The World Wars, historian Paul W. Schroeder argues, were both “about a similar two-sided German problem”. In the West, Germany’s rise threatened “the Atlantic world”. It was, however, to the East of Germany, Schroeder claims, where the major fault lines lied: conflict “grew essentially out of a fundamental breakdown of relationships in central and Eastern Europe”.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union has been instrumental in keeping diplomatic relationships in central and Eastern Europe in relatively good shape. By gradually integrating more former Soviet satellites into the wider European economic and political bloc, EU leaders have ensured that individual member states have more reason to support each other. This is especially important for newly independent Eastern European states. In the inter-war period, many of these states were left isolated by the rest of Europe. They hence became easy prey for Germany and the Soviet Union. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the security of other Eastern European states has started to appear fragile again. Now is the time for the EU to really prove its worth. Its leaders must ensure that the mistake of abandoning Eastern Europe, which led to catastrophe in the 1930s, is not repeated.
With this in mind, it is highly troubling to learn that approximately 57% of Germans do not think German soldiers should stand in defence of Poland or the Baltic states in the event of a Russian attack, according to a survey conducted by the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftlung in March. Many prominent German Social Democrat politicians favour a foreign-policy realignment, to the tune of appeasement of Putin. In calling for retroactive recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea by international law, to make it “acceptable for all”, former SPD leader Matthias Platzcek betrayed a disregard for the rights of Eastern European states that harks back to the isolationism of the inter-war years.
Germany, then, lies at a strategic fork in the road. One path is to continue the anti-Putin line currently pursued by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The alternative is to appease Putin; relaxing German commitments to support the territorial integrity of the states between Germany and Russia (notwithstanding Germany’s obligations as an EU and NATO member). The latter would mark a radical change of course, but would apparently enjoy considerable public support. The danger is that it would be a significant step back towards volatility in Eastern Europe, disturbing old fault lines that are better left to heal.
British voters considering their decision for the imminent EU referendum should pay close attention to these developments. Whether the United Kingdom remains in the EU is bound to significantly affect Berlin’s deliberations about Russia and Eastern Europe. As an EU member, tied to Eastern member-states economically, and open to European migrants, Britain has an abundantly clear interest in preserving the security of Eastern European states. Out of the EU, this is not so transparent. British leaders may be tempted to revert to the traditional policy of isolationism. In consequence, the cost for Germany of maintaining Merkel’s policy will increase. If Berlin is less able to count on British support in standing against Putin, it will be all the more tempting to appease him instead. United, the EU presents a formidable barrier against Russian expansionism. Divided, it might just succumb to it. This amounts to one of the strongest reasons for Britons to vote “Remain” on 23rd June.