World War II, 1939–1945
After a failed attempt to sign an anti-German political alliance with France and Britain and talks with Germany regarding a potential political deal, on August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union entered into a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, negotiated by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Officially a non-aggression treaty only, an appended secret protocol, also reached on August 23, 1939, divided the whole of eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. The eastern part of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and part of Romania were recognized as parts of the Soviet sphere of influence, with Lithuania added in a second secret protocol in September 1939. Stalin and Ribbentrop traded toasts on the night of the signing discussing past hostilities between the countries.
Implementing the division of Eastern Europe and other invasions
On September 1, 1939, the German invasion of its agreed upon portion of Poland started World War II. On September 17 the Red Army invaded eastern Poland and occupied the Polish territory assigned to it by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed by co-ordination with German forces in Poland. Eleven days later, the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was modified, allotting Germany a larger part of Poland, while ceding most of Lithuania to the Soviet Union.
After Stalin declared that he was going to "solve the Baltic problem", by June 1940, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were and merged into the Soviet Union, after repressions and actions therein brought about the deaths of over 160,000 citizens of these states. After facing stiff resistance in an invasion of Finland, an interim peace was entered, granting the Soviet Union the eastern region of Karelia (10% of Finnish territory). After this campaign, Stalin took actions to bolster the Soviet military, modify training and improve propaganda efforts in the Soviet military. In June 1940, Stalin directed the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, proclaiming this formerly Romanian territory part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. But in annexing northern Bukovina, Stalin had gone beyond the agreed limits of the secret protocol.
After the Tripartite Pact was signed by Axis Powers Germany, Japan and Italy, in October 1940, Stalin traded letters with Ribbentrop, with Stalin writing about entering an agreement regarding a "permanent basis" for their "mutual interests." After a conference in Berlin between Hitler, Molotov and Ribbentrop, Germany presented the Molotov with a proposed written agreement for Axis entry. On November 25, Stalin responded with a proposed written agreement for Axis entry which was never answered by Germany. Shortly thereafter, Hitler issued a secret directive on the eventual attempts to invade the Soviet Union. In an effort to demonstrate peaceful intentions toward Germany, on April 13, 1941, Stalin oversaw the signing of a neutrality pact with Axis power Japan.
Ribbentrop and Stalin at the signing of the Pact
Hitler breaks the pact
During the early morning of June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the pact by implementing Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Soviet held territories and the Soviet Union that began the war on the Eastern Front. Although Stalin had received warnings from spies and his generals, he felt that Germany would not attack the Soviet Union until Germany had defeated Britain. In the initial hours after the German attack commenced, Stalin hesitated, wanting to ensure that the German attack was sanctioned by Hitler, rather than the unauthorized action of a rogue general. Accounts by Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan claim that, after the invasion, Stalin retreated to his dacha in despair for several days and did not participate in leadership decisions. However, some documentary evidence of orders given by Stalin contradicts these accounts, leading some historians to speculate that Kruschev's account is inaccurate. By the end of 1941, the Soviet military had suffered 4.3 million casualties and German forces had advanced 1,050 miles (1,690 kilometers).
Soviets stop the Germans
While the Germans pressed forward, Stalin was confident of an eventual Allied victory over Germany. In September 1941, Stalin told British diplomats that he wanted two agreements: (1) a mutual assistance/aid pact and (2) a recognition that, after the war, the Soviet Union would gain the territories in countries that it had taken pursuant to its division of Eastern Europe with Hitler in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The British agreed to assistance but refused to agree upon the territorial gains, which Stalin accepted months later as the military situation deteriorated somewhat in mid-1942. By December, Hitler's troops had advanced to within 20 miles of the Kremlin in Moscow. On December 5, the Soviets launched a counteroffensive, pushing German troops back 40–50 miles from Moscow, the Wermacht's first significant defeat of the war.
Stalin and Molotov on the signing of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact with the Empire of Japan, 1941
Soviet push to Germany
The Soviets repulsed the important German strategic southern campaign and, although 2.5 million Soviet casualties were suffered in that effort, it permitted to Soviets to take the offensive for most of the rest of the war on the Eastern Front.
Germany attempted an encirclement attack at Kursk, which was successfully repulsed by the Soviets. Kursk marked the beginning of a period where Stalin became more willing to listen to the advice of his generals. By the end of 1943, the Soviets occupied half of the territory taken by the Germans from 1941-1942. Soviet military industrial output also had increased substantially from late 1941 to early 1943 after Stalin had moved factories well to the East of the front, safe from German invasion and air attack. In November 1943, Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran. The parties later agreed that Britain and America would launch a cross-channel invasion of France in May 1944, along with a separate invasion of southern France. Stalin insisted that, after the war, the Soviet Union should incorporate the portions of Poland it occupied pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany, which Churchill tabled.
After taking around 300,000 Polish prisoners in 1939 and early 1940, 25,700 Polish POWs were executed on March 5, 1940, pursuant to a note from to Stalin from Lavrenty Beria, the members of the Soviet Politburo, in what became known as the Katyn massacre. While Stalin personally told a Polish general they'd "lost track" of the officers in Manchuria, Polish railroad workers found the mass grave after the 1941 Nazi invasion. The massacre became a source of political controversy, with the Soviets eventually claiming that Germany committed the executions when the Soviet Union retook Poland in 1944. The Soviets did not admit responsibility until 1990.
Stalin introduced controversial military orders, such as Order No. 270, requiring superiors to shoot deserters on the spot while their family members were subject to arrest. Thereafter, Stalin also conducted a purge of several military commanders that were shot for "cowardice" without a trial. Stalin issued Order No. 227, directing that
commanders permitting retreat without permission to be subject to a military tribunal, and soldiers guilty of disciplinary procedures to be forced into "penal battalions", which were sent to the most dangerous sections of the front lines. From 1942 to 1945, 427,910 soldiers were assigned to penal battalions. The order also directed "blocking detachments" to shoot fleeing panicked troops at the rear. In June 1941, weeks after the German invasion began. Stalin also directed employing a scorched earth policy of destroying the infrastructure and food supplies of areas before the Germans could seize them, and that partisans were to be set up in evacuated areas. He also ordered the NKVD to murder around one hundred thousand political prisoners in areas where the Wermacht approached, while others were deported east.
The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, colloquially named after Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, was an agreement officially titled the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and signed in Moscow in the early hours of August 24, 1939, but dated August 23. The agreement renounced warfare between the two countries and pledged neutrality by either party if the other were attacked by a third party. Each signatory promised not to join any grouping of powers that was "directly or indirectly aimed at the other party." The Pact is known by a number of different titles. These include the Nazi–Soviet Pact, Hitler–Stalin Pact, German–Soviet Non-aggression Pact and sometimes the Nazi–Soviet Alliance. It remained in effect until June 22, 1941 when Germany executed Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union.
In addition to stipulations of non-aggression, the treaty included a secret protocol dividing the independent countries of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence, anticipating "territorial and political rearrangements" of these countries' territories. All of these states were subsequently invaded, occupied, or forced to cede territory by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or both. Only Finland was able to resist and remained an independent country.