Dividing Europe: The history of Black Ribbon Day (2)

The secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that defined the German and Soviet spheres of influence in Europe. (Wikimedia Commons)
8/23/2016 9:57 AM
Category: News

August 23 is the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, also called Black Ribbon Day. It is observed every year on the date the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, with its secret protocols that divided Europe into German and Soviet interest spheres. For the Baltic countries, the pact marks the beginning of what led to 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in Moscow on Aug. 23, 1939.

While the USSR was conferring with Britain and France on how to keep Hitler’s territorial aspirations in check, German diplomats had carefully sounded out their Soviet colleagues about the possibility of bilateral negotiations.

The point of view of Stalin’s government was that only a full military alliance with Britain and France would keep Hitler from invading Poland. The Soviets trusted neither British analyses that Hitler wouldn’t start a war nor in the ability of the Polish army to hold back the Germans should they decide to advance eastward.

France was ready to accommodate some of the Soviet’s demands, among other things a provision in any tripartite agreement that if the Baltic countries sided with Germany politically, this would constitute “indirect aggression” toward the USSR, and merit a military intervention.

The British recognized Stalin’s own territorial ambitions and were extremely reluctant to enter into any deal that would give the Soviet Union a pretext to invade another country.

When Stalin learned that the Germans seemed to be ready to actually negotiate such a definition of political and military interest spheres, talks with Hitler’s diplomats started. To make this easier, Stalin replaced his minister of foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov, with Vyacheslav Molotov. Litvinow was seen as too pro-Western and very reluctant to expand the scope of the country’s political partners far enough to also include Germany. Molotov, on the other hand, had no such reservations.

While the Germans would have preferred to directly negotiate a political agreement, Stalin insisted that such an agreement could only follow an economic pact between the two countries. After a few weeks of negotiations, the resulting German-Soviet Credit Agreement dated Aug. 19 was signed in the early morning of Aug. 20.

“Poland has become intolerable”

The agreement included a payment by Germany to the USSR in the amount of 200m Reichsmark. This credit was to be paid back over the next seven years. According to the deal, the USSR would use the money to buy capital goods, such as machinery, ships, and the like, from Germany.

Leading up to the signing of the agreement, Stalin and Hitler had been in direct contact, with the latter insisting that Stalin receive Ribbentrop in Moscow as soon as possible, as “Poland has become intolerable”.

Stalin kept his options open until the last moment. When, in the course of the still ongoing tripartite negotiations with Britain and France, his government learned that the Polish and hence also Britain would never accept a provision that would allow the Red Army to enter Poland in case of a German attack, he switched to settling the matter of a Soviet interest sphere in Europe with the Germans.

The day after the German-Soviet Credit Agreement was signed, the Soviet’s highest-ranking negotiator in the tripartite talks, Kliment Voroshilov, proposed to adjourn the talks, as the top brass of the Red Army otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in Soviet military exercises that autumn.

Stalin, meanwhile, finally answered Hitler, saying that he agreed to the signing of a non-agression pact, and that he would receive Ribbentrop on Aug. 23.

Germany and the Soviet Union divide Europe

A ten-year non-agression pact was signed some time in the night of Aug. 23-24. The news came as a surprise to virtually every other government, as they had only been aware of the tripartite talks involving Britain and France.

None of them knew that the pact also included a secret protocol, which in no unclear terms specified two spheres of interest in Europe.

Poland and Romania would be divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. In addition, the latter would also be able to invade Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with Germany’s tacit approval.

Germany began its invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, the opening event of the Second World War. The Soviet Union followed suit on Sept. 17. Both powers adhered to the their non-aggression pact and only advanced as far as the partition line specified in the secret protocol.

The occupation of the Baltic countries

After its invasion of Poland, the USSR sent ultimatums to the Baltic countries as well as Finland, demanding the use of military bases, or territory on which to establish them. The Baltic countries found themselves forced to accept the terms, and signed mutual assistance treaties with the Soviet Union.

Claiming there had been a “conspiracy” against it among their governments, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic countries between Jun. 15 and 17, 1940. Staged elections followed, and the resulting “parliaments” voted to turn their countries into Socialist Soviet Republics and petitioned to be accepted into the USSR.

Lithuania’s “application” was approved by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on Aug. 3. Latvia’s was approved two days later, and Estonia’s followed on Aug. 6. This concluded the annexation of the Baltic countries by the Soviet Union, and would result in an occupation that lasted until its collapse in 1991, 50 years later.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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