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Infamous encounter? The Merekalov-Weizsäcker meeting of 17 April 1939

  • Geoffrey Roberts (a1)

This article uses recently released documents from the Soviet diplomatic archives to examine the Merekalov–Weizsäcker meeting of April 1939. It argues that these documents show that western historians have been mistaken in assuming that this meeting was the occasion for Soviet signals of a desire for détente with Nazi Germany. The significance attached to the meeting in this respect is part of the cold war myth that the USSR's negotiations for a triple alliance with Great Britain and France in the spring and summer of 1939 were paralleled by secret Soviet–German discussions which eventually lead to the Nazi–Soviet pact of August 1939. The article seeks to demolish those elements of the myth that concern the Merekalov–Weizsäcker encounter and to present an alternative interpretation of the provenance and meaning of the so-called political overture by the Soviet ambassador at the meeting.

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1 Sontag, R. J. and Beddie, J. S. (eds.), Nazi-Soviet relations 1939–1941 (New York, 1948), p. 2. A slightly different translation of Merekalov's statement will be found in Documents on Germanforeign policy (hereafter DGFP), series D, vol. 6, doc. 215.

2 For example, Watt's, D. C. widely-cited article ‘The initiation of the negotiations leading to the Nazi-Soviet pact’ in Abramsky, C. (ed.), Essays in honour of E. H. Can (London, 1974).

3 SSSR v borbe za mir nakanune utoroi mirovoi voiny (Moscow, 1971), doc. 239. For an English translation see Sovite peace efforts an the eve of World War II (Moscow, 1973).

4 This official interpretation is restated in the report of a special commission on the Nazi—Soviet pact set up by the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies in June 1989. The report was presented to the congress in December 1989. See ‘Soobshcheniye komissii po politicheskoi i pravovoi otsenke sovetsko-germanskogo dogovora o nenapadenii ot 1939 goda’, Pravda, 24 Dec. 1989(English translation: On the political and legal assessment of the Soviet-German non-aggression Treaty of 1939 Moscow, 1990).

5 God krizisa, 1938–1939: dokumenty i materialy (Moscow, 1990), vol. 1, doc. 279. Merekalov's telegram in this collection is one of a number of documents which detail Soviet relations with Germany in 1939. These documents form the basis of the present author's detailed study of‘The Soviet decision for a pact with Nazi Germany’, Soviet Studies (01 1992).

6 Astakhov's report on the 17 April meeting is summarized by the west German historian Ingeborg Fleischhauer in her Pakt: Gitler, , Stalin i Initsiativa Germanskoi Diplomatii, 1998–1939 (Moscow, 1991), pp. 126–7. See also Documents Diplomatiqtues Français, second teries, vol. 16, doc. 119 in which Coulondrc, the French ambassador in Berlin, reports that Astakhov told him that the meeting with Weizsäcker was strictly concerned with economic and financial matters arising out of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

7 God Krizisa, doc. 252.

8 Vofnosy Istorii (June 1989), p. 26.

9 Watt, D. C., How war came: the immediate origins of the Second World War, 1938–1939 (London, 1989), p. 230.

10 Sontag, and Beddie, , Nazi-Sovite relations, p. 13. In his report of this meeting Astakhov makes no mention of this reference by Weizsäcker to Merekalov's earlier remarks. He does quote Weizsäcker as saying that Merekalov had said that economic relations could develop independently of political relations. In reply Astakhov pointed out that Merekalov had said several times that ‘economics was concentrated polities’. See God Krizisa, doc. 384. Thij discrepancy between the two reports can be explained either by the fact that Weizsäcker did not make the statement he says he did to Astakhov or by the fact that Astakhov did not note it or, if he did, did not consider it important enough to report to Moscow. But bearing in mind die argument of this article the most likely explanation is that Astakhov omitted Weizsäcker's statement from his report in order to cover up some injudicious remarks that Merekalov had indeed made on 17 April.

11 Dokumenty uneshnei politiki SSSR, vol. 21 (Moscow, 1977), doc, 251.

12 Davies, R. W. et al. (eds.), Soviet government officials, 1922–1941 (Birmingham, 1989), p. 340.

13 See, for example, the report in Documents on British foreign policy, 3rd series, IV, 34. Regarding Merekalov's political activities in Berlin there has long been speculation about the contents of a private conversation he had with Hitler at a new-year reception in January 1939. Merekalov's report to Moscow on this conversation is published in God Krizisa, doc. 110. It records only a formal, diplomatic conversation and an exchange of pleasantries with the Nazi dictator.

14 On the economic negotiations see God Krizisa, docs. 101, 104, 109, 117, 124 and 126 and DGFP, scries D, vol. 4, docs. 483, 485, 486, 487, 489, 490 and 491. On the cancelled Schnurre trip see Watt, , How war came, p. 121 andHaslam, J., The Soviet Union and the struggle for collective security in Europe, 1933–1939 (London, 1984), pp. 202–3.

15 God Krizisa, doc. 137. Sec also doc. 141, a telegram from Merekalov to Litvinov on 6 Feb. where he reports that Wiehl, the head of the commercial policy division in the German foreign office, had told him that the Schnurre visit had been cancelled because the latter was busy and Berlin had decided to let its embassy staff in Moscow conduct the negotiations.

16 DGFP, series D, vol. 6, doc. 217.

17 Merekalov may have been encouraged in his endeavours by an earlier meeting with Wiehl, head of the commercial policy division of the German foreign office, and by an approach by Peter Kleist, a Ribbcntrop aide, to Georgei Astakhov, the Soviet chargé in Berlin. See Roberts, G., The unholy alliance: Stalin's pact with Hitler (London, 1989), pp. 125–6.

18 On the purge of Litvinov see the present author's ‘The fall of Litvinov: a revisionist view’, Journal of Contemporary History (Oct. 1992).

19 Diplomaticheskii Slovar (Moscow, 1986), III, 619. As far as I can tell Merekalov began to re-emerge in the annals of Soviet diplomatic history with the publication in 1977 of the 21st volume in the series Dokumenty uneshnei politiki SSSR. This was followed by the publication of Maksimychev's, I. F.Diplomatiya mira protiv diplomatii voiny: ocherk Sovetsko-Germanskikh diplomaticheskikh otnoshenii v 1933–1939 godakk (Moscow, 1981). This contained the first account by a Soviet historian of the Merekalov-Weizsäcker meeting (pp. 938–41). In 1985 Novaya i Noveishaya Istoriya carried an article by M. I. Pankrashova which referred to Merekalov's report, in the Soviet foreign policy archives, on his meeting with Weizsäcker (no. 5, p. 116) - the first time that the existence of such a report had been revealed. Finally, in Nov. 1989 Voprosy Istorii published the text of Merekalov's report on his meeting with Weizsäcker.

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