A world slipping ever closer toward war awoke on the morning of August 24, 1939 to the shocking news that Adolf Hitler's Germany and Josef Stalin's Soviet Union had signed a nonaggression pact.
Hitler was beaming when his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, returned from Moscow with the agreements in hand.
"The name of party comrade von Ribbentrop, as [German] Reich foreign minister, will be forever associated with the political rise of the Germans and the German nation," he declared.
The pact, named colloquially for von Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, was intended to give Hitler a free hand to deal with "the Polish problem" and, if necessary, fight Poland's Western allies -- Britain and France -- without the threat of Soviet intervention and a war on two fronts.
From Stalin's point of view, the goal of the pact was to buy time for him to rebuild a military that had been devastated by the purges of the 1930s and to prepare for what seemed an inevitable eventual showdown with Hitler.
'Spheres Of Influence'
But there was a secret protocol to the public agreement, under which the two dictators divided Central and Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence" in anticipation of "political and territorial rearrangements" in the region.
A map of the divisions in the secret protocol, signed by Stalin
Although the secret protocol was widely believed to exist almost from the beginning, the precise wording of the text was not known until the Allies found and published a microfilmed copy that had been seized from German archives.
The Soviets maintained the document was a fake and denied the existence of the protocol until 1989. Three years later, Russia released the official protocol from its archives.
A week after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, on September 1, 1939, German forces attacked Poland, beginning World War II. On September 17, Stalin's Red Army moved into the eastern parts of Poland (see video here
of joint Soviet-Nazi parade in Brest-Litovsk in September 1939).
In November, Stalin attacked Finland, which was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence under the secret protocol. In June 1940, the Soviets forcibly installed pro-Soviet governments in the three Baltic states, governments that promptly requested annexation into the Soviet Union. Later that month, Stalin occupied the Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina regions of Romania.
Throughout the territories it occupied, the Soviet Union carried out harsh political reprisals, including mass executions and deportations.Opposite Perspectives
There is little agreement on how the pact between the two dictators came to be. The Soviets claimed they tried for years to contain Hitler through collective security arrangements with the Western powers, but that Britain and France were unresponsive.
This view remains prevalent in Russia today.
"Russian historians -- not all of them -- have continued to maintain this view, because it suits them to look as if the Soviet Union might have saved the peace, and that it was the British and the French who were responsible for the failure, rather than the other way around," says Richard Overy, professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of numerous books about the war, "which was that the Soviet Union calculated, that it was better to get the British and the French to fight the Germans, than to fight them themselves."
Ribbentrop (right) talks with Adolf Hitler at the Reich Chancellery after signing the pact.
In discussing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Russian historians tend to look at what came before -- notably the West's repeated failure to stand up to Hitler and the September 1938 Munich agreement, under which Britain and France sanctioned the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.
An official Soviet history published in 1948 established the argument that the Munich accord was "a secret agreement" and "a highly important phase in [the West's] policy aimed at goading the Hitlerite aggressors against the Soviet Union."
By contrast, Western historians, and the people of Central Europe, tend to emphasize what came after -- the de facto partitioning of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union and the establishment of a brutal Soviet sphere of influence across Central Europe.Much In Common...To A Point
The news that Hitler and Stalin had reached an agreement came as a surprise to many. Hitler's disdain for the Slavs, his loathing of Bolshevism, and his numerous declarations that the German nation required the land and resources of the Western parts of the Soviet Union were well known in Moscow.
"If I had the Ural Mountains with their incalculable store of treasures and raw materials, Siberia with its vast forests, and the Ukraine with its tremendous wheat fields, Germany and the National Socialist leadership would swim in plenty," he told a Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg in September 1936.
But Overy says it was similarities between the dictators that made an accord possible. "Quite a lot unites them. And I think that, in the end, is what made it possible for Hitler to reach an agreement with Stalin," he says.
"He felt he understood a fellow dictator, somebody else who was equally ruthless as he was, who would tear things up, turn things upside down," he adds. "But at the back of Hitler's mind, of course, was always the idea that even if you did that, eventually a confrontation with Stalin was inevitable."
In addition, both Germany and the Soviet Union felt deeply aggrieved by the political settlements following the end of World War I. Russian diplomatic historian Sergei Sluch believes this played a role in the genesis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement.
"As you know, Soviet Russia and Germany were among the losers of World War I. Germany was defeated. Profound socioeconomic changes were going on in Russia that set Russia against the rest of the world," Sluch tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.
"So the relations of these two countries with the rest of the world had a very specific character. There were serious mutual claims against one another...but the main thing is that Soviet Russia did not have any relations with the leading powers of the world."
Such factors pushed the two dictators into a pact that was for both of them a temporary alliance of convenience. Ultimately, Molotov-Ribbentrop only postponed the seemingly inevitable conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union. In June 1941, Hitler broke the pact and launched a massive surprise invasion.
The Soviet Union paid the lion's share of the cost of defeating fascism, with at least 20 million killed -- 14 percent of its prewar population, compared to about 9 percent in Germany.
But by the time the war was over and the Red Army was in Berlin, Hitler's vision of an all-powerful German nation was in ashes. Instead, the Soviet domination of Central Europe that was sketched on a map in the Kremlin on the night of August 23, 1939, had become the new geopolitical reality of the continent.RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report