“That the Russian armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia”
On the eve of the Second World War, 21 August 1939, Soviet–Anglo–Franco negotiations in Moscow on a military convention were cut short due to the unwillingness of London (then Paris, following in its wake) “to enter into any detailed commitments which are likely to tie our hands in all circumstances”. These were the instructions that the head of the British delegation at the negotiations, Admiral Reginald Drax, received from the British Foreign Office. And this meant that Western democracies weren’t ruling out colluding with Hitler both behind the USSR’s back and against her.
The final chance to stop Hitler was wasted. The Führer got the message and, on 1 September 1939, he calmly moved the Wehrmacht across the Polish border, knowing that neither London nor Paris were going to lift a finger to defend the Poles.
Among other things, the non-aggression pact signed between the USSR and Germany on 23 August 1939 meant that Moscow had seen through Britain’s diplomatic efforts. As the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ivan Maisky, wrote in his diary: “In London, there is confusion and indignation. […] They accuse us of betraying our principles, rejecting the past, and extending a hand to fascism”, but behind this was uncertainty. The Kremlin had evaded the trap set for it, leaving Western democracies to deal with Hitler one on one.
Almost two years later, on 22 June 1941, the day that Hitler invaded the USSR, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US president Franklin Roosevelt (on 24 June) announced their countries’ determination to help the USSR.
How did the future allies in the anti-Hitler coalition manage to put aside the differences that had separated them for years and reach agreement?
Relations between the USSR and Western democracies had been exacerbated by many things, particularly the Soviet–Finnish war. The Third Reich had secretly been providing military aid to Finland, and both London and Paris (as well as Washington) knew about it. What’s more, having forgotten, in their anti-Soviet fervour, that they were at war with Germany, Western powers actually supplied Finland with equipment and weapons, toyed with the idea of sending an expeditionary force to Finland, and the British and French headquarters formulated plans to bomb Baku and Grozny. In December 1939, the US imposed an embargo on the export of aircraft, aircraft equipment, spare parts, and certain types of strategic materials to the USSR, but sent weapons to the Finnish army and extended credit to the Finns.
It seemed that, amid the “frenzied anti-Soviet campaign” Soviet Ambassador Maisky wrote to Moscow about from London, there could be no question of a warming of relations between the West and the USSR.
And yet the ice did start to melt. Especially after the signing of a peace agreement on 12 March 1940 that ended the Winter War. The international situation changed. The Phoney War being waged on Germany by the British and French had to heat up sooner or later, and politicians in the UK and US realised that, just like in the summer of 1939, there was no negotiating with Hitler.
At the end of February, Roosevelt sent US Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to Europe to find out what the Führer was up to, and, after talking with Adolf Hitler and Joachim von Ribbentrop in Berlin and Neville Chamberlain, the Earl of Halifax (UK foreign secretary) and Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) in London, he concluded that no one was going to back down. The Führer was demanding that his Western adversaries recognise the territories annexed by Germany and seeking to destroy British military bases in Gibraltar, Malta and Singapore. Germany was aiming for a decisive victory, and there was no way that Britain, the mistress of the seas, was going to allow that to happen.
Regardless of the anti-Soviet rhetoric coming out of the London salons, the British increasingly realised that the USSR was the only Old World country capable of providing them with real help in their fight against Hitler.
Strictly speaking, contacts resumed between Moscow and London exactly a month after World War II began. On 1 October 1939, Winston Churchill made an important statement on the radio regarding the Red Army’s liberation campaign in Western Ukraine and Western Belarus: “That the Russian armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace. At any rate, the line is there, and an Eastern Front has been created which Nazi Germany does not dare assail.” And, after meeting Maisky, Churchill declared that he was “for war to the end. Hitler must be destroyed. Nazism must be crushed once and for all.” Noting that “the real interests of Britain and the USSR do not collide anywhere”, Churchill expressed the British government’s hope that “Soviet neutrality would be friendly towards Britain”.
The Soviet–Finnish war impeded the normalisation of Soviet–Anglo relations, but the process resumed when the war ended. Through Ambassador Maisky, Molotov informed London of the following in February 1940: “We consider ridiculous and slanderous not only the assertion, but even the simple suggestion that the USSR had allegedly entered into a military alliance with Germany. […] As the USSR has been neutral, so it will remain neutral, unless of course England and France attack the USSR and compel it to take up arms.”
And everything sped up following France’s military collapse in June 1940 and the defeat of the Anglo–French coalition. Churchill, who had become prime minister on 10 May, rejected Hitler’s proposals for peace talks. The aerial Battle of Britain began…
At a meeting with Stalin, the new British ambassador to the USSR, Stafford Cripps, handed the Soviet leader a message from Churchill dated 24 June 1940 that said Germany was threatening Great Britain as well as the Soviet Union and expressed the desire for “both countries” to restore former ties.
And on 22 October, Cripps offered to sign a secret agreement between Britain and the USSR on behalf of Churchill stating that London recognised the de facto “sovereignty of the USSR in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, and those parts of the Polish state now under Soviet rule.” [Emphasis ours – Ed.]
Bearing in mind that the USSR was bound by obligations under the German–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, Stalin declined Britain’s proposal at that time, but he avoided doing anything that would worsen relations with Britain as a potential ally.
And when Moscow and Washington took steps on both sides to normalise Soviet–US relations in the spring and summer of 1940, the faint outlines of the future anti-Hitler coalition began to emerge…