Allow me to introduce myself—my name is Andrei Vyshinsky. I started my career as a minor official in the Russian foreign affairs ministry. However, I was soon assigned as the aide-de-camp to Vyacheslav Molotov who served as the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1949. Over most of his career, I was by his side, assisting him with his political and governmental duties. His friendship gave me a distinct edge within the diplomatic corps of the Soviet Union. I eventually was assigned to the post of Soviet Foreign Minister from 1949 to 1953. I was also well known for my role as a state prosecutor during Joseph Stalin’s Moscow trials which served me well and also met the needs of “Uncle Joe.”
As I write this story, I intend for it to be a chapter in my memoirs that I am now putting down on paper. It’s 1954 and I spend most of my time in my dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. Generally, I lead a very quiet life these days but am also looking back on a career filled with decisive action and intrigue. In my book, I will pay particular attention to the German–Soviet non-aggression agreement, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It was signed in Moscow on August 23, 1939, by von Ribbentrop and Molotov, with me at his side.
On November 12, 1940, Molotov, accompanied by me and some other members of the Soviet diplomatic corps, paid an official visit to Berlin for two days to negotiate directly with Herr Hitler concerning the Soviet Union’s possible entry as an Axis ally. I accompanied him on this trip and participated in all discussions. The meeting provided us with the important opportunity to see Hitler up close and understand his strategic thinking . In retrospect, this trip turned out to be a life-changing journey for me—critical history being played out before my eyes.
Our Soviet foreign policy calculations at that time led us to believe that WWII would be a long-term struggle and that the German claims that Britain would be defeated with dispatch were viewed with great skepticism. This perspective resulted in Molotov being instructed to hold a very firm line in negotiations with Hitler did not understand or appreciate. But read on for more details about what happened during our Berlin visit.
As most people came to understand, the 1939 pact between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had achieved its major goal of renouncing war between the two parties and also pledging neutrality if either party were attacked by a third party. This gave Germany a free hand to invade Poland without fear of Soviet intervention which, as you know, occurred with dispatch.
Poland was defeated by the German blitzkrieg in about a month and his Gestapo then began the slaughter most of the Jewish population of millions across Europe. That was no great loss, of course, from our perspective. The ethnic Poles, on the other hand, were considered by us to be "small" Slav brothers who merited some protection except, of course, for the intelligentsia who we were determined to annihilate.
I will now turn to the topic of the Nazi and British bombing strategies prior to, and during, our November visit to Berlin in 1940. The British had an initial policy of using aerial bombing only against military targets and infrastructure such as ports and railways of military importance. The British initially renounced the deliberate bombing of civilian property outside combat zones as their overarching strategy. This policy was abandoned in May 1940, two days after the German air attack on Rotterdam, when the Royal Air Force was given permission to attack targets in the Ruhr including oil plants that aided the German war effort.
The Luftwaffe, in turn, conducted air raids against British airfields and fighting aircraft during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. The ultimate goal of these German bombing raids was to lay the groundwork for a German land invasion of Britain, but this never took place. However, and by the late Fall of 1940, these German raids had taken a severe toll on the British in terms of the fighting capacity of the Air Force. Many airfields had been destroyed. The Brits were almost at the end of their rope. Hanging on by a thread. Here is where Herr Hitler made a critical and bad decision and Vyacheslav and I were there to watch it happen, literally sitting across from him at the table.
We were in our second day of negotiations with Hitler on November 13 in an elegant chamber in the Reich Chancellery. Hitler’s office was nearby in the Fuhrerbunker just north of the Chancellery. The large elegant room in which we held our negotiations had a vaulted ceiling dating back centuries and ornamented with grand, elaborate murals. All befitting the critical significance of our discussions.
We were seated at a long, mahogany table that dwarfed the six of us. Hitler was sitting in the middle across from us with von Ribbentrop and Goebbels to this right and Goring to his left. He rarely consulted with them except for an occasional whispered conversation with Goring. It was only Molotov and myself sitting across the table from Herr Hitler for these top-secret discussions.
The table was "unbalanced" by the weight of some of the participants but certainly not in terms of strategic intentions and goals. Goring’s morphine addition had destroyed his body's metabolism—I estimated his weight at over 135 kilograms. He waddled rather than walked. I had some concern that the entire room might suddenly and physically tip toward the Germans so I kept my feet firmly pressed to the floor to stabilize it.
“Gentlemen, our discussion yesterday was highly productive,” Hitler announced by way of launching the second day’s discussions. “We most certainly have our mutual enemy, Great Britain, on the ropes, to use the boxing metaphor. My major goal for today will be to explore further ways that we can show to the world, and particularly the English and Americans, that the relationship between our two empires continues to be solid and we will resist any efforts on their part to hinder our continuing cooperation.
“Together we form a global colossus and no country will dare to deny our destiny. Also, I have the sense that the land invasion of England by our noble German troops may soon be launched.” Molotov and I chuckled, both appreciating the fact that we understood that Hitler was also looking eastward as part of his overarching military strategy.
Hitler then looked around the table slowly to assess to what extent his opening remarks had impressed us. He beamed in a contented way and was about to continue in what we assumed was a similar vein. Just then and before he could utter another syllable, we all felt and heard a tremendous explosion accompanied by a fireball rather near the windows of our conference room.
A large column of smoke erupted in a strip of older buildings looking north from where we sat. We could also immediately hear the wailing of sirens in the same direction. This, of course, was highly irregular and totally unexpected. Both Molotov and I immediately glanced at Hitler to assess his reaction.
For a split second, he seemed totally distracted and then began to sweat profusely. He took out his handkerchief and mopped his brow of the beads of sweat that had appeared and then turned to address the two of us across the table.
“Nothing much for you to be concerned about here, my dear colleagues. There has been a band of saboteurs setting off small explosive charges in Berlin lately in an attempt to cause panic. However, all good Germans know that we have the situation totally under control and will bring these criminals to justice quickly. Nothing to worry about for your personal safety.”
Molotov beckoned to me and leaned over to whisper in my ear: “Saboteurs? Nonsense! That was a British block-buster bomb, also called a “cookie” by them. I am sure that there will be more on the way but we are probably safe enough sitting here across from Herr Hitler. He will surely be protected. But I am sure that this will not be an isolated event. Hold tight!”
Before he had completed his sentence, two more explosions erupted, again from the north but this time our chamber began to shake lightly and columns of smoke outside rose even higher than before. Everyone in the room immediately understood that this was part of a well-planned British bombing raid on Berlin.
Molotov turned to Hitler and said: “Herr Fuhrer, I am very impressed by the weapons capabilities of your home-grown saboteurs here in Berlin. I hope that our dissidents in Russia are not reading from the same textbooks and exposing Comrade Stalin to similar attacks.” He was trying very hard to wipe a grin off his face.
Hitler turned a bright shade of purple, stood up, and walked briskly toward the exit of the conference room without a word. Goring followed, waddling close behind Hitler’s heels and without saying anything. It became obvious that Molotov and myself were supposed to remain seated until the Nazis returned, which did not occur for the best part of an hour. Servants entered the room with glasses of champagne and crystal bowls filled with both German and Russian cigarettes. A high degree of anxiety permeated the room.
Hitler retuned to the chamber, still breathing heavily and sat at the table in his previous position across from us. He quickly drank a glass of mineral water to clear his throat. He then addressed Molotov and myself directly, fighting to contain his furor. “Gentlemen, I want to apologize for the behavior of the savage British pilots who have interrupted our cordial discussions concerning how our two modern empires will respectfully co-exist. I want to reassure you that these brutes will pay dearly for their audacity of attacking Berlin when I am negotiating with important guests such as yourselves.”
He continued: “I have just ordered Reichsmarschall Goring to immediately change our offensive bombing strategy for Britain. We have now literally wiped out of existence the British air force, their bases, and their landing fields. We will stop these military attacks and now turn to bombing London and other major British urban centers, killing as many civilians as possible in their homes during our night raids. The people will come to understand what a buffoon Winston Churchill is and force him to sue for peace.
Having said that, Hitler, von Ribbentrop, Goebbels, and Goring abruptly and quickly exited the room. Molotov and I lingered in our seats for a few minutes. He beckoned for me to place my ear close to his mouth, both of us aware that the room was certainly bugged. Here is what he whispered to me:
“You have just observed one of the greatest strategic blunders in modern warfare and you must learn from it. Hitler should have continued to bomb the British Air Force and their landing strips into total oblivion. Instead, he had now made the obvious blunder of turning to the bombing of civilians and trying to destroy their cities.
“He will kill a large number of civilians but I believe that the British population has the capacity to absorb many such raids and continue to live in their cities. Meanwhile, the British Air Force will now have the time and resources to rebuild and regain their offensive ability. Hitler has not kept a clear head because he was embarrassed by the fact that we Russians witnessed this British bombing raid of Berlin.”
“One more thing, Comrade,” Molotov continued to whisper in my ear. “Herr Hitler seems to me to be a very impatient person who gets easily bored. He will soon grow weary about his lack of success in his air attack on British cities. His plans for a seaborne land invasion of Britain will also never come to fruition because it will require intensive air support that he lacks. He also shows a deep enmity for Slavic people. We need to impress on Stalin when we return home that Hitler will be looking eastward in the very near future. We need to get ready for Hitler’s massive attack on Mother Russia as quickly we can.”
In closing, I will leave you with the following observation. Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany, turned out to be a huge blunder by Hitler just as Molotov and I had clearly understood and predicted in 1940. It opened up a second front and doubled the demand on Germany for war materials. Hitler also did not understand the mind of Stalin as we did. He did not understand that Stalin would willingly sacrifice the lives of more than 200 million people in our motherland to retain his grip on power. Much of this causal chain of events leading to the destruction of Germany dated back to our visit to Berlin in the Fall of 1940. And I watched it happen.”