Conservatives say Germany should pursue Bismarck’s policy of placating Russia, but a Bismarck of today would have a wholly different strategy.
The German debate about how to treat Russia has been lively. Over the past year, the political mainstream has moved towards a much more critical position towards Russia. But Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its reckless threats towards Europe have seemed to inspire some dubious forces on the extreme left and right wings of the political spectrum. One argument frequently made by pro-Russian politicians and opinion leaders – such as, for example, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) Party’s Alexander Gauland and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder – is that Germany should pursue a foreign policy like that of Germany’s famous nineteenth-century chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. For the sake of Germany’s own security, it should mend close ties with Russia. Whenever Germany has abandoned Bismarck’s paradigms, they argue, it has put itself on the road to defeat – most notably, after 1914 and 1941. Therefore, Germany should always be respectful of Russian interests and should seek not to alienate Moscow.
It is highly debatable whether Bismarck – if he were alive today – would subscribe to the Russia policy promoted by his contemporary champions.
Certainly, Bismarck, the former Prussian prime minister and subsequently German chancellor, had a very clear strategic mind, paired with deep knowledge of military affairs and a vital instinct for the politically feasible. But it is highly debatable whether Bismarck – if he were alive today – would subscribe to the Russia policy promoted by his contemporary champions. After the Treaty of Versailles ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Bismarck knew that he would have to reckon with ongoing French hostility that would be almost impossible to subdue. He had to prevent France from fostering effective anti-German alliances. With Austria-Hungary increasingly absorbed by domestic struggles, Russia was the most formidable of France’s potential allies. Not only was it large enough to make its quick military elimination in case of war impossible, it was also competing with the other French rival – the United Kingdom – for influence in China and South Asia. Hence, a Franco-Russian alliance was not only the most formidable but also the most likely anti-German coalition. The Reinsurance Policy (Rückversicherungspolitik) was key in preventing Russia joining forces with France: this policy guaranteed mutual neutrality if one party were to be attacked by another power without provocation, while also securing Germany’s de facto support for Russia’s geopolitical claims in the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, ensuring Russian access to the Mediterranean. At the same time, Bismarck refrained from claiming colonies for Germany in order to prevent a rapprochement between the UK and France, as well as to maintain alliances with Austria and Italy to prevent them from joining France.
Some elements on the extreme left and right perceive the United States and Western liberalism as a “Western enemy”.
If the Bismarckian Rückversicherungspolitik were to be resurrected today, who would be the Western enemy that the policy would contain? Does Gauland want to conquer Alsace again? Certainly not. Some elements on the extreme left and right perceive the United States and Western liberalism as a “Western enemy”. For example, the left-wing party Die Linke is the successor of the East German ruling party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), and it goes along with Russian revanchism and anti-Americanism because of the fact that the US prevented Soviet hegemony over Europe, which would probably have put the SED in a privileged position. Similarly, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) – in its current form a pro-Germanic right-wing party – is against the US because the US prevented German hegemony over Europe in the Second World War. The FPÖ still hopes that a greater Germany could earn the place of a privileged Statthalter in a new Russian-led order of Europe. But are Germany’s conservative Bismarck scholars fighting for the restoration of communism or fascism? It is to be hoped that they are not.
An idealised version of the early 1990s is seen as a model for ill-considered ideas of a “peace order” that would stretch from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
Rather, the contemporary conservatives who like to quote Bismarck are more like the nineteenth-century pan-German romanticists. Then as now, their thinking was characterised by an idealised view of the past, a shallow and un-reflective historical appreciation, no talent for strategy whatsoever, but a strong emotional passion for their cause. In the nineteenth century, an idealised version of the Holy Roman Empire was used as a role model for new attempts at German unification, unsuited for practical implementation and beyond the reach of any of the German states then in existence. Likewise, today, an idealised version of the early 1990s is seen as a model for ill-considered ideas of a “peace order” that would stretch from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
Bismarck made use of this political camp for his own purposes, but intellectually, he never held them in high regard. He pushed for German unification only to preserve Prussia’s pre-eminence in Northern Germany. Falling far short of the idealistic dreams of the Pan-Germanists, he declined to include Austria in the new Germany – because it was culturally too different and because the strategic ramifications of such a move were beyond the reach of German power. He engaged Russia because he knew that French revanchism was implacable, not because he was a Zarenversteher (Tsar understander).
The atomisation of Ukraine would destabilise the European continent just as much as an atomisation of the Hapsburg Empire would have destabilised Europe in 1866.
If Bismarck were alive today, he would recognise that Russia’s revanchism and revisionism is unappeasable – both because of domestic politics in Russia as well as because of Russia’s imperial hunger. He would try to forge an alliance system to isolate Russia, to prevent it from forging an international coalition to squeeze Europe. Hence, a contemporary Bismarck would more likely engage Turkey rather than Russia. The atomisation of Ukraine would destabilise the European continent just as much as an atomisation of the Hapsburg Empire would have destabilised Europe in 1866. Therefore, Bismarck would try to put a stop to it. Moreover, Bismarck would understand that Germany’s power – now more than ever – is bound to the European continent and that Germany’s ability to shape world politics beyond the continent is limited. Just as Bismarck was not enthusiastic about German unification – it was a pragmatic move made to preserve Prussian influence – he would not be enthusiastic about the EU today. Instead, he would perceive a unified Europe as a pragmatic solution to safeguard German influence on the continent. For that reason, he would maintain the union or even move towards further integration – provided that the intergovernmental nature of the project was preserved. In other words, a neo-Bismarckian German foreign policy would look quite like Angela Merkel’s.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.