THE relations between Russia and Germany (or Prussia) for the past 200 years have been a series of alienations, distinguished for their bitterness, and of rapprochements, remarkable for their warmth. Who, for example, could have foreseen in 1761, when Russian troops had overrun Prussia, occupied Berlin and humbled Frederick the Great, that the sudden death of the Empress Elizabeth would bring to the throne Peter III, the inveterate admirer of Frederick and of Prussia, and that he would promptly make peace with his hero? Or that, nine years after this reprieve, Russia, Prussia and Austria would -- in Frederick's blasphemous phrase -- "take Communion in the one Eucharistic body which is Poland?"

A cardinal factor in the relationship has been the existence of an independent Poland; for, in general, it is true that when separated by a buffer state the two great Powers of eastern Europe have been friendly, whereas a contiguity of frontiers has bred hostility. In the period between the first and third partitions of Poland (1772-1795), Russia and Prussia were in the positions of two gangsters, who with a weaker confederate -- Austria -- were dividing up a rich haul of loot. While the division was in process, relations between the partners remained amicable, save for the growlings which arose if one or the other took rather too much. When Poland had vanished from the map of Europe, however, Russia and Prussia confronted one another with nothing more to devour than each other.

The outbreak of the French Revolution and the rise of the common enemy, égalitarianism, averted any major clash, and Napoleon's creation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, under French protection, still further improved Russo-Prussian relations. Russia was the dominant partner. The bond, forged in the common task of freeing Europe from the Napoleonic hegemony, was a one-sided partnership, and not without its strains and rifts. The Napoleonic wars carried both Russian and Prussian troops onto each other's soil as invaders. A Prussian contingent accompanied the Grand Army to Moscow, and though by the Convention of Tauroggen (1812) d'Yorck paved the way for Prussia to join the Russians as an ally in harrying the retreating French armies, it was through Prussia and other parts of Germany that the Russians had to fight their way before reaching France. From 1815 to 1860, Prussia was virtually a vassal of Muscovy. After grovelling to Napoleon for 15 years she now grovelled to Russia for 45. And not Prussia alone. The omnipotent presence of the Tsar was felt in every princely German Court. "If," as Prince Bülow wrote of his childhood days at the Court of Strelitz, "the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz said that the Tsar would have wished this or that, it was as if God himself had spoken."

Bismarck created a unified Germany as much in reaction against Russian tutelage as stimulated by rivalry with France. It was the emergence of this new force in central Europe, and the final extinction of Poland, which exacerbated Russo-Prussian relations in the later sixties. Bismarck, however, when he had made Germany independent of both France and Russia, bought the friendship of the latter with the Black Sea Agreement of 1871, and made the maintenance of this friendship a salient objective of his policy, successfully avoiding major controversies with his powerful eastern neighbor throughout his long term of office. In the political precepts which he laid down for the guidance of the young Emperor Wilhelm II, friendship with Russia transcended all other considerations.

This policy was not prompted merely by a dread of a "two-front war" but by a sincere belief in the possibilities of Russo-German coöperation. Contrary to common belief, Bismarck was not a proponent of the Pan-German doctrines, which he regarded as fantastic. He did, however, believe in the "manifest destiny" of Russia and Germany to share Weltmacht, and he was confident, not without reason, that together the two Powers could do anything they desired.

Herein lay the germ of the deep-seated rivalry which existed in the German Foreign Office and High Command after Bismarck's departure: the battle for power between the eastern school, which barred the old Prince's policy of collaboration with Russia, and the "greater Germany" school, which sought the aggrandizement of Germany, if necessary at Russia's expense.

The greater Germany school won the day; the erratic policy of Wilhelm II and his avowed preference for Austria-Hungary sapped the foundations of the structure of alliance that Bismarck had built so laboriously, and drove Russia into the arms of France, and ultimately made possible the formation of the Triple Entente. The First World War was thereby brought within measurable distance, since Germany had contributed to her own einkreisung, and thus produced her claustrophobic state of mind.


The process of alienation was completed by the humiliation of Russian arms by Germany in 1914-1917, the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, and the "Tilsit Peace" of Brest-Litovsk in which the greater Germany school gave free rein to its ambitions. To many it appeared that in no foreseeable period could Russia and Germany be found in the same camp. But one of the unpredictable rapprochements was again to occur. It is a curious fact that, just as the overvaulting ambition of triumphant German militarism had dictated the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, so now this same German militarism, grown humble and cunning in defeat and concerned only with its own survival, brought about the renewal of amicable relations. In the shifting of power which followed the collapse of the monarchies of central Europe, Bismarck's tradition again asserted itself; Germany and Russia found themselves drawn together as pariahs and discovered that they had grievances in common.

The chief artificer of this strange rapprochement was General Hans von Seeckt, the creator of the Reichswehr, and one of the dominating characters in Germany's Weimar period. Concerned purely with the preservation of the German military tradition, von Seeckt set himself the task of circumventing the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles which prohibited conscription and drastically restricted manpower and armament. He was to succeed in making the Reichswehr a volunteer professional force more formidable than most conscript armies. But how should this force be equipped and trained? How else than with Russian collaboration?

This revolutionary idea was not generally approved by von Seeckt's colleagues. General Hoffmann, who had been an eyewitness of the devastating effect of Bolshevik propaganda on both Russian and German troops, regarded Moscow as the root of all evil, and advocated the sinking of differences between Germany and the Allies in a joint crusade against a common enemy. General Groener, who had succeeded Ludendorff as First Quartermaster General, had also seen Bolshevism at first-hand in the Ukraine after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and viewed it with fear and repugnance.

Von Seeckt, himself, had served on the eastern front -- he was the hero of the break-through at Gorlice in 1915 for which von Falkenhayn took the credit -- but he had fought the Tsarist armies and not the Bolsheviks. He nevertheless knew that the Russians were magnificent fighters, whether they were well or badly led, and he saw in the Red Army a valuable instrument for his policy. Germany, he argued, had been virtually ostracized from the European society of nations and must needs, therefore, consort with the other outlaw, the Soviet Union. Moreover, the U.S.S.R. was not bound by the Treaty of Versailles. She had, in fact, been pointedly ignored by the Peace Conference of Paris, even though, in absentia, she had greatly influenced its decisions. The U.S.S.R. alone, therefore, was in a position to manufacture and supply those categories of military equipment which the Treaty forbade to the Reichswehr. On the other hand, the Red Army only lacked that discipline which German training could impart to make it a very useful factor in German policies. Admittedly the Soviet Union was a dangerous ally, but she was at this juncture better than no ally at all.

The head of the Reichswehr propounded these ideas as early as February 1920, during the outcry in Germany against the surrender to the Allies of the Kaiser and the German political and military leaders for trial as war criminals. Von Seeckt informed his colleagues, in terms which are still of interest, that if the Government of the Reich consented to hand over the leaders of the old Army, the Reichswehr must oppose such action by every means in its power, even if that entailed the reopening of hostilities. In this event, the German troops would retire, fighting step by step, to defensive positions behind the line of the Weser and the Elbe. But in the east they would launch an offensive against Poland, join hands with the Red Army and, having crushed the Poles, march westward to meet the British and the French.

These drastic measures were not destined to materialize at this time, since the Allied Governments did not press the issue of the surrender of the war criminals, but they contained the germ of that threatened "Red Army on the Rhine" with which the Reichswehr made so much play in years to come. The most important result, however, was that von Seeckt obtained support for his general thesis from the two powerful leaders of the eastern school, Baron von Maltzan, head of the Eastern Department of the German Foreign Office (described by Lord D'Abernon as "the cleverest man who has worked in the Wilhelmstrasse since the war"), and Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, the former Foreign Minister, who had become a hero in Germany as the man who had refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

With this backing, von Seeckt took a further step forward. He had retained on contract in the offices of the Reichswehr-ministerium in the Bendlerstrasse the retired Colonel Nicolai, who, as head of the German Secret Service during the First World War, had made all civil departments of the Empire tremble at his nod. Seeckt dispatched him secretly to Moscow early in 1921 with a tentative suggestion for the transfer of German airplane factories to Russia. In the same year official negotiations were opened by von Maltzan for the conclusion of a Russo-German economic agreement.

The Russian response to this dual approach was guarded but by no means hostile. The Soviet Union had no reason to love Germany but, at the moment, she had reason to love the rest of the world still less. Troops of the Allied interventionist forces were still upon her soil and British, French and American money was equipping the counter-revolutionary armies within her borders. Moreover, the Peace Conference of Paris had drawn the eastern boundaries of Europe without reference to Russia's interests, and an "imperialist" Poland, with British and French assistance, had wrested from Russia by the Treaty of Riga (March 1921) a further cession of territory, of which the inhabitants, if they were not Russian, were certainly not Polish.[i] Russian fortunes were as low as Germany's. Civil war and famine ravaged her territory, and her economic life, pending the success of the NEP, was at a standstill. The new Red Army, which both Trotsky and Stalin claim to have developed, had fought well against Poland but had shown certain technical deficiencies, which had resulted in its defeat when confronted with the superior equipment and staff work with which Britain and France subsequently supplied the Poles. These deficiencies could be repaired. No harm, therefore, and perhaps some gain, could result from a friendly response to the German overtures.

So Colonel Nicolai was successful in his mission to Moscow and his journey inaugurated a series of such visits by high-ranking German officers, including General von Hammerstein, who succeeded von Seeckt in command of the Reichswehr, and General von Schleicher, who ultimately became Chancellor of the Reich. Von Maltzan's negotiations also bore fruit in a Russo-German economic agreement signed in Berlin on May 8, 1921.

Thus in two short years the animosities engendered at Brest-Litovsk were forgotten, and the liaison between the two general staffs became an essential factor in German foreign policy. This was among the strangest of the many curious phenomena of the Weimar period. It was typical of von Seeckt that he used the Reichswehr with equal ruthlessness in suppressing a Communist rising or in collaborating with the Red Army.


The season was confederate to the advancement of Russo-German relations. In an attempt to bring both states into the European family of nations, David Lloyd George and Aristide Briand proposed the Genoa Conference, but when it met in April 1922, the Germans and Russians found themselves cold-shouldered. They utilized the meeting to their own advantage, however, and, to the amazement and indignation of the other Powers, announced on April 17 that Wirth and Rathenau, German Chancellor and Foreign Minister respectively, had signed with Foreign Commissar Chicherin at Rapallo a formal treaty of friendship, reëstablishing the diplomatic and commercial relations which had been severed with the repudiation of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in November 1918.

The Treaty of Rapallo was complemented by a secret military agreement which enabled von Seeckt to send each year to Russia a certain number of officers to act as instructors to the Red Army, and a further number to gain all possible experience in the handling of heavy artillery, tanks, armored cars and other weapons forbidden to Germany under the Treaty of Versailles.

There ensued a period of 11 years during which Soviet-German relations could not have been more halcyon. The two general staffs worked harmoniously for the dual purpose of circumventing the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and of modernizing the Red Army. The economic and industrial brains of Germany were utilized by Russia in the operation of the first Five Year Plan. And on October 13, 1925, a new Russo-German Treaty of Commerce cemented still more closely the trade relations of the two countries.

In Germany, the Rapallo policy was welcomed by all classes, especially by the nationalist conservatives, who saw in it a means of correcting the policy of conciliation toward the Allied Powers which Stresemann had inaugurated in 1923 and from which the Locarno Agreement developed. Count von Brockdorff-Rantzau, who had been appointed Ambassador in Moscow, was among the fiercest and most able opponents of the Locarno policy, and great was the triumph of the nationalists when, as a result of the abortive attempt to admit Germany to the League of Nations in March 1926, they were able to persuade Stresemann to sign a pact of neutrality and non-aggression with the Soviet Union.

Throughout the period of this strange mariage de convenance the German General Staff was actuated by pure expediency. Given the opportunity and the means, it would have fought Bolshevist Russia with the same intense efficiency with which it now collaborated with her; it treated with the Soviet Union on a purely technical basis, and maintained a stern watch on any possible infiltration of Communist doctrines into the ranks of the Reichswehr. Russia, for her part, was equally undeceived as to the fundamental nature of the cordiality obtaining between herself and Germany.

With the downfall of the Weimar Republic in January 1933 and the founding of the Third Reich, a change was to be expected in Soviet-German relations, due partly to the fact that under the Nazi régime the clandestine circumvention of the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles was no longer necessary, and partly to the very definite views of Adolf Hitler toward Russia. "A Russo-German coalition, waging war against western Europe, and probably against the whole world on that account, would be catastrophic," he had written in "Mein Kampf;" and, again, "The fact of forming an alliance with Russia would be the signal for a new war. And the result of that would be the end of Germany."

Politically and doctrinally opposed to Russia, Hitler proclaimed a deathless war against Communism and reverted in his planning to the imperialist designs of Ludendorff and the German General Staff at Brest-Litovsk for a German Lebensraum in the Baltic lands and the Ukraine. Yet the Fuehrer did not at once completely disrupt the course of German-Russian relations. While the Comintern and the Goebbels propaganda machine poured forth a flow of reciprocal venom and recrimination, the German Government was careful to maintain the economic agreements with Russia, and went so far, in 1933, as to renew the Pact of Mutual Non-Aggression for a further period of five years.

Moreover, Hitler was either unable or unwilling to break the liaison of the German General Staff with Moscow, and comparatively amicable relations were maintained on this level, due largely to the persistent efforts of General Putna, the Soviet military attaché in Berlin (later transferred to London), and General von Niedermayer, who, having succeeded Nicolai as chief liaison officer with the Red Army in the late twenties, was quickly appointed by the General Staff, on Hitler's advent to power, as military attaché in Moscow. By a curious anomaly these relations continued until the Russian military purge of July 1937 when the Chief of Staff of the Red Army, Marshal Tukhachevsky, and six other high-ranking officers, including General Putna, were court-martialed on a charge of high treason and summarily executed. In the drastic reorganization of the Reichswehr in February 1938, which followed certain disclosures concerning the lady whom Field Marshal von Blomberg had recently married (with Hitler and Goering as witnesses), the Fuehrer took occasion to dispense with the services of General von Fritsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr, and a dozen other senior general officers, many of whom had been nurtured in the Seeckt tradition. The liaison was thus brought to an abrupt termination.[ii]

One reason for Hitler's circumspection in his early dealings with the Soviet Union was that his first acts of terrorism and threatened aggression had produced an acute tension with the western Powers and with Italy, and he was anxious not to have all Europe against him simultaneously. Another reason was that, though undoubtedly planning against the Soviet Union, the Fuehrer also had designs on Poland; yet such was his guile that he wished to lull Poland into a state of false security while utilizing her as a cat's-paw against Russia. Thus, at the signing of a pact of non-aggression with Poland on January 26, 1934, the Fuehrer, and also Goering, impressed upon the Poles the evil which Weimar Germany had consistently worked with Russia against Poland, who, they insisted, had been the intended victim of the Rapallo policy. This, said the Nazi leaders to Pilsudski and Beck and Lipski, was all changed now; the Third Reich entertained only the friendliest feelings for Poland and was ready to protect her against the Soviet aggression.

In short, beginning in 1935, it became one of the chief objectives of Hitler's foreign policy to exacerbate Soviet-Polish relations and to dazzle the Poles with promises of gigantic territorial aggrandizement. In all their conversations with the Poles, the German leaders were studiously modest in describing their own prospective demands upon Russian territory. These, they said, were confined to annexing the Baltic States and establishing the paramount position of Germany on the Baltic Sea. Germany had not the slightest design upon the Ukraine, not even upon part of it, and looked upon this fertile land as the perquisite of Poland, to whose western Ukrainian provinces, taken from Russia in 1921 by the Treaty of Riga, it should be united.[iii] With these honeyed words the Nazi leaders pushed Poland forward against the Soviet Union, while at the same time preparing the destruction of the Polish state.


The Government of the Soviet Union was by no means blind to the new forces which now threatened it from the west. Perhaps because of the extreme Russian sensibility to the problem of security, perhaps because of the acute ideological antithesis which existed between National Socialism and Marxism, Russia was more vividly aware of the menace of Hitlerism than were many of the western Powers. She was concerned for her own safety from the militant Moloch which had appeared in central Europe, but she was also alive to the fact that this apparition might also react to her own advantage, since it would inevitably force the western Powers to woo Russia back to the family of European nations.

The calculations of Moscow proved exact. No sooner had Germany banged the door behind her after her final exit from Geneva in October 1933 than tentative feelers were put out toward a reconciliation with the Soviet Union. The first move came from France where Foreign Minister Louis Barthou, fearful of the imminence of a German-Polish rapprochement, was becoming more and more anxious to redress the balance of Europe by enlisting Russia's support.

The U.S.S.R. had certain reservations as to the advisability of joining the League, and at first said that a military alliance with France was a prerequisite. The French demurred on account of the provisions of the Locarno Agreement, under which France had incurred certain reciprocal obligations to Britain, Italy and Germany. Accordingly in May 1934, Louis Barthou and Maxim Litvinov agreed upon a tentative alternative for an "Eastern Locarno" pact, which should extend the provisions of the treaties concluded in 1925 among Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and France to include Russia, the Baltic States and Finland. The combined efforts of Britain and France failed to induce Germany or Poland to agree to such a proposal.[iv] As a result of these difficulties, and of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Europe, the Soviet Union agreed to enter the League without further preliminaries. She was accordingly elected to membership and to a permanent seat on the Council on September 15, 1934.[v] With considerable enthusiasm, born of a growing sense of danger, the Soviet Union threw itself into the work of building a system of European security against Nazi aggression -- a policy which the Nazis themselves at once described as "encirclement" of Germany.

Germany's announcement on March 16, 1935, that she had unilaterally repudiated the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and consequently had reintroduced compulsory military service and created an air force was the signal for open panic in the capitals of Europe. Though the Stresa Conference (April 11, 1935) gave the appearance of a united front in the face of this new example of Nazi ruthlessness, nothing was in fact further from the truth. Italy, already meditating her descent upon Ethiopia, was not disposed to take any part in sanctions against Germany; and scarcely was the ink dry on the Stresa Declaration when Britain was openly condoning the rearmament of Germany by initiating negotiations for the Anglo-German Naval Agreement which was finally signed on June 18.[vi]

The effect on France was to revive once more the flagging interest in Franco-Soviet relations. These had flourished under the trenchant realism of Louis Barthou but had languished when, on Barthou's assassination in October 1934, the reins of power had passed into the soiled hands of Pierre Laval. Now it was as if the ghost of Barthou rose and pointed the way, and Laval was stirred to sign a Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance in Paris on May 2, 1935, and subsequently to make a visit to Moscow (May 13-15.)[vii] This was what Russia had originally proposed just a year before at Geneva, but to safeguard the French commitments under Locarno, and to assuage the alarm of certain strata of the French political world who feared the effect on Germany -- as well as on France -- of an out-and-out treaty of alliance, an important protocol was appended to the Franco-Soviet Treaty by which Germany was invited to join as a contracting party, either at the time of signature or subsequently, thereby transforming the treaty into a tripartite agreement of non-aggression and mutual assistance. The protocol also made provision for the ultimate conclusion of a multilateral "Eastern Locarno" agreement as previously proposed by Barthou and Litvinov, which would include France's central and eastern European protégés and Russia's western neighbors.

The uncertainty of this palladium did not, however, satisfy the needs of Dr. Beneš, who perceived the menace of a Nazi Germany more clearly than any other European statesman. Anxious to reinsure the frontiers of Czechoslovakia against aggression, Beneš concluded on May 16, 1935, his own treaty with Moscow, identical with that signed two weeks previously between France and Russia, and designed to bring Russia to the assistance of Czechoslovakia, in the event of German aggression, as soon as France implemented those obligations incurred under the Franco-Czech Treaty signed in October 1925 at Locarno.

The Soviet Treaties with France and Czechoslovakia did not immediately provoke any outburst of resentment in Germany. In a speech to the Reichstag on May 21, Hitler gave as his reason for not joining the proposed Eastern Locarno pact simply that Germany's governing ideas were diametrically opposed to those of Soviet Russia; and he proclaimed Germany the "deadliest and most fanatical enemy" of Bolshevism. His actual references to the treaties were, however, of the mildest. This restraint was deceptive. The Fuehrer was deeply concerned at the new alignment. He was planning a further gesture of defiance toward the western Powers, to be delivered at the bidding of his "intuition." With considerable satisfaction he watched the growth of ill-feeling between London and Paris as a result of the Anglo-German naval agreement; and he was moderately confident that, given reasonably good fortune, he could insert the necessary wedges, not only between Britain and France, but between France and Russia also.


The moment for the new coup de théâtre came the following spring. Though the Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty had been ratified by both parties within a month of signature, the Treaty with Soviet Russia had hung fire in the Chamber of Deputies, largely due to Laval's deep distaste for the instrument to which he had been forced to put his hand and his marked preference for a deal with Germany. The Pact was, however, ratified by France on February 27, 1936.

Hitler's reply was dramatic and forceful. On March 7 he denounced the Rhineland Pact of 1925, which formed an integral part of the Locarno Agreement, on the grounds that that Agreement had been violated in spirit by the Soviet-French Treaty, which "it is an undisputed fact . . . is directed against Germany." Concurrently he announced the occupation of the demilitarized zone by German troops and dared the Locarno Powers to do their damnedest. Their damnedest was very little indeed and went no further, at the League Council meeting on March 19, than a spirited display of finger-shaking. Hitler, confident from the first that nothing would happen, but satisfied that he had damaged Franco-Soviet relations, now turned his serious attention to counterbalancing the new group of Powers by forming his own ideological alignment.

The Soviet decree of August 11, 1936, reducing the age of conscripts for the Red Army, received a swift answer from Germany. On August 24 the period of compulsory service in the Reichswehr was raised from one to two years; and the annual Congress of the National Socialist Party at Nuremberg in the following month was the signal for the declaration of a holy war against Bolshevism. In his speech on September 10, Goebbels denounced Czechoslovakia as an advance-base of Bolshevism in central Europe. Two days later, in an address to the Arbeitsdienst, the Fuehrer allowed himself a veiled revelation of territorial designs upon the Soviet Union: "If we had at our disposal the Urals, with their incalculable wealth of raw materials, the rich forests of Siberia and the unending cornfields of the Ukraine, under National Socialist Leadership the country would swim in plenty."

The hint was not lost in Moscow, and the reply came not from the mouth of Joseph Stalin or of Maxim Litvinov, the Foreign Commissar, but from Marshal Voroshilov, the People's Commissar for Defense, who in a radio address on September 16 assured the people of the Ukraine that "the Red Army will be fully able to meet the enemy wherever he prefers or whenever he turns his crazy attacks on Soviet territory."

By the autumn of 1936 Hitler's secret diplomatic negotiations bore strange fruit. On October 25, there was forged the Rome-Berlin Axis between the two Fascist Powers, and this was supplemented a month later (November 25) by a German agreement with Japan. This provided for coöperation against the activities of the Third International and for severe measures "against those who at home or abroad are engaged directly or indirectly in the service of the Communist International or promote its subversive activities." To this Anti-Comintern Pact there subsequently adhered Italy, Spain, Manchukuo and Hungary.

In concentrating his attack on the Comintern and not specifically upon the Soviet Union, Hitler displayed acute political perception. The French and British Governments, both of which were conservative in character, had an inherent distrust of Communist activities, and a fear that Moscow wished to precipitate a war among the capitalist powers from which Soviet ideology would reap the ultimate advantage. Many members of the Radical and Labor Parties in the two countries were also alienated from Moscow by the deep and abiding doctrinal cleavage between the Second International and the Third. By attacking "Communism" rather than "Russia," Hitler divided his antagonists on a doctrinal and ideological basis. He thus influenced them to refuse the aid proffered by the Soviet Union, for fear this should prove a Trojan Horse for the Comintern.

The year 1937 brought little improvement in Soviet-German relations. The two states clashed head-on over the issue of foreign intervention in the Spanish Civil War, and the Kremlin was impartially caustic both as regards the reprehensible nature of German and Italian policy and the supineness of Britain and France in allowing this policy to go unchecked. Indeed, throughout the year M. Litvinov, happy in the guise of an angel rushing in where fools fear to tread, whether at Geneva or at the Far Eastern Conference at Brussels, constituted himself denouncer-in-chief of Fascist aggression, and of the timidity of the western Powers and the League of Nations. He was ably seconded by M. Maisky at the meetings of the Non-Intervention Committee in London. But the forces of appeasement were too strong to be deterred by warnings, cajolery or scorn, and the reports of the treason trials in Moscow during 1936-1938 gave little confidence that all was well within the Soviet Union itself. The ideological war between Germany and Russia raged with ever-increasing fierceness and the day seemed approaching when it would develop into active hostilities.

On March 12, 1938, German troops crossed the Austrian frontier and the Anschluss of Austria with the German Reich was proclaimed two days later. This action, taken by Hitler in defiance of half a dozen guarantees and treaty pledges, was seized upon by the Soviet Union as an opportunity, perhaps the last, to rally the anti-Nazi forces. Three days after the Anschluss had been proclaimed, the Narkomindel addressed to the Governments of Britain, France and the United States a proposal for a conference to discuss collective action to prevent further German aggression. No suggestion could have been more unwelcome or have met with a more signal rejection. The United States was definitely unprepared, militarily, politically or morally, for any such departure, even though American opinion, both official and public, was wholeheartedly opposed to aggression. In Paris and London the Soviet plea for action was received with little short of horror, and was summarily rejected. Mr. Chamberlain informed the House of Commons, on March 24, that the Soviet proposals envisaged "less a consultation with a view to settlement than a concerting of action against an eventuality which has not yet arisen."

As the terrible year drew on and it became more and more clear that Czechoslovakia would become the victim of German rapacity and Allied appeasement, the Soviet Union became more vividly aware of the danger which this curious combination presented to herself. She took every opportunity to prove her willingness to fulfil her obligations to France and to Czechoslovakia; again and again this was emphasized in London, in Paris, in Prague, in Geneva and also in Berlin, to the acute embarrassment of the British and French Governments. According to all available evidence, the conduct of Russia was exemplary throughout the Czech crisis. She even went beyond the letter of her bond, threatening to denounce her non-aggression treaty with Poland if that state joined in an attack on Czechoslovakia; and finally, after the desertion of the Czechs by their French allies and the enforced abandonment by President Beneš of the Russian Alliance, the Soviet Government offered to give aid to Czechoslovakia if she should elect to resist German aggression, even if unsupported by France and Britain.[viii]

The Soviet efforts were destined to fail in every respect. The apparent willingness of Russia to fight proved an added source of suspicion to the western Powers. At no point during the spring or summer of 1938, nor during the last poignant days of September, does there appear to have been any serious intention in London or in Paris to consult with the Soviet Union or seek her coöperation. The fear and distrust of Bolshevism was stronger than the fear and distrust of National Socialism. "Better Hitler than Stalin" was a remark frequently heard in Paris that summer, and even in Prague itself the Agrarian Party opposed resisting German aggression with the sole support of the Red Army. "Better to be invaded by Hitler," they said, "than be saved by Voroshilov." It was alleged that in certain circles in London there was a secret hope that if the tide of German expansion could be turned eastward it would dissipate its force on the steppes of Russia in a struggle which would exhaust both combatants. Moscow was not unaware of this school of thought.

Thus for a variety of motives Russia found herself excluded from the Conference of Munich on September 29, 1938, and she regarded its consequences with mingled contempt and dismay. Among the consequences were the disappearance of France as a power-factor in central Europe; the expansion of Germany down the Danube; the naïve action of Britain and France in entering into Declarations of Friendship with Germany (October 1 and December 6); and the formal abrogation of the Mutual Assistance Pact with Czechoslovakia (October 21). The western Powers had abruptly terminated Russia's return to Europe by banging the door in her face.


In taking stock of his position after Munich, Stalin saw that it was only a matter of time before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. He considered that it would be impossible for the U.S.S.R. to bank upon the support of Britain and France. Security was Russia's vital necessity and her security depended upon the extension of the Soviet boundaries to the westward in order to provide an elastic defense against a German attack. This was the essential to be achieved at all costs. The means and the opportunity must be found, accordingly, in consonance with a policy of stark realism for survival. Such was the Soviet thesis.

The Russian suspicions of German intentions were wholly justified. The object of the Munich Agreement had been to eliminate Czechoslovakia as an independent military, political and economic factor, and to prepare for further German expansion toward Poland and Russia. The first directive alerting the Reichswehr for the destruction of the remnant of the Czechoslovak state was issued on October 21 -- just three weeks after the signature of the Munich Agreement -- but in order to mask his ultimate designs on Poland, Hitler continued to talk in terms of "a joint policy towards Russia on the basis of the Anti-Comintern Pact." [ix] Poland, caught as so frequently in her history between her two powerful neighbors, sought to appease both. She dared not break openly with Germany and yet was unwilling, even in these dangerous circumstances, to accept guarantees from Russia. To temporize, she agreed to the joint Soviet-Polish declaration of November 26, which stated that the relations between the two states were, and would continue to be, based "to the fullest extent" on their pact of mutual nonaggression.[x] By this means Poland sought to avoid the necessity of either joining the anti-Comintern front or of concluding a definitive alliance with Russia.

The year closed with Germany in a state of active preparation for war and Russia watchfully awaiting the next move from Berlin, while keeping the door to possible Anglo-French coöperation from being irrevocably barred. No one had long to wait. The annexation of Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939, destroyed the flickering, futile hopes in London and in Paris that an agreement with Germany might be reached by the method of appeasement and laid bare the necessity of preparing on a grand scale for the approaching trial of strength. The reaction of Russia to the destruction of the Czechoslovak state was defined in her note of protest to Germany in which she refused to recognize the Protectorate and described the action of the German Government as having "violated political stability in Central Europe and dealt a fresh blow to the security of peoples."[xi] On the same day (March 18) the Soviet Government proposed a conference of Great Britain, France, Poland, Turkey and the U.S.S.R. to clarify their position on German aggression,[xii] a proposal similar to the one it made after the annexation of Austria 12 months earlier. Now, as then, Mr. Chamberlain deemed this Soviet initiative to be "premature," but sought with France to build up, by means of guarantees to Poland (March 31) and other threatened states, a "peace bloc" which should deter Nazi Germany from further aggression. In his efforts to advance this objective he sought to enlist Soviet coöperation. Negotiations were begun by Lord Halifax with M. Maisky in London during the month of March but failed to develop, largely due to Poland's refusal to be associated with Russia. As a result Britain and France embarked on a policy of offering unilateral guarantees to those states menaced by German aggression, and in mid-April they again sought Soviet collaboration. The negotiations, begun in London, were transferred to Moscow in June, when Mr. William Strang was appointed to assist the British Ambassador, Sir William Seeds, in conducting them.

In the meantime Hitler was intensifying his demands to Poland for a right of way across the Corridor and the return to Germany of the Free City of Danzig. On March 21, Ribbentrop told the Polish Ambassador, M. Lipski, that Germany expected an immediate solution of the Danzig question -- on Germany's terms -- but accompanied this information by a proposal to create a German-Polish military union against Soviet Russia.[xiii] The Poles temporized and received in due course on March 31 the guarantee from Britain to supplement the Franco-Polish Treaties of 1921 and 1925.

By the end of April, Hitler had learned of the tentative proposals being made to Russia by Britain and France, and with that quick volte-face of which only totalitarian rulers are capable he abandoned his previous approaches to Poland and determined to out-bid the western Powers. Forthwith the Soviet Ambassador was summoned to the German Foreign Office and the Soviet Military Attaché to the offices of the German General Staff.[xiv] Both officials left immediately for Moscow.

Though there is no doubt that the German protagonists, Hitler and Ribbentrop, pursued a policy of the deepest duplicity and bad faith in the negotiations which followed, there is reason to believe that some of Hitler's advisers were probably sincere in wanting a pro-Russian policy. One such was the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count von der Schulenburg, the disciple of Maltzan and Brockdorff-Rantzau and almost the last of the eastern school in the German Foreign Office. The idea of signing a pact of non-aggression with Russia would represent to him the return of German foreign policy to the sanity of Bismarck's genius, and he undoubtedly played his rôle in the drama with a zealous sincerity and enthusiasm, not contemplating treachery.[xv]

Thus by April the contest was on between Berlin and London for the favors of the Kremlin. Hitler was prepared on the grounds of expediency to purchase Soviet neutrality during his projected attack upon Poland at the price of territorial concessions on Poland's western boundary. On the other hand, Mr. Chamberlain, now become a mighty warrior before the Lord, was prepared to sink his mistrust of Soviet Russia in the furthering of his grand design of creating a "peace bloc" against Hitler. But he did not know what Russia's terms might be, and he had given a guarantee to Poland without first discovering whether the Poles would accept Russian help.

Stalin was suspicious of both Hitler and Chamberlain. He knew well that both were driven to their present pass by sheerest necessity. He knew that many members of the Conservative Party disliked and feared the Soviet régime almost as much as did Hitler and the Nazi Party. If either Hitler or Chamberlain could have got along without Russia, he certainly would have done so. Stalin, believing that a war which would sooner or later embroil Russia against Germany was now inevitable, and considering the interests of Russian security paramount, pitched his terms to the maximum point at which these interests could best be safeguarded.

In so doing Stalin was reverting to the age-old Russian policy of the Peredyshka (the breathing-space), pursued by Alexander I in dealing with Napoleon at Tilsit in 1807 and by Lenin in negotiating the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk 110 years later. Russia was not sufficiently prepared to withstand the military might of Germany in 1939. She needed time to make up the leeway in her armaments program; above all she needed additional territory in the west to provide for her defense in depth. She was prepared to follow the same course which Britain and France had pursued at Munich -- to buy peace and time for preparation at the expense of small nations. But she intended to be more successful.

The Russian price was high. The terms which she stated both to Germany and to Britain and France demanded a free hand in the Baltic states. If she received this from the western Powers, together with provision for mutual aid among the three Powers, she would join in guarantees to Poland and Rumania; if from Germany, she would remain neutral while the German armies attacked Poland, but would demand a say in the settlement which followed. She also required from Germany that Rumania should re-cede the province of Bessarabia, which had been taken from Russia without her consent in 1920 by the Conference of Paris.

The Baltic states recoiled from the prospect of Soviet "protection" and sought refuge in treaties of non-aggression with Germany and in declarations of neutrality. At the same time Poland and Rumania, for whom Russian assistance was sought, refused to countenance the presence of Red Army troops on their territory, knowing full well that the slogan of Joseph Stalin was somewhat akin to that of Surtees' immortal Mr. Jorrocks: "Where I dines I sleeps."

The parallel negotiations dragged on through the late spring and into the summer with but one clear indication as to which group of suitors was the more favored. Maxim Litvinov, the protagonist of collective security and coöperation with the western Powers, was retired on May 3 from the post of Commissar for Foreign Affairs, to be succeeded by Vyacheslav Molotov, who was believed to be an advocate of an "agreement of accommodation" with Germany.

The British and the French could not bring themselves to condone the annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union, for the demands of Russia were tantamount to that, since the protection of small states against aggression was now the touchstone of their policy. Nor could they see their way to comply with the military conditions required by Russia.[xvi] Meanwhile the German threats to Poland were becoming more and more violent, and news was reaching London of the growing rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow. On August 11 Mr. Strang left Moscow without the negotiations having been brought to a successful conclusion, and for a brief moment the diplomats were replaced as negotiators by military and naval missions. But by August 25 these too had failed and had departed. Meanwhile the German negotiators in Berlin and in Moscow had pressed their advantage, accepting the Russian terms in toto and throwing in for good measure an offer for the partition of Poland. Hitler could afford to be more generous because he intended to take all this territory -- and more to boot -- from Russia in the fullness of time.[xvii] The end of the tragi-comedy was reached on August 23, two days before the British and French military missions departed, when Ribbentrop and Molotov signed a Pact of Non-Aggression as well as a Secret Agreement embodying the price exacted by Russia and paid by Germany for the first document.[xviii]

By this "Pact of Mutual Suspicion" both parties had gained their immediate objectives. Germany had obtained Russian neutrality in the attack upon Poland and had secured her rear in the event of a war with Britain and France. Russia, on the other hand, had gained her Peredyshka. The fact that she was able to withstand the initial onslaught of the German armies in their surprise attack on June 22, 1941, is evidence of the good use to which she put it, and provides justification for Stalin's consistent suspicion of German intentions. Yet though Stalin undoubtedly entertained these suspicions of Germany, he was almost equally distrustful of the western Powers, whom he suspected of consistent efforts to inveigle Russia into the war against Germany. It was this belief which prompted him to reject all warnings which reached him from British and American sources regarding the forthcoming German attack as unsolicited meddling and transparently self-interested.

Within a month of the signature of the Soviet-German Agreement the two Powers had repeated the blasphemy of Frederick the Great in completing the Fourth Partition of Poland, and it seemed as if a blood-brotherhood had been consummated. Yet two years later Germany and Russia were at each other's throats; and thus they remained until the final nemesis of Potsdam (August 1945) when Russia participated with Britain, France and the United States in partitioning Germany. A new phase of Soviet-German relations now opened, of which, as John Brown remarked on an historic occasion: "The end is not yet."

[i] Poland was at this time indulging in a number of chauvinistic adventures, e.g., the seizure of Vilna from Lithuania in 1920, the attack on Russia in the same year, and the Upper Silesian episode of 1921 with Germany.

[ii] In 1935 Hitler told M. Josef Lipski, the Polish Ambassador in Berlin, that General von Schleicher "was rightfully murdered, if only because he had sought to maintain the Rapallo Treaty." (Polish White Book, "Official Documents Concerning Polish-German and Polish-Soviet Relations, 1933-1939," London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., p. 29 and 216.) Thereby Hitler indicated -- for the benefit of Poland at least -- that he had endeavored to break off the Russo-German General Staff relations at an early date after his advent to power. It will be remembered, however, that this was not the reason which Hitler gave for von Schleicher's murder in his address to the Reichstag of July 17, 1934, when he assumed full responsibility for the Blood Purge of June 30.

[iii] Polish White Book, op. cit., p. 26.

[iv] However, Poland did on May 5, 1934, renew for a period of 11 years the Treaty of Non-Aggression signed with the U.S.S.R. on July 25, 1932.

[v] Soviet membership in the League terminated on December 14, 1939, when, as a result of her attack on Finland, the Council resolved that "by its own actions, the Soviet Union has expelled itself from the League of Nations."

[vi] The significance of the date, the 120th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, was not lost upon France, who had not been consulted.

[vii] With a certain puckish humor the Soviet authorities took the occasion of Laval's visit to the Bolshoi Theater to give the first performance of the new ballet, "Paris en Flammes."

[viii] Just what form Soviet assistance could have taken and how efficacious it would have proved is difficult to say. Poland and Rumania had expressed unwillingness to permit passage of Red Army troops through their territory unless Germany had been formally proclaimed an aggressor by the League of Nations. The only possible assistance, therefore, was from the air, and in this branch the Red Army was not strong. Nor had Russian and Czech aircraft types been standardized.

[ix] October 24, 1938 (Polish White Book, op. cit., p. 47).

[x]Ibid. p. 181.

[xi]Soviet Russia To-day. April 1939. p. 5-6.

[xii]Ibid. May 1939. p. 6.

[xiii] Polish White Book, op. cit., p. 61.

[xiv] French Yellow Book. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940, p. 148.

[xv] It is of interest to note that Count von der Schulenburg, together with the few remaining survivors of the Seeckt school on the General Staff, was among those executed by Hitler after the abortive putsch of July 20, 1944.

[xvi] According to M. Daladier's recent defense of his policy before the French Constituent Assembly, the British and French Governments did finally overcome their objections in this respect. M. Daladier accordingly telegraphed instructions to the head of the French Military Mission to sign the military convention. General Doumenc received the telegram the evening of August 21. Early next morning he requested a meeting of the military missions for that afternoon. But by this time Ribbentrop was on his way from Berlin and Marshal Voroshilov put the general off with vague evasions. As General Doumenc left the interview he heard the press report that Ribbentrop would arrive in Moscow the next day. (See Journal Officiel de la République Française, July 19, 1946, p. 2681.)

[xvii] On August 15 the German Secretary of State, Baron von Weizsaecker, hinted to Sir Nevile Henderson "that the U.S.S.R. would even in the end join in sharing in the Polish spoils." (Cf. British Blue Book, "Documents concerning German-Polish Relations and the Outbreak of Hostilities between Great Britain and Germany on September 3, 1939." New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939, p. 119.)

[xviii] The contents of this latter agreement was published in the press of Britain and the United States two days later, and was confirmed by Baron von Weizsaecker in evidence before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg on May 21, 1946. A German-Soviet Commercial Treaty had been previously signed on August 19.

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  • JOHN W. WHEELER-BENNETT, author of "The Wooden Titan," "The Forgotten Peace: Brest-Litovsk, March, 1918" and other works; founder of the Bulletin of International News
  • More By John W. Wheeler-Bennett