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Churchill’s Deal With the Devil: The Anglo-Soviet Agreement of 1941

When John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, told the prime minister on the morning of Sunday, June 22,1941, that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, Colville saw him respond with a “smile of satisfaction.” In a special radio address to the nation that evening, Churchill said, “No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism for the last twenty-five years. I will unsay no word I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past, with its crimes, its follies, its tragedies, flashes away.… The Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for hearth and house is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.” Churchill then said that Britain would provide all possible military aid to the Soviet Union in its battle against Germany. It was a testament to the desperate situation confronting both nations that Churchill, a champion of democracy, would agree to an alliance with a tyrannical regime at least as bad as that of Nazi Germany.

“If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

– British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Churchill’s advisors were united in believing that the Soviet Union’s battle would be a short one. Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John Dill said it would collapse in six weeks. Gen. Alan Brooke, who would later that year succeed Dill as CIGS, said four months – the most optimistic prediction. But Churchill was having none of it. Using horse race betting parlance and giving 500:1 odds, he said, “I will bet you a Monkey to a Mousetrap that the Russians are still fighting, and fighting victoriously, two years from now.” (A Monkey being a £500 bet, and Mousetrap being a gold sovereign with the nominal value of £1.)

Anglo-Soviet Agreement of 1941

Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Foreign Office for the signing of the Anglo-Soviet Agreement of 1941. From left to right: Arkady Sobolev, Under Secretary of the Soviet Foreign Office, Ivan Maisky, Soviet Ambassador, Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Imperial War Museum photo

Churchill was swift to back his words with action. The result, at just 96 words, was the Anglo-Soviet Agreement, one of the shortest documents in diplomatic history.

On July 13, 1941, a BBC radio announcer stated: “We are breaking program to announce the signing of an agreement between Britain and the Soviet Union for joint action in the war against Germany. Here is the full text of the document:

“‘His Majesty’s Government and the United Kingdom and the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have concluded the present agreement and declared as follows:

1) The two governments mutually undertake to render each other assistance and support of all kind in the present war against Hitlerite Germany.

2) They further undertake that during this war they will neither negotiate nor conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement. The contracting parties having agreed that this agreement enters into force as from the moment of signature and is not subject to ratification.’”

Adding irony upon irony, in a Pathé newsreel of the signing ceremony in Moscow, the narrator noted that the agreement “was possibly signed in the same room” as that of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that helped make World War II possible.

A British supply convoy sailed from the naval base at Scapa Flow to Murmansk on Aug. 21, the first of the Arctic convoys.

Almost a year later, on June 19, 1942, in a report to the Supreme Soviet governing body, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov said that July 12 “marked a turning point” in the relationship between the two powers, creating “a foundation of friendship and fighting collaboration between our countries in the struggle against their common, sworn enemy and in the interest of the great future of our nations.”

Fine words. And hollow ones. The truth was that even before the wax for the agreement’s official seals had been heated, the first payment of Churchill’s Faustian bargain with Stalin came due. Stalin demanded that Britain recognize the Soviet Union’s western boundary as specified in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, wherein the Soviet Union had absorbed half of Poland. As Germany’s invasion of Poland was the reason Britain went to war, Churchill couldn’t do that. He couldn’t flat out say no, either. Churchill got the issue tabled. Stalin’s demand would return with a vengeance four years later, at Yalta.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...