A Continental Union

21 May 2012, 15:33

After Germany suffered a defeat in the First World War and signed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, all of Berlin’s foreign policy efforts were aimed at only one goal– breaking through international isolation and attaining complete internal independence and self-determination of the country’s foreign course. The Weimar Republic was weak after the war, which forced its government to seek allies in the international arena to realise its economic projects and diplomatic plans for revising the Treaty of Versailles. After losing all of its overseas colonies Germany turned its attention to Soviet Russia, which emerged after the fall of the Romanov Empire and the following civil war, as a powerful source of raw materials and a sales market for Western goods.

At the same time, Bolshevik Russia, also devastated by the First World War and the civil war, sought to revive its industry and was in great need of equipment, new technology and specialists. So it was no surprise that cooperation with Germany was extremely fruitful and beneficial to the Bolsheviks. Politically, it was a step towards ending international isolation for both sides and also a kind of trump card for Berlin in the grand game it was playing against the victor states.


In 1921, the Entente states invited Vladimir Lenin’s government to participate in an international conference to settle contentious issues concerning the West’s economic claims against the Kremlin. If these issues were resolved, the European countries involved promised to officially recognise the Bolshevik government. In April 1922, the Genoa Conference, involving 29 states, including Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany, was launched.

Western governments set forward their demands to Moscow: paying off the debts incurred by tsarist Russia and later the Provisional Government (18 billion roubles in gold), restoring Western property nationalised by the Bolsheviks within the territory of the former Russian Empire, scrapping the monopoly on foreign trade, opening the way to foreign capital and discontinuing revolutionary propaganda in Western countries.

On its part, the Red government put forward its own counterclaims: compensating the damage caused by foreign intervention during the Civil War (39 billion roubles), securing wide economic cooperation based on long-term Western loans, adopting the soviet programme for the overall reduction of arms and banning “the most barbaric methods of warfare”. Finally, the negotiations stalled due to both sides being unprepared for a political compromise.

However, a rift began to show in the Western camp during the conference. As a result of its dire political and economic situation Germany decided in favour of unilateral cooperation with the Bolsheviks. On 16 April 1922, the Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Georgi Chicherin and German Foreign Affairs Minister Walther Rathenau signed a treaty in the town of Rapallo near Genoa.

This document envisaged establishing full diplomatic relations between Soviet Russia and the Weimar Republic. Both sides reciprocally withdrew their claims to wartime damages and compensation for military spending. Berlin recognised the nationalisation of German property in Soviet Russia and renounced any claims against Moscow. Both states recognised the principle of maximum facilitation as a basis for their political and economic relations and undertook to actively develop economic contacts. The treaty was open-ended. On 5 November 1922, it was extended to cover three other soviet republics – Ukraine, Belarus and the Transcaucasian Federation, which soon joined Russia to form the Soviet Union.


The significance of the Soviet-German Treaty of Rapallo was extremely great for both sides. It became one of the first international treaties signed by Berlin after the First World War based on principles of equality, mutually beneficial cooperation and non-interference in domestic affairs. The document embodied the idea of peaceful coexistence between the two countries, thus laying the foundation for the development of their political and economic relations in the interwar period. The sudden rapprochement with the Bolshevik government opened the prospect of rapid economic revival for Germany based on beneficial trade relations with Soviet Russia and “brotherly” soviet republics.

Finally, the treaty ended Germany’s international isolation and enabled it to exert efficient pressure on the Entente states to make them revise their foreign policy regarding Berlin. Chancellor Karl Joseph Wirth, who would later receive Stalin’s award for strengthening peace, even announced a turnaround in Germany’s foreign policy.

At the same time, soviet representatives in Rapallo succeeded in establishing a precedent of international recognition of their government by one of the leading Western countries, which worked as a belt drive that put the diplomatic mechanism into motion, speeding up the recognition of the Bolshevik dictatorship by Western states and the end to Russia’s international isolation.


When all was said and done, many people in Germany itself did not take the Treaty of Rapallo well. Representatives of the biggest concerns, the military lobby and right-wing social democrats spoke out against it. Foreign Affairs Minister Walther Rathenau, who signed the treaty, was killed by terrorists from a rightist paramilitary organisation. The governments of nine countries, including Great Britain and France, said they were against the Soviet-German treaty. However, Germany issued a statement in response saying it was unable to revoke the commitments it had undertaken before the soviet state.

This persistence and firmness on the part of Berlin was explained, above all, by the great interest German generals took in military cooperation with Soviet Russia. General Hans von Seeckt, the first commander and de facto organiser of the German Army (Reichswehr), said at one point: “It is only in a close connection with Great Russia that Germany maintains a chance to revive its status of a powerful state… England and France are afraid of a union between two continental states and try to prevent it in every way. Thus, we strive for it with all our strength… Our policy regarding both tsarist Russia and a state headed by Kolchak or Denikin would be the same. Now we need to put up with Soviet Russia – we have no other way out.” In one of his other speeches the general spoke even more straightforwardly and frankly: “If Germany sides with Russia, it will become invincible, because other countries will then be forced to deal with Germany keeping Russia in mind.”


In May 1921, nearly one year before the Treaty of Rapallo was signed, Germany’s Ministry of Defence and the Bolshevik military began secret negotiations centred around Berlin’s aid in strengthening the soviet military industry. (In order to build a modern and powerful army, the Bolsheviks badly needed large-scale technical assistance and financial injections from abroad.) Moscow counted on German subsidies to lay the foundation of its own aviation, chemical and other sectors of the defence industry.

Meanwhile, the Germans had their own vision. Russia was not a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles and hence was not interested in keeping it, especially in terms of the military restrictions imposed on Germany. Russia’s tremendous natural riches and testing grounds, far-removed from the inquisitive eyes of Western observers, offered perfect opportunities for training German officers and developing and manufacturing weapons prohibited by peace treaties. This made the Germans especially interested in official negotiations with soviet representatives. Von Seeckt personally informed Wirth on their progress. The negotiations ended on 11 August 1922 resulting in a secret agreement. In November 1922, the Bolshevik government and the Junkers company agreed to build an aviation plant in Fili, a town near Moscow.

In order to expand military contacts, Berlin sent a delegation headed by General Hass, chief of a Defence Ministry department, to Moscow in February 1923. As a result, the sides agreed to build a chemical plant to produce poisonous substances (the Bersol stock company). Two months later, another agreement was signed to upgrade Russian military plants and supply artillery shells to the Reichswehr. A representation of the Reichwehr, with the inconspicuous name “Moscow Centre” and Colonel Hans von Thomsen as its chief, was launched to coordinate the activities of German companies in the Soviet capital.

In July 1925, a flying school was set up in Lipetsk to train German pilots and parachutists. The next year, two testing grounds for gas shells, one near Moscow and the other in the Saratov Oblast, as well as a tank school in Kazan were built. Blohm und Voss, a German ship-building concern, was expected to upgrade a submarine plant in Mykolaiv.

Concurrently, regular exchanges of military specialists took place with Germans coming to soviet construction bureaus in the aviation, machine-building, artillery, tank and chemical sectors. Conversely, noted Red Army commanders, such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Ieronim Uborevich and Avgust Kork, received training in Berlin. At the same time, German generals Walther von Brauchitsch (the future commander in chief of the Wehrmacht’s land troops), Walther von Reichenau (commander of the 6th army during the Barbarossa Operation), Wilhelm List (participant in the blitzkriegs against Poland and France in 1939-40), Heinz Guderian (commander of the 2nd tank group during the attack on the USSR in 1941) completed training in the USSR. High-ranking officers of the Weimar Republic, such as Hans von Seeckt, Kurt von Schleicher and Werner von Blomberg, were involved in writing Red Army service regulations.

In compliance with the bilateral agreements, Germany, and particularly the Reichswehr, tried to become the Soviets’ main supplier in the aviation and chemical industries in 1922-23, thus securing a dominating influence on these industrial sectors. Starting from 1925, bilateral cooperation began moving to a new level as the Germans started to exert more effort to have the maximum impact possible on the Red Army in terms of its organisation, tactical training and so on.


Before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Soviet-German relations were built on mutually beneficial and mutually necessary foundations. The two countries drew closer to each other, because together they could oppose the Western states. Sensing the need to cooperate with the Bolsheviks, the Weimar Republic not only refused to attack Russia in early 1920 but also strengthened friendly relations with it through the Treaty of Rapallo, thus forcing the Entente powers to first limit post-war sanctions and later revise them in Germany’s favour.

In its turn, Soviet Russia, which was in international blockade and isolation, found an advantageous economic partner in Germany. Berlin took successful diplomatic steps to make the best use of these relations, skillfully bypassing the Versailles limitations.

To the Weimar Republic, the Soviet Union was the only equal and fully-fledged partner with which it was able to pursue its foreign policy until 1933. The best proof of it is found in the secret military cooperation which, on the one hand, prepared firm ground for the revival of Germany’s military power after the First World War, and on the other, upgraded the Bolshevik defence industrial complex. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 under which two dictators, Hitler and Stalin, divided Central and Eastern Europe and started the Second World War, albeit not at the same time, was a logical continuation of the German-Soviet rapprochement of the 1920s.

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