History of Europe

#Onthisday in 1926: the Treaty of Berlin

On the footsteps of Rapallo, the Treaty brought two pariah States together

Germany and the Soviet Union have had a complicated relationship throughout their respective histories, to say the least. This often antagonistic relationship has also seen times of cooperation and friendship, however. To us today, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact might seem an anomaly, a case of “politics makes for strange bedfellows”. In reality, other such unholy alliances had taken place before – most famously with the Treaties of Rapallo and Berlin.

In fact, one could argue that the Nazi-Soviet pact was yet another step in a somewhat natural German-Slavic alliance building. Already back in the days of Otto von Bismarck, Germany sought closer bonds with Russia and considered it to be of great importance to its security. And even though Hitler openly planned to steal Slavic territory in the East for German colonization, and to eradicate and enslave the Slavic peoples, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was possible precisely because the two powers had found common grounds in the past.

Two pariah States working together

The Treaty of Rapallo, which came in 1922, was the first such act of arch-pragmatism in Soviet-German relations. It was, in fact, quite natural, for Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia to seek closer bonds. Germany felt utterly crushed and humiliated after the Treaty of Versailles, and nobody in the West even wanted to look at the Bolsheviks. The two countries were therefore effectively pariah States before the international community, which made them companions in their isolation.

Rapallo happened in the context of the Genoa Conference (April 10 to May 19, 1922), which stood and fell with a minimum of European common sense. It was designed by Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, to arouse new interest in European problems and in solutions that would benefit each of the participating countries. There were numerous and difficult subjects to be dealt with at the conference: the economic reconstruction of Europe; steps toward political detente and reconciliation; joint agreements with Soviet Russia on financial claims, economic development, and diplomatic recognition; and security problems.

Berlin Rapallo
David Lloyd George, one of the more important statesmen during the post-WW1 era

Despite some preliminary disagreements, the Genoa Conference marked the postwar return of Soviet Russia and Germany to an important conference on an equal footing with the other major powers. Not surprisingly, their actions attracted the most attention from contemporary observers and from subsequent historians as well. The Russian delegation was suspected of conspiring to harm the conference in order to exploit its chances to the utmost. But what caused the Germans to renounce the common effort of the Great Powers to reach a comprehensive agreement with Soviet Russia? Why did they conclude a separate treaty with the Soviet delegation, although knowing they risked wrecking the conference by doing so?

Berlin’s unilateralism had severe repercussions, and Rapallo was by no means the dawn of a bright future for German foreign policy. The signing day of this widely discussed treaty between Moscow and Berlin opened neither a new clear horizon nor a brilliant prospect for Germany’s return to power. The German negotiators looked tense and exhausted, and immediately after the signing ceremonies, they had to explain, excuse, and defend what they had done.

Going for broke: the Treaty of Rapallo

Rapallo became the catchword for sudden, shocking, and spectacular, as well as dangerous, agreements and forms of cooperation between Germany and Russia. It also gave a modern expression and a confirmation of deeper and older fears . In the famous Adams-Jefferson correspondence, after the German Wars of Liberation in the Summer of 1814, John Adams had been troubled by the gloomy prospects of Russo-German dominance of Europe. “What may happen?” he had asked. “Could Wellingtons or Bonapartes resist them?” Many in Europe asked similar questions after Rapallo.

German foreign policy really got into trouble as a consequence of the breakdown of the Genoa Conference. It was a risky gamble that Germany might substantially improve its international relationship with Soviet Russia, thereby continuously threatening other European powers with a close Russo-German tie on all levels, demonstrating domestically as well as internationally a strong sense of national independence.

Rapallo Berlin
Characters who participated in the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922, which sanctioned the peace treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the photo: Joseph Wirth, Leonid Krasin, Georgy Chicherin and Adolf Joffe.

The domestic situation in Germany was desperate at the time. Pressure was mounting on the minority government of Joseph Wirth from right-wing parties and nationalists in all camps. Wirth himself, though a sincere democrat, was a nationalist. The advantages of inflation had become, at best, doubtful. The basis of foreign trade, vital to the German economy, had become shaky. All this threatened German stability and the social compromise upon which the Weimar Republic was based. A success in foreign policy was urgently needed, as it would reduce the – exaggerated – pressure of the Allies and open new prospects of economic gains abroad.

 

This situation helps explain Rapallo, although the possible consequences were known in advance: the Genoa Conference could end in a complete failure; the British could be alienated and forced to align themselves again with France; and the French could feel confirmed in their disapproving attitude toward this and similar conferences, and the occupation of the Ruhr would become an imminent danger. A Russo-German alliance was a nightmare to the Western powers, and to the French in particular.

Despite these considerations, the treaty was indeed signed on April 16, 1922. In it, Germany and Soviet Russia agreed to renounce all territorial and financial claims they had on each other, and it was considered an “update” of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, meant to normalize relations. It established diplomatic relations between the two, making Germany the first European country to recognise the USSR. The later Treaty of Berlin might be considered yet another continuation of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and would build upon the foundations laid at Rapallo.

Deal with the devil: Soviet-German military cooperation

Berlin Rapallo
Hans von Seeckt

The following summer, the German Reichswehr and the Soviet Red Army held a series of secret summits during which they crafted a framework for military cooperation. At first, Hans von Seeckt (chief of staff for the Reichswehr from 1919 to 1920 and commander in chief of the German Army from 1920 until he resigned in October 1926) envisioned German military-industrial firms moving banned production and research to the Soviet Union. His staff earmarked considerable portions of the Reichswehr’s “black funds” – financial resources hidden from the German government – to subsidize these programs.

The first cooperative base to open was a flight school located at Lipetsk, a city some 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow. Beginning in 1924, the Soviet Air Force invited German pilots to the Lipetsk Air Field to participate in flight training. A year later, the Soviet Air Force transferred the facility to the German military, although part of the agreement required the Germans to train Soviet officers and mechanics at the facility.

Unholy alliance: the Treaty of Berlin

The Treaty of Rapallo, as has been mentioned, was to have far-reaching consequences, but most of those ended up being in German favor in the long run. The Dawes Plan (1924) and the later Young Plan (1929) extended and mitigated the reparations levied on Germany at the Treaty of Versailles, pushing the deadlines into the 1980s.

Even more momentously, Germany was promised territorial integrity with the Treaty of Locarno (1925), in which England compelled France to accept that she could not invade the Rhineland again to force payment from Germany. This move was sponsored by London, and favored by the United States, to make Germany feel secure and thus more invested in peace, trade and the payment of reparations. With its western frontier now secure, Berlin could now focus on the East.

Berlin Rapallo
Fokker D.XIII, one type of aircraft tested at Lipetsk

The Treaty of Berlin reaffirmed all the principles of Rapallo: territorial and financial claims dating back to the Great War were explicitly renounced by both parties. The Treaty of Berlin, however, added new clauses to Rapallo: the two powers guaranteed neutrality towards each other for five years in case one of them got under attack by a foreign power, thus seeking to mirror in the East the territorial security now promised in the West, and complicating the position of Poland – a regional power with territorial claims on both German and Soviet territory.

Did you enjoy this article? Discover more about our series #OnThisDay

Credits for the featured map go to Halibutt.

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