On August 23, 1939, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany pledged mutual non-aggression through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (MRP), dividing up Central and Eastern European nations in their illicit bilateral negotiations. Just over a week later, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began. Stalin reciprocated by invading Poland just over two weeks later.
In the years leading up to the signing of the MRP, Nazi Germany and the USSR had been at odds on the ideological front and in proxy wars like the Spanish Civil War. But both Hitler and Stalin soon realized that cooperation would be mutually beneficial, particularly with regard to their ambitions of conquest. Through secret talks leading up to August 23, the parties negotiated the division of the Baltic countries, Finland, Poland, and Romania. These were sovereign nations whose independence was attained in the throes of the First World War and globally recognized in the decades that followed. As a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the totalitarian armies were soon marching, and the nations lying in between were attacked.
The situation Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were faced with on August 23, 1939, was not enviable. The Soviets pressured, manipulated, and maneuvered to overrun the three Baltic countries, which were essentially cut off from the rest of Europe. Occupation was followed by fake elections and then annexation by Moscow—all by early August 1940.
During their almost two-year partnership of evil, both the Soviets and Nazis moved greedily and supported each other’s military efforts to bring the rest of Europe to its knees. The lands in between fell either into Soviet or Nazi spheres of influence. Despite having their freedoms stripped from them, these nations held fast to the hope that the situation would reverse itself. Sadly, for many, those hopes took half a century to be fulfilled. Finland bravely fought back against Stalin in a bloody three-and-a-half month Winter War in 1939-1940. It remained independent, although it was forced to cede over a tenth of its territory. For the rest, the victims of the Soviet and Nazi regimes suffered tremendously under bloody totalitarian hands; families were torn apart, murder and deportations ensued, and millions of innocents lost their lives.
Today, on the 78th anniversary of the signing of this Pact, the victims of communism and Nazism are remembered.
In light of recent events in the United States, it is more important than ever to recall the nature of totalitarianism. The survivors who suffered under Hitler or Stalin are fewer and fewer, and opportunities to hear their experiences in person are diminishing. Their stories are important for understanding the way forward. It remains our responsibility to continue to educate future generations of the truths of their experiences. The world cannot afford to allow history to be dismissed or revised in order to lessen the crimes of communism and Nazism. Having a day of remembrance on August 23 allows us to reflect on the lessons of history, and to come together in the face of hate, intolerance, and oppression.
For more information about Black Ribbon Day and the history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, check out “Chekhov’s Gun: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the Baltics” and “How Poland Uncovered the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.”