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Mar 10, 2005 | 05:42 GMT

15 mins read

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Reich

By Peter Zeihan The first lesson of geopolitical theory is that location matters: The behavior of states is rooted in where they are; the idea of place is fundamental. Rivers are roads of commerce and cultural unifiers. Plains are easy for armies to march across and thus engender a sense of vulnerability — and a culture of pre-emption. These principles hold for all regions, and Europe is no exception. For example, any government running the United Kingdom lives in fear of the emergence of a united Europe, which would present a titanic threat east of the Isles. If the various powers of Europe are quarreling amongst themselves, however, Britain has no fear of invasion and can more freely intervene in Continental affairs. It invariably uses this freedom to ensure the Continental powers remain in competition. So long as Europe remains divided and busy counteracting itself, London has the option of expanding its reach well beyond Europe's shores. This freedom of action, a blessing derived from geography, allowed for the birth and sustenance of the British Empire. That empire endured until Europe actually did unite — first under Nazi Germany and later under NATO. Moreover, when Britain finally entered the European Union in 1973, it was not because of the privileges of membership, but because the EU was now where European conflicts were played out — joining the fray would give London greater ability to influence policies in its own favor and sabotage aspects of European development that did not serve its interests. Foreseeing this, French President Charles de Gaulle consistently vetoed London's application as long as he was alive. For a country like Germany — which always has been geographically and politically right in the thick of things — policy options are far more constrained than they are for the United Kingdom, however. German security rests on three fundamental conditions. First, Germany has to be perfectly happy in its borders and have no designs or ambitions to expand its relative power. Second, Germany must believe all of its neighbors are similarly content. Third, the second condition must actually be true. To put it bluntly, European history is a chronicle of what occurs when those three conditions are not met. Germany's central location and greater size and population relative to the rest of the major European powers mean it is destined to always be a massive geopolitical weight in the center of Europe. Its mere existence demands that other powers react to it, and it has a profound effect on every aspect of their planning — particularly as regards security policy. Germany's size and location make it unique, in that with a few minor tweaks of circumstance, it has a realistic chance of dominating the Continent politically, economically and even militarily — and all of its neighbors know this. This reality, which has had a weighty effect on 500 years of European history, again is becoming extremely relevant, as Germany's interests versus those of its neighbors and partners change dramatically. Now, it is true that Germany is a democratic, highly advanced state that is well entrenched in transatlantic and European institutions. But it must be remembered that institutions are built to serve a purpose arising from a set of circumstances — and the circumstances in existence when NATO and the European Union's predecessor organizations were founded are very different from those in place today. Germany itself is much changed as well. For all practical purposes, Germany ceased being an independent state in 1945 and did not again join the global community until reunification was completed, with the return of the federal government to Berlin in 1999. It was only with the end of the Cold War and the beginning of reunification that a real German state emerged from the geopolitical wilderness and began to make its presence felt once again. Germany: The Heart of Europe It is difficult to understate the effect this simple fact has had on both German and European history. Since the Renaissance and before, European history has been a tale of turmoil, conflict and war among the major and minor powers of the Continent. What we now call "Germany" first existed as the Holy Roman Empire, founded in 800 by Charlemagne. This first empire, or First Reich, played a leading role in European affairs until the schism of Protestantism from Catholicism fractured it into a gaggle of disunited and squabbling mini-states in the 16th century. The Thirty Years War in the early 17th century shattered what was left, and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 formalized the final disintegration of Germany's first incarnation as a major power. Germany's declining power during the 16th century and its de facto non-presence in the 17th and 18th centuries created the geopolitical conditions necessary to forge the foundations of modern Europe. If some version of a unified state had survived Europe's religious wars, it would have created a massive, unavoidable geopolitical presence. Its mere existence would have exerted pressure on all of its borders, and the history of what we know as "Europe" would have been radically different. But instead, a melange of squabbling principalities and statelets formed a kind of no-man's-land in the center of the Continent. Prussia, the foremost of the First Reich's successor states, was certainly no pushover, but it certainly lacked the punch of a consolidated mega-state. This geopolitical vacuum afforded the other major powers — notably the British, French and Russian Empires — a chance to grow into their own in relative security. But the Germans were merely down, not out. Throughout the 19th century, the three dozen-odd mini-Germanies began pulling together economically, politically and militarily. Initial efforts to unify the German states, in 1848 and 1849, were derailed by the efforts of an outside power, Austria. The result was the Treaty of Olomouc, which, in essence, gave legal weight to Austria's domination of the German Confederation. The humiliation enshrined in the treaty triggered German resentment — and action. In 1866, Prussia roared to life under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, won the Austro-Prussian War and ejected Austrian influence. Bismarck then went on to lead a smattering of allies into the Franco-German War. The end result was the consolidation of various pieces of "Germany" into the second incarnation of the "German" state in 1871. The Second Reich was born. This development of a new-old major power in the center of the Old Continent massively disrupted the balances that had defined European affairs for 300 years. This was Europe's first taste of just how fast Germany could change: In 1865, Germany effectively did not exist. Within six years, it not only existed but was capable of dealing decisive defeat to the Continental superpower of the time. Germany Re-Reiched The next 40 years chronicle the formation of alliances and counteralliances that were designed almost exclusively to offset or engage the new Continental hegemon. Those networks of competing alliances — often referred to as the "managing" of European relations under the Concert of Powers — ultimately spun into World War I. World War I has been often misunderstood. Before the United States entered the conflict in 1917, the war was hardly a stalemate. Russia was not only on the ropes, but collapsing; Serbia already had surrendered, and Romania was about to. The Eastern and Balkan Fronts, therefore, no longer required German troops. Faced with a war on only one front, the Second Reich likely would have been able to overwhelm France, far and away Germany's military inferior, but for U.S. intervention. Berlin was forced to accept the terms of the Treaty of Versailles — terms that, similar to those of Olomouc before it, were humiliating. Versailles stripped Germany of many strategic pieces of territory and vastly limited its military capabilities. As the Great Depression crashed into Europe, the Weimar Republic, like Russia to the east, was written off as a state in terminal decline. Here is where most misconstrue the true vector of German policy. Though most ascribe Germany's interwar revival to the Nazis in general and to Adolf Hitler in particular — and these forces did indeed play a part — the true seeds of revival were sown with the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo, fully 11 years before Hitler's rise to power. At Rappallo, the Germans and the Soviets not only formalized a peace agreement, they forgave each other's debt, renounced all war claims and implemented a free trade accord. They also agreed to circumvent the Treaty of Versailles by allowing Germany to develop and build advanced weapons in Soviet territory, far from prying eyes. All when Germany had been crushed. All when Germany had been forgotten. All before the rise of Hitler and the dawn of the Third Reich. Germany had been defeated in World War I, but it had never stopped acting like a state that occupied the heart of Europe. It was still a power in its own right, with policies dictated by its location. For its very survival, it required at least one secure flank, which would enable it to focus its efforts against the others. To thrive, it needed resources, markets and a military. The Treaty of Rappallo not only achieved this, but laid the groundwork for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which would lead to the conquering or cowing of the bulk of Europe. Though Hitler was head of the German state during the war, geopolitical realities would have been the same no matter who would was in charge. Specific policies such as the Holocaust perhaps would not have manifested under a different leadership, but it is extremely unlikely that World War II could have been avoided altogether. What happened after World War II was strikingly similar to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648: Crushed and occupied, Germany simply ceased to matter. During the entire Cold War, the geopolitical needs and desires of the Germans were sublimated by the cold clash of the superpowers. For the first time in its history, Europe was not at war. That extremely significant fact occurred for but one reason: the entire continent was occupied by powers with no interest seeing a cold war turn hot. Europe Today — and Tomorrow It is said that nature abhors a vacuum, and the same is true of geopolitics. With Germany occupied and divided, France sought to exploit its neighbor's weakness and the American security guarantee to forge a new Europe — which would be led, of course, by France. It is no surprise that Paris chose twice to veto London's attempts to join the European Union's predecessor entity: The French had no use for a pro-American spanner in the works. For 60 years now, French strategy has depended on a singular characteristic of the post-World War II European reality: German quiescence. But with Germany reunited and active, that circumstance no longer exists. France will soon discover — indeed, already is discovering — that its interests and Germany's are not in lockstep. The United States' partial disengagement is allowing the Concert of Powers to return to Europe. Germany's reunification — which put it back on the scene with its own interests and policies — robbed Paris of its German booster chair. True, the vast majority of German and "European" policy preferences have remained in alignment since the German capital moved back to Berlin in 1999, but cracks are showing — and widening.
  • Though Paris and Berlin forged a "common European" position in opposition to the Iraq war, most EU members disagreed — turning the idea of a Franco-German-led Europe into a mockery. France's reaction was to attempt to revive its Cold War free agent role the world over; Germany's response has been much less coherent, largely because it once again is a new country. During its Cold War occupation, there was little need for Bonn to think strategically, and Germany's position in the six years since reunification has not been fully defined. The country's Continental location — and the fact that it lost two world wars — means that, unlike France, it does not have a colonial legacy on which to fall back. German influence must be won or lost in Europe, not elsewhere.
  • Changes to the European Monetary Union (EMU) are symptomatic of Germany's growing unease with its geopolitical position. In a nutshell, the EMU dictates not only European monetary policy, but aspects of each individual country's fiscal policies as well. Germany, flirting with recession, finds these policies cumbersome and unnecessarily restrictive, and Berlin is going to great pains to revise them more to its liking — to the vast consternation of its more fiscally conservative EU partners.
  • The European Commission also is rubbing Berlin the wrong way. The commission is headed by Portugal's Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, an economic liberal who assembled a team of like-minded folks to implement softer versions of the United States' free-market policies. Most of these policies clash with the German way of doing things, so Berlin regularly finds itself locking horns with the nominal leadership of the EU's policy arm.
  • The United States is attempting to reforge its most valuable military alliance, NATO, into a form more useful to its current foreign policy goals. Specifically, the United States needs NATO to act as an enabler for its war against militant Islamists, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as to mount a renewed offensive that would isolate Russia from its former provinces such as Georgia and Ukraine. For Germany, that means being swept to the side while countries further east, such as Hungary and Poland — which traditionally have fallen into the German sphere of influence — become more important, and receptive, to U.S. strategic doctrine. So Germany, under Gerhard Schroeder, not only has skipped the step of challenging U.S. efforts within NATO, but directly and publicly questioned the relevance of NATO itself. Germany's options for breaking out of its box are limited at present. But there are two lessons from the past that the state appears to be drawing upon to increase its options and its reach. First, Germany is beginning to close ranks at home, and not in terms of political parties. During the past year, rhetoric in the press and among politicians has shifted inexorably away from such modern values as multiculturalism. This is partially due to growing dissatisfaction with Schroeder's government, but there also are glimpses of something darker. For instance, after state elections in Schleswig-Holstein brought a small ethnic Danish party to power Feb. 20, party leaders found themselves the target of hundreds of threats — some from public figures — of which some of the more polite noted that "what is legal is not always legitimate." Countries under stress tend to pull together, and that often can mean identifying outsiders in their midst. The German economy has not performed well for 15 years. It is now in its third recession since 2001, unemployment has reached a 73-year high, and beginning in 2006, changes in social welfare laws mean that literally millions of Germans will cease to receive benefits payments. If these realities do spark some kind of social backlash, it could prove significant that Germany hosts Europe's largest Turkish population and immigrants from a smattering of many other nationalities. There are plenty of outsiders to choose from. Second, Berlin is resuscitating relations with Moscow. Germany is Russia's largest energy and trade customer, and the Schroeder government has gone to great pains to push that relationship even further. Alone among European and NATO states, Germany has kept mum during the recent goings-on in Ukraine, and it alone is standing aside even as the rest of the West is pursuing a broad geopolitical advance throughout all of Russia's former provinces. A German-Russian alignment is not only logical in a geopolitical sense, but relations have a long way to grow before hitting any natural constraints. Though the two fought each other bitterly during World War II, it is often forgotten that they cooperated deeply until they actually bordered each other. Right now, there are a dozen countries in the zone of territory between them — broadly the same countries that were there in 1939, when Molotov and Ribbentrop decided to carve out the future. After 60 years in a geopolitical coma, Germany is not just turning a page, it is beginning to write a new book. This in no way means that Germany is doomed to return to its fascist past, but neither is it a foregone conclusion that the Germany of the future will be an American ally, a British ally or especially a French ally (in fact, the past 60 years are the only period in which Paris and Berlin have seen eye-to-eye). Where Germany will evolve is anyone's guess: For all practical purposes, Berlin is only now waking up. A new balance of power must now be crafted. At present, Germany and Russia are both feeling quite unsettled, and some 21st-century version of the Treaty of Rapallo appears to be in the cards. That does not mean war is inevitable. What is inevitable is change. The least likely result of a major power emerging at the heart of a continent is business as usual. And if history is any guide, Germany's re-emergence during the next few years will slam into Europe with all the subtlety of, well, the German army.
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