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Eastern Europe: Analysis from Washington--Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed 57 years ago today, remains a powerful reminder to East Europeans that their fate can be decided by others secretly and without their participation.

This 1939 accord between between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, it will be recalled, eliminated the threat that Hitler would have to fight on two fronts, thus opening the way to war in Europe and to untold suffering throughout the region. But those tragic consequences are not the primary reason the pact continues to resonate so strongly in East European thinking.

Instead, its impact arises from three other aspects of the accord that some fear could be repeated -- even in the quite different conditions of today or tomorrow.

The first is that the Nazi-Soviet accord was at the time totally unexpected. Up to the time of the signing of the pact, Hitler and Stalin each declared the other his sworn enemy. But as a result of the agreement, they suddenly became allies, very much at the expense of their smaller neighbors.

All too many people in the zone of weak states between Berlin and Moscow and the Baltic and the Black Seas, the geopolitical seedbed of the first and second world wars, continue to fear that such a sudden and unexpected shift in position at their expense could happen again -- albeit with different players and for different purposes.

The second aspect of the pact which helps explain its continuing resonance is that its secret protocols had an even greater impact on the peoples of this region than did the public version of the pact.

Among other things, these protocols divided Eastern Europe between the Germans and the Soviets into spheres of influence and allowed for the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States and other regions.

Again, many in this region remain fearful that whatever the West and Russia are saying to each other in public, these powers may be saying something in private that is different and threatening to the interests of Eastern Europe.

The third aspect of the 1939 pact that continues to have an impact on East European thinking in 1996 is that the Nazi-Soviet agreement decided the fate of the countries of Eastern Europe without consulting them -- the people most directly affected. Many in Eastern Europe believe that something like that could easily happen again.

Such fears, reflected often by references to the 1939 accord, have only increased as Moscow has sought to achieve some kind of grand bargain with Western governments on security in Europe, to sign a 16 plus 1 agreement with NATO, and to overcome Western objections to defining, formally or informally, spheres of influence on the continent.

Because most of the diplomatic and political exchanges concerning such agreements pass between Moscow and the West over the heads and without the direct participation of the East European states, the latter not surprisingly fear the worst, given their often unfortunate history.

Obviously, the world is a very different place than it was in 1939, and neither the East nor the West wants the same kind of division of Europe that was drawn by Hitler and Stalin 57 years ago today.

But East European fears of possible accords affecting the region, reached without its participation, fears reflected in continuing references to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, are genuine if overstated.

And on this anniversary of an accord that had so many tragic consequences, these fears place a special burden on everyone involved -- great powers and small, East and West -- to conduct international relations in a way sufficiently transparent and honest that all may feel their voice has been heard and their interests protected.