One Eye on Hitler, the Other Eye on Stalin: How Britain Explored a British-Soviet Alliance from January to June of 1941

Publication type Article
Status Published
Occupation: Publisher and Editor of Politics First
Royal Holloway
University of London
Journal “Politics First”
Address: United Kingdom (Great Britain), London
Journal nameObshchestvennye nauki i sovremennost
EditionIssue 3

This essay examines how the British Government, in the lead-up to Operation Barbarossa, perceived the notion of an anti-German coalition comprising Britain and the Soviet Union British diplomats, including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Ambassador Sir Stafford Cripps, assessed the extent to which the Soviet Government was committed to its Non-Aggression Treaty with Germany and how far Josef Stalin was prepared to appease Adolf Hitler and thereby prevent a military conflict with the Third Reich. As a consequence, following the fall of France to the Germans in the summer of 1940, of Britain perilously standing alone against the might of Nazi Germany, Whitehall looked increasingly to the USSR, a country which many British officials traditionally harboured feelings of grave disquiet over, as a means of salvation. However, British diplomats reported, indeed, lamented, that such was the fear felt by the Soviet Government of a war with Germany, together with Stalin’s ingrained distrust of Britain, that the chances of Moscow abandoning its Non-Aggression Treaty with Berlin and joining forces with London in an anti-Hitler coalition were negligible.

KeywordsNon-Aggression Treaty, Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Baltic States, America, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Anthony Eden, Stafford Cripps, Ivan Maisky, Wehrmacht, Red Army, Soviet frontier, Baku, anti-Nazi coalition, anti-Hitler coalition
Publication date27.06.2021
Number of characters56578
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1 Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), on 22 June, 1941, signified the commencement of the most abominable war of conquest and enslavement that mankind has ever witnessed. Soviet lands from the western borders of the USSR to the Ural Mountains were to be colonised by German settlers and made racially pure, in pursuit of the central National Socialist ideological tenet of Lebensraum. It must be said, though, that the concept of German colonisation of not only Russian lands but also of other Eastern European lands preceded what Adolf Hitler had written in Mein Kampf; such a view had first been proclaimed in Imperial Germany. The Soviet populations in the areas which Hitler had envisaged to be part of a Greater Germany were to be treated as slaves, whilst, simultaneously, systematically exterminated. Over the course of time, there would be no trace of the hated Slav culture in the newly acquired Soviet lands; instead, the lands would serve as proof of the racial supremacy of the German Herrenvolk.
2 On the 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, a campaign that was to decide the outcome of the war in Europe, and also determine the fate of Hitler’s crusade for a German-colonised European Russia, attention should be directed to the country in Europe which, up until the German invasion of the Soviet Union, was the sole one in defying the Third Reich: Great Britain.
3 With the European continent, save for the neutral countries of Ireland, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey, under either occupation of the Wehrmacht or part of the Axis or in collaboration with Berlin, and with the Soviet Union’s relations with Germany governed by the Non-Aggression Treaty of 1939, Britain was in a perilous position, facing the power and wrath of Nazi Germany alone.
4 With no realistic prospect in sight of British arms, by themselves, being able to defeat those of the Third Reich, Whitehall, from 1941 onwards, increasingly looked to the USSR as a possible means of salvation, though this consideration was accompanied with feelings of trepidation, stemming from a profound aversion to communism, combined with inherent suspicions of Russia, which were both ingrained in the British official mind.
5 In the period following the signing of the Non-Aggression Treaty between Berlin and Moscow, there was considerable speculation in Whitehall as to whether the USSR was a potential enemy to Britain, especially as a consequence of the Red Army’s campaign in eastern Poland, in September of 1939 (two weeks after the German invasion of the country), and the Soviet Union’s war with Finland, from November of 1939 to March of 1940. Still, by the beginning of 1941, one of the main areas of topics under discussion amongst British officials was how committed the Soviet Union was to its agreement with Germany and whether Josef Stalin could be persuaded to join an anti-Hitler coalition with Britain.

Evaluation of USSR-Germany relations in the documents of the UK Embassy in Moscow

7 In a telegram to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, dated 26 January, 1941, the British Ambassador in Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps, noted how, in his opinion, the economic and border agreements signed earlier on in January between the Soviet and German governments (which, amongst others, extended the German-Soviet Commercial agreement until August of 1942, together with having settled the status of the newly-incorporated Baltic States into the USSR) marked a “determination” by the Soviet Union to “avoid any armed conflict with Germany at almost any price.”1 Specifically regarding the Baltic States, Cripps commented on how the Soviet Government’s “settlement of all outstanding questions” relating to this region was a “major success for Russian diplomacy”: Moscow had “avoided the danger of any “incidents” in that area and stabilised vis-à-vis Germany their occupation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, in such a manner that it will be almost impossible for Germany in the future to make any trouble for this country [USSR] over relationships arising in these areas.” Returning to the economic agreement between Moscow and Berlin, the British ambassador opined that the Russians can “temporarily appease the German menace and comply with German economic requirements, or if they fear a too early termination of the war before the combatants are sufficiently enfeebled they can - if now they think the British chances good - delay the end of the war until both sides are sufficiently weakened.” As regards any affinity felt by the Soviet Government to Germany, Cripps dispelled any such notion by contending that: “The truth is both Russia and Germany would each like to see the other as heavily engaged as possible in difficulties with other countries, so that each could feel so much the safer against any attack by the other.” Cripps’ view that the USSR and Germany were not genuine allies, and that Moscow had consented to the non-aggression pact with Germany out of necessity, was a view shared by a number of other British diplomats, though by no means all. Such an opinion was more evident in the Northern Department, a branch within the Foreign Office responsible for accumulating and analysing information on the Soviet Union, including the decision-making process of the Soviet Government.2 1. FO 954/24B/270: 26 January 1941. The National Archives. Telegram from Stafford Cripps, British Ambassador in Moscow, to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on the Soviet Union’s relations with Germany, Finland, the Balkans, Romania, Iran, the Far East, and Great Britain.

2. FO 371 24843/N 3538: 14 March 1940, memorandum by Orme Sargent, Deputy Under-Secretary in the Northern Department.

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