The Russo-German Partnership

I

IT is twenty years since John Reed wrote his book, Ten Days That Shook the World. Its reception was conditioned by the social and political standing of its readers, but critics agreed that the title, which referred to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was justified and apt. Time passed and Russia rose from chaos. Hitler rose also, leading Germany from its wilderness of despair and degradation, and, so he said and so Germans believed, to an end of accomplished power. Then came last August, which, virtually beyond cavil, shook every Foreign Office in the world from the roof to the foundation; it was then that Soviet Russia and Germany ‘made their agreement.’

In Paris and London especially the effect was stupefaction, and the story goes that the Soviet Ambassador at the Court of St. James’s, Mr. Maisky, told a newspaper which telephoned the first tidings of this event that it was not and could not be true. Believe that story or not, — in London they do believe it, — it gives at least some measure of the greatness of the shock.

From that day to this, every eminent minister in every Foreign Office outside Russia and Germany (and perhaps — who knows? — there too) has been asking himself and everyone he met: What exactly are the degree, scope, and purpose of the German-Soviet pact in its three predominant phases, political, military, and economic? — with the somewhat paradoxical corollary that most of these ‘eminences’ see the answer as black or white, according to their preconceived notions and prejudices. In fact, it is neither black nor white, but gray, and cannot be fitted to any simplified formula.

Before I begin to appraise the case I want to make clear my conviction that the Russo-German ‘partnership’ must inevitably be affected by time and circumstance, and no less inevitably fall into three categories — political, military, and economic.

In the spring and summer of 1939, France and England took it for granted that the rulers of Germany and Russia meant precisely what they said when they called each other names. (As recent history has now shown, the alternately friendly and hostile relations of Alexander I and Napoleon might teach a lesson to modern statesmen.) England, if not France, was at that time somewhat preoccupied by the rather hasty guarantee given to Poland. I mean, it was hard to make valid that pledge with real effectiveness unless the USSR would implement it too. It therefore seemed useful and wise to bring the Russians into the anti-Nazi pool, which then seemed easy enough to do. But the English had not understood the true purpose of Stalin’s pledge to the Communist Party Congress on March 10. Stalin inveighed strongly against ‘aggressors’— which the outside world naturally and perhaps rightly then interpreted as meaning Nazi Germany of the ‘axis.’ But Stalin also said that the USSR was opposed to all ‘firebugs of war’ — an unlovely phrase which is current in Soviet Russia. What the English and French failed to understand was that when Stalin talked about war he meant not only war in general, which might or might not be discordant with Soviet views, but specifically war in which the USSR would be engaged to fight another great power. For that kind of war the Kremlin had little use.

When negotiations began between Russia, England, and France, the Russians seemed to believe that the aim of those talks was a pact which might serve as a countersignal to Hitler, to warn him that three nations — France, Britain, and the USSR — would join to resist aggression in any place or form. I believe that the Kremlin then thought such a warning would be sufficient, and with this thought in mind it sent to London, in the third week of April, a reply to the Franco-Brilish proposal which was tantamount to acceptance. To the Kremlin’s surprise and to the ruin of the Soviet Foreign Minister, Litvinov, who had assured the Kremlin that the pact was now as good as signed, London made new and different proposals, from which the Kremlin drew the unwelcome deduction that Britain and France no longer wanted to prevent war, but wished rather to coerce the USSR into the war against Germany which the Russians had already suspected was one of the aims of Munich.

From that moment I should say there was little hope of a pact between the USSR and France or Britain, because the Russians had acute suspicions of France, believed that Poland could not hold out against Germany, and saw themselves in consequence as the fathermother victim of the German wolf after the Polish baby had been devoured. It is true that in the subsequent conversations with France and England, both civil and military, — and one can say it in all sincerity, — the Russians took on themselves a guarantee against Germany in the shape of the right to bring troops under their own command into Poland and, if necessary, to vote ‘measures of protection’ against a possible German aggression in the Baltic States. Whether the Russians honestly wanted this arrangement, or whether, as the Franco-British believe, their purpose was obstructive, has little importance now, although it is interesting to remember that, the Kremlin at that time was still uncertain about Germany and to all appearances nailed its flag to the antiNazi mast.

It may also be true that France and Britain missed their pact with the USSR by slighting the Soviet amour-propre, already thoroughly wounded by Munich, in sending a competent but lowly functionary to conduct a transaction with Stalin. At any rate, proceedings dragged on in an atmosphere of mutual doubt and suspicion until that sudden and startling day in August when Hitler’s necessity proved Stalin’s opportunity.

II

It may reasonably be argued that Hitler’s system of government by easy triumphs, — the Rhineland, Austria, Munich, Memel, Prague, — which in a sense corresponds to the Roman maxim of‘bread and circuses,’ made it necessary for him to regain Danzig and the former German territory in West Poland. As previously, he attempted to attain his ends without fighting. But by the middle of August he saw that Poland was standing firm and that France and Britain seemed equally determined. Italy showed no great signs of eagerness to engage in war for Danzig; indeed, it is clear that the Italo-Gcrman diplomatic conversations at that time expressed Italy’s desire to restrain any violent action on the part of Germany. Hitler thereupon extricated himself from what might have proved an awkward position by playing his Russian card. The result for twenty-four hours was stupefaction in France and England.

If Hitler had meant from the first to fight, that was the time to attack. Instead he waited, hoping no doubt that his coup de theatre would modify the situation in his favor either by terrifying Poland or by inducing France and England to bring pressure on Poland to yield. The event proved otherwise, and, as a device to avoid war by causing his opponents to back down, the treaty with Russia failed Hitler. Yet once more he let time pass while his propaganda department used every means in its power to convince the world and the German people that the Russo-German agreement was far more than it appeared: an alliance, to say the least, which aimed not merely at the partition of Poland and the division of Eastern Europe between the two ‘allies,’ but at a union of the Red and Brown autocracies to dominate Europe and Asia. On the side of the Russians there was a serious delay in ratifying the treaty, and it seemed that they, like Hitler, were waiting for a last day’s weakening in the camps of France and England and Poland. No such weakness occurred; the supreme chance of Russia passed, and the next morning Hitler struck.

At this point certain deductions can be made: first, that the treaty was what it purported to be on paper — that is, an agreement by which Germany obtained the benevolent neutrality of the USSR in war. In that case it is not difficult to estimate what Germany wanted and received. To begin with, the USSR was to move from the ranks of potential enemies; and the danger of obstruction no longer existed, or at least it was lessened. This point alone might to Hitler warrant any sacrifice in personnel or any loss of prestige and moral standing in Japan, Spain, and Italy. Because, however much the offensive power of the Red Army might have been discounted on the side of the Allies, it not only would have facilitated Allied aid to Poland, thereby diminishing the chances of success of a Blitzkrieg, but would have established an eastern front of wide and increasing extent.

One must not forget, moreover, that the agreement was initially sent to and hailed by the German people as a step to ensure peace. The Moscow press and Communist newspapers abroad advanced the same thesis. This must have been done on the assumption that France, England, and Poland would be bluffed into acceptance of Hitler’s demands; and it was only later, when Hitler saw that the Allies did not accept, that the German masses were told they would henceforth be able to receive Russian food and raw materials. This is surely important, because, although foreign observers in Germany are inclined to agree that the recent and present restrictions on the sale of food and commodities have not yet greatly affected the health and morale of the German people, the fact remains that the memory of the ‘ hunger years ‘ — 1917-1919 — is still vivid in Germany. It is therefore most encouraging to Germans to think that the treaty with Russia has not only removed the danger of military encirclement and long-drawn hostilities on two fronts but also provided and effected a permanent breach in any hunger blockade.

One may say, then, that a RussoGerman agreement which involved no more than Soviet neutrality has served Hitler’s purpose admirably. If one supposes that he really did not want war, — or rather that he hoped, as before, to attain his immediate objective, in this case Danzig, without war, — the agreement was a valuable card in his game of nerves and bluff. As the event proved, his adversaries refused to be bluffed, and war resulted; but the agreement lessened the military danger and strengthened the German morale.

There exists, however, the possibility of a second deduction, that the RussoGerman treaty was not merely a pact of neutrality, however benevolent on the part of the USSR, but a far-reaching scheme of coöperation in which the USSR should take an active part and receive a share of the spoils. This thesis is undoubtedly supported by the Soviet occupation of East Poland, by Soviet action in the Baltic States, and by the Soviet attempt to make Finland accept similar terms. From the outset the Germans did their utmost to make the world believe that this is the true purpose and inward meaning of the agreement. The day after it was signed the French and British press was sprayed with messages from its Berlin correspondents about the projected partition of Poland, the Soviet plans to dominate the Baltic, and the Soviet threat to Bessarabia.

We have seen that the USSR went forward on these lines, and therefore it is natural to suggest that Russia and Germany are indeed to all intents and purposes allies. Nevertheless, I am reluctant to believe it, if only for the reason that it is the view which the German Propaganda Bureau has been so eager to advance.

III

It still is asked why Germany should wish to make a treaty with the USSR, but it is less easy to determine Stalin’s motives. Before going any further, one must understand that the USSR considers solely the interests of the USSR and nothing else. The great English statesman, Lord Palmerston, once remarked: ‘In the final instance the policy of England is dictated by English interests.’ The same may be said of the Soviet Union today, except that in its case there is still a question whether the interests of the USSR are purely Russian interests or the interests of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Third International, and the destruction of capitalism throughout the world. Stalin’s conduct of policies has given support to the view that he is concerned chiefly with the interests of Russia as such. In other words, Lenin’s dream of Russia as the nucleus and fatherland of a world socialist state has been supplanted by the Stalinist reality of Russia as one world power among others. That means the replacement of internationalism by nationalism, and implies that the only difference between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia is that one is national-socialist and the other socialist-national.

To all outward seeming this is true, but although the idea of world revolution and internationalism may for the moment be thrust into the background of Stalin’s mind and policy, it nevertheless is still there and may at any moment be brought forward. Lenin, Stalin’s master, was an opportunist. In 1921 he threw overboard the practice of Communism in Russia by establishing the economic policy — the NEP — which restored private production and ownership. Lenin said this was only a temporary retreat. It is possible that Stalin, Lenin’s disciple, may also be making no more than a temporary concession to nationalism as Lenin did to economic individualism.

The Russians pride themselves upon their realistic and objective view of policies. To suggest to them that they acted unbecomingly in making a deal with Hitler at the time they were negotiating with his adversaries would only provoke them to laughter. They did not like England and France. They suspected what Stalin had said in his program speech at the party conference on March 10: that France and England would attempt to use them as cat’spaws against Germany. But they also thought Hitler had based his whole philosophy and policy upon opposition to them, and therefore must be their enemy. They thought that Hitler’s conduct was provocative of war; and war they wished to avoid because they wanted and needed peace to develop their own resources.

Then Hitler changed his mind and offered a deal to Russia. As I see it, Hitler found himself in a difficult position and made his offer for the combined purposes of bluff and business, as explained earlier in this article. The Russians accepted because it not only kept them out of western war but renewed their friendship with Germany. Secondly, the treaty gave them a much freer hand in the Par East, where the Soviet interest is great. Thirdly, Hitler’s conduct of negotiation showed an understanding of Soviet psychology and put balm on the pride of Russia which had been wounded by Munich. It is significant that the Soviet press and radio maliciously stressed Anglo-French discomfiture in their first comments on the treaty.

There remains a more sinister explanation which is widely accepted in Europe. When, at about the end of April, the Russians became convinced that France and Britain meant war, there emerged, so to speak, from the back of the Soviet mind a dormant and ‘cold storage’ idea of world revolution. It has been a Soviet tenet that the next world war would produce a Soviet revolution in Eastern Europe. Accordingly, it is suggested, the Russians conceived a Machiavellian plan to precipitate war and keep out of it themselves.

At this point there is some divergence about Russia’s ultimate purpose, even in the minds of the most convinced antiRussians. Some argue that the Stalinists and the Hitlerian regime are practically indistinguishable, and that the dictators started a general alliance for the conquest of Europe and Asia. They admit, however, that the Russians have double-crossed the Germans just as they double-crossed the French and British. Anyhow, it is agreed that the partnership began about May, and its fruits were the dismissal of Litvinov, who represented the Franco-British tendency and an obstacle to the Kremlin’s rapprochement with Hitler. Henceforward the French and British served simply as bait to lead on the Germans, because, according to this theory, it was Russia and not Germany which initiated the conspiracy.

The French and British were fooled into considering the hope of Russian support and committing themselves, beyond withdrawal, to aid Poland. At the psychological moment the Russians threw off the mask and accepted Hitler’s terms, thus assuring war in Europe, which not only eliminated their old bogey of a European combination against the USSR, but made it certain that a victorious Germany — or victorious Allies — would be so weakened in comparison with the USSR as to leave the latter master of Europe for revolution or conquest. Meanwhile, the USSR would swallow the Baltic States, East Poland, and Bessarabia with relative ease, and through its augmented support to China, or by actual war with Japan, become the master of Asia also.

I think this is too far-fetched in cunning. It savors more of Radek than of Stalin, although Radek may still be alive and Stalin has shown himself crafty on occasion. At any rate it remains as an interesting and possible hypothesis which gains, I am forced to allow, some support from the Soviet action in forcing war upon Finland, in the alleged instance of the ‘Finnish legal government’ — that is to say, a Bolshevik revolutionary group or movement. And no matter what one thinks about the motives and possible scope of the German-Soviet agreement, whether it was loose or tight, general or specific, sincere or false, the paramount question today is how it can be, is being, and will be carried out politically, economically, and militarily.

IV

As matters now stand between Germany and the USSR, political collaboration is felt to be, and in all probability is, mutually useful. Quite recently we have seen that, while Russia was blaming Sweden for its wish to give aid to Finland, the German official press began a campaign of threats against any Swedish attempt to ‘overstep the balance of neutrality.’ In their attitude toward France and England, the German and Russian spokesmen talked the same language. Both Allied countries are accused of having provoked the war in the first place ‘by inciting Poland to fight’ and now of trying to expand the war by similar incitations of neutrals — Holland, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries. In this case, however, it is rather Russia who calls the tune while Germany joins in harmony, whereas earlier it was Germany who voiced the claims of the ‘partnership’ while the Russians acquiesced.

Even here one may ask, moreover, whether sometimes the tune does not sound false. For instance, when the German war against Poland was drawing to a victorious conclusion, the Soviet press was full of warnings to the Allies that they had better make peace with Germany or else . . . And almost simultaneously the USSR was affirming its position as a neutral and its right to conduct trade negotiations with England. In short, the ‘or else’ was little more than bluff. Similarly, when Germany threatened Sweden about the infringement of neutrality in aid to Finland, there was reason to believe that the Swedes were given assurances from Berlin that they could do pretty much what they wanted, provided they did it in a decorous and not too overt manner.

In the rôle of economic collaboration, one can only see that there has been a lot more talk of plans and projects than results. In the Baltic States, indeed, there is greater evidence of competition than of cooperation. The Russians have taken from the Baltic commodities like foodstuff’s, cellulose, and lumber, which Germany clearly needs. They are importing into the Baltic cotton and oil products, which Germany also needs; and, to make matters worse, they are paying for some of their purchases in the Baltic States with valuta, — to be exact, American dollars, — which can only mean that the Baltic States are thus in a measure relieved from the limitations imposed upon them by the German blockade of their commerce with England, which formerly was their principal support of ‘free’ money.

That Russia is a great potential source of the things Germany most needs — grain, oil, cotton, manganese, and arms — is obvious enough. But that Germany has received any great quantity of these goods has yet to be proved. Russia needs them all herself, and that need will not be diminished by the Husso-Finnish conflict. There arises, too, the question of transport, which foreign observers are unanimous in believing to be the weakest link in the somewhat overstrung chain of the Soviet system. Last but not least, one may ask how collaboration in any field can be rapidly and successfully established between Germany and the Russians, who have demonstrated to the world in recent years a singular lack of ability to collaborate with one another. What I say is harsh, I admit, but how else can one interpret the ‘purge’ and its effects?

In military matters there are two sides to any collaboration. The USSR gave Germany no help during the German campaign in Poland, and the Soviets in Finland have found no aid or solace from Germany. One cannot but feel that this lack or omission is one of the most significant factors in any attempt to appraise Russo-German relations and is almost sufficient by itself to negative the view that the two countries are united by anything more tangible than a temporary community of interests and a joint dislike of others, which is surely a slender foundation on which to build a permanent edifice.

To conclude, then, it can be said that the German-Soviet agreement may be everything or nothing, as fate or circumstances provide, but it is much more reasonable to say that it is neither everything nor nothing, but something in between. In other words, not black or white, but gray.