Beyond doubt, the world was in an anarchical state in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly as the Great Depression devastated the global economy and aggressive, fascist regimes took power in Germany and Japan. International organizations hardly existed at the time, and in economic policy most countries adopted strategies of nationalism, autarky and protectionism, while the 'revisionist' states like Germany, Japan and Italy made it perfectly clear that they intended to solve their economic problems through creating new empires and spheres on influence at the expense of older empires like Britain and France. Hitler made no secret of the fact that the chief goal of his Lebensraum policy would be conquest of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which would become a source of raw materials, foodstuffs and slave labor for the Germans. He was also determined to exterminate the 'Jewish-Bolshevik worldview', as he always described Communism, and the basis for a truly genocidal war was always latent in his foreign policy. Nor had the League of Nations been remotely able to invoke the doctrine of collective security against these aggressor states, which simply walked out of the organization whenever it offered even mild criticism of their actions. During this era, the United States simply declared itself neutral in any future war and remained heavily preoccupied by the depression and its domestic economic problems, while Britain and France followed a policy of appeasement. For many years, historians and specialists in international relations were severely hampered by lack of access to Soviet archives and therefore could only speculate about the motivations and goals of Russia during this period. After a great deal of research over the past twenty years, however, a general consensus has emerged over the fact that Joseph Stalin and his Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov could indeed read a map after all and regarded Nazi Germany and its ally Japan as a grave threat to the existence of the Soviet Union, which indeed they were: a far graver threat than the French, Americans and British had been when they intervened against the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918-22. Beyond that, the Nazis were a grave threat to even the physical survival of the peoples of the Soviet Union, although few could have imagined in 1939 just how destructive and murderous the Nazis would be in Poland and Russia. When their efforts to meet the threat from Nazi Germany with a collective security alliance with the West came to nothing, they reluctantly made a non-aggression pact with Hitler of the basis of pure Realpolitik and self-defense.
German and Soviet Motives for the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact: Realpolitik meets Ideology
Hitler is a paradox in that no leader in history has been more openly ideological, and his hatred for those who did not measure up to Nazi racial standards was quite clear from Auschwitz and his genocidal policies on the Eastern Front. Far from taking an indirect and hands-off attitude toward these policies, he took a personal interest in the design of gas chambers and crematoria for his death camps, and was given a monthly body count of the victims. At the same time, no leader in history was as ruthless a practitioner of coldblooded Realpolitik when necessary, even though the racist ideologue was certainly the dominant feature of his personality and worldview. Long-forgotten today is Hitler's 1934 non-aggression pact with Poland, a country that he absolutely loathed as being populated by Slavic and Jewish 'sub-humans' and that suffered devastation like no other in the Nazi empire except for the Soviet Union. Yet Hitler managed to keep his ten-year pact with the Poles for five years, while he would have invaded Russia as early as 1940 had his army been prepared. Nevertheless, for five years, "the Poles were on board Hitler's train" and even participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938 (D'Agostino 2011, p. 115).
From the Soviet viewpoint, Western appeasement of the Nazis was clearly designed to turn Germany eastwards, which is why at least one faction of the Soviet leadership tried to convince Stalin to stay out of the war when Germany fell out with the Poles over Danzig. From the start, Stalin hoped that Germany would bog down in a two-front war, and became very concerned when the German army never seemed to bog down anywhere. Obviously this did not bode well for Russia since Hitler's ideas about how to treat the Slavs came in part from reading cheap, paperback novels about how the natives were treated on the American frontier or about British rule of India. For the next two years, Stalin made defensive preparations while continuing to appease the Germans by providing them with raw materials that made Germany "practically immune to the British blockade" (D'Agostino, p. 116). Stalin's annexations in Finland, the Baltic States and Bessarabia were desperate moves, as well, but in the end, Soviet foreign policy "despite its Machiavellian cleverness and nuanced execution…had failed miserably" (D'Agostino, p. 117).
Hitler's Aggression and Soviet Defensiveness
At the Nuremberg trials, the Soviets fought to exclude any evidence about the secret Protocols to the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact which had divided up Poland and the Baltic States between Germany and Russia. They continued to deny the existence of such documents for decades, even after the originals had been found in the German archives, and persistently argued that the Western capitalist powers were always attempting to incite Hitler into attacking the Soviet Union. In reality, though, Hitler required very little incitement, and even conservative German historians like Andreas Hillgruber realized that Hitler had started the war, ignoring the warnings of many of his own diplomats and military leaders. Hitler's ideology of acquiring living space and raw materials in the East was already "relatively fixed" in the 1920s (Mueller and Ueberschaer 2009, p. 13). Stalin was only interested in keeping the war away from the Soviet Union for as long as possible, although he still hoped the imperialist powers might destroy each other in the process. Jochen Thies argued that Hitler's "ultimate goal was world dominion based on his rule over Russia," and Hillgruber agreed that his plan was a "worldwide blitzkrieg" that required the resources of Russia to carry out (Mueller and Ueberschaer, p. 33). Even so, Germany failed to develop any overall strategy in 1940-41 in the Middle East, Africa and the Americas that might have made any such bid for world power realistic.
Even though he was an arch-realist, Henry Kissinger knew that Hitler's foreign policy was based on a "mad vision of a racially pure empire governed by the German master race" (Kissinger 1994, p. 350). After all, he was one of the victims of Nazism, and noted that he arrived in America as a refugee with nothing more than two suitcases as a "J" stamped on his passport. Nor had Hitler even attempted to make a secret of his ultimate goals, even though he negotiated a temporary alliance of convenience with the Soviets. Because Britain and France had so totally bungled their diplomacy in the 1930s, they were left to face the German onslaught alone in 1940. Stalin's motives in 1939-40 were defensive and security-minded, designed to build up a larger territorial perimeter around the Soviet Union and protect vulnerable cities like Leningrad. Even then, the Nazis inflicted a horrendous siege on that city in 1941-44 in which over one million Russians died while the Germans attempted to follow quite literally one of the 'Fuehrer Orders' that the city was to be wiped off the face of the earth.
Traditional German diplomats like Friedrich von der Schulenburg, Hitler's ambassador in Moscow, wished to return to the Bismarck tradition of realism, which at least kept Russia neutral and prevented a two-front war that Germany could not win. As Ingeborg Fleischhauer noted, at times Hitler was amenable to this Realpolitik worldview of conservative German nationalists and traditional diplomats, and that only their "persistent efforts" led to the entente between Hitler and Stalin (Uldricks, p. 142). In fact, they hoped this rapprochement would be permanent, no matter of ideologically unbearable Hitler found it, since it was the best assurance of Germany's survival in the long run. Schulenburg and the other conservative realists thought the 1939 pact would "help reign in Hitler's expansionary dreams," which proved only temporary. For Stalin, the agreement was an example of "cold-blooded, pragmatic, defensive Realpolitik," offering at least the illusion of security that the Western powers could not (Mueller and Ueberschaer, p. 26).
A.J.P. Taylor's Revisionism and British Realism
A.J.P. Taylor's controversial 'revisionist' history focused on Britain, France and Germany, with Russia and the United States playing only peripheral roles. Taylor also underestimated "the influence of anti-Communism and Russophobia on the British leadership," even among those like Winston Churchill who were always strong advocates of an alliance with the Soviet Union (Uldricks 1999, p. 135). They also regarded Germany, even Nazi Germany, as a bulwark against Russian expansion, which explains why they were so eager for an accommodation with Hitler. As for the Soviets, they…