Faustian Bargain by Ian Ona Johnson

Faustian Bargain by Ian Ona Johnson is published by Oxford University Press.

It is subtitled The Soviet-German Partnership and the Origins of the Second World War. Dr. Johnson is a professor of military history at Notre Dame University.

As I write this review, the world’s attention is once again focused on events in Russia and particularly in Ukraine. Like most conflicts in history, this story didn’t begin this past week or month or year. The issues and troubles are rooted in centuries of Russian and Ukrainian history. And like most of history, it is not simply a remake of an earlier event. Many conflicts that might resemble the opening moves of World Wars I and II led to nothing like those wars.

Historical studies are insightful, but they are not necessarily predictive prophecy. Related to this is the most egregious statement on foreign policy ever made by former President Obama when he chided Mitt Romney saying, “Gov. Romney…when you were asked what is the biggest geopolitical group facing America, you said Russia… And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

No study of the modern world is complete without factoring in the major role Russia played from at least the beginning of the 20th century and the Russo-Japanese War, continuing on with the World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In recent months, well before this current crisis, I turned my attention to the Russo-German War, which was a major part of World War II. It all began with Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II by Sean McMeekin.

When I first saw this book, my thought was “Nope. I have too many unread books about Stalin and about World War II.” As usual, a review and a recommendation and an interview with the author by Tony Williams weakened my easily swayed resolve.

Although this is a rather hefty book, I read it rather quickly and with great interest. I hate to say it was enjoyable, because the accounts in it were grim, brutal, and depressing. Hitler deservedly gets high billing for the causes, extent, and horrors of World War II. But this book crowds Hitler off of his perch and gives much more credit to Stalin for the design, unfolding, and events of that war. He was not the wizard behind the scenes causing each step and misstep, but he was always active, always plotting, and always deceptive in his goals and mission.

Lend Lease was a well-intentioned American effort to pump weapons and materials into the hands of other nations who were fighting on the side we favored. Most of it went to the Soviet Union. There is much to commend in the Lend Lease program, but this book reveals quite a bit that was excessive. We were giving things to Russia that we needed for our own efforts. We were giving to Russia while they were imprisoning Americans who were forced to land planes in that country. We were allowing Russians to freely spy on our production facilities. In short, we were selling out to the Russians.

Russia, to use an old phrase, was “playing both sides against the middle.” Russia was gobbling up neighboring countries right alongside of Germany’s conquests. Russia was co-existing with the Japanese while supposedly helping us in our two-ocean war. Russia was run like a mob boss was at its helm. Except, I don’t think most mob bosses are as evil as Stalin, Beria, and company.

I really thought that Faustian Bargain would be yet another retelling of the story that Stalin’s War covered. I like history enough to enjoy hearing the same story, or reading about the same events, numerous times. But I soon discovered that these two books are not echoes of one another, but rather are complementary accounts of events.

The Soviet-German partnership began in the waning days of World War I. In a real sense, both Germany and Russia lost that war. For Russia, it was a disaster from the very beginning. Events of the war led to the toppling of the Czarist government. Further difficulties led to the short life of the Kerensky government.

When the Bolsheviks managed to gain control, the first and major issue was extricating Russia from the quagmire of the war with Germany. The result was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was a bundle of major land concessions by the Russian government. Short term, it was a disaster, but it gave breathing room for the Soviet government to consolidate its power and turn its attention to the Civil War.

When the dust of World War I finally settled, Germany was stripped of much of its military power and forbidden to reconstruct its military. But when all else fails, use deceit! Germany needed space and opportunities to enhance research and development for future weaponry. And Germany rightly knew that while armies of the past moved on their bellies, future armies would move on their petrol tanks. Russia needed military upgrades as well. They lost the war in large part because they could not equip or mobilize their armies adequately. And the horses and lances of World War I were certainly not going to defend or expand the military boundaries of the post-war world.

It was a match made in Hell. A “Faustian bargain” refers to the German legend, often retold in literature, of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for certain powers. Whether Germany or Russia was the devil in this case is hard to figure.

The years from roughly 1919 through 1939 were filled with treaties, meetings, agreements, and under-the-table deals between Russia and Germany. In Germany, it certainly didn’t start with Hitler. One of the areas where the two powers cooperated related to furthering the development of poison gas. By the mercies of God, those horrible weapons were outlawed by the Geneva Convention after World War I and surprisingly not reintroduced in World War II (although both sides kept such weapons close by–just in case). Russia’s lands provided great venues for R&D on gases.

Airplanes had made a major impact on the previous war, and the door was opened for both good and bad uses of air flight. Germany was forbidden to have an air force, so Russia provided a curtain for them to engage in building factories, improving designs, and testing new methods.

Tanks had entered into the last portions of World War I. Those creepy looking contraptions from the war now look like poorly drawn monsters. But this was the age of mechanization. Just as automobiles and airplanes were being constantly upgraded, so were tanks. A few people on all sides were seeing the future potential and dangers of mechanized armored warfare. A few strategists and military folks (like Basil Liddell-Hart in England, Heinz Guderian in Germany, Charles De Guallle in France, and George Patton in the USA) were envisioning a type of warfare that would come to be known as the Blitzkrieg in the upcoming war.

Germany had long had a tradition of outstanding military training methods and facilities. The Prussian state, which was the premier German principality before the union of the peoples in 1870, had a reputation of being a militant nation. Russian officers were eager to learn from these teaching masters.

The relationship between Germany and Russia was never pure, never without distrust, and never benevolent. While neither country knew exactly where they would end up in the coming decades, neither anticipated an age of peace.

Johnson’s book is dense with details. His work lacks the narrative style of McMeekin’s work. But he published this work with a university academic press. It bears the marks of a dissertation, for it is exacting, heavily documented, weighted with source materials not generally known to the average reader, and a matter-of-fact style. And it has chapters that are all amazingly short. While it was not the most engaging reading, it was very readable because after a few pages, the chapter would end.

One of the most bizarre, wicked, and potentially fatal things that Stalin did was his ravaging purge of his military. Some of his best generals, including several who had been sent to Germany to be groomed in the military sciences, were placed against the wall and shot. A few were “merely tortured and exiled,” so Stalin was able to rehabilitate them for the Second World War.

The Faustian Bargain climaxed in the Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. This diplomatic triumph ended with a feast where Poland was served up and carved up. World War II had begun. For Russia and Germany, barring a few tensions, it was a love feast.

Germany’s need for Russia still existed because Germany lacked the vital fuel resources necessary to keep its armies and Luftwaffe in motion. And then the time came when Germany felt it could slip past its bargain and further endanger her sold-out soul and attack Russia.

Operation Barbarossa: The History of a Cataclysm by Jonathan Dimbleby is also published by Oxford University Academic Press.

I have not started reading this one yet. Until then, I will be praying that the now occurring cataclysm will be soon resolved.

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