Trotsky 1924

Notes of a Discussion Between the Ambassador in Moscow, Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, and Peoples’ Commissar Trotsky on 9 June 1924

Source: Nachlass des Reichsministers Dr Gustav Stresemann, Public Record Office, London, 7414H/H175334/40, cited in Gerald Freund, Unholy Alliance: Russian-German Relations from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to the Treaty of Berlin (Chatto and Windus, London, 1957). Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The meeting between Count Brockdorff-Rantzau and Trotsky followed a serious breach in Soviet-German relations — including the termination of all Soviet orders with German companies, the suspension of negotiations in respect of concessions, and the cancellation of Soviet participation in the Cologne and Leipzig trade fairs — that occurred in the aftermath of an incident on 3 May 1924 when Berlin police entered and searched the Soviet Trade Delegation building, in which a German communist, Bozenhard, had earlier taken refuge in order to evade arrest.

Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau (1869-1928) joined the Imperial German foreign service in 1893, serving in the embassy in St Petersburg during 1897-1901. He was involved with the arrangements for Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries to travel across Germany in 1917 in a ‘sealed train’. He was appointed Imperial Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1919, and led the German delegation that signed the Versailles Agreement. Whilst in favour of the suppression of radical left-wing activities in Germany, he was an advocate of firm German-Soviet relations, and he served as the Ambassador to the Soviet Union until his death.

Strictly Secret!

I had an hour-long discussion with Trotsky yesterday. He received me at 9.30 pm, not at the Kremlin, but rather in the offices of the Commissariat of War. I started the discussion by saying that I was glad to see him recovered — he really looked very well — and added that it was a source of satisfaction for me to know that he is back in Moscow. At the time of our last conversation he had given me permission to approach him directly in the event serious incidents occurred. For formality’s sake I remarked that I assumed Mr Chicherin [1] was informed that I had come to talk to him [Trotsky]; I did not have the opportunity to discuss this at the Foreign Commissariat. Trotsky replied that, of course, Chicherin was informed; he himself [Trotsky] had asked him [Chicherin] to tell me that he [Trotsky] regretted not being able to receive me two days ago when I asked to see him; he had been in the country (it is noteworthy that Chicherin did not tell me a word of this).

When I had taken a seat I explained that the situation was so serious that I had to speak to Trotsky personally; I saw German-Russian friendship seriously endangered and had to know if the relations with his department were also threatened. The lamentable incident has led to such untoward consequences that I, unhappily, had to assume as much. Of course, such a development would also have a decisive bearing on my own attitude.

Trotsky interrupted me very animatedly saying: ‘No, this is out of the question. This mess has to be cleaned up and does not have the remotest chance of influencing — in any way — the important military relations which have been fostered to our as well as your gratification. Rosenholts [2] asked me on the first day that the incident became known what his attitude should be. I told him, that a change in our attitude was not even to be contemplated. The dispute has absolutely no bearing on this matter.’ I responded that this explanation was very consoling; nevertheless I wanted to tell the Peoples’ Commissar about a number of striking symptoms.

In the first place, the reception given Major Fischer and Captain Vogt [3] by Mr Rosenholts about four weeks ago was noticeably cool; moreover, on the 8th of this month permission for the participation of a Junkers Company plane in the parade was suddenly withdrawn, although the plane had already arrived at the starting line. In addition, I heard today just by chance that all the ambassadors except me took part in the parade. Frankly, I will not allow myself, as German Ambassador, to be treated like a naughty child whose sweet is taken away because one does not see eye-to-eye here with the policies of my Government. Trotsky laughed, but said very seriously he would make immediate enquiries and understood completely that I could not treat these ‘symptoms’ as matters of secondary importance. With regard to the refusal of permission for the participation of the German aeroplane, this was done by the GPU as a safety precaution: the aerodrome was overcrowded and therefore the number of planes that could participate had to be restricted. As a matter of fact, a woman was actually killed out there.

I then asked the Peoples’ Commissar in detail about the position of the Commissariat of War regarding the Junkers Company, saying that they had not received any Russian orders, that they are prepared to manufacture motors, but that they would have to contend with serious financial difficulties if they did not get contracts in Russia, although, as he knows, they had recently received a considerable subsidy from the German side. Trotsky declared, and it was undoubtedly not an excuse, that he is not informed about the details, but would make enquiries right away.

I went on to say that as far as my Government is concerned the dispatch of Messrs Fischer, Vogt, Arnold and Thomsen [4] is proof that we do not want to change our policy towards Russia. Trotsky remarked, he fully understands that the German police does not approve of a lot that is going on, but he never believed that we had the intention of reorienting our policy. I explained that this very apt interpretation is unfortunately not being given [to the incident] in all quarters here. In regard to the dispatch of Messrs Fischer, Vogt and others, I wanted it to be known that the famous Colonel Thomsen had now arrived, and that I will not, under any circumstances, allow him to be badly treated here. I have therefore advised him not to get in touch with Mr Rosenholts before our discussion today. Trotsky asked me excitedly when Colonel Thomsen arrived in Moscow and declared, after I replied, already a week ago, that he will certainly contact Rosenholts immediately and personally arrange a meeting between them. I remarked, Colonel Thomsen also intends to negotiate with Rosenholts about the hiring of 10 German officer pilots. Although these men are our best pilots, all sorts of unexpected objections were raised against six or seven of them which has prevented their employment here.

It was also a shock that, as I heard from a reliable source, at the arms factories in Tula, which operate under German management, a foreign, either an English or an American, commission was received about two weeks ago. Trotsky said he will enquire about this immediately; the report was undoubtedly false.

I then asked abruptly if one were still negotiating with Colonel Bauer [5] here. Trotsky replied that there is the intention of resuming the negotiations regarding the chemical factories in the near future; there was, after all, also German capital behind Bauer. I retorted that this seemed to be the case; nevertheless I wanted to inform the Peoples’ Commissar that in Berlin there was not any intention of working together with Bauer. [6] General von Seeckt [7] has given me a categorical assurance to this effect. It is known that Bauer is in touch with General Ludendorff; [8] cooperation between him and the Reichswehrministerium is out of the question. Trotsky said that this information was invaluable; he naturally did not want to jeopardise the working relationship with the Reichswehrministerium under any circumstances.

When this question was dealt with, I directed the conversation to the international situation and said, Mr Trotsky is the only statesman here who has been moderate about the incident in Berlin. Krasin’s [9] speech had made my work here much more difficult for me. Moreover, I could not justify in any way the position adopted by Ambassador Krestinsky. [10] His outrageous communiqué had muddled the whole situation right from the start. Trotsky said he did not want to talk about diplomatic negotiations because he does not understand anything about them. I retorted that the issue is not one of ‘diplomacy’, but rather Mr Krestinsky’s conception of his job as Ambassador, with which I do not agree. With regard to Krasin, Trotsky declared — after I said that Mr Krasin began his speech by saying that Mr Zinoviev [11] had not exhausted the subject of the incident in his speech — that Krasin is a notorious Germanophile and had to begin with this introduction in view of the excited state of all public opinion, in order to give special emphasis to the paragraphs calculated to mitigate the conflict. I took the remark regarding Krasin’s friendship for Germany sceptically and remarked that one knows, after all, how public opinion is created.

In the further course of the discussion I reminded Trotsky of his statement to me in December last year with regard to relations with France. At that time he had said that France was the common enemy of Russia and Germany. I suggested that this conception may have changed since Poincaré’s [12] fall from power. Trotsky replied with great emphasis that this was not the case at all; neither relations with France nor those with Britain could disrupt the German-Russian friendship. He was firmly convinced that this friendship would continue for years — he corrected himself — for decades to come. The present cabinet in France has the unique assignment of burying first Millerand [13] and then itself. If Herriot [14] accedes to the helm he will probably orient himself somewhat to the Left; but the change of governments in France will not have a decisive influence on relations with Russia. If de facto recognition were to follow, the French would immediately ‘present their big bill’, just as the English are doing now, and this big bill is the obstacle to a real improvement in relations. At this juncture Trotsky said he is very sceptical about the negotiations in London. It is noteworthy, however, that he remarked that he does not think it impossible that America will take a commercial interest in Russia; but he added in this connexion, and then repeated himself, that this is his personal opinion.

When I took my leave after about an hour I thanked Trotsky for his trust and candour and asked him to use his great authority to see to it that this incident is finally completely settled. I asked him directly if he thought that, in spite of this lamentable conflict, the old friendly relations between Germany and Russia might be restored. He answered affirmatively without any hesitation; whereupon I said my job here should be made easier for me and one should not forget that I want to work with the Soviet Government. The Russian note of 31 May [15] is a virtual ultimatum; the repressive measures that have been taken here have done incalculable harm. Because of the new economic policy that was adopted here about six months ago it will, in any case, be very difficult for me to interest German financial and commercial circles to do any further work in Russia; I therefore wanted to suggest to Mr Trotsky, as I have already advised Mr Chicherin in a conversation, that if the incident is settled with a protocol, as seems likely, the protocol should state that the German and Russian Governments have decided, in the spirit of the Rapallo treaty, to forget the misunderstandings of the last years and to work together in friendship in the future. We know what we mean to one another, I added, but we should on no account give our adversaries the pleasure of seeing an open break between us.

Trotsky indicated that he understood completely and promised me his support.

(Signed) Brockdorff-Rantzau
Moscow, 10 June 1924


Notes provided by the Marxist Internet Archive.

1. Georgy Vasilyevich Chicherin (1872-1936) joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party after the 1905 revolution, siding at first with the Mensheviks but gravitating towards the Bolsheviks during the First World War. He was People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the Soviet government during 1918-30.

2. Arkady Pavlovich Rosengolts (1889-1938) joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1905, worked closely with Trotsky during the Civil War, and subsequently in the Commissariats of Transportation and Finance and the Directorate of the Red Army Air Force. He was appointed People’s Commissar of Foreign Trade in 1930, and was executed after appearing as a defendant in the third Moscow Trial.

3. Major Fischer and Captain Vogt were noted German pilots. Fischer had previously headed Abteilung B, a body that investigated the possibilities of Soviet-German military cooperation, and was to play a prominent role in this field during the 1920s and early 1930s.

4. Colonel Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen (1867-1942) was a German career army officer, and became Chief of Staff of the Army Air Service in 1916. He played a key role in the negotiations with the Soviet authorities in respect of military cooperation. He subsequently became Head of Military Science at the Reich Air Ministry under the Nazi regime.

5. Colonel Max Hermann Bauer (1869-1929) was a career army officer and an associate of General Ludendorff (qv) during the First World War. He was an advocate of German-Soviet cooperation against the Versailles powers, and was one of the right-wing figures who visited Karl Radek when he was incarcerated in Moabit prison. He was involved in plans to build a chemicals factory on Soviet soil. He subsequently became a military advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek in China.

6. This was because of Bauer’s support for the Kapp Putsch in 1920, which prevented good relations between him and the German government.

7. General Johannes Friedrich von Seeckt (1866-1936) was a career army officer. He was in charge of rebuilding the German army after the First World War, and was determined to subvert the military restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty upon Germany, including by way of secret military cooperation with the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s victory, he became a military advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek.

8. General Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865-1937) was a career army officer and Quartermaster-General of the German army in the First World War, and virtual military dictator of the country for the last two years of it. He was a co-conspirator with Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch, but unlike him was not found guilty in the trial that followed. He was a Reichstag deputy for the far-right German Völkisch Freedom Party during 1924-28. He did much to popularise the ideas of the far right, but his disdain for Hitler prevented him from obtaining a prominent position during the Third Reich.

9. Leonid Borisovich Krasin (1870-1926) joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in the 1890s and sided with the Bolsheviks. He withdrew from political activity after the 1905 revolution, but rejoined the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution and was People’s Commissar of Foreign Trade during 1920-24. Krasin protested publicly about the Bozenhard incident, claiming that the German government had violated its agreement confirming the extraterritorial status of the Trade Delegation.

10. Nikolai Nikolayevich Krestinsky (1883-1938) joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 and sided with the Bolsheviks. He was a member of the Soviet Communist Party’s Political and Organisational Bureaus and Secretariat during 1919-21, after which he was Soviet Ambassador to Germany. He was executed after appearing as a defendant in the third Moscow Trial. Krestinsky sent to Moscow a communiqué about the Bozenhard incident, stating that it was a provocation by the German government that was intended to discredit the Soviet government.

11. Grigori Yevseevich Zinoviev (1883-1936) joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1901 and later sided with the Bolsheviks. At this point he was Chairman of the Communist International, and he made an inflammatory remark about the Bozenhard incident at the Soviet Communist Party’s Thirteenth Congress in early 1924.

12. Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934) became the Prime Minister of France in January 1922, promoted a virulent anti-German policy, and initiated the invasion of the Ruhr in January 1923.

13. Alexandre Étienne Millerand (1859-1943) was notorious for having entered a reactionary bourgeois government in 1899, which led to his expulsion from the French Socialist Party. He became President in September 1920, and was forced from office on 11 June 1924 as the incoming government refused to work with him. Although he did not actually resign until three days after Brockdorff-Rantzau met Trotsky, he was in a vulnerable position after the victory of the Le Cartel des gauches in parliamentary elections held in May 1924.

14. Édouard Herriot (1872-1952) was a prominent leader of the Radical Party in France, and started his first term of office as Prime Minister on 14 June 1924. He was Prime Minister for three short periods, during 1924-25, 1926 and 1932.

15. Chicherin sent a note to Berlin on 31 May 1924 in respect of the Bozenhard incident, demanding an official apology and the punishment of the policemen involved.