20.06.23 Expertise

From Triumph to Collapse: How Germany is parting with Ostpolitik and what comes next

Alex Yusupov
Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Russia Programme
Over the past half-century, Ostpolitik, Germany's 'policy towards the East', became part of German identity, while the idea of a special relationship with Russia became an important element of Germany's positioning on the global political and economic stage. The invasion of Ukraine marked the collapse of Ostpolitik, which is now seen as the collapse of the entire German foreign policy of previous decades. What were the reasons for this failure, and what will become the basis for Berlin's new 'eastern' trajectory? Alex Yusupov, director of the Russian programme at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and host of the podcast on German politics 'Chancellor and Berghain', attempts to figure this out.

Bilateral revision

Ostpolitik is an essential element of modern German identity. School history textbooks tell us that it helped heal Germany's divisions and facilitated a peaceful end to the Cold War. Russia's attack on Ukraine has forced Germany to rethink its policy towards Russia — its Russlandpolitik, which in many ways succeeded the principles of Ostpolitik.

The Russian-Ukrainian war is largely a revisionist conflict aimed at reformatting relations in the post-Soviet space in favour of Russia's great power status. The price — a final rejection of the principles of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. In order to explain and justify its violence, Moscow has presented a carefully selected series of historical examples of confrontation between Russia and the West, in which cooperation and mutual enrichment have no place. They are woven into a narrative of an 'eternal', inevitable struggle between 'two civilisations'. In this conception of the world, the history of cooperation between the USSR (and later Russia) and West Germany appears as an exception or an aberration, which occurred solely due to the oversight of the 'transatlantic hegemon'.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the apparent divergence between Russian and German assessments of Ostpolitik have triggered a heated debate about its role and value in Germany. Why did the rise of Russian authoritarianism go unnoticed in Germany for so long? And if it was noticed, why did the bilateral relationship not change? Can it be argued that dialogue and economic cooperation have proved to be inadequate instruments of foreign policy? Is there a clear responsibility on the part of the German Social Democrats for the way things have turned out?

To make sense of what Russian aggression against Ukraine means for the legacy of Ostpolitik, it is necessary to clarify the terms discussed. The label 'Ostpolitik' is often used to refer to the foreign policy concepts and strategies of western and later unified Germany towards its eastern neighbours. This definition is imprecise. Thus, I think it is necessary to distinguish the term and clarify its meaning.

Change through convergence: Ostpolitik and its success

Ostpolitik is a distinctive element of the 'politics of détente' with a dual context — German in general and social democratic in particular. The term 'détente', in turn, refers to the period between the late 1960s and the early 1980s and the West's strategy to reduce tensions between the socialist and capitalist blocs, which was initiated by Kennedy's policy and his 'Strategy for Peace' address. Ostpolitik existed only as an integral part of the policy of détente and would have been unthinkable and unworkable without the paradigm of nuclear deterrence and outside the context of Soviet-US relations. At the time, the Bundeswehr was, at that time, the most combat-ready Western army on the continent, and the German defence budget accounted for as much as 3% of GDP.

At the same time, Ostpolitik marked a new approach by the SPDG (the party in power between 1969 and 1982 under Chancellors Brandt and Schmidt) to relations with the GDR and the Warsaw Pact countries. The Social Democrats' rise to power was in itself a turning point. At the time, student protests were raging across Europe and the first post-war generation came to the polls weary of the conservatism of the long Adenauer years, condemning the US invasion of Vietnam and dissatisfied with their parents' 'amnesia' about their lives under the Third Reich.

The SPD and Willy Brandt parlayed these sentiments into a major overhaul of foreign policy thinking. Bonn realised that it was blind and naive to build strategies on the expectation that socialist systems would suddenly and crushingly collapse (based on the notion that they were unsustainable). The new government announced that it was prepared to give up German territories lost in the Second World War (still unthinkable for the CDU and other conservative forces at the time), to recognise the state borders of Poland and to reconsider the position of state revisionism. Ostpolitik embodied the realism and pragmatism of its time. 'To recognise the status quo in order to overcome it one day,' was how Egon Bar, Minister for Special Affairs and architect of Ostpolitik, formulated its goal.

Ostpolitik had very specific aims. In the immediate future, it aimed to improve the living and social conditions of Germans in the GDR by reducing the intensity of the confrontation between the two systems. The less likely it was that Germany would, in the short term, become the scene of a full-scale clash between the two superpowers, the greater the chances of rapprochement between West and East Germans. In West Germany it was believed that the smaller the threat to the socialist regime in the GDR, the less repressive it would be. And, the more private consumption there was in the GDR, the lower the potential for ideological confrontation, and the more likely that the space for family and even personal contact between the two Germanies would be maintained and even expanded.

Brandt and Bar assumed that at some point in the abstract future (perhaps several generations later) the experience of peaceful coexistence between the FRG and the GDR would open the door to non-violent reunification. Or, it might simply make the very fact of the country's division into two states irrelevant from an ordinary point of view.

So what was this new policy? In the blink of an eye, the FRG entered into a series of international agreements, the so-called Eastern Treaties. Brandt travelled to Poland (it was on this trip that he knelt before the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), Moscow and Prague and negotiated agreements on the transit of passengers, postal and telegraph links and the status of divided Berlin. The culmination was the Treaty with the GDR on the Foundations and Principles of Mutual Relations. This document signalled Bonn's rejection of the Halstein Doctrine, which had been in force since 1955 and aimed to isolate the GDR in the international arena.

At the same time, economic relations between the FRG and the USSR began to develop within the framework of 'change through convergence'. Here Egon Bar explicitly referred to Kennedy, stating that 'as much trade as possible should be developed with the countries of the Eastern Bloc without endangering our security'. Economic relations were to lead to social interdependence, and improved living standards in the USSR and GDR would soften their regimes.

It would not be accurate to say that 'change through convergence' was popular with West German companies. The proportion of companies interested in intensifying relations with the USSR was quite small. And, German-Russian trade in the 1970s was compensatory: German exports were economically and technologically linked to imports. For example, under a 1970 agreement, Germany supplied the USSR with large-diameter pipes, which the USSR used to export natural gas. Gas imports from the Soviet Union increased dramatically in the 1980s, but the FRG's dependence on the USSR was not critical at that time. 

In a sense, Ostpolitik was a success. It is believed in Germany that the bloodless reunification of the country would not have been possible without the goodwill of Mikhail Gorbachev, who, in turn, drew on the experience of decades of cooperation between the FRG and the USSR. West Germans attribute the 'historic happy ending' of 1990 to the timely strengthening of the FRG's pragmatic relationship with the Soviet Union. It is difficult to assess how exactly the success of Ostpolitik in its narrow definition led to the end of the Cold War. However, it is clear that its anti-confrontational, pragmatic approach had a positive impact on the foreign policy culture of the FRG. By the time German unification became geopolitically feasible, the FRG was structurally prepared. 

Angela Merkel described the lessons learned from reunification with the phrase 'Nichts muss so bleiben, wie es ist' ('nothing should remain as it is'). The main lesson of Ostpolitik was the belief that internal social processes can develop in authoritarian systems without external interference and can lead to their transformation. The role of politics is to ensure that these processes are stable and conflict-free before they mature and bear fruit.

Historical inertia: Russlandpolitik and its collapse

Berlin's model for dealing with post-Soviet Russia emerged within a framework of historical inertia: if Ostpolitik 'worked', why bother changing it? With Russlandpolitik, the 'policy towards Russia' (this would be the correct term for the system of relations between Berlin and Moscow after 1991), we see a smooth transition of some of the principles of Ostpolitik into the new era: an emphasis on diplomatic mediation and economic cooperation, an axiom of non-interference in the internal affairs of the partner (the suppression of Solidarity is an internal Polish affair, the fight against Chechen separatism is an internal Russian affair), a technocratic approach to lowering barriers to trade, technical and legal interaction, a long-term horizon of expectations.

However, for all its morphological similarities with Ostpolitik, this Russia policy was not a continuation of it. The whole context had changed radically. First, the background of nuclear threat and geopolitical confrontation between the West and the East had disappeared. There was no longer a tense conflict that needed to be 'defused'. Russlandpolitik was not part of the overall approach ofWestern countries' to their relations with Russia. Russia was not seen as a threat to Germany and Europe, and even the annexation of Crimea in 2014 did not change this. The possibility of a conflict in which Germany would send weapons to a side at war with Russia could not even be imagined at that time.

Second, there was no specific goal in the logic of German national interest. Russlandpolitik had no specific objectives other than the realisation of business interests, trade and foreign economic policy of the FRG. German-Russian relations were described as 'special' because of their history, not because of any shared vision of the future. Despite repeated attempts to portray the bilateral relationship as a 'modernising partnership', the only substantial interdependence between the two countries emerged in the energy sector. Russia does not appear on the list of Germany's most important economic partners — unlike Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are ahead of even China in terms of total trade with Germany. 

Third, the general ideological discourse of the 1990s implied a kind of teleology of the transformation of socialist regimes into Western-style states. The goal was no longer to organise the safe coexistence of competing systems on the continent. Russia itself was 'supposed' to develop naturally and irreversibly over time into a 'normal country' with functioning institutions and legal mechanisms. German political circles were convinced that the development of capitalism would automatically turn Russia into an easier, more convenient and helpful neighbour. Over the past 30 years, therefore, the general level of country expertise, policy planning and the intensity of attention paid by German policy circles to internal processes in the Russian Federation (and other post-Soviet countries) has declined.

The belief that 'time will solve everything' was also applied to post-Soviet Russia. However, the lessons of Ostpolitik were twisted in the post-Soviet years. Before the collapse of the USSR, it pointed to the need for historical optimism and patience. Then the notion of progress was substituted, and the lessons of Ostpolitik mutated into capitalist nihilism — the belief that 'the market will fix everything'. 

The intense attention paid by German journalism and civil society to the gradual consolidation of Russian authoritarianism proved insufficient to compensate for the professional blindness of German business and key political leaders. The German business community's strategic interest in a long-term modernisation partnership with Russia within the framework of a privileged relationship ('know-how in exchange for resources and market access') was based on a false comparison with the models of autocratic modernisation ofGermany’s other partners, such as China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Korea (in the past) and Vietnam. The axiom of the German 'captains of industry' was that the way to create common interests was through economic integration, i.e. a greater presence of German business in Russia. And, where there are common interests, there would also be common profits. As a result, there would be a convergent and cooperative coexistence in which all problems and conflicts would be resolved by market mechanisms, albeit sometimes corrupt ones. 

A certain traditional arrogance on the part of Berlin has also played a role — the absolute certainty that there is no country on the continent that understands Russian affairs better than Germany. This made the shock of 24 February all the greater.

At first glance, German policy towards Russia appears to be a continuation of Ostpolitik. In reality, it has proved incapable of formulating clear objectives, finding appropriate instruments and fitting into the general agenda of Moscow's relations with the Western world. Moreover, it has been blind to the real processes inside Russia and too attached to mechanistic notions of how détente and the logic of authoritarian systems work. The historical success of Ostpolitik is the main reason for the failure of Russlandpolitik.

With the intensification of the geopolitical conflict between Russia and the US, Germany's special approach to Russia has become redundant. For Berlin, Russlandpolitik was not important enough to cause a conflict with Washington, Brussels and other European capitals. For years, privileged access to Russian energy resources was a serious factor in the competitiveness of the German economy. But the risks of increasing German energy dependence on Russia were seriously underestimated. This explains both Nord Stream 2 and the sale of German gas storage facilities to Gazprom.

We should not forget the powerful lobbying by certain companies and individuals who have learned to use the rhetoric of Ostpolitik to advance their commercial interests. While stressing the role of rapprochement and economic interdependence, they were silent when it came to distinguishing the historical case from the contemporary one: Germany's excessive dependence on Russian energy supplies, the revisionist nature of Russian foreign policy, the risks to European security, and the nature and logic of Putin's authoritarianism. 

The 'Special Relationship' of the former 'Great Powers'

The collapse of the customary German-Russian relationship has focused attention on a seemingly forgotten issue — the 'great power' identity of the German states as colonisers of Europe's east at various times. The borders of a consolidated Germany in the west were drawn relatively long ago in the course of the formation of the continent’s nation states. In the East, however, German territorial and civilisational ambitions had no clear boundaries until relatively recently. Germany has periodically expanded and contracted after wars, leaving traces and absorbing impulses. 

The German fixation with an ‘qual’ Russia has meant that, until recently, the average German's mental map included territories between Berlin and Moscow that could in no way be regarded as fully sovereign countries. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but some cultural historians believe that this is how historical memory works. After the partition of Poland between Austria-Hungary, Prussia and the Russian Empire, Germany and Russia were effectively neighbours and remained so for over a century. Prussia and Russia were brought closer together by their radical anti-Polish policies.

The transfer of 19th and 20th century German anti-Polish stereotypes onto Ukraine can be observed very recently: as late as 2014, many German commentators were arguing that Ukraine was incapable of being a nation at all, calling it a 'failed state'. At the same time, multinational and multiconfessional Russia was perceived by German political and intellectual elites as fully 'Russified'. Moreover, it bears noting that the 'Russian soul' was in many ways an invention of German literature, which made sense of the German experience of industrialisation, urbanisation and the associated social upheavals through the admiration of Russian culture and exoticisation of its mystical otherness.

The experience of rethinking recent history in the relationship between the two countries was also paradoxical. In 2022 it was possible to observe a fundamental shift in the understanding of the historical responsibility of the FRG towards the Soviet Union. After 1991, German-Russian bilateral relations inherited this crucial issue from the Soviet Union, and the fact that the majority of Nazi crimes were committed in what is now Ukraine and Belarus virtually disappeared from German public consciousness. However, after February 24, the argument of responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich, previously used by those opposed to supplying arms to Ukraine, is being used by those who support the supply of weapons, who now argue that Germany has a specific historical duty to prevent the suffering of Ukrainian civilians and to help the country resist this new aggression. Never before in modern German history has there been such a battle over the interpretation of the history of the Second World War.

The challenge of changing course

The war in Ukraine has shown that Germany was completely unprepared for a real military conflict scenario in Europe. This was no secret. The deplorable state of the Bundeswehr, the monstrous bureaucratisation and inefficiency of the country’s military-industrial complex, and the unwillingness of the political elite to radically change the priorities and funding of the armed forces have all been topics of public debate over the past 20 years. Many politicians in Germany and Brussels, including the current President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, have tried in vain to cut the Gordian knot of German 'political anti-militarism'. Such is the legacy of Germany's 'anti-war' political culture. 

Until recently, people in uniform were rarely seen in public spaces. Graduates of military academies were embarrassed to take their oath in front of the Reichstag, even though, according to the German constitution, it is the Bundestag that decides on the military's participation in missions and conflicts. It seemed irrational to spend hundreds of billions of euros on cleaning up the military in the midst of multiple crises — financial, political, migration, pandemic. Society was used to enjoying the 'peace dividend' by saving money on the army. It seemed logical: NATO provided protection and armed conflicts were fought somewhere outside ‘old’ Europe — in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Mali.

But with the return of war to Europe, a fundamental shift in attitudes is taking place in Germany. Last year, the Bundestag amended the constitution to approve a €100 billion emergency re-equipment programme for the Bundeswehr. In addition, regular defence spending is set to rise to 2% of GDP (something NATO and Washington have long demanded of Germany), or about €75bn a year. This is a very substantial sum: Germany would spend more on defence than the UK, for example. Significant given that London has nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers and a much more capable and mobile army on its balance sheet. 

These choices pose three main challenges. First, at this rate of spending growth, there is a risk that the necessary organisational reforms in the Ministry of Defence and its subordinate procurement and supply departments will fail. It is difficult to reform a bureaucracy that has to absorb unprecedented budgets at a breakneck speed. As one German officer I know said, 'if the toilet bowl is clogged, pouring another cistern of water into it from above is not the smartest idea'.

Second, material procurements and orders alone do not solve the problem of strategic reorientation of military doctrine. What kind of conflict needs to be prepared for? In order to define the strategy, Berlin needs to exercise the geopolitical thinking that has atrophied over the years, to articulate its national interests more clearly, to better understand its role in NATO, the EU and the transatlantic partnership, and to define the division of labour with its neighbours.

Third, a serious scramble for budgetary resources is inevitable. Even as the world's fourth largest economy, Germany cannot dramatically change its spending patterns in just a year or two. The fight against the pandemic and the associated huge programmes to support the private sector and the population have already signalled the end of fiscal restraint. Now, the parliamentary battles over how to pay for a raft of planned domestic reforms have begun. With a three-party coalition ruling the country, each partner is trying to push through its own priority initiatives: 'the Greens are fighting climate change, the Social Democrats are trying to strengthen the welfare state, and the Liberals are pushing for the digitalisation of the state and tax cuts.'

There is little room for manoeuvre within this triangle. Either Germany will begin to abandon its traditional course of fiscal austerity, or its government will face very difficult trade-offs. Given the pressure Berlin is exerting on Athens, Madrid and Lisbon to get their budgets in order, a sharp reversal of course in its own spending would be revolutionary and very challenging for Germany.

Back to back

Germany’s relations withRussia have thus passed the tipping point. It is fair to say that German policy towards Russia has collapsed politically and psychologically. Angela Merkel's role in this has been very significant. Even after the events of 2008 and 2014, she continued along the well-trodden path and today refuses to take up the mantle of 'responsibility' herself or to engage in a retrospective discussion of hypothetical alternatives to her policy course. Gerhard Schroeder's post-chancellorship career has deeply disappointed the SPD. Where once he built his reputation on radical stubbornness and non-conformism, he is now engaged in legal battles with the Bundestag to retain the petty privileges of a former head of government; German television labels him in their chyrons as a 'Russian lobbyist'.

But these are only the outward signs of a therapeutic phase of adjustment to change, a kind of breakdown in the German political consciousness. At the same time, the Russian-Ukrainian war has already led to decisions that have laid entirely new parameters for the future of German-Russian relations. Germany has successfully restructured its energy imports, overcoming its direct dependence on Russia. The German military-industrial complex and the Bundeswehr have entered a new era of active reform. Support for Ukraine, both financial and military, is planned for many years to come. Some analysts believe that Berlin will no longer have a national Russlandpolitik, and that the new task will be to find a common pan-European approach to Russia.

I do not agree with that view. Germany will always have both reason and motivation to formulate its own strategy. But there will be a shift in the prioritisation of objectives. Preserving European unity for long-term support for Ukraine and protecting Europe from attempts at external destabilisation will come to the fore. Germany will not, as in the past, ignore voices from Warsaw, Helsinki and Riga and treat its Russlandpolitik objectives as an absolute. Berlin will embed them in a European context and offer itself as a leader capable of compromise. This is what Olaf Scholz and Lars Klingbeil mean when they speak of claiming new leadership on the continent.

Securing European security without Russia is the second priority, as long as Russia remains a threat. It is not just a matter of time until the war is over: even without an actual war, the conflict phase could drag on for years and decades. Of course, if there is a change of leadership in Moscow, if the political course changes radically and permanently, Berlin will be interested in finding a new security architecture that would stabilise relations with Russia and allow a return to the political utopia of a 'common European home'. Even then, however, there will be no return to the status quo ante. But the indefinite normalisation of the division of the continent goes against the political DNA of modern Germany.

The main domestic task for Berlin in the coming decades is to prepare for the new historical possibility of constructive coexistence with Russia. Modern German society, with its mixed historical identity of perpetrator and victim, has an interest in remaining an ally of Russian society in its future attempts at emancipation and democratisation, even if the preconditions for this are not currently present and cannot yet be foreseen.