By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Russia, Germany, and Poland 1917-1945 Part Seven
As Hugo Gustav Adolf Stoltzenberg (1883 –1974), the German chemist associated with the German government's clandestine chemical warfare activities, finalized the contract to produce poison gas in Soviet Russia, the next war looked like it might be approaching faster than anyone had predicted. Chancellor Cuno, who had initiated passive resistance in early 1923, spent the next eight months trying to get the French and Belgians to compromise on the issue of reparation payments. His policy of printing money triggered the rapid devaluation of the German currency, starting a hyperinflationary crisis that wiped out the remaining savings of the working and middle classes. The chaos inspired strikes across the country. After a vote of no-confidence in August 1923, Chancellor Cuno resigned.1
Cuno was replaced by a coalition government headed by Gustav Stresemann, who would become the dominant figure in German politics for the next six years. Stresemann, who resembled an aging boxer, was the son of a beer bottler in Berlin. He completed a doctorate, worked as a journalist for a while, and then - after marrying into a wealthy Jewish family - he entered the political arena. By 1907, he was a member of the Reichstag, representing the left-wing of the National Liberal Party. After the war, he formed his own party, the center-right German People’s Party (DVP), drawing many middle-class voters and pro-business elites.2 Stresemann had ardently supported Germany’s war effort, but he frequently spoke of “a concept of Germany as part of European concert of powers after it was over.”3 Whether or not he believed in the pan-European vision he espoused publicly, his primary aim was to free Germany from the strictures of Versailles through whatever means necessary.4 One British journalist skeptical of his sincerity argued that Stresemann had “discovered that the way to get away with being a good German was to pretend to be a good European.” The new chancellor might seem “good-hearted and a little muzzy with beer” but was actually “as quick and sharp as a buzz-saw.”5 His subordinates described him as a man of “personal courage and an idealism which was admirable even if it was disappointed,” who inspired great devotion in his subordinates despite being “thoroughly unbureaucratic” and “lower-middle class.”6 Stresemann’s time in power suggests that both portraits are accurate. He played the pro-European role convincingly while following his deeply rooted convictions about Germany’s place in the world.
Stresemann realized passive resistance to Versailles and the Allies was not succeeding. As hyperinflation grew ever worse, Germany would have to abandon it to get the French and Belgians out of the country. Only then could the German economy finally recover enough to deal with reparations payments and the broader economic crisis. The political costs of such a decision were going to be high, nationalists and the far left were both broadly supportive of the efforts against the French and Belgian occupiers. Nonetheless, in late September 1923, Stresemann declared an end to the passive resistance campaign, simultaneously invoking Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. This provided President Ebert with the power to rule by decree during the crisis. Ebert, in turn, gave extraordinary powers to Minister of Defense Gessler to maintain order.7
As Stresemann had feared, violence soon erupted across the country. Members of the Black Reichswehr launched an anti-government putsch at Küstrin near the Polish border. The army had to be called in to put down the revolt. Three weeks later, in Hamburg, communists, who had failed to seize power in 1919 and 1920, launched yet another attempt at revolution. They occupied police stations and armed themselves. The Comintern in Moscow moved to provide support. At the same time, Trotsky immediately began mobilizing Red Army forces to invade Poland and move to the assistance of the KPD in Germany if the opportunity presented itself.8 But after a day of fighting, during which more than 100 were killed, the Reichswehr was able to crush the Hamburg rising.
After this third abortive attempt at revolution, senior Soviet leaders - particularly Stalin - were convinced that a German revolution was not likely to succeed, at least immediately. He wrote that fall that “I think that communists do not have a majority among the workers. . . . The majority were for the revolutionary struggle at certain moments, but not for the communists.”9 From the fall of 1923 onward, Bolshevik leaders were increasingly skeptical that the KPD could effectively seize power and instead emphasized maintaining good relations with the sitting government in Berlin.
While the communist insurrection had failed, another danger to the Republic loomed. In response to the growing national political crisis, the state government of Bavaria, the heartland of the radical right, declared a state of emergency. The local Reichswehr commander, the state commissioner (governor), and the police chief took control of the government. Fearful lest they be preempted by those even further to the right, like the Black Reichswehr soldiers who had seized Küstrin - the ruling trio banned public meetings other than those they themselves had set up.10 On November 8, during a rally they had organized in the Bürgerbräukeller, one of Munich’s gigantic beer halls, the three leaders of Bavaria were rudely interrupted by a sallow thirty-four-year-old with a narrow mustache. He stood on a table, picked up a beer stein, drank it to the dregs, smashed it to the floor, then drew a pistol and fired into the ceiling. With the attention of a crowd of more than 6,000 upon him, he then shouted, “The National Revolution has begun!”11 At gunpoint, he seized the ruling triumvirate and led them into a back room. He tried to force them to agree to participate in a new government he planned to organize.
This young political agitator was Adolf Hitler, the head of a tiny radical party, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Worker’s Party, or Nazi Party). The so-called Beer Hall Putsch was Hitler’s first real appearance on the national German political scene. Disorganized and unable to rally popular support, the entire coup collapsed after a brief shootout in the center of Munich on November 9. Hitler fled the scene, only to be apprehended a few days later. After a dramatic trial, one that would gain him a great deal of national attention, Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison. He would serve only nine months, during which time he would dictate his political thoughts to a fellow prisoner, the basis for his book, Mein Kampf.12
Stresemann’s gamble, on the other hand, had succeeded, despite the violence. His reasonableness and acquiescence in the face of enormous domestic pressure had made the French and Belgians appear the villains on the global stage. The military had managed to maintain order and resisted seizing power themselves when presented with the opportunity. Stresemann’s reputation with the British and French skyrocketed. Here, they believed, was a man with whom they could work. Stresemann left the chancellorship but remained a foreign minister.13 In that role, he sought to renegotiate German reparations payments and conclude the activities of the IACC commissions as quickly as possible. In September 1923, Stresemann (over Seeckt’s fierce resistance) had agreed to allow the IAMCC to conduct a special national disarmament tour consisting of over 800 inspections.14 These two actions led, eventually, to the withdrawal of French and Belgian forces from the Ruhr.15 The Weimar Republic had survived the great crisis.
Even as the workers’ revolt in Hamburg ended in gunfire, Seeckt had dispatched negotiators to establish a new organization to function alongside GEFU. The general had decided that it was time to press ahead with the other aspect of his rearmament plan: training officers in new technologies of war. He envisioned a secret office in Moscow that could supervise German officer training programs, safely hidden from Allied inspectors inside the Soviet Union.
His ideal candidate to oversee the military programs in the Soviet Union was Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen, the retired aviator whom Seeckt had commissioned to investigate conditions at Fili. His time as chief of staff for the Luftstreitskräfte (the Imperial Flying Corps) meant that he knew all of the Reich’s top pilots and was thus in an ideal position to supervise the rebuilding of German airpower in Russia, one of Seeckt’s major goals.16 Better yet - for deniability - Lieth-Thomsen was retired. With a contract in place, Seeckt and Hasse dispatched him to Moscow in October 1923.17 His duties were to work alongside the Soviets, gathering information and directing military-to-military exchanges. In most important respects, Lieth-Thomsen’s role was that of a covert military attaché. Germany had been banned from having military attaches under Versailles, so his appointment was handled with the greatest secrecy.
Lieth-Thomsen’s visit marked the establishment of Zentrale Moskau (Moscow Central). Initially, this organization served as the Truppenamt’s home in Moscow - overseeing German training programs in the USSR - while GEFU and its weapons production programs continued to report to the Waffenamt. Oskar von Niedermayer would serve Moscow Central’s deputy director and two central figures through 1931. Originally, Seeckt had intended Niedermayer to be the first director. Still, his personal behavior (such as his contacts with arms dealers of ill repute) and tendency to overpromise had led to complaints from Lenin and Chicherin. Nevertheless, Niedermayer’s presence - his language skills, his connections, and his passion for clandestine activity - was too valuable, and he would remain a central player in Russia for the next eight years.18
Niedermayer moved to Moscow in 1923.19 Lieth-Thomsen visited Russia several times, then moved to Moscow permanently the following summer. The two men soon assembled a small staff in a building near the GEFU headquarters at Ulitsa Vorovskogo No. 48.20. In addition to the two of them, Moscow Central’s staff also included a personal assistant and a secretary.21 They would serve as the core of the Truppenamt’s program in Russia. At its height in 1931, about 30 percent of the Reichswehr’s training budget would be earmarked to the secret facilities in Russia, paid for through Moscow Central.22
While the Weimar Republic struggled to survive the crises of late 1923, the Soviet Union faced its own political emergency. Lenin had suffered a series of strokes in 1923, likely the consequences of the gunshot wounds he had received in 1918. His health continued to deteriorate, and factionalism over the question of his successor grew. In May 1923, a document had appeared in Lenin’s name, circulated among only a handful of senior Communist Party elites, which purportedly laid out Lenin’s thoughts on his likely successors.23
Lenin (or his wife, who may have drafted the document, given that Lenin was largely incapacitated) identified the weaknesses of his potential heirs. In the “Testament,” as it has become known, Lenin listed the six most influential Bolsheviks, dismissing four of them in short order. He identified two as the “most able figures in the present central committee.”24 One was obvious. In addition to being in charge of the military, Trotsky was the party’s leading speaker, having churned out treatises on Marxist doctrine while serving in half a dozen administrative roles. His organizational and intellectual abilities were clear to everyone at the party.25 The other was Stalin, the short, pockmarked Georgian who had quit seminary to take up bank robbing on behalf of the Bolsheviks. Stalin now served as the general secretary of the Communist Party. In that role, he promoted officials loyal to himself, soon coming to dominate the Communist Party apparatus.26
Both men were targets of criticism in the Testament. Trotsky, it read, was “the ablest man in the present Central Committee - but also by his too far-reaching self-confidence and a disposition to be too much attracted by the purely administrative side of affairs.” According to the Testament, Stalin was “too rude,” and indeed, Lenin was proposing ways of removing him from the post of general secretary.27 Lenin (or his ghostwriter) enumerated the dangers of an internal conflict between the two leaders and the damage that might inflict on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.28
On January 21, 1924, Lenin fell into a coma. He never awoke, dying later that day. The Central Committee immediately renamed Petrograd “Leningrad” in his honor, then organized a series of ceremonies on January 26 and 27, 1924, to allow the public to mourn. Hundreds of thousands attended, eager to view Lenin’s body despite the cold.29 Most of the major figures in the party gave eulogies. But Trotsky was in the Caucasus on vacation; when he cabled Moscow about the funeral arrangements, Stalin gave him the wrong date for the ceremony, and he missed it.30 Trotsky’s absence was a major mistake. After delivering a stirring eulogy, Stalin rapidly began expanding his own support base at Trotsky’s expense.
Stalin and Trotsky had been sparring since the Russian Civil War. With Lenin dead, the stakes were now much higher. Stalin calculated after Lenin’s death that one of Trotsky’s greatest vulnerabilities was his management of the military. The Red Army had been largely neglected following the civil war, as economic aims took priority. This inattention soon became a matter of political factionalism. In 1923, a military commission had been established to investigate the state of the Red Army; its conclusions suggested serious mismanagement and disastrous material conditions. Following its conclusion, Stalin convinced the Central Committee to appoint a new committee to investigate Trotsky’s handling of the military, led by a Red Army hero from the civil war, Mikhail Frunze.31
Frunze’s committee delivered a report highly critical of Trotsky to the Central Committee on February 3, 1924.32 In his address; he condemned the lack of professionalism, logistical shortages, and the complete absence of modern technologies of war. Stalin reacted with rehearsed horror at the details of the report, commenting in the meeting, “If we were involved in the war, we would be broken to pieces and ground to dust.”33 Frunze’s report became a pawn in the chess match between Stalin and Trotsky. Stalin aimed to use Frunze, and the damning report, to strip Trotsky of his most powerful position.34 Immediately following Frunze’s report, the Central Committee sacked several of Trotsky’s subordinates within the Red Army.
The criticisms of the parlous state of the Red Army were not entirely unfair, but hardly Trotsky’s fault alone. He and his subordinates had been attempting to remedy its major weaknesses, particularly its deficiencies in training and technology, in part through a partnership with the Germans.35 At that juncture - early 1924 - Fili was finally productive, with 1,500 workers employed on site.36 With enormous efforts from Junkers AG, the Soviet Air Force had received the first seventy-three aircraft on time later that year.37 However, Arkady Rosengoltz, then heading the Soviet Air Force, had expected larger quantities of aircraft, and there remained concerns about the quality of the aircraft produced.38 Rosengoltz complained to GEFU about the delay in the remaining aircraft, demanding action to get Junker's AG moving. Given the difficult conditions of manufacture, supply, and transportation in the Soviet Union in 1924, Junkers’ completion of most of the first order was actually quite an accomplishment. Still, the news was not positive enough to help Trotsky’s cause.
Concern over the continuing failure of Junkers AG to manufacture critical parts in Russia led to a special Reichswehr meeting on February 24, 1924.39 Held in the Waffenamt’s office in Berlin, the session included representatives of both Junkers and BMW, whom the Reichswehr had invited. Since Junkers AG had been attempting to manufacture BMW engines under license for their J-20s and J-21s, the Reichswehr decided that the two firms should merge their Russian operations and construct an engine production facility on the grounds of Fili to supplement the assembly work already being done. Sondergruppe R clearly considered this second facility to be of paramount importance. Given escalating Russian complaints about the quality and quantity of German production in Russia, it was necessary to demonstrate the Reichswehr’s dedication to military-industrial cooperation. To that end, Lieth-Thomsen returned to Moscow in the company of the general director of BMW himself, Franz Joseph Popp.40 The Reichswehr invited Junkers AG to attend or send representatives. Still, according to Reichswehr records, Hugo Junkers refused, perhaps because of the failure of the Reichswehr to place any aircraft orders with his firm.
The meeting between BMW and Rosengoltz was a disaster, according to Reichswehr reports. Rosengoltz demanded the previous contract for aircraft be fulfilled before talk of a new facility could begin.41 When the Reichswehr again spoke to Hugo Junkers, he responded to Russian charges by claiming Russian intransigence and failure to make payments on time. He requested 20 million gold marks (USD 4.79 million) to fund the production of BMW motors at Fili.42 Instead, Seeckt offered to arrange an 8 million mark (USD 1.9 million) credit line.
Junkers might have been satisfied by this offer, yet soon learned that Seeckt intended to purchase aircraft from the Netherlands-based Fokker firm for a secret flight school he planned to establish in Russia. This meant that a large purchase order Junkers had anticipated for Fili would not be forthcoming. He threatened to file for arbitration against the German military.43 The correspondence between Seeckt and Junkers turned nasty.44 Seeckt made it clear that the covert and secret nature of the Fili project meant that no such arbitration would be possible.45 After Junkers first threatened the Reichswehr with legal action in their last letter exchange of 1924, Seeckt replied, “I do not doubt that every other German aircraft company would have taken the step [to work in Russia] under such conditions.”46 This was factually untrue, as Aerounion had already turned the project down. Seeckt continued by accusing Junkers of being motivated by mere greed rather than “by our national political interest.”47 When Junkers retorted by recalling the oral agreements made over dinner in the spring of 1922, Seeckt and Otto Hasse denied any such conversations had taken place, stating that the only “truly binding contract was that which was drawn up in writing and dated March 15, 1922.”48
Seeckt’s vision of German factories throughout the Soviet Union seemed to be in trouble only a few years into operation. A handful of other contracts were active, but Fili remained the showpiece of his plan to transfer military industry to the Soviet Union. Not only was Seeckt’s grand plan in danger of failure, but his program’s problems were also having an impact on the ongoing struggle for power in the Soviet government.
Part Three: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Three
Part Four: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Four
Part Five: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Five
Part Six: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Six
Part Eight: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eight
Part Nine: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Nine
Part Ten: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Ten
Part Eleven: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Eleven
Part Twelve: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Twelve
Part Thirteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen: Russia, Germany, and Poland Part Fifteen
1. Hermann J. Rupieper, The Cuno Government and Reparations 1922–1923: Politics and Economics (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979), 195–199.
2. There is rich literature on Stresemann and his foreign policy, much of it recent. For more, see Jonathan Wright, Gustav Stresemann: Weimar’s Greatest Statesman (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), John P. Birkelund, Gustav Stresemann: Patriot und Staatsmann; Eine Biographie (Hamburg: Europa, 2003); and Eberhard Kolb, Gustav Stresemann (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2003). Two older, classic works are Hans W. Gatzke, Stresemann and the Rearmament of Germany (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1954); and Henry Ashby Turner’s Stresemann and the Politics of the Weimar Republic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963).
3. Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007), 3–9. Tooze has argued that Stresemann’s internationalism was fired by a vision of European economic power in competition with the United States.
4. Wright, Gustav Stresemann, 385–386.
5. Claud Cockburn, In Time of Trouble. An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957), 97, cited by Jonathan Wright, “Stresemann and Locarno,” Contemporary European History, 4:2 (Jul. 1995), 110.
6. Dirksen, Moscow, Tokyo, London, 45–46.
7. Hans Mommsen, The Rise, and Fall of Weimar Democracy, trans. Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 137.
8. For the best assessment of Soviet activity during the September–October 1923 crisis, see David R. Stone, “The Prospect of War?”
9. Stalin, “Pismo, Tov. Arvid” [Letter to Comrade Arvid], November 11, 1923, RGASPI, f. 326, op. 2, d. 21, l. 139–145, 1–3. He added that “This majority must also be won over. . . . If Ilyich were in Germany, he would say, I think, that the main enemy of the revolution are the Social Democrats, especially from the left, that is the very left part of it which has not yet lost the confidence of the workers, and which contributes to doubts, hesitations, and the uncertainty of a united struggle.”
10. Joachim C. Fest, Hitler (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1974), 178–181.
11. Fest, Hitler, 182–183.
12. Ibid., 199–201.
13. Gatzke, Stresemann, 26–27.
14. Ibid., 27.
15. For more on the Dawes plan, see Stephen Schuker, The End of French Predominance in Europe: The Financial Crisis of 1924 and the Adoption of the Dawes Plan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976).
16. Dennis Showalter, Instrument of War: The German Army, 1914–1918 (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016), 170–172; Thomas Menzel, “Lipezk. Die geheime Fliegerschule und Erprobungsstätte der Reichswehr in der Sowjetunion” [Lipetsk: The Secret Reichswehr Flight School and Testing Facility in the Soviet Union], 2013, Bundesarchiv.de, https://www.bundesarchiv.de/DE/Content/Virtuelle-Ausstellungen/Lipezk-Die-Geheime-Fliegerschule-Und-Erprobungsstatte-Der-Reichswehr-In-Der-Sowjetunion/lipezk-die-geheime-fliegerschule-und-erprobungsstatte-der-reichswehr-in-der-sowjetunion.html.
17. Zeidler, 108.
18. Gorlov, 89; Vourkoutiotis, Making Common Cause, 100.
19. Gorlov, 88–89.
20. Zeidler, 108.
21. Thomsen, “Organisation und Dienstgliederung des Wiko/Moskau” [Organization and Operating Structure of Wiko/Moscow], 1–2. The assistant’s name was Rath, and the secretary was Frau von Griseheim.
22. Speidel, “Reichswehr und Rote Armee,” 23–24; “Fl. Bericht 312” [Flight Report 312], 2 February 1931, BA-MA, RH/12/I/57, 209–213, 1.
23. Kotkin, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 498–501.
24. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, The Suppressed Testament of Lenin, with “On Lenin’s Testament” by Leon Trotsky (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1946), 6.
25. Sebestyen, Lenin, 493–497.
26. For the best description of Stalin’s rise to power, see Kotkin, Stalin, Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 (New York: Penguin, 2014).
27. The Suppressed Testament of Lenin, 7.
28. The testament itself would be revealed to the Central Committee not long afterward, when it was read aloud by Central Committee member Lev Kamenev. Kotkin, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 546.
29. Sebestyen, Lenin, 500–501.
30. Kotkin, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 538–539.
31. Erickson, The Soviet High Command, 164.
32. Ibid., 169–170.
33. Erickson, The Soviet High Command, 170.
34. N. Varfolomeyev, “Strategy in an Academic Formulation,” in The Evolution of Soviet Operational Art 192–-1991: The Documentary Basis, Vol. 1, trans. Harold S. Orenstein (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 40; Erickson, The Soviet High Command, 167.
35. See, for instance, Leon Trotsky, “Prospects and Tasks in Building the Army,” May 18, 1923, Trotsky’s Speeches and Military Materials and Documents on the History of the Red Army, The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky How the Revolution Armed, Volume IV: The Years 1921–23, ed. Brian Pearce (London: New Park Publications, 2003), 142–152.
36. Zeidler, 94.
37. “Das Junkers-Unternehmen in Fili (Russland) in seiner Entwicklung und seinem Verhältnis zum Reichswehrministerium bis zum Herbst ’25,” 13 January 1926.
38. For a technical assessment of Soviet complaints, see Wagner, Hugo Junkers, 217–229.
39. “Das Junkers-Unternehmen in Fili (Russland) in seiner Entwicklung und seinem Verhältnis zum Reichswehrministerium bis zum Herbst ’25,” 13 January 1926, 19.
40. Ibid., 19.
41. Ibid., 20.
42. Ibid., 21.
43. Ibid., 25.
44. “Junkers–Von Seeckt Correspondence,” 25 March 1924, BA-MA, RH 8, 3681, 1.
45. “Junkers–Von Seeckt Correspondence,” 1926, BA-MA, RH 8, 3681 (1924–1926), 1–4.
47. “Junkers–Von Seeckt Correspondence,” 26 November 1924, BA-MA, RH 8, 3681, 1.
48. “Zweiter Schriftsatz des Reichsministeriums zur Klärung seiner Beziehungen zu Prof. Dr. Junkers,” 2 February 1926, 1.