Russian History


Foreign Policy, 1928-39

Soviet foreign policy underwent a series of changes during the first decade of Stalin's rule. Soon after assuming control of the party, Stalin oversaw a radicalization of Soviet foreign policy that paralleled the severity of his remaking of domestic policy. To heighten the urgency of his demands for moderniza-tion, Stalin portrayed the Western powers, particularly France, as warmongers eager to attack the Soviet Union. The Great Depression, which seemingly threatened to destroy world capitalism in the early 1930s, provided ideological justification for the diplomatic self-isolation practiced by the Soviet Union in that period. To aid the triumph of communism, Stalin resolved to weaken the moderate social democratic parties of Europe, which seemed to be the communists' rivals for support among the working classes of the Western world.

Conversely, the Comintern 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.

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.

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. While Britain and France dilatorily attempted to induce the Soviet Union to join them in pledging to protect Poland, the Soviet Union and Germany engaged in intense negotiations. 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.