Before dawn on June 22, 1941, German bombers began to rain destruction down on a swath of Soviet cities from Leningrad to Sevastopol. It was the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the largest military operation in the history of the world. By the end of the day, three million German soldiers and their allies crossed the Soviet border, inaugurating the bloodiest phase of World War II. The invasion also brought to a bloody conclusion 20 years of secret cooperation between Germany and the Soviet Union.
While Soviet-German military cooperation between 1922 and 1933 is often forgotten, it had a decisive impact on the origins and outbreak of World War II. Germany rebuilt its shattered military at four secret bases hidden in Russia. In exchange, the Reichswehr sent men to teach and train the young Soviet officer corps. However, the most important aspect of Soviet-German cooperation was its technological component. Together, the two states built a network of laboratories, workshops, and testing grounds in which they developed what became the major weapons systems of World War II. Without the technical results of this cooperation, Hitler would have been unable to launch his wars of conquest.
After World War I, the victors dismantled the vaunted German army, reducing it to only 100,000 men. The Treaty of Versailles further forbade Germany from producing or purchasing aircraft, armored vehicles, and submarines. These provisions highlighted the Entente’s hope that removing German access to modern technologies of war would force Germany to abandon its militarist past. To the contrary, those particular provisions further convinced the remnants of the German High Command that technological rearmament was essential to restoring Germany’s position. Few works since the opening of the Russian Archives have explored the Soviet-German military pact in its totality. None have focused on its technological aspects. In this article, I offer new conclusions on the subject, drawing from archives in Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the United States. Of particular importance for this piece are the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA), the archives of the German corporations Krupp, M.A.N. and Daimler-Benz, the U.S. National Archive’s Collection of Foreign Records Seized, and Yale University’s Russian Archive Project.
General Hans von Seeckt, in command of the Reichswehr from 1920 to 1926, was eager to work with Soviet Russia, the only other European state equally hostile to the status quo. In 1919, Seeckt dispatched to Russia Enver Pasha, the former Turkish minister of defense then in hiding for his part in mass atrocities against Armenians in eastern Anatolia. Seeckt’s goal was to establish communications with the Soviet government to discuss the possibility of military cooperation. He was particularly eager to work against the newly revived state of Poland. German military leaders saw it as the “pillar of Versailles” — a French puppet designed to encircle Germany from the east. Its absorption of former German territory that included hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans further inflamed Berlin’s hostility.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks