German Ambassador Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau believed that Germany and the Soviet Union were locked together in a Schicksalgemienshaft, or “community of fate.” The interaction of these two nations, Brockdorff-Rantzau thought, would decide the course of history, in Europe and beyond. Anyone familiar with the history of German-Soviet relations in the twentieth century might be inclined to agree with the ambassador’s assessment; though they might find his use of the word “community,” with all its positive connotations, somewhat out of place. For if the Germans and Soviets built any community at all, the evidence suggests it was not built on mutual respect and cooperation. Rather it was built on hate—vicious, unbridled, unrelenting hate.
Hate, however, can unite as powerfully as it divides. Ideologically, politically, culturally, economically, and socially, the Germans and the Soviets were diametrically opposed. But for a brief period during the interwar years, their mutual hatred of the post-First World War order overcame their mutual distrust to bring these two powers together in an uncharacteristic, but highly consequential, economic, technologic, and military partnership. Formalized with the signing of the Treaty of Ropallo in April 1922, this uneasy alliance saw the Soviet Union provide a safe haven for German rearmament in return for German investment, trade, and military assistance. German officers, businessmen, industrialists, and engineers relocated to secret sites throughout the Soviet Union to work on the design of tanks and aircraft, develop new chemical weapons capabilities, and train a new generation of German military leaders away from the prying eyes of the Allied powers. Simultaneously, Soviet officers learned the art of war from their German counterparts, while their country acquired the industrial base, manufacturing expertise, and military hardware it believed necessary to advancing the Communist cause.
Understanding the grave significance of that exchange is the object of military historian Ian Ona Johnson’s recent work, Faustian Bargain: The Soviet-German Partnership and the Origins of the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2021). The Ropallo relationship, Johnson convincingly argues, can explain not only the outbreak of the Second World War, but also its conduct, especially on the Eastern Front. Germany’s rapid rearmament, the Nazification of the Reichswar, the Soviet military purges of the 1930s, and even British and French appeasement, Johnson maintains, can all trace their roots to the Ropallo era. Without the Soviet Union’s assistance, Germany would not have been able to so easily violate the Versailles treaty; nor would the German military have been able to so rapidly rearm. Close contact between German officers and the Soviet regime, Johnson observes, radicalized many in the Reichswar’s upper echelons, driving them into the open embrace of the National Socialists. Contact between these two groups also troubled Stalin, who feared Red Army officers were becoming contaminated by German ideology and culture. That fear, Johnson contends, resulted in the disastrous Red Army purges of 1936. And, Johnson argues, had the Germany Army not stolen a technological night march on the British and the French, appeasement may not have been as attractive a posture. Without Ropallo, Hitler’s early advances may have been more forcefully checked.
Faustian Bargain is an insightful, incisive, exhaustively researched, and incredibly accessible look at a critical period in the lead up to the Second World War. Johnson provides a fresh lens through which to examine the most important questions surrounding the war, its origins, and its conduct. In doing so, Johnson reminds us that the story of the Second World War is in fact, as Brockdorff-Rantzau might have stated, the story of the the complex relationships built by an international “community of fate.”
Scott Lipkowitz holds a MA in History, with a concentration in military history, and a MLIS, with a concentration in information technology, from Queens College, City University of New York