Stalin’s symbolic gift to Hitler
By Eino Murtorinne
In November 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov arrived in the German capital Berlin to pick up from where he had left off just over a year earlier with his German colleague Joachim von Ribbentrop.
In the late summer of 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression treaty - the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Under the agreement, Josif Stalin and Adolf Hitler divided Europe into spheres of influence, and in less than a year the map of Europe had been redrawn.
Germany had occupied a large part of Western Europe, the Soviet Union had taken the Baltic States, as well as part of today’s Belarus and Ukraine.
Poland was partitioned by Germany and the Soviet Union.
However, the pact had irritants for both sides, for which reason Stalin felt that it would be necessary to send his foreign minister to Berlin to negotiate on matters that were in dispute, and on matters that might be seen as suspicious.
One of the issues was Finland.
Especially with Finland, the implementation of the pact was left halfway - at least in the eyes of Stalin.
Finland had quite demonstrably not been occupied, and the Russians had to settle for just one Finnish province - Karelia.
Hitler, meanwhile, had started to feel new interest toward Finland.
The high hopes that the Soviet leaders had put on the negotiations were reflected in the size and composition of the delegation.
Molotov’s entourage included 65 people, including one people’s commissar, five deputy people’s commissars, the head of the secret police, General Alexandr Vasilevski, two representatives of the aviation industry, 16 representatives of the security service, 12 railway officials, a doctor, a chef, a barber and a waiter.
The group had an exceptionally large amount of luggage.
The renowned German historian Werner Maser says that the luggage included one historically significant object: a personal gift from Stalin to Hitler.
It was a painting by an unknown Russian artist taken from the collections of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.
The subject of the painting was linked with the legend of the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha.
As the legend was known both in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, Stalin, a former student at an Orthodox seminary, imagined that it might have been familiar to Hitler, who once was a choirboy and who was interested in art. After all, the subject matter had been a source of inspiration for certain well-known artists in previous centuries.
The painting depicted a devout Jewish family that had previously lived in exile in Assyria.
Tobit, the father of the family, had gone blind in exile and lost part of the use of his hands.
Coming to his aid was the family’s son Tobiah, who had been told by the angel Raphael to use the gall of a fish on the eyes, which would restore his father’s sight and the full use of his hands.
Stalin’s cryptic message was that the victories achieved by Germany in the previous months, especially in the west, were based not only on Hitler’s political skills, but also on the support provided by the non-aggression pact.
The idea was that thanks to the pact, Hitler had regained his sight and Germany had re-established the mobility that it had lost.
For that reason, Hitler, like Tobit the father, would do well to rely on the help of the son Tobiah, or Stalin.
The reason for Stalin’s extraordinary idea for a gift was, in the final sense, that Hitler had drawn attention in early 1940 to aspects of the Soviet military conquests.
He passed on his statements through his Ambassador in Moscow, Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg, drawing attention to the conquests which had been implemented under the terms of the German-Soviet pact, but which Hitler felt did not quite correspond to the spirit of the agreement.
It is not known what Hitler felt about the highly symbolic gift that he got from Stalin.
Inspired by his conquests of the previous summer, and especially by his victory in France, one might imagine that Hitler might have found it difficult to identify with Tobit in his state of blind helplessness.
However, it seems that the reference in the work of art to the part that Stalin and the Soviet Union played in Hitler’s success did not go completely unnoticed by the German leader.
On a couple of occasions, Hitler admitted during the negotiations in Berlin that the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union had been of considerable benefit to both sides.
It is understandable that news of Stalin’s special gift to Hitler did not spread very far.
When relations between Germany and the Soviet Union began to cool soon after Molotov’s visit, there was every reason to consign the information of the gift to oblivion.
Hitler’s right-hand-man Martin Borman gave the painting to a German naval captain shortly before the end of the war, and the captain is known to have sold it to a South German dealer in 1955.
The dealer hid the painting because he was afraid that ownership might be disputed, and even that the painting might be confiscated.
The merchant’s descendants “found” the painting again and took it to the State Art Academy in Stuttgart for restoration. Two and a half years ago the painting was bought by an Austrian art collector.
In spite of the gesture of a friendly gift, accounts from those attending the meeting say that the overall atmosphere of the negotiations was tense. Representing Germany were Hitler himself and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Speaking for the Soviet Union were Molotov and Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Dekanosov.
Paul Schmidt, who had served as the main German interpreter at the meeting, said later that the discussions between Hitler and Molotov were similar in their intensity to those that had been held a few years earlier between Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, when Hitler had demanded the annexation of ethnic German territories in Czechoslovakia.
The negotiations began on November 12th with fairly extensive political assessments by Ribbentrop and Hitler, in which the two expressed the view that the collapse of the British Empire was imminent, and that they hoped that the Soviet Union would also take part in the division of the assets of the empire. The German leaders also mentioned the treaty signed by Germany, Italy, and Japan on September 26th and proposed that the Soviet Union should join the partners in one way or another.
The Soviets, for their part, wanted to talk about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the implementation of its secret protocol.
While Molotov emphasised the role that the pact and the Soviet Union played in the major victories that Germany won in the west, he also sought to refute the notion that the Soviet Union had violated the principles of the pact signed in 1939.
Molotov said that the Soviet leadership wanted military security guarantees for the Black Sea region, as well as binding commitments with Germany’s help for the securing of its ocean routes, as well as access via the Straits of Turkey to the Mediterranean, and via the Straits of Denmark to the Atlantic.
In his response to Molotov, Hitler took a very conciliatory attitude toward many of the Soviet demands.
To a large degree, he also gave his approval to the division of Europe into spheres of interest, as stated in the secret protocol, and to the adjustments that were later added to it.
However, he also felt that Germany had adhered to the obligations in the treaty, and had not occupied any areas that were part of the Soviet sphere of interest. The same could not be said for some of the actions that were taken by the Soviet Union.
Molotov took up the question of Finland already on the first day of the meeting, the 12th of November.
Molotov felt that it was the only unresolved sphere of influence issue between Germany and the Soviet Union.
He put a question to the Führer: “Is the German-Russian treaty, to the extent that it applied to Finland, still valid?”
The Russians had their reasons for their questions and their suspicion.
Hitler’s attitude towards Finland had clearly changed, and already in September, about two months before Molotov’s trip to Berlin, Finland and Germany had agreed on the transit of German forces via Northern Finland to and from occupied Norway.
What Molotov and his delegation did not know is that already on August 31st, 1940, Hitler had decided to launch Operation Barbarossa - the planning of a military expedition to the east.
A decision on an actual attack had not yet been made at that stage.
In his response to Molotov’s direct question on November 13th, Hitler assured him: “In accordance with the German-Russian agreement, Germany recognises that Finland is politically of interest primarily to Russia and belongs to its sphere of interest”.
Hitler said that Germany had no political interest with respect to Finland. The presence of German forces in the country was limited only to the transit of small numbers of troops going to and from leave, which would end after a specific transport quota had been filled.
Germany’s interest in Finland was purely economic, Hitler continued.
It wanted to get nickel and wood products from Finland as the war was going on.
For that reason, it hoped that the Soviet Union would take these German economic interests into consideration in the same way that Germany had deferred to Soviet interests in places like Lithuania and Bukovina (in what is now Moldova), and in doing so had given some leeway on the original pact.
In his defence of Germany’s action in meeting the terms of the pact, Hitler went on to say that during the war between the Soviet Union and Finland, Germany had stopped a shipment of arms en route to Finland in the Norwegian port of Bergen.
During the war it had also sought to show absolute “benevolent neutrality” towards the Soviet Union, to the extent that it had come into a serious conflict with the rest of the world, especially Sweden.
There had been negative consequences for Germany, in connection with the invasion of Norway.
By defending themselves bravely in the Winter War of 1939/40, the Finns had won the sympathy of the world, which had caused a certain amount of anger in Germany against the German-Soviet pact.
For this reason Hitler did not want to see any conflicts in Finland and the Baltic Sea region, which he felt might induce Britain to intervene.
Hitler’s response did not completely satisfy Molotov. He went back to the matter, and emphasised that if the treaty relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union was to be deepened, the atmosphere would need to be cleared of disputes of secondary importance, such as that which involved Finland.
Peace in the Baltic Sea region could be guaranteed if Germany and the Soviet Union would reach full clarity on the Finnish question.
Molotov felt that the presence of German forces had led to various anti-Soviet demonstrations in Finland, and had helped maintain a two-faced attitude among Finns.
He said that there was a powerful sentiment in Finland, according to which “no real Finn could have approved the most recent Finnish-Russian peace agreement”.
For that reason, the Soviet government felt that it was necessary to clear up the Finnish question once and for all.
In his response to Molotov’s demands, Hitler repeated the view that he had previously put forward with great emphasis that Germany did not want any war in the Baltic Sea area, and that its only interest with respect to Finland involved the supply of raw materials.
Hitler felt that if war were to break out in the Baltic Sea region, it would place a great burden on German-Russian relations and on future cooperation. Molotov, for his part, felt that “the question is not about war in the Baltic Sea region, but rather the Finnish question, and handling it within the framework of the previous year’s agreement”.
Hitler felt that it was unnecessary to continue the discussion.
The Germans took the view that the Soviet Union had already achieved all of the strategic interests it had with respect to Finland. Hitler felt that the matter had been dealt with.
The wary Soviet leadership remained nervous.
Consequently, after the negotiations, on November 26th, the Soviet government left a note to the German government, via the German Ambassador in Moscow, in which the Soviets expressed their willingness to join a the three-power agreement, if German forces were immediately withdrawn from Finland.
If Germany did this, the Soviet government said that it would respect Germany’s economic interests in Finland, and declared that it was committed to peaceful relations with Finland.
The Soviet note was clearly a delayed response to the reticence that Germany had expressed in Berlin, and it showed at the same time how central the question of Finland had been in the negotiations.
The Germans did not even bother responding to the note.
Less than a month later, on December 18th, 1940, Hitler made his final decision to implement Operation Barbarossa - the invasion of the Soviet Union.
In Finland, news of Molotov’s visit to Berlin had caused concern, especially as rumours were rife of a threat of war, and of movements of Soviet forces at Finland’s borders.
Soon Finland’s political leadership nevertheless began to get soothing assurances from Berlin.
Already in November there was more detailed information on how the negotiations had gone: on Molotov’s demands concerning Finland, and on Hitler’s statements in defence of Finland, as Mauno Jokipii has described in his book on how the Continuation War (1941-44) began.
However, the information that Finland got ended up being very splintered. One reason for this was that Germany’s political leaders could not reveal the content of the secret protocol of the German-Soviet treaty of 1939, in which Finland had been declared a part of the Soviet sphere of influence, with Germany’s approval.
During the negotiations, when Molotov had repeatedly appealed to the idea that clearing up the Finnish question should happen “within the framework of the previous year’s agreement”, the events of the negotiations could not be brought to the attention of the Finns.
On the other hand, the leaking of filtered details was expedient from Germany’s point of view, because the information would tend to give Finns a more favourable view of joining forces with Germany.
It was enough that the Finns could feel that the Führer had spread his protective shadow over Finland.
The Germans continued their double-dealing to the very end, as indicated by the self-serving statement by Germany’s special ambassador Karl Schnurre in the spring of 1941.
Schnurre filtered the truth when he told President Risto Ryti how “in the negotiations in Berlin in November last year, Molotov had said that Russia could join the three-power agreement on the condition that Germany allows Russia to close its accounts with Finland - that is, to liquidate Finland”.
The Continuation War broke out only a few months after that; Finland was at war again with the Soviet Union, this time alongside Germany.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.11.2010
More on this subject:
Continuation War: a time to remember