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How Germany conspired with Russia to build a cutting-edge army and air force—long before the start of World War II.

In 1920 any well-informed observer would have found it highly improbable, if not impossible, that Germany and Russia would pose a military threat to the world for decades to come. Both countries were in desperate shape after World War I. Germany had suffered a catastrophic defeat, and its new democratic government had to con- tend with an economic crisis, a communist revolution, and the loss of 10 percent of its territory. Things were even worse in Russia. Millions of Russians had died in the war. The civil war between the Reds and the Whites—and intervention by the Western powers—had further devastated the country.

Yet just over a decade later, Germany and Russia were fielding cutting-edge air and mechanized forces. More remarkably, by the outbreak of World War II, the defeated powers of the First World War had surpassed the victors in their ability to wage modern, mechanized warfare. This transformation lay in a feat of military secrecy on a grand scale: a period of cooperation in which the Soviet Union helped Germany circumvent international law by allowing it to rebuild its armed forces in Russia, and in which Germany gave Russia an evolutionary boost in technology and training. The end result had two past and future adversaries effectively sharpening each other’s sabers—sabers that they would shortly draw against one another.

Desperate conditions can lead to imaginative thinking. In the aftermath of World War I, the armed forces of both Germany and Russia were in desperate straits indeed. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles restricted Germany to a 100,000-man army, with no aircraft or tanks. Its navy was reduced to a squadron of small ships, and strict restrictions were placed on German industry to prevent the manufacture and stockpiling of modern weapons. To see to it that Germany complied with these restrictions, more than 1,000 officers and officials of the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission (IAMCC) set up headquarters in Berlin in the summer of 1919. The IAMCC teams fanned out through the country to shut down arms factories and seek out hidden weapons caches. The intent was to leave Germany permanently at the mercy of the Allied powers. To enforce their will, the Allies would occupy a large portion of western Germany for more than a decade after World War I.

The Russian regime under Vladimir Lenin was an isolated pariah state, surrounded by hostile neighbors and cut off from trade with the major powers. Although the Red Army had prevailed against the White Russians, Poles, and the Western powers that had intervened in the civil war (Britain, France, and the United States), it was in bad shape in 1920. The army had little modern weaponry, with obsolete artillery and only a handful of airplanes of 1917 and 1918 vintages. Russia produced few motor vehicles, and the Red Army had only a paltry assortment of 1918-model Renault light tanks captured from White Russian forces during the civil war. Its officers had performed well as small-unit commanders, but the newly created army lacked officers with higher command and staff experience.

The two nations were still major powers, however. Germany had the world’s second largest industrial economy after the United States and remained on the cutting edge of technology development. And even a weakened Russia still had a large population and vast unexploited natural resources. Both countries saw the Western Allies as their primary threats, and both believed that the only means of national survival was in building superior military forces.

The earliest stages of the German-Russian postwar relationship remain murky. Immediately after the First World War, the German government had little thought for long-term foreign policy as it contended with one internal crisis after another. But a few individuals were able to look beyond the short term. One of them was the visionary Col. Gen. Hans von Seeckt, newly appointed commander of the German army. Seeckt was interested in developing military cooperation with the new Soviet regime and saw Russia as a place where Germany could secretly produce weapons far from the prying eyes of the Allied disarmament inspectors. In early 1920 Seeckt began sending out feelers to the Russian regime through Turkish contacts he had made during the war. These initial forays were conducted privately, without the knowledge or consent of the German government.

Seeckt was not alone in seeing Russia as a place where Germany might pursue military production. Officials in the German Foreign Office also considered developing economic and military contacts with the Soviet Union, and by 1920 members of the Foreign Office began secret discussions with the Soviet War Ministry about selling German weapons and technology to the Soviet regime.

It might seem strange for Germany to establish relations with a communist revolutionary state just after brutally suppressing a Soviet-supported rebellion by German communists—which it did in 1919—but both sides saw a certain logic to it. Germany had the expertise and modern technology that Russia urgently needed; Lenin saw these diplomatic and military efforts as a means of breaking the Western Allies’ economic and military stranglehold on Russia. And Russia, for its part, could offer the Germans plenty of space to build secret factories to produce the modern weapons the Western Allies had denied them, without fear of discovery by the IAMCC.

With both nations desperately needing to reestablish themselves as military powers, their governments entered into secret negotiations. General von Seeckt carefully laid the groundwork for the alliance, creating in late 1920 an office under his direct control within the Reichswehr staff: “Special Group R,” the R for Russland—Russia. Seeckt later dispatched Col. Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen, a highly regarded general staff officer who had been chief of the air service in the First World War, to serve as the German army’s secret representative in Moscow.

In April 1922 Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of trade and friendship at Rapallo, Italy. The published version of the treaty established friendly relations between the two nations that included trade and investment. But the treaty also had a secret annex, signed two months later, that established close military cooperation between the two powers. Under the treaty’s secret provisions, Germany would establish joint ventures with the Soviet government to build weapons factories in Russia. These included aircraft manufacturing plants, ammunition factories, and a poison gas plant. Russia would also set up tank and gas warfare schools, and provide the Germans with bases where they could train airmen. German officers of the elite general staff were assigned to teach in the Soviet army and air force staff academies. Soviet officers were allowed to take the German army’s general staff course—probably the finest advanced officer course in the world.

The Rapallo agreement was a diplomatic and military masterstroke: the public part of the agreement alone took the Allied powers by complete surprise. The secret part of the agreement—the allying of the Weimar Republic’s new army, the Reichswehr, with the Soviet Union—was something they could not even have imagined.

To keep it that way, every effort was made to deceive the Allies as the extensive military activities got underway. German airplanes were flown across borders into Russia at night, and shipments of military goods were sent by roundabout routes and boxed as “farm machinery.” The military training bases were set up in remote areas, and German military personnel assigned to training in Russia were officially discharged from the army and sent under assumed names. Upon completing their training they were reinstated in the army as if they had never left.

Some accounts of the secret German military testing in Russia finally did leak out in the late 1920s. By that time, none of the Allied powers wanted to confront Germany over what appeared to be minor breaches of the Versailles Treaty. As long as Germany was ostensibly disarmed, the Western powers did not want to provoke a crisis.

The earliest efforts to rearm were inauspicious ones, however. From 1921 to 1923, a series of industrial cooperative programs involving weapons production—among them an ammunition factory and a small poison gas factory—were set up on Soviet soil. These proved to be the least successful of the joint ventures. The Russians hoped for much, but in the early 1920s the new Soviet state was too poor to order weapons, ammunition, or aircraft in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of the German investment. After a short period of joint production, the German armaments firms closed their factories.

One industrial enterprise did have a lasting impact. The German army sponsored a deal with Junkers Aircraft Company to build a secret factory in Russia in the village of Fili, just outside Moscow, in 1922. At the time, Junkers had the most advanced all-metal aircraft designs in the world. Dozens of Germany’s top aircraft designers and technicians traveled secretly to Russia to help the Russians set up aircraft and engine factories to build the latest Junkers designs.

To work on the Junkers project, the Soviets assembled an aircraft design team under the brilliant young engineer Andrei Tupolev. The Germans liked Tupolev and his team, and admired their desire to learn. But the factory languished because the Soviet regime was unable to buy more than a handful of aircraft. After manufacturing only 150 airplanes in two years, and losing a great deal of money in the process, Junkers pulled out and turned the plant over to the Russians.

Yet, by providing the Russian designers and engineers with access to the latest western technology and ideas, this brief cooperation provided a major boost to the fledgling Soviet aircraft industry. Tupolev and his team took over the Fili factory and began manufacturing the TB-1 and TB-3 bombers—both of which showed a strong similarity to the Junkers designs of the era. By the early 1930s the Soviet aircraft industry was growing at an astounding rate, and by the middle of the decade, the Soviet Union possessed one of the largest and most modern air forces in the world.

The air force training programs established in Russia came far closer to achieving what German visionaries had in mind. The Germans had created a large and technically advanced air force during World War I, and they were determined to maintain a secret force that could be expanded as soon as the hated Versailles Treaty was renounced. To do so, the German army needed a place to train its airmen and develop new technologies and tactics. The Russians offered the Germans a base at the spa town of Lipetsk, 300 miles southwest of Moscow. It proved ideal, and became the focus of a secret Luftwaffe rearmament and training program in the late 1920s.

The Lipetsk base, which opened in 1925, was home to 60 to 70 permanent German personnel, including instructors, technicians, and test pilots. Between 1925 and 1933, several dozen Reichswehr personnel a year were officially “retired” from the army and sent to Russia as civilians. At Lipetsk they either took a six-month course in advanced fighter aircraft, or were enrolled in the aerial observer’s course. After completing the rigorous training program, as thorough as any offered in the world at the time, the airmen would return to Germany and be officially reinstated in the army. During the eight years it was in operation, more than 450 Reichswehr airmen were trained in Russia.

To ensure the training was as modern as possible, the Reichswehr managed to quietly obtain one of the hottest fighter planes of the era: the Fokker D XIII. During the crisis of 1923, when France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr valley following Germany’s failure to make required reparations payments, the German army made secret war preparations that included ordering 50 of the new fighters from its old friend, Dutch aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker. The D XIII, powered by a British 450 hp Napier engine, was one of the fastest airplanes of its time and set several speed records in the early 1920s. When the crisis passed, the Reichswehr’s air staff shipped the D XIIIs to Lipetsk. There the planes served as trainers for the advanced fighter course and as fighter-bombers used to train German pilots in dropping bombs and attacking ground targets.

During the next few years the base also acquired several Heinkel HD 21 and Albatros L 68 trainers, and some Junkers transports that were used for the observer and navigator courses. With plenty of aircraft (the school had 66 planes in 1929), the Germans were able to mount relatively large air exercises. The German air wing also carried out air support for Red Army maneuvers, and the Germans and Russians gained experience in the complicated art of air-ground operations. By 1929 the German instructor staff had developed a cadre of fighter experts and a fighter tactics manual that were the equal of any major air force’s.

By the late 1920s, the Lipetsk school had expanded to include a flight test center. Although the Versailles Treaty had forbidden the Germans an air force, they were still allowed civil aviation, and in the 1920s companies such as Junkers, Dornier, and Heinkel were producing some up-to-date and even innovative designs. Some of these were not the transport or sport planes they purported to be, but were designed as bombers or reconnaissance planes. The Junkers K-47 dive-bomber, a forerunner of World War II’s famous Ju 87 Stuka; the Do 11 bomber; the He 45 light bomber; and the Ar 65 fighter were all tested at Lipetsk between 1929 and 1931. In 1931, the peak year for training and testing at Lipetsk, 300 German trainers, instructors, and testing personnel were stationed there.

A similar success story was unfolding with armor development. One of the most painful mistakes the German General Staff made in World War I was its belated appreciation of the role of armored vehicles on the battlefield. In contrast to the Allies, who had fielded tanks by the thousands in 1918, Germany started late and had manufactured only a handful of tanks by the end of the war. Although denied tanks by the Versailles Treaty, the Germans made the development of modern armored forces a high priority in the 1920s.

In 1925, the Reichswehr’s weapons office contracted the engineering firms of Daimler, Rheinmetall, and Krupp to build prototype heavy tanks, each armed with a large-caliber gun, several machine guns, and thick armor. The tank prototypes were to incorporate the most advanced engines and transmissions, be gas-proof, and be able to cross rivers. In 1927 the order was followed up by contracts to produce light tanks, also with all the latest engineering features. In keeping with the highly secret nature of the program, the Germans used code names for the armor in all military correspondence: “large tractors” for the heavy tanks and “light tractors” for the light tanks.

By 1929 the German companies had produced six prototype heavy tanks and four light tanks and shipped them to the Russian industrial city of Kazan to be tested. These tanks, in addition to prototype armored cars produced by the Daimler and Büssing companies, helped equip the German tank officer school, which opened the same year. Along with military personnel, dozens of German engineers were secretly brought to Russia to oversee the armored experiments. Ferdinand Porsche—who would go on to design the most notorious heavy tank of World War II (and possibly of all time), the Tiger Mk IV—had his first experience in tank design as head of Daimler’s “large tractor” project and observed the German army’s first armored maneuvers in Kazan.

The Soviets were just beginning to organize mechanized forces in 1929, so they were especially eager to support the German tank school and testing station. With tank production beginning in the Soviet Union, the Red Army’s top priority was to develop a force and doctrine for armored warfare; Red Army leaders saw the Germans, admired as masters of operational-level warfare, as the best means to get the program going. That year, the German General Staff sent three officers to the Red Army to help advise in the creation of the Red Army’s first tank units.

To ensure the Germans had the support they needed for their armor school and testing center, the Red Army gave the Germans 30 brand new tanks—one-third of the Red Army’s tank production for 1929. Along with 10 German tanks, the Germans could now practice battalion-sized and larger operations. Although the armored warfare course was only for German officers, Soviet technicians were allowed to examine and test-drive the German prototype equipment, and more than 60 carefully selected Red Army officers were allowed to participate in the exercises and war games. As the Soviet tank force expanded, the Red Army formed its new tank units near Kazan so they could conduct large-scale maneuvers with the Germans in 1930 and 1931.

Between 1929 and 1933, 30 German officers went through the months-long armored warfare course at Kazan; another 20 served as instructors. Although small, the course was very thorough and certainly the equal of any offered by the other major powers. Theo Kretschmer, an officer at Kazan and later a major general of panzer troops, noted that the course “had turned the participating officers into fully trained armored soldiers.”

Its alumni would be largely responsible for the Wehrmacht’s armor might in World War II. Cols. Ludwig von Radelmeier and Josef Harpe, who commanded at Kazan, became the first commandants of the panzer school established in late 1933 in Zossen-Wünsdorf, near Berlin. Col. Ernst Volkheim, who wrote the army’s armor doctrine in the 1930s, was a Kazan school graduate. Some of Germany’s most able panzer commanders, including Gens. Wilhelm von Thoma, Walter Nehring, and Georg-Hans Reinhardt, first learned about tanks at Kazan. It was at Kazan in 1930 that Heinz Guderian, the legendary general behind the development of Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics, saw his first larger-scale armored maneuvers.

For the Soviets, the greatest benefit of the alliance was in German officer training. In the 1920s, the German army had the well-deserved reputation of having the best officer training in the world. Conversely, a German officer visiting the Soviet army in the mid-1920s had summed up the state of the Russian forces as: “Basic Soldier training—Good. Equipment: Lacking. Officer Competence: Low.”

War minister Leon Trotsky understood the urgent need to establish a truly professional officer corps and was enthusiastic about cooperation with the Germans to achieve this. Between 1926 and 1933 the Red Army sent many of its most promising officers to courses in Germany. The Allies had placed no restrictions on foreign officers training in Germany, and the Germans and Russians exploited this opportunity to the fullest. The Red Army used the German army courses as a means of polishing the men who had been selected for high command. Each year from 1926 to 1933, 25 to 45 Russian officers visited Germany, some to take short courses or to observe German maneuvers and war games. An elite few—17 in all—were sent to the German army’s general staff course.

To help establish a general staff course for the new Soviet air force, the Germans sent a small team to Russia headed by Capt. Martin Fiebig, who would, in 1942, command a Luftwaffe air corps in Russia. Fiebig was a veteran of the Imperial Air Service in World War I and a graduate of the general staff course. From 1926 to 1928 he and his fellow Germans were the lead instructors for the men who led the Soviet air force. In a long report to his superior in Berlin, Fiebig described that air force in its infancy, calling the Russians “intelligent and eager to learn, but possessing little in the way of a formal education.” Despite the drawbacks of an officer corps that had been hastily recruited and trained in the midst of a civil war, Fiebig noted that the Russians were making progress—but had a long way to go.

The same could be said of the Red Army in the 1920s. German officers routinely observed the Red Army’s war games and maneuvers and provided comprehensive criticism. They found the Russian operations characterized by poor coordination of infantry, artillery, and air support. And, because Soviet tactics did not take into account the technological advances ushered in since 1918, Red Army planning and operational doctrine was also deficient.

The Russians were eager to learn from their erstwhile enemies, and took the criticism seriously. The German doctrine of the 1920s, which emphasized rapid maneuver and combined arms in the offense, appealed greatly to the Russians, and the Soviet officers worked to adapt the German approach to war to their own conditions. During the next few years the Germans noted a steady improvement in Soviet tactics and doctrine. Ultimately, the German army had a huge influence on the development of the Soviet armed forces in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1935 the German military attaché in Russia noted that the use of German army textbooks and tactical manuals was pervasive throughout the Russian army.

While they remained likely enemies, the Germans came to have a high respect for many of the Russian commanders on a personal level. In 1930, a secret assessment by the German General Staff characterized Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov, the Soviet war commissar, as “an outstanding officer with a strong and positive character, well educated, clever, modern and capable.” The up-and-coming Gen. Mikhail Tuchachevsky, soon to be Red Army chief of staff, was seen as “fresh and youthful in his views, very personable.” The Germans noted Tuchachevsky’s first-rate mind; while observing war games with the Germans “he put forward many very thoughtful critiques of our operations and tactics.”

However, the Germans were uneasy about many aspects of the alliance. Part of its price was allowing the Soviets to examine, and likely copy, Germany’s latest armor and aircraft technology. And though the German and Russian armies had developed a healthy professional respect for each other, beneath the veneer of civility the officers of both nations understood that a capitalist and a communist nation could not easily coexist. At home, the Reichswehr readily shot Marxist rebels; in Russia, other Germans were training Marxist officers to a high professional standard.

In 1930 the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission formally issued its final report and declared that Germany had been disarmed according to the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Without Allied inspectors on German soil, the German military no longer had to worry as much about having its illegal weapons programs exposed. It became just a matter of time until the Germans ended their cooperation with the Soviets.

In 1931, Gen. Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, the Reichswehr’s commander, explained his distaste for the Russian alliance to a group of German officers: “We will work with Moscow as long as the West is not prepared to accept Germany on an equal status. The relationship with Moscow is a pact with the Devil— but we have no choice.”

However, changing political conditions and the departure of Allied inspectors gave the Germans a choice. In 1932 the German military leaders decided to shut down the Russian operations the following year. Weapons testing and training could be carried out on German soil at far lower cost. The Soviets, who wanted the cooperation to continue and who offered the Germans various incentives, were markedly disappointed at the end of the German presence in Russia. During top-level staff discussions between the German and Soviet general staffs, the Russians made several proposals to continue military cooperation; the Germans rejected all of them.

Ultimately, it was Germany that profited the most from the 13- year cooperation with the Soviet Union. Hitler could never have rearmed the nation so quickly without the testing programs in Russia. In its secret bases, the German army and secret air force developed and tested prototypes of new weapons that were ready for production when he came to power in 1933 and began largescale rearmament. The Russian venture left the German army and air force doctrinally ahead of the other major powers.

Likewise, the courses at Lipetsk and Kazan provided Hitler with a small but very capable inner circle from which to build the Luftwaffe and a panzer force: a group of officers who were well trained in the latest doctrines and tactics, had practiced them extensively in large-scale maneuvers and realistic exercises, and were able to quickly train a large army to a high standard.

The Lipetsk and Kazan schools were “schools for generals” for the Wehrmacht. Of 40 officers in the 1928 Lipetsk course, 12 became Luftwaffe generals, while Kazan provided it with a small but superbly trained cadre of panzer experts. It was largely thanks to Lipetsk and Kazan that Germany went from having no official air arm and armored force in 1933 to—just six years later—a highly modern Luftwaffe and panzer force capable of bringing down Poland in a mere three weeks.

The Soviets might have gained far more advantage from their relationship with Germany had it not been for Stalin’s murderous purge of the Red Army leadership between 1936 and 1940. The German advisors and teachers and the joint maneuvers at Kazan had been invaluable in getting the Red Army’s first mechanized units organized. The German general staff training and specialist courses for Red Army officers had provided the Soviets with a well-trained nucleus of leaders. The Russians had proven to be adept learners, and by the early 1930s the Soviets were taking a lead role in the doctrine and technology of mechanized maneuver warfare.

But Stalin killed off this invaluable cadre of trained leaders. The top ranks of the Soviet military, most of whom had worked closely with the Germans, were specifically targeted for liquidation. The brilliant Marshal Tuchachevsky and eight other senior officers who were all connected with the training and cooperation with Germany were sent before one of Stalin’s notorious show trials in 1937. They were charged with numerous crimes, including being “agents of Nazi Germany”—as evidenced by their cooperation with the Germans in the 1920s. That the cooperation had been carried out under Stalin’s orders and with his approval was no defense, and Tuchachevsky and his colleagues were all quickly executed. They were followed by the commanders of the Soviet air force, Gens. Yak I. Alksnis and Nikolai Baranov, who were also executed in 1937. That same year, aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev was arrested and imprisoned for his work with the Germans 15 years earlier.

Officers who had been trained in Germany were arrested and liquidated. The NKVD, Stalin’s dreaded secret police, even formed a special squad “to find and root out the cells of fascist sympathizers [fascist meaning German] in the Red Army.” Since the German army had long been a model for the Russians, it was an easy task. Hundreds of officers were arrested and executed simply for possessing German military manuals and textbooks.

This destruction nearly doomed Stalin’s regime. From the start of the purge until the German invasion in 1941, the Soviet army and air force were in complete disarray, their leadership weakened and demoralized. Indeed, while the Russians were well armed at the outbreak of the war and greatly outnumbered the Germans in troops, tanks, artillery, and airplanes—including much equipment that was superior to the Wehrmacht’s, such as the T-34 tank—the Soviet forces lacked competent leadership.

Without a core of competent leaders, especially officers such as Tuchachevsky who had trained and worked with the Germans, the Red Army almost fell to pieces when the Germans invaded. In one disaster after another, whole armies were surrounded and destroyed during the relentless German advance of 1941. Had Stalin not taken such care to eliminate his German-trained officers in the great purge, one can easily imagine that a well-led Red Army might have stopped the Germans and sent the Wehrmacht reeling back in the early stages of the eastern campaign.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here