A Soviet offer to the West
By the spring of 1939 there was a real possibility of Britain and France going to war with Germany. What was not clear was the position of the Soviet Union. Both sides wanted a deal with the Soviet Union. For a while it still seemed that the Western powers would succeed in winning Soviet support.
On 17 April 1939 the Soviet Foreign Minister, Litvinov, outlined the basis for a treaty to France and Britain. This would have involved all three promising to defend the existing borders of the states of Eastern Europe from German attack, and each country promising to help the others in case of German attack.
A change of foreign minister
It took Britain six weeks to reply to this offer. Stalin was not impressed that it took so long. He thought it indicated that the Western allies were not serious about an alliance. He began to look towards Germany for a deal. Stalin indicated a change of approach in May. He dismissed Litvinov and appointed Molotov to be the Soviet Foreign Minister.
Litvinov had been on friendly terms with some Western politicians. His dismissal was a sign that Stalin was open to offers from Nazi Germany. Exploratory talks began between the Soviets and the Germans in May. These were secret talks and the British and the French knew nothing of them.
Contacts between the Germans and the Soviets continued through the summer. Germany made it clear that, if the Soviet Union stayed neutral, the Soviet government could increase its territory in Eastern Europe.
Failure in Leningrad
Public talks between the Western powers and the Soviets carried in the early summer of 1939 but they got nowhere. On 12 August British, French and Soviet military leaders met for talks in Leningrad. The Soviet delegates asked the British and the French if they could ensure a right of passage for Soviet troops through Polish and Romanian territory. The British and the French said 'no'.
The Polish and Romanian governments did not want Soviet troops entering their territory on the way to fight the Germans. The Soviet generals were exasperated by this. Voroshilov, the leader of the Soviet delegates, said, 'Are we supposed to beg for the right to fight our common enemy?' The talks ended in failure on 21 August.
Hitler sends a letter
The Soviets were further annoyed that the British and French delegates did not include senior ministers or top generals. As a result they did not have the power to sign a treaty. The Germans did things differently. On 20 August Hitler took the unusual step of writing a personal letter to Stalin offering high level talks in Moscow. Stalin was impressed by this.
Ribbentrop calls on Stalin
On 23 August, two days after the talks with Britain and France had broken down, Hitler sent Ribbentrop, his Foreign Minister, to Moscow. Ribbentrop, unlike the British and the French delegates, was a senior figure and he had full power to negotiate and sign a non-aggression treaty.
In Moscow, Ribbentrop met Stalin and began bargaining. Stalin was particularly interested in a secret section of the proposed treaty. In the so-called 'secret protocol', Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to carve up most of the territory that lay between their two countries.
The Soviet Union was offered control of vast areas of territory, including Finland, Latvia, Estonia. Lithuania. and parts of Belarus and the Ukraine that were ruled by Poland. The pact was soon signed. Stalin celebrated by drinking champagne with Ribbentrop and proposing a toast to Hitler: 'I know how much the German people loves its Fuhrer; I should therefore like to drink his health'.
The British and French offer
The British and French offered a military agreement with the Soviet Union. If Germany attacked Poland, the Soviet Union would join Britain and France and go to war against Germany. The theory was that the threat of war from Britain, France and the Soviet Union would be enough to stop Hitler from sending his troops into Poland.
It was not at all clear how this military agreement would work in practice. The Polish government disliked the Soviet leader and refused to accept that Soviet troops could enter Poland. By signing, the Soviet Union risked getting involved in a war. In return, the Soviet Union would receive support from Britain and France if German troops attacked Soviet territory. The Soviet Union would not gain any additional land by signing.
The German offer
The Germans offered a non-aggression pact with the USSR. This meant that each side promised not to attack the other. In addition there was a secret offer to divide up much of Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR.
In return for allowing the Germans to conquer most of Poland, the USSR would be given control of the Baltic states and parts of Belarus, the Ukraine and the remainder of Poland. These were territories that Russia had controlled before the 1917 Revolution. By signing, the Soviet Union avoided, at least for a while, involvement in a war. In return the Soviet Union would be given control of huge areas in Eastern Europe.