Molotov in Berlin 1940

Ralph Zuljan

Molotov, the Soviet Union's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, was in Berlin in mid-November 1940 to discuss a broad range of political and economic issues between the Third Reich and the USSR. While there, he met with both Ribbontrop and Hitler. During Molotov's interview with Hitler, the Soviet Union was invited to join the Tripartite Pact and share in the spoils of the British Empire. The Fuehrer told the Commissar that Britain was all but defeated and it was time to consider what to do with her imperial territories. He hinted that Germany and Italy intended to advance southward and divide Africa between them and he suggested that the Soviets should do likewise -- advance south -- and take India. Molotov in turn emphasized the need to settle outstanding disputes over the future of Finland and the Balkans as well as a host of other issues before discussing the partition of the -- as yet -- undefeated British Empire. Molotov did not, however, dismiss the idea outright.

Historical interest in this fateful meeting has never been very high. Essentially, it has always been assumed that Hitler's magnanimous offer was disingenuous and subsequent events certainly seem to suggest this to be the case. Even so, it is worth noting that there is no evidence that a final decision on attacking the Soviets had been made before the meeting. A draft plan for a German invasion of the USSR was presented to Hitler three weeks after his meeting with Molotov and Directive No. 21 Operation Barbarossa was issued two weeks after that. There is every reason to believe that Hitler did not make up his mind about attacking the Soviet Union before meeting with Molotov.

Hitler had good reason to attempt to come to a further accommodation with the USSR in 1940, in spite of his well known hatred of Communism. Insofar as war with Britain persisted there was a real possibility of a final reckoning and defeat of the British and that would leave their empire free for the taking. By making a deal with Stalin and the Soviet Union about the division of that empire, Hitler would be assured that all of it did not end up belonging to the United States. His concern over such an eventuality is well documented. A Soviet move into India, in conjunction with Italian expansion in Africa and Japanese expansion in the Pacific, would eliminate this concern. It is doubtful that Hitler wanted any African territory, but such a deal would leave the Third Reich with a free hand in eastern Europe and give it time to consolidate its hold on Europe. It would enshrine German hegemony in Europe while leaving the rest of the world to Hitler's allies and an isolated USA. Therefore, such an arrangement would have allowed for the continuation of the war against Britain with expectations of an outcome that would have been satisfactory to German interests in Europe and worldwide.

From the Soviet perspective, such an agreement was fairly undesirable. Not only would the historical Russian interest in the Slavs of eastern Europe and the Czarist possession of Finland have to be bargained away for territorial gain in India and Persia, it would entail a near certainty of war with Great Britain. There was even a possibility of such a deal resulting in the USSR becoming embroiled in the Anglo-German war or even a expansion of it into a conflict involving the United States. Even so, the proposal was obviously given serious consideration and ultimately a counteroffer to join the Tripartite Pact was made about a month after Molotov's meeting with Hitler. By then, it was too late. The future strategic direction of the Third Reich had already be determined. Even so, the possibility of German military aggression was treated seriously by the Soviet government and accommodation was sought, and believed possible.

German military planning for an attack on the Soviet Union began in July 1940 and planning was already in an advanced stage by the time Molotov came to Berlin in November. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe had begun reconnaissance flights over the USSR, as part of the preparations for an attack, more than a month before Molotov met with Hitler. Likewise, the German preparations for an invasion of England were in progress. On October 12th Hitler formally deferred implementing Operation Sealion until the spring of 1941. The option, however, was left open.

Continued British hostility to Nazi hegemony in Europe, after the defeat of France in 1940, probably baffled Hitler. The halfhearted planning for an invasion of the British Isles and the public peace overtures are suggestive of a German preference for the continued existence of the Empire. Hope of normalizing relations seemed to be behind the Third Reich's unwillingness to pursue anything more than peripheral air and sea battles with Britain.

Hitler firmly believed that Britain continued to resist because she believed that the Soviet Union would ultimately enter the war on her side. The key to defeating the UK, therefore, lay in destroying British hope for a Soviet intervention. Faced with a Soviet threat to her Indian empire, while already contending with Italian and Japanese aggression, would not only eliminate any expectation that the USSR would fight the Third Reich alongside Britain, it would likely shake British resolve to oppose German hegemony in Europe in favor of opposing the incursions being made on the empire.

Given the stunning success of German arms in the first year of war, Hitler had little reason to be very accommodating. He had no reason to fear a military confrontation with Stalin. The invitation to the Soviets should be understood as a genuine offer since it would have been of tremendous benefit to the Reich, if it had been accepted. Molotov's attempt to defer an immediate decision was enough for Hitler to opt for an attack on the USSR as the means of bringing Britain to the negotiating table. Hitler was determined to have a quick end to the war.

Originally published in "World War II" at on August 1, 2000.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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