One Hundred Years Ago, Germany and Russia laid the Foundation for World War II – April 1922: Rapallo

Zur deutschen Fassung.

Did you ever notice that the term “discovery” is only used when a white guy first steps onto some territory, where non-white folks have been living for a long time? And that fake explorer fame is even bestowed upon those captains who are zig-zagging across the seas like a drunken sailor, confused about the shape of the Earth, about starboard and portside, and about everything else.

Yes, I am talking of Christopher Columbus, who, because he had some public relations guy on board, somehow managed to eradicate all previous discoveries of America from mankind’s memory. The Asians walking across the Bering Strait, the Vikings, the Polynesians, the Phoenicians, King Abu Bakr II of Mali, Prince Madoc of Wales, the EU-funded joint PortugueseDanishGerman expedition of 1473, as well as the tunnel from Egypt to Mexico. Why else would there be pyramids in Central America? All of them forgotten, repressed, silenced.

This introduction is a little concession to those readers who are less interested in the 20th century, but more in the centuries mired more deeply in history and myth, and whose interests are painfully neglected on this blog. But one is supposed to write about that which one knows, which in my case is – if anything at all – modern history. Thus, the digression about Christopher Columbus serves the only purpose of mentioning that he was from Genoa.

At Columbus’ time, Genoa was a republic. (Yes, that’s the reason why he made America a republic, too. Well spotted!) The port city later became French and ultimately – thanks to the heroic actions of Giuseppe Garibaldi, who, unlike Columbus, is someone who totally deserves all admiration – Italian.

There, in Italian Genoa, the world’s powerful and influential congregated in April 1922, hence exactly one hundred years ago, to hammer out the details of the post-war order. The 34 countries present were particularly interested in economic and financial issues. Their conference was dominated by two pressing problems.

First: Russia. While all other countries were suffering under economic systems ranging from liberal to capitalist, the Russian people had given itself a new economic order in October 1917, according to which everything belonged to everybody. That socialism or communism was still pretty new at the time and regarded with keen interest all over the world, but the capitalists had told the international governing elite that it was a terrible idea.

By the way, if anybody wants to be a smart-ass at this point: It is correct to refer to Russia, not to the Soviet Union, because the latter was only established in December 1922. When the time comes, there will probably have to be a separate episode about that. Because otherwise, I would have to devote December 1922 to the foundation of the Irish Free State or the Nobel Prize for Albert Einstein, both of which are subjects in which I feel far too unqualified for writing about them with even the semblance of any half-knowledge.

Second: Germany. The main issue was renegotiating the reparations payments, which Germany had to pay as the country bearing the sole legal responsibility for World War I (Art. 231 of the Versailles Treaty). Germany usually likes to pretend that it’s super rich, but at the time, Germany was whining and complaining that it was totally broke, that it couldn’t pay the reparations, that all of this was unfair, sob, snivel, wail.

So, in a way, these two countries were the ostracized ones in the new world order. The Russian delegation had not even been able to find a hotel in Genoa, so the Bolshevists had to seek refuge in Rapallo, 30 kilometers away. At Hotel Imperiale, which, as a diligent researcher, I should have inspected in person, but which unfortunately would have taken up my five-year plan budget.

If you have ever enjoyed pariah status at school, at university or at work yourself, you know very well how that works: If two people are ostracized, then sooner or later, they get together. If only out of boredom.

After a few days of conferencing back and forth, the Russian and German delegations began to feel claustrophobic in their hotel rooms, while the other countries went out to dance, to the movies or to gamble. Having pizza every night can become quite boring, even though food was a welcome change for the Russians. So, the Russians invited the Germans to Rapallo and asked, a bit uncouth due to diplomatic inexperience: “Say, if nobody else wants to play with us, why don’t we become friends?”

The Germans conferred for a while, but ultimately reached a consensus: better a dubious friend than no friend at all. (Everything bad in life and in world history is due to people like those, who can’t be alone and simply enjoy an evening with a book.)

But Germany and Russia also shared an aversion. A very strong aversion. Against Poland. That funny country had the habit of disappearing, then popping up again, of being divided, then reunited again, of being moved east on one day, and west on the next. Rarely was any of this the fault of the Poles. They had, like so many Eastern European countries and peoples, merely the bad luck of being wedged between the great powers of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and being used as a military playground by those bullies.

Here is an animated overview of the animated Polish territorial history:

You got that?

I just hope you missed neither the Polish-Ukrainian War fought over Galicia, Carpatho-Ukraine, Volhynia and Bukovina from 1918 to 1919 between Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania on the one hand and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Hutsul Republic and the Komancza Republic on the other hand, nor the Polish-Soviet war from 1919 to 1921. Attentive readers will now ask how there could have been a Soviet war, when you just learned above that the Soviet Union was only to be founded in December 1922. Well, there was already a Soviet Russia and a Soviet Ukraine, who in this war fought (and lost) together against Poland, Latvia and the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

Just memorize two things, if you can: First, and this is the perennial issue in this history series, World War I wasn’t finished in 1918 by any means. Second, even one hundred years ago, Ukraine was not part of Russia. (I know that all of this is terribly complicated. But that doesn’t mean that somebody who claims that it ain’t so is right. Quite the contrary, anyone claiming that probably wants to dupe you.)

But now back to beautiful Rapallo.

After much vodka, wine, and grappa, Russian Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin pulled a treaty from his pocket, handed it to his German counterpart Walther Rathenau, and said: “Just sign on the dotted line.”

Rathenau was rather skeptical really, but the first article of the short treaty document spelled out that both countries would waive any claims for reparations and other damages. Rathenau was a fiscal conservative, and he was always happy if his government would have to spend less. The free market would take care of everything else, he thought. And signed.

Apart from that, the treaty included the resumption of diplomatic, consular and trade relations. Trade and commerce were the main drivers of German foreign policy, and German businesses were already waiting in line. (They had somehow gotten wind of the draft treaty even before it had been signed.)

At the core of German-Russian friendship would be oil. Germany supplied the technological expertise to exploit the oil fields in the Caucasus, and undertook to build highways, petrol stations and cars, so that Germany would become dependent on Russian oil, and later on Russian natural gas. The construction of pipelines was advertised as a project of friendship and peace, accompanied by cultural campaigns. Young (East) Germans were happy to escape the petit-bourgeois constraints of their parental homes and frolickingly flocked to the Soviet taiga and tundra, where they were cutting down forests and laying pipelines in romantic Jack-London-Klondike-adventure mood.

Last autumn, I was hitchhiking in Saxony, in Eastern Germany. In Bautzen, an elderly man picked me up. He actually needed to go to Dresden, but drove a huge detour to take me all the way to Bernsdorf. He told me stories from his exciting life as an engineer, during which he had seen most of the world. But the highlight remained the years in which he helped to build the Drushba pipeline.

A whole generation of Est German citizens working and welding, wrestling and weeping on the pipeline of friendship, that explains a certain emotional connection, which West Germans lack. In West Germany, we thought more strategically: “If we need more fuel, the USA will have to ‘liberate’ another country.”

Coincidentally, the pipes for the showcase project for Soviet-Eastern-European cooperation were supplied by West Germany, Italy and Japan. Even during the Cold War, economic cooperation was sailing along quite smoothly. Nobody dared touch the Treaty of Rapallo.

But the military component of the German-Russian and soon German-Soviet cooperation should turn out to be much more fateful. The Treaty of Rapallo doesn’t mention it explicitly, but that cooperation had already begun in the year before, in 1921, and was intensified after the alliance signed on the Ligurian coast.

Here too, it makes sense to look at the situation before the treaty:

The Russian army was outdated. They still used mainly horses, as you remember from the episode about the cavalry officer who founded the Kingdom of Mongolia. In 1905, Russia had lost the war against Japan. Until then, it had been unimaginable that a European great power would lose against some Asian islands. In 1920, Russia had lost the war against Poland (see above), although Poland had barely scraped into existence again after having been absent from the world stage for more than one hundred years. The flagship of the Black Sea fleet just sank. It was all very embarrassing.

For Russia, who wanted to attack every neighbor from Finland to Ukraine, it was therefore imperative to modernize its military.

Germany had the technical knowledge, the military-industrial complex, and plenty of unscrupulous people in all positions of commerce and industry. Perfect conditions for rearmament, one would think.

Alas, there was the Treaty of Versailles. Its goal was to keep Germany a military dwarf (Art. 159-213). For example, Germany was not allowed to have more than 100,000 soldiers and not more than 36 warships. Germany was prohibited from having tanks, submarines or an air force. Germany was banned from introducing the draft and from developing chemical weapons.

Basically, the German military was supposed to be reduced to the level of the Russian military.

So, what did the German military do?

If you have read the article about January 1921 very carefully, you already know the answer: The German military didn’t give a damn about the Treaty of Versailles and built up an air force and a tank force. Not openly, of course, but in secret.

And were was the best place for Germany to hide its air force and its tanks?

That you will never guess: The German secret fighter pilot school and testing facility was based in Lipetsk. The secret tank school Kama was near Kazan. The secret chemical weapons testing facility Tomka was near Volsk, now Shikhany. Joint aircraft factories were built in Fili, Kharkiv, Samara, Yaroslavl and Rybinsk. Deep in the Soviet Union, far from the eyes of the world public and the satellites of the NSA, Germany rearmed against all treaty promises, trained pilots and tank drivers, developed new military technology and tested battle tactics.

Germany financed all these facilities and was allowed to train its own pilots, tank drivers, etc. there, but also had to let Soviet soldiers and officers participate in the courses. Regardless of any political rhetoric against the other country, military cooperation continued unabated. Just like it did under Ronald Reagan.

Only Hitler terminated the cooperation in September 1933. Not so much for ideological differences, but because the Nazis had no more interest in hiding their circumvention of the Versailles Treaty. The revision and indeed the violation of the peace treaty was an openly declared government policy, after all.

But the Soviet Union kept the chemical weapons plant near Volsk/Shikhany. At the 33rd Central Scientific-Research Experimental Institute of the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Troops, the nerve agent Novichock was developed. This has famously been used in Russian state terrorism, for example against Alexei Navalny. That’s also why, according to a secret protocol to the Tomka Treaty, Germany had to receive the patient and provide the life-saving treatment.

Speaking of secret protocols: Germany and the Soviet Union went on to conclude other treaties, of which the Non-Aggression Pact was the most consequential. This is the treaty also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the respective foreign secretaries, or as the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It was signed on 24 August 1939, which was rather practical, as one week later, Germany would invade Poland and start another world war. (If there will be a World War III, could someone else start it this time, please, so that Germany won’t be responsible for everything that goes wrong?)

“Non-aggression pact” was a somewhat misleading name for that treaty. Germany and the Soviet Union did indeed promise not to attack each other, but a secret protocol provided for plenty of aggression against a number of other countries: Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Moldova. The military cooperation was resumed again as well. From 1939 to 1940, the Soviet Union provided a secret submarine base near Murmansk to Germany, for example. Soviet icebreakers prepared the path for German destroyers. World War II was real teamwork. Any project manager would be proud.


Treaties at the expense of third parties are always a bad thing; just think of the Munich Agreement 1938. They are also legally invalid, but when you had a border with Germany or with the Soviet Union – or when you have a border with Russia today -, international law doesn’t help you much. The only thing that helps are arms supplies, as the Soviet Union had to find out in 1941, when it was suddenly and surprisingly attacked by Nazi Germany.

“But we have a non-aggression pact,” Stalin wondered, as German planes and tanks, once built and tested in the Soviet Union, bombed and shelled Soviet cities.

Stalin was generally a bit of a doofus. Because from 1941 on, all the Soviet officers and soldiers who had studied, maneuvered and practiced together with the Germans could have been put to excellent use for the Red Army. Whoever knows the enemy can better assess the opponent’s technology and tactics. Unfortunately, Stalin had all these officers executed in 1936/37, because he did not trust anyone who had ever been in the same room with a German. (I think he also had all the people executed who called him names on the internet. He was a sissy like that.) Confusingly, a few years later, Stalin signed a pact with the Germans himself, but, as I said, he was not the brightest cookie in the jar. You really have to wonder how he got re-elected every four years.

The secret protocol was so secret that Mikhail Gorbachev admitted its existence only in December 1991. In general, Soviet and post-Soviet policy towards history was and is a hotchpotch of highly selective misrepresentation. For example, monuments not only in Russia, but also in other successor states of the USSR, pretend that World War II began only in 1941.

1941-1945 groß
1941-1945 Cenotaph
1941-1945 (1)

(The photos are from Uman, from Kyiv and from Odessa in Ukraine, and from Sukhumi in Abkhazia.)

That’s why many people there believe that World War II or the Great Patriotic Special Military Operation began only in June 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The same people also like to believe that the Soviet Union received no US-American tanks and planes and other support, but won the war single-handedly. But then, in the USA, many people believe that the soldiers who landed in Normandy in June 1944 went on to personally liberate Berlin. And everyone always forgets about the Brazilian division. The world being round and thus having more than one potential frontline seems to be too complex for many people.

The truth is that the Soviet Union entered the war already in September 1939. It attacked Poland and occupied the east of the country. Two months later, it attacked Finland, and in 1940, it gobbled up Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Romania.

So, when Vladimir Putin defends the Hitler-Stalin Pact, you now know what he means. In Eastern Europe, in all the countries that have suffered under their geographic location between Germany and Russia so often, people know that too.

Only in the West, especially in Germany, which prides itself so much on “having learned the lessons of history”, nobody wanted to notice how Rapallo-Molotov-Ribbentrop-like it must have appeared to the countries of Eastern Europe, when Russia and Germany opened a new pipeline that would circumvent and exclude all the others.

Especially in Germany, where people are quick to point out the “special responsibility from our history”, only few wanted to realize that Germany has no special historical responsibility towards the Russian state, especially not the current mafia state, but towards all peoples of Eastern Europe who suffered under German occupation. And towards those who, in the Red Army, fought fascism and liberated our concentration camps. Besides Russians, Tatars, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Georgians, Abkhazians, Ingushetians, Ossetians, Belarusians and so on, there were also Ukrainians. Millions of Ukrainians. That is why in every small village in Ukraine, there is a memorial to the Soviet soldiers, always well-kept and with fresh flowers placed in front of it.

What lesson to draw from the bloody German-Russian century? That great powers must stop treating other states like disposable territories. And it’s also us, the people of the West, who must think differently about Eastern Europe.

Ukraine is not a cow from which filets can be cut. Poland is not a buffer state. The Baltic States are not a peripheral region. The Balkans are not a powder keg. Neither is the Caucasus. Romania is not a reservoir of cheap labor. Belarus is not a transit country. All states, from Montenegro to Moldova, from Abkhazia to Albania, are incredibly interesting countries, all of which have a right to their own, self-determined, sovereign existence. Including their own decision whether they want to join the EU, NATO or FIFA.

corniche sukhumi.JPG

That includes being more creative when planning your holiday! Peleș is more beautiful than NeuschwansteinSukhumi is like Nice, just without the crowds. The fjords in Montenegro are almost as impressive as the ones in Norway, but having two beers won’t bankrupt you. And don’t even get me started about Odessa.

Speaking of bankruptcy: I appreciate any support for this little blog. Including contributions from guest authors! For May 1922, is there anyone who knows anything about the League of Nations protectorate for Albania? Or about the civil war in Paraguay? Or about the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act in the USA? Because I for sure don’t know nothing about none of those issues. :/


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Germany, History, Italy, Military, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, World War I, World War II and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to One Hundred Years Ago, Germany and Russia laid the Foundation for World War II – April 1922: Rapallo

  1. Many thanks, Andreas, for your highly interesting and thought-provoking post and I also love Odessa:)

    • Thank you, Donnah!
      Having outed yourself as an expert on Albania, you are most invited to write a guest episode!
      It can be personal, it can be funny or serious, and if it covers the long arch of history, then all the better. After all, most people know hardly anything about Albania. :/ (Including me, although I have been to Albania and enjoyed it greatly. But my stay was far too brief. Well, at least I remembered the Illyrians, so I could impress the Albanian family who gave me a ride while hitchhiking in Germany last week. :-) )

  2. thetorzorean says:

    Excellent article, Andreas. You have a captivating way of telling a (historical) story. You could also have been a teacher! Think how students would be attentive to your every word!

    • Thank you!

      Or they would fall asleep, thinking “there he goes again with his rambling stories…”
      But I think the main thing in creating interest in history is to talk about the connections, the why, the long lines across the decades, even centuries, instead of just facts, kings and dates.

  3. And current global events are laying the foundations for WW III. Although the real causes go back further. Every empire in history eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid: its own collapse. Of course everybody wants to avoid nuclear Armageddon. The logical conclusion is clear.

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  4. Ah, no Poodle Dog, but a very interesting story. We humans doom ourselves by not remembering our history. Here in the US it seems that many are constantly trying to rewrite our history.

    I am learning so much about eastern Europe from you. It was all part of the Soviet Union when I was in school and we learned nothing about the individual countries. I worked with a young guy from Ukraine in the 90s and had no idea where it was. It’s shameful, really.

    Thank you!

    • Sadly, this is not much better in Europe. That’s the reason for my appeal to look east for travel, for literature, or simply talk to people from there.
      But for many, everything east of Germany is just one big Russia. Or even one big Siberia.

  5. gabegstone says:

    Man, what a history lesson! What a century! I’m going to have to bookmark this and re-read it a few times. Overflowing with insights. No wonder my parents left Europe for boring Canada.

    • Thank you! I greatly appreciate it when my articles are re-read several times.

      And yeah, historically, if you lived between Germany and Russia (and some other places in Europe), it was really the best to flee.
      And who knows, maybe one day Canada will become exciting, too? ;-)

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