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Dangerous Liaisons

Der Teufelspakt: Die deutsch-russischen Beziehungen vom Ersten zum Zweiten Weltkrieg

by Sebastian Haffner
Zurich: Manesse Verlag, 153 pp., sf15.50

The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939–1941

by Anthony Read, by David Fisher
Norton, 687 pp., $25.00

Between Churchill and Stalin: The Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the Origins of the Grand Alliance

by Steven Merritt Miner
University of North Carolina Press, 319 pp., $36.00

One of the most attractively situated restaurants in West Berlin is Nikolskoe, a Russian blockhouse that stands, together with a small church with an onion-shaped cupola, on a height above the Havel and provides its guests, as they dine on wild boar and other specialties, with a fine view of the Isle of Peacocks and the landscape of Mark Brandenburg on the other side of the water. The house, built in 1819, was the gift of the Prussian king Frederick William III to his son-in-law, the later Russian czar Nicholas I, and his wife Charlotte and was modeled after a blockhouse in St. Petersburg in which the king and the young married couple had spent happy hours. Charlotte promptly installed her coachman-in-ordinary, Ivan Bockow, in Nikolskoe, and he was soon dispensing schnapps, and later food, to the local peasantry, a practice that has continued. The church, St. Peter and Paul, was built in the Russian style by August Stüler and A.D. Schadow in 1837.

In the nineteenth century Nikolskoe was more than a symbol of royal kinship; it was in its small way a reminder of a political-military relationship, the collaboration between the Russian and Prussian monarchies in the liberation of Germany from Napoleon Bonaparte. A more concrete commemoration of that comradeship in arms was the exchange of personal adjutants between the sovereigns, a custom begun before the war was over. These officers were attached to the royal and imperial suites and served as military plenipotentiaries, reporting directly to their respective sovereigns rather than to their foreign offices or war departments. They had considerable latitude in foreign affairs, so much so that Bismarck, when he was in charge of Germany’s foreign relations, constantly complained that the military plenipotentiary in St. Petersburg was privy to information that he did not always divulge to the embassy staff and that, since he was not bound by instructions from the Foreign Ministry, there was always the possibility that he would contradict or undermine its policy. Nevertheless, the exchange continued, despite the vagaries of diplomatic relations, until the very eve of the First World War.

Between the two governments intimate relations were almost as continuous. From 1815 to 1854, Prussia, Austria, and Russia were allies in everything but a formal sense, bound together by ideological affinity and opposition to the more liberal Western powers. Although the Crimean War brought an estrangement, when Austria signed an alliance with Russia’s adversaries and Prussia remained neutral, this lasted only until 1863, when Prussia’s assistance to Russia in suppressing the insurrection in Poland effected a reconciliation between Berlin and St. Petersburg. As Bismarck subsequently plotted the course that led, by way of war with Denmark, Austria, and France, to German unification, he received valuable backing from the Russians. Thereafter, in the dangerous years that were the legacy of almost a decade of violence, Bismarck regarded the tie with Russia, renewed and formalized in 1881, as the best assurance against yet more violence, which would, he said in 1883, “place the survival of the European order in jeopardy.”

By the influence it gave him in Russian counsels, the Russo-German alliance stabilized conditions in southeastern Europe, where war between Russia and Germany’s other ally Austria was, in the early 1870s, always imminent, and in Russia itself it erected a barrier against revolutionary Pan-Slavism and the possibility of its allying with French republicanism in a general assault upon the European system. The Russian connection was Bismarck’s reinsurance treaty, as it was indeed called in its last incarnation, and when his successors allowed it to lapse after 1890 Europe’s rapid slide into bipolarity, confrontation, crisis, and war demonstrated how important it had been. That importance should not, of course, be exaggerated, but after the collapse of three great empires and the destruction of the old European balance, Germans may be forgiven for having believed that their troubles began when the great pilot was dropped and his system abandoned.

It was not surprising then that some Germans should dream of its restoration. Among German intellectuals, for example, there was no great disposition to follow the counsel of the historian and philosopher Ernst Troeltsch, who in 1922 challenged his fellows to try to overcome the gulf between Germany and the West by cultivating the ideas of natural law and humanity that had been implicit in the Enlightenment but had never taken root in Germany. The passions engendered by the war and the Versailles Treaty discouraged that sort of thing, while encouraging the notion, advanced in Thomas Mann’s wartime book Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, that an enlightenment that was defined in political terms, as in the West, was alien to the German soul, and the related view, spread by reactionary thinkers like Arthur Moeller van den Bruck and Oswald Spengler, that the West was the home not only of a liberalism that encouraged everything that was flabby and corrupt but, in Spengler’s words, of “the frightful form of soulless, purely mechanical capitalism, which attempts to master all activities and stifles every free independent impulse and all individuality” and of modern science, which was its handmaiden.1

In contrast, many German intellectuals were fascinated by the great experiment that was being made in what had been the Russian Empire, some because they fancied, like Hermann Hesse, that the best hope for an exhausted and demoralized Europe lay in “a turning back to Asia, to the source, to the Faustian Mothers and will necessarily lead, like every death on earth, to a new birth,”2 others because the raw energy of the new Bolshevik state attracted and repelled them at the same time. Recalling his mood in 1919, when he served as a volunteer protecting the Baltic lands against Bolshevik incursions, Ernst von Salomon wrote:

Over there, a burning compulsion, a mad will, a divine fanaticism, a unique faith that holds the disarrayed hordes of soldiers and peasants in an iron hand, gives the forlorn a mission, hammers the tatterdemalions into heroes, and transforms the abandoned into conquerors…. We were stragglers, behind us no people, no Reich. We lay here now in this foreboding darkness; we sought an entry to the world, and Germany lay somewhere behind us in the fog,…while over there in the secret gloom hid that unknown, that formless power that we half admired and half hated.3

The forging of the new Russian tie was, however, the work not of intellectuals but of men who were quite devoid of mysticism or poetic sentiment or even historical sentimentality, the diplomats and the soldiers. As Sebastian Haffner points out in his concise but pregnant essay on the Russo-German relationship between the world wars, it was these eminently practical men who were in a real sense the godfathers of the Bolshevik state, because, when they realized that Germany could not win the First World War by military means alone, they devised the plan to transport the Bolshevik leader Lenin from his exile in Zurich through Germany and Finland to Russia, counting on his ability to seize power (which, incidentally, meant the destruction of the regime that had been Germany’s friend and ally during most of the nineteenth century) and withdraw Russia from the conflict. This alliance with Bolshevism was the beginning of a long and tortured relationship, which Haffner calls a pact with the devil for both sides, by which he means, I suppose, one whose benefits in the end had frightful material and moral costs.

The first fruits of the new relationship were mixed for both partners. Lenin was doubtless, as Haffner says, “the German secret- and wonder-weapon, the political atom bomb of the First World War,” and Russia was indeed knocked out of the conflict, but this did not bring total victory, not least of all because Ludendorff’s desire to build a new empire in the East at the expense of the Bolsheviks diverted German energies from the task of winning the war in the West. On the other side, the ties of the Russian revolutionaries with Germany made the creation of the Bolshevik state possible in the first place and, as Haffner takes pains to point out, saved the Soviet Union from complete isolation in 1918. But when, in March 1918, Germany successfully demanded at Brest-Litovsk that Russia give up the Ukraine, as well as its Polish and Baltic territories and Finland, this alienated much of the Russian population from the Bolshevik leaders and doubtless added to the passion and suffering of the civil war. If the Bolshevik leaders clung to the German alliance, it was because they were convinced that it was only a question of time before revolution would triumph in Berlin and lay the ideological basis for a healthier alliance. But the November Revolution in Germany ended not in a socialist state but in a bourgeois republic, and no amount of Bolshevik subversion inside Germany could alter that result. In the end, the Bolsheviks accepted this cheerfully enough and in order to remake the Russo-German alliance sat down with the same people who sent Lenin to St. Petersburg, the diplomats and the soldiers.

The fact that they and the Germans were outcasts in postwar Europe made that a logical thing to do. When the Bolsheviks attended their first international conference, the omnium-gatherum arranged by Lloyd George at Genoa in 1922, they were confronted with the possibility of a condominium of the other powers to exact from them the repayment of czarist debts and other concessions that would place their economy under foreign control. On their side, the German delegation, led by Walter Rathenau, was persuaded by the coolness with which its members were treated by their host that it was going to be subjected to new demands for reparations. It was not hard for the Soviet foreign minister Chicherin to persuade Rathenau that they would both benefit from a pact of friendship, which was promptly concluded at Rapallo on Easter Sunday and had an effect almost as startling as that of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, blowing the Genoa Conference to smithereens.

There were no military clauses in the Rapallo Treaty, but the soldiers had been in touch for some time. In 1921 the German War Ministry had received a request for assistance in building up the Soviet armaments industry, and General von Seeckt, the chief of the army command, had for some time had a special unit studying possibilities of cooperation with the Red Army. From these beginnings, there evolved an elaborate system that enabled the Germans to evade the arms clauses of the Versailles Treaty by sending officers to the Soviet Union for tank and aircraft training and provided the Red Army with new airfields and armaments and poison gas factories and the additional benefit of tactical instruction from German specialists. Sebastian Haffner, who has a penchant for paradox, writes that not only was “the German Wehrmacht that almost dealt a death-blow to Soviet Russia in 1941…trained in its decisive ranks in the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1933” but, while “the Russians let the Germans develop and master in their own land the weapons with which they would almost conquer the country, the Germans in the same years were the teachers of those who would later vanquish them.” Those possibilities did not, of course, occur to the German and Soviet officers who were by the end of the 1920s conducting joint war games and staff exercises, and it is more likely that in the back of some of their minds lay the dream of future collaboration against Poland, “a conception,” Haffner says, “that continued the old Prusso-Russian tradition.”

  1. 1

    Oswald Spengler, Briefe 1919–1936, edited by Anton M. Kontanek and Manfred Schröter (Munich: 1963), p. 203.

  2. 2

    Hermann Hesse, “The Brothers Karamazoff, or The Downfall of Europe,” in Eugen Weber, ed., Paths to the Present (Dodd, Mead, 1960), p. 227.

  3. 3

    Ernst von Salomon, Die Geächteten (1930; new edition, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1962), p. 50.

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