German Heinz Guderian, Oswald Lutz and Ernst Volckheim and Soviet Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Vladimir Triandafillov – worked and even taught as instructors at Kazan. Those German officers that trained in the Soviet Union would disproportionately reach high ranks and would proceed to shape the German military doctrine, and especially its armored and air forces. These included Wilhelm Keitel, Erich von Manstein, Walter Model and Friedrich von Paulus. Officer training was reciprocitated. More than 150 Soviet officers, including six future Marshalls, studied, trained or attended maneuvers in Germany. German instructors embedded in Soviet schools taught thousands of Soviet officers, and hundreds more studied alongside Germans at joint training facilities.
From 1926. onwards, the two sides also collaborated on chemical weapons development. New agents and dispersal techniques were jointly developed at two facilities, Podosinki near Moscow and Tomka near Samara. German military also helped Yakov Fishman – head of the Soviet chemical program – find and hire German scientists and firms driven underground by the ban on chemical weapons. Both sides profited from this trade, and by 1931. German scientists and engineers were managing half of the Soviet Union’s massive chemical weapons program. Experiments in Russia also convinced Reichswehr command that chemical weapons would not be usable as a part of their new operational doctrine of mobile, mechanized combined arms warfare. This continued until 1933. and Hitler’s arrival to power, but even so the cooperation had laid the foundation for Hitler’s massive – and now open – rearmament programme. Every single German tank and modern aircraft used in World War 2 was ultimately built on foundations of the work done at Kazan. Without it, Germany would have had an army that was at best a copy of the Imperial Army of the First World War, hopelessly out of date and outgunned by its enemies.
Buildup for War: Nazi-Soviet Economic Alliance
While Germany and USSR did have close economic relationship in 1920s, arrival of Hitler to power meant a temporary break in relations due to his anti-Communist stance. Despite the political animosity however, the trade relations were maintained. This was in spite of Hitler’s policies that aimed at improving Germany’s self-sufficiency, as country could simply not be self-sufficient due to lack of resources.
Thus in 1936. Germany and USSR reached a credit agreement, which allowed Germany access to Soviet markets and war materials, especially metals and oil which were crucial for its rearmament. This clearly showed that Germany could not be economically self-sufficient within its own borders, thus reinforcing the Lebensraum idea. The Credit Agreement of 1936. extended the German – Soviet economic relationship until 1938. Hitler continued using his anti-Communist rhetoric while at the same time trading with the Soviet Union. This trade enabled Hitler to intensify his rearmament program which began in 1934.
Modernized military and developing technology as well as industry enabled Germany to become a threat to not only Central European nations but also the Western Europe. At the same time, Hitler continued insisting on the idea of Lebensraum, or living space. Great Britain and France attempted to limit his ambitions at a September 1938 conference in Munich, where they allowed Germany to annex the majority-German areas of Czechoslovakia. But they did not consult the Soviet Union on this, despite its obvious interest in events in the Eastern Europe. To USSR, this signalled that the Western powers were not willing to try and stop Germany, and so Stalin decided to engage Germany, with hope that improved Soviet-German relations may prevent aggression.
The German government throughout 1938. also realized that having the USSR as an ally was more beneficial than having it as the enemy. By 1st March 1938., both nations had begun discussing the new economic agreement designed to replace the Credit Agreement of 1936. The German military meanwhile continued preparing for war, and so Germany required raw materials while Soviet Union needed machinery and other manufactured goods that it lacked. Diplomatic negotiations intensified after the Munich conference and into 1939. But negotiations which lasted until December 1938. only extended the agreement through the end of 1939. Schnurre was to travel to Moscow in early 1939. for future negotiations, but the trip was cancelled by Ribbentropp, which Molotov used to stall negotiations with Germany.
German diplomats continued making effort, and by 1939. all anti-Bolshevik propaganda in the Reich had ceased. They were well aware Molotov wanted political reassurances, not just economic deal. But Soviets were also using negotiations with Germany as a way of placing pressure on the West. During the June and July, Germany continued to insist on economic pact while USSR kept pressuring for a political deal. On 24th July 1939., Germany accepted Soviet demands for the political alliance, but Soviets did not immediately respond and instead kept seeking alliance with the West. Soviets only responded to Schnurre’s proposal on 28th July, but even that was still with keeping an eye to alliance with the West.
German pressure onto USSR for a decisive answer increased as plans for invasion of Poland were finalized. German invasion of Poland could not proceed until Soviet assistance, or at least neutrality, could be guaranteed. Hitler thus sent Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop to meet with the Soviet Chargé Astakov on August 3. Here, Ribbentrop adressed Soviet concerns, stating that Germany could only be serious about a political pact if USSR was equally committed. He also placed two demands: neither country would interfere with another, and the Soviet Union would abandon negotiations with the West.
Soviet Union continued negotiations with the West at first, and on 10th August an Anglo-French military delegation visited Moscow. Talks did not result in the political alliance, and the Soviet Union turned towards Germany. Soviets continued insisting on the non-aggression pact, which Ribbentropp accepted under condition of USSR signing an economic pact which Germany saw as far more important. Economic pact was signed by Schurre and Babarin in Berlin on 19th August 1939., with the effect that economic trade between Germany and USSR was increased nine times from the level it was at in from 1936. through 1938.
This pact had twofold effect: it gave Germany access to raw resources that were absolutely necessary for war, and it also saved the Soviet industry from complete collapse. Soviet Union exported to Germany raw resources, especially oil, gaining in return machine tools and manufactured goods that Soviets needed to save their economy and industry. This exchange allowed both countries to prepare for war, by addressing critical shortages that neither country could solve internally.
Germany profitted from the arrangement, exporting its outdated machinery, World War I era weapons and its abundant coal to Soviet Union, in exchange for crucial raw resources such as oil, iron and food. Other goods provided by the Soviet Union included lumber, cotton, and manganese, which were used in the German production of goods and war material. Germany had economic advantage in this exchange, but importance of the exchange for the Soviet Union should not be underestimated: for a backwards economy near collapse, such a deal was a life-saver. But the deal had massive consequences for the future, as it allowed Germany to prepare for war.
Germany however attempted to gain more concessions. New economic negotiations began on 3rd October 1939 and continued until February 1940. On 23rd December, both nations signed a railway agreement that would facilitate the traffic of supplies. Soviets also accepted Schurre’s repayment proposal on 11th Feburary 1940., allowing Germany to pay for the goods it received from the Soviet Union at a later date in exchange for assisting construction of new industrial plants in the Soviet Union over a five-year period. Germany was also allowed to use Soviet Transiberia railway to circumvent the British blockade.
New economic agreement also expanded upon the trade agreement of 1939. by 1) providing larger quantities of oil, cotton, phosphates, iron, platinum, and lumber to Germany, 2) fixing prices to August 1939 levels to offset inflation, 3) Soviet Union agreed to act as third party buyer of metals and other goods for Germany, 4) calling for large deliveries from Germany to Soviet Union, and 5) creating a new payments schedule. Credit Agreement of 1940. allowed Germany to pay goods at a later date, allowing it to develop new weapons and machinery. With Soviet Union acting as an intermediary, Germany was also able to circumvent the limits placed on its foreign trade and thus gain more materials needed for its war effort.
Political Counterpart – Non-Aggression Pact of 1939
The first of Molotov’s three steps towards the improvement of relations between Germany and the Soviet Union was the signing of the Economic Agreement of 1939. The second was the creation of the political pact. This pact, the Non-Agression Pact, was signed on 23 August 1939 in Moscow, and unlike the economic pact it was immediately made public. The pact was not a formal alliance but only an agreement of neutrality should one of two countries be attacked. The third step on Molotov’s list was achieved on 23 August 1939 with signing of the Secret Protocol. This protocol divided Central Europe between Germany and the USSR and allowed Germany to invade Poland without threat of the Soviet intervention.
This pact directly led into the Second World War. Hitler was neither stupid nor insane, and one of his primary goals was to prevent the two-front war. If Soviet Union had not signed the treaty, Hitler may not have attacked Poland – or if he did, he will have gotten defeated straight away. Further, the Secret Protocol ensured relative interests of both countries in the Central Europe. The area of Poland invaded by Germany in September 1939. was, according to the Secret Protocol, under German jurisdiction and thus posed no threat to the Soviet Union. Hitler had thus managed to assuage Soviet fears while at the same time granting the Soviet Union control of the territory that Soviet leadership already considered theirs. It also strenghtened the Nazi-Soviet alliance, and if the treaty had not been signed, there is a high probability Soviet army will have attacked German forces immediately after conquest of Poland.
The alliance continued all the way until German invasion of USSR in 1941. Under the terms of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet military received vast quantities of German military technology and technical knowledge in exchange for the raw resources so crucial for Germany. Germany again sent its officers to the Soviet Union to advise and assist the Soviets in training and technical development. In the autumn of 1939., the Germans agreed to supply Soviet submarines fighting against Finland, while the Soviets did the same for German commerce raiders. Stalin even allowed the German Navy to open a secret naval base near Murmansk to interdict British shipping and assist in the invasion of Norway.
In fact, this cooperation was the entire reason why Stalin was unwilling to believe that Germany would attack the USSR. In his view, it made no sense for Hitler to open a second front when relationship between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was so profitable for both sides. But while Hitler was hardly an insane idiot, his calculations were significantly different from Stalin’s.
Consequences of the Economic Pacts
While the pact did guarantee Soviet neutrality, the Economic Agreement of 1939. and the continuing trade negotiations and treaties were overall more important to German war effort. These secured Germany the access to raw resources it required to prosecute the war in the first place. This in turn allowed Germany to gain leverage over other nations of Europe. While many nations were rearming, their rearmament had come late, and Germany had a distinct advantage over e.g. Britain, France and Poland, having started rearmament – with Soviet help – as soon as the First World War had ended. Even the Soviet Union was not a real threat to German ambitions at the time of German invasion of Poland.
Yet as noted, various economic pacts concluded between Germany and the Soviet Union were vital to German war economy, especially in terms of raw materials which Germany was chronically short on. To even think of starting the war, Germany had to obtain oil, iron, aluminum and food. The only resource in which Germany was self-sufficient in 1939. was coal, and to an extent food (of which 11% was imported). Fundamentally, Germany had an issue of an chicken and an egg that was also faced by Japan prior to the war. It had to go to war to ensure self-sufficiency in terms of crucial resources, yet it had to ensure supply of sufficient resources in order to go to war in the first place. Germany did have a major surplus in terms of coal production which enabled it to use coal as payment for various stuffs imported from the Soviet Union.
The most important resource Germany was able to import under the Economic Pact of 1939. was oil. Before the war, German production of oil was only 33% of its requirements. The Economic Pact of 1939, coupled with the Credit Agreement of 1940, provided for the annual shipment of 90,000 tons of mineral oil, as well as other types of oil, throughout the duration of the agreement. In 1940 alone, the Soviet Union transported 620,000 tons of oil, which accounted for almost 1/3 of German imports.
Oil was crucial for the war. It powered both infrastructure required to produce and supply the war material, to supply the army and to power various war machines such as tanks and aircraft. German prewar production of oil was not even sufficient to cover the needs of the civil society. In short, there was no way Germany will have been able to launch a war without the Soviet support. And after the war began, Germany became even more dependant on the Soviet oil as the United States placed embargo on Germany.
Soviet Union was also a crucial source of metal ore and metal, including pig iron, chrome and manganese. All these were used to produce hardened steel for munitions. This was just as significant as the oil import. Before the war, supply of metal in Germany was so low that 65% of its needs were met by imports. Much of this was imported from South Africa, which had an abundance of chrome, manganese and nickel. But the British blockade post-invasion of Poland denied Germany these resources, and that lack had to be made up from somewhere. Soviet Union was the obvious answer, and in 1939. Germany imported almost 500 000 tons of iron. By 1941. Soviet Union’s own rearmament forced them to reduce the exports to 300 000 tons.
Other metals were also part of the deal. Germany had to import entirety of its supply of manganese as it had no native sources of the metal. It was crucial for rearmament as it was heavily used in the deoxidization of steel, thus allowing it to reuse machinery and weapons. Almost 100% of the manganese had been imported from the Soviet Union. Among other things, manganese allowed Germany to restore some of its older weapons that were then traded to the Soviet Union for other resources.
Aluminum was the only metal Germany actually had in sufficient qualities, but it still had to be combined with imported metals to make war machines. For outdated machinery and industrial plans, Germany gained access to Soviet raw materials. As a result, Germany gained economic and military advantage over the USSR and the entire Europe. Soviet metals and oil allowed Germany to field a truly mechanized force, which would be the keystone of its future conquests.
Food and Textiles
Shipments of food and textiles into Germany also helped its war effort, being used to supply the military and the civilian population both. This also enabled the Germany to avoid implementation of war rations for much longer than would otherwise have been possible. The Credit Agreement of 1940. called for 1 000 000 tons of Soviet grain to be shipped to Germany, which was to augment the already high levels of German grain. Shipment of textiles was just as significant – pre-war German production only satisfied 40% of its peacetime requirements, and wartime requirements were significantly greater. Much of the Soviet cotton was used for production of uniforms.
German War Output
The Nazi-Soviet economic pacts allowed the Germany to prepare militarily and industrially for war. The agreement lasted for 22 months and was in fact successful until Germany invaded the Soviet Union itself – the last train with grains crossed the border on 22nd June 1941 at 2:00 in the morning. Only one hour and fifteen minutes later, German invasion had began. But until that point, the Soviets continued to live up to their end of the agreement, financing the Nazis against their mutual capitalistic foes. In fact, they went above and beyond – Hilger, the Counselor of the German Embassy in Moscow, and Schnurre both claimed that the Soviets were cooperative even to the point of crippling their own economy. The cooperation was only suspended once in the fall of 1940. as the German government defaulted on its payment, but the debt was quickly paid in coal and by 7th October the trade had resumed.
The economic agreements and the subsequent access to raw materials allowed Germany to transition to partial war economy after 1939. (billions of RM in 1939 prices):
|Total output available||126||138||146||156|
|Internal Wehrmacht expenditures||19||31||39||45|
|Industrial sales to armed forces||14||19||24||28|
|Other war expenditures||11||22||32||46|
|War expenditures as % of output||24||38||49||58|
|Total Wehrmacht expenditures as % of output||16||23||29||31|
|Munitions output as % of output||6||9||8||10|
Combination of access to Soviet goods, Soviet purchases of German produce and foreign trade done through the Soviet Union, all enabled Germany to increase its total war output. German war output more than doubled between 1939. and 1941., and by 1942. it was the triple of its 1939. figure. While much of this was done by exploiting resources of the conquered Europe as well as trade with e.g. Sweden, even these factors had been enabled by foundations set through the German-Soviet cooperation.
In return for resources, Germany provided manufactured goods and machinery to the Soviet Union, especially airplanes and industrial plans. While Soviet Union was hoping to use these to mobilize for war, the new payment schedule created by the Credit Agreement of 1940 significantly hindered their military mobilization. Fact that the Soviet Union provided goods over an eighteen-month period and the Germans paid within twenty-seven months meant the Germans gained an economic advantage. Because the Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, it only provided payment for approximately six months, while the Soviet Union provided goods for all eighteen months required. Thus, the pact lasted for only twenty-two months and the Germans were able to profit from a gain of almost 230 million RMs in war material.
Political and Military Leverage
The acquired access to resources increased Germany’s political and military standing in Europe. Soviet Union itself signed new agreements it did not necessarily profit from due to fear of the powerful Germany it helped build. Thus Soviets allowed Germany to delay payments significantly.
Germany also used the trade with the Soviet Union to circumvent the British naval blockade, thus rendering one of primary means of British political leverage completely ineffective. The creation of the Credit Agreement of 1940 called for the Soviet Union to act as a third-party buyer of goods for Germany, allowing German mobilization to proceed unimpeded.
Access to resources in fact allowed Germany to mobilize faster than the Western powers. Western appeasement during the Munich Conference in 1938. was not used to prepare for war, and if it was, then it was exploited inadequately – thus giving advantage to Germany. In May 1940., Germany invaded and conquered France, largely thanks to overly centralized French command and control and lack of radios – both of which meant that French took hours or days to react in situations where Germans took minutes.
Weakness of the Red Army
Soviet military at the time of invasion of Poland would not have been able to sustain war against Germany – in part because so many resources had been provided to Germany that Soviet rearmament suffered itself. But the Soviet military had also been devastated by Stalin’s purges which had eliminated 47 000 officers from mid-1920s to mid-1930s.
This weakness had been noticed by Germans. In summer of 1938., the Chief of the General Staff, General von Beck, concluded that the Red Army could not even be considered an armed force. And at the time, this was true. In 1938., the Red Army had 1,5 million soldiers but the lack of equipment and necesary good meant that they could not all be mobilized. Soviet Union did not even prepare for the war in the first place:
|Defense of the USSR||1936 – 1940||Note: millions of rubles|
|Year||Defense Budget||National Budget||Defense as % of Total|
|1936||14 883||92 480||16,1|
|1937||17 481||106 238||16,5|
|1938||23 200||124 038||18,7|
|1939||39 200||153 299||25,6|
|1940||56 800||174 350||32,6|
As it can be seen, defense spending began to rise only in 1938., and even by 1939. only 25% of the Soviet budget was spent on defense. The Red Army was not prepared for war in 1939., or even in 1940. when the budget had risen to 32%.
Good examples of practical weakness of the Red Army are Poland and Finland. Soviet Union received the “right” to conquer these areas thanks to the Secret Protocol of the Non-Aggression Pact. The Soviets always considered these areas part of their sphere of influence as they were once part of the old Russian Empire – much like Russia today considers Ukraine. Soviet Government believed that Russia would be able to secure these areas with eas, but this was not always the case.
Partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union enabled the latter to secure its influence in the region. But because of the fear that Germany might advance all the way to the Soviet border, Stalin demanded an immediate mobilization and invasion of Poland as soon as Germany had mounted its attack. Lacking industrial base and lack of military officers however meant that the Red Army at the time of Soviet invasion of Poland was only partially mobilized. So while initial invasion was a success, Soviets lacked the troops to secure the conquered areas. Red Army took nearly a month to secure the region despite most of the Polish Army having been destroyed in the west by the Germans. By comparison, German Army – facing the bulk of most powerful Polish formations – took only three weeks to accomplish its goals. Even after the invasion, there was widespread resistance.
Soviet invasion of Poland however was only the first step in the renewed Soviet expansionism. Terms of the Non-Aggression Treaty were used to justify a number of territorial “acquisitions” in the Eastern Europe. Immediately after the fall of Poland, Soviet Union conquered the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) in June 1940., before turning its sights onto Finland.
There, the weakness of the Red Army was more apparent. Finland had used to be part of the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union had wanted to conquer it ever since Finland had gained its independence in 1917. The Non-Aggresion Pact had provided a perfect opportunity for USSR to achieve its ambitions of conquest. Observing the lessons of both German and its own campaigns in Poland, Soviet government used the German-manufactured goods it received as a result of the Economic Pact of 1939 to build up its military. The Soviet Union then demanded access to Finnish resources and ports, which was rejected. Stalin opted for military action, and on 30 November launched a total war against Finland.
Despite the size of its military, Soviet Union was unable to win a decisive victory against Finland. While Finland’s population of 3,5 million was maybe half of the size of the Soviet military, Finns were fighting a defensive war in a familiar terrain, while the Red Army had been devastated by the purges and Stalin’s interference. Stalin made plans to utilize Red Army’s massive numerical advantage by attacking on a broad front and thus stretching the Finnish defences. While sound in theory, it overstretched Soviet logistics and they were unable to make any headways against the scattered Finnish groups that utilized hit-and-run tactics and guerilla strategy against the far superior Soviet force.
While Finland managed to hold its own against the Soviet attacks through the January, it was clear that eventually the weight of numbers was going to tell. Finnish government pleaded for help from the Allies, but they were unable to send any, being busy with Germany at the time.
War was an abject lesson for the Soviets. Inability of the Red Army to quickly defeat the Finns showed Stalin that the Red Army was inefficient compared to the Wehrmacht. Following a reorganization and mobilization of new troops, the Red Army broke through the Finnish lines of defense. By the end of February 1940., Soviet Union had gained a clear advantage and a peace treaty was signed, which gave Soviets control of the region and important military bases in exchange for Finland maintaining its independence. Fighting over the Petsamo region continued for another two months until Finland ceded it to the USSR.
Overall, it is clear that the economic elements of the pact were far more significant than the political ones. It should not be forgotten however that the Soviet Union had been aiding German rearmament all the way from 1919. – the relationship was merely renewed by the Soviet-German pact.
As can be seen from above, Germany would not have been able to go to war if it weren’t for assistance by the Soviet Union. By helping defeat Germany in the Second World War, Soviets were merely cleaning up their own mess.
But the actual Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. played only a minor role in this. Main role was the assistance Soviet Union provided with German rearmament from 1922. onwards. This allowed Germany to rebuild its military into a force capable of conquering Europe. And during Hitler’s rule, it were in fact various economic agreements that were the lynchpin of the German war economy, as they allowed the German industry and military to obtain valuable resources necessary for the war. The Economic Pact of 1939. and the Credit Agreement of 1940. enabled Germany to rearm and prepare for the war, and without them it is questionable whether Germany will have been able to even start a war, let alone sustain it after victory in Poland.
And Soviet Union was not clueless in all of this. Soviet leadership was well aware that Germany wanted a revenge for the First World War. Instead of preventing the war however, Soviets sought to exploit it. One official of the Comintern explained in 1940. that it was “Best to remain outside the war, and spend the time preparing for intervention when the war exhausted the participants, in order to carry out the social revolution”. Soviet leadership wanted to use Nazis to spread Communism, but the Nazi Germany turned against them.