Eugene Montsalvat shows how the greatest periods in Germany’s history have always coincided with the periods of its alliance with Russia against the great powers of Western Europe.
While today we consider Germany to be one of the preeminent states of the “West,” historically Germany has stood in opposition to what has been defined as the “West” throughout the ages. Indeed, one can easily suggest that the historical essence of Germany is “Eastern.” Yet first, we must take a look at the historical changes in the definition of the “West.” Going back even before the Catholic/Orthodox split, we can define the original “West” as the Roman Empire, which was the sworn enemy of the Germanic barbarian hero Arminius. This evolves into an Eastern and Western Roman Empire, which eventually would set the stage for the Great Schism between Latin and Orthodox Christianity. The West emerges in the Catholic camp dominated by the Papacy in Rome, a power that would be fought by both the Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the Protestants. With the decline of feudalism and the emergence of nation-states, the carrier of the Western idea, France, the “eldest daughter of the Church,” emerged as the preeminent Western state. In the course of historical developments, the West became less identified with Roman Catholicism and more with the great global colonial powers, first and foremost Britain, who would be superseded in the years following the First World War by the United States. In today’s day and age, the Western idea has become completely detached from geography, ethnicity, religion, or other factors in favor of a purely ideological definition emphasizing liberal democracy and free markets. In this final sense, the fall of the German Democratic Republic and the reunification of Germany under the dominant Western ideological framework placed Germany firmly in the camp of the West. Yet, it appears as a fundamental rejection of its essence, as the Westernized Germany of Angela Merkel seeks to identify itself with the transnational project of the European Union, and apparently even rejects the mere concept of national borders as it welcomes thousands of foreigners into its country. These are symptoms of the Western disease that adheres to a rigid idea of globalism that views nations as barriers to the free flow of labor and capital. Today we can say Germany is faced with the stark choice of Westernization or survival.
If the West, in all its iterations, has represented an existential threat to German survival, the East has been a fruitful area for the growth of Germany, and often a zone of collaboration with the other Eastern powers, who have been friends as much as they have been rivals. Certainly there has been a fair share of antagonism between Russian and Germany: one could point to the crushing defeat of Germany at the hands of Russia in the Second World War, or the Germans’ defeat of the Tsar and its aid to Lenin in the First World War. On the other hand, we can speak of a historical German “Eastern Orientation,” a tradition of friendship with Russia that resulted in the “Miracle of Brandenburg,” liberated Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, and was reinforced by the geopolitics of the archetypal German leader, Bismarck, following the unification of the nation. Moreover, we can point to the numerous German nationalists in the Weimar era who rejected the Hitlerian siren call of a crusade against the Soviet Union, many of whom paid a price in blood for their reaffirmation of Bismarck’s foreign policy. And lest we forget, following the Treaty of Rapallo, German troops secretly trained within the USSR in defiance of the Western restrictions of the Diktat of Versailles. Even following the defeat of the Third Reich, East Germany reaffirmed many Prussian ideals within the context of Communism, under the aegis of the USSR. In a certain sense, the East has constituted “living room” for Germany, not in the bigoted conception of Nazi ideologues, but as a space where the vital energies of Germany reached their apogee.
The origins of the German fight against the West lie in an ancient struggle against Rome. Here, the forces of Roman “civilization” squared off against Germanic “barbarism.” This conflict is best exemplified at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where three Roman legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus faced an alliance of Germanic tribes under the Cherusci chieftain Arminius, known in Germany today by the name Hermann. The battle was a decisive defeat for Rome. Arminius, who had been a Roman hostage in his youth, was well acquainted with Roman tactics. As the long train of Roman troops and camp followers entered the forest, the Germans unleashed an ambush upon them. The three legions were slaughtered mercilessly, their standards were taken as trophies by the victorious Germans, and Tacitus claimed that prisoners were sacrificed to the Germanic gods. The outposts the Romans had constructed west of the Rhine were sacked, as were at least two on the eastern bank. This victory placed a decisive limitation on Roman ambitions to expand into Germany. While the Romans had client chieftains to the east of the Rhine, this territory remained beyond the grasp of Roman civilization. Beyond the Rhine lay Germanic barbarism, in stark contrast to Roman civilization.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the forces of the Roman west, represented by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, again marched on Germany. The Saxons revolted against the attempts of Charlemagne to Christianize and colonize them. Charlemagne began the campaign by ordering the destruction of the Germanic pagan Irminsul sanctuary, which was the chief seat of their religion. The Saxons rose against them under the leadership of their chieftain, Widukind. Though his resistance continued valiantly for many years, Charlemagne slowly converted the Saxons with the aid of St. Boniface, who felled the sacred oak dedicated to Donar, the Germanic equivalent of the Norse god Thor. The process of Christianization showed its true violence at Verden, where Charlemagne ordered the deaths of 4,500 Saxons accused of practicing paganism after their conversion. Widukind had escaped to rally from Denmark. Two years of desperate warfare followed, but eventually Widukind himself capitulated and converted to Christianity, swearing fealty to Charlemagne in 785. Sporadic revolts occurred in the following years, but eventually the whole of Saxony was incorporated into Charlemagne’s empire. Yet, the example of Widukind served as a great inspiration for future German nationalists. Within the neo-pagan Völkisch milieu of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he became a symbol of the Germanic resistance to the alien religion of Christianity. To the National Bolshevik ideologue Ernst Niekisch, vengeance for the Saxons inspired his rage against the Western influences on Germany, his calls for “treating the Latin blood as Charlemagne treated that of the Saxons, burning his heritage on the German soil and drowning it in blood!” To certain figures in the ranks of the National Socialists he was also regarded as a hero, including Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler. In 1935, a memorial to the Saxons slaughtered at Verden was constructed. However, the official Nazi line on Charlemagne as the founder of the Germanic Reich eventually saw the end of this period where Widukind and the Saxon resistance was exalted against the brutality of “Karl the Butcher.”
While Germany was Romanized by the Holy Roman Empire, eventually the voice of German protest raised itself again against Rome. It spoke in Roman tones, and it had yet to find its own uniquely Germanic voice. But this iteration of revolt against Rome featured the heir of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, fighting against the Papacy, which was the leadership of Western Christendom itself. The struggle between Pope and Emperor began with the Investiture Controversy, where the Holy Roman Emperor claimed that he, rather than the Pope, had the final authority to name bishops, whose titles carried vast amounts of wealth and power in that era. Here, the Germanic Protest against Rome was articulated in a Roman voice, with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV claiming the heritage of Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great, who turned the clergy into his personal vassals. In response to Henry IV installing his candidates as bishops, Pope Gregory stirred up dissension in Germany, encouraging the Saxons to continue their revolts against Henry. Gregory eventually excommunicated Henry and declared that his vassals owed no loyalty to him, encouraging rebellious local lords to strengthen their power within Germany and weaken the central power of the Imperial Crown. Forced to deal with the increasing unrest in his Empire, Henry was forced to submit to the Pope and stage a humiliating walk to Canossa to ask for repentance. However, this was not good enough for the spiteful Gregory, who approved the rebels’ choice for a new Holy Roman Emperor and excommunicated Henry once again. Henry proclaimed an “Antipope” selected by himself, Clement III, and marched on Italy, taking Rome and forcibly removing Gregory. Gregory summoned his Norman allies in southern Italy, who forced Henry out of Rome and freed the city at the cost of throwing it into a three-day period of anarchy, as citizens rioted and the Norman occupiers looted. Faced with the contempt of his own Roman subjects, Gregory fled with the Normans to southern Italy. However, with the death of Henry IV, his son, Henry V, who was sympathetic to the rebels, eventually renounced some of his investiture privileges at the Concordat of Worms. However, the conflict between Pope and Emperor echoed down through the ages, in the conflicts that raged in northern Italy between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the supporters of the Papacy and the Empire, respectively. These factions emerged when the German Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa invaded Italy multiple times and appointed his own Antipope, leading to his excommunication by the legitimate Pope, Alexander III. Numerous Italian cities rallied to his cause and remained loyal long after his death. This division would persist until the fourteenth century.
The great break with Rome, that would be articulated in German vernacular, would not arise with the Holy Roman Emperor, but with a monk who abhorred the abuses of the Roman Church. Martin Luther would strike a lighting blow against the power of Rome, with consequences that far exceeded the expectations of this mild-mannered monk. The thunderous German protest arose when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral on October 31, 1517. Originally written in Latin, they were translated into German, and thus gave the Germanic world a voice against the corruption of the Church as exemplified by the sale of Indulgences. He developed his theology further, stating that man can be saved by faith alone, and not by acts such as donating large sums of money to the Pope. Faced with excommunication unless he recanted, he publicly burned the threatening Papal Bull. He was henceforth excommunicated. Summoned before the Diet of Worms, with the Emperor Charles V presiding, he was ordered to recant once and for all, where he stubbornly refused. An edict drawn from the proceedings declared him a heretic and an outlaw, and gave anyone carte blanche to kill him. He fled to Wartburg Castle under the protection of Fredrick the Wise. There, he began organizing the Protestant Reformation in earnest. He translated the New Testament into German, giving the German people the ability to read the Bible in their own tongue and understand it for themselves for the first time.
Yet, Luther’s Reformation would trigger events far beyond his control. Visionary prophets rallied to the Protestant standard, proclaiming radical new doctrines. This was the Radical Reformation. Inspired by other Reformation thinkers such as the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli and the Zwickau Prophet, Thomas Müntzer, doctrines proclaiming open revolt against the entire history of the official Catholic Church, the equality of man, and the imminent Second Coming were articulated. Luther himself was appalled by such radicalism, but he could not stem the rising tide, which erupted in the German Peasants’ Rebellion. After a particularly poor harvest, German peasants in Stühlingen rose in 1524, and drew up a list of grievances. The revolt spread like wildfire, and by 1525 the southwest of Germany was in turmoil. The peasants issued a list of twelve demands which were radically egalitarian for their time. They demanded the right to elect their own pastors, the abolition of serfdom, the right of peasants to hunt and fish freely, their right to harvest the forests, a reduction in labors owed to the nobility, the right to use common lands for grazing and harvesting, and the abolition of the inheritance tax that reduced widows and orphans to poverty. These demands would inspire the German nationalists of 1848, who rallied under the same gold, red, and black banner of the peasants, in their revolt against feudal privileges for a united Germany. Joining the peasants were lesser knights and nobility, who resented the hold that the great princes and dukes held over Germany. Among them was Florian Geyer, who would become a hero in both the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic. He led his Black Company with a sword inscribed Nulla crux, nulla corona (Neither Cross, Nor Crown). Sadly, Geyer met his death in the revolt, and by the end of 1525, the nobles had crushed the uprising. And yet this rebellion marked the appearance of an important new line in German history: the German people were putting their fate in their own hands, rather than those of the elites or the Church. Friedrich Engels later characterized the German Peasants’ Revolt as one of the first manifestations of class struggle. However, I think we must temper his analysis somewhat. It was indeed a class struggle, yet its origin cannot be reduced merely to Marxist materialism. It was the emergence of a religious and national myth that lit a fire in the soul of the German peasantry as they marched to make their Teutonic heaven on earth.
The new-found Protestant nature of Germany would play a role a century later, when the Thirty Years’ War broke out. It was ignited in 1618, when the Catholic Lords Regent of the Habsburg Emperor Matthias were sent to Prague to administer in his name. Incensed at the heavy-handed treatment of the Empire’s Protestant subjects, the Emperor’s magistrates were ignominiously hurled from the windows of the Chancellery, which was termed the Defenestration of Prague. The insolence of the Protestant Bohemians ignited a war between Catholics and Protestants that would spread throughout Germany. The Austrian Emperor called upon his Spanish allies to aid him in his fight against the Protestants. The Spanish army was led by the brutal Count Tilly, who presided over the Sack of Magdeburg in the course of the war, where 25,000 of its citizens were massacred while the city was burned to the ground. In the course of the war, several foreign powers intervened, notably Sweden and France, and Germany found herself occupied. Disease, crop failures, and widespread looting by rampaging armies ravaged the land. There was mass depopulation across Germany. Yet, after the arduous course of the war, there emerged several important consequences for Germany. The Catholic powers of Spain and Austria saw their positions weakened. The various states that would eventually come to be united as Germany were given the right to determine their own religion, free of Imperial interference. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the war in 1648, established the idea of modern national sovereignty. It proclaimed that a state has total sovereignty within its own borders, free from outside interference, and that it should be recognized as equal to other sovereign states in international matters. The concept of the nation-state was thus created out of the rubble of the Thirty Years’ War. Moreover, from the ruins arose a new Germanic Protestant power, Prussia, which was reasonably compensated with new territories for the devastation it had suffered. This state had existed on the eastern margins of the Germanic world, far from Rome. Originally a territory of the Teutonic Knights, the Prussian people emerged from a mixture of Teutonic blood with the native Baltic-Slavic peoples of the region. The intense suffering of its people during the Thirty Years’ War convinced its leader, Fredrick William, known as “the Great Elector,” to bolster its army to avoid such horrors in the future. In the ashes of the Thirty Years’ War, the seeds of the great Prussian military tradition that would one day unite Germany were sown.
The state of Prussia could be considered as the most eastward-looking of all the German provinces. Far from the grasp of Rome, it found its room to live in the territories east of the Elbe. Where the Austrians developed their Empire, the Prussians developed their strong state, based upon the idea of military discipline and a strict martial austerity enforced by the dour Protestantism of the region. The German National Bolshevik Ernst Niekisch would remark that the Prussian state stood in stark contrast to the West and the Roman Catholic Empire as its diametrical opposite: “Potsdam against Rome and its vicars, Prussia against the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, the State against the Empire, the East against the West.” Though it was the representative of the Eastern current in Germanic thought, the Prussian state had a long and complicated history with its great Eastern neighbor, Russia. There were times of strife and of friendship, and yet we shall see that when Prussia embraced Russia as a friend and ally, they were able to ignite the true, deep essence of the German people, and establish their proper freedom, away from the camp of the West that had weighed upon them as a heavy yoke for ages.
The importance of Russian amity was exemplified in the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg that saved the state of Prussia from certain annihilation. In 1762, facing certain defeat at the hands of a coalition consisting of France, Saxony, Sweden, Austria, and Russia, Fredrick the Great was blessed with a miracle. The Russian Tsarina, Elizabeth, suddenly died, and her successor, Peter III, was a pro-Prussian Tsar who had been born in Germany. He immediately withdrew the Russian troops from Berlin and offered peace, followed by an alliance with Fredrick against the Austrians. This turned the tide of the war and saved Prussia.
This friendship would be strengthened in 1772 by a partitioning of Poland arranged with Peter’s III successor, Catherine the Great. Fredrick managed to deflect Austrian jealousy of Russian power by allowing it to share in the division of Polish territory with Prussia and Russia. This partition restored some territory that was mostly inhabited by German-speaking Protestants to Prussia, and it also established the Prussian presence in a territory henceforth known as West Prussia, which would provide a strategically vital link between East Prussia and the rest of Prussia. A second partitioning of Poland would follow in 1793, this time solely between Russia and Prussia. This restored the famous city of Danzig to German control. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had menaced both Prussia and Russia for centuries, was reduced to a mere rump state. This state would be completely annexed in the third and final partition of Poland, which involved Austria as well as Prussia and Russia.
After half a century of mutual growth, the Prussian and Russian states were threatened by the rise of Napoleon. Following the national humiliation of Prussia at Tilsit, the leader of the Prussian resistance, Baron vom Stein, was forced to go into exile in Russia. From there, he encouraged the Russian resistance as Napoleon invaded Russia, and as the French retreated, we was instrumental in convincing the Tsar to press the advantage and liberate Europe from Napoleon. With Prussia still under French occupation and obliged to aid it, the Russians and Prussians signed an armistice behind Napoleon’s back, neutralizing the Prussian military as a tool of French policy. Vom Stein was sent to become the administrator of East and West Prussia in order to organize the resistance against Napoleon in 1813.
The liberation of Prussia followed after the Russian army launched its invasion, which featured many commanders of German descent, such as Prince Wittgenstein, Prince de Tolly, and Count von Diebitsch. Indeed, even the illustrious Carl von Clausewitz served with Russia during the war against French occupation. The War of Liberation saw the Prussians aligned with Russia in opposition to the French army and its mostly Catholic German allies who were drawn from the Napoleonic puppet state, the Confederation of the Rhine. Once again, the ancient struggle against the forces of Rome, this time in the service of the “first daughter of the Church,” raised its head. Eventually, the forces of Prussia triumphed and Napoleon was defeated. After a last hurrah during the Hundred Days, when the coalition of Prussia and Russia emerged once again to put an end to Napoleon’s ambitions once and for all. At the Congress of Vienna, a new German Confederation emerged which eliminated many of the bickering petty states of the Holy Roman Empire. While the Confederation was generally weak, it was an important step towards the emergence of a unified German nation. The major issue of the Confederation was the conflict between the two dominant members, Prussia and Austria. This reflects the traditional dichotomy of German politics: anti-nationalist, Catholic Austria, and nationalist, Protestant Prussia. These tensions would come to a head in the Seven Weeks’ War, when Prussia decisively defeated the forces of Austria and its allied Catholic German states. This ended the Confederation and led to the formation of the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, which was the model for the future German Reich that would emerge amidst Prussia’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War.
The architect of Germany’s rebirth was none other than the illustrious Prussian, Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck was detested by the Western liberals of Germany and Catholic Austria, both of whom had tried to foil his aspirations to unify Germany under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser. Faced with enemies in the Roman camp of the West, Bismarck looked east to ensure the survival of the German state. Bismarck understood that if Russia ever became an enemy of Germany, it would pose a mortal threat to the nation. A few years after the unification of Germany in 1871, he embarked upon the creation of an alliance between Austria, Russia, and Germany which was termed the League of the Three Emperors. This echoed the Holy Alliance that had defeated Napoleon. However, in 1878 this alliance faltered as Russian strength grew in the Balkans. But it was revived yet again during 1881-1887. As Balkan tensions grew between Austria and Russia, Bismarck looked east yet again, and signed the Mutual Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 with Russia, which stipulated that if France attacked Germany, or Austria attacked Russia, the opposite party would remain neutral. This was intended to prevent the possibility of a Franco-Russian alliance against Germany. However, three years later, Bismarck was sacked by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Reinsurance treaty was allowed to expire, despite Russian protests. Russia, spurned by the new direction of German foreign policy, formed an alliance with France in 1892. The abandonment of the Eastern orientation would have fatal consequences for Germany, as the World War that Bismarck had worked tirelessly to prevent would end in German defeat.