Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 14 – The Nazi-Soviet Pact

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the fourteenth chapter of his book, called “The Nazi-Soviet Pact”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

Until 1941, Hitler and Stalin pursued their unique, revolutionary goals through traditional political strategies. Hitler envisioned a racially purified empire led by Germans, as detailed in his book “Mein Kampf,” while Stalin aimed for a communist world directed from the Kremlin. Their methods, including the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, echoed strategies from the 18th century, despite their ideological opposition. This pact, reminiscent of earlier partitions of Poland, temporarily bridged their differences for mutual gains against Poland. However, their alliance broke down in 1941, triggering a massive conflict that highlighted the impact of individual leaders on the 20th century’s trajectory.

As Germany rapidly defeated Poland, France remained passive, a prelude to the “phony war” period marked by inaction and demoralization. France’s strategy, lacking clear objectives, contrasted sharply with its historical motivations for warfare. The Allied nations faced strategic dilemmas against Germany, underestimating the German military’s capabilities and the ineffectiveness of defensive strategies, as demonstrated by the swift German advance through Belgium.

Stalin capitalized on strategic opportunities, revising the territorial agreements with Germany to secure more buffer zones for the Soviet Union, showing a disregard for self-determination. This led to the occupation of parts of Poland and the Baltic States, and an aggressive move against Finland. Despite Finland’s valiant resistance, it eventually succumbed to the Soviet Union’s overwhelming force. This period also revealed the miscalculations of Britain and France, whose plans to assist Finland and cut off German resources were impractical and reflected a loss of strategic insight.

The onset of major combat in 1940 ended the “phony war,” with Germany’s swift invasion through Belgium leading to France’s rapid collapse. This demonstrated the effectiveness of German military strategy and the lack of preparedness by the Allies. Hitler’s inability to conclusively end the war or secure peace with Britain led to a stalemate, where his ambitions faced limitations, including challenges in launching an invasion of Britain.

Hitler’s overtures for peace with Britain failed, facing historical skepticism and the British commitment to preventing German dominance in Europe. Churchill’s refusal to negotiate with Germany was influenced by a preference for American rather than German hegemony, foreseeing a closer relationship with the United States. Hitler’s focus then shifted towards attacking the Soviet Union, a decision influenced by his aggressive nature and strategic calculations, despite the risks and eventual failure to achieve a decisive victory.

In July 1940, Hitler began planning for an invasion of the Soviet Union, intending to divert American attention to the Pacific through Japanese engagement, thus isolating Britain and forcing its surrender. This strategy hinged on first neutralizing the Soviet Union, potentially in collaboration with the Soviets against Britain, before focusing on the Eastern front.

Stalin, aware of his precarious position following France’s defeat, hoped to exploit the war between Germany and the Western democracies to the Soviet Union’s advantage. Despite the fall of France altering these expectations, Stalin projected strength and intransigence to deter Hitler from seeking concessions, underestimating Hitler’s willingness to engage in a risky two-front war.

Stalin’s strategy involved quickly securing territories promised by the Nazi-Soviet pact, notably pressuring Romania for Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, thereby enhancing Soviet presence along the Danube and absorbing the Baltic States through orchestrated elections. These actions restored territories lost after World War I, underscoring the consequences of excluding Germany and the Soviet Union from the 1919 Peace Conference negotiations.

Simultaneously, Stalin aimed to appease Germany by fulfilling and exceeding a trade agreement to supply raw materials in exchange for coal and manufactured goods. This continued even as Germany solidified its dominance in Central Europe, notably through maneuvers that limited Soviet influence in Romania and ensured control over its oil resources.

Tensions escalated with Germany’s strategic movements in Northern Europe and the signing of the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan. This pact, while excluding a direct obligation against the Soviet Union, signaled a united front that could potentially target the Soviet Union, leaving Stalin strategically isolated despite the pact’s formal stipulations.

In the latter part of 1940, Hitler and Stalin engaged in their final attempts to outsmart each other diplomatically. Hitler sought to coax Stalin into a joint attack on the British Empire, aiming to later turn on the Soviet Union once Germany’s position was secured. Conversely, Stalin aimed to buy time, hoping Hitler might falter, while also exploring what gains could be made. Efforts to arrange a direct meeting between the two leaders faltered, with both citing inability to leave their countries and the proposed location, Brest-Litovsk, being deemed unsuitable due to its historical significance.

Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, reached out directly to Stalin, bypassing usual diplomatic channels, in a letter filled with grandiose language but lacking in diplomacy. He blamed disagreements over Finland and Romania on British interference and suggested the Soviet Union could join the Tripartite Pact for a share of the spoils post-war. Stalin responded with caution and irony, accepting the invitation for his Foreign Minister Molotov to visit Berlin, setting an early date for the visit.

This swift agreement by Hitler was misinterpreted by Stalin as a sign of the Soviet Union’s importance to Germany, unaware of Hitler’s urgency to finalize his plans for attacking the Soviet Union in the following spring. The negotiations were fraught with distrust, evidenced by Molotov’s refusal to use a German train due to fears of surveillance.

During the Berlin negotiations, Molotov’s approach was cautious and confrontational, influenced by fear of Stalin’s expectations and the domestic implications of the negotiations. Soviet diplomacy, historically characterized by endurance and pressure for maximal gains with minimal concessions, was on full display. The differences in negotiating styles between Hitler and Molotov—Hitler’s preference for monologues and Molotov’s focus on practical application without room for compromise—highlighted the inherent communication challenges.

Molotov’s visit aimed to navigate the complex dynamics of appeasing Stalin, who was caught between not wanting to aid a German victory over Britain and the fear of missing out on sharing in any potential conquests. Stalin was adamant about avoiding a return to the pre-war European balance of power, signaling a firm stance against any efforts to restore it. Molotov was tasked with a delicate mission, balancing the implicit threat of joining forces with Hitler against the British Empire with the looming risk of a German attack on the Soviet Union, under the guise of diplomatic engagement.

During their meetings, Ribbentrop attempted to persuade Molotov of the benefits of joining the Tripartite Pact, suggesting broad spheres of influence for each participating country, including a speculative southward expansion for the Soviet Union. However, Molotov dismissed these overtures, understanding Hitler’s actual intentions were towards Eastern Europe and Russia itself, not the distant territories Ribbentrop proposed.

In a grandiose meeting setup designed to impress, Molotov met with Hitler and remained unswayed by the display of Nazi power. He directly questioned Hitler’s intentions, seeking clarification on various geopolitical arrangements and the validity of previous agreements regarding Soviet influence. Hitler’s responses did little to limit German ambitions, revealing a reluctance to make any concrete commitments that might restrict Nazi Germany’s actions.

Molotov’s visit to Berlin was marked by a series of negotiations where Soviet and German interests clashed openly. Despite Hitler’s proposal of dividing the British Empire post-conquest, Molotov focused on immediate Soviet concerns, such as guarantees to Bulgaria and the annexation of Finland, directly challenging German positions. The meetings concluded without any resolution, underscored by a British air raid during a dinner at the Soviet Embassy, which added to the tension and the surreal nature of the diplomatic engagement.

Stalin, through Molotov, set forth conditions for joining the Tripartite Pact, including demands that were unlikely to be met by Germany, such as troop withdrawals and Soviet influence in Bulgaria, Turkey, and the Dardanelles, as well as territorial claims in Iran and the Persian Gulf. These conditions were more about defining Soviet interests and setting boundaries rather than genuine negotiation terms.

Despite the diplomatic dance, Hitler had already decided on attacking the Soviet Union, using the negotiations with Molotov to finalize his decision. By the time Molotov left Berlin, Hitler was moving forward with plans for an invasion, indicating that the discussions had been little more than a formality in the face of Hitler’s broader strategic goals. This set the stage for the subsequent escalation of conflict as Germany prepared for a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union, disregarding any possibility of a diplomatic resolution.

Stalin misjudged Hitler’s impulsive nature, believing instead that Hitler would not risk an invasion of the Soviet Union before securing a victory in the West. This misperception was rooted in Stalin’s own patience and strategic calculation, contrasting sharply with Hitler’s belief in willpower to overcome obstacles and his history of taking bold, often reckless, actions without full consideration of the risks. Stalin’s cautious approach, aimed at avoiding provocation, led him to interpret Hitler’s interest in the Tripartite Pact as a sign that Germany would focus on Britain in 1941, delaying any conflict with the Soviet Union until at least 1942.

Stalin’s response to the growing threat included maintaining a supply of war materials to Germany while simultaneously preparing for potential conflict. His decision not to join the Tripartite Pact, yet signing a non-aggression treaty with Japan, was a strategic move to protect the Soviet Union’s eastern border and free up forces for the defense of Moscow. This action, coupled with Stalin’s public gestures towards Japan and Germany, was aimed at signaling a willingness to negotiate and perhaps deter German aggression.

Despite these efforts, Stalin’s approach did not prevent the inevitable conflict with Germany. His attempts at diplomacy and signs of conciliation, including breaking ties with European governments-in-exile and recognizing Nazi puppet states, were ultimately fruitless. Stalin’s reluctance to place Soviet forces on high alert or respond to German provocations underscored his hope to avert war through negotiation, a hope dashed by the German invasion. This underestimation of Hitler’s ambitions and disregard for the warnings of an imminent attack left the Soviet Union unprepared for the conflict that ensued.

The German declaration of war on June 22, 1941, took Stalin by surprise, leading to a brief period of shock and inactivity. However, Stalin quickly resumed leadership, rallying the Soviet people with a pragmatic and resolved radio address, emphasizing the daunting but manageable challenge ahead. This moment marked the beginning of a grueling conflict for the Soviet Union, but also the strategic overreach by Hitler that would eventually lead to Nazi Germany’s downfall. Hitler’s gamble on a quick Soviet collapse failed, contrasting with Stalin’s recoverable miscalculation, setting the stage for the prolonged and costly struggle of World War II on the Eastern Front.

Stalin’s misjudgment of Hitler stemmed from a belief that Hitler would act rationally and not risk an invasion of the Soviet Union without first securing victory in the West. This underestimation of Hitler’s impulsiveness and his disregard for conventional military strategy led Stalin to misconstrue the urgency of the threat. Despite Stalin’s cautious approach and his efforts to avoid provoking Germany, including misreading the significance of the Tripartite Pact, his strategic patience contrasted sharply with Hitler’s aggressive willpower and readiness to confront challenges directly, often preemptively.

Stalin’s diplomatic maneuvers, including a non-aggression treaty with Japan, aimed to secure the Soviet Union’s eastern front and demonstrate to Germany a willingness to negotiate and possibly collaborate. These actions, intended to deter German aggression and buy time for the Soviet Union, ultimately failed to prevent the German invasion. Stalin’s efforts to signal peaceful intentions and readiness for further negotiations, even as tensions escalated, underscored his belief in the possibility of averting conflict through diplomacy.

In the final days before the invasion, Stalin’s actions reflected a desperate attempt to maintain peace, including denying troop movements on the western borders and breaking ties with governments-in-exile to appease Germany. However, these concessions did not alter Hitler’s plans. The German declaration of war caught the Soviet leadership off guard, revealing Stalin’s miscalculation and the failure of his strategy to prevent conflict.

The onset of war plunged Stalin into a brief period of inactivity, but he soon rallied, assuming direct control over the Soviet Union’s war effort and addressing the nation to inspire resilience and determination. This contrasted with Hitler’s approach, which, driven by ambition and a disregard for the practical limits of military power, ultimately led to overextension and defeat. Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union without securing victory in the West marked a strategic overreach that would contribute to Nazi Germany’s downfall, highlighting the irretrievable nature of his gamble compared to Stalin’s recoverable mistake.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *