Faustian Bargain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Adolf Hitler gets the blame for lighting the fuse of World War II, and for good reason. Yet Germany had a partner in Soviet Russia, not only during the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 but well before, starting with the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Without his enablers in Moscow, it’s hard to imagine that Hitler would have dared go to war against the rest of Europe.

In “Faustian Bargain” (Oxford, 384 pages, $29.95), Ian Ona Johnson shows how extensive Russia’s help was. He begins the story at the end of World War I, which had left the world with two pariah states: Germany because it had begun hostilities, Russia because the Bolshevik Revolution had transformed the country from a wartime ally to a postwar menace. Hardly had the ink dried on the punitive peace treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 than the two pariahs joined forces.

As Mr. Johnson chronicles, Russia offered a place for the German army to develop weapons and train men in violation of the treaty that its civilian government had just signed. In return, Russia would learn how to modernize the Red Army, huge in size but badly trained and poorly equipped. The agreement was formalized at Rapallo, Italy. “Poland must and will be wiped off the map,” wrote Gen. Hans von Seeckt, the man who established Sondergruppe Russland (Special Group Russia), the bureau that would manage military relations between Germany and Russia. Seeckt was referring, of course, to the country that Versailles had resurrected between them. (Poland had been divided between Germany, Russia and the now-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire.) “It was not an unfair peace that motivated Seeckt and his fellow officers,” Mr. Johnson writes. “It was the far more ambitious aim of reversing Germany’s defeat in the First World War.”

Mr. Johnson, who teaches military history at Notre Dame, draws on American, British, German, Polish and Russian archives to describe a “secret school of war.” The resulting book has an academic flavor, but it’s consistently interesting and spiced by the occasional scandal, including one in which a German naval officer brings his Russian girlfriend home to Germany, supporting her through a movie studio he purchased with government money, planning to use it for military propaganda. When the studio goes bankrupt, damning details emerge, triggering high-level resignations and bringing to light “the breadth of Germany’s commitment to rearm.”

In the 1920s, without troubling the civilian government in Berlin, the Reichswehr (German defense force) set up a ring of bases south and east of Moscow. German companies like Junkers and Krupp contracted directly with the Soviet government to manufacture warplanes in Russia, deliver coveted German-built locomotives and train Red Army technicians. Versailles had banned all offensive weapons, but the “Black Reichswehr” in Russia included warplanes, battle tanks and poison gas. Russia, for its part, learned alongside the Germans. Stalin was so interested in Krupp’s tank designer Eduard Grotte that he ordered that the man be kept in Russia by “all measures up to arrest.”

It’s chilling to learn how much time and money Germany and Russia devoted to chemical warfare, hoping to develop gas bombs to be dropped from high altitude upon enemy cities. In the end, the effort failed. “The vision of cities obliterated by mustard gas was fading,” Mr. Johnson says of the situation in 1931, “with a war of machines—tanks and planes—rising in its place.”

Armored warfare seems to have been the most successful collaboration. The Reichswehr developed the doctrine: Heavy tanks with large guns were more valuable than speedy vehicles; they should be deployed in mass and accompanied by motorized infantry. Companies in Germany built the prototype Panzers, as they were called, and shipped them to Russia disguised as farm tractors.

. . . .

When Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, his obsession with “Jewish Bolshevism” cooled the relationship with Moscow. Nor did he worry about adhering to the terms of Versailles. The official and “black” Reichswehrs merged into the wartime Wehrmacht, with conscription supporting a huge army with modern tanks and a fully fledged air force, all made possible by Soviet Russia.

Cooperation between the two countries began again in August 1939, when Hitler and Stalin agreed to a “nonaggression pact.” The Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, the Russians on the 17th, and the two armies met at Brest-Litovsk on the 22nd.

. . . .

Meanwhile, German machinery, weapons and technology flowed east, and Russian oil, grain and raw materials helped equip and feed the Wehrmacht that occupied most of Western Europe in 1940. More quietly, the Soviet Union absorbed half of Poland, the Baltic countries, and strategic pieces of Romania and Finland. The mutual exchange continued until the Sunday morning in June 1941 when Germany crashed into the Soviet Union. “Invading German forces,” Mr. Johnson tells us, “marched on rubber boots made with materiel shipped over the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Their rations included Soviet grain, which had continued to arrive up to the very day of the invasion.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG has read a great deal of 20th century history, but the OP was the first time he had learned that extensive cooperation between Germany and Russia began in 1922 instead of 1939.

PG notes that the publisher of the book discussed in the OP, Oxford University Press, has elected to release the book in hardcover only, at least for the moment. PG may or may not check back later to see if an ebook is available or, more likely, put a hold on the book through his public library.

The author of the book, Ian Ona Johnson, is a an Assistant Professor of Military History at the University of Notre Dame who looks very young (which is a more revealing statement about PG than it is about Dr. Johnson). His author page does mention that he and his wife are the owners of a dog named Patton.

Speaking of his local public library, several years ago, PG and Mrs. PG culled their physical book collection to the tune of at least a couple of thousand books by donating them to that library. The librarian who accepted the donation glanced at the books and told PG that the library was likely to keep some of them instead of selling all of them off. Evidently, that was a compliment that the librarian did not customarily deliver when accepting book donations.

PG just checked and he still has nine oak bookcases (6 feet tall, except for one that is 7 feet tall, made to fit in a niche in a gone-but-not-forgotten law office and a bit tippy if not secured to the wall behind it, made by a former client of PG who owned a furniture factory in exchange for PG’s legal services).

Each of these bookcases is filled with physical books that will also make a trip to the local public library with the help of a couple of burly young men as and when Mrs. PG is willing to let them go.

1 thought on “Faustian Bargain”

Comments are closed.