Britain and the Pact with Russia

Was their aim simply to divert war away from them, or did they genuinely think a pact would be a good idea?


I think the Nazi-Soviet Pact is a really difficult one to understand – which makes it all the more thrilling for real historians.

Just WHAT was going on????



1.   Many Britons genuinely liked Hitler

What I think we need to appreciate is that OUR perception of Hitler has been formed by and after WWII and the Holocaust.   Our view of Hitler is the image of the Beast, pure evil.   When an historian named Irving tried to suggest in the 1980s that maybe there were some good things about him, he was ruined by the anti-Nazi outcry that followed – even historians are not ready to attempt a reassessment of Hitler.   We cannot believe that anyone would actually like him, or think it was a good idea to support him.

But before wartime anti-Hitler propaganda, before the Final Solution (1942), people thought of Hitler differently.   Yes, they thought him brutal (they knew about the Night of the Long Knives) and a racist (they knew about Kristallnacht).   But there were lots of good things about him too – the autobahns, the revival of the German economy and the spirit of the German people, the Volkswagen!   The German state – which had been on chaos – was now quiet, and there was law and order.   Many people in the west actually admired Hitler.   In Britain , Moseley’s Blackshirts aped the SA and sought to set up a fascist state in Britain .   King Edward VIII (the one who abdicated) actively approved of Hitler.   Many businessmen liked the way Hitler had squashed the Trade Unions and got the German people working so hard.   Many right-wing Conservatives (the Party of Chamberlain, remember) were all-but-fascist in their attitudes and – as far as racism is concerned – talked about Indians and Africans in exactly the same way Hitler talked about the Jews.   There was a secret fascist group in MI5 which was in constant touch with Hitler, and which went on to spy for the Nazis during the war.

What was it that attracted these British people to a man who we now consider to be the incarnation of evil?



2.   Many Britons feared Russia

To understand that, you need to understand another thing – just how much British people feared Communist Russia between the wars.   Remember that Britain , together with America and France , had sent troops to try to destroy the Russian Revolution during the Russian Civil War.   At that time the Communist International was committed to destroying capitalist governments throughout the world.   British Trade Unionists were talking about setting up Workers’ Councils and overthrowing Parliament.   Russian money helped the strikers in the General strike and coal miners during the coal strikes.   The historian HAL Fisher was a liberal and good man, a friend of Lloyd George, who improved education in Britain , and was Britain ’s delegate to the League of Nations .   I have included long extracts from his ‘History of Europe’ on the website.   But in 1935 he wrote about ‘the Russians infection’, and added: ‘The period in which we are now living is still dominated by the shade of Lenin… of a totalitarian state ruthlessly repressive of liberty and set upon the creation of a new type of society’.


In such a situation it was natural that many people in Britain should see Hitler’s Germany as a welcome barrier to the spread of Communism.   the great historian and respected politician HAL Fisher certainly wrote: ‘the Hitler revolution is a sufficient guarantee that Russian Communism will not spread westward’ 91935).   Other British people suggested that maybe it would be a good thing if evil Russia had a war with evil Germany and they destroyed each other!   Stalin suggested that this was actually British policy – in March 1939 he gave a famous speech, saying that the capitalist countries of Britain and France were Russia’s real enemy, and accusing them of ‘encouraging the Germans to march east… prompting them: “Just start a war on the Bolsheviks and everything will be alright”’.


The historian Alan Bullock thinks that Stalin did not believe this.   Stalin was not a fool.   He could see that Hitler was a danger to Russia .   Hitler came to power in 1933 – in 1934, Russia had joined the League of Nations , hoping that collective security would keep the Nazis locked up.   Of course, it didn’t.   Britain and France caved into German aggression, and Hitler marched into the Rhineland , into Austria , the Sudentenland and finally, in March 1939, into Czechoslovakia .   Stalin was utterly fed up with Britain and France , and Bullock thinks he was sending a message of friendship to Germany (the first hint of the Nazi-Soviet Pact).



3.   What was  Britain ’s policy towards Russia ?

I don’t think that Chamberlain was trying to cause a Nazi-Russian war, either.   Everything he said throughout this period re-echoes the same theme: ‘I am a man of peace to the depths of my soul.   Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me’ (Sept 1938).   I don’t think he trusted the Russians, and he certainly thought that it was a waste of time trying to make a treaty with them.   But he wasn’t trying to cause a war between Germany and Russia – he seems to have tried just to keep the Russians stringing along in 1939 in the hope that it might deter Hitler from invading Poland .


Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was very keen to make an alliance with Russia .   He told Chamberlain’s government ‘to get some brutal truths into their heads’ – that Britain could not defend Poland without an alliance with Russia .   Many British politicians at that time were talking about a policy of restraining Hitler by ‘encircling’ him.   But Chamberlain was a better politician than Churchill.   He could see what Stalin could see and what the German delegates who went to Russia told the Russian minister Molotov: ‘What could England offer Russia ?   At best a war in Europe and conflict with Germany ’.   And Stalin said in July 1939 that his government was not going to make the same mistake as the Tsar had in 1914 – agreeing to fight Britain ’s war against Germany for her.


For a while in 1939, the Russians appeared to be very keen on an alliance with Britain against Germany , but all they wanted to talk about was how Russia would march into Poland , how Russia could attack Finland .   Chamberlain dragged his feet against such an alliance.  And all the time, Stalin was seeing delegates from Germany , who were bartering a different deal, to divide Poland between them.


Some historians believe that Chamberlain dragged his feet for other reasons – because he was weak and gutless, because he favoured pro-Nazi elements in the Conservative Party, because he didn’t want to spend money on a war.   But the run of events suggests that he always knew that the Russians would merely use any alliance as an excuse to seize more power.   The Russian totalitarian dictatorship, remember was even more vicious than Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship.



4   Conclusion

Basically, the answer to the question is this:

  1. Many British people DID see Germany as a buffer against Russia , and some people DID talk about Germany and Russia destroying each other in a war.

  2. When Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, many British people (including Winston Churchill) pushed hard for an Anglo-Soviet Pact (an alliance with Russia against Germany), on the grounds that that was the only way to defend Poland.   Some of them genuinely believed that they could restrain Hitler by encircling him with an alliance.   They forced Chamberlain to at least begin talks with Russia , but Chamberlain was not keen, and eventually the talks collapsed.

  3. Personally, I don’t believe that Chamberlain ever thought the idea had any chance at all.   And I think he was right – I don’t think Stalin ever intended to fight a war to defend Poland .   In August 1939 he made the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany , and they attacked Poland in September 1939, starting World War II.