Book Review: Faustian Bargain-The Soviet-German Partnership And The Origins of the Second World War

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Author: Ian Ona Johnson.  Published by Oxford University Press.

It would be safe to say that World War I set up the circumstances for The Great Depression and World War II and that World War II set the stage for the Cold War and the growth of the worldwide welfare state. Thus the two wars coming some twenty years apart, with the worldwide depression in between, really does much to explain both the 20th century and even the 21st century.

For these reasons, studying both wars and the Depression is worthwhile. Insofar as World War II history is concerned, both the history profession and popular culture have been German-centric. For example how many movies have you seen featuring Nazis as opposed to movies that feature Stalin?

After reading this book, it is also fairly obvious that WWII really started almost immediately after WWI, and the team that started it, at least in Europe, were Russia and Germany. Aggression was not limited to Hitler.

We earlier reviewed Sean McMeekin’s magnificent Stalin’s War, a book heavily relying on recent access to Russian archives, that has reshaped our view of World War II. It was indeed Stalin’s War, in that he helped start it and profited the most from it. The West went to war (or at least Britain and France did) to save Poland. In the Pacific region, the U.S. got crossways with Japan over their atrocities in China. At the end of the conflict, Russia got Poland, the rest of Eastern Europe, half of Germany, North Korea, and China. Not a bad haul for having a hand at starting the whole thing.

McMeekin’s book concentrates on the role of U.S. Lend-Lease programs, Roosevelt’s diplomatic bungling, and the Soviet spy penetration of the Roosevelt Administration. He certainly mentions the pre-war relationship between two strange bedfellows, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But this relationship was not the primary focus of his book.

Professor Ian Ona Johnson of Notre Dame University fills in additional details about the pre-war relationship with another breakthrough work that again concentrates on the recently available Soviet archives.  

Most of us think of this relationship as starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty or what is commonly called the Hitler Stalin Pact, which dates from 1939.

However, military cooperation between the new Soviet Union and Germany began as early as 1919, right after the end of the Great War. It was codified in the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. Military, technological, and economic ties grew deeper throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, long before the rise of Hitler

Both nations felt slighted by the English-French order established for Europe and so they decided to form a strategic partnership between the aristocratic German military and the new Russian revolutionary government that openly declared the goal of worldwide communism. On the German side, this continued even during the period of the Weimar Republic, often without full knowledge of the fleeting democratic government.

Germany built large bases to build and perfect aircraft at Lipestak and a large base for tank development at Kama. The earliest cooperation was to develop poison gas, aircraft, and aircraft engines.

Germany got a secret place to develop air superiority tactics, new radio coordination of armor and tactical air assets, and new tank technology. Russia got technology that they both purchased and stole, and developed much on their own through reverse engineering of German designs, especially of aircraft and aircraft engines. Germany got raw materials, while Russia got loans, cash flow, technology, machine tools, and an officer corps trained in Germany.

It was a Faustian Bargain because never in history have two countries done more to build up each other’s military, only to turn it on each other with incredible ferocity. What made it even stranger was the unlikely union between Junker aristocracy from the German side making an alliance with class hating Bolshevik Russia on the other.

Germany was thus able to evade many of the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, all the while Socialist governments in England pursued appeasement and France produced a cavalcade of weak and ineffectual governments. Once Germany decided to openly re-arm, they had much of the technology and tactics in place having honed both of them in Soviet Russia.

As it became more clear that Germany needed to be confronted about rearmament and treaty violations, the West was paralyzed and pursued disarmament. Much like today, the International Left held the view that arms races create international tension, instead of the more realistic view that international tension creates arms races. They felt then, as they do today, that signing agreements with partners that have no interest in honoring agreements, leads to peace. As it became more clear what Germany’s intentions were, the West did not want to spend money on the military but rather their socialist experiments at home. Appeasement of Hitler and actual reduction in military spending occurred. France decided early on they could not move to blunt Germany by herself but could only do so with Britain.

The most powerful military in Europe, that could have confronted Germany, was Russia. But these two countries were partners in crime for what they viewed as their own strategic interests.

As Professor McMeekin points out, Russia wanted war in Europe, feeling they could exploit the chaos. They certainly did, but almost perished in the process. If not for U.S. Lend-Lease, they would have.

At the outbreak of the War, the two gangster nations split Poland. Germany struck West conquering France, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Holland,  followed by attacking England while Russia struck Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and reached into Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

It would not be an understatement that the German war machine in the early part of the war during the Blitzkrieg and the Battle of Britain phase, was supplied with Russian fuel. Industrial production was supported with Russian metals, and both civilians and the military were fed with Russian grain.

Russia in turn got money, technological transfers, and training. They even reorganized their general staff and officer education along German lines.

Even as Hitler made his statements about eliminating Jewish Bolshevism, the two countries maintained an uncomfortable but significant alliance. About 75% of each countries trade was with each other, which again bursts the myth that countries that trade with each other have too much to lose to go to war.

German dependence on Soviet oil came to a head when Stalin made moves towards Romania, Germany’s only non-Russian source of oil. The two gangster nations then went to war with Hitler making the first overt military moves while Stalin was attempting the economic asphyxiation of Germany.

Several lessons come leaping out of the book. Disarmament is a hoax as is relying on the “international community” to do anything to really stop aggression.

It is not a good idea to be dependent on Russia for energy.

Civilian control of the military is very important. At least from the German perspective, the ability of the military to operate outside the scrutiny of the elected officials during the period of the Weimar Republic was quite astonishing. 

Trade and commerce do not forestall war, and in fact, can promote it.

When a country is brutal to its own people, it will very likely be brutal with its neighbors. Countries that turn a blind eye to internal brutality and aggressive behavior just for the benefit of trade or to avoid the cost of a robust defense, are enablers of dictators.

Businessmen want to sell products and sometimes do so to the detriment of their own country. It is not analogous to the parasite that kills its host. We don’t even have a good word for it when the host promotes and feeds the adversary that soon kills the host.

Be wary of businessmen who get state financing and credit guarantees to enable trade.

Be wary of governments that provide state financing and take the risk out of business judgment.

Weak leaders can promote war almost as effectively and belligerent leaders.

Never underestimate the ability of people to delude themselves about the nature of tyrannical governments.

Ideological differences did not stop close alliances between countries, both between Russia and Germany, and later Russia and the U.S.

Secular ideology is easily as persuasive to both populations and political leaders as religious wars, although the secular ideologue is so arrogant he can’t see the commonality.

Finally, it was astonishing that after Hitler went after his domestic political opposition, killing about 84 people (the night of the long knives), an inspired Stalin went on his rampage of purges of both the party and the Russian military that he killed millions. Ironically, the self-inflicted loss of his German-trained officer corps very nearly cost him the entire country.

Although current conditions are not completely analogous, as I read the book I kept thinking about present-day U.S. relations with Communist China. We are currently building up a rival just as surely as Russia built up Germany and Germany built up Russia. We hear many of the same arguments made about trade and the cost of military build-up.

The elites in this country have been very pro-Communist China and many of our universities and communications companies, sports leagues, film studios,  have lucrative deals with China. The business ties many of our political leaders have with China are disturbing.

We both sell technology and allow the Chinese to steal our technology. American business invests heavily in China, even as the Chinese brutally crackdown on their own people. Again we see the willingness to grant favors to a country that kills its own people for political and religious reasons. We even subsidized their biological warfare capability and helped unleash Covid-19 on ourselves. 

It would seem we have made a Faustian Bargain of our own. Let us hope it does not turn out the same way as the last one.

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