The role of history in German-Russian relations

Anyone looking for something positive in the political relationship between Berlin and Moscow went to Liguria near Genoa this spring. Here, on April 16, 1922, Germans and Russians signed the Rapallo Treaty. The location was the hotel “Imperiale Palace”, beautifully situated over a bay. For the 100th anniversary, the hotel management planned a ceremony with delegations from both countries – then came the Ukraine conflict. The idea was buried.

Hitler-Stalin pact

At that time, Rapallo liberated the Weimar Republic, which was blamed for the First World War, and Lenin’s Soviet Russia, whose ideology the whole world feared, from their international isolation. Diplomatic relations and secret military cooperation were restored. Lenin’s successor, Stalin, was Hitler’s ideological mortal enemy – but only until August 1939.

The Hitler-Stalin pact enabled the Nazis to attack Poland. The dictators divided Poland and the Baltic states. Then Hitler wanted more, and in 1941 he began the racial ideological extermination campaign against the Soviet Union, which cost over 25 million people their lives there. In 1945, this eventually led to the division of Germany into west and east. Many Wehrmacht soldiers spent more than ten years in Soviet captivity. They were the main subject of Chancellor Adenauer when he traveled for his first visit to Moscow: Adenauer said at the time: “I am going to Moscow with the firm intention that our prisoners of war will return.”

In 1955, the last prisoners of war returned home

That was in September 1955, and it worked. Embassies were reopened in both capitals. Germany, however, remained the interface between West and East during the Cold War. The Federal Republic was an ally of the United States. Therefore, the Soviets chained the eastern part of the country, the GDR, and supported a regime of hardline Bolsheviks there. From 1964, the positive signals in relation to the Federal Republic multiplied – when Leonid Brezhnev became number one in the Kremlin.

But it also took time – explains Professor Susanne Schattenberg, head of the Research Center for Eastern Europe in Bremen, using an example: “If you look at how Soviet natural gas is sold in the West, it was still clear to the Moscow Politburo in 1967: “We are happy to do that. Sell natural gas to Austria, to Italy and to France – but never to West Germany. And even under the grand coalition, even though Brandt is already foreign minister, the government in Moscow is clearly considered ‘unsatisfactory’.”

New cheese policy under Brandt

Only Willy Brandt as Chancellor gave Brezhnev confidence. His 1969 cheese policy led to the Treaty of Moscow and reciprocal visits. When Brezhnev first came to Germany on a state visit in 1973, the hosts even gave him a speech on German television.

Brezhnev traveled to Bonn twice more, in 1978 and 1981. The chancellor’s name was Helmut Schmidt and the Kremlin was already seriously ill. His attempts to save the relaxation policy were in vain – rearmament and mutual distrust were back in vogue.

Reunification and withdrawal of Russian troops

It was not until 1985 that Mikhail Gorbachev brought new impetus to German-Russian relations. But his speed made Bonn’s friends in the West nervous – the slogan “Rapallo” celebrated a renaissance – reports historian Bernd Greiner of Berlin Cold War College: “When the Berlin Wall fell, American newspapers, political science journals and so on and so forth were full of articles – and also the politicians’ speeches: “We risk Germany pursuing cheese policy at the expense of the West. It was never a real danger! But conceit, imagination and fantasies have their own dynamics, and we all know that this is part of political reality – as well as hard facts. “

One of the great practical problems was solved after the German reunification of Boris Yeltsin and Chancellor Kohl: almost 50 years after the end of World War II, they put an end to the presence of Russian soldiers on German soil. The Federal Republic then hoped for a “peace dividend” – less spending on weapons, better business for industry and trade. There were many negotiations and intensified the exchange in the field of culture and science. Many of those involved are now facing the ruins of their work.

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