Joachim Von Ribbentrop - Pact With The Soviet Union and The Outbreak of World War II

Pact With The Soviet Union and The Outbreak of World War II

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Ribbentrop played a key role in the conclusion of a Soviet-German non-aggression pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in 1939, and in the diplomatic action surrounding the attack on Poland. In public, Ribbentrop expressed great fury at the Polish refusal to allow for Danzig's return to the Reich, or to grant Polish permission for the "extra-territorial" highways, but since these matters were only intended after March 1939 to be a pretext for German aggression, Ribbentrop always refused in private to allow for any talks between German and Polish diplomats about these matters. It was Ribbentrop's fear that if German-Polish talks did take place, there was the danger that the Poles might back down and agree to the German demands as the Czechoslovaks had done in 1938 under Anglo-French pressure, and thereby deprive the Germans of their excuse for aggression. To further block German-Polish diplomatic talks, Ribbentrop had the German Ambassador to Poland, Count Hans-Adolf von Moltke, recalled, and refused to see the Polish Ambassador, Józef Lipski. On 25 May 1939, Ribbentrop sent a secret message to Moscow to tell the Soviet Foreign Commissar, Vyacheslav Molotov, that if Germany attacked Poland "Russia's special interests would be taken into consideration".

Throughout 1939, in private, Hitler always referred to Britain as his main opponent, but portrayed the coming destruction of Poland as a necessary prelude to any war with Britain. A notable contradiction existed in Hitler's strategic planning between embarking on an anti-British foreign policy, whose major instruments consisted of a vastly expanded Kriegsmarine and a Luftwaffe capable of a strategic bombing offensive that would take several years to build (e.g. Plan Z for expanding the Kriegsmarine was a five year plan), and engaging in reckless short-term actions such as attacking Poland that were likely to cause a general war. Ribbentrop, for his part, because of his status as the Nazi British expert, resolved Hitler's dilemma by supporting the anti-British line and by repeatedly advising Hitler that Britain would not go to war for Poland in 1939. Ribbentrop informed Hitler that any war with Poland would last for only 24 hours, and that the British would be so stunned with this display of German power that they would not honour their commitments. Along the same lines, Ribbentrop told the Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano on 5 May 1939 "It is certain that within a few months not one Frenchman nor a single Englishman will go to war for Poland". Ribbentrop supported his analysis of the situation by only showing Hitler diplomatic dispatches that supported his view that neither Britain or France would honour their commitments to Poland. In this, Ribbentrop was particularly supported by the German Ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, who reported that Chamberlain knew "the social structure of Britain, even the conception of the British Empire, would not survive the chaos of even a victorious war", and so would back down over Poland. Furthermore, Ribbentrop had the German Embassy in London provide translations from pro-appeasement newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express for Hitler's benefit, which had the effect of making it seem that British public opinion was more strongly against going to war for Poland then was actually the case. The British historian Victor Rothwell wrote that the newspapers that Ribbentrop used to provide his press summaries for Hitler, such as the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, were out of touch not only with British public opinion, but also with British government policy in regard to Poland. The press summaries Ribbentrop provided were particularly important, as Ribbentrop had managed to convince Hitler that the British government secretly controlled the British press, and just as in Germany, nothing appeared in the British press that the British government did not want to appear. Furthermore, the Germans had broken the British diplomatic codes and were reading the messages between the Foreign Office in London to and from the Embassy in Warsaw. The decrypts showed that there was much tension in Anglo-Polish relations with the British pressuring the Poles to allow Danzig to rejoin the Reich and the Poles staunchly resisting all efforts to pressure them into concessions to Germany. On the basis of such decrypts, Hitler and Ribbentrop believed that the British were bluffing with their warnings that they would go to war to defend Polish independence. During the summer of 1939, Ribbentrop sabotaged all efforts at a peaceful solution to the Danzig dispute, leading the American historian Gerhard Weinberg to comment that "perhaps Chamberlain's haggard appearance did him more credit than Ribbentrop's beaming smile" as the countdown to a war that would kill millions inexorably gathered pace.

Neville Chamberlain's European Policy in 1939 was based upon creating a "peace front" of alliances linking Western and Eastern European states to serve as a "tripwire" meant to deter any act of German aggression The new “containment” strategy adopted in March 1939 comprised giving firm warnings to Berlin, increasing the pace of British rearmament and attempting to form an interlocking network of alliances that would block German aggression anywhere in Europe by creating such a formidable deterrence to aggression that Hitler could not rationally chose that option. Underlying the basis of the “containment” of Germany was the so-called “X documents” provided by Carl Friedrich Goerdeler over the course of the winter of 1938–39 which suggested that the German economy, under the strain of massive military spending was on the verge of collapse, and which led British policy-makers to the conclusion that if Hitler could be deterred from war and if his regime was “contained” long enough, then the German economy would collapse, and with it, presumably the Nazi regime. At the same time, British policy-makers were afraid if Hitler were “contained”, and faced with a collapsing economy he would commit a desperate “mad dog act” of aggression as a way of lashing out. Hence, the emphasis on pressuring the Poles to allow the return of Danzig to Germany as a way of peacefully resolving the crisis by allowing Hitler to back down without losing face. As part of a dual strategy to avoid war via deterrence and appeasement of Germany, British leaders warned that they would go to war if Germany attacked Poland while at the same time tried to avoid war by holding unofficial talks with such would be peace-makers like the British newspaper proprietor Lord Kemsley, the Swedish businessman Axel Wenner-Gren and another Swedish businessmen Birger Dahlerus who attempted to work out the basis for a peaceful return of Danzig. Ribbentrop and Hitler misunderstood the British attempts to provide for a peaceful settlement of the Danzig crisis as a sign that Britain would not go to war for Poland.

In May 1939, as part of his efforts to bully Turkey into joining the Axis, Ribbentrop had arranged for the cancellation of the delivery of 60 heavy howitzers from the Škoda Works, which the Turks had paid for in advance. The German refusal either to deliver the artillery pieces or refund the 125 million Reichsmarks the Turks had paid in advance for them was to be a major strain on German-Turkish relations in 1939, and had the effect of causing Turkey’s politically powerful army to resist Ribbentrop’s entreaties to join the Axis. As part of the fierce diplomatic competition in Ankara in the spring and summer of 1939 between von Papen on the one hand, and on the other the French Ambassador, René Massigli, and the British Ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, to win the allegiance of Turkey to either the Axis or the Allies, Ribbentrop suffered a major reversal in July 1939 when Massigli was able to arrange for major French arms shipments to Turkey on credit, to replace the weapons the Germans refused to deliver to the Turks.

In June 1939, Franco-German relations were strained when the head of the French section of the Dienststelle Ribbentrop, Otto Abetz, was expelled from France following allegations that he had bribed two French newspaper editors to print pro-German articles. Ribbentrop was enraged by Abetz's expulsion, and attacked Count Johannes von Welczeck, the German Ambassador in Paris, over his failure to have the French re-admit Abetz. In July 1939, Ribbentrop's claims about Bonnet's alleged statement of December 1938 were to lead to a lengthy war of words via a series of letters to the French newspapers between Bonnet and Ribbentrop over just what precisely Bonnet had said to Ribbentrop. In the spring and summer of 1939, Ribbentrop used Bonnet's alleged statement to convince Hitler that France would not go to war in the defence of Poland, despite the frequent denials by Bonnet that he ever made such a statement (which would not have been legally binding even had Bonnet had made the alleged statement; only a formal renunciation of the Franco-Polish treaty by the French National Assembly would end the French commitment to Poland).

On 11 August 1939, Ribbentrop met the Italian Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, and the Italian Ambassador to Germany, Count Bernardo Attolico, in Salzburg. During that meeting, both Ciano and Attolico were horrified to learn from Ribbentrop that Germany planned to attack Poland that summer, and that the Danzig issue was just a pretext for aggression. When Ciano asked if there was anything Italy could do to broker a Polish-German settlement that would avert a war, he was told by Ribbentrop that "We want war!". Ribbentrop expressed his firmly-held belief that neither Britain nor France would go to war for Poland, but if that should occur, he fully expected the Italians to honour the terms of the Pact of Steel (which was both an offensive and defensive treaty), and declare war not only on Poland, but on the Western powers if necessary. Ribbentrop told his Italian guests that "the localization of the conflict is certain" and "the probability of victory is infinite". Ribbentrop brushed away Ciano's fears of a general war because "France and England cannot intervene because they are insufficiently prepared militarily and because they have no means of injuring Germany". Ciano complained furiously that Ribbentrop had violated his promise given only that spring, when Italy signed the Pact of Steel, that there would be no war for the next three years. Ciano said that it was absurd to believe that the Reich could attack Poland without triggering a wider war and that now the Italians were left with the choice of either going to war when they needed three more years to rearm or being forced into the humiliation of having to violate the terms of the Pact of Steel by declaring neutrality (which would make the Italians appear cowardly). Ciano complained in his diary that his arguments "had no effect" (niente da fare) on Ribbentrop, who simply refused to believe any information that did not fit in with his preconceived notions. Despite Ciano's efforts to persuade Ribbentrop to put off the attack on Poland until 1942, so as to allow the Italians time to get ready for war, Ribbentrop was adamant that Germany had no interest in a diplomatic solution of the Danzig question and only wanted a war to wipe Poland off the map. The Salzburg meeting marked the moment when Ciano's dislike of Ribbentrop was transformed into outright hatred, and of the beginning of his disillusionment with the pro-German foreign policy that he had championed up to that time.

On 21 August 1939, Hitler received a message from Stalin reading "The Soviet Government has instructed me to say they agree to Herr von Ribbentrop's arrival on 23 August". That same day, Hitler ordered German mobilization. The extent that Hitler was influenced by Ribbentrop's advice can be seen in Hitler's orders for a limited mobilization against Poland alone. Weizsäcker recorded in his diary throughout the spring and summer of 1939 repeated statements from Hitler that any German-Polish war would be only a localized conflict and provided that the Soviet Union could be persuaded to stay neutral, there was no danger of a general war. Hitler believed that British policy was based upon securing Soviet support for Poland, which led him to perform a diplomatic U-turn and support Ribbentrop's policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union as the best way of ensuring a local war. This was especially the case as decrypts showed the British military attaché to Poland arguing that Britain could not save Poland in the event of a German attack, and only Soviet support offered the prospect of Poland holding out.

The signing of the Non-Aggression Pact in Moscow on 23 August 1939 was the crowning achievement of Ribbentrop's career. Ribbentrop flew to Moscow, where, over the course of a thirteen hour visit, Ribbentrop signed both the Non-Aggression Pact and the secret protocols, which partitioned much of Eastern Europe between the Soviets and the Germans. Ribbentrop had only expected to see the Soviet Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov, and was most surprised to be holding talks with Joseph Stalin. During his trip to Moscow, Ribbentrop's talks with Stalin and Molotov proceed very cordially and efficiently with the exception of the question of Latvia, which Hitler had instructed Ribbentrop to try to claim for Germany. When Stalin claimed Latvia for the Soviet Union, Ribbentrop was forced to telephone Berlin for permission from Hitler to concede Latvia to the Soviets. After finishing his talks with Stalin and Molotov, Ribbentrop, at a dinner with the Soviet leaders, launched into a lengthy diatribe against the British Empire, with frequent interjections of approval from Stalin, and then exchanged toasts with Stalin in honour of German-Soviet friendship. For a brief moment in August 1939, Ribbentrop convinced Hitler that the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union would cause the fall of the Chamberlain government, and lead to a new British government that would abandon the Poles to their fate. Ribbentrop argued that with Soviet economic support (especially in the form of oil), Germany was now immune to the effects of a British naval blockade, and as such, the British would never take on Germany. On 23 August 1939 at a secret meeting of the Reich's top military leadership at the Berghof, Hitler argued neither Britain nor France would go to war for Poland without the Soviet Union, and fixed "X-Day", the date for the invasion of Poland for 26 August. Hitler added that "My only fear is that at the last moment some Schweinehund will make a proposal for mediation". Unlike Hitler, who saw the Non-Aggression Pact as merely a pragmatic device forced on him by circumstances, namely the refusal of Britain or Poland to play the roles Hitler had allocated to them, Ribbentrop regarded the Non-Aggression Pact as integral to his anti-British policy.

The signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939 not only won Germany an informal alliance with the Soviet Union, but also neutralized Anglo-French attempts to win Turkey to the “peace front”. The Turks always believed that it was essential to have the Soviet Union as an ally to counter Germany, and the signing of the German-Soviet pact undercut completely the assumptions behind Turkish security policy. The Anglo-French effort to include the Balkans into the “peace front” had always rested on the assumption that the cornerstone of the “peace front” in the Balkans was to be Turkey, the regional super-power. Because of the Balkans were rich in raw materials like iron, zinc and above all oil that could help Germany survive a British blockade, it was viewed as highly important by the Allies to keep German influence in the Balkans to a minimum, hence British efforts to link British promises to support Turkey in the event of an Italian attack in exchange for Turkish promises to help defend Romania from a German attack. British and French leaders believed that the deterrent value of the “peace front” could be increased if Turkey were a member and if the Turkish Straits were open to Allied ships. This would not only allow the Allies to send over the Black Sea troops and supplies to Romania, but also through Romania to Poland.

On 25 August 1939, Ribbentrop's influence with Hitler wavered for a moment when the news reached Berlin of the ratification of the Anglo-Polish military alliance and a personal message from Mussolini telling Hitler that Italy would dishonour the Pact of Steel if Germany attacked Poland. This was especially damaging to Ribbentrop, as he always assured Hitler that "Italy's attitude is determined by the Rome-Berlin Axis". As a result of the message from Rome and the ratification of the Anglo-Polish treaty, Hitler cancelled the invasion of Poland which was planned for 26 August, and instead ordered it held back until 1 September in order to give Germany some time to break up the unfavourable international alignment. Though Ribbentrop continued to argue that Britain and France were bluffing, both he and Hitler were prepared as a last resort to risk a general war by invading Poland. Because of Ribbentrop's firmly held views that Britain was Germany's most dangerous enemy and that an Anglo-German war was thus inevitable, it scarcely mattered to him when his much desired war with Britain came. The Greek historian Aristotle Kaillis wrote that it was Ribbentrop's influence with Hitler together with his insistence that the Western powers would in the end not go to war for Poland that was the most important reason why Hitler did not cancel Fall Weiß all together instead of postponing "X-day" for six days. Ribbentrop told Hitler that his sources showed that Britain would only be militarily prepared to take on Germany at the earliest in 1940 or more probably 1941, so this could only mean that the British were bluffing. Even if the British were serious in their warnings of war, Ribbentrop took the view that since a war with Britain was inevitable, the risk of a war with Britain was an acceptable one and accordingly he argued that Germany should not shy away from such challenges.

On 27 August 1939, Chamberlain sent the following letter to Hitler, which was intended to counteract reports Chamberlain had heard from intelligence sources in Berlin that Ribbentrop had convinced Hitler that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would ensure that Britain would abandon Poland. In his letter to Hitler, Chamberlain wrote:

"Whatever may prove to be the nature of the German-Soviet Agreement, it cannot alter Great Britain's obligation to Poland which His Majesty's Government have stated in public repeatedly and plainly and which they are determined to fulfil. It has been alleged that, if His Majesty's Government had made their position more clear in 1914, the great catastrophe would have been avoided. Whether or not there is any force in that allegation, His Majesty's Government are resolved that on this occasion there shall be no such tragic misunderstanding. If the case should arise, they are resolved, and prepared, to employ without delay all the forces at their command, and it is impossible to foresee the end of hostilities once engaged. It would be a dangerous illusion to think that, if war once starts, it will come to an early end even if a success on any one of the several fronts on which it will be engaged should have been secured"

Ribbentrop for his part told Hitler that Chamberlain's letter was just a bluff, and urged his master to call it.

On the night of 30–31 August 1939, Ribbentrop had an extremely heated exchange with the British Ambassador, Sir Nevile Henderson, who objected to Ribbentrop's demand, given at about midnight, that if a Polish plenipotentiary did not arrive in Berlin that night to discuss the German "final offer", then the responsibility for the outbreak of war would not rest on the Reich. Henderson stated that the terms of the German "final offer" were very reasonable, but argued that Ribbentrop's time limit for Polish acceptance of the "final offer" was most unreasonable, and furthermore, demanded to know why Ribbentrop insisted upon seeing a special Polish plenipotentiary and could not present the "final offer" to Józef Lipski or provide a written copy of the "final offer". The Henderson-Ribbentrop meeting became so tense that the two men almost came to blows. The American historian Gerhard Weinberg described the Henderson-Ribbentrop meeting in this way:

"When Joachim von Ribbentrop refused to give a copy of the German demands to the British Ambassador at midnight of 30–31 August 1939, the two almost came to blows. Ambassador Henderson, who had long advocated concessions to Germany, recognized that here was a deliberately conceived alibi the German government had prepared for a war it was determined to start. No wonder Henderson was angry; von Ribbentrop on the other hand could see war ahead and went home beaming."

As intended by Ribbentrop, the narrow time limit for acceptance of the "final offer" made it impossible for the British government to contact the Polish government in time about the German offer, let alone for the Poles to arrange for a Polish plenipotentiary envoy to arrive in Berlin that night, thereby allowing Ribbentrop to claim that the Poles had rejected the German "final offer". As it was, a special meeting of the British cabinet called to consider the "final offer", they declined to pass on the message to Warsaw under the grounds this was not a serious proposal on the part of Berlin. The "rejection" of the German proposal was one of the pretexts used for the German aggression against Poland on 1 September 1939. The British historian D.C. Watt wrote "Two hours later, Berlin Radio broadcast the sixteen points, adding that Poland had rejected them. Thanks to Ribbentrop, they had never even seen them". On 31 August, Ribbentrop met with Attolico to tell him that Poland's "rejection" of the "generous" German 16-point peace plan meant that Germany had no interest in Mussolini's offer to call a conference about the status of Danzig. Besides the Polish "rejection" of the German "final offer", the aggression against Poland was justified by the Gleiwitz incident and other SS-staged incidents on the German-Polish border.

As soon as the news broke in the morning of 1 September 1939 that Germany had invaded Poland, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini launched another desperate peace mediation plan intended to stop the German-Polish war from becoming a world war. Mussolini's motives were in no way altruistic, but he was instead motivated entirely by a wish to escape the self-imposed trap of the Pact of Steel, which had obligated Italy either to go to war at a time when the country was entirely unprepared or to suffer the humiliation of having to declare neutrality, which make him appear cowardly. The French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet acting on his own initiative told the Italian Ambassador to France, Baron Raffaele Guariglia, that France had accepted Mussolini's peace plan. Bonnet had Havas issued a statement at midnight on 1 September saying:"The French government has today, as have several other Governments, received an Italian proposal looking to the resolution of Europe's difficulties. After due consideration, the French government has given a "positive response". Though the French and the Italians were serious about Mussolini's peace plan, which called for an immediate ceasefire and a four-power conference à la Munich to consider Poland's borders, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax stated that unless the Germans withdrew from Poland immediately, then Britain would not attend the proposed conference. Ribbentrop finally scuttled Mussolini's peace plan by stating that Germany had utterly no interest in a ceasefire, in a withdrawal from Poland and in attending the proposed peace conference.

When on the morning of 3 September 1939 Chamberlain followed through with his threat of a British declaration of war if Germany attacked Poland, a visibly shocked Hitler asked Ribbentrop "Now what?", a question to which Ribbentrop had no answer except to state that there would be a "similar message" forthcoming from the French Ambassador Robert Coulondre, who arrived later that afternoon to present the French declaration of war. Weizsäcker later recalled that "On 3 Sept., when the British and French declared war, Hitler was surprised, after all, and was to begin with, at a loss". The British historian Richard Overy wrote that what Hitler thought he was starting in September 1939 was only a local war between Germany and Poland, and his decision to do so was largely because he vastly underestimated the risks of a general war. In part due to Ribbentrop's influence, it has been often observed that Hitler went to war in 1939 with the country he wanted as his ally – namely the United Kingdom – as his enemy, and the country he wanted as his enemy – namely the Soviet Union – as his ally.

After the outbreak of World War II, Ribbentrop spent most of the Polish campaign travelling with Hitler. On 27 September 1939, Ribbentrop made a second visit to Moscow, where at meetings with the Soviet Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov and Joseph Stalin, he was forced to agree to revising the Secret Protocols of the Non-Aggression Pact in the Soviet Union's favour, most notably agreeing to Stalin's demand that Lithuania go to the Soviet Union. The imposition of the British blockade had made the Reich highly dependent upon Soviet economic support, which placed Stalin in a strong negotiating position with Ribbentrop. On 1 March 1940, Ribbentrop received Sumner Welles, the American Under-Secretary of State, who was on a peace mission for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and did his best to abuse his American guest. Welles asked Ribbentrop under what terms Germany might be willing to negotiate a compromise peace, before the Phoney War became a real war. Ribbentrop told Welles that only a total German victory "could give us the peace we want". Welles reported to Roosevelt that Ribbentrop had a "completely closed and very stupid mind". On 10 March 1940, Ribbentrop visited Rome where he met Mussolini, who promised him that Italy would soon enter the war. For his one-day Italian trip, Ribbentrop was accompanied by a staff of thirty-five, including a gymnastics coach, a masseur, a doctor, two hairdressers, plus various legal and economic experts from the Foreign Office. After the Italo-German summit at the Brenner Pass on 18 March 1940, which was attended by Hitler and Mussolini, Count Ciano wrote in his diary: "Everyone in Rome dislikes Ribbentrop". On 7 May 1940, Ribbentrop founded a new section of the Foreign Office, the Abteilung Deutschland (Department of Internal German Affairs), under Martin Luther, to which was assigned the responsibility for all anti-Semitic affairs. On 10 May 1940, Ribbentrop summoned the Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg ambassadors to present them with notes justifying the German invasion of their countries, several hours after the Germans had invaded those nations. Much to Ribbentrop's fury, someone leaked the plans for the German invasion to the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, which led Ribbentrop to devote the next several months to conducting an unsuccessful investigation into who leaked the news. This investigation tore apart the agency as colleagues were encouraged to denounce each other.

With his appointment as Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop became more abrasive and arrogant. On 19 May 1940 Ribbentrop met the new Italian Ambassador Dino Alfieri, who described the meeting as follows:

"He commented at length on the "dazzling" successes of the German armies, extolling the military genius of the Führer...who had "revealed himself as the greatest military genius since Napoleon"...He spoke of the inevitable clash between the young nations and the old; of the necessity of breaking the ring with which the Judaeo-democratic-plutocratic powers were trying to encircle Germany and Italy; and of the need to create a new European civilization. What he said was neither new, remarkable, nor particularly interesting...He talked for more than an hour in a voice which never varied in tone, resting one hand in palm of the other and periodically glancing at his fingernails...He insisted on my remaining for lunch. The food and wine were excellent, but the conversation tedious to a degree. Afterwards, he suggested we go into the garden. There he repeated in a different form all that he had already said, for all the world as if he had a gramophone fixed in his brain...When I took leave, he subjected me to an interminable handshake, meanwhile fixing his cold blue eyes on mine, and repeating almost word for word what he said to me on arrival...I felt I should never be able to establish any human contact with this man"

In early June 1940, when Mussolini informed Hitler that he at long last would enter the war on 10 June 1940, Hitler was most dismissive, in private calling Mussolini a cowardly opportunist who broke the terms of the Pact of Steel in September 1939 when the going looked rough, and was only entering the war in June 1940 after it was clear that France was beaten and it appeared that Britain would soon make peace. Ribbentrop, though he shared Hitler's assessment of the Italians, nonetheless welcomed Italy coming into war partially because it seemed to affirm the importance of the Pact of Steel, which Ribbentrop had negotiated and partly because with Italy now an ally, the Foreign Office had more to do. Ribbentrop championed the so-called Madagascar Plan in June 1940 to deport all of Europe's Jews to Madagascar after the presumed imminent defeat of Britain.

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