by Marjory Winn
Georgetown University, Washington, DC

Between 1922 and 1941, Soviet policy toward Germany alternated between cooperation and hostility. At first glance, the evidence suggests that the Soviets were indecisive about their relations with the Germans. However, this paper argues that a deliberate political calculus guided Soviet decision-making, namely the desire to avoid entanglement in another major war. The key to achieving this aim, in their estimation, was the restoration of a European balance of power* [*Balance of power is defined as the attempt to secure peace by creating alliances with the capacity to offset each other in the event of an attack]. Thus, the Soviets maintained an alliance with Germany inasmuch as it served their overriding policy objectives. When Hitler's rise to power raised the specter of German revanchism, the Soviets correspondingly moved toward a new collective security**[For the purposes of this work, collective security refers to the formation of inter-state alliances in order to deter outsider attacks.] arrangement with the Entente powers. As collective security began to break down and signs of an impending European war intensified, the Soviets tried to resurrect the German alliance. In the end, however, the Soviet policy lens obscured their ability to discern the real danger Hitler posed and led them into the exact situation they had so diligently tried to avoid: an isolated war against Nazi Germany.

By 1922, the avoidance of war had already gained a preeminent place in Soviet foreign policy decision-making. Lenin vividly recalled how during the civil war the Western powers actively sought to destroy the nascent Soviet regime, dispensing troops and material assistance to support the White movement. Consequently, the threat of capitalist encirclement took on a greater urgency for Lenin and his cadre after the war. Fear of isolation made security concerns paramount in the Soviet foreign policy calculus.

At the same time, security was given newfound emphasis in order to afford the Soviet regime room to focus on domestic concerns. Burdened with the enormous task of consolidating power and rebuilding the nation's economic and military base, the Soviet regime needed to shore up its resources. The realization that further entanglement in foreign conflicts would jeopardize the regime's survival spearheaded a new politics of accommodation. In conjunction with this new policy shift, ideological principles had to be reformulated. According to R. Craig Nation, the call for worldwide revolution was shelved "in order to prepare for what Lenin called 'peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world"' (38). In sum, this new accomodationist approach was an attempt to achieve a higher degree of security so that the country could augment its economic and military strength.

Looking at the post-WWI order, Lenin feared the emergence of an anti-Soviet coalition among the European powers, a fear that intensified after the USSR was excluded from the League of Nations. Germany presented the means to restore a balance of power within Europe, and the two countries' mutual exclusion from the Versailles system served as a unifying basis for cooperation. In April of 1922, the Soviet quest for security generated a significant payoff in the form of the Rapallo treaty. In addition to opening up political ties, the Rapallo agreement included a secret clause providing for German military and technical assistance in exchange for training in Russia. This component furthered the post-war recovery of each, namely Soviet industrialization and German military development. In this way, the Rapallo link served both the international and domestic interests of the Soviet regime.

Rapallo remained virtually untarnished until Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Despite the Nazi's anti-communist rhetoric and revanchist policies, Soviet retaliation was minimal. In fact, according to Vojtech Mastny, Stalin initially welcomed fascism, believing that it signaled capitalism's impending end. After several arrests of Soviet citizens in Germany and violent attacks on Soviet business premises, however, the Soviets became increasingly unnerved. Nevertheless, they continued their efforts to preserve the Rapallo line, publishing a call for revision of the Versailles system in Pravda in May 1933. According to Jonathan Haslam, this letter signaled "all hope had not been lost of reviving Rapallo, but that the initiative was now up to the Germans" (15). Despite such attempts, German-Soviet cooperation suffered further deterioration.

Increasingly, the Soviets considered Nazi Germany a threat to peace in Europe and the continuation of Stalin's industrialization campaign. Hitler's decision to sign the Four Powers Pact with Italy, France, and Great Britain in July of 1933 was an incontrovertible sign of Rapallo's demise. Germany's uncertain allegiance unraveled the status quo balance of power and confronted the Soviets with the prospect of isolation. In response, the Soviets sought new strategies to salvage the balance of power. The goal of preventing war if at all possible remained the preeminent Soviet foreign policy concern.

The new imperative to offset German revanchism paved the way for Litvinov's collective security proposal. By 1934, new efforts were underway to tie the USSR and the Entente powers in opposition to Nazi Germany. Although Litvinov's effort to bolster cooperation with the Entente was a logical reaction to heightened German aggression, the road to collective security was filled with obstacles. The persistent Soviet distrust toward the bourgeois, Western democracies weakened cooperation efforts and made it all the more difficult to move away from the pro-German orientation established by Lenin. For instance, French pressure to join the League of Nations initially sparked intense Soviet resistance, prompting some Soviet leaders to advocate a return to Rapallo. However, new appeasement attempts were abandoned when Hitler tried to overthrow the Austrian government on July 25, 1934. Nevertheless this gesture showed that even as Soviet leaders lauded coalition building as the principal foundation for security, they were clearly not against using the European powers against one another in order to further Soviet aims.

The freedom to maneuver was an essential tool in Soviet foreign policy making and indeed, Moscow's double-dealings did not go unmatched. During the summer of 1935, the British stepped up their efforts to redirect Hitler eastward, urging France to support them. By July, the French foreign minister was pursuing an understanding with Berlin and seeking to delay ratification of the Franco-Soviet pact. As the French became more closely tied to Britain, the Soviets felt betrayed. According to Haslam, they were left "with an alliance which was essentially inoperable without British goodwill, and since the British did not trust the Russians, Soviet isolationists did not have to look far to find support for their views" (101). In response, Soviet officials in Berlin communicated their willingness to reduce interstate tensions, although hopes were soon dashed by Hitler's increasingly anti-Soviet line. These retaliation measures did little to shift the Entente powers' foreign policy in a more pro-Soviet direction. In fact, they intensified the feelings of mistrust and made cooperation less and less tenable.

By 1938, Litvinov's collective security system faced a critical test. German invasion of Czechoslovakia appeared imminent. Under the terms of the 1935 mutual assistance pact, the USSR was compelled to defend Czechoslovakia as long as the Czech people and France both rose up in defense. As the Soviets awaited a corridor of access to provide military protection to the Czechs, France and Britain arranged an exclusive meeting in Munich. Here they agreed to the German annexation of the Czech Sudetenland. From the Soviet perspective, this outcome signaled the utter failure of collective security.

France and Britain's decision to make conciliatory gestures toward Germany assumed that the Soviet Union was firmly locked in the Entente camp. Given Hitler's anti-communist rhetoric, they saw little potential for a Soviet-German alliance. They failed to realize, however, that the Soviets never completely abandoned the Rapallo option. The true gravity of this misjudgment became clear in the wake of the Czechoslovakian crisis. Beginning in December 1938, the USSR concluded a new trade agreement with Germany, an indication of growing rapprochement. Although negotiations with Britain and France continued throughout the summer of 1939, intensified Soviet demands were countered with deliberate delay on the part of the Entente, heightening tensions between the two sides. In May, Litvinov was replaced as commissar of foreign affairs by Molotov, a move that effectively spelled the end of collective security.

With Hitler showing himself more open to expanding relations with the USSR, the lion's share of Soviet diplomacy focused on resurrecting Rapallo. Initially, attempts to forge Soviet-German rapprochement were hindered by the Baltic question. Indeed, the German seizure of Memel from Lithuania alarmed Stalin because of its close proximity to Leningrad. However, by 1939, Hitler showed signs that he intended to strike Poland next rather than the Baltics. Given their historical animosity toward Poland, the Soviets were much more amenable to this policy. Thus, with the Baltic issue off the table, the Soviet Union could more easily afford to pursue a modus vivendi with the Germans.

Stalin identified rapprochement with Germany as the most effective way to avoid war. By August 1939, the two countries signed a nonaggression treaty with a secret protocol for the division of Eastern Europe. One month later, they finalized the zones of influence and broadened the nonaggression treaty into an alliance. Whether or not Stalin believed that the agreement would actually last remains open to debate. At face value, it offered the Soviets a chance to avoid military entanglement while simultaneously heightening tensions between Germany and its western neighbors and was, thus, consistent with Stalin's overriding foreign policy objectives. Indeed, the alliance proved partially successful inasmuch as it delayed Soviet entrance into the war by one and a half years. To a country still recovering from the effects of Stalin's purges, that window of time was believed to be vital.

The German-Soviet alliance was not without its risks for the Soviet Union. As Nation noted, economic provisions in the pact augmented German power, an outcome that clearly ran counter to Soviet interests. In November 1939, the USSR was cut off from the League of Nations. Under these conditions, the USSR would be left to its own defenses in the event of a German invasion. This scenario was extremely alarming to Stalin because he knew just how weakened the Soviet military was as a result of the purges. Thus, the desperate need to avoid war was sufficiently compelling to push the Soviet Union toward the dangerous commitment with Germany.

Reservations about German intentions increased following Hitler's surprisingly quick defeat of France. Only Britain and the USSR remained as obstacles to continental German domination. Stalin reacted with a heightened campaign to rebuild the military high command, but this enormous task required time. Cognizant of his limited maneuvering room, Stalin stepped up efforts to appease the Germans. Whether it meant turning a blind eye to Germany's annexation of Bulgaria or increasing military exports, Stalin held out hope that Germany would honor the nonaggression treaty. In Hitler's estimation, however, the pact had outlived its usefulness. Thus, while the Soviets clung desperately to the appeasement line, Hitler was formulating plans for Operation Barbarossa. With the launch of Hitler's blitzkrieg attack in June 1941, the Soviet Union was drawn into full-scale war.

In conclusion, the USSR's policies during the interwar period reflected an overwhelming desire to avoid war and relations with Germany were measured accordingly. In 1922, the Soviets pursued an alliance with the Germans as a means to restore a balance of power in Europe and to prevent the formation of a united anti-Soviet front. Indeed, the Rapallo line served Soviet security interests well until Hitler's rise to power. In spite of dogged attempts to preserve the treaty, the Soviets eventually recognized the gravity of Hitler's threats and began to seek other security arrangements. This outcome paved the way for Litvinov's collective security approach. During his tenure as foreign minister, the USSR sought a partnership with the Entente powers in opposition to a revanchist Germany. Nevertheless, in order to maximize their tactical flexibility, the Soviets kept lines with Germany open, never entirely abandoning the Rapallo link.

By 1938, major divisions threatened to undermine collective security. Soviet exclusion from the Munich agreement and the West's continued dilatoriness added weight to the perception that Soviet security was in jeopardy. Indeed, Stalin was increasingly convinced that continued alignment with the West would lead the USSR into war. Concomitantly, German negotiators had begun sending signals to the USSR regarding the possibility of rapprochement.

The combination of these events set the stage for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Under this agreement, the USSR's aversion toward war forced it into a dangerous posture of appeasement vis-a-vis Germany and effectively blinded them to Hitler's real intentions. After Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets found themselves completely isolated and woefully unprepared to fight the German army. Thus, in the end, the Soviet security obsession backfired. Neither accommodation nor confrontation had successfully neutralized Germany.

Works Cited:

- Haslam, Jonathan. 1984. The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security in Europe, 1933-39. New York: St. Martin's.
- Mastny, Vojtech. 1996. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Nation, R. Craig. 1992. Black Earth, Red Star: A History of Soviet Security Policy, 1917-1991. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.