From One Dictator To Another
Popular opinion on the Stalin-Chamberlain-Hitler interactions between 1937-39 see it as a bargaining contest; Stalin would follow the person who offered him the most territory, and that person was Hitler. While he hated and feared Adolf – quite wisely – he suspected (probably correctly) – that the Western powers intended to push him into a war where he would do all of the fighting, while they told him to get back afterwards, without any rewards for his efforts.
(Of course, the rewards would be all or most of Poland, Finland and the Balkans, but what statesman could refuse to recognise that, lol?)
Hardly anyone, therefore, was bargaining in good faith. The West wanted to deter Hitler; Stalin wanted to crush him before he became a threat. The West knew perfectly well that Poland would sooner kiss Hitler’s scabby behind than allow Russian troops on their soil. Finally, when the weakness of the West was glaringly exposed – the British could offer only four divisions (two at once, two at a later date), the French unwilling to advance into Germany – Stalin broke off the talks. It was a debacle, largely because of the fact that the British had sent no one with any genuine authority, while the French (more practically for once) representative had lied about his authority.
Still, it represents a possible turning point for ending the Second World War before it could begin. Let’s have Stalin extend an invitation to Chamberlain to visit Moscow and have him accept. Although this would have been unprecedented, Chamberlain was desperate enough to avoid a war – or at least to avoid active British involvement in the war – to accept if Molotov makes the offer tempting enough.
Stalin’s proposal, we now know, was for the Russian forces to move through Poland and attack Germany, backed up by a French thrust across the Magiot Line and into the Rhineland. The Poles were flatly opposed to Russian troops on their soil, but at the same time they knew that they needed the west to survive. (The loss of trade with the west would strangle them and make them dependent upon Stalin or Hitler.)
So, let’s have Chamberlain be the kind of ruthless decisive politician he never was in the original timeline. You can consider this ASB if you want. He strikes the following bargain, a Faustian bargain
This is August 1939. The Soviets have been making preparations for an advance west. With Polish unwilling cooperation – the Russian troops are as ill behaved as ever, despite the NKVD watching carefully – Stalin’s men have deployed into Poland. The Germans, seeing this, are astonished; they don’t believe that Stalin is serious. Hitler guesses that Stalin has taken the opportunity to snatch all of Poland, rather than joining the west in an attack against him.
The Germans have unexpected help in the form of intelligence from sources within Poland. Hitler knows where the Soviets are and orders an offensive planned. The German General Staff is worried; the Soviets are clearly armed and the Poles are fully mobilised, rather than they would be in OTL.
Hitler bites the bullet and orders most of the available German forces into Poland, targeting the Soviet forces specifically. The result is not quite the disaster it could have been; the Soviets have better tanks and better defensive soldiers, while the Poles are their unwilling allies. While some Poles slip information to Germany, news of German atrocities ruin their reputation, even as the Soviets fight back with their own weapons. After a week of heavy fighting, the Germans are in serious trouble.
The military alliance between the Soviets and the Poles is actually working well. (Amazing what an enemy at the door will do.) The Germans punch through Polish lines, but the Soviet troops refuse to surrender and fight back. The Germans may have control of the air – although the Soviets are supplying the best Polish pilots with fuel and of course there is no major offensive in the east to destroy Poland. As September dawns, the Germans are running out of steam – and the Poles begin to counter-attack, pushing the Germans back. The Soviets launch their own offensives, hammering away at the German lines.
Stalin puts a great deal of pressure on the French and British. Chamberlain is smoked out and convinces the French to start a minor offensive into the Rhineland. The entire BEF is included in the offensive for political reasons, under Lord Gort. The Germans have stripped the Rhineland bare to fight in Poland, and the forces make good progress. The Germans have literally run out of bullets in some places.
Late September – the German high command sees disaster unfolding as the Allies make heavy progress. The French have declared their intention to annex the Rhineland, despite the protests of the Germans living there, and the British are pressing for a march on Berlin. In the east, Stalin’s men are heading towards Berlin themselves, aided by a revolt in Czechoslovakia. East Prussia is overrun by the Poles and annexed.
Hitler doesn’t seem to care, so the generals act quickly and overthrow him. The SS is nowhere near as powerful as it would become. The army wins very quickly, only to discover that Stalin is not interested in peace talks. Finally, the Germans send everything left east to fight the soviets and surrender to the west.
Stalin has kittens – literally. Chamberlain works hard to paper over the cracks in the alliance, agreeing to allow the Soviets their occupation of East Germany (although the country is not formally partitioned) and ‘influence’ in Czechoslovakia. More ominously, Stalin is making a nuisance of himself in the east, quickly forcing the Baltic States into a ‘protective alliance’ and forcing Finland to give up some territory. He even casts eyes on Iran.
(In OTL, Mannerheim tried to warn the Finns that Stalin wasn’t bluffing. In ATL, the Red Army is seen as competent and they give in – ironically, losing less than they would have if the war had been fought to the same end.)
The Poles blink first. They demand that Stalin remove his garrisons on Polish soil, although they are prepared to negotiate over rail lines to East Germany. Polish units are forbidden in East Germany (although they have clear title to East Prussia). They also demand that Stalin stops supporting communist factions within Poland itself and control the behaviour of the Red Army units.
Stalin flatly refuses, offering some compromises that would make Poland a slave state in all, but name. The brief bitter Winter War, fought over the winter of 1939, ends with Poland an occupied state…and Stalin looking around for more targets.