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Media build-up to World War II

In the third of a series of articles marking the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago, the BBC Russian Service's Andrei Ostalski analyses media coverage of the events that led to conflict.

A newspaper seller in London's Parliament Square, 22 August 1939
Many in the West were shocked at news of the Nazi-Soviet pact

On 21 August 1939 the Soviet government newspaper Izvestiya published a short article entitled On Soviet-German Relations in its middle pages, between pieces on the development of Soviet agriculture and the legal system.

Just a few lines in length, it was to have the effect of an exploding bomb on a global scale.

"Following completion of the Soviet-German trade and credit agreement, there has arisen the question of improving political links between Germany and the USSR," said the article.

"The exchange of opinion on this subject that has taken place, has established the desire on both sides to reduce the tensions affecting political links, in order to remove the threat of war and to sign a non-aggression treaty.

"In connection with this, German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop will arrive in Moscow within the next few days to take part in the corresponding talks."

Curious content

The style of the piece was strange: the throwing together of myriad issues into a few sentences; the repetition of such words as "relations", "political" and "tension".

There were also grammatical errors in the Russian text, indicating the article had been written in great haste - probably dictated by someone whom no-one dared correct.

It was not easy to explain to German readers why a country until recently branded the main enemy had become an ally


The content of the short article was even more curious, and it left the Soviet press facing the difficult task of explaining a major U-turn - away from thunderous anti-Fascism, and towards friendly relations with the Nazis.

Until quite recently, the Soviet press had described Nazi leaders as "outcasts", "moral degenerates", "misfits".

Now the press needed to learn how to describe them respectfully, as the leaders of a friendly state.

Furthermore, Soviet journalists needed to correct their psychological approach to this extremely quickly - Stalin had set 23 August as the absolute deadline for von Ribbentrop's arrival in Moscow for the signing of the pact.

Neighbourly relations

The rest of the world was shocked.

The Washington Post published a piece on its front page expressing bewilderment and discomfort about the forthcoming signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty.

It branded the treaty a "tremendous diplomatic victory" for Adolf Hitler.

Neville Chamberlain, file pic
Neville Chamberlain described the pact as "an unpleasant surprise"

It forecast, correctly, that the document "might portend developments of hitherto unsuspected nature" for the countries of eastern and central Europe.

After the treaty was signed overnight on 23-24 August, the next edition of Izvestiya praised the pact in a front page editorial.

It quoted Stalin who, summarising the international situation in a "historic report", had concluded that the Soviet Union wanted "peaceful, close, good-neighbourly relations with all the countries of the world".

What drew particular attention was the way Germany was categorised as a "neighbouring state", as if Poland had ceased to exist, and the sovereignty of a now-occupied Czechoslovakia had no significance.

Also remarkable was the stated Soviet desire to establish not only "good-neighbourly", but "close" relations with a country (Nazi Germany) that had until very recently been pronounced the devil incarnate.

On 24 August, it was clear the morning edition of Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, had also been compiled overnight.

It was able not only to report on the signing of the treaty, but also to pronounce it a great victory for Soviet foreign policy.

"The conclusion of the agreement between the USSR and Germany is an event of undoubted, enormous international significance," said a front-page article.

Unwieldy sentences in the piece suggested it, too, had been written in haste.

Again, there were grammatical errors, which made it look as though the treaty had been translated in great speed direct from the German. And the phrase "the most enormous significance" appears repeatedly.

What was in no doubt, however, was the essence of Article Four of the agreement, which stated that neither party would participate in any other bloc of countries aimed directly or indirectly against the other side.

Clear message

In the days after the signing of the pact, the Soviet press reported the numerous foreign reactions to it, concentrating on the "enormous impression" it had made.

The impression was enormous, of course, but it was one mainly of shock, something the Soviet newspapers did not report.

The general tone of the British press was that Europe faced impending catastrophe

Instead, many described the civil defence measures being put in place in London, with photographs of sandbags and air raid warning signs.

Although the treaty still needed to be ratified, the message was clear - Britain faced war; the Soviet Union had secured itself peace.

In Nazi Germany, newspapers greeted the signing of the treaty with the same official enthusiasm, heralding it as a great victory - but of German, rather than Soviet, diplomacy.

It was not easy to explain to German readers why a country until recently branded the main enemy - and one which according to Hitler's Mein Kampf would ultimately be conquered - had become an ally.

The Munich-based Nazi newspaper Volkischer Beobachter wrote that the treaty was "a statement of principles, aimed at preserving good relations between two peoples that were divided by no political contradictions."

As for the British press, the Daily Telegraph predicted on 24 August that the treaty made the outbreak of war even more likely.

It quoted Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's understated description of the pact as "an unpleasant surprise".

The general tone of the British press was that Europe faced impending catastrophe. The start of World War II was just a week away.



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Viewpoint: The Nazi-Soviet Pact
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