Germany and Eastern Europe

Jan 04, 2023

How Germany Lost the Trust of Eastern Europe

It is one of the great failures of German foreign policy that it dismissed the warnings of its Eastern European neighbors about Russia’s bellicose intentions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a picture as he arrives to attend the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany, January 19, 2020.
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On July 12, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin published his now infamous essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he blatantly denied Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent, sovereign nation and reaffirmed his iron will to restore to “old greatness” a Russia that, in his eyes, had been systematically wronged by the West. In retrospect, this jarring example of the distortion of the historical record for propagandistic purposes must be seen as the written precursor to the equally deranged speech of February 21, 2022, which was followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine three days later.

Among the few who viewed Putin’s essay as a harbinger of war in Europe and incessantly warned others of the coming invasion of Ukraine, was former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski. His early recognition of the drums of war stood in stark contrast to the political consensus in Germany, which, until the Russian tanks rolled toward Kyiv, doggedly clung to the belief that Putin could be brought to heel through diplomatic means. It was therefore entirely justified that Sikorski, in his Zbigniew Brezinski lecture to the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) on October 11, 2022, presented himself as the Cassandra whose warnings about Russia's aggressive intentions had consistently fallen on deaf ears in Berlin.

Sikorski is by no means alone in feeling that he has not been taken seriously by the political class in Germany; in fact, he is representative of large parts of Eastern and Central Europe. Not only in Warsaw, but also in Prague, Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius, one can hear voices tell the tale of a German policy toward Moscow that combined naiveté with an unabashed mercantilism, focused on profiting from close trade relations with Russia, and that was consistently conducted over the heads of Germany’s concerned eastern neighbors.

A Historical Pattern

From the vantage point of Eastern and Central Europe, Germany’s approach to relations with Russia in recent years was consistent with a painfully familiar historical pattern. Over the course of the tumultuous history of their relations, Germany and Russia have always vacillated between conflict and cooperation. In both modes, the relationship had an enormous impact on the belt of smaller countries located between them. Contrary to what many Germans believe, the German-Russian wars were predominantly fought not in Russia, but in Eastern and Central Europe, where local inhabitants endured unspeakable suffering at the hands of both sides. Much of the fighting in the conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, known in Germany to this day as the Russlandkrieg (Russian War), took place in Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine. In these regions between Berlin and Moscow, which the American historian Timothy Snyder famously described as the “Bloodlands” of Europe, nearly 14 million civilians perished between 1939 and 1945.

When they were not at war, Russia and Germany were inclined to strike grand settlements in the manner befitting great powers, which both naturally regarded themselves as being. Like their destructive wars, these efforts to balance their interests also regularly exacted a cost from the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. For an illustrative example of this one can look back to Prussia and Tsarist Russia divvying up Poland between them on three separate occasions throughout the second half of the 18th century. It was in the 20th century, however, that German-Russian arrangements of this kind had particularly devastating consequences. The 1922 Treaty of Rapallo, which normalized relations between the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union, contained secret clauses that allowed the Reichswehr, which had been severely curtailed by the Treaty of Versailles, to covertly carry out its rearmament on Russian soil.

Less than two decades later, the tanks and combat aircraft built with Russian help were used in Hitler's campaigns to the east, campaigns that were decisively prepared by the most notorious of all German-Russian agreements—the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On August 23, 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov signed a treaty in the presence of Josef Stalin, in which the German Reich was guaranteed Soviet neutrality in the case of a German invasion of Poland, the plans for which were already well underway. A secret additional protocol specified the “political-territorial transformation” of Eastern Europe, which effectively amounted to the division of Poland and the Baltic States between Berlin and Moscow.

The experience of being literally wiped off the map by Germany and Russia left a lasting imprint on the collective consciousness of Eastern and Central Europe. It endowed the region with a deep-seated distrust toward all forms of German-Russian rapprochements. This is also reflected in the skeptical assessment of West Germany’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s, which still prevails in parts of Eastern Europe today. Celebrated in Germany as a symbol of peace, as the apogee of the post-war reconciliation between East and West, and as a milestone on the way to overcoming the division of Europe, Ostpolitik remains in the memory of many Eastern Europeans an example of yet another policy that was bilaterally negotiated with Moscow over their heads and served to strengthen rather than weaken—at least in the first instance—Soviet power and its oppressive apparatuses in their countries. 

It is one of the failures of German foreign policy in recent years not to have noticed that the last two decades of German-Russian cooperation, especially in the post-2008 period, seemed to echo this ill-fated history in the eyes of Germany’s eastern neighbors. It is admittedly absurd to seriously compare a project like Nord Stream 2 to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as, for example, Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, a particularly belligerent member of the Polish PiS government, did in 2019. It is undoubtedly the case, however, that over the years the lucrative German-Russian “pipes-for-gas” deals helped to fill the Russian war chest, which Putin has been emptying in such brutal fashion in Ukraine since the beginning of this year.

The activities of some German companies appear equally dubious. The arms manufacturer Rheinmetall, for instance, built a training center near Moscow in 2011, in which up to 30,000 Russian soldiers were to be prepared for military operations. It is particularly damning that the decision to build this center, which clearly served Putin’s efforts to modernize the Russian military, was taken after Russia had shown its teeth in Georgia in 2008. If Rheinmetall in fact clandestinely continued to build the center after the imposition of sanctions following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, as is alleged, then the case defies comprehension and must stand as one of crudest examples of cynical mercantilist activity in recent times.

Ignoring the Warnings

Germany either could not or did not want to recognize how such activities—which were frequently undertaken at the opaque nexus of politics and business—were bound to awaken painful memories in Eastern and Central Europe. For many Germans, the Eastern European states that complained about these policies were eccentrics, traumatized peoples with chips on their shoulders and prone to compensate their historically-rooted inferiority complexes with shrill displays of nationalism. In the eyes of the German political class, they were out of step with the times. They did not fit into a world view, according to which the era of power politics and spheres of influence was irretrievably over and the growing interdependencies in an increasingly globalized world not only made it possible to forge economic ties across different political systems, but in which political differences would in the long run be levelled through convergence.  

Thus, the warnings of Germany’s eastern neighbors that pipeline projects such as Nord Stream 2 were not motivated by commercial interests but by geopolitics, and that the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were not isolated incidents but expressions of a systematic Russian policy of expansion, were dismissed by Germans with the self-assurance that they themselves were on the right side of history.

In this way, Germany doubly alienated its eastern neighbors by not only pursuing a Russia policy that, in many respects, ran counter to the interests of Eastern and Central Europe, but by doing so with an attitude of condescension and moral superiority. It was made clear to Germany’s eastern neighbors that they had not understood the lessons of the 20th century and had therefore not really arrived in the 21st century.

It was precisely the supposedly backward states of Eastern and Central Europe, however, that possessed the far more sophisticated political antennae due to their geographic proximity and everyday exposure to Russian aggression, and their historically-grown sensibility for the imperialist inclinations of their large eastern neighbor. They sensed early on that Putin, with the tacit consent and at times active help of other autocratic regimes such as those in Tehran and Beijing, was diligently working to undermine the liberal-democratic order in which Germany had grown so comfortable. Active threats to this order were stubbornly ignored, despite the increasing warning signs.

Against this backdrop, Chancellor Olaf Scholz' announcement of a “Zeitenwende” or “turning point” in German foreign and security policy three days after the outbreak of war raised high hopes in Eastern and Central Europe. At last, it was thought, the scales had fallen from Germany's eyes. Now there was a chance, after all the years of discord and suspicion, to adopt a common line on Russia. These hopes were further strengthened by the fact that across party lines leading German politicians, not least President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had previously served as foreign minister, admitted errors and affirmed their will to never again conduct German policy over the heads of the country’s eastern neighbors.

For example, Michael Roth, a member of Scholz’ Social Democrats (SPD) and chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said “we have too little empathy for Eastern Europe,” while Anton Hofreiter of the Greens, chairman of the Bundestag’s Europe Committee, even spoke of Germany’s “colonial view” of Eastern Europe, which the country now had to come to terms with and overcome. The topic was also taken up in the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), including by CDU Chairman Friedrich Merz, who made a point of visiting Poland and Lithuania, where he emphasized the importance of these countries for Germany's future foreign and defense policy.

Decline in Trust

The goodwill with which the countries of Eastern and Central Europe greeted the announcement of Berlin's change of course, however, was severely strained in the months following the chancellor's remarkable speech on February 27. The repeated slow rolling of arms deliveries to Ukraine, the lack of clarity on the details of the announced defense spending increase, and Chancellor Scholz’ poor communication on these issues rekindled old doubts about the reliability of Germany.

Thus, six months after the “turning point,” the Latvian defense minister felt compelled to ask at Körber-Stiftung’s Berlin Foreign Policy Forum whether “we can really trust the Germans, and can we get this support when we really need it?” The distrust expressed in these probing questions is also reflected in a recent study published by the German Marshall Fund and the Bertelsmann Foundation, which examined perceptions of Germany’s reliability among its NATO allies. Only in the United Kingdom and Italy did trust in Germany reliability increase compared to the previous year, albeit only by a few percentage points. Everywhere else, confidence has declined significantly. The collapse compared with 2021 is particularly dramatic in Poland, where trust in Germany fell by a full 15 percentage points.

The government in Berlin currently risks completely destroying the already low confidence of its allies, by dashing the hopes it has raised. There is still a chance of reversing this trend, especially considering the fact that, despite the very harsh criticism emanating from the region, there is also an understanding in Eastern and Central Europe for the difficulty of the task that the German government has set itself with its “Zeitenwende.” Jānis Kažociņš, National Security Advisor to Latvian President Egils Levits, has said that allies in the region are prepared to be patient for some while. After all, the announced change of course “corresponds to the turning of a tanker, not a sailing dinghy.” Much work is needed on the ground, however, to truly squash doubts and assure allies of the genuineness of the “Zeitenwende.”

First and foremost, Germany must stop splitting hairs with regard to its defense spending and actually spend more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense in the coming years, as announced by the chancellor on February 27. Anything else would be a gross breach of its promise in the eyes of allies—and not only those in Eastern and Central Europe—and would do serious damage to Germany’s reputation. Moreover, it is essential to quickly fulfill the pledge that the Bundeswehr will strengthen its presence in Lithuania. Germany has taken over the command of a multinational combat unit there that is to protect the alliance along its threatened eastern flank as part of NATO’s so-called Enhanced Forward Presence. Vilnius is alarmed by the fact that no additional Bundeswehr soldiers have arrived in Lithuania since Olaf Scholz’ pledge in the summer of 2022 and that the German government has apparently not considered it important to provide its ally with a clear timetable for their arrival.

The increase in the defense budget as well as the reinforcement of the combat unit in Lithuania are steps that could be taken immediately to rebuild some trust in the region. In order to ensure that relations are on a stable footing in the long term, however, Berlin will have to take account of the fact that power in the European Union has noticeably shifted eastward. The spotlight cast on Europe’s defense capabilities by the renewed threat from Russia has revealed that the states of Eastern Europe are the EU’s security bulwark. This is especially true of Poland, whose army already possesses more functioning tanks and howitzers than Germany’s and who plans to create a standing army of 300,000 soldiers by 2035 with the help of an increase in its defense spending to 5 percent of GDP. Poland is thus what the Bundeswehr was during the Cold War, with a comparable number of soldiers—the Atlantic alliance’s continental dagger in Europe. This means that Poland, in particular, but also the other countries in the region, will have a significant role to play in the building of a European defense capability.

Given the threats in Europe’s immediate neighborhood and the continuing doubts about the long-term reliability of US security guarantees, the task of improving Europe’s self-defense must be afforded the highest priority. Berlin’s traditional reflex to settle the big questions at the European level bilaterally with Paris must be suppressed. In future, the existential questions of European security must be decided in the “Weimar triangle” between Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw on an equal footing. This will not be easy, given the difficulties France and Germany have had in dealing with the at times unpredictable right-wing populist government in Warsaw. There will probably be no way around the forging of such an axis, however, if Europe wants to survive in the increasingly dangerous world of this century.

Lukas Paul Schmelter is a historian and was most recently an Ernest May Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (2021-22).