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By the end of 1918, Europe had undergone over four years of horrific warfare, with the deaths of tens of millions of people and massive economic destruction. Blame was laid firmly on Germany and its allies. The treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of its colonies, granted independence to a Polish state that took large parts of Prussia and Eastern Germany, and levied massive financial reparations.
Militarily, Germany was reduced to a standing army of only 100,000 men, was forced to give up its navy, and had to demilitarize the Rhineland, its western border. This rendered the new German state, called the Weimar Republic after its capital, highly vulnerable from both the West and the East.
Internally, Weimar Germany was wracked with the threat of revolution. The communists rose up in Berlin, while reactionary right-wing squads of former Imperial Army soldiers fought left-wing paramilitary groups. Political instability forced the government to move to Weimar.
The administration was isolated internationally, and knew that to reclaim domestic credibility and stability, they would have to engage with their former enemies.
Economically, the loss of overseas colonies and Eastern German lands was a massive blow. The new states to the east, Poland and Czechoslovakia erected trade barriers in former German territory, cutting off German businesses.
To the south, the newly reduced rump state of Austria was forbidden to unite with Germany, further reducing scope for expansion. However, further east lay the newly established Russian communist state.
The only other nation that was as diplomatically, economically or militarily so isolated as Weimar Germany was the burgeoning communist state taking shape on the territory of the former Russian Empire.
Unlike the Germans, 1918 did not herald the end of the war for the Russian people. Instead of peace, they split between the reds (supporters of the communists), and the whites (a melange of former Tsarists and nationalist groups).
Because the communists had concluded a separate peace with the Central Powers in the First World War, the Entente powers viewed them as illegitimate. They supported the anti-red forces, and when these lost the Russian civil war, the communist state was left in an isolated position.
Wracked by eight years of war, famine and economic disruption, the communists were desperate for international partners. In the German state, they found the perfect partner. Their mutual isolation helped cement both economic and military ties.
Prelude to the Treaty
Following the disruption of the First World War, both Germany and Russia found themselves in a unique position. Abandoned by their previous allies, and with traditional areas of expansion blocked to both nations, they found a mutual sympathy in their aims.
Between the two states lay newly independent Poland, formed from territory previously belonging to both Germany and Russia. As such, both powers had designs on Poland, and its existence blocked further economic and military cooperation between the two powers.
The first step towards the formal signing of a formal deal was the May 1921 treaty between the two states. This treaty confirmed that Germany would regard communist Russia as the successor state to the Tsarist Empire, and would break diplomatic relations with all other self proclaimed successor states.
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For the Germans this marked a step forward towards normalizing their role in a new Europe, while it gave the Russian communists significant propaganda and moral advantages. The stage was set for a more formal treaty of cooperation.
The Treaty of Rapallo
The treaty of Rapallo was itself a culmination of events. The first of these was the Genoa Conference, which gathered diplomats from the leading states of Europe in an attempt at normalizing economic and diplomatic relations in the post World War era.
For Germany and Russia, inclusion in the club of prominent nations was key towards long term recovery. The Germans hoped that by participating in international relations, they could slowly reverse the straitjacket imposed on them by the Versailles treaty, while the communists in Russia hoped for recognition and acceptance on the world stage.
The treaty of Rapallo was an offshoot of the Genoa conference and it had three key points:
- First, it was meant to solve all outstanding claims between the two states that were left over from the WWI-era treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This was the peace treaty Imperial Germany forced on the fledgling Russian communist state, and was the source of much contention between the two powers. The treaty of Rapallo established that all claims were by now void, and Russia was free to consolidate these territories back into its fold, while Germany would disavow expansionist motives towards them.
- Second, economic relations between the two nations were to be normalized, and citizens of either state residing on the territory of the other were to be granted recognition and certain rights.
- Lastly, and most importantly, a secret military cooperation clause, which was not published, established military cooperation between the two states. This was a key element, as both felt vulnerable to attack from the Western powers. Germany was militarily crippled by the Versailles treaty, and was looking for a way out, while Russia was still afraid of foreign intervention against it, as happened in the Russian civil war.
Although the Treaty of Rapallo was signed on April 16, 1922, formal exchange of treaty ratification was not done until January 31, 1923 in Berlin. It was formally registered with the League of Nations on September 19, 1923, although the secret military cooperation was not included.
A supplementary agreement to the treaty was signed on November 5, 1923 and it regulated relations with the other Soviet Republics such as Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Furthermore the treaty was re-affirmed in the 1926 Treaty of Berlin, and formed the bedrock of post World War One relations between Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union.
A Game Changer
The Treaty of Rapallo was a game changer for Weimar Germany, as well as Soviet Russia. The two nations normalized relations, established economic cooperation, and more importantly, military links. Considering that Germany and Russia often viewed each other as inveterate enemies, this diplomatic rapprochement allowed both to focus their energies elsewhere.
The Soviet Union had suffered massive devastation from both World War One and the Russian civil war, and was desperate for a breathing space to rebuild. In addition, it found itself economically isolated from its trading partners and in desperate need of economic machinery and know-how to restart its moribund economy.
On the other hand, Weimar Germany was hobbled by the treaty of Versailles. It found its army drastically reduced, and was banned from having a navy or air force. Economically, it was cut off from its former hinterland and markets, and was further burdened with reparations.
It was imperative for Germany to find ways around its predicament, as the occupation of the Ruhr, its key economic area, by the French showed. Militarily crippled, economically isolated, Weimar Germany needed the Soviet Union as much as the Soviet Union needed Weimar Germany.
It was with this background that former combatants, just a few years after the First World War, turned to each other for cooperation.
While much as been made of the Rapallo treaty as a precursor of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the comparison does seem to be threadbare. The treaty of Rapallo was not an offensive treaty, aimed at dividing Poland, but a defensive one.
It dealt with simple bureaucratic matters, like recognition of each others citizens rights, the voiding of past historical claims and the re-establishment of economic relations.
It was not the aggressive posturing of two conquering superpowers, but the meek agreement of two crushed and weak nations, aimed to improve their cooperation and help both of them re-integrate into the international concert of nations, which looked warily at both.
Questions & Answers
Question: What are the challenges faced by the Soviet union diplomacy?
Answer: There were two major challenges faced by Soviet diplomacy in this period. The first was the lack of recognition by Tsarist Russia’s former allies, some of who actively opposed the communists during the civil war.
Second, as the Russian civil war was winding down, the Soviets were looking for new trading partners to help their economy. The first anxiety, over their lack of recognition by other major states, meant that they had to rebuild their economic and military power as soon as possible, in order to protect their revolution from potential enemies.
With Weimar Germany being isolated diplomatically but not quite in the same position as them, the Soviets realized that their former enemies could be a good partner.