• Ben Noble

Old or New? German Influence in Eastern Europe

Chancellor Merkel with Poroshenko and Putin. Source: The Presidential Press and Information Office (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Many of those who examine the conflict between Russia and Ukraine do so, not unreasonably, by focusing almost exclusively on the two protagonists involved. But it is easy to forget that the crisis was precipitated in the first place by Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union, with Viktor Yanukovych’s government falling after pro-EU protesters demanded that he draw closer to the EU instead of Russia. The new government under Petro Poroshenko has since been supported by the EU [112.international, 2019]. But why has the EU sought to move its frontiers and influence ever eastward, even at the risk of

Russia? The answer lies with Germany, arguably the most powerful of the EU member states and widely regarded as the main driving force behind the Union, alongside France. Germany has a long history in Eastern Europe, and seeks to influence the region today as much as it always has - modern day German foreign policy bears more resemblance to the past than one might expect. Today, the EU is in many ways a vehicle for Germany to implement the same broad goals in Eastern Europe as it has had since the 13th century.

The Teutonic Crusades in the 1200s against the Baltic pagans marked the first time the Germans sought to expand into Eastern Europe in significant numbers. German crusaders established a new German nobility in the region under the Teutonic Order. Over time, the Order faded and broke up, with only the small Duchy of Prussia centred on Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) remaining, but the German nobility remained there, even after the region was taken over by the Swedes and the Russians. Prussia, however, although small at the time, would go on to become one of the most powerful and most important states in Europe, and shape the future fortunes of Germany. Indeed, when we talk of a ‘German’ foreign policy towards Eastern Europe, it would be more accurate to describe such a policy as Prussian, for it is in Prussia that German attitudes and policies towards the East have their roots.

The Germans had been steadily pushing eastward for some centuries (in a process known as ‘Ostsiedlung’ or settling in the east), and Germans gradually came to displace the native Slavs in areas such as Pomerania, Silesia, and of course Prussia itself. Prussia’s position as the most easterly German power ensured strong Prussian interest in developments in Eastern Europe, and this would go onto be reflected in later German foreign policy. Prussia over time would be elevated from a duchy to a kingdom, and grow from a small state on the Baltic shore to encompassing two thirds of Germany itself. It seized the areas where ‘Ostsiedlung’ had taken place, making it the frontier between Germany and Slavic land. Russian control over Poland and the Baltics ensured that over the 19th century, Prussians grew increasingly alarmed at the prospect of being overrun by Slavs, in particular Russia, while Bismarck’s alliance with Austria made war between Russia and Germany virtually inevitable [Martel, 2003].

The nobility of Prussia (known as Junkers) played a big part in driving German foreign policy towards Eastern Europe during the time of the German Empire (1871 – 1918). Seeing war with Russia as inevitable, and being overconfident in the strength of the Prussian military, most Junkers were ready to drive east. An 1887 memo from Bernhard von Bülow (a future Chancellor) describes a new German order in Eastern Europe, in the event of a German victory over Russia, whereby a new eastern buffer state of Poles and Ukrainians would be constructed to divide and rule the local population for the benefit of Germany [Hawes, 2018]. This showed that the foreign policy of the newly unified German Empire would, in Eastern Europe at least, reflect that of Prussia, with the aim of extending German influence in Eastern Europe.

The First World War on the Eastern front saw Germany in control of the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine by 1918, owing to the disintegration of the Russian army. Germany presented the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to Russia, in which the Russians ceded the Baltics, Poland, and what is now western Ukraine, to the German armies [En.wikisource.org, 2019]. In the brief period following the signing of the treaty, Germany attempted to put into action its plan for ‘Mitteleuropa’ – a new order of German satellite states, economically and militarily linked to Germany itself, spread across Eastern Europe [Geiss, 1964]. To this end, German forces in the Baltics supported the German nobility against the Communists and independence movements, and in Finland, they suppressed a Communist revolution and secured a pro-German government. However, defeat on the Western Front destroyed any chance of ‘Mitteleuropa’ becoming reality.

Defeat in the First World War caused a perfect storm in German politics – the dissatisfied Junkers now turned to radical groups who promised to restore Germany’s greatness. Erich Ludendorff, who along with Paul von Hindenburg virtually ruled Germany from 1916-1918, made a political alliance with the young NSDAP and Adolf Hitler in the early 1920s. Ludendorff had a great impact on Hitler; Hitler hailed from Bavaria, not Prussia, yet in Mein Kampf it is clear that he had been influenced by Prussian attitudes to Eastern Europe, presumably through Ludendorff. In the early 1900s the Junkers had started to see the struggle against the Slavs (as well as Jews) in more explicitly racial terms, and Hitler took this to heart, naming Slavs as ‘untermenschen’ and calling for Eastern Europe to be ‘lebensraum’ for the German people, at the expense of the Slavs [Fest, 2013]. This was the basis for the invasion of Russia in 1941 – while Nazi plans were more racially-oriented and went much further than Imperial plans had, the concept was the same: domination of Eastern Europe by the Germans, and pushing the Slavs further eastward.

Germany’s defeat in 1945 saw traditional German foreign policy put on held as communism dominated the region, Germany was divided, and the Slavs settled further westward than they had in centuries – right up to the river Oder. West German foreign policy was for a time merely preoccupied with the return of the lands Germany had lost east of the Oder, while East Germany made no such claims. Reunification in 1990 saw Germany give up its eastern territorial claims forever, and in 1993 the European Union was born, and Germany became the Union’s greatest economic power, a position that was strengthened by the introduction of the Euro [Ramirez Cisneros, 2018]. This, and Germany’s historic position as marking the border between Central and Eastern Europe, has seen Germany largely dictate EU policy on Eastern Europe. With the retreat of Moscow’s influence in 1989 and the subsequent fall of Communism, the EU has sought to exploit the power vacuum in Eastern Europe by extending its influence there, admitting former members of the Warsaw Pact and in the case of the Baltics, former Soviet Republics, into the Union. Indeed, in some areas of Eastern Europe, German is considered to be among the most important business languages, highlighting German influence in the EU’s economic interests in the region. Furthermore, it is the EU’s (and Germany’s) desire to extend this influence to Ukraine that has resulted in the current crisis surrounding Ukraine’s relationships to the EU and Russia. Ukraine has always been close to Russia, and the EU’s attempt to exert influence on the country has not been popular with Moscow. The EU’s policy on Ukraine is nothing new – some would describe the EU in Eastern Europe as a German dominated economic union, which was exactly the goal of Imperial Germany in the First World War.

In conclusion, German foreign policy with regards to Eastern Europe has not been fundamentally different through history. The European Union is today, in Eastern Europe at least, largely a proxy for German foreign policy in the region, which follows the same pattern today as it has for centuries. Although there are key differences, namely that German influence in Eastern Europe today is spread by trade deals and business investment instead of bayonets and machine guns, and that the European Union is a champion of equality and liberal values which does not share the same prejudice about Slavs that have historically been held by German politicians, the overall goal of expanding German influence in Eastern Europe remains unchanged. And it is this goal that has driven the EU to attempt to draw Ukraine into its sphere of influence, and thus sparked renewed tension with Russia. In that sense, the current crisis in Ukraine that pits the EU against Russia is merely the latest chapter in a long history of German-Slavic tension in Eastern Europe.


112.international. (2019). EU supports Poroshenko in upcoming election, - head of Ukraine's delegation in PACE. [online] Available at: https://112.international/ukraine-and-eu/eu-supports-poroshenko-in-upconming-election-head-of-ukraines-delegation-in-pace-38044.html

En.wikisource.org. (2019). Treaty of Brest-Litovsk - Wikisource, the free online library. [online] Available at: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Brest-Litovsk

Fest, J. (2013). Hitler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 216.

Geiss, I. (1964). 'Tzw. polski pas graniczny 1914–1918'. Warsaw.

Hawes, J. (2018). The Shortest History of Germany. Old Street Publishing. p.124

Martel, G. (2003). The Origins of the First World War. Third edition. p. 21.

Ramirez Cisneros, I. (2018). German Economic Dominance within the Eurozone and Minsky’s Proposal for a Shared Burden between the Hegemon and Core Economic Powers. Levy Economics Institute, Working Papers Series, (913).

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