Gregory Bienstock 1939

Stalin’s Renversement Des Alliances

Source: The Nineteenth Century and After, October 1939. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The renversement des alliances brought about by the Russo-German Pact of 23 August 1939 signifies without any doubt a new adjustment of forces in Europe and in world policy. The astonishment aroused by the pact between Hitler and Stalin can only be compared with that felt by Europe in 1756 when France broke away from her traditional anti-Habsburg policy and made an alliance with Austria. Is it not possible, on the other hand, to identify in the history of Russo-German relations a certain tradition of approach?

Friendship with the Habsburgs was already an integral part of Russian foreign policy before the time of Peter the Great. Peter, who clearly discerned the Swedish, Polish and Turkish problems as the three most important in Russian foreign policy, laid at the same time great value on good relations with both German Great Powers – Austria and Prussia. He also actually succeeded in establishing very friendly relations between Russia and these two powers.

It is very questionable if Peter, a crass empiricist, had any particular system of foreign policy. Ideas were subsequently ascribed to him of which he could hardly have been aware. For instance, AP Bestuzhev-Riumin, foreign minister of the Empress Elisabeth (1741-1761), formulated the foreign political system of Peter the Great as follows: ‘One must never leave one’s allies in the lurch. These are, however, the maritime powers of England and Holland, the King of Poland and the Queen of Hungary. This is the system of Peter the Great.’

In reality neither Peter nor his successors had a ‘system’ of any kind. Peter I, who inaugurated the acceptance by Russia of European civilisation, was fundamentally as sceptical towards Europe as the Czars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The declaration: ‘The European powers need me but I can do quite well without them’, is authentic. Petersburg was like ancient Moscow in regarding herself as an outsider in Europe. The policy of Imperial Russia towards the European state system vacillated in accordance with the momentary necessities of the Petersburg government. Empress Elisabeth was drawn into the Seven Years’ War and fought on the side of Austria against Prussia. Her nephew and successor, Peter III, a worshipper of Frederick the Great, strove for an alliance with Prussia, while Katharine II reverted to neutrality but very soon afterwards concluded a formal alliance with Frederick II (1764). At the end of her reign, however, she returned to the traditional friendship with Austria.

In the nineteenth century friendship with the two German powers, especially Prussia, was part of the iron schedule of Russian foreign policy. Both Alexander I and Nicholas I were in close touch with the Court of Berlin. One may say that this was as much a ‘geo-political’ as an ‘ideological’ friendship. Ideologically since the French Revolution a certain tension had begun and had become more and more noticeable during the first half of the nineteenth century, between conservative Russia and the two liberal Western powers of England and France. On the other side, Russia was, historically speaking, linked with the German powers by the common wrong done to Poland in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. (The three partitions of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria between 1772 and 1795.)

But already since the beginning of the nineteenth century a further line of Russian foreign policy manifested itself: Russia gradually rose to the position of a World Power, and thus encountered the other two World Powers of the period – England and France. In judging the European constellation at any given time one must always take into consideration the world political situation in which the European situation is imbedded. This has today become a platitude, but also in judging of past history one must always see the European situation in relation to the world situation of the period. There has always been a world policy which has influenced the European situation, but it is only in the last quarter-century that Europe has become aware of her dependence on world policy.

In its relation to world policy, that is to England and France, Russian policy felt its way painfully and with many hesitations to an independent attitude. Radical renversements des alliances occurred repeatedly during the process and seem to be, in general, a tradition of Russian foreign Policy. Paul I (1796-1801) cut loose from the alliance with England against France and formed a union with the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte which had as its object to destroy English power in Europe and the whole world. His successor, Alexander I, went back to the English alliance, only to forsake it a few years later with apparent finality and agree with the French Emperor upon a partition of Europe. This new alliance of the two continental Empires against England was inaugurated in Tilsit in 1807. Alexander at that time received from Napoleon Finland, Bessarabia and a part of Eastern Galicia. Russia kept the two first for more than a century and only lost them after the war of 1914-18. It is significant for the permanency of the geo-political tendency that Russia’s aspirations towards Finland and Bessarabia are again being discussed, and are said to have been the subject of an agreement between the rulers in Moscow and Berlin in case of a new division of Europe.

As we know, however, Alexander I, at last uneasy in his friendship with Napoleon, swung back to England – a third renversement des alliances in fifteen years!

With Nicholas I (1825-1855) the ideological motive of legitimism played a decisive role in his relations to Prussia and Austria. This ideology robbed him of any understanding of the world political situation, so that he finally found himself against an alliance of the two European Great Powers, England and France. Enmity against these two powers was opposed both to the old tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which prescribed friendship with England, and to the new tradition of friendly relations with at least one of these powers at any given time. In the Crimean War, in which Russia was fighting against an English – French – Italian – Turkish coalition, the two German powers attacked her diplomatically in the rear. This was the thanks paid by the Germans to Nicholas for his support of the monarchic principle in Europe. After that time the friendship between Berlin and Vienna on the one hand and Petersburg on the other cooled noticeably.

With Alexander II (1855-1881) a withdrawal of Russia from European politics took place hand in hand with an expansion in Central Asia. The British Empire emerges at this time as Russia’s chief antagonist. From this situation sprang the efforts towards an approach both to France and Germany. The Petersburg Cabinet at this time sought to play the part of arbitrator between France and the new German Empire with the object of covering Russia’s rear in Europe in order to realise her plans in Asia and the Balkans.

The triangle France – Germany – Russia might, in Petersburg’s opinion, serve at a critical moment as an instrument for paralysing Britain. There were, however, many objections at this period to an approach to France. Far more important than the ideological barriers to friendship between a republic and an absolute monarchy, and the popular idea of France as the arch-enemy who had attacked Russia twice in half a century, was the ancient geo-political fact of the friendship between France and Poland. Poland since the seventeenth century had played an important role in the French system of East European ‘counterpoises’, to which Turkey and Sweden also belonged. In the Napoleonic plans for dominating Germany the idea which Sieyès proposed to the Comité de Salut Public could for a time be discerned: ‘To drown Prussia in the sea of Slavism, dissolving its connection with Germany and setting it against Russia.’ After Jena Napoleon wished to offer Frederick William III the crown of Poland to compensate him for the loss of Westphalia. Nothing came of these plans, but the Polish question remained until well past the middle of the nineteenth century a wedge between Russia and France. It was one of the chief hindrances to the development of an alliance between Napoleon I and Alexander I. The Polish rising against Russia in 1863, which nearly led to French intervention on Poland’s behalf, left behind it a tension between Paris and Petersburg of which Bismarck later felt the advantage. The Russian foreign minister Sazonov reminded the French ambassador Paléologue as late as 1916 of the fateful consequences of the French friendship for Poland. ‘Remember what her Polish sympathies cost France of the Second Empire – the destruction of Franco-Russian friendship, our approach to Prussia and then Sadowa and Sedan...’

Alexander III (1881-1894) was successful in definitely improving relations with France and finally in making the Russo-French alliance one of the chief props of the European system. At the same time, however, the Petersburg government remained on the best terms with Berlin and Vienna. The Franco-Russian understanding counterbalanced the Triple Alliance but could equally well be considered as directed against England. For the opposition to England remained into the first decade of the twentieth century the basis of Russian foreign policy.

Russia’s consciousness of herself as a World Power grew ever stronger. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century she became more and more an Asiatic power. Petersburg’s European policy expanded into the world political framework. In this framework Germany appeared firstly less as a rival than as chief antagonist of the actual world political rival of Russia – the British Empire. From this position sprang at first a friendly attitude to Berlin, thus bringing Germany and Russia together on the common ground of opposition to Britain. But still more important is the fact that under Alexander III’s successor, Nicholas II (1894-1917), the centre of gravity of Russia’s foreign policy changed for a time from the Balkans and Central Asia to the Far East. In Berlin this transference of Russian foreign policy was welcomed. At the beginning of the twentieth century William II, ‘Admiral of the Atlantic’, greeted his friend Nicholas II as ‘Admiral of the Pacific’, thereby alluding to a new partition of the world – Asia for the Russians, Europe for the Germans.

Between Paul I and Nicholas II the world situation fundamentally changed. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Russia had to choose between two World Powers in the world political arena – Britain and France. At the beginning of the twentieth she had once more to choose between two World Powers, two world political systems – the British and the German. It must be said that the Petersburg government wavered considerably before finally deciding with whom to cast in her lot. Britain, we know, put out feelers towards Petersburg at the end of the nineteenth century. The Salisbury government played with the idea of a very comprehensive entente with Russia, which actually aimed at a partition of Asia between the two powers. At the same time in Japan an influential circle of men under Marquis Ito Hirobumi’s leadership were striving for an alliance with Russia. The Petersburg Cabinet, however, probably under the influence of Berlin, let slip the alliances both with Britain and Japan. In the year 1902 Marshal Yamagata, against the will of Marquis Ito, concluded an alliance with England which was directed against Russia. In 1905 Czarist Russia was defeated by Japan.

Meantime the situation in Europe had once more fundamentally changed. France approached Britain. The Franco-British Entente became a decisive factor in European and world policy. We have not forgotten, however, that the already century-old tradition of Russian foreign policy carefully avoided antagonising both Western powers at the same time. The Russo-French alliance, a leading idea in Petersburg policy since the 1890s, could only continue to exist if completed by a Russo-British Entente. After defeat in the Far East the swing of the pendulum from Asia to Europe, repeatedly noticeable in Russian history, took place, while the opposite swing from Europe to Asia was only just completed.

The entente with England (1907) was in the end also a renversement des alliances. It destroyed the entente with Berlin. The dream of William II of holding his friend ‘Niki’ on the bridle, and thus ensuring that Russia in the coming conflict would at least remain neutral, came to nothing. But during the whole World War the strands between Berlin and Petersburg were not all broken. The Berlin Cabinet strove for a separate peace both with Russia and Japan. The possibility of a Eurasiatic ‘axis’ – Berlin – Petersburg – Tokyo – was seen, though indistinctly, on the horizon. Such an axis could only have had an anti-Anglo-Saxon aim. The last agreement between the Czarist Government and the Tokyo Cabinet (3 July 1916) had already a definitely anti-American tendency. One must not forget here that the Wilson administration showed a more than benevolent neutrality towards the entente of which Russia and Japan were members.

The next renversement des alliances was brought about by the Lenin government in November, 1917. Soviet Russia left the entente and concluded a separate peace with the Central Powers. She remained nominally neutral, but the fact of her leaving the war meant a considerable easing of the military and economic position of the Central Powers. Lenin and Trotsky, however, never regarded Germany as an ally, and speculated on a future defeat of the Central Powers. Their defeat and the German Revolution brought Russia and Germany once more together. They both found themselves on the losing side, outside the League of Nations and the Franco-British condominion over Europe.

England and France first tried to destroy the Soviet government by supporting all anti-Bolshevik forces. Later an attempt was made to draw Soviet Russia by one means or another into the economic and possibly also the political system of the Franco-British Entente. The culminating point of these efforts was reached at the Conference of Genoa in 1922, at which a great fuss was made of the Soviet government, especially by Mr Lloyd George. At the same time, however, secret negotiations were on foot between Germany and the Soviet Union, and into the midst of the friendly conversations between England and the Soviets crashed the bomb of the Treaty of Rapallo, concluded by the then German Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau, and the Soviet Commissar, Chicherin.

The two treaties of Rapallo (1922) and Berlin (1926) were aimed on Russia’s part at isolating Germany from the Western powers and making her, should occasion require, into an operation base for Russia against Western Europe. On the other side Germany was to play the part of a dam against intervention by the Western powers in Russian affairs. In this the Soviet government carried on the tradition particularly of Nicholas I, who was interested in keeping Germany weak and divided in order to draw this weakened Germany into his anti-European plans.

Germany, on the other hand, even after the signing of the Locarno Treaty, was keenly interested in keeping her relations with Russia on a friendly footing. For the turn which German foreign policy had taken since 1924, after the final settlement of all Communist putsches, and economic stabilisation with the help of America and the Western powers, consisted in making use of Anglo-French help in order to grow strong, politically, economically and militarily. Gustav Stresemann saw the Locarno Pact merely as a step to the re-ascension of Germany to the position of a World Power. In this ascent, however, Germany needed, above all on the military side, the help of Soviet Russia. Relations between Berlin and Moscow in this period presented a most remarkable picture: on the one hand the German government, supported by the Reichswehr, suppressed the Communist rising; on the other hand, this same government found itself in an alliance with the Comintern government of Moscow, while the Reichswehr lived in closest friendship with the Red Army and was energetically supported by the Red General Staff in its secret reconstruction. Actually, German rearmament, in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, was carried out with the help of Moscow. Parallel with it a political flirtation was going on between the most gifted Soviet publicist, Karl Radek, and the most honest journalist of the radical wing of the National Socialist movement, Count Reventlow.

Naturally Berlin not only coquetted with Paris and London, as Stresemann admitted in his famous letters to the Crown Prince, but also with Moscow. On the other hand, the friendship with Germany was also in Moscow linked up with a considerable number of mental reservations. Moscow was acting according to Lenin’s famous prescription: ‘Who whom?’ (Who will prevail?’) As is well known, Lenin issued this watchword when inaugurating his great economic retreat before capitalism. Lenin preached at that time close cooperation with capitalism inside and outside the Soviet state in the hope of winning by means of this cooperation the upper hand and destroying his one-time allies.

This peculiar relationship between Berlin and Moscow outlasted all changes in the internal policy of the two powers. The Liberal – Socialist government of the Weimar period gradually changed to the reactionary ‘emergency’ government of Brüning, Papen and Schleicher. Finally, Germany drifted into the extreme nationalism and totalitarianism of Adolf Hitler. At the same time the Soviet republic completed her evolution from the liberal NEP (New Economic Policy) policy of Lenin, Rykov and Bukharin to the ‘pan-Socialism’ of Stalin. During this whole period Germany, as well as Russia, remained in the real sense of the word outside the larger European policy. Neither the Berlin nor the Moscow government was regarded by the Franco-British condominion as an equal partner; and it was this that threw them together. But this ‘aloofness’ from European policy, linked on the German side with certain wistful glances westward, made it impossible for the Russo-German friendship to become a decisive factor in Europe. The Berlin-Moscow Entente was a ‘static’ phenomenon, serving chiefly the defensive of the two powers, behind which, certainly, a strategic deployment was taking place. Neither Moscow nor Berlin, least of all Berlin, was resolute enough to turn the German-Russian Entente into an offensive instrument against the West.

It was left for Adolf Hitler to take the decisive step, wrench Germany free from her traditional connection with Russia, and decide for the British Empire against Moscow. In doing this Hitler hoped to strike out a new path in German foreign policy and complete the breakthrough to world power already attempted unsuccessfully by William II. The latter failed because he built on the foundation laid by Bismarck’s principle, elevated to a dogma by his successors, of keeping in with both England and Russia and playing the two powers against each other. Hitler decided for Britain against Russia. It would be an interesting task to analyse this turn in German foreign policy which also represents a renversement des alliances. But it is not with Hitler’s renversements des alliances that we are here concerned, but with Stalin’s. We may, however, say at this point that it was probably not a genuine alliance with Britain that Hitler had in mind, but to use Britain to crush Russia, to make himself into a paramount continental power and then to take up the struggle with Britain for world power.

Stalin’s renversement des alliances of 1934, the approach to France, entry into the League of Nations and the decisive turn against Germany was the consequence of the turn in Hitler’s policy. It is possible that with this whole policy, including the beginning of the discussions with England and France over the military alliance, Stalin merely wished to exert pressure on Germany in order to bring her back to the entente with Russia. Stalin is a thoroughgoing opportunist who has brought the art of suiting himself to the situation of the moment, to the point of open cynicism. He is not the man to be debarred by any ideological considerations whatever.

It is, however, equally possible that Stalin, for whom Germany was growing too strong, actually had in mind a turn to the West and a union with Britain. If so, the plan was broken against the rigidity of the Western European powers, that of Britain in particular. London probably took too seriously the world revolutionary ideology of Moscow. Perhaps also the idea of diverting Germany to the east and ‘drowning her in the Sea of Slavism’ (Sieyès) played a part. In any case, Russia was to play second fiddle in the future coalition, a part naturally objectionable to the awakened self-consciousness of the Russians.

In judging of Moscow’s actions one must not forget that the aim of her whole European policy has been to secure her rear in order to be free for the inevitable settlement with Japan in the Far East. Britain, however, hoping if occasion arose to detach Japan from the Fascist Axis, was not prepared to bind herself to Russia in respect of the Far East. Stalin was probably not clear to the last what attitude Britain would take in case of a Russo-Japanese War. The old antagonism between Russia and the British Empire in Asia might at any time become acute. The only possibility of preventing this old rivalry from coming to life again was a general understanding between Moscow and London about all Asiatic matters, somewhat as proposed by the Salisbury government at the end of the nineteenth century, and as actually took place in 1907. At that time London succeeded, if not in doing away with Russo-Japanese opposition, at least in bringing it into the framework of a general Pax Asiatica under British patronage. The greatest mistake of the Chamberlain government in regard to Russia was probably the idea of a European alliance with Moscow, leaving out of consideration the Asiatic relations of the two powers. London, strangely enough, once more forgot that Russia is an Asiatic power, and definitely more so today than thirty years ago.

We are living in a world of romanesque fantasy in which grotesque detective-fiction heroes are ordering the destinies of mankind in unbelievably cruel fashion. It is therefore not astonishing if one credits Stalin with the devilish idea of provoking a world war in order to plunge Europe and the world into revolution. This idea cannot be entirely excluded, though the whole evolution of Stalin makes it appear somewhat improbable. Stalin has done away with the Communist ideology in Russia, and seems to be inclined to regard the Russian Revolution as ended. His chief aim is to consolidate the power in his own hands and in those of his circle. In this he is relying on a recently arisen class having nothing in common with revolutionary traditions. A world revolution would discredit the whole edifice of the Russian stabilised ‘Total State’ and the whole theory of ‘Socialism in One Land’.

No, Stalin is not guided either in his foreign or internal policy by ideological considerations, but by those of power politics. He was not prepared for Russia to become a member on sufferance of a coalition under British leadership. In his eyes Germany is the weaker and therefore the less dangerous partner.

With his renversement des alliances Stalin has executed one of those brutal turns which are so characteristic of Russian foreign policy. It must not be forgotten that between 1796 and 1811 – that is, in the course of fifteen years – the Petersburg Cabinet three times engaged in a radical renversement des alliances. Other turns in Russian foreign policy, equally brusque, we have also already mentioned in this article. But Stalin could not have brought off this volte-face if Hitler had not met him half-way. Hitler, however, had completely to reorganise his policy when he saw that England and France had at last seen through him. It is interesting, moreover, that, according to the revelations of the Frankfurter Zeitung, the secret negotiations between Moscow and Berlin began in March of this year – that is, before Hitler’s occupation of Prague – and that the final destruction of Czechoslovakia did not in the least disturb the course of these negotiations.

The advantages of the German – Soviet Pact for Hitler are clear: it neutralises Russia and places the economic riches of that country at the disposal of German military administration. Whether the pact will have still other unforeseen advantages for the Nazis we shall probably soon know.

Now, what Realpolitik aims is Stalin pursuing in the Moscow Pact of 23 August 1939? We cannot of course refuse in advance to consider the possibility that by concluding the pact Stalin wished to unchain a European war. As a matter of fact, the Russo-German Entente signified the removal of the last hindrance to such a war. One comes much nearer to probability, however, if one ascribes to Stalin the dolus eventualis: [1] he signed the Pact with Hitler, not because, but although he foresaw that it would inevitably lead to the unchaining of war. For Stalin it was a case of making once for all impossible the coalition between Germany and the Western powers, so fraught with danger for Russia. This aim he has certainly achieved.

Now Russia is free to follow her own aims while Europe is torn by war. Above all, Stalin now has a free hand in Asia. He can use this freedom either to settle accounts with Japan once and for all, or, on the other hand, to achieve a far-reaching entente with Japan necessarily aimed at Britain. In one way or the other Stalin will consolidate his position in Asia.

It is open to question whether the pact of 23 August 1939 foreshadows a partition of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia. Such a partition would be thoroughly in line with traditional relations between the two countries. Russia would thereby obtain a common frontier with the Reich. Whether this idea is particularly attractive to Moscow is another question. An over-powerful Germany is hardly in line with Stalin’s interests. It is doubtful whether Moscow will remain a passive onlooker at Hitler’s attempt at smashing the Western powers. It seems that in case of such an emergency a further radical turning in the policy of Moscow is highly probable. One thing is certain: the course of Moscow’s foreign policy is unlikely to be influenced by any sort of ideological considerations. It will in the most completely cynical manner represent the power political interests of Russia as Stalin conceives them. That this policy is anti-European and anti-democratic is perfectly clear. In the end it will prove also to be anti-Russian. The best men of Russia – her thinkers and poets – have always seen the historical mission of the country as intimately linked up with the destiny of Europe. Sixty years ago the very nationalistically minded Dostoyevsky said:

Yes, the destiny of the Russian man is without any doubt all-European and all-World. To become a true Russian, fully and completely a Russian, means perhaps nothing less than to be the brother of all mankind... For a true Russian Europe... is as dear as Russia itself...

How far the present policy of the Moscow government has wandered from the ideal of this great Russian seer!


1. Dolus eventualis – where the perpetrator of an act recognises the possibility of a particular consequence occurring, but recklessly disregards whether it ensues or not – MIA.