Lovers Quarrel.

Historians have often examined the tempestuous relationship between Germany and the Soviet Union.[1]  The broad outlines of the story are well known.  They alternate between amity and enmity.  Long before Germany had become a “nation,” the region exerted a powerful cultural influence on Russia.  Russia, Prussia, and the Austrian Empire battled over the “bloodlands” between them in the 18th Century.  Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of a united Germany, built his foreign policy on managing the conflict between Russia and the Austrian Empire to avoid war.  After his fall from power in 1890, German leaders succumbed to the “spell of power.”  Their plan for war, the Schlieffen Plan, aimed to destroy Russia and France as major European powers.  German war aims against Russia in the First World War culminated in the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which largely accomplished the pre-war ambitions.  These gains were lost when the Western powers defeated Germany on the battlefield later in the year.  The Allies imposed a harsh, if just, peace on Germany.  It became an outcast, whose chief visible aim lay in restoring respectability.  Meanwhile, the Bolshevik seizure of power, their abandonment of their allies in the separate peace at Brest-Litovsk, their repudiation of pre-war debts, and their attempts to export revolution to other countries made the Soviet Union a pariah country. 

            The two outcasts found a community of interest in evading international restrictions in order to revive their power.  From 1922 to 1932, the German military and the Soviets cooperated on weapons development and military training.  The democratic Weimar Republic chose not to know about this relationship.  Initially, the German aims were short-term.  Many military leaders fantasized that it would be possible to renew the lost war within a few years.[2]  To this end, they encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups like the Nazis. 

            The renewed war in the West did not come, but—in the crisis of the Depression—the Nazis arrived in power.  Adolf Hitler, the anti-Soviet German dictator, ruptured relations with the Soviet Union.  Increasingly, the two countries became at daggers drawn.  In 1935, the Soviet Union formed an alliance with France; in 1936 Germany formed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Italy and Japan; from 1936 through 1938, Germany and the Soviet Union waged a proxy war in Spain.  Some Westerners hoped for a deeper engagement with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.  Others hoped that Hitler’s ferocious hostility to the Soviet Union would lead him into a bloody war of exhaustion in the East that would remove the need for the West to fight. 

            Suddenly, in August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty that left them free to carve up Eastern Europe.  Hitler later chose to attack Western Europe and then, in June 1941, the Soviet Union.  Even in 1941, many Germans regretted this rejection of Russia.   


[1] John W. Wheeler-Bennett, Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918 (1938), and “Twenty Years of Russo-German Relations: 1919-1939” Foreign Affairs Vol. 25, #1, pp. 23-43; Hans W. Gatzke, “Russo-German military collaboration during the Weimar Republic,” American Historical Review, Vol. 63, #3 (1958), pp. 565-597; Walter Laqueur, Russia and Germany (1965); Gerhard Weinberg, Germany and the Soviet Union 1939-1941 (1972); Barbara Jelavich, St. Petersburg and Moscow: tsarist and Soviet foreign policy, 1814-1974 (1974); Harvey L. Dyck, Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, 1926-1944 (1984); Geoffrey Roberts, The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933-41 (1995); Aleksandr M. Nekrich, Pariahs, partners, predators: German-Soviet relations, 1922-1941 (1997); Ian Johnson, Faustian Bargain: The Soviet-German Partnership and the Origins of the Second World War (2015).

[2] From 1890 to 1945 Germany’s leaders repeatedly failed to adjust aspirations to resources.  Disasters followed. 

“Die for Danzig?” Marcel Deat, “Mourir pour Danzig?” L’Oeuvre, 4 May 1939.

Fighting Russia isn’t a very popular idea. Fighting Russia over Ukraine doesn’t have much support in spite of the obvious Russian intervention in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. But fighting Russia if it attacks a fellow member of NATO seems like a no-brainer. That’s what a military alliance is all about, right? Well, not necessarily.[1]

Back in 1956, in the midst of the Eisenhower administration and at the height of the Cold War, 82 percent of Americans believed that a Russian attack on one member was an attack on all and that the US should fight, while 8 percent opposed it, and 10 percent weren’t sure. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 56 percent of Americans supported using force against Russia if it became involved in a “serious military conflict” with another NATO member state, while 37 percent were opposed, and a mere 7 percent weren’t sure. Among some other NATO countries, support then falls off by small steps. Support for fighting slides down through Canada (53), Britain (49), Poland and Spain (48), France (47), Italy (40), and Germany (38).[2] In Germany, 58 percent opposed fighting Russia, while only 4 percent weren’t sure.

With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, Poland (50 percent) and the United States (46 percent) most strongly support sending weapons to the Kiev government. Thereafter, support declines among other NATO members through Canada (44), Britain (42), and France (40), before falling off sharply in Spain (25 percent), Italy (22) and Germany (19). Similarly, 62 percent of Americans favor admitting Ukraine to NATO, but only 36 percent of Germans supported such a move.

One way to think about this is that, in spite of the frequent media references to a revived Cold War, most people in the West aren’t there yet. Still, it may be where we are headed. Favorable opinion about the United States among Russians has fallen from 51 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in June 2015 and favorable opinion about NATO has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent over the same period. Favorable opinion about Russia in the NATO countries has fallen from 37 percent to 26 percent.

Another way to think about this is that there has been a significant disaggregation within the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War. The United States and Germany now represent opposite poles on a number of key policy issues. As the creation of the Eurozone and the negotiations over the Greek debt crisis show, Germany has become the dominant power in Europe. Americans demonstrate a resolution (or belligerence) unmatched by the Germans. This is something with which future leaders of both countries will have to wrestle.

Still another way to think about this is that we are witnessing yet another phase in the troubled, tortuous relationship between Germany and Russia. Before the First World War they were two conservative empires in opposed alliances. Between the wars they were ideologically opposed states driven to co-operate by their international pariah status. Since 1945, the partitioned Germanys first clung to their dominant partner, then West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” began opening a road East based on economic complementarity. Vladimir Putin’s assertion of Russian power and interests among the non-NATO former members of the Soviet Union has challenged that relationship. Belarus and Georgia may be next, but people worry that he will not stop at the borders of the Baltic states. Putin’s own moderation—or lack of it–holds the key.

[1] Naftali Bendavid, “Poll Shows West Is Divided On How to Deal With Russia,” WSJ, 10 June 2015.

[2] The Polish stance is worth some thought because Poland is going to provide the most likely battlefield in such a conflict.