However, the Kremlin’s tentacles extend much wider to the German economy than to the energy industry. Until the 2014 invasion of Crimea forced Angela Merkel to impose limited sanctions and Putin turned to Xi Jinping’s China for technology, Germany was Russia’s biggest trading partner. And it was only after tanks arrived in Ukraine two months ago that German companies such as Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and Adidas began to scale back their exports and manufacturing plants in Russia.
Cultural congratulations from Russia to Germany and vice versa are impossible to overstate. Their history of mutual admiration dates back at least to the 18th century, when an obscure German princess became Catherine the Great. The Tsarina invited the 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 1990s millions of them emigrated to Germany, where they now form a pro-Putin lobby group.
The paramount importance of good relations with Moscow has been an axiom of German statesmen since Otto von Bismarck, although his saying “to make a good treaty with Russia” has sometimes been cynically interpreted. It was the Germans who smuggled Lenin through Europe to spark his Bolshevik revolution in 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.
In Rapallo in 1922, German Foreign Minister and AEG electricity magnate Walter Rathenau concluded the first treaty with the Soviet Union, allowing Russian-German trade to flourish. Although Rathenau was assassinated by anti-Semitic terrorists, Hitler followed suit by making a deal with Stalin, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939, which divided Poland and started World War II.
The war of annihilation that began when the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941 left terrible scars on all the peoples involved. Insofar as Hitler had a raison d’etre for his invasion and the extermination of the Jews and others who followed in his wake, it was his desire to Lebensraum (“living space”) in Ukraine, the “breadbasket of Europe”. Hitler had his headquarters there and even visited Mariupol in the winter of 1941.
Nazi occupation devastated Ukraine, but because it was simply considered part of the Soviet Union, the Germans never felt the need to atone for what they had done there – as they did. have done in Poland and, above all, in Russia. The fact that some Ukrainians, embittered by Stalin’s genocidal famine (the Holodomor), collaborated with the Nazis contributed to Germany’s post-war lack of sympathy for Ukrainian national aspirations. Conversely, Russians learned that Ukrainian nationalists were by definition Nazis; in 1959, their warlord, Stepan Bandera, was assassinated in Munich by the KGB.
After Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the Germans didn’t pay much attention to it. Instead, they doubled down on their longstanding Russian investment policy. Even when Putin took power – intimidating, interfering and in some cases crushing his neighbors in 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. It was not until war and genocide returned to Europe, the prevention of which was supposed to be the basis of their post-war system, that the balance fell 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 power in 1969.
As mayor of West Berlin during the construction of the wall in 1961, Brandt had witnessed first-hand the tragedy of a divided city, country and continent. He stood with John F. Kennedy as the President told the beleaguered citizens of Berlin, “I am a Berliner.But he knew that Americans would not risk war to bring down the Berlin Wall, much less to reunify Germany.
Realizing that these goals could only be pursued in an atmosphere of detente, Brandt set out to build bridges with the Kremlin and 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 continued 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 presented by Mikhail Gorbachev’s opening to the West.
As the Telegraph correspondent in Germany, I accompanied Kohl with other journalists to Moscow in 1988. I vividly remember the exalted sense of history that the German Chancellor imbued into his relationship with the Soviet President, exchanging loans on terms advantageous in hard currency against political concessions. It was the backdrop for the opening of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall a year later.