ussr Archive

A footnote to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

stalin_ribbentropToday marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact or the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

From an old blog that I used to run, I have the following anecdote concerning Molotov and Leopold Figl, the Austrian statesman.  I wrote the blog entry six years ago, in 2003, and based it on an article that I’d read that day in the Austrian daily, Kurier.  Unfortunately I don’t have the original anymore, so I’m trusting my translation from back then.  Here is the excerpt:

An article concerning the [Moscow] Declaration includes portions of an interview with an Austrian who was present in 1955 during talks — again in Moscow — concerning Austria’s return to independence. This man, Ludwig Steiner, was present when Leopold Figl, who, as Foreign Minister, was part of the Austrian delegation, spoke privately to Russian foreign minister Molotov. Figl had been in a concentration camp from the time of the annexation of Austria in 1938 all the way until the end of the war in 1945. He said to Molotov on that day in 1955,

“Your name has always made an impression on me. Most of all it made an impression on me when we in the concentration camp had to assemble in the yard at five o’clock in the morning. It was cold and we had to stand there for hours. Suddenly your voice came over the loudspeaker. That was when you had concluded the pact with Hitler-Germany [Hitler-Stalin pact, 1939].”


Considering that this Austrian delegation of 1955 was in Moscow and that the future of their state was very much at the mercy of the Soviets, this was quite a gutsy thing to say. Steiner, the Austrian who witnessed this, said that he immediately thought “the world was going under,” that Figl’s honesty would ruin Austria’s chances to quickly attain true statehood. But, says Steiner, “Molotov simply said ‘Da, Da’ and turned away.”

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

After tens of thousands had fled East Berlin for West Berlin in recent months, the East Germans began to erect a physical barrier in the early morning of 13 August 1961.  Thus began the Berlin Wall’s 28 year existence.  As Germans and others celebrate — this year, 2009 — the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, more attention will naturally be given as well to this anniversary of its construction.

I enjoy looking at archives to read through immediate reactions to such big historical events.  I’ve looked today the U.S. State Department archives, specifically “Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, Volume XIV, Berlin Crisis, 1961-1962“.

An early telegram to Washington from the leader of the U.S. Mission in Berlin, Allen Lightner, speculated:

Evidently as a result of increased refugee flow with attendant economic loss to GDR and prestige to Socialist camp, East decided at recent Moscow conference of Warsaw Pact countries to proceed with fait accompli which would drastically disrupt freedom of movement within Berlin and erect frontier with respect entry into West Berlin of Sov Zone and East Berlin residents. In this way East has now taken some of the steps which it had been anticipated would follow from separate peace treaty with GDR.

As one would expect for such a momentous and dangerous event, the archives show a mix of reactions among U.S. diplomats.  On 16 August, after three days of relative inactivity on the part of the west, Lightner’s telegrams show obvious frustration:

In essence these people feel that we are facing a crisis of confidence which endangers quite seriously our position. This is based on the absence of any sharp and definite followup action since the Secretary’s statement. However this feeling of letdown is the greater because the President’s speech had had such a large readership and television following and had evoked such widespread public acceptance as a promise of firmness. I have not been impressed by German complaints of the lack of display of US military presence since sector borders were closed. I realize also that the longstanding belief that US support is the main and only German protection makes them impatient of our desire to act in concert with NATO Allies. Taking into account these prejudices and discounting numerous emotional arguments which have been made to me I am nevertheless convinced that what is described as the surrender of East Berlin to Ulbricht with all that this immediately implies has been a shock so severe that it can gravely affect our future relations, first, with the city of Berlin and its leaders, and second with the Federal Republic once the extent of the disillusionment here is recognized in Bonn.


Comment: I anticipate Berliners will label our Aug 15 letter of protest belated and tepid. No one here asking large violent action, merely some action, some proof this is not “another sample of `Hitler’s take over of Rhineland'”. I think the timetable for this crisis has been stepped up very considerably and there is real danger that Berliners will conclude they should take themselves, their bank accounts and movable assets to some other place. What is in danger or being destroyed here is that perishable commodity called hope. [my emphasis]

Berlin Mayor and future German Chancellor Willy Brandt wrote to President Kennedy personally on 16 August to express his doubts about western reactions to the crisis:

This development has not changed will to resist of West Berlin population, but has tended to arouse doubts as to determination of three powers and their ability to react. In this connection the decisive factor is that the West has always specifically invoked the existing Four-Power status.


[I] recollect not without bitterness declarations rejecting negotiations with USSR on basis one should not negotiate under pressure. We now have state of accomplished extortion, and already I hear it will not be possible turn down negotiations. In such situation, when possibility of initiative for action is already so small, it is all the more important at least to demonstrate political initiative.

Among those located in Washington, you can see as early as 14 August, the day after construction began, the beginnings of the treatment of the event as a fait accompli as shown in McGeorge Bundy’s summary of his discussions with others:

The Department’s proposal for a riposte is likely to be the ending of the travel permits which have been issued by the three powers in West Berlin to East Germans who want to visit allied or neutral countries. This was used a year ago in response to East German harassment of civilian traffic, and it worked well. No one thinks it will cause a reversal of policy this time, in the light of the much more serious causes of this much larger action. But it is argued that it will give some pain, since it will cut off East German access to allied countries and to those neutral nations which play along.

I find this argument unconvincing. I doubt if we should take little actions in reprisal against this big one, especially when the punishment is unrelated to the crime. The only good argument for this action is that it has been discussed among the 4 Powers before as a possible retort to border-closing, and there may be some Allied worry about our “reliability” if we don’t support it now.

Incidentally, I find agreement in both Joe Alsop and George Kennan to these three conclusions: (1) this is something they have always had the power to do; (2) it is something they were bound to do sooner or later, unless they could control the exits from West Berlin to the West; (3) since it was bound to happen, it is as well to have it happen early, as their doing and their responsibility.

It reminds me of the opening pages of Rainer Eppelmann’s memoir, Fremd im eigenen Haus (Amazon US, UK, DE). Eppelmann’s father had papers showing him as being registered in West Berlin, whereas the family home was in the east. The parents agreed that the father should remain in the west (where work was more plenty):

Both [parents] were absolutely convinced that the Wall, erected brick-by-brick in front of the eyes of the world, would not remain for long. The West would never allow it! [My translation and emphasis]

Fun with the CIA Archives

Fun with the CIA Archives

History nerds love archival material and celebrate the fact that more and more becomes available digitally on the web. In addition to the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian and the excellent UK National Archives, both of which I will discuss one day soon, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) search site contains lots of useful information for professional and amateur historians alike.

The earliest mention of Austria which I came across at the site is contained within a February 1947 report by the Central Intelligence Group (the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency would be signed into law later in the year) concerning the “Situation in Austria” (document id: NARA # NN3-263-92-005). If you don’t know much about the immediate post-WWII years in Austria, I can recommend it as a subject for study. While most attention was focused on Germany and especially Berlin, Austria was also experiencing quite an interesting time from a historical perspective. The battle lines of the cold war in Germany were fairly clear. In Austria, however, the situation was more uncertain.

Whither Austria? Within whose sphere of influence would Austria find itself? The countries to its east were completely occupied by the Soviets, whereas Austria was being governed by the four allied countries: the U.S., the U.K., France and the U.S.S.R. So too was Germany, but Germany was large enough to consider it feasible to partition between west and east. Austria was simply too small. Because it was also important to ensure that Austria not remain dependent on Germany (which had annexed it in 1938), the country needed to be large enough to be self-sustaining and have normal trade relations with multiple countries, not just Germany.

With that context in mind, the CIA report mentioned and linked-to above makes interesting reading. Of course it is only one agency’s assessment of what was happening in the Austria of 1947 and therefore should be considered as one piece of research, not the definitive story.

Here are a few excerpts of the report to whet your appetite:

The four occupying powers have recognized a coalition government in Austria which was formed after the national elections of November 1945.  The authority of the government is still limited by the conditions of four-power occupation and particularly by the hostile attitude of the USSR.


The USSR desires an Austrian regime subservient to Soviet policy.  Unsuccessful in its attempts to influence the Austrian Government by infiltration and intimidation, the USSR has concentrated on establishing control over the Austrian economy.  The USSR has implemented its policy in Austria by propaganda aimed at discrediting the government and by actions designed to disrupt its political and economic authority.  In order to further their economic aims, the Soviets have removed industrial machinery on a large scale, seized industrial assets, and forced factories to produce for the USSR. [Page 2]