The Vicious Cycle: German-Russian Relations


They are the best of friends. They are the worst of enemies. No relationship between two countries is more fascinating than that of Germany and Russia. And no relationship is more important to the future of the world.

Austria, Prussia and Russia form an alliance to interfere in Polish politics and to prevent Poland from strengthening itself. Instability in Russian-German relations led to the Seven Years’ War in 1756, pitting Britain and Prussia against France, Austria and Russia.

Peter III, who was born in Germany, comes to power in Russia and switches sides. The Russian soldiers stop invading Prussia and start helping them. Prussia recaptures lost territory, and Austria is forced to make peace.

Six months later, Peter III is deposed. His wife, Catherine, takes over as de facto empress. The German Catherine invites Europeans to live and work in Russia. Russia, Austria and Prussia split Poland in a series of partitions, until Poland is removed from the map. Within months, Russia and Prussia have transformed from mortal enemies to closest allies.

Czar Alexander I and Napoleon sign the Treaty of Tilsit. It contains a secret clause that divides Europe between Russia and France. Russia secretly agrees to help France against Britain in the West, while France agrees to help Russia against the Ottomans in the East. In 1812, the alliance falls apart when Napoleon decides Russians are not doing enough against Britain and attacks them.

Russia and Germany sign the Reinsurance Treaty. Each nation promises to remain neutral if the other gets involved in a war with another major power (with some exceptions). But in 1890, Bismarck is forced out of office by the new kaiser, Wilhelm II, who quickly reverses the policy on Russia. In 1914, Germany attacks Russia.

Germany gives Vladimir Lenin safe passage through Germany to help him reach Russia. Shortly after arriving, Lenin launches the October Revolution. The Communists seize power. Quickly Lenin signs a peace treaty that gives the Germans almost everything they want.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divides Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia. The deal is announced as a “nonaggression pact.” It was the opposite; it defined which parts of Eastern Europe that Russia could attack with German approval, and vice versa. The alliance collapses suddenly in 1941 when Hitler invades Russia.