By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Russia, Germany, and Poland 1917-1945 Part Thirteen

Victory over Poland came with a cost for both Germany and the Soviet Union. Germany was now cut off from most international trade and desperate for raw materials as the unplanned war against Great Britain and France began. The USSR, though not formally belligerent, soon found itself facing some of the same concerns. The United States, the Soviet Union’s largest source of machine tools and industrial equipment in 1939, soon barred the USSR from making armaments or related purchases in America.1 The result was that Germany and the Soviet Union had to reorient their economies toward greater collaboration.2 

To that end, Ribbentrop and Schnurre returned to Moscow on September 28 to negotiate a much more substantial political and economic settlement, intended to place Soviet-German cooperation on a more permanent basis.3 At five in the morning on September 29, the two sides signed a new arrangement, the Boundary and Friendship Treaty. To adjust for territories in Poland still held by the Wehrmacht around Lublin and Warsaw, Germany ceded all of Lithuania to the Soviet sphere of influence, with the understanding that the Soviets would soon invade and annex Lithuania turns over a border strip around Memel to German custody.4 The two sides made general promises about economic collaboration, while the Soviets guaranteed transshipment of key raw materials to Germany across their territory.5 The Germans were frustrated, however, that Molotov refused to agree to the terms of a new, much broader economic deal to solve Germany’s desperate resource shortages, particularly in oil and rubber. So severe were German shortages by the fall of 1939 that some military planners were uncertain whether the Wehrmacht would be capable of launching an offensive against France.6 

In October, Schnurre returned to Moscow for new negotiations, seeking immediate raw material deliveries.7 Later that month, as part of the negotiating process, forty-five Soviet officials, divided into eight working groups, arrived in Berlin.8 Their task was to draw up lists of goods to be acquired in exchange for Soviet raw materials. Highlighting Stalin’s aims, three teams visited machine tools and high-technology firms, while the other five visited armaments plants.9 Most facilities were open to these delegates, as Hitler ordered German industrial firms to make all equipment that was already in use in the Wehrmacht available to the Soviet visitors. He believed that such a display of German technological superiority might frighten the Soviets into concessions.10

On November 30, the Soviet envoys provided a forty-eight-page list of their requested purchases, with an estimated value of 1.5 billion Reichsmarks, a sum roughly equivalent to 10 percent of Germany’s national budget from the previous year.11 In the face of gargantuan German demands for Soviet raw materials, the Soviets had replied in kind. General Keitel called the Foreign Ministry to complain about “voluminous and unreasonable” Russian demands.12 Half the value of Soviet requests were naval in nature, including a complete cruiser and destroyer, the blueprints for the massive German battleship Bismarck, naval guns, precision equipment, mines, torpedoes, and enormous amounts of construction equipment for further shipbuilding.13

These orders came directly from Stalin. In 1934, at the XVIIth Party Congress, Voroshilov had announced that Stalin “would now manage the build-up of the Navy himself.”14 Over the course of the next year, more and more work was done on acquiring capital ship designs and armament overseas, particularly from Italy.15 On May 27, 1936, the Soviet government had approved a naval construction program including a staggering 24 battleships, 20 cruisers, 182 destroyers, and 344 submarines, plus numerous auxiliary ships.16 

Stalin’s personal involvement and increasing obsession with massive warships made these plans even more elaborate over the next few years. He even sent feelers out to British firms regarding technical assistance to construct a 59,150-ton battleship, a vessel 30 percent greater in displacement than the Bismarck, then under construction.17 Even without the construction of such a monstrosity, by 1940, it was estimated that the Soviet battleship program likely absorbed a third of the Soviet defense budget.18 

The reasons behind this largesse were opaque to the Soviet Navy: Admiral Nikolai Kuznetsov, commander in chief of the Soviet Navy, recalled that the navy was not consulted on these expenditures. As to Stalin’s demands for naval equipment from Germany, he believed that perhaps Stalin hoped to slow down German naval rearmament by demanding so much naval equipment, thus drawing out the war in the West between Germany and Great Britain.19 Another possibility is that Stalin saw an opportunity to conduct the kind of technological borrowing and espionage of German naval equipment that had been so successfully carried out in an armored vehicle and aircraft design during the Rapallo Era, in which the German Navy had declined to participate. The disparity between the two sides’ demands, and Stalin’s willingness to once again play for time, meant that no agreement was reached that fall, despite German needs. Nonetheless, military cooperation resumed in other forms. On September 6, 1939, within a week of signing the Nonaggression Pact, the German ship Bremen had steamed into Murmansk harbor in northern Russia. Over the next month, seven other German-flagged merchantmen arrived in Murmansk, where they were welcomed.20 The Soviets even briefly considered assisting the Germans in arming some of these former merchant ships to operate as commerce raiders against British shipping out of Murmansk harbor.21 Realizing this might embroil them in war with Great Britain, the Soviets would soon alter this offer, with Molotov telling Ambassador Schulenberg that “Murmansk was not sufficiently isolated for this purpose [for harboring German warships].”22 Instead, Molotov suggested the possibility of using an empty bay east of Murmansk, Zapadnaia Litsa (Western Face), for whatever purposes the Germans desired. Admiral Erich Raeder (head of the Kriegsmarine) was thrilled by this possibility. In the words of German naval planners, the offer “opened up entirely new operational possibilities for the German Naval High Command.”23 During a meeting on October 12, Raeder and his staff drew up a list of requests to be made to the Soviet Navy based upon their offer of a Soviet harbor. The list more or less required Soviet entry into the war on the German side. It included “the use of suitable harbors, say Murmansk and Vladivostok” as bases for German warships; assistance in supplying German commerce raiders in both the Atlantic and Pacific; repair and maintenance assistance on German vessels in both oceans; the use of Soviet flags to cloak German naval convoys as “neutrals” in the Atlantic and Baltic; and the cancellation of “all direct or indirect Russian exports to the enemy countries.”24 Although the Soviets would reject some of these terms, on October 22, the German naval attaché relayed the news to Berlin that the Soviets had agreed to put Zapadnaia Litsa at their disposal, noting that “Germany may do whatever she wishes [there]; she may carry out whatever projects she should consider necessary.” Any vessel would be permitted to call there, including heavy cruisers, submarines, and supply ships.25 The offer was immediately accepted. Admiral Raeder ordered the German naval attaché to travel to Murmansk and select two ships for conversion as a floating submarine support base in Zapadnaia Litsa, now called “Basis Nord” [North Base] German communiqués. A German naval officer arrived in Murmansk on November 28, 1939, to supervise the transfer of goods and military stores to the selected vessels, the Phoenicia and Cordillera. The arrival of the two vessels established a German military presence at Basis Nord just two days before a new front in the war opened less than 80 miles away. 26 

On the morning of November 30, 1939, without a declaration of war, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. A few hours later, the Soviet Air Force launched a bombing attack on Helsinki. The Finnish border was only 20 miles from the outskirts of Leningrad.27 To protect the city, Stalin requested that a Finnish delegation come to Moscow to discuss a rearrangement of the border in October 1939.28 These demands came on the heels of Soviet negotiations with Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had resulted in Soviet military bases in all three countries. This seemed to Finnish leaders, correctly, to be a prelude to Soviet occupation. The Finnish government was split, eventually deciding against surrendering territory, believing that any concession would mean the loss of sovereignty. Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, a hero of the Finnish Civil War, was appointed commander in chief in mid-October. He began a quiet mobilization of Finnish troops and a review of the country’s defenses. 

After the successful invasion of Poland and the victory at Khalkin Gol in the Far East, Stalin was confident in the strength of his Red Army, despite the damage inflicted by the purges. He was dismissive of tiny democratic Finland; there were more soldiers in the Red Army than men in their entire country. Further, Finland was diplomatically isolated. Its traditional ally Germany was now unlikely to intervene, Finland’s Scandinavian allies were unwilling to assist, and the Western democracies were already embroiled in a war with Germany. In addition, the Red Army had good intelligence, including clear maps of the Finnish defensive systems along the border, possibly provided by German military intelligence as part of the Pact.29 Despite enormous material and workforce advantages, Soviet forces were badly led and poorly prepared for what became known as the Winter War. Some Red Army units reported ammunition shortages within a few hours of the war’s beginning, following a full month of preparation.30 The initial Soviet attack on Finland’s half-fortified border defenses did not get off to an auspicious start, either. Red Army officers ordered their men to assault in close order, as if on parade, which led to the decimation of entire companies. (According to contemporary rumors, the Red Army may have herded recently captured Polish POWs in front to reduce the damage to their own men.31) One Soviet officer described the anguish of his unit after Finnish ski troops had cut it off in bitter winter conditions: “The battalion had been badly punished when the men had lit fires to warm themselves and heat food. From the treetops, the Finns had machine-gunned every fire, easily picking out the dark silhouettes of the men against the snow.”32 Most of his battalion eventually surrendered to the outnumbered Finns. 

While the Red Army’s struggles were not yet apparent internationally, Stalin moved quickly to sound out his new German ally. Within hours of the initial attack, the Soviet Navy requested direct military assistance from the Kriegsmarine in two forms. First, they asked for German support in conducting anti-submarine operations off the Finnish coast. Second, they requested that German vessels supply Russian submarines, maintaining a blockade of Finnish ports.33 

The Kriegsmarine, despite deep sympathy for Germany’s traditional ally in Finland, immediately and even eagerly responded to the requests. The possibility of reciprocal aid of a similar kind, namely the resupplying of German submarines in both the Atlantic and Pacific by neutral Soviet vessels, was immediately grasped by the Kriegsmarine. A month after the submarine requests, the Soviet Navy and the Kriegsmarine reached an accord for German passage through the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic Ocean.34 This was a potentially momentous occasion. With Soviet assistance, it would be possible to dispatch an entire fleet to the Pacific to harass and interdict British merchant vessels. Soviet icebreaker technology, far ahead of anyone else’s in the world, had made such a passage possible by specially modified ships. Initially, the Kriegsmarine proposed to send an armada of twenty-six ships to the Pacific to wreak havoc on British supply lines.35 The difficulties of the naval war in the Atlantic and the Kriegsmarine’s strained resources, however, diminished this number to six vessels, then to four, and finally, to two: the Esso and the Komet. The voyage started poorly: the Esso ran aground off the coast of Norway. 

The Komet, commanded by Konter-Admiral Robert Eyssen, arrived off the coast of Murmansk. However, confusion and bureaucratic issues in Moscow meant that Komet had to wait nearly a month for its Soviet icebreakers, the Lenin and then Stalin.36 Finally, the Komet departed for its long journey, with Lenin leading the way. After perils and more than a few mishaps in the icepack, the Komet reached the open sea northwest of the Barents Straits. The passage had taken twenty-three days, the fastest traverse of the Northern Route in history to date.37 In September, after a brief stop in a Soviet harbor, the Komet, disguised as a Japanese merchant ship, made its way to the South Pacific. During its voyage, the Komet would sink nine ships displacing nearly 43,000 tons and capture a tenth, which was crewed and sailed back to Germany.38 The Komet would successfully dodge British vessels and reach the safe harbor of Hamburg on November 30, 1941, having successfully circumnavigated the globe. Had twenty-six German vessels reached the Pacific, it might have spelled disaster for the British. 

While the two sides expanded their work together at sea, a new economic agreement had not yet been reached. Some trade continued under the August credit agreement, but not at the quantities hoped for in Berlin or Moscow. The August treaty required the USSR to sell 86,800 tons of oil products to the Germans over the next twenty-four months. But German military planners expected 60,000 tons of Russian oil per month to maintain stocks at existing levels.39 As the British had initiated a blockade, it appeared Germany might even face serious food shortages if grain could not be purchased from the USSR. Negotiations in December and January 1940 had brought the two sides closer, but no final treaty had resulted. In growing desperation, Ribbentrop sent a personal letter to Stalin on February 3, pleading the German case. It called the partition of Poland a “not inconsiderable advance payment by Germany.”40 Stalin agreed to convene another summit in Moscow to discuss economic conditions. On February 8, Schnurre returned to Moscow and spent three days in hard negotiations led by Anastas Mikoyan. The result was the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement of February 11, 1940.41

This arrangement promised far more than the August agreement. Including the earlier August arrangement, the USSR was expected to deliver 800 million Reichsmarks’ worth of raw materials, a list that now included a million tons of grain, 900,000 tons of oil, 800,000 tons of iron, 500,000 tons of phosphates, 100,000 tons of chrome, and smaller quantities of copper, nickel, tin, molybdenum, wolfram, and cobalt.42 In exchange, the Germans would provide industrial goods and military equipment, including modern aircraft models. Hitler was so certain that the arrangement would mean the defeat of the British blockade that he assigned Soviet orders higher priority even than the German military. For his part, it seems Stalin hoped to control the flow of raw materials, particularly oil, and thus control the pace of the war in the West. If Germany was winning, he could cite delays and reduce the flow; if France or Great Britain, he could offer more raw materials.43 

Exports did not suddenly start flowing to Germany, however. Particularly in key areas like grain and oil, Soviet deliveries dropped in March rather than increasing. Ambassador Schulenberg wrote from Moscow, “The Soviet Government is determined to cling to neutrality in the present war and to avoid as much as possible anything that might involve it in a conflict with the Western powers.”44 Although the Soviets had finally broken through Finnish defensive works, British and French intervention seemed possible.45 Even more worryingly for Moscow, in March 1940, the British Royal Air Force began conducting reconnaissance flights over Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus.46 This was a possible precursor for a strategic bombing raid to cut off Soviet oil production, which the British and French believed was fueling the German war effort.47 

Until the threat of Western intervention diminished, Stalin avoided fulfilling his agreements with his German partner. To that end, the Soviet Union rapidly concluded a peace treaty with Finland on generous terms for the latter, leaving its sovereignty intact and only adjusting its borders to protect Leningrad and Murmansk. On April 9, Hitler launched Operation Weserubung (the Weser River Exercise), rapidly overrunning Denmark and beginning the invasion of Norway. 

This opened direct combat operations between German and Allied troops in Norway, removing the likelihood of an attack against the USSR in the north. Molotov publicly declared, “We wish Germany complete success in her defensive measures,” while privately telling the Germans that any delays in shipments had been a result of the “ ‘excessive zeal of subordinate agencies’ which would be immediately remedied.”48 The USSR then began to open the spigots. Although still short of German expectations, between January and May 1940, the USSR would export 155,000 tons of oil, 128,000 tons of grain, and 8,600 tons of manganese, with most of those quantities arriving in April and May.49 Stalin had made clear that he held the initiative throughout eight months of contentious Soviet-German economic talks: the Germans needed Soviet raw materials more than the USSR needed German military equipment, especially as Germany faced the combined might of Britain and France in the west. That equation would change suddenly.


Part One:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part One

Part Two:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Two

Part Three:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Three

Part Four:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Four

Part Five:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Five

Part Six:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Six

Part Seven:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Seven

Part Eight:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eight

Part Nine:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Nine

Part Ten:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Ten

Part Eleven:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eleven

Part Twelve:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Twelve

Part Fourteen:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fourteen

Part Fifteen:   Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fifteen


Apart from the archival documents listed in the footnotes following is a list of published sources that have been used:

1. Zeidler, “German-Soviet Economic Relations during the Hitler-Stalin Pact,” 102–103.

2. Interestingly, Stalin also sought to conduct trade negotiations with Great Britain in late September through Ambassador Maisky in London, who assured the British of Soviet neutrality and seemingly sought recognition for Soviet seizures of territory. Stalin presumably looked forward to a long war in the west and wanted to make sure whoever won would recognize the gains he had made. This also may suggest that he would have seized eastern Poland had a deal been reached with the British and French and transit rights had indeed been granted there. “Telegramma polnomochnogo predstavitelya SSSR v Velikobritanii I. M. Mayskogo v narodnyy komissariat inostrannykh del SSSR” [Telegram of the Ambassador Representative of the USSR in Great Britain I. M. Maisky to the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs of the USSR], 27 September 1939, DVP, 131.

3. “Germano-sovetskii dogovor o druzhbe i granitse mezhdu SSSR i Germaniyey” [German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Border Agreement between the USSR and Germany], 28 September 1939, DVP, 134.

4. The secret supplementary text to the September 28 read: “As soon as the Government of the U.S.S.R. shall take special measures on Lithuanian territory to protect its interests, the present German-Lithuanian border, for a natural and simple boundary delineation, shall be rectified in such a way that the Lithuanian territory situated to the southwest of the line marked on the attached map should fall to Germany.” Ambassador Schulenberg made clear how this was to be interpreted, writing: “I would ask you to consider whether it might not be advisable for us, by a separate secret German-Soviet protocol, to forego the cession of the Lithuanian strip of territory until the Soviet Union actually incorporates Lithuania, an idea on which, I believe, the arrangement concerning Lithuania was originally based.” “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 3 October 1939, NSR, 112.

5. “The Reich Foreign Minister to the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union (Molotov),” 28 September 1939, NSR, 108.

6. “Pis’mo predsedatelya soveta narodnykh komissarov SSSR, narodnogo komissara inostrannykh del SSSR V. M. Molotova Ministru Inostrannykh Del Germanii I. Fon Ribbentropu” [Letter from the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs for the USSR V. M. Molotov to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany J. von Ribbentrop], 28 September 1939, DVP, 137.

7. “Foreign Office Memorandum (Schnurre),” October 1939, NSR, 119.

8. Zeidler, “German-Soviet Economic Relations during the Hitler-Stalin Pact,” 104.

9. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 86.

10. Ibid., 88; “Memorandum by the State Secretary in the German Foreign Office (Weizsäcker),” 1 November 1939, NSR, 127.

11. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 90; Ritschl, “Deficit Spending in the Nazi Recovery,” Table 5.

12. “Memorandum by the State Secretary in the German Foreign Office (Weizsäcker),” 5 December 1939, NSR, 126.

13. Philbin, The Lure of Neptune, 47–48.

14. Jürgen Rohwer and Mikhail S. Monakov, Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet: Soviet Naval Strategy and Shipbuilding Programmes, 1935–1953 (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001), 42–43.

15. See Tony Demchak, Reform, Foreign Technology, and Leadership in the Russian Imperial and Soviet Navies, 1881–1941 (unpubl. diss., Kansas State University: 2016).

16. Rohwer and Monakov, Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet, 63–64. This was the ten-year building list; these ships would have been scheduled for commissioning by 1947.

17. Donald Mitchell, A History of Russian and Soviet Sea Power (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 373–374. This proposal was for the Sovietskii Soyuz Class Battleship. Philbin, The Lure of Neptune, 34.

18. Philbin, The Lure of Neptune, 23.

19. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 86.

20. “Russo-German Naval Relations, 1926–1941,” 38.

21. Ibid., 39.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 40.

25. Philbin, The Lure of Neptune, 83.

26. Ibid., 99.

27. Ibid., 76–77.

28. Robert Edwards, The Winter War: Russia’s Invasion of Finland, 1939–1940 (New York: Pegasus, 2008), 76–77.

29. Edwards, The Winter War, 112–113.

30. Ibid., 118.

31. Ibid., 118–119.

32. Ibid., 165.

33. Philbin, The Lure of Neptune, 43.

34. Ibid.,132–133.

35. “Russo-German Naval Relations, 1926–1941,” 136.

36. Ibid., 139.

37. Ibid., 141.

38. Ibid., 108.

39. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 101, 211 (Table 5.1).

40. Ibid., 103.

41. “Foreign Office Memorandum, Memorandum on the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement Signed on February 11, 1940 (Schnurre),” 26 February 1940, NSR, 131.

42. Ibid.

43. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 113.

44. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenberg) to the German Foreign Office,” 30 March 1940, NSR, 134.

45. See “Memorandum by the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenburg),” 11 April 1940, NSR, 138.

46. Watt, How War Came, 143–144.

47. See Patrick R. Osborn, Operation Pike: Britain versus the Soviet Union, 1939–1941 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000), 137–138.

48. “The German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenburg) to the German Foreign Office,” 9 April 1940, NSR, 138; “Memorandum by the German Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Schulenburg),” 11 April 1940, NSR, 138.

49. Ericson, Feeding the German Eagle, 116.


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