Remembering the Centennial of Rapallo
On Easter Sunday one hundred years ago, on the margins of a major international economic conference in Genoa, the foreign ministers of Bolshevik Russia and the new German “Weimar” Republic unpleasantly startled the diplomatic world when they motored off to the nearby seaside town of Rapallo and signed their own separate treaty. In itself, the accord was relatively innocuous. The two former enemies in the recent world war renounced territorial and financial claims against each other—whether possible reparations that Russia might demand or compensation for nationalized assets that Germany or its citizens might claim. After so many years of obscurity, why might this centennial be worth recalling?
At the time, both Germany and Russia were “pariah” nations. The Germans were still vividly recalled as the militarist foe defeated only two and a half years earlier in World War I. The Russians were reviled by Western middle-class opinion as ruthless revolutionaries who had already signed a separate treacherous peace with the Germans at the beginning of 1918. News of the pact shockingly preempted British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s effort to negotiate a more general reparations and economic settlement at the ongoing Genoa conference, which quickly collapsed. Thereafter, Rapallo became a metaphor for the possible realignment of two potentially massive powers against the West, and certainly against the new vulnerable Republic of Poland, which had been reconstituted in 1919 out territories held by over a century by Russia, Germany, and the now defunct Austrian empire. The treaty nurtured an incipient secret military cooperation that strengthened Moscow’s armed forces and allowed the Germans to evade the strict postwar limits on their army. Seventeen years later, on the eve of World War II, Rapallo would appear of a piece with the immediately and enduringly infamous Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact that would allow the two powers to destroy the interwar Polish state. Into the 1980s, Rapallo could still evoke concerns that a revived German Federal Republic might pursue neutralism for the sake of reunification.
Throughout the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), German opinion divided on the wisdom of the Rapallo rapprochement. On that Easter morning, Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau had hesitations and agreed only half-heartedly. Key foreign-office personnel had pushed it and an Eastern alignment more generally. Rathenau understood that the British and French were the more important partners for Germany’s economic recovery, but he gave in to the pressure to sign. Soviet Foreign Minister Chicherin would later say he had raped his German counterpart. Ultra-nationalists in Germany already hated Rathenau as a Jew, the first to serve in so eminent a public position. He would be assassinated in Berlin barely two months later.
Had the centennial of Rapallo occurred between 1989 and a few months ago, it would have raised no historical echoes. In the years after Germany’s unification in 1990, Europeans, along with the rest of us, lived in a world that had apparently overcome the bitter legacies left by the world wars. Populist and rightwing circles in Poland might nurture grievances against the Federal Republic, but Berlin solemnly renounced any claims to Polish territory. United Germany became the pillar of European prosperity. It has stood in recent years as the preeminent guarantor of Europe’s peaceful stability. In 2015, as refugees poured into Germany, Mrs. Merkel’s government welcomed them; the country also financed aid missions abroad. Despite a worrisome populist Right, its politics seemed far more stable than those of our own fractured democracy.
As I write, the Ukrainian war has given most of our Western leaders a sudden shot of vigor. The Ukrainians, we need to acknowledge, have been sacrificing themselves for the renewal of the West’s commitment to liberal democracy – or as Polish revolutionaries suppressed by Russia in the nineteenth century declared, “for our freedom and yours.”
The brutal war in Ukraine, however, must send incalculable tremors through Germany. Post-unification Germany has built its foreign policy on the premise that no renewed Russian-Western confrontation was plausible. It has assumed that the web of economic relations has become so dense as make old-style nationalism obsolete and that globalization must continually advance. More than other countries, the German industrial powerhouse relies on Russian hydrocarbons. As costs mount, sectors of German opinion may have second thoughts about American and West European policy toward Russia and their convictions may waver. So far, public indications of this at the elite level are weak. The Greens’ foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is emerging as a feisty defender of alliance politics. So, too, the opposition Christian Democrats’ Norbert Röttgen, has become an eloquent foreign-policy supporter of Ukraine. But the governing Social Democratic Party’s Chancellor is less compelling a public spokesman whatever his convictions, which are harder to discern. President Zelensky’s brusque rejection of German President Frank Walter Steinmeier’s visit to Ky’iv was unwise, but revealed his perception of underlying German ambiguity.
As this war continues, it is hard to calculate how the politics around its pursuit will evolve. The new German commitment to boost the country’s defense spending seems welcome now, but could unleash unwelcome second thoughts if nationalists proposed a nuclear option. Chancellor Kohl feared the possibility of such a nuclear debate in 1989 if Germany were not anchored in NATO. And the tremors will extend beyond Germany if the war is long. Will governments, especially our own, resist the pressure to intervene directly in Ukrainian air space? Will the axis of authoritarians that runs from Budapest to Beijing ever find Putin’s conduct of war repugnant enough to declare a break with Moscow?
Which brings us back to the actuality of the Treaty of Rapallo signed a century ago. It exemplified the unresolved possibilities for post-World War I Europe, including German desire to keep an Eastern option and Soviet plans both to remain a subversive power and play great-power politics. But the Soviets had, in 1920, already gambled unsuccessfully on forcibly exporting revolution to Poland before they resorted to Rapallo. Putin cannot really hope to play an equivalent double game while he continues his terrible war. What comes after is hard to envisage. In the long run, Rapallo was bad news for Weimar democracy even if it gave its divided citizens a momentary sense of empowerment. It has become a footnote for history, which is where its example will hopefully remain.
Charles S. Maier is the Leverett Saltonstall Research Professor of History at Harvard University.