Germany and Russia are the two states whose relations of the past 250 years have been defining the fate of Europe in general, and Ukraine in particular
The Hohelzollerns were hardly the most outstanding dynasty in Europe: a small South German family that bought the Elector of Bradenburg title, subject to the Holy Roman Emperor. Later, the family bought Prussian lands and recognized Polish kings as its suzerains. The kingdom kept growing through successful matrimonial deals and military operations and took its right place on the European map in the 18th century, squeezing out the old monarchies of France, Great Britain and Austria. A great help in that was Russia, then ruled by the monarchs of German origin who actively claimed European hegemony. The union of these two parvenu was shaping the fate of the continent at that time.
A late start
The first military contact between the Russian Empire and the Prussian Reich took place during the Seven Years’ War and turned into a tragedy for the Germans. Yet it also defined the entire future history of the German-Russian relations. At the start of the war, the Russian leaders were unable to start battle action because the Germans used an effective tool of defense against Russia (one they would later use many more times): both the commander in chief of the Russian Army, Stepan Apraksin, and Chancellor Bestuzhev, regularly received hefty sums for sabotaging the start of the war. Not before Piotr Saltykov replaced Apraksin did the Russians step out on their first march on Europe, taking Königsbergin the spring of 1757, and Berlin in the fall of 1760. The first Russian who ruined the Prussian capital was a Saxon, Gottlob vonTottleben. The sum of the contribution he demanded from the opponent was humungous, but a larger part of it was paid by Johann Gotzkowsky, a banker, factory owner and a rich man. In the future, German capital would save their country many more times again. Back then the Russians limited their impact to “only” ruining palaces in Schönhausen and Charlottenburg.
The battle-hungry and arrogant Friedrich II, - the Soldatenkönig — faced then a series of defeats. Who knows how his young Reich would have fared had it not been for Peter III, a German and an old supporter of the Prussian king, who took the Russian throne then. The young tsar played things back quickly and signed a defense treaty with Friedrich in the spring of 1762. That framed the beginning of the alliance that would later become a strategic axis of all European politics. In 2014, the citizens of Kiel built a monument to their compatriot, the Russian tsar Peter III, as a symbol of “common history”. The Russians are ignoring it though: for too long Peter III had been presented to them as an idiot. That campaign began when his successor, Catherine II, was in power. This was probably the only way for SophieAugusteFriederikevonAnhalt-Zerbst to construct an image of herself as a great mother and enlightener from what she was in fact, a poorly educated and fairly dumb German princess. Under Catherine II, Russian nobility ultimately turned into the class backbone of the empire, constituting the group of slave owning landlords who constantly needed new lands and serfs. In the 19th century, when Russian nobility started talking about “Orthodoxy, monarchy, nationality”, as well as the special mission of the Russians, who else, but the Hohenzollerns, could make theirs ally as they themselves were fighting for their future desperately?
The creator of the First Reich, Friedrich II, died in 1786. The Soldatenkönig found his last shelter at the modest garrison church in the Sanssouci palace. It would later be visited by virtually all European monarchs. In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte as the new ruler of the Old Continent came to kneel before the remains of the Prussian king. “Bare your heads!”, the French emperor was rumored to have told his people crowding behind him. “If he were alive now, you wouldn’t be standing here!”
In 1943, when the ruinous impact of the carpet bombing of German cities, including historical and cultural sites, by the allies became obvious, the sarcophagi of Friedrich II and Wilhelm I were removed to a concrete bunker. This proved to be the right decision: the little church at Sanssouci was eventually bombed down and burnt. As the Soviet Army approached Germany, the monarchs’ remains were transported south, to the American-controlled area. Apparently, this proved to be the right decision as well. That’s where they waited out the epoch of the divided Germany. That was also when a legend was born: Alte Fritz won’t abandon the Germans. As soon as he returned to his proper place, the soviet Colossus would fall, the legend said. Alte Fritz must have known a thing or two about the future: the government of the united Germany reburied the remains of the Prussian kind at Sanssouci on August 17, 1991.
Friedrich II’s successor was Friedrich Wilhelm III, a man of no military appetite. Under his command, the once glorious Prussian army lost a series of battles to Napoleon and essentially seized to exist. The Germans then placed high hopes on the power of the Russian weapons (or, the number of the Russian soldiers, to be more precise). Prussian queen, the beautiful Louise, tried to put her charms on Russia’s Alexander, invited him for intimate meetings and conversations, and pinned the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle on his uniform with her own hands. In 1805, the Russian tsar pledged allegiance to the Russian-Prussian union at the Sanssouci garrison church. But in 1807, at the famous meeting of three emperors in Tilsit, Alexander I appeared as an ally of Napoleon, while Friedrich Wilhelm III was often only let as far as the corridor during negotiations. However, the city preserved long memory of Louisa’s stay there. In 1907, the local entry gate over the Neman river, was adorned with the queen’s portrait to celebrate the anniversary of the Tilsit Treaty. From 1945, Eastern Prussia no longer existed on the map of the world. It turned into Kaliningrad Oblast, Tilsit turned into Sovietsk, while the gate was adorned with the Soviet Union symbol. But even in the 21st century Russia still desperately needs German money, just like before. That’s why Louisa’s image reappeared on the bridge in 2007, now looking at Lithuania and the EU. Take a look if you happen to cross Neman.
When Napoleon entered Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate (built by Friedrich II to celebrate the subjugation of Saxony), he ordered the quadriga removed from the gate, and Prussian eagles from the city. The French particularly longed to humiliate the arrogant Prussia. That’s why they took part of its territory and turned it into a member of Rheinbund that was dependent on the French emperor. No united and strong Germany – whether the French Empire or Republic, it feared the emergence of such a Germany for a long time to come, until these fears were finally cured with the establishment of the European Union.
When Napoleon triumphed, the Hohelzollerns, devoid of their capital, moved to Königsberg where they lived in poverty and modesty, expecting salvation from the Russian emperor. Not only because a German was the Russian tsarina, or because the tsar pledged allegiance on the tomb of Alte Fritz, but rather because no country in Europe was more interested in expansion than Russia. It was for a reason after all that grandma Catherine II named one grandson Alexander (like in Alexander the Great), and the second one – Konstantin (with a hint to the Byzantine Empire). Eventually though, it was the third grandson, Nicolas I, whose fate was to try and implement the ambitious plans and take over Black Sea Straits. The price was his life.
After all this, could there be a more dedicated and grateful ally for the Russian monarchy than Prussia once the Russian tsar took to supervise the international order following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, turning into the “gendarme of Europe”? After the casting of the “Russian-German friendship” in the years of Napoleon’s wars, the Germans understood very well what Alte Friz meant when he said: “Out of all Prussia’s neighbors, the Russian Empire is the most dangerous one given its power and position. Prussian kings who rule after me have plenty of reasons to keep friendly relations with these barbarians.”
The labors of Bismarck and German capital
So, Napoleon put an end to the German Reich built by Alte Friz. But the Germans wouldn’t have been the Germans if they didn’t try to build the Second one. France was no longer able to prevent this: its army was devastated while emperor Napoleon III became Bismarck’s hostage. The Germans took their revenge: the Chancellor had the treaty to form the German Empire signed at the Versailles Hall of Mirrors on January 18, 1871. The very same hall where talks to liquidate the Second Reich would take place in 1919.
The Germans and the French considered Russia as an ally in their mutual arguments. An ally that was an obsolete semi-Asian empire whose Tatar-Ukrainian-German aristocracy splurged on entertainment, luxury items and benevolence of governments in Europe. Nothing changed much in terms of the essence of interaction between the Russians and Europeans ever since.
The “Iron Chancellor” who united the Germans had a pretty good concept of what Russia was and no illusions in that regard. In 1859, he was sent as Ambassador of Friedrich Wilhelm IV to the court of Alexander II. Bismarck resided at the palace of Count Stenbock on Neva. Earlier, tourists used to walk by the building and only notice the Aurora cruiser moored nearby. Today, the residence has a memorial plate in Russian and German for the years when Otto von Bismarck lived there: obviously, Russia still needs German support.
In St. Petersburg, the person who became Bismarck’s teacher in the art of diplomacy and whose impact defined the development of Russian-German relations, was Alexander Gorchakov, the Russian Empire’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The luxury-loving Bismarck fit well into the social life of the tsars’ capital. He learned to speak Russian, admired local culture, attended salons and even set up one of his own. It was then that Bismarck developed his concept of “the union of three eagles” (Austrian, Russian and German) against France. Only that was exactly when tensions were rising between Russia and Austria around Turkish control over the Balkans and the Straits.
The idea to divide Russia emerged in European diplomatic circles back in the mid-19th century: a 100-million empire posed a growing threat with its backwardness and ambitions of annexations. Russia’s northern parts were supposed to go to Sweden. The rest of its territory could be divided between Poland, Malorosia and Velykorosia. Who knows what these projects would have led to if it hadn’t been for Bismarck who put an end to all that. He saw France as the key enemy against the unification of the Germans, so he needed a friendly and strong Russia in the rear. That explains why Germany was virtually the only European country that supported the suppression of the January Uprising in Poland.
After Bismarck’s term in St. Petersburg expired, he became ambassador to France. The Russian trail followed him there as well: he fell in love with Yekaterina Orlova, the daughter of Count Nikolai Trubetskoy and the wife of Nikolay Orlov, Russia’s ambassador to Belgium, during vacation at the fashionable Biarritz resort. She was 22, Bismarck was close to 50. This late love remained in the Iron Chancellor’s memories till the last days of his life: he had a medallion with the portrait of the charming Yekaterina in his suit pocket.
As he accepted the proposal of King Wilhelm I to become Chancellor, Bismarck immediately outlined his agenda for the Reich’s development: unification of the German lands, removal of competition from Austria, development of the army and the fleet. Without Russian support, however, he would never have been able to bring his plans into life: it was the threat from Russia that prevented a union between Austria and France and a war against Prussia. Bismarck paid Russia back: it once again gained the right to have its military bases and fleet on the Black Sea (lost with the defeat in the Crimean War) at the conference in London lobbied by Bismarck. The Chancellor had an idea what the new armament of the ally could lead to, but did not see threats to Germany in it. He believed that German politicians would stick to the will of Friedrich II.
Yet, the conflict between Germany and Russia was inevitable: panslavism was slowly creeping from literature discussions into political practices in the Romanovs’ empire. The defeat in the Crimean War hushed up talks about Russia’s special mission and being “the God-chosen”, but all that came back to the forefront through wars against Turkey in the 1870s. Alexander Gorchakov, the patriarch of Russian expansionism, tried to cement the empire’s influences in the Treaty of San Stefano, but the Berlin Congress of 1878 organized and hosted by Bismarck fixed a somewhat different balance on the European arena. This postponed the likely conflict and moved the field of the clash to the Balkans, West Asia and the Middle East. Yet, it did not solve the eternal Russian problem: the country needed money, the landlord aristocracy did not feel comfortable living in poverty. At that point the German government imposed protective duties on Russian grain and metal products in 1879 in an attempt to protect national economy. That forced the exporters of Ukrainian grain that used to follow the new railway route from the Black Sea steppes through Yelysavetgrad and Balta, to Odesa, to seek new clients.
At the same time, Otto von Bismarck remembered very well the will of Alte Friz and did not have in mind an argument with Russia. He tried to revive the “union of three eagles”. When that failed, he suggested a bilateral treaty to Russia. His utmost desire was to avoid a war on two fronts. As soon as he retired, Germany took on the concept of two fronts and the start of war became only a matter of time.
In 2015, Germany celebrated a 200-year anniversary of Bismarck’s birthday. His name is used today to achieve political goals. SPD’s Gerhard Schröder, once Germany’s chancellor and now a friend of Vladimir Putin, is now busy with taking care of Russian business affairs in Germany. As board chairman of the Nord Stream consortium, he is a great fan and promoter of Bismarck’s cause (as he understands it). Unfortunately, lack of education and superficial knowledge leads to primitive and mechanic analogies. Bismarck’s benevolence towards Russia was based on practical calculations of protection from France, liberal and socialist ideas, and not on common values. Has Russia managed to help Germany throughout this time? This is a rhetoric question given the fact that these countries ended up on two different sides in both World wars. Is a confrontation with France still relevant for Germany today?
The 20th century saw the bloodiest period in the German-Russian relations. Russia’s transfer to the camp of Germany’s opponent, France, in the late 20th century, and the growing ambition regarding Turkish domain changed the situation and caused the explosion of World War I. The confrontation on two fronts dealt the final blow to the Hohenzollern empire, and the German Republic came to replace the Second Reich.
In Russia, by contrast, the fall of the Romanovs led to a new, totalitarian regime which now disguised its ambition to rule the world in the zemshar respublika sovetov – the “planetary republic of soviets” (which didn’t prevent the Russians from switching back to the concept of the special “Russki Mir” mission in the 1990s). Once kicked out from the club of European states, the two pariahs of European politics made a deal in Rapallo and thus essentially laid down modus operandi of further bilateral relations, whereby the Germans needed a trade partner after their defeat in the military conflict, while the Russians need money (as they always did). The two sides continued to live by this modus up until the reunification of Germany in 1990 – in the interwar period when Stalin build his Red Army at the expense of the German economy; after the war when the Soviet Union was milking more and more loans, technologies and goods from Germany while tangling the carrot of possible reunification in front of the German noses. It’s worth remembering that Russia was one of the four winner states in World War II whose decision was key in the prospect of allowing German unification. That’s why the talks between Nikita Khrushchev and Konrad Adenauer, or Leonid Brezhnev and Willy Brandt, or Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, pretty much boiled down to the German attempts to reunite and offer the Russians money in return.
The essence of the German-Russian relations remains the same even after the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only with one important nuance: in the 21st century the tricks of the 20th or 19th centuries do not fly. Russia may be blackmailing Europeans with military aggression against Ukraine, flows of refugees from the Middle East or placement of missiles in Kaliningrad Oblast, but it won’t get the result it seeks from this, i.e. money. The rise of the European Union turned one-time enemies into allies who share common values, currency and military doctrine. The crisis the EU is going through today is rather the “problem of growth” than a fall, despite all hopes for the latter from the leaders of the “new Russian aristocracy” comprised of the siloviki, criminal actors and bandit militant formations from the Caucasus. Putin’s hopes that Russia will once again be able to solve things through secret diplomacy, special operations and weapons, are vain. A century after Spengler’s The Dawn of Europe, Europe is still standing and pretty resilient to all the shakes. The strong Germany has become the cement of the strong Europe.
That’s why the goal of the Russian regime is to destroy the European Union, and Germany as its richest country. Vladimir Putin’s personal attitude towards Angela Merkel conceals something deeply flawed, similar to the hatred of the impotent past against the future. In terms of their age, the leaders of Germany and Russia belong to one generation. In terms of historical epoch, the countries have parted ways for ever. Will Russia be able to catch up with the time it has lost? As long as it remain an empire, never.