A few years back, while visiting Berlin’s Foreign Ministry, I was struck at the dramatic sequence of portraits that lined the hallway. They were of former German foreign ministers from Otto von Bismarck (1871-1899) to today.
Joachim von Ribbentrop was Hitler’s foreign minister during the horrific period from 1938 to 1945. This is the typical arrogant pose.
Ribbentrop is associated forever with the deceitful deal that he made with Stalin’s foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov on August 23, 1939. That infamous, misnamed “non-aggression deal” was the catalyst for World War II.
Stalin and Hitler had reached an agreement to divide Eastern Europe into German and Soviet regions. Hitler knew that Poland would not be protected if the Red Army was sent to invade Germany on September 1st 1939.
It was. Poland fell, despite France and Britain declaring war against Germany.
Two years later, however, dictators had been dissolved and Hitler turned against his Russian friend in the summer 1941.
The atrocities unleashed by the Nazis on Europe continue to haunt the German conscience to this day — including the slaughter of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar outside the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in September 1941.
The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opted for a more aggressive stance toward the Kremlin after a meeting with Nato’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This was before Antony Blinken visited Kiev yesterday. He indicated that Germany may indeed consider halting Nord Stream 2 — a pet project of his predecessor Angela Merkel — should a Russian invasion proceed (Pictured: Merkel with Putin and former US President George W Bush in 2007)
Annalena Bärbock (Germany’s foreign minister) said this week in Kiev that the monstrous German legacy is why Berlin could not supply anti-tank weapons to Ukraine while Russian forces massed at its border.
She suggested that Germany should not be involved in Nazi-occupied Ukraine’s former killing fields.
But history has shown us that aggressors become more confident when they are not held accountable for the rights and interests of those in weaker countries. Appeasement is precisely what encouraged Hitler’s aggression.
Putin’s Russia might not be the new Nazi Germany but it’s hard to ignore today’s disturbing parallels with recent history.
If a determined Russian leader believes he can bring back the country’s imperial grandeur, then it is possible for the West to inadvertently spark a new conflict.
Emotion aside. Ms Baerbock’s apparent unease under the spotlight also symbolized the stark split in Germany’s new coalition government, which came to power in December.
The coalition consists of Ms Baerbock’s party, the Greens, the Free Democrats, (FDP), and Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats.
And no subject has them at loggerheads more than the escalating crisis in Ukraine — and with it Germany’s complicated relationship with Russia.
MARK ALMOND: A West that believes it can bring about a new conflict could be inadvertently helping to ignite one.
Nord Stream 2, Russia’s brand new pipeline that runs from Russia across the Baltic Sea to Europe, is at the center of this dispute. It was built and filled with natural gas, but has not been approved for operational use.
If and when it is switched on, the pipeline will prove vital for German industry and heating the country’s homes, but it will also increase Europe’s reliance on Russian gas overall — a major concern to the U.S.
Greens oppose the pipeline. Ms Baerbock says it can’t be opened if Russia invades Ukraine.
However, in remarks that alarmed Kiev officials, she also stated that Berlin needed a reliable Russia to supply Europe with gas over the next years.
The party of Chancellor Scholz has always favored better relations with Moscow and his approach is equally unambiguous.
While he has argued for sanctions if Russia invades its neighbor, he has also hinted at the fact that Nord Stream 2 was a commercial venture and shouldn’t be excluded.
After a meeting with Nato Secretary-General Jens Sloltenberg, and before the U.S. Secretary Of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kiev yesterday, Scholz took a more cautious stance towards the Kremlin.
He indicated that Germany may indeed consider halting Nord Stream 2 — a pet project of his predecessor Angela Merkel — should a Russian invasion proceed.
This is what the West needs to hear. But can they be trusted?
I was reminded by the encounter in Berlin with portraits of dead foreign ministers that Hitler wasn’t the only German leader to have made a pragmatic agreement with Russia, at the cost of Europe and the West.
These arrangements are not uncommon in history. Perhaps it’s in German diplomat DNA to strike secret deals with Moscow, at the expense or less powerful neighboring countries.
Poles and Lithuanians are still able to recall how the Russians, Austrians or Germans took their old independence back from them in the 18th century.
Like many Eastern Europeans they are used to being treated like pawns on an international chessboard by Russia and Germany.
We in Western Europe must not forget that Moscow and Berlin have also benefited from our collusion.
A hundred years ago, British Prime Minster David Lloyd George and his French and Italian counterparts invited a German delegation in Genoa to Italy to discuss ways to revive the European economy after World War I.
The Germans smiled warmly as their former enemies talked of peace and reconstruction — then they slunk off to the nearby resort of Rapallo to meet Lenin’s commissars and to strike a deal with the new Soviet state. It was an economic deal, but the Germans offered technological assistance for the Red Army as well.
In return, the Kremlin offered to turn on the tap of Russia’s vast raw materials for German industry — and to allow the Germans to play wargames deep in Russian territory which, in the aftermath of 1914-18, the Allies had banned in Germany itself.
This kind of grimy Rapallo-like deal between Berlin and Moscow is what haunts Germany’s NATO allies today, as 100,000 Russian troops are deployed on the Ukraine frontier.
What — or who — will Germany sacrifice now to ensure a cheap, reliable supply of Russian gas?
MARK ALMOND. Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has spoken out against Putin’s savage regime, pointing out the Salisbury Novichok poisonings in 2018. (Pictured: Russian servicemen prepare their military vehicles to unload for a Russia and Belarus joint military drill on January 18, 2022)
Exports to Russia are a lucrative business for Siemens, Mercedes and countless other German giants. The winter fuel crisis exposed the dangers of Germany being dependent on Russian gas.
Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace pointed out that there is deep mistrust in Britain for Putin’s sinister regime after the Salisbury Novichok deaths of 2018.
Yet, Germany does not share this distrust despite similar crimes and assassinations against dissidents and defectors by the Kremlin.
So in a troubling echo of the situation a century ago, Europe is once again being rocked by soaring inflation — and now haunted by the prospect of a new German-Russian axis.
Will the Nord Stream 2 pipeline be remembered as the Rapallo of this century — and precipitate the slide towards a new and all-too-terrible disaster?
At the moment diplomacy seems to be the best option. Tomorrow, Secretary of State Blinken will visit Russia with Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.
Mr. Blinken yesterday stated, “I strongly, strongly believe that we can continue this on a diplomatic and peaceful path but ultimately, it’s going be President Putin’s decision,”
While he is correct, Germany’s contribution to the tipping of the balance cannot be undervalued.
Mark Almond is the Director at Crisis Research Institute in Oxford.