Initially, Comintern (Communist International)—an organization founded by Lenin in 1919 to stir up global revolution— ordered the Communist Party of Germany to aid the anti-Soviet National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party) in its bid for power, in the hopes that a Nazi regime would exacerbate social tensions and produce conditions that would lead to a communist revolution in Germany. In pursuing this policy, Stalin thus shared responsibility for Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and its tragic consequences for the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.[Source: Library of Congress *]

The dynamics of Soviet foreign relations changed drastically after Stalin recognized the danger posed by Nazi Germany. From 1934 through 1937, the Soviet Union tried to restrain German militarism by building coalitions hostile to fascism. In the international communist movement, the Comintern adopted the "popular front" policy of cooperation with socialists and liberals against fascism, thus reversing its line of the early 1930s. In 1934 the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, where Maksim Litvinov, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, advocated disarmament and collective security against fascist aggression. *

In 1935 the Soviet Union formed defensive military alliances with France and Czechoslovakia, and from 1936 to 1939 it gave assistance to antifascists in the Spanish Civil War. The menace of fascist militarism to the Soviet Union increased when Germany and Japan (which already posed a substantial threat to the Soviet Far East) signed the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. But the West proved unwilling to counter German provocative behavior, and after France and Britain acceded to Hitler's demands for Czechoslovak territory at Munich in 1938, Stalin abandoned his efforts to forge a collective security agreement with the West. *

Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact

Convinced now that the West would not fight Hitler, Stalin decided to come to an understanding with Germany. Signaling a shift in foreign policy, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's loyal assistant, replaced Litvinov, who was Jewish, as commissar of foreign affairs in May 1939. Hitler, who had decided to attack Poland despite the guarantees of Britain and France to defend that country, soon responded to the changed Soviet stance. Britain and Franc tried to persuade Stalin to join them in declaring war against Germany should it invade Poland. Stalin rejected the proposal while the Soviet Union and Germany engaged in intense negotiations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The product of the talks between the former ideological foes — the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact (also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) of August 23, 1939 — shocked the world. The open provisions of the agreement pledged absolute neutrality in the event one of the parties should become involved in war, while a secret protocol partitioned Poland between the parties and assigned Romanian territory as well as Estonia and Latvia (and later Lithuania) to the Soviet sphere of influence. With his eastern flank thus secured, Hitler began the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939; Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. World War II had begun. *

The non aggression pact allowed Russia to seize east Poland, Estonia and Latvia and absorb Bessarabia and Burcovina without German intervention. Germany was given west Poland and Lithuania. Later Stalin traded the Polish provinces of Warsaw and Lublin for most of Lithuania.

Stalin made the pact with Germany in part because he needed more to time to rearm and prepare his army. Plus, he didn't want to antagonize Germany which was situated on the Russia's doorstep. Easily annexing Poland and the Baltics not only gave the Soviet Union more territory it also created a buffer—albeit one that turned out to be easily circumvented—between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Soviet Union Before World War II

The Soviet Union had been preparing for a confrontation with Germany. Defense spending increased 40 fold between 1933 and 1940 and the focus of the second and third Five Year plans had been beefing up the arms industry and military infrastructure. Universal conscription was introduced in 1939. Much of this was done as Hitler rose and created his formidable military machine in Germany.

But when German troops invaded Poland, the Soviet Union was ill prepared to fight a major war. Although military expenditures had increased dramatically and the standing army was expanded in 1939, Soviet weaponry was inferior to that of the German army. More important, eight of the nation's top military leaders, including Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskiy, had been executed in 1937 in the course of Stalin's purges; thus the armed forces' morale and effectiveness were diminished. The time gained through the pact with the Nazis was therefore critical to the recovery of Soviet defenses, particularly because Hitler's forces had overrun much of Western Europe by the summer of 1940. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

As the European war continued and the theaters of the conflict widened, Hitler began to chafe under his pact with the Soviet Union. The German dictator refused to grant Stalin a free hand in the Balkans, instead moving the German forces deeper into Eastern Europe and strengthening his ties with Finland. Hitler thus prepared for war against the Soviet Union under a plan that he officially approved in December 1940. At this point, however, Stalin still apparently believed that the Soviet Union could avert war by appeasing Germany. To achieve this goal, regular shipments of Soviet materials to Germany continued, and the Soviet armed forces were kept at a low stage of readiness.

Describing Moscow in April 1941, the New York Times correspondent C.L. Sulzberger wrote: "Miles of railway sidings just outside the big Kievskaya station were burdened with troop trains and supply trains, and trains bulging with artillery shells and tanks. Sleeping cars with big red crosses painted on their sides were shunted to subsidiary lies and walking wounded cadged cigarettes from each other, limping about the platforms and handing smokes to the serious cases lying their berths behind curtained windows...

Russia Seizes Eastern Poland and the Baltics

To strengthen its western frontier, the Soviet Union quickly secured the territory located in its sphere of interest. Soviet forces seized eastern Poland in September 1939; entered Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in October 1939; and seized the Romanian territories of Bessarabia (later incorporated into the Moldavian Republic) and northern Bukovina (later added to the Ukrainian Republic) in June 1940.

The Red Army marched into Poland three weeks after the German invasion. Much of the Polish territory it claimed belonged too Russia before World War I and was occupied by non-Polish speakers. The land was incorporated into the Ukrainian and Belarusian republics. The Baltic Republics and Moldavia were incorporated as new republics in 1940, bring the total of republics to 15.

In April 1940, 6,000 Polish prisoners were shot one by one in a soundproof room at night in the NKVD headquarters at Tver and buried in trenches about 16 miles west of Tver. Among the dead were some of the best and brightest officers in the Polish army.

Winter War with Finland

Only Finland resisted Stalin's program of expansion, first by refusing to cede territory and then by putting up a determined defense along the Mannerheim Line when the Red Army invaded in November 1939. The Soviet-Finnish War (also known as the Winter War) of 1939-40 exposed grave deficiencies in Soviet military capabilities, which Hitler undoubtedly noted. All told about 26,000 Finns were killed or missing and 46,500 were wounded, a significant percentage of Finland’s small population. The casualties were much higher on the Soviet side: 127,000 dead or missing and 189,000 wounded

On November 30, 1939, about three months after Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, the Soviet Union invaded Finland when negotiations between those countries over border readjustments broke down. The Finns amazed the world by putting up a strong defense before giving in to Soviet demands the following spring, in 1940. In a bitterly cold weather and against great odds, Finland lost one tenth of its territory (notably the Karelian Isthmus in the east) and paid large reparations but kept its independence.

The Finns had fewer weapons and soldiers than the Russians but they had more wood stoves and field tents. Finns fought against Russians: dressed in white to match snow and dammed streets to flood invasion routes. Battles were often fought in -40°F temperatures and Finland's white-clad ski troops stymied the Soviet army with hit and run attacks and were called the "invisible wall" for the way they then disappeared into the featureless landscape. The Russians later employed the same techniques against the Germans.

During the three month war the Soviets captured land around the town of Karelia but with a fierce counter attack in 1941 the Finns were able to win the land back. The Winter War was a rough time for the Finns. Many Finnish houses were burnt to the ground, not by the Russians but by the Finns, who wanted to deny the invaders of places to hide.

Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the hero of the 1917 Civil War, led the fight against the Russians in the Winter War. Finnish soldiers invented the Molotov cocktail in 1939 when they stuck vodka and rag-filled bottle in the exhaust of Soviet tanks. The soldiers named the home-made bombs after the foreign minister of the Soviet Union. When the war was over lumber companies couldn't harvest the wood in the area because the trees were so riddled with bullets and shell fragments that it couldn't be used for lumber because the bullets damaged saws that cut the logs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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