Germania Unmasked

Angela Merkel exited the German political stage just in time. She departed the German Chancellery on December 8, 2021. Just over 70 days later, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. The resulting crisis has profoundly undermined the foundations of Germany’s post-war foreign policy and is forcing it to be fundamentally changed.

When hostilities ceased in the European theatre of World War 2 in May 1945, Germany was utterly destroyed. Its moral pretensions had been eviscerated by its treatment of its Jews, its Soviet prisoners of war and countless others whom met the wrath of Nazi depravity. It had lost over 6 million people due to the war. It lost over a quarter of its pre-war national territory, as a result over 12 million ethnic Germans were forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe and other territory that had previously been German. Its cities had been flattened by aerial attack. Its remaining territory was divided and administered by the Allies. And, in eastern, Soviet-occupied territory, its industry was plundered. 

What were the political consequences of this searing catastrophe? 

The political establishment of the German state, that clambered out from the ashes of war in West Germany, resolved both to improve the material position of its citizens and to eschew the imperial aggressiveness that had led Germany to destruction in 1914 and 1939, respectively. ‘Nie wieder’ (never again) became the watchword of German government strategy for years to come.

In the initial years after the foundation of the Federal Republic, German policymakers kept their heads down and worked on being unobtrusively good citizens on the international stage. Western Europe was only enjoying a faltering economic recovery that was to require substantial American assistance in the form of the 1948 Marshall Plan. Germans were largely still hated by ordinary people in neighbouring states. And, for the political elites of those countries, the German state was still on probation, similar to as it had been following the first World War. It was the unbridled aggression of Stalin’s Soviet Union which helped the new German state to come in from the cold and back within the international fold. Wartime hostilities against Nazis were dissolved in the spirit of realpolitik – “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. The Americans sought to mobilise West German military manpower against the Soviet threat. It was the Americans who made the running in reintegrating German military power into European structures. 

From now on German foreign policy will be less opaque and it’s power unmasked. 

Before 1914 the major powers of Europe – Britain, Germany and France – were regarded as the world’s superpowers. After 1945, Europe lay in ruins. It was the USA (to the west) and the USSR (to the east) who were now the superpowers. Britain was forced to pull the plug on its empire. 

French diplomat Jean Monnet deduced that, “The countries of Europe are not strong enough individually to be able to guarantee prosperity and social development for their peoples.

“The States of Europe must therefore form a federation or a European entity that would make them into a common economic unit.” 

If the democracies of Europe were to remain at the globe’s top table, they would have to pool their resources collectively. 

The Schuman Declaration on 9 May 1950 led to the formation, in 1952, of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECDC). The public message was that, by pooling coal and steel production, participating states were ensuring that they could never again go to war against one another. The reality is it was more an alliance of resurgent German economic power with French diplomatic power. 

The Soviet Union

West Germany was anchored in membership of the European Union and in NATO for economic and military reasons. Germany was happy to cede the strategic direction to others – the Americans and French. When the Berlin Wall fell the prospect of German reunification triggered a variety of responses. The USA was in favour of reunification and pushing back against Soviet influence. The Soviet Union was  preoccupied with attempts at internal reform and eager for financial support. Gorbachev told Kohl that he could not withdraw Soviet troops in East Germany as he had nowhere to house them. The German Chancellor agreed to finance and build homes for the Soviet troops, back in Russia. 


It was Germany’s supposed EU allies – Britain and France – who had the greatest reservations about German reunification. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s opposition was thinly disguised. However, when French resistance dissipated she was left with no choice. British apprehensions about Germany’s new power within the European Union were focused on economic and monetary Union (EMU). Nicholas Ridley, Thatcher’s loyal cabinet colleague, after he described the proposed Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) as a “German racket.” He said that giving up sovereignty to the European Union was as bad as giving it up to Adolf Hitler. The quid pro-quo for French agreement to German unity was German support for an EMU. Germany would have to lose its much vaunted Deutsch Mark. From now on German financial heft would be masked by a common European currency. 

“Russia got very rich selling cheap gas to Europe, and Germany got very rich selling expensive stuff produced with cheap gas. Current accounts swelled for both.”

Zoltan Pozsar of Credit Suisse

In the decade that followed reunification, Germany escaped its post-war ‘probation.’ It was free to choose its own priorities – these were primarily economic. Helmut Kohl focussed on the market integration of former East Germany. His successor, Gerhard Schrӧder, focussed on labour market reforms to boost German competitiveness.

In foreign policy, Germany was happy to delegate to the EU and NATO. When it did assert itself – for example, by pushing hard in 1991 for the early recognition of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, leading to the Yugoslav wars – it did not always produce good results. Germany avoided large and costly military spending and the problems associated with it. That was the policy practiced by Angela Merkel. Her personal low-ego approach matched the national low-ambition foreign policy which assumed that all major geopolitical questions had been settled, that ‘the West’ had won, and that Germany could be friends and trade with everyone. Burdened by history Germany got to enjoy “the end of history” as the US political scientist Francis Fukuyama heralded the end of the Cold War.  

End of Ostpolitik ? 

Germany was content to shelter for free under the American umbrella. The German defence forces, which had been highly rated before 1991, were allowed to decay. German foreign policy focussed less on geopolitical matters and more on the European Union. After 1991, Germany emphasised economic success. In the words of Zoltan Pozsar of Credit Suisse, “Russia got very rich selling cheap gas to Europe, and Germany got very rich selling expensive stuff produced with cheap gas. Current accounts swelled for both.” Nord Stream was so good for Germany and Russia they agreed to a second pipeline. This business opportunity ended abruptly on February 24 of this year when Vladimir Putin invaded the Ukraine. 

The Russian miscalculation with regard to Ukraine was that it placed Germany in a very difficult position. German dependence on Russian oil and gas was now pitted against western moral outrage at a flagrant breach of international law. Putin underestimated the extent of international outrage and the pressure for Germany to fall into line. 

Since the days of Bismarck, Germany has generally pursued a policy of friendship with Russia so that – with its back secured – it could pursue its ambitions in the west. But Kaiser Wilhelm II abandoned it, with disastrous consequences in 1914. In 1922, the Treaty of Rapello saw the shunned Weimer Republic steal a march on the rest of the diplomatic world when it cut a deal to open friendly diplomatic relations with the reviled Bolshevik government. In August 1939, von Ribbentrop travelled to Moscow to secure the benign neutrality of the USSR as Germany planned a war of aggression on Poland. Given their size and geographic closeness, it has always made absolute sense that Germany and Russia should pursue friendly diplomatic and trade relations. But, as long as Europe was divided, Germany was on probation and its foreign policy was shaped in Washington DC, that logic could not assert itself. However, post German reunification, it could. For many years, trade flourished.

Germany looked on with concern as Russia stumbled from being a chaotic democracy to being a murderous autocratic kleptocracy. The imperatives of improving the material position of its citizens and eschewing its past imperial aggressiveness meant that Germany looked on anxiously but said little as Chechnya was destroyed, as Georgia was attacked and as Crimea was annexed.

The brazenness of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has recalled the bad old days of the Cold War. It has brutally exposed the frailties of Germany’s softly-soft policy. It has also led to sharp criticism from Poland and the Baltic states – countries that have deeper and even more bitter experiences of dealing with the Russians. Germany has therefore supported western sanctions against Russia. It has cancelled  Nordstream 2. But Germany has not been at the front of the queue to confront Russia, rather, it’s been at the back. Like a defective shopping trolley with a mind of its own, German foreign policy still lurches instinctively towards rapprochement with Russia. There is no doubt that there is an absolute logic that an energy rich country like Russia should supply gas to a heavy consumption market in Europe, but there is no logic in Europe allowing itself to be blackmailed again over gas supplies in the future. Germany had to endure a long period of probation after 1945 before it was fully accepted into the club of civilised countries with whom one associates and trades freely. The door to that club is now firmly shut to Russia. In June, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Bundestag that, “Partnership . . . with Putin’s aggressive, imperialist Russia is inconceivable for the foreseeable future.” Even if Putin was replaced, the west would be very reluctant to make itself overly dependent on Russian energy supplies in the future. Once bitten, twice shy. 

If there is trust, trade works; if there is no trust, everything is up for grabs. Expectations have turned negative. Germany would prefer they had not. Germany must discard wishful thinking and confront the changed reality. An increasing trade boycott with Russia is the first and most obvious result. A sharp increase in military spending and capacity is the second result. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Olaf Scholz announced that “We [Germany] will have to invest more in the security of our country to protect our freedom and democracy.” The country plans to sharply increase its spending on defence to more than 2 per cent (up from 1.5 per cent) of its annual economic output. Scholz said his government planned to supply 100 billion euros for military investments from its 2022 budget, up from  47 billion euros the previous year. A pausing and possible scaling back of Germany’s economic interdependence with China is the third result. In September Germany’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, said his government was working on a new trade policy with China to reduce dependence on Chinese raw materials, batteries and semiconductors, promising “no more naivety” in trade dealings with Beijing.

Germany’s preferred post-reunification strategy of running down its defences and trading with everyone emphasised the material goals of its ‘nie wieder’ strategy. But with Russia’s aggression and China’s newfound military assertiveness, Fukuyama’s end of history maxim has abruptly ended. Germany is now confronted by a Zeitenwende – change of an era. 

This will cost Germany a cold and costly winter, truncated export markets, an expensive transformation of its energy infrastructure and significantly greater military spending. From now on German foreign policy will be less opaque and it’s power unmasked. 

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