The tentacles of the Kremlin reach much more widely into the German economy than just the energy industry, however. Until the invasion of the Crimea in 2014 forced Angela Merkel to impose limited sanctions and Putin turned to Xi Jinping’s China for technology, Germany was Russia’s largest trading partner. And only after tanks rolled into Ukraine two months ago did German companies such as Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and Adidas start to curtail their exports to and manufacturing plants in Russia.
The cultural kudos of Russia in Germany and vice-versa is impossible to overstate. Their history of mutual admiration goes back at least to the 18th century, when an obscure German princess rose to become Catherine the Great. The Tsarina invited Germans to settle in Russia to teach the peasants how to farm. Descendants of the “Volga Germans” were deported to Siberia by Stalin, but in the 1980s and 90s millions of them emigrated to Germany, where they now form a pro-Putin lobby group.
The cardinal importance of good relations with Moscow has been an axiom of German statesmen since Otto von Bismarck, even if his dictum “make a good treaty with Russia” was interpreted with the utmost cynicism at times. It was the Germans who smuggled Lenin across Europe to unleash his Bolshevik revolution on Russia. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 imposed a Carthaginian peace on the Russians and created the first independent Ukraine, later crushed by the Red Army.
At Rapallo in 1922, the German Foreign Minister and AEG electrical magnate Walter Rathenau made the first treaty with the Soviet Union, enabling Russo-German trade to boom. Though Rathenau was assassinated by anti-Semitic terrorists, Hitler emulated him by striking a deal with Stalin, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939, which carved up Poland and unleashed the Second World War.
The war of annihilation that began when the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941 has left terrible scars on all the peoples involved. In so far as Hitler had a rationale for his invasion and the extermination of Jews and others that followed in his wake, it was his desire for Lebensraum (“living space”) in Ukraine, the “breadbasket of Europe”. Hitler had his headquarters there and even visited Mariupol in winter 1941.
The Nazi occupation left Ukraine devastated, but because it was seen merely as part of the Soviet Union, the Germans never felt the need to sluggish for what they had done there — as they did in Poland and, especially, Russia. The fact that some Ukrainians, embittered by Stalin’s genocidal famine (the Holodomor), had collaborated with the Nazis contributed to the postwar lack of sympathy in Germany for Ukrainian national aspirations. Conversely, Russians were taught that Ukrainian nationalists were by definition Nazis; in 1959 their wartime leader, Stepan Bandera, was assassinated in Munich by the KGB.
After Ukraine became independent in 1991, the Germans did not pay much attention to it. Instead, they doubled down on their long-standing policy of investing in Russia. Even when Putin took over — intimidating, interfering with and in some cases crushing his neighbors in the service of his imperialist designs — politicians in Berlin turned a blind eye.
Some even believed the Russian propaganda line that Ukraine was full of neo-Nazis, even though its president was Jewish and its parliament (unlike the German Bundestag) had no far-Right parties. Not until war and genocide returned to Europe, the prevention of which had supposedly been the basis of their postwar system, did the scales fall from German eyes.
How could this have happened? The answer lies in the very German tradition known as Ostpolitik (“eastern policy”). The architect of this strategy was Willy Brandt, the charismatic statesman who also modernized the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and led its return to office in 1969.
As mayor of West Berlin when the Wall was built in 1961, Brandt had witnessed first hand the tragedy of a divided city, country and continent. He stood beside John F. Kennedy when the President told the beleaguered citizens of Berlin: “Ich bin ein Berliner.“But he knew that the Americans would not risk war to bring down the Berlin Wall, let alone to reunite Germany.
Realizing that these goals could only be pursued in an atmosphere of detente, Brandt set about building bridges to the Kremlin and to the East German Communists, beginning with a “policy of small steps” to improve life on both sides of the Wall. This “networking” became known as Ostpolitik.
Brandt himself was brought down by a spy scandal in 1974, but Ostpolitik endured and evolved under his successor Helmut Schmidt. It was even adopted by their centre-right opponent, Helmut Kohl, who had been a fierce Cold Warrior but seized the opportunities offered by Mikhail Gorbachev’s opening to the West.
As the Telegram correspond in Germany, I and other journalists accompanied Kohl to Moscow in 1988. I vividly remember the exalted sense of history with which the German Chancellor imbued his relationship with the Soviet President, exchanging soft loans in hard currency for political concessions. This was the background to the opening of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall a year later.