On August 23, 1939–shortly before World War II (1939-45) broke out in Europe–enemies Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union surprised the world by signing the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact.
in which the two countries agreed to take no military action against each other for the next 10 years. With Europe on the brink of another major war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) viewed the pact as a way to keep his nation on Nonaggression Pact terms with Germany, while giving him time to build up the Soviet military. German chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) used the pact to make sure Germany was able to invade Poland unopposed. The pact also contained a secret agreement in which the Soviets and Germans agreed how they would later divide up Eastern Europe. The German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact fell apart in June 1941, when Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union.
LEADING UP TO WORLD WAR II
The devastation of the Great War (as World War I was known at the time) had greatly destabilized Europe, and in many respects World War II grew out of issues left unresolved by that earlier conflict. In particular, political and economic instability in Germany, and lingering resentment over the harsh terms imposed by the Versailles Treaty, fueled the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party.
After becoming Reich Chancellor in 1933, Hitler swiftly consolidated power, anointing himself Führer (supreme leader) in 1934. Obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” Hitler believed that war was the only way to gain the necessary “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the mid-1930s, he began the rearmament of Germany, secretly and in violation of the Versailles Treaty. After signing alliances with Italy and Japan against the Soviet Union, Hitler sent troops to occupy Austria in 1938 and the following year annexed Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s open aggression went unchecked, as the United States and Soviet Union were concentrated on internal politics at the time, and neither France nor Britain (the two other nations most devastated by the Great War) were eager for confrontation.
OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR II (1939)
In late August 1939, Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which incited a frenzy of worry in London and Paris. Hitler had long planned an invasion of Poland, a nation to which Great Britain and France had guaranteed military support if it was attacked by Germany. The pact with Stalin meant that Hitler would not face a war on two fronts once he invaded Poland, and would have Soviet assistance in conquering and dividing the nation itself. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland from the west; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany, beginning World War II.
On September 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east. Under attack from both sides, Poland fell quickly, and by early 1940 Germany and the Soviet Union had divided control over the nation, according to a secret protocol appended to the Nonaggression Pact. Stalin’s forces then moved to occupy the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and defeated a resistant Finland in the Russo-Finish War. During the six months following the invasion of Poland, the lack of action on the part of Germany and the Allies in the west led to talk in the news media of a “phony war.” At sea, however, the British and German navies faced off in heated battle, and lethal German U-boat submarines struck at merchant shipping bound for Britain, sinking more than 100 vessels in the first four months of World War II.